Go See ‘Black Panther’…If You Want to Fill Disney’s Coffers and Reinforce Racial Tropes and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

LeBronBlackPanther
Photo Credit goes to the piece in the Boston Review linked below.

 

I’m still long overdue for a post of my own. Meanwhile, I came across this piece this morning by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review. It’s a powerful critique of the new Black Panther film. I confess that I’ve been tempted to see Black Panther, despite my ever challenging commitment to resist violence in all its forms, including and especially the way I choose to entertain myself. Violence is so utterly pervasive in our society, and the myth of redemptive violence so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is never given a first- let alone a second- thought (even/especially by would-be Jesus followers). Thus it is not surprising that a movie that purports to be at least in some way about black power would necessarily also be a movie about black violence. Unfortunately, Black Panther turns out to be a movie that reinforces tropes about black-on-black violence. Haven’t we had enough of those already?

Black Panther is, of course, a comic book/superhero movie, and thus could not exist without again reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. As Christopher Lebron says in the Boston Review piece linked above, “After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles?” I’ve read other reviews, such as this one in the NY Post, that inevitably compare T’Challa, the title character of Black Panther, to MLK, Jr. and Killmonger, the black villain, to Malcolm X. As the NY Post author says: “T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.” Missing here is any thoughtful nuance, such as the recognition that MLK, Jr. was no mere pacifist, but a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. This is a distinction with a monumental difference. Moreover, in the very next sentence, the Post author, Sara Stewart, writes: “Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown” (of Wakanda, the fictional African country that Black Panther calls home). If T’Challa were truly the Martin to Killmonger’s Malcolm, he would not have engaged in a brawl to get/maintain power. That’s violent resistance, not nonviolent resistance. But I digress. The Boston Review piece is really worth the read. I recommend it heartily.

Community and Mission Together, or No More Bowling Alone: a Review of Life in Community by Dustin Willis

Image result

 

I recently read Life in Community, by Dustin Willis. I decided to read this as Kirsten and I were beginning the journey of connecting to Mill City Church. I knew the book was about missional communities and was obviously written by someone steeped in the 3DM missional community lingo, but there didn’t appear to be a direct connection (that I was aware of) between the author, Dustin Willis, and 3DM. This was good, given my wariness regarding 3DM; so I thought I’d read his book as a way of trying to dip my toes in the “shapeworld” without “drinking the Kool-Aid.” If I was going to be a part of a church that was committed to missional communities as the primary expression of how they “do life together,” I wanted to be a little better informed. This is slightly ironic, as I have myself received training directly from 3DM in the past, but did so skeptically. I’m trying now to be a little more open to what God might be up to in this “movement.”

So, let’s talk about what I learned. I like that the book is very accessible. It’s written in easy to understand language with short chapters and plenty of anecdotes and application to every day life. It’s a quick read. The book is broken into 3 sections: “Forming Community,” “The Values for Living in Community,” and “Next Steps for Strong Community.” The first section explores “the need for community” by describing how isolated and lonely modern life (in developed countries/USAmerica) can be and how atomizing our culture is. He cites this Newsweek article as evidence of this. I couldn’t agree more, and often write/talk about this. I’ve experienced this in my own life, and this anecdotal evidence was bolstered not only by the Newsweek article Willis cites but by my reading of the seminal work by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone. As Putnam’s site declares:

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

There is, or should be, little argument that our need for community is greater perhaps than it has ever been, especially perhaps for those of us who live in the ‘burbs, a fact which I continually carry some measure of shame about in my own life, but which I am working to accept in the short term. Many of us commute individually in our cars to and from work every day, often some distance away. Kirsten and I drive from one end of the cities to another every day and back. Our workplaces are within a few miles of each other, but we haven’t figured out a way to carpool or take mass transit, something which we lament. So we suburbanites leave our garage in our cars, usually with the windows rolled up, drive to work and spend 8 or more hours interacting superficially with co-workers and/or clients, and then return home the same way, entering our houses from the comfort of our attached garages, if we’re so privileged as to have them, without ever having to say hello to a neighbor. For my part, this is mitigated somewhat by a daily walk to Nathan’s neighborhood elementary school, but until recently I would get to the school and stand there with fellow parents waiting for students to emerge, and could do so without ever actually speaking to any of them. Thankfully, the parents of one of the other Kindergarteners in Nathan’s class recently invited the class over to play/have lunch in an effort to build a little community among the parents/families. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. Still, the larger trends hold. Unlike much of the world, which frequently lives as extended families together or with multiple generations under one roof or within literal tribes throughout human history, we (relatively) rich Westerners live very isolated lives.

I can attest to this. Though I grew up in a nominally “Christian” home and went to a nominally “Christian” school (though a thing cannot be “Christian,” as I keep saying) and was part of a church and even participated in the youth group sometimes, nobody knew, or cared to act on their suspicion of, the fact that my “Christian” home was toxic and my mother was perpetuating the cycle of abuse she had grown up in. I was somewhat fortunate. My mom’s dad was a high society “important person-” a Lt. Colonel in the Army and part of the CIA for 20 years who lived in D.C. and traveled the world. Don’t believe me? I have proof. The picture below is of a medal my grandfather received when he retired from the CIA. It sits on my shelf now, one of a few mementos I have from a man I never knew:

wp-1476735096553.jpg

However “important” he may have been, he was also a drunk, and an angry one who abused his wife and daughter, which likely contributed to what my mother always believed was my grandmother’s suicide; she died in a single car accident in which she drove into a pole and was killed. So I was fortunate in that my mother wasn’t a drunk and only got physically violent on a few notable occasions. Her emotional abuse was no less devastating, though, as I’ve written about previously, and no one knew, or was close enough to my family of origin to really do anything. Had we been in a bona fide community as I was growing up, maybe my life and that of my half-siblings would have been different. Who knows?

In any case, I grew up believing the lie that life as I experienced it was life as it was supposed to be. Fortunately, I grew up knowing Jesus, and my faith was no doubt accelerated as a youngster in no small part because, as I’ve often said and written about before, “I learned to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” And God was very present to me, but my understanding of God and what life as a Christ-follower was meant to be about was impoverished. The conflated “conservative”/Republican/Southern/Fundamentalist/Evangelical worldview of my youth led me to believe, as I’ve also often said, that God was a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who lived in the ‘burbs, shopped at the mall, and spent his days pursuing the (individualistic) “American dream” just like everybody else I knew and/or aspired to be like. I’ve often written of my astonishment at going away to college in New England and discovering that this was not the case.

