9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. 11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. 12 Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. 13 With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. 14 I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. 15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. 16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word. –Psalm 119:9-16
I offer the scripture above as some context for what will follow. Here’s a little more context, from Circle of Hope’s proverbs:
Now hit the “play” button below and listen to a song Circle of Hope adapted for worship, and then I’ll talk about it below.
As you can tell, this is a recording of live worship at one of Circle of Hope’s Sunday Meetings. Here’s the lyrics:
I’m not the same
Your word has changed me
It is hidden in my heart
My life has a fresh start
I’m walking out freer
I’m walking out stronger
I’m walking out better
Better than when I came
Oh, it’s getting better
Oh, it’s getting better
Oh, it’s already better
Better than when I came
Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, has a great post this morning about worship and its potential to unlock deep memories and create change. I appreciated it much, and found it resonant with what’s been happening within me of late. As I’m writing here about worship through music and I used the term “resonant” just now, I was struck that this term has multiple meanings, including those scientific and musical. One of those meanings is this: “a synchronous gravitational relationship of two celestial bodies (such as moons) that orbit a third (such as a planet).” So resonance has to do with being in sync, and this is exactly what I’m talking about.
I was ready to sync up with Rod’s post this morning because I was awake into the wee hours of the morning listening to the song above and a few others that I’ve come across while exploring what Circle has shared via archive.org. Here’s one search result of all kinds of content they’ve uploaded including worship music and sermons, but I don’t think this is exhaustive and may not even include the song above. Here are a few of my favorite such songs and gifts for growing:
Rod’s post references some of the latest brain science regarding where our brains store basic memories and how we can access conscious emotions. It reminds me very much of what I’ve learned about trauma and the kind of trauma therapy that I’ve been engaged in over the past year, EMDR. My very crude understanding of EMDR- and why I’ve been undergoing it- is that traumatic memories (and, perhaps, their associated emotions) can get stuck in the “back” of the more “animal” part of our brain, where instincts like our fight or flight mechanism reside. EMDR activates both hemispheres of a person’s brain while they “reprocess” traumatic memories in the hope that those memories can “move” and no longer be stuck. I know in my case the Complex PTSD I live with as a result of my emotional abuse as a child can cause “emotional flashbacks” in which suddenly I’m feeling something that is bigger and maybe unrelated to what is actually happening in the moment. In those moments when I’ve been “triggered” by something that somehow reminded my animal brain of the trauma that I suffered, my behavior is driven not by what I want to do or who I hope to be, but by an instinct to protect myself due to an “unconscious predictive model” or “emotional schema” that my brain has created. Here’s what Rod said about it, citing the research he was learning about:
At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic. They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.
According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.
What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days.
I’m no expert, but I think this “reconsolidation” has something to do with the “reprocessing” of traumatic memory that is the focus of EMDR. Anyway, Rod goes on to say:
What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.
Rod says that worship can be just such a transforming environment, and it’s no surprise that this is included in the lore of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. Under the section titled, “We are meant to go deep with God,” they say:
◉To have a full relationship with God, one must live in an environment where worship can be learned, the spiritual disciplines gained and spiritual warfare fought.
◉ Prayer is the key to fulfilling our mission of transformation.
◉ Solitude and silence are crucial tools for experiencing God’s presence.
◉ Without worship, a person shrinks.
I’m Not the Same
Without worship, a person shrinks, indeed. I’ll be honest, I deeply miss the kind of authentic, embodied, soul-stirring worship through music such as what Circle of Hope regularly engages in. The evangelical, suburban, Assemblies of God mega-church of my youth may not have had great theology and I often criticize it from the safe distance of time and miles. BUT- they routinely created an environment in which (musical) worship at least could be learned, and I think I learned it. My childhood was terrible. I enjoyed “white” privilege in the “Bible-belt” south, of course, but it wasn’t fun. My mother abused me; my father enabled it; there were financial problems and most of my growing up was in a trailer park, and the other “Christian” kids at the “Christian” school my parents sent me to bullied me mercilessly. I developed a debilitating stutter that only made things worse. And yet, over and over again I met Jesus in worship, and it filled my heart with joy. After each such experience, I walked out “freer, better, stronger,” and “better than when I came.” I wasn’t the same. God’s word, hidden in my heart/limbic system, had changed me.
I can, of course, only speak with (meager) authority about my own experience and how God touched and moved me. But I have been touched and moved. I was the teen who went away to some youth group overnight experience at which there was musical worship when we arrived. I was standing in a row with my peers where maybe we didn’t have seats, and I got into the worship. My eyes were closed, my hands upraised, and maybe there were tears. I was communing with God. Only after the song or set ended and I opened my eyes did I realize that I was standing alone; my peers had moved off to stand at the side of the room. I don’t remember; I may have felt embarrassed, but the point is I was into it, and I think it made me better.