I’ve also written of my joy at discovering Circle of Hope, the (now) network of 5 congregations and 104 (if my math is right) cell groups throughout the greater Philadelphia region. We moved to Philly as young newlyweds and started our married life together just as Circle of Hope started their life together as a church with one fledgling congregation with a few cell groups. We were relieved to immediately find a family among them. As we learned that this church really was a family, that they were a people on a mission together to really “be the church,” and worked intentionally at doing so “for the next generation,” I can remember sitting in one of their public meetings one night as a light bulb went on and I realized that it’s about community. I learned that all of those “you’s” in the Bible that speak of how to follow Jesus are plural, that the writers were speaking to the Christian community and challenging them to do the hard work of following Jesus together, which is how it was meant to be done and is the only way it possibly could be done.

Willis at least alludes to this when he says that “Even Jesus’ instruction for evangelism and mission were all given to a community of tight-knit believers- not simply to individuals (see Matt. 28:19; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).” He adds, in what might be the larger point of his entire book, “These types of communities bring hope to a lonely and isolated society. In fact, our entire lives are meant to be lived in community on mission (Eph. 2:1-22)” (italics added). Elsewhere he speaks of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2, which we USAmericans usually interpret individually, but do so to our detriment. Willis says:

Consider Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Paul is not writing to isolated individuals but to the church. His point is clear: the church can walk together in the process of transformation.

Willis later adds, “Living out our faith was never intended to be done in isolation, but within a community.” Indeed.

He goes on to describe throughout the book how such communities or ” extended families on mission” are agents of transformation for those who participate in them as their gifts are unleashed; as people are able to be their authentic selves; and as they confess their sins to one another and challenge, encourage, and help one another to pursue “the good.” Doing these things enables them to persevere, together, through the trials and tribulations of life so that they have capacity to love, serve, meet the needs of, and welcome those around them. Truly such communities, to whatever extent those who would follow Jesus can be faithful to embodying these aspirations, would be good news to a lost and lonely world.

In an early part of the book Willis describes why this seems to happen so seldomly, however. He says that there is an “unnecessary divide” between the efforts of too many churches to cultivate and experience authentic community (often through “small groups”) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, their efforts to be “missional,” to reach the world for Jesus. Willis asks:

How do we pursue community and mission? It’s more closely connected than you may realize. As people live on mission with others, they discover community. And as people live in true community, they will seek mission. Community and mission are not in competition with each other- they are inseparable. You don’t have to choose one or the other.

He goes on to give the example of a mission trip and describe how those who travel to build a well or teach kids in another part of the world often find themselves experiencing deep community together as they serve others. He asks why this intersection of service/mission and community can’t be the starting point, the foundation, for the “culture that daily permeates our churches.” This, of course, is what “missional communities” are all about, though in hindsight it’s somewhat strange that I don’t think he ever just comes out and uses the term explicitly. Perhaps 3DM has trademarked it and Willis didn’t want to pay for the rights to use it. I say that only half sarcastically, as this is perhaps my biggest critique of 3DM, but again I’ve already written about this.

As Willis describes the divide in all too many churches between mission and community, he gives a laundry list of the many community building efforts that such churches engage in that he seems to consider short-sighted or incomplete. He gives “small groups” as the broader category these efforts fall under, and says “Many of these small groups follow a specific type of structure, whether cell groups, Sunday school classes, life groups, or some other clever name they’ve brainstormed to emphasize Christian community.” As you might imagine if you know me or have been reading this blog or even this post, his mention of “cell groups” under the broader category of “small groups,” given in contradistinction to “missional communities” (a term again which I don’t think he uses) as a better way, caused me to have an almost visceral reaction. Whatever he may know or think he knows about “cell groups” in the U.S., he must not be aware of Circle of Hope.

I’ve written at length about Circle of Hope repeatedly and especially recently, here; so I need not repeat it all now. What I will say is simply that I’ve been talking about being part of a “people on (a) mission together” for quite some time (including above in this post), but long before I ever heard of 3DM and their language of “family on mission,” to be sure. And I used that language of a people on a mission together because it was the best language I could come up with to describe my experience. Among the people of Circle of Hope I learned that life as a Jesus-follower was necessarily a life lived in community. It was among them that I learned that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it, and that “life in Christ is one whole cloth” (therefore artificial divisions between sacred and secular were to be repented of). Likewise, it was among them that I learned that “knowing and following,” let alone interpreting, the Bible “is a group project.” In every cell group I participated in with Circle of Hope we kept an “empty chair” to symbolize not only Jesus, who was the “only agenda” of each and every group, but to remind us of our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members that we were called to love and serve and invite not “to church” but into the life we were experiencing together 7 days a week. It was a fellow member of a cell group we were a part of that supplied the down payment Kirsten and I needed and took us car shopping when a job opportunity for me required us to have a car after we had gone without one for a while, and when that car was totaled in a bad accident I was in not all that long later, that same fellow cell group member convinced her dad to give us the old car he wasn’t using and paid for the repairs to make it road-worthy. Obviously this was an extraordinary person, a wonderful follower of Jesus, but she was also a product of her environment in which such ongoing expressions of love were cultivated, encouraged, and made possible. I could go on at the risk of further digressing, but I bring it all up, yet again, to set the stage for just why I so struggle to accept missional communities not only as the model for discipleship and mission that seems to keep popping up everywhere I look, but more to the point as the kind of community that Jesus now seems to be calling I and my family into.

Nonetheless, called into such a community we very much seem to be, and Willis helps to explain why this is something to rejoice about. One of the passages I like most in the book, and was most challenged by, was this one, in which Willis quotes Joseph Hellerman, who says:

People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding as they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially true for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay also grow. People who leave do not grow. It is a simple but profound biblical reality that we both grow and thrive together or we do not grow much at all.

To this, Willis adds: “Only by persevering over the long haul will we see genuine love produce personal transformation.” I am challenged by this because this is precisely the process that I have all too often short-circuited in my own life, including and especially as it relates to the people of Circle of Hope, as again I’ve written about recently. It’s all too tempting to leave when the going gets hard. It’s the commitment to stay and work through whatever challenges arise among those who would follow Jesus together, which again is always a group project, that unlocks the potential for growth and transformation not only in the individuals the community is made up of, but also in the Christian community itself not to mention the larger society it’s immersed in. As Willis says:

Too often we think that we must first get our act together and then we can live on mission for God. Mission, however, is a perfect tool for change. If you struggle with your prayer life, love a person far from God and see if that does not prompt you to pray more consistently. If you struggle to read the Bible, serve your Muslim neighbor and dialogue about how you each understand God. If you struggle with secret sin, invite a lost friend to model their life after yours. Mission in community will expedite your personal transformation.

It will expedite your personal transformation, to be sure, but that’s not what it’s all about, as Willis makes clear. Life in community is a cruciform one that enables us to live the life Jesus calls us to. It’s a prophetic one in which we act out the truth of God’s kingdom come, living in the present as if it already has, though it may not yet be fully realized. Life in community is a life of sacrificial love and service toward those around us as we call those around us to join us at the table of radical inclusion that God is always setting. Life in community is one in which the mercy of God proves more powerfully uniting than whatever might otherwise divide us such that those who under any other circumstance would have nothing in common together find themselves united in brotherly love, service, and mission. It’s a life I want to be a part of.

“I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.”

“Come In Here, Girl; I’ve Been Waiting On You All My Life”- A Review of The Great Suppression by Zachary Roth

nyc94997
USA. Hattiesburg, MS. 1964. Voter registration. Contact email: New York: photography@magnumphotos.com/ Paris: magnum@magnumphotos.fr/ London: magnum@magnumphotos.co.uk/ Tokyo : tokyo@magnumphotos.co.jp Contact phones: New York : +1 212 929 6000 Paris: + 33 1 53 42 50 00 London: + 44 20 7490 1771 Tokyo: + 81 3 3219 0771 Image URL

According to this PBS profile of her, Zohara Simmons “spent seven years working full time on voter registration and desegregation activities in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement.” She’s featured in Segment 1 of the Humankind radio documentary “The Right to Vote,” starting at about the 19:16 mark. She says that at the start of her participation in an effort to go door to door to register black folks to vote, she went to the home of an older black woman and, being new at this and quite nervous, she struggled to explain who she was and why she was there. She says the woman “looked her up and down” and then said, “Girl, are you one of those freedom riders?” Zohara says she “wasn’t sure if that was good or bad,” but answered “yes,” to which the woman replied “Then, come in here, girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life.”

Sadly, that “waiting” is still happening. Especially in this most acrimonious of election seasons, it’s worth remembering our history. Formal slavery in this country existed for almost 250 years. While emancipation as a result of the Civil War ended its formal practice, subjugation of people of color by whites did not end. It changed, sometimes taking on slightly more subtle forms such as sharecropping, sometimes manifesting itself in decidedly unsubtle ways. Either way, blacks were prevented from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship for at least another century after the Civil War, and though gains were certainly made as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, now, a full 4 centuries (four hundred years!) since the advent of slavery on this continent, there remains at least “two Americas,” one for whites in which opportunity for jobs and housing and decent quality of life remains good if not perfect, and one for people of color in which those same opportunities are hard, if not impossible, to come by. If you don’t believe me, check out this, this, this, or perhaps most egregiously, this. For example, in 2013 the ratio of median U.S. white household wealth to that of blacks was 13:1:

race-1-2-e1455735414952

As the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said recently, in the United States “racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing.” Like it or not, a person of color in the U.S. is more likely than a white person to be poor, to lack adequate housing or access to education or healthcare, is more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, often for trivial or contrived reasons, and is more likely to be incarcerated, or killed. And it doesn’t matter how old, or young, you are, as this story attests (a screen shot of which you see below):

57e311bdc46188d0638b45a2

The epidemic of racial profiling and the murder of blacks by police has gotten so bad that the MA Supreme Court recently stated that blacks are justified in running from police whether they’re guilty of a crime or not.

In the midst of this racial crisis in the U.S.- a crisis which, it’s worth stating again, is not at all new but which has been newly forced into the consciousness of white “America”- (some of, I would argue) the country is being asked to vote. I say only “some of” the country is being asked to vote, because not surprisingly, those holding the reins of power are using it- and worse, abusing it- to encapsulate and perpetuate their hold on it. If it wasn’t clear from above and from any cursory but honest reading of our history, it’s no less a fact that those in power are mostly white and are the beneficiaries of a centuries old system of white privilege. Thus my argument and that of Zachary Roth in his book The Great Suppression is that there is a concerted effort to limit access to the ballot, especially by people of color.

great-suppression

As the subtitle to Roth’s book, which speaks of “the conservative assault on democracy,” suggests, the book has a (“left-“ish) political bent, but that doesn’t invalidate his arguments, especially in light of all the independent supporting evidence. Indeed, it’s inarguable that disenfranchisement has long been used as a tool to oppress and “hold down” blacks. Zohara Simmons’ life attests to this as briefly described above, as does any honest reading of our nation’s history. The only question is whether this is still the case, and the evidence clearly suggests that it is. Perhaps more disturbingly, though, Roth argues that not only has systemic white privilege been perpetuated by limiting black access to the franchise, but there is also evidence going all the way back to our nation’s founding of a concerted effort to limit democracy generally so as to perpetuate the hold of the powerful few on their power.

Indeed, Roth argues basically that the nation’s founders were actually not all that interested in democracy. Having cast off monarchy they certainly had some interest in it, to be sure, but if democracy in limited fashion was a good thing or at least better than monarchy, it was certainly the case for the founders, according to Roth, that more of this good thing was not always better. It’s worth remembering too that the founding of the U.S. was not exactly an act of the powerless throwing off the bonds of oppression cast on them by the powerful. It’s probably far more accurate to say that the founding of this country was a revolutionary act undertaken by those already holding some measure of power, seeking to consolidate it by overthrowing those that had more. Again, we must remember that slavery existed in this country long before it was a country– and its impact continues to be felt. That said, the point is that many of the nation’s founders were aristrocrats– that is they were white, wealthy (male) landowners. As the just linked to primer on the founders, written for this election season, records one historian saying:

“Ultimately,” said Terry Bouton, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “whether you are talking about a main group of six or 60 founding fathers, they were all far from ordinary in terms of income, wealth, education, and social standing.”