So I “caught” worship in that way as a kid, and I definitely experienced it in our two stints in Philadelphia as a part of Circle of Hope. Just listening to “Better” above (please do give it a listen), I’m struck by a number of things. The worship leader introduces the gathered church to the worship environment they’re creating together. In typical, blessed Circle of Hope fashion, he invites each person to connect with God personally and to recognize that as they do so they’re also connecting with one another. It’s “corporate” worship- meaning “corpus-” worship as one gathered body. He mentions that they’ll be singing in different languages and using instruments from around the world. It shouldn’t surprise you at this point that this an another expression of one of their proverbs, that “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Not only does Circle talk about being members of the “transnational body of Christ,” they also speak about the “great cloud of witnesses” and routinely remember that they are part of the “transhistorical” body of Christ. You can see that in action here. Finally, the worship leader mentions an aspirational hope that they’re going for, and they sing like it’s real, present, and happening right now. Regardless of life’s circumstances, Jesus makes things better, and you can tell just listening to that moment captured in the recording. Of course, that feeling doesn’t negate the many ways in which the world is broken and in need of healing. In fact, some say the “best thing Circle does” is take part in God’s redemption and reconciliation project through their many compassion teams:
Anyway, I sure feel better having had “Better” on repeat over the past number of hours. Kirsten and I couldn’t tune in “live” to Circle of Hope’s online meeting yesterday, but we did watch it later. Here’s what they say about their online meetings during COVID:
Welcome to Circle of Hope! We are a church in Philadelphia and South Jersey. This is our connection point during the COVID-19 crisis. We are the church 24/7. Social distancing and quarantine won’t stop God from demonstrating love and hope among us. This is not a show. We are doing this together—relating to God and each other in real time in the meeting. We want you to participate. The live chat feature on our YouTube live event is key to that. Please feel free to join in! We’re in a season we’re calling Practicing Resurrection. We can live our lives according to a rhythm that opens the door to possibility. It might feel like nothing is happening but something probably is. Stay close to your practice. Simple, practical faithfulness keeps us close to God so we are ready to receive the next miracle. They don’t have to be so few and far between.
I love this description. I think it’s something like a miracle that God keeps demonstrating love and hope among them, even via a YouTube broadcast. This was really evident in their observances for Holy Week as they walked with Jesus toward the cross and invited us to as well. There were nightly online vigils and daily invitations to prayer via their daily prayer blogs. Then, a few of them snuck into Lemon Hill in Philly for their usual Easter sunrise gathering also broadcast on YouTube, and it all culminated that night with their usual Sunday evening gathering, again also broadcast on YouTube. Our oldest son remarked on Easter evening that the online gathering was somehow joyful and celebratory, and I added that they “acted like something miraculous had happened.” Christ is risen, indeed!
Since Circle has pivoted to offering so many of their usual rhythms and practices online as much as possible during the pandemic, Kirsten and I have been inexorably drawn in. We were part of this community since its very early days and during the very early days of our marriage, after all, and after leaving after a couple of years (long story), we were drawn to move across the country once already just to be part of it again. Obviously, we left again and that’s another long story that I’ve told more than once. Still, it’s undeniable that something is happening not only among Circle (their cells are growing/multiplying during the pandemic, for starters!), but in Kirsten and I too.
Surprised by Joy
In short, and to borrow a C.S. Lewis book title, we’ve been “surprised by joy.” For whatever varied reasons, we just haven’t had any joy for a while. It seems obvious, but I’ll state it- following the Lord not only of ancient (and modern) Israel and Rome, but of America and every place in between; following the one who was before all things and in whom all things hold together; knowing that he is all this but also the suffering servant who ended the cycle of violence on the cross and was vindicated in his resurrection- following this Jesus should bring joy. It was joy that sent Jesus to the cross after all:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. –Hebrews 12:1-3
So, given the option to choose joy in a way we just haven’t experienced for a while, we’re going for it. During last night’s online meeting for Circle that we participated in after the fact, they talked about the rhythm during this season of practicing resurrection and offered some ways to keep at it:
I offer the screen grab above (one of Circle’s pastors, Julie, is pictured above; I hope she doesn’t mind) to highlight the “We move with how we’re moved” bit. If it isn’t clear, we feel moved. We feel joy again for the first time in a long while, despite the difficult times we’re in. This is a miracle, and we’re moving with it.
Our Life Has a Fresh Start
Maybe we’re actually moving with it (back to Philly); who knows? We have no immediate plans for another trek across the country, but what we do know is that this joy has moved us out of the congregation we had been participating in here, and that is now “official” after a conversation with their pastor a few weeks ago. I don’t really need to say any more about that, except that we very much appreciate our time with them and are grateful for all they’ve taught us. Now, we’re really trying to lean into the practices we’ve taken up again- prayer, meditation, worship that connects us with Jesus and the joy set before him and which he sets before us, and we’re doing our best simply to pay attention, to listen to what we might be called to next. As Circle says in another of their proverbs: “Following the Spirit is risky business, calm seas do not make good sailors.” Whatever the sea holds for us, Jesus will be with us and the winds and waves know his voice. We pray we do too.
So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.
As I’ve written recently and for a while, my relationship with my dad was complicated. Here’s what I said about him in that recent post:
As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.
It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.
Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”
Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.
So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.
Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.
So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.
And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.
Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.
What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:
Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.
His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.
Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.
As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.