Thus, some of them were no doubt concerned by the “egalitarian ideals” that were “set in motion” by the Revolution. As Roth says:

Starting in 1776, many states had loosened rules on who could vote and hold office, made elections more frequent, and drawn more equally sized districts- with the result that a new wave of men of a lower social rank gained power. The Revolution had also weakened social hierarchy, so that those on the bottom were less inclined to bow and scrape to their onetime superiors. The “spirit of independency was converted into equality,” one shocked aristocratic Virginian complained, such that a common peasant “conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.” To men like (John) Adams, this was deeply unnerving, because it seemed to threaten the values of order, stability, and respect for private property that they prioritized over equality. “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God,” Adams wrote in 1778, “anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Thus, Roth says:

It should come as no surprise that Adams feared democracy. James Madison did, too. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” he wrote in 1787, “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Roth goes on then to make the case that the founders sought to utilize democracy insofar as it was useful, which is to say, in the hands of the privileged, educated, (relatively) wealthy few, and therefore sought to limit the ability of the mob to vote, fearing what they might do with such power. There is a vein of this thinking throughout our nation’s history, which has ebbed and flowed with more or less access to the ballot by the (usually more underprivileged) masses. When there has been more access (especially by people of color), many of the country’s great progressive advances have occurred, such as the historic Civil Rights legislation and before that, the New Deal. When there has been less access to the ballot, things have moved in the other direction.

The New Deal may have resulted in only limited progress in the quality of life of people of color, and in fact benefited whites much more than blacks, but nonetheless resulted in some progress. Thus, the New Deal is important because it coincided with a historic shift in the loyalty of black voters. Indeed, as the official history of the U.S. House of Representatives records:

While New Deal programs failed to extend as much economic relief to Black Americans as to whites, the tangible assistance they provided conferred a sense that the system was at least addressing a few issues that were important to African Americans. For those who had been marginalized or ignored for so long, even the largely symbolic efforts of the Roosevelt administration inspired hope and renewed interest in the political process.40 As younger black voters displaced their parents and grandparents, their electoral experiences and loyalties evolved largely alongside and within the Democratic machines that came to dominate northern city wards.

Since then, Black voters have largely preferred Democrats, sometimes by exceptionally wide margins. As a result, and especially as the Republican party shifts further and further to the ideological “right,” Republicans have doubled down on the historic effort to limit  Black access to the ballot. Indeed, the Republican party has moved so far to the ideological “right” that programs and policies once espoused by Republicans have become anathema, especially when pursued by a thoughtful, compromising Democratic President, who “just so happens” to be Black. “Obamacare” is the textbook case of this.

The primary way that conservatives have sought to limit Black access to the ballot is through the raft of recently enacted VoterID laws, which remain a solution in search of a problem. VoterID laws can only prevent in-person voter impersonation, after all, and there simply is scant evidence that this is a problem. Indeed, as I was doing some research after listening to The Right to Vote, described above, I came across a report called Who Can Vote?, which is a 2012 project of News21, “a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.” Their findings are clear:

A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.

Thus, the argument that voter ID laws are necessary to prevent election fraud is, on its face, absurd, and actual data backs this up. What there is evidence for, however, is the fact that voter ID laws, coupled with all the effort to restrict voting hours and the number of polling locations, etc., unduly harm and disenfranchise black voters. Roth’s book helps to lay some background for our understanding of why all this is happening, and shows us that it fits into a much larger, and longer standing, pattern. Thus, like the older Black woman who Zohara Simmons visited back in the ’60s, some would- be voters (again, usually people of color, always those on whose “backs” the powerful have built and perpetuated their power) continue to “wait” for a day when their full participation in USAmerican democracy is not only legal but is invited and encouraged. It remains to be seen if that day will ever come.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

On Becoming, or “Run, Barry, Run!”

“What you’ve become is wonderful, a miracle even, but it won’t make bad things stop happening to you. Even The Flash can’t outrun the tragedies the universe is going to keep sending your way. You have to accept that, and then you can truly run free.”

I’ll just straight out claim my geek cred. and admit to being a Flash fan, really a fan of most things Geek. That said, aside from “with great power comes great responsibility” (aka “to whom much is given, much is required“), I try not to get too much of my wisdom for life from superhero TV shows, but when I heard the quote above while watching The Flash, I was struck by it. Without getting too much into the details of the show, in the scene Barry/The Flash is talking to a representation of his long dead mother. I suppose I in particular was struck by this because my own mother is long dead. That may be where the similarities end, however. Barry/The Flash loves his mom and was forever changed by her untimely death when he was a child. My mother, on the other hand, abused me and her death when I was in my early 20’s has yet to have that sort of impact on me. I’ve always said it’s almost as if I never had a mom; so when she died it was simply more of the same, the continuation of a through line. Still, I know there’s a deep part of me that oddly yearns for her to be proud of me, which again I’m sure is why the scene above (if you watch the whole thing) is so powerful.

Obviously, I’m not a superhero speedster, but running has repeatedly changed my life, and by the grace of God and with the help of some key people along the way, I’ve overcome some arguably long odds. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become something wonderful (I know too many who might say just the opposite), but I would say that for all my faults and failings whatever meager “success” I’ve achieved is near miraculous given my upbringing in a mobile home in Texas as the son of an abusive mother and devoted, but co-dependent and largely unavailable father.