The image above is an actual one from my brother’s Facebook page, as are the images below. When he isn’t re-posting brainless memes about Hillary’s emails, abortion, the Supreme Court, and how being politically “liberal” in the U.S. is some kind of mental illness, my brother is praising “America” uncritically…
…bashing the “mainstream media…”
…or offering vague religious platitudes…
Hopefully this would go without saying, but calling political “liberalism” in the U.S. a mental illness presupposes any number of things, including that such a political persuasion is so inconceivable that the only way to make sense of it is to believe that there must be something wrong with anyone so persuaded. It also presupposes that having a mental illness is some sort of character flaw, and that this “flaw” makes your political persuasions less credible. Aside from a passing “hello” by speakerphone while talking with others I think on Christmas day, the last interaction I had with my brother was via a now defunct Facebook account. He had re-posted something inflammatory probably having to do with immigration, and I (I thought) gently challenged the facts of the argument he was repeating. I don’t recall attacking him or making anything personal; instead I kept coming back to the facts of what he was saying (or not), expounding on the actual history related to his argument, which very much undermined the point he was trying to make. He responded by saying I was “full of hate” and then unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. I quit Facebook altogether a short time later.
Today I have another Facebook account with a new email address that Kirsten and I use solely at this point to relate to our local faith community. So with that Facebook account I can see my brother’s profile and posts, most of which are public, and occasionally I indulge the impulse to look at them. Sadly, it is more of the same with him these days. He claims he didn’t vote for Trump, but obviously supports him. It would be unfathomable to him that, as a friend of mine says, every Christian who voted for Trump and still supports him after all he’s done in office is in “unrepentant sin.” He says he’s following Jesus and working for the kingdom of God, but is so devoted to a “conservative” U.S. political ideology that it’s hard to distinguish his secular politics from his faith. He would probably accuse me of the same on the “liberal” end of the U.S. political spectrum. I would like to make the case that while that may have been true of me in the past, it is no longer. The failure of the Obama administration to live up to its own ideals, and the subsequent “election” of Trump, have served effectively to remind me of where my hope lies and what I am to expectantly work for- the coming of God’s kingdom, which is not of this world. Even as Trump separates refugee children from their parents, denaturalizes those already granted citizenship, and discharges members of the military who were promised citizenship in exchange for their service, it is nonetheless true that it is Obama who came to be known as the “deporter in chief.” It is Obama who ramped up drone warfare to unparalleled levels, handing off this death dealing apparatus to the Trump administration. It is Obama who fought hard to improve the economic outlook not of the poorest of the poor around the world and in the U.S., but of the “middle class” (which is to say nothing of the elites) who helped get him into power and keep him there. For all these reasons and more, it didn’t take long for me to be disabused of any notion that the election of Obama, however historic it might have been, would usher in God’s kingdom any faster.
In the end, it was evident that Obama was just another tool of empire, effectively used to mostly perpetuate the status quo for the powers that be. Now, it is undeniable (though some will try to deny it) that things are demonstrably worse under Trump and are getting worse still. Nonetheless, it seems clear now that we could not gave gotten to Trump without Obama. The domination system will have its way regardless of which U.S. political party is in power. For all these reasons, “our hope must be built on nothing less” than Jesus and his kingdom come.
That said, how, then, shall we live? I understand the partisan nature of almost all media. Some lean “right;” some lean “left.” (Almost) all are driven by the profit motive, and so serve the anti-Jesus powers that be. That is, they serve Mammon. That said, I believe my brother has been almost brainwashed by Fox News, Breitbart, and their ilk. He’s constantly lied to and shaped by the stories he’s told so that he will remain a good foot soldier for the cause of “American” exceptionalism and a kind of faith that (from where I sit) seems mostly about escaping hell, being nice, and earning your own way in “the land of the free.” For the record, to my knowledge, my brother doesn’t have a job, but I digress.
He might say that, to whatever extent I still tune in to MSNBC or watch Democracy Now!, I have been brainwashed by a steady stream of stories about Trump’s collusion with Russia, his constant scandals, his efforts to be the un-Obama which have the effect of rolling back many initiatives that might in some small way help the poor or marginalized, etc. I should mention that there’s a false equivalence there between MSNBC and Democracy Now! since MSNBC is definitely for-profit and Democracy Now! is not; still, my brother would say both lean “left.” He would call any reporting about Trump ties to white supremacists “fake news.” I would say the same of “birther-ism.” What, then, can we possibly have to say to one another?
Perhaps more importantly, why am I writing about this? I’m realizing that I’m angry at my brother, at least at some unprocessed surface level. His wild accusation toward me and abrupt ending of our relationship, at least on Facebook, stings, and this isn’t the first time he’s done this sort of thing. As our dad was dying, I led the way in really paying attention to what was going on, having frank conversations with the doctors, etc., and so was the first to advocate that hospice care should commence and no longer productive medical interventions should stop. I contacted a hospice agency, and started the ball rolling for services to start. As this was progressing, my brother and sisters (they’re all much older half-siblings) began paying attention and talked with one of the doctors separately. They said they believed they heard that doctor saying that we weren’t “there” (ready for hospice) yet, but in the event that things would progress to that point soon, they set up hospice care with a different agency. Along the way, they accused me of basically trying to kill our dad. My brother led this charge.
A very short time later, a new report from the doctor confirmed that treatments were not working and future treatments were not likely to. In other words, it was, indeed, time for hospice. My brother (and sisters) apologized to me, but it rang hollow, and I suppose it still does. Since my dad’s death 7 years ago, my subconscious at least has been trying to work all this out…in my dreams. I’ve dreamed, for example, that my dad had chosen to be cremated, and it was common practice for the family of those being cremated to place the bodies on a moving conveyor belt that leads directly into the furnace in which the bodies are burned. In my dream, I’m placing my dad on the conveyor belt…while he’s still alive. He does not seem alarmed about this, but my siblings are frantically trying to save him as I’m literally apparently trying to kill him. In another dream I had just a few days ago on the occasion of what would have been my dad’s 86th birthday, he’s dying, and he asks to come live with Kirsten and I and our family in the home in New Brighton we just bought…so that he can die there. We agree to this, but the only accessible bedroom (on the main floor with easy access to the front door, kitchen, living and dining room, a bathroom, etc.) is occupied, as indeed it is, by Kirsten’s mom. There’s a lot to be unpacked in both of those dreams, but going back to the first one, it clearly is related to my brother’s accusation I described above. This, I suppose, is no small part of why I may have some anger that I haven’t fully dealt with yet.
Be that as it may, I came across a saying recently (on Facebook, of all places) that I found revelatory. It goes: “I sat with my anger long enough, and she told me her real name is grief.” I read that and felt like I had been punched in the gut. How much of my anger is really grief related to un(fully)processed trauma? There is so much to grieve, after all, just in my own lifetime, which is to say nothing of the unprocessed trauma I carry in my bones as a descendant of British, German, and Russian Jewish ancestors. In my own lifetime, there was the loss of my childhood as I was parentified at the hands of my abusive, emotionally infantile mother. There was the fracturing of relationships among my dad’s first family after his first wife died and he married my mom. I do have siblings, after all, but their mother’s death and my mother’s abuse as she basically commandeered their family is a trauma from which none of them have ever recovered.
I know I can’t change my brother; yet I continue to find myself angered by his ignorant (to put it charitably) rhetoric, even though none of it is directed at me. His public support for Trump enables a would-be despot who is literally doing real harm to folks the Christian faith my brother and I purportedly share are called to love, serve, and be hospitable to. My brother’s castigation of those who don’t hold his views as “mentally ill” is demeaning to those who actually have a mental illness and betrays the feebleness of his point of view. If you can’t defend your opinions by citing actual (vetted) facts and hopefully with an appeal to what’s right and just not only for you but for your neighbor; if, instead, you have to resort to character assassination and bigoted attempts to destroy your opponents’ credibility, you probably need to rethink your opinions. All that said, no one could tell him any of that. He would deflect, defend, retrench, and probably lash out blindly. So it does neither myself nor him any good to talk with him about this, and we’re not exactly on speaking terms; thus, here I am blogging about it.
It probably goes without saying that the least, if not best, I can do here is to refrain from indulging the impulse to gawk at the car crash that is my brother’s Facebook feed. More than that, one of the appeals I would make to him, were we to ever have a constructive conversation about any of this, is to the notion that as Jesus followers we are called to love our neighbor (even/especially our globally poor ones), and as Jesus followers we are called to love our enemies. So however we might think of someone, our duty is to love them. Of course then I must apply this to myself. If, being brutally honest, I would think of my brother more as an enemy than a friend, my stance toward him should be the same. I must love him. What does that look like in this situation? We’ve never had a “regular” relationship. He’s nearly 20 years older than I am. He’s never taken an interest in me in the form of maintaining contact with me, checking in on how I’m doing, or otherwise being in any way invested or involved in my life. Does loving him mean that I should be the better man and make such efforts toward him, even if unreciprocated? I don’t know. Might loving him mean that I simply let sleeping dogs lie and grieve not only the loss of our father but also the relationship that I never had with my brother, and likely never will have? He’ll be 63 this year, and his health isn’t stellar. Shall I simply wait until he dies, and then wrestle with whether to make the journey to TX for his funeral, to formally mourn a man I hardly knew- and who certainly never really knew me- who therefore was never really a brother to me and who mostly acted in unloving ways toward myself and others? I suppose time will tell. What I know for sure is that whether he’s an enemy, a friend, or something in between, again I’m called to love him. Now I just have to figure out how.
I’m probably a bit late in seeking to chime in on Trump’s latest immigration atrocity (including, now, his administration’s efforts to discharge immigrant members of the armed forces and to mobilize a “denaturalization” task force), and I don’t think I have anything substantive to add to the conversation, especially as a middle-class (by USAmerican standards) “white” male. Still, I’m reminded of something that A.J. Muste (pictured above) is reported to have said. According to Wikipedia, Muste “was a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist…best remembered for his work in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.” In other words, he’s my kind of guy. I heard it reported that Muste, while demonstrating during the Civil Rights movement, was asked if he thought his demonstrating would change the country. He said that’s not why he was doing it. Instead, he said, he was “demonstrating so that his country wouldn’t change him.” I think the same logic applies here too. I’ve said before that I often write to discover what I think. Perhaps I also do it to remind myself, if no one else, of who I am. I do it, on the rare occasion I do these days, not because I think my writing will change the country or even a single other person’s mind, but instead so that in these perilous times “my” country doesn’t change me. I started this post two weeks ago, and said then that I don’t know how you can observe the pictures and stories in the news of late and not be moved by them. I certainly am. Kirsten had asked me then how I was doing, likely referring to the pain and swelling from my torn left meniscus (I had surgery on a torn right meniscus a couple of years ago; now I need it on the left), which was recently exacerbated dramatically by all the heavy lifting and physical labor I’ve been doing to get ourselves moved into our new home and then to get Kirsten’s mom moved in too. She might also have been referring to the stress and fatigue of all those transitions just mentioned, especially related to integrating Kirsten’s mom into our new home and figuring out all of the “new normals” that go along with that; she could have meant any number of things. What I told her was that I was feeling alternately sad, angry, and determined. Interestingly, that range of emotion is probably appropriate for all of the circumstances outlined above, not the least of which is Trump’s family separation (and now, indefinite family detention on military bases) policy.