There’s much to be said about that abusive upbringing in my mother’s home, but I’ve said a lot of that elsewhere. From that shaky foundation, though, enough has happened to fill several other lifetimes. Here’s some of it:

  • To the extent that I survived growing up in my mother’s home and proved resilient in the midst of it, much of it had to do with the love and support I received from a family I was connected to through school, and that of my youngest but much older half sibling, Lee. Shortly after I left home around the age of 18, Lee disappeared and was missing for the next three+ years.
  • While in college, I spent a summer in Philly doing a program that was then known as Kingdomworks (it’s now called Mission Year) during which, I always say, I “was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.”
  • In the year after doing Kingdomworks, I met and married Kirsten and we left college and the Boston area to start a life in Philly where I worked at Pizza Hut for $7.60/hour and she went to nursing school. Thanks be to God, we’re looking forward to our 20th anniversary in little more than a month.
  • While still in Philly the first time and in the midst of nursing school for Kirsten, I paid less than $100 to a company I saw I think a TV ad for, and they found Lee in Michigan. I reached out to her, and she was reunited and slowly reintegrated into our very dysfunctional family system.
  • Just after Kirsten finished nursing school we moved to MN to be near her family of origin as her dad quickly died of brain cancer. The day after he died, my mom in TX died. Their funerals in two different states bookended a weekend.
  • By the grace of God and via my own circuitous path I finished my Bachelor’s degree in MN finally through a degree completion program for working adults and started seminary. In the meantime I quit my last foodservice management job and went into social service, vowing to only pursue “meaningful” work from that point forward.
  • While in seminary, I participated in a weeklong leadership training in Chicago during which I discovered that that “bridge” I had built “between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world” could be traveled in both directions as the suffering in the world led me to become newly aware of my own brokenness. I quit the MDiv program I had been pursuing and graduated with an MA instead.
  • We moved back to Philly to be part of Circle of Hope again, the faith community we had discovered in our first stint there that did so much to form my imagination about what Christian community could look like. While there, we lived “in community” in a house with others that we were trying to live “intentionally” with as we pursued a common dream for “life together.” Samuel’s exceptionally premature birth occurred in the midst of all that. His birth was very disruptive, but in a good way. It laid bare all the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the heart of all those good relationships we were trying to build, and we were confronted with a choice. We could do the personal and relational hard work that growth required in that moment, regroup, and Lord willing see the community we were building in that home and as a part of the larger church and in Philly itself be strengthened and reinvigorated as a result; or we could retreat/escape and nurse our wounds someplace else, delaying the pain of that growth we needed to endure and thereby delaying our growth too. For good or ill, we chose the latter.
  • So we moved to NEOH and bought a house while we still could just before the market tanked.
  • Homeownership forces a measure of stability that in some cases isn’t available otherwise. Following our move to OH, we had a measure of that, for a time. After a painful job search there, I found something that I was able to settle into and experience some success at for some time (in educational administration, working with mostly low income Special Education students/families), for which I was grateful.
  • Four years into our time in OH, however, we found ourselves abruptly moving to TX to be present for my dad’s cancer death. His cancer death was much slower than my father-in-law’s had been, however, as it was over 15 months after we got there that he finally passed. In the meantime I pursued and received teacher certification and spent a very painful year in a charter school there. There’s a lot to be said about it and much that was beyond my control, but I was not successful in the classroom…or, arguably, out of it. Dad’s death did not go as predicted (do they ever, I suppose?) and again there’s much more to be said about this, but somewhere along the way I became a villain to my all much older half siblings. I suppose that’s what I set myself up for when I swooped in to “rescue” them all. They all- all three much older half siblings, plus my same age niece and her teenage twin sons, and my Dad- all seven of them were living when we first got down to TX in the by then ramshackle, roach infested trailer I grew up in. I couldn’t stomach that being where my Dad was consigned to die; so we worked to find them other/better housing. However big or small my role was in all that, I pushed for it, and Kirsten and I paid to help make it happen. When my dad’s slow death finally progressed to the point where hospice was advisable, I pushed for and helped make that happen too. My half siblings accused me of trying to kill him.
  • Thus, once Dad died, we moved back to OH and the home we had been renting (at a loss) while we were gone. This may or may not have been another “escape” from an opportunity to learn a painful lesson and grow as a result. In this case, that’s less clear to me. Either way, we came back to OH with a life changing gift, our second son, Nathan. Whatever brought us there and whatever trauma contributed to our exit, we were in the right place at the right time with the right doctor to help us through a second, high risk pregnancy, and we thank God every day for our little Texan. Nathan was born about two months after Dad died. I describe them as “ships passing in the night.”
  • Back in OH, we returned each of us to the jobs we had left and the house we still owned, and resumed relationships with the few, but very, very good friends we had there. Within a couple of years, though, there was new turmoil for me at work. I was twice encouraged to apply for a promotion, including for one position that was allegedly created for me, and both times I was not selected. I wound up with a new boss and the job I did have became much more demanding, so much so that I couldn’t keep up anymore. Eventually, I found myself in an untenable position and had to leave. I tried to leave gracefully, but failed at that too and found myself on the receiving end of some revelatory character assaults on my way out. It took several months to find another job, which came with a roughly $17,000 pay cut.
  • In the meantime, we had found a new, just starting faith community in NEOH that was rich with much promise. The “manifesto” that was the core of its website and, we hoped, its vision, is still one of the best things I’ve ever read and one of the best visions I hoped to be a part of aspiring to. I’ve written elsewhere about this too, but as a community that church did not live up to its own vision, and as a participant and contributor, neither did I. The church faced a crisis that I need not get into, but much like the crisis my family and I faced in the wake of Samuel’s birth before we left Philly and Circle of Hope, this crisis served to lay bare the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the core of many of the relationships within the church. I think in this case I made an effort to do some of the hard work that growth required in the moment, but I did it poorly, and as before, it didn’t end well…and as before, another cross country move was in the offing.
  • During the relatively brief time we were part of that faith community, however, several significant things happened. We tried our hand again at an “intentional community” of sorts. Wanting to make good use/be good stewards of the small but “bigger on the inside” home we owned, we invited a young couple to come live with us in an effort to help them with their finances, among other things. They wound up living with us for only about four months, and their exit was part of the dysfunction and brokenness I alluded to above, part of which was related to our offer later on to have someone else move in too.
  • That “someone else” was a young teacher friend we made through that faith community whose mother was quickly dying of cancer, an experience we were all too familiar with. We worked hard to support her, sacrificially so even, but few in the larger community could understand this and our motives were no doubt mixed as they inevitably must be always be “this side of Heaven,” perhaps driven as much by the need to make sense and find meaning in our own parent deaths as by our still genuine desire to love and support our friend through hers. After her mom died, the couple that had been living with us moved out, and our friend moved in. It wasn’t all that long, though, before the larger faith community we all were part of experienced that “crisis” I alluded to above and began to unravel around us, again exposing the dysfunction and brokenness that much work was required to move beyond. As I said, I made a halting attempt at some of that work, but I did not do it well, and it was not well received…and again I was faced with no small measure of revelatory character assaults on our way out.
  • Consequently, after 9+ years of homeownership in OH (including that sojourn in TX), we struggled mightily to sell our house there at a significant loss and moved to MN. This was motivated as much by all of the above, I’m sure, as it was by the reality that Kirsten’s mom was in declining health and it was time to be present to her and Kirsten’s family of origin here as they all faced what was next for her mom.