The cold calculation of Trump’s policy is, indeed, infuriating. This land is not my land, or your land, or anyone else’s. The indigenous people of North America regard it, unless I’ve misunderstood, as sacred unto itself. Christian Scripture speaks of it as “groaning” in anticipation of its own redemption. There is an obviously alive quality to it that gives one pause when thinking of it as, indeed, an “it” rather than an “other.” Regardless, for (some of) my ancestors to claim this land by force, commit genocide against its native inhabitants, cultivate and develop it with slave labor in order to turn it into the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and then for their descendants to have the gall to hold it by force and draw lines and erect boundaries in order to decide who can come here, and when, and under what circumstances is an affront altogether worthy of my anger, sadness, and determination. Whey they enforce these arbitrary “laws” with a “zero tolerance” policy that rips babies from their mother’s breast and separates children from families with no plans or infrastructure for ever reuniting them, it is all the more galling still, especially because there is a causal link between our relative affluence and safety here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and the poverty and violence in other countries that would cause some to undergo the dangerous trek to get here in order to seek asylum. (See, for example, this now 4 year old story that only begins to explore the U.S.’ destabilizing and impoverishing effect on its southern neighbors.)
And I can’t help but see a causal link between all that and what’s happening in my own home. As I alluded to above, we have a new home. After spending the past year working so hard to “get small” by giving up as much power, privilege, and possessions as we could so that we could get closer to experiencing life from “under” the oppression of the dominators (of whom we are a part) rather than “over” it, which is our default stance given our inherited “white” privilege and economic power; after coming to learn that solidarity with those under the oppression of the dominators requires proximity to them; after realizing how selfishly we had been living for so very long and making all the changes necessary to get out of debt and move into position to be radically generous and hospitable once we had done so; after all that, here we are as home”owners” again with a house in the ‘burbs, smartphones, two cars, etc. Granted, our second car before was a very expensive one with a very bad loan that we would have spent years repaying, but with the help of our faith community we paid it off and sold it, and our second car now is 11 years old with over 140,000 miles on it which we paid for all at once in cash. Still, we have all the trappings of a very privileged life.
And traps they most certainly are. We cut short our plans to be fully debt free (except for student loan debt, which we may die with) by the end of this year when Kirsten’s younger sister moved away, leaving us as the only viable family nearby both able and willing to give care to Kirsten’s mom. Then, the owner of the house Kirsten’s mom has been living in said she needed to sell it, and suddenly we found ourselves springing into action. Kirsten’s mom has declining health and mobility, and it just seemed to be obvious that we should try to get into a house that she could move into with us. She has lived with us before; so we knew there would be challenges, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. One of the commands of Jesus that we’ve come back to time and again over the past year in our journey of “getting small” is his directive to give to those who ask of us. We felt ourselves being asked, even if implicitly. So we got ourselves in a position to give. When we found a small house with a finished basement and attic that had been divided into 6(!) bedrooms with three small ones in the basement that our little family of four could live in; one main floor bedroom with a bathroom and the kitchen and living room nearby that Kirsten’s mom could live in; and two more upstairs bedrooms that could serve as a guest room and maybe an office, we believed we had found a house that aligned with our values of radical generosity and hospitality, even if it was in the ‘burbs and would make us more proximate to the dominators than those dominated. The house is still very close to our faith community, and by all accounts it’s a modest home (by “white” USAmerican standards). Its footprint is small (though there is a big back yard); there’s nothing “fancy” about it. In fact, it needs some work, but our hope is that it will serve us well as Kirsten’s mom lives with us for now by allowing us to still be hospitable and generous, and in the future, it could give lots of options for communal living.