Looking at that laundry list of life events above, I’m struck by the fact that if anything is “miraculous” about any “success” I’ve experienced, perhaps the most miraculous thing about it is that I keep trying. I keep showing up. So much of the wounding I describe above is self-inflicted, rooted in my brokenness. Every healthy parent-child relationship is marked by the development of the child in such a way that the child’s first steps are halting and not very “successful.” The child takes a few steps, falls, and with encouragement and support, gets up to try again. Eventually the infant becomes, literally, a “toddler.” As the toddler becomes more proficient and independent as a walker, they journey further away from their parent with each successive trip, hopefully growing each time in their proficiency and independence. No doubt they still fall from time to mine, but each “failure” is a learning moment and stepping stone to growth. There is an ebb and flow to this. I see something similar in the pattern above.

Failure can be the building block for future “success,” if the learning/growth that failure presents the opportunity for is embraced. Of course, that learning/growth comes in the form of hard work, and I stubbornly resist that work far too much of the time. This is true for me no less with running than with life itself. Amidst all the life events above, I got fat, ballooning from well under 200 on my wedding day at the age of 21 to well over 250 at some point not all that long into our first stint in MN from 1998 to 2003. In 2009, hearing that the growing swine flu pandemic seemed to be disproportionately affecting obese people like me, I started running. I just did it, on a whim. I could barely shuffle around a block or so, but I kept doing it. Day after day I could go a little further, and pretty soon I was counting calories and running 5k’s. Less than a year after starting running in OH, after a run in the TX heat on my 35th birthday, I weighed in at 150 pounds and had lost at least 100 pounds. I ran more 5k’s and a 10k, but I eventually did my first half marathon in part because the weight was already starting to creep back on. I struggled through that race, the Rock’n’Roll Dallas Half Marathon in 2011, but finishing it was a huge “success” for me.

Still, again amidst all the stress of the “life” that kept happening as I described above, the weight kept creeping back on, and by Christmas of that year I weighed 217 pounds. I joined TNT then and re-dedicated myself to running, and I got back down to 170 pounds when I ran the Canton Half Marathon in 2012. I felt good for that, my second half marathon, and looking back that may have been the high point of my running “career.” Not long after that race I broke a toe, and then tore my meniscus (and later broke another toe), and thus began almost four years of not being able to run at all during which I ballooned to 262.6 pounds.

I finally underwent surgery on my meniscus last fall (a partial meniscectomy), but still didn’t feel ready or able to run pain free. What I could do was count calories, and walk, and walk I did. I got a Fitbit (and wi-fi scale) at the end of this past November, when I weighed in at that 262.6. Since then I walked about 3 miles a day as many days as I could through the past winter and spring, and exclusively through walking and daily weigh-ins while keeping  my calories as low as possible, I lost about 60 pounds. I told myself that once I got to or near about 200 pounds again, I’d try running. I started running again about mid-April, and each time I get out there I vow not to “screw it up again.” I may not do a half marathon again, but I don’t need that kind of “success” to prove myself. If I can get out there and run about 3 miles most days of the rest of my life, that will be a well-nigh miraculous success, and will have come as a result of much growth and development and much, much hard work.

Like someone in recovery, I know that I have to take it one day at a time. I know that cardiovascular health and fitness can be lost within days if it isn’t renewed by continuing to get out there every day. I speak often of love (and forgiveness) being a choice, a choice that must be made every day. A marriage of 20 years, as I hope to celebrate in about a month, isn’t made by making a choice once and then somehow “sticking with it.” It’s made by making a choice every single day. I think forgiveness can work that way too, and I know that health can, does, and should.

Each day I have to choose to watch what I eat, and I have to choose to get out there and run. I’ve lost another 10 pounds or so since I started running again (about 70 total this time around, my third time losing weight), but have a ways to go before I’m at a “normal” weight. I know too that weight loss cannot be my goal, not because it can’t be achieved (it can! I’ve done it three times!), but because it can. It’s very, very hard to maintain though, because it’s not an end in itself and isn’t even really a means to an end. It’s more of a byproduct of an end. The end is a healthy lifestyle. The end is treating my body like the “temple” that it is and being a good steward of it. The means are those hard choices I must make every single day- eating right, running, getting enough sleep, etc. Weight loss, maybe even lasting weight loss, is a byproduct of all this good, hard work.

Becoming a person who can do that will be wonderful and miraculous, and maybe even my long dead mother will be proud of me. However, part of the process is knowing that the “becoming” never stops. I’ll always be on the way, in no small part because as with The Flash, this “won’t make bad things stop happening to me.” I can’t outrun them. I have to accept this in order to run “free.” Maybe acceptance is part of the becoming too. In the meantime, “run, Barry (Robert), run.”

Still Playing at Being a “Christian…”

…I am, that is.

So a Facebook friend from college posted a link to Jen Hatmaker’s blog, and I’ve simply been blown away. The post I first read was about the election, and I was moved, I’m not afraid to say, to tears. That post is here. I’ve long been drawn in the direction of the kind of stance she takes, but hadn’t quite put it all together with the courage and insight that she did. I’m glad to say that I couldn’t agree more. My yearning to serve the “least of these” and to see God’s peace-with-justice come about in the world often compels me to lean in one political direction over another and to favor some candidates over others, but after reading her post I was reminded where my hope lies, and to whom my allegiance belongs. In fact, I’ve been a bit contradictory as I’ve railed against the injustices perpetrated by the USAmerican system/way of life while at the same time putting more than just a little hope in a particular candidate/party within that system. So yet again Bono was right:

“God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

And I’m with whoever is with them too, whatever political label they happen to wear. Back to Jen, I love it particularly when she says:

“If discipleship means loving the broken, then love the broken.

If following Jesus means abandoning our rights, then abandon them.

If you care about the sanctity of life, then devote yourself to its care – womb to grave.

If you worry about the vulnerable, then give your life away for them.