So by the grace of God and in recognition of our “white” privilege, we secured a loan, bought the house, and moved in. Since then we’ve worked tirelessly to get it ready for Kirsten’s mom: painting her room with multiple coats; ripping up carpet and refinishing her wood floor; replacing a door I had broken while ripping up carpet; replacing the main floor bathroom vanity, sink, and faucet to make the bathroom more accessible to her and then dealing with the resulting plumbing issues; replacing some non-functioning kitchen appliances; and the list goes on. Kirsten’s mom moved in now a few weekends ago. She’s coming from a three bedroom house that was entirely full of just her stuff, and moving from that whole house with all those rooms into basically just a bedroom in our house, and a smaller one at that. She’s made a genuine effort to pare down and give away some of that stuff she had, but our now shared home has still been awash in the sea of all the stuff she brought, and daily it’s been a struggle to bail out. Part of the “paring down” process she’s engaged in has involved offering random things to our kids, including a jar full of sea shells, some framed nondescript scenic background pictures, etc. This all led to a situation recently in which our Xbox owning, expensive YMCA summer program attending boys were arguing over who was getting which of grandma’s framed random scenic pictures; meanwhile, migrant 4-year-olds from Central America are sleeping in cages courtesy of the U.S. government and “my” taxpayer dollars, while their parents are on the fast track to deportation, all so that coal miners in W. Virginia can be distracted from learning the real reason for their declining job prospects, and my heart is ready to burst.
God, help us. Forgive us for all the times our actions make clear that we value things more than people. Forgive us for all the ways we continue to benefit from privilege afforded to us unjustly. Forgive us for how easily we fall back under the spell of Mammon, for how readily we accept a wealthy lifestyle afforded by capitalism and created and maintained by violence. Many, many times over the past year I spoke of capitalism/Mammon and violence as the two forces I saw most powerfully at work these days (and probably in all days) doing all they can to thwart and resist the ever coming kingdom of God. It’s actually kind of ironic. We who would resist the “new world order” are seen as just that, resisters working over and against the dominant forces in the world today. Confoundingly, in truth it is those who seek to maintain this brutal world order founded on that which is not God’s rule, that which is not God’s economy of Jubilee- it is they who are the resisters; they are the ones fighting an inevitably lost cause. It may not seem that way most days, but I don’t doubt for a second that it’s true. God’s kingdom of love and justice will come. God’s will, will be done on earth just as it is in heaven because heaven will come to earth and is doing so even now. We who would really follow Jesus then must be constantly reminded, and must remind ourselves as I hope I am doing now- that we are people from the future; we are a foretaste of the feast to come. We are to embody the new reality that God is birthing by being an alternative to what the sin-sick world has to offer.
Wake us up, Lord, and give us boldness to live with radical generosity and hospitality, with radical love and acceptance, in S. Texas, in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and in my own little home in the ‘burbs. Amen.
My dog died today; so I’m not much into the nonsense on Facebook. I did find myself inexorably drawn to the Facebook “get sympathy now” button, which I pushed a couple of days ago when I posted a link to the photo album I made for Coho along with a few words about the fact that she had cancer and a “hard choice would be made soon.” That hard choice came today. I can now say I’ve been present to four beings as they breathed their last, having finally succumbed to cancer. The first three were people, of course, but Coho’s death did not fail to elicit emotion. The end for Coho came peacefully as I held her, her head in my lap. It came pretty quickly too, but I had time before the sedative and euthanizing agent were given to say goodbye for as long as I liked. She’s come to know the vet’s office, and was scared when we arrived. She repeatedly went under my legs and tried to position herself with me between her and the vet staff. Finally I just got down on the floor, which she always considered an invitation to come over and be petted. I held and petted and talked to her as they placed the IV and then later, gave the drugs. I held it together, too, until the deed was done and they left, again inviting me to “take as long as I needed.” The hard parts came when her eyes wouldn’t close, then again when I tried to move her head out of my lap and onto the blanket on the floor so that I could finally stand and her head just flopped like the lifeless thing it then was, and then finally again when I collected her collar and leash. The leash usually jingles when you handle it, and like Pavlov’s dog this always produced a response, in Coho’s case excitement about going outside for a walk or drive. The stimulus-response cycle broke down this time, as Coho was no longer there behind her still open eyes to be excited about whatever the jingling leash would portend.
Coho was a great dog. We got her as a pup from the Animal Humane Society of Summit County in OH. We only went there to “check things out” and weren’t planning to adopt right then, but when we met her, I couldn’t say no. Coho had been neglected and so was a bit of a fearful dog. Things that scared her included: vacuum cleaners, laundry baskets, sudden noises, small-couldn’t-hurt-a-flea dog treats being tossed to-not at- her, and the list could go on. Most of the time it was endearing. Here she is, afraid on Christmas morning of a bone bigger than she was:
She was great with the kids (and me!). She didn’t mind being made to wear jammies, or hide out in a couch cushion fort, or snuggle with a stuffed bear, or wear sunglasses, etc.:
She was great especially with mischievous-even-as-a-baby Nathan:
She handled car trips and cross country moves like a pro, even when there was hardly room for her:
….and she was a great running buddy:
We had a choice, of course. We could have exhausted a lot of financial resources to extend her life. The first step would have been having her leg amputated, and then probably some chemotherapy. The cost was prohibitive, though, and quickly- much more quickly than we expected or were prepared for- the pain and loss of bone in her shoulder caused her to stop using altogether the leg that would have been amputated. As soon as I realized that we were then asking her to live as if she didn’t have the leg anymore without the benefit of the cancer being slowed down or stopped for a time- the benefit that might have come with amputation- I knew we had to act.
This act- one of kindness, I hope, even love- raises a lot of questions, but I don’t have the capacity to deal with them today. Coho was part of our family for over a decade, and while she’ll always be with us in some way, today our family got undeniably smaller.
My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).
This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.
Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.
I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:
The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:
The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through
My heart is aging I can tell
So Lord, I’m begging
For one last favor from You
Here’s my heart take it where You will
This life has shown me how we’re mended
And how we’re torn
How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free
Sometimes my ground was stony
And sometimes covered up with thorns
And only You could make it what it had to be
And now that it’s done
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper
Or if they dined me like a prince
If they lay me with my fathers
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind
I don’t care
But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye
There’s people been friendly
But they’d never be your friends
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground
Now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found
But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain’t never seen the other side
They say you can’t take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears
There’s people been talking
They say they’re worried about my soul
Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking
‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll
And when I do
I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:
The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.
The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:
– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)
– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)
– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)
– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)
What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:
In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).
Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”
The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).
What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol. So again Rich sings:
The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through
My heart is aging I can tell
So Lord, I’m begging
For one last favor from You
Here’s my heart take it where You will
In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.
Rich continues in the song:
This life has shown me how we’re mended
And how we’re torn
How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free
Sometimes my ground was stony
And sometimes covered up with thorns
And only You could make it what it had to be
And now that it’s done
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper
Or if they dined me like a prince
If they lay me with my fathers
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind
I don’t care
Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.
Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:
…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.
After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:
There’s people been friendly
But they’d never be your friends
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground
Now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found
I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:
But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain’t never seen the other side
They say you can’t take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears
The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.
“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:
There’s people been talking
They say they’re worried about my soul
Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking
‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll
And when I do
…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye
Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.
This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.
Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly, I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.
Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”
Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.
The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.
This post started as an email to the pastors of Mill City Church. I wrote to thank them for the many ways they help us discern what God’s up to and challenge us to join in. The first two sermons in the current series, on “Success and Security,” coming on the heels of the last few from the last series, about Mill City Church’s “Mission Priorities,” have been particularly helpful. They’ve been especially so because they so clearly resonate with what we’ve been hearing God say to us as a family already. I wrote about all that in my last post. The super short version is that as a family we’ve been feeling very called to make ourselves small. We’re learning that we’re not just called to help the poor; we’re called to learn from and be helped by them. We have so much more to learn about interdependence with one another and dependence on God, to which we’re called. Some of this has come from our decision to do the monthly recommended readings for January from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (again, see my post; it’s a resource we’ve been using for years but never in the way we are now). The four books recommended for January have been simply life-changing. We had read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger years ago; so we moved on to the other three. Economy of Love started things off, and was profoundly moving and challenging. Next came God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I can’t even begin to describe how reading that book is changing us. It’s interesting because of some of the stuff in these books we’ve “known” for a while, but clearly just weren’t willing to do anything about. We were stuck on the “wide road.” Anyway, I’m just now finishing up Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell. It’s a follow-up to Sabbath Economics by Ched Myers, which comes from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and was one of the books recommended in Common Prayer, but is unfortunately out of print. Sabbath Economics recommends a “Sevenfold Household Covenant,” which looks like this:
Basically, the idea is that in God’s economy, Jesus has something to say about all the areas of our life or practices identified above. So, as I recently read in Sabbath Economics:
Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)
I found this particularly insightful and challenging. I’ve known God has a “special concern for the poor” for a while (though I did little about it). And I’m learning that I understand the New Testament especially, but also Jesus, much better when I attempt to do so as a person on the margins, since it was written by folks on the margins to folks on the margins. It was written from “under,” not “over.” Rod White’s several post(s) about this were very helpful. Moreover, I’m learning again that poor folks have something to teach us, that they can help us just as much or more than we’ll ever “help” them. I’m learning especially that there ought not be a them and us. We must work much harder to make sure there is only an “us.” So our family has been working to get “small.” So far we’ve:
given the church the TV and sound bar that are in the Mill City Church Commons now
cut cable and just have local channels now, plus Netflix, etc.
got rid of our PS4 and a handful of games
gave up our smartphones for basic flip phones (this alone we’ve experienced as an incredibly counter-cultural, near revolutionary act)
canceled our credit cards and started (another, sadly) Debt Management Program
gotten as creative as we can with things we’re bound by contract not to let go of yet. For example, sadly we both have Massage Envy accounts. Kirsten has chronic neck pain that causes migraines (hear the justification?) and I got mine when I was running, which I desperately need to get back to (again, hear the justification?). We can’t cancel these contracts, but I’ve been talking to Mile In My Shoes about donating my remaining massages to them.
We’ve also ended our contributions to our retirement plans. In God’s Economy by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (one of the January books, again), which was and is incredibly and amazingly challenging, he makes a compelling case for following Jesus so closely that it’s hard to see how (for us, as far as we can tell, anyway) using those resources in that way is faithful. When we dug in and did the hard work of seeing how Kirsten’s retirement funds were being used by Lincoln Financial (and it was, interestingly, hard work just to follow the money), for example, it became incredibly easy to see that our participation in the plan Kirsten was in is sinful. The money God gave us to steward that we gave to Lincoln Financial is being used to build drones and missiles; to get teenagers to smoke; to oppress poor people with bad mortgages, debt, and financial products; to poison the earth, produce GMO’s, and insure generational poverty among subsistence farmers; and I could go on and on. This begs lots of questions about what it means to “retire” and what we would be “retiring” from or to. We have some ideas about this. It also obviously raises questions around stewardship and whether or not to have, for example, an “emergency fund.” Historically, our family has struggled to do this and has been largely unsuccessful, largely due to selfish financial choices in the midst of a few extravagantly generous ones. Still, our generosity has not been supported by a lifestyle that was consistent with following Jesus instead of Mammon.