If Scripture tells us perfect love drives out fear, then it does.

If your trust is in a Servant Savior, then put it there and leave it there.

As children of God, we should be unthreatened by secular power. The Law was never able to bring redemption, and it is still insufficient to make all things new. The healing and hope and goodness we long for is realized fully in Jesus, extended through His people despite hardship or distance or the passage of time or the changing of guards. No political party can see it through or take it away. It was finished on the cross, and the discussion is over.”

Again, I couldn’t even hope to say it any better. Jen and her family have done some amazing things. They adopted two kids from abroad, adding to the three they already had, because it was the right thing to do. Her husband helped start what looks like an awesome faith community. She wrote a book about a seven month journey in which she and her family “…identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.” She and other bloggers/writers went to Haiti to partner with a relief agency and write about their efforts and how we all can pitch in. I look at people like Jen Hatmaker and the college Facebook friend who first linked to her blog, Jennifer Jukanovich, and am filled with awe. The latter Jen and her husband also adopted children from abroad and then moved (moved!) to Rwanda (Rwanda!) to help start small businesses there. Again, I am filled with awe.

Jen Hatmaker’s latest post talks a bit more about her Haiti trip and her resolve to live in light of it as if nothing mattered but following Jesus to the ends of the earth in loving service to the least of these, whatever the cost. I can only hope for the courage for me and my family to be so resolved again some day too.

The End is Nigh! -or- It Is What It Is

I haven’t really written since my Dad died, and there wasn’t much before that either. Writing is often a way I work things out; so perhaps I’ve been avoiding, or it could be simply a matter of time and discipline, or the lack thereof. In any case, I always aspire to write, and read, and run, and floss daily…and so many other things; so without further ado, here goes.

I was grateful to be able to preach a couple of weeks ago, and I posted that sermon below. As I said in it, all of my sermons are variations on a theme, and this one was no different. Still, it was nice to be able to preach again. Words have power, especially when they’re in some way related to the good news of and about the living Word- Jesus. Having said that, the hope I always hope for remains hard to come by. Even Kirsten has noted the nearly palpable feel of impending doom in the air. Talk of apocalypse reigns in the zeitgeist, from all the negative political ads as election season rolls on to the movies and TV shows about zombies or pandemics or the long term loss of electricity and with it life-as-we-know-it, or potential nuclear war or the planet being obliterated by “another earth” and on and on…to the real life threat of global economic collapse or war with Iran or Syria, and so on. I mean, it is 2012, after all. Maybe the common misconception about the end of the Mayan calendar does portend some kind of doom. Who knows?

I referenced “Another Earth” above, but I realize now that’s a bit misleading. Another Earth was actually a great movie that Kirsten and I really enjoyed. It’s an indie film in which, not surprisingly, another Earth is discovered. The film doesn’t get into the specifics of the science involved, to its credit, but instead focuses on character development. In the movie the copy of Earth is filled with copies of all of us, which raises questions like, “what could my life have been like if I had only done this? Or not done that?” Such questions are central to the lives of the two main characters who have a quite tragic story arc. Nonetheless, the plot isn’t actually apocalyptic, as the other Earth doesn’t appear to be hurtling toward ours so as to destroy it. What I was thinking of above was a somewhat similar movie in which another Earth- or something like it- is hurtling toward ours to destroy it. That movie I’ve consciously chosen not to see just yet, but I’ve read the plot summary. It’s called Melancholia, and part of its premise has to do with the notion that, in some cases perhaps, people who are already depressed or who perhaps expect the worst seem to fare better when the worst comes or when there’s a damn good reason to be depressed. It’s not paranoia if everyone is out to get you, after all. It’s not an anxiety disorder if the world around you is truly full of threats.

I bring all this up because, as noted extensively on this blog, I’ve been “mildly depressed” for many, many years, and more recently have struggled with deep and abiding anxiety. For those like me who suffer in this way, it can be relieving when “the end” finally comes because at least you know that were right after all. The healthy among us- like my wife- are right to encourage me to live in the present and enjoy the many obvious blessings I’m so fortunate to have like my wonderful wife and kids, my privileged status as a middle class white male USAmerican, etc., and of course they are right. Still, the anxiety/depression remain, and those who struggle with them know they aren’t exactly (completely) rooted in rational thought- for anyone. Since the anxiety piece of this really came to a head a few years ago, I’ve taken some steps to mitigate it somewhat. I’ve lost a ton of weight (the yo-yo effect notwithstanding) and have otherwise struggled to adopt some practices that will help. I eat better for the most part and as noted above aspire to write and read and pray daily. The Common Prayer book put out by Shane Claiborne and others has been immensely helpful in this regard.

Ironically, though, that discipline of Common Prayer is meant to be practiced in and by a community, and as always such community seems ever more challenging to find. When we first encountered Circle of Hope in Philly so many years ago and were challenged to actually start “being” the Church, and later as we were part of House of Mercy in Minnesota and I came to the realization that “it” (the Gospel/the life of a Christian) is not in the end about me, finally; as these twin epiphanies occurred over the years and during and after seminary as well my life as a Christ-follower was reoriented dramatically. I came to understand that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible (you- do this, or don’t do that, etc.) were plural; they were addressing the Christian community, not merely the individual. This makes so much sense, not just logically, but deep within. If we really want to BE the Church by loving our neighbors and serving the poor and being an alternative community that strives to live out God’s dream of peace-with-justice, not the individualistic and now consumeristic and imperialistic “American” one, then such a life will be so exceedingly difficult no doubt that living it out will only be possible- if at all- together. We do it in and as a community or we don’t do it all.

Sadly, for many years now I think we haven’t been doing it at all. There were moments of hope when I at least felt like we were living and moving in the right direction, but we squandered those, and that too has been well documented on this blog. So what now? Not too long ago I came across a constructive rejoinder to the self-critique I just leveled. I’ve been talking about a whole lot of striving and yearning and struggling to will into existence the kind of community I so want to be a part of. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a “new monastic” and co-founder of an “intentional community” suggests that all that striving will inexorably be in vain.

A Books and Culture review by Ragan Sutterfield of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability really says it best. I’ve copied below most of the review, because it’s worth it. Sutterfield says of Wilson-Hartgrove’s book:

Instability seems to be the condition of our age. The stock market spikes and dips, currencies waver, real estate signs line the streets. The more education you have, the less likely you are to live where you grew up (if you can even say that is one place).