We had another idea, too. Wilson-Hartgrove talks a little about basically using the world’s evil economic system from time to time to subvert that very system. So, we attempted to trade in Kirsten’s 2013 Ford Escape that we never should have bought. We owe something like $18,000 on it, with 9% interest. We were hoping to trade it for a much older, cheaper car. We explained a little bit of our motivation to the person we approached to do this, whom we know. He said he wasn’t able to help us, and he told me I should “educate myself” and quoted Mark 14:7 at me, where Jesus says: “The poor you will always have with you…”. However, there’s a second part to that verse: “…and you can help them any time you want.” The first part of the verse echoes Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land…”. There’s more to that verse too: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This comes in the part of Deuteronomy that is dedicated to canceling all debts and freeing all slaves every seven years, and can be tied to the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13, in which debts were canceled, slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owner, and the land itself was to lie fallow, to give it a break from all its labor on our behalf. In the Deuteronomy chapter that Mark hearkens back to, the point is clear:
…there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today…7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.
Moreover, when Jesus says in Mark that “you’ll always have the poor among you,” not only does he follow it up with “…and you can help them anytime you want…” (which perhaps should read: “you can help them anytime you want,” as you should have been doing all along), but he’s making a point. A jar of expensive perfume has just been poured over his head, and “some of those present,” likely including Judas, the betrayer, are upset because this is an act of gratuitous extravagance, and the year’s salary the perfume was worth could have been spent on the poor. Jesus isn’t making a normative statement for all time about poor people (like: “I, God, say there should always be poor people”); he’s making a descriptive statement about the faithlessness of God’s people (like: “you could help poor people any time you want; but you don’t, or don’t do it enough; so you’re likely to always have them around. Therefore don’t use your lack of love for the poor as an excuse for this woman not to do what she just did, which was to prepare me for burial.”)
The weight of Scripture is astoundingly clear: God has a “preferential option” for the poor. We are to help them, and to be helped by them, for they have something to teach us about holding possessions loosely, about being ready to receive God’s good gifts, about relying on God’s provision and not worrying about tomorrow. Moreover, there’s strong evidence for the idea that drawing near to the poor is to draw near to Jesus himself, and that standing in solidarity with the poor requires proximity to them (affluent suburbs notwithstanding).
So, I told the pastors in that email that this is what we’re learning, and what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re encountering some resistance. I wouldn’t call it a “spiritual attack;” what I would say is that the resistance we’re experiencing helps confirm for us that we must be moving closer to, and perhaps even down, the “narrow path.” In addition to the response I talked about above from the person we approached in an attempt to “downsize” one of the cars we drive, we found that when we traded in my smartphone it had been reported stolen in TN (I bought it “new” here in MN). The police investigator that called me said, confirming an unfortunate stereotype, that the suspect was a “black male” and he knew I was not, but our decision to give up that bit of power and means of control by the Empire/Domination System/”World”/Call-It-What-You-Will got some attention, apparently.
Then, last week I took the other care we drive in for some repairs. As it was being worked on Kirsten called to say the 2013 Ford Escape we were trying to trade in, which she was driving, had a flat tire on I-35. I had no way to go help her. Our car insurance includes roadside assistance (one of the many perks of our power and privilege), but accessing this was made a little more difficult by Kirsten’s lack of a smartphone. She got help, but we eventually “had” to put 4 new tires on it. At the same time we learned that the work on the car that I had in for repairs, which was starting when Kirsten called me to say she was stuck with a flat tire, is going to run about $750 (again, plus the cost of the Escape’s tires). All told, this will run us over $1,100. We don’t exactly have that saved up, but all the work we’ve been doing to get “small” means that we can probably come up with the funds soon, right about when we might need them, I hope. We got the new tires on the Escape already, and the parts for the Focus aren’t in yet and won’t be until close to when we get paid again, when more funds will be there than would have been otherwise if we hadn’t made all the changes we’re making. Kirsten and I have also had a few little health scares recently too, but those seem to be mostly resolved and aren’t worth talking about more now. So, again, I’m not saying all this is any sort of “attack;” I’m just saying that following Jesus instead of the Empire is hard, even if only, so far, in the “white people’s problems”-y ways I’ve just described.
One thing we’ve been thinking about is how individualistically we’ve been (not) following Jesus in terms of money, despite our professed love for all things communal when it comes to everything else. This must change. Thus I’ve been thinking again a little more about Common Change. Common Change came out of Relational Tithe, and is a resource for sharing money to meet one another’s needs and the needs of those around them. We’re thinking that instead of Kirsten and I laboring to build up an emergency fund for the next time we need new tires or car repairs and also to build capacity in our “personal” budget for the kind of generosity we feel called to, if instead it’s not more faithful to join with others we know (including especially, we hope, from Mill City) in opening a Common Change