There is also the instability of soul—a restlessness that drives us to move, to explore, to find some better option. To live in one place, much less one house, for thirty years is an anomaly for the most of us. We can barely stick to our electronics long enough for them to wear out.

“In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” These words from Abba Anthony are shocking to our ears—radically countercultural. This is a call to stay put, to develop deep roots with all of the accompanying limits and with all of the accompanying nourishment and strength of established ground.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, is a call to follow St. Anthony’s advice. It is a call to be incarnate—no Gnostic dreams of cyberspace or of imagined lives lived elsewhere. Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us that as followers of a savior who came to be with a particular people in a particular place, we are called to go and do likewise.

For Wilson-Hartgove, at the root of modern instability is an essential misunderstanding of who we are as people. Our consumer society has tried to convince us, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we are above all individuals and that it is the pursuit of our particular passions and interests that will fulfill us.

In reality, the pursuit of individualism leads to what we might call the market segmentation of the soul: our desires become scattered. We seek to find an anchor in a community, but having insulated ourselves from the limits and sacrifices that real, proximal community requires, we are drawn to quasi-communities clustered around a brand, a hobby, a style. We become hipster or hip-hop, J. Crew or Armani. Our “style” becomes our place.

Against all this, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “True stability can never be a product for individuals to consume. Rather, it is an invitation to shared life with particular people in a specific place.” Stability is then a result of true community—of the sort Wilson-Hartgrove has worked to establish through the community house his family is a part of in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina.

But community requires a great deal of work and risk. Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “This is at least part of the reason books on spirituality have become more popular in the last generation, even as church attendance has gone down significantly …. The trouble … is that a spirituality that works for me cannot save me.” Spirituality becomes the name of an online store category—a choose-your-own-adventure sort of religion that gives comfort but demands little and therefore results in little transformation. Stability helps protect us against spirituality of this kind by forcing us to be present with our neighbors, whether we really want to or not.

If we want to grow spiritually, Wilson-Hartgrove suggests, “Maybe the single most important thing we can do … is to stay in the place where we are.” Such staying is so important because it forces us to face the real problems in our lives—the problems we can’t mask with new friends, a new job, a new house, or a new car. Staying shows us that what we need isn’t another church or a town where people “get us” or a new adventure. What we need is to face ourselves and stay still long enough for God to change us.

Wilson-Hartgrove quotes the desert mother Amma Theodora, who tells the story of a monk who decided to leave his cell because of a great many temptations. “As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’ ”

We are not and have never been purely independent beings. To achieve the illusion of “independence,” we must ignore the networks that support us, and we do so to our peril. To have stability in a place we must have humility—”growth in our awareness of our own insufficiency.” As Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “I cannot do anything—not even keep my own faith—alone.” This may seem a bold claim in the age of church shopping, but we must remember that we worship a Trinitarian God who is never alone, who is the essence of community.

In order to live in our insufficiency, we must learn to pay attention—pay attention to where we are and on whom we are dependent. Stability requires us to know our neighbors, and more than that it requires us to participate in the act of neighboring—to recover “neighbor” as a verb.

“To embrace the limits of a place is to learn to look at the people around us with fresh expectation,” writes Wilson Hartgrove. “Whether these people are easy to love is not the question. Stability invites us to ask, ‘How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?’ ” Throughout the book, Wilson-Hartgrove paints a picture of what genuine neighboring looks like in a community of stability.

I have little to add to the above. This learned instability has been a hallmark of my life, and certainly that of my family. Ironically, of course, all of our moves (especially back to places we’ve lived before) have been in search of stability, in the pursuit of community. We even know- at least intellectually- and have told ourselves that “you can’t go home again,” that our problems and foibles and challenges will chase us wherever we go because we are at the root of them and we will still be there. Nonetheless, the other side’s grass has usually been too tempting to resist.

As a family, we’re certainly confronted with this challenge today. We were so grateful to be able to come back to NE Ohio to a house we still “owned” and a few friends who have been very good to us, and for which we are very grateful. Still, those bonds of friendship in one case were formed intensely a number of years ago over a shared dream for just the type of Christian community I’ve been describing, only to be weakened to the point of near non-existence now as the family in question have continued on their long journey away from faith, away from God, and despite some heartfelt and loving/non-judgmental efforts to keep this from happening, away from us.  In the other case, the friendship is a little more intact, but is challenged by some small distance (we live about 35 minutes or so apart) and the usual scheduling obstacles of our harried lives, among other things.

Otherwise, there are several church communities we’ve been connected to over the years here, but we’ve never managed to fully invest in any of them. Since coming back, though, perhaps taking that notion of being rooted in a local geographic community to heart, we decided to join the Lutheran congregation just down the street. This is arguably a nominal affiliation, however, as this traditional institutional church is mired in the habits of Christendom and has yet to push beyond them to become a “real” community as I understand it, to really “be” the Church. So joining them- even if in name only at first- was thus a hopeful act on our part, a recognition that community exists not as we want it to be but as we find it, and will only become whatever it might insofar as we pitch in to help shape it. As the review above notes in quoting Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “To embrace the limits of a place is to learn to look at the people around us with fresh expectation,” writes Wilson Hartgrove. “Whether these people are easy to love is not the question. Stability invites us to ask, ‘How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?’ ”

We sure want to grow in love, and we want to see those around us- however hard they are to love, however much we might wish they were more progressive or peace-loving or interested in caring for God’s good earth or tech-savvy or whatever- we want to see them as gifts from God. We know we are dependent beings in so many ways, and we want to rely on those around us in our common struggle to not only be our best true selves but to be the beloved community that we- and the world- so desperately need, whether the end is nigh or not. Lord, let it be so.

Stay Tuned…

Not too long ago I joined the Tyndale Blog Network. As a member, I can order select titles from their catalogue at no charge, so long as I then review the books I receive here, on my blog. So the first title I ordered was The House Church Book. I’m eager to read this for a couple of reasons, one being that I currently find myself participating, at least for the time being, in a house church, and the other being that in the book the author pits house churches against cell churches, which I am a particular fan of and have a long history with. Anyway, it’s a small book; so stay tuned for my review here in the next week or so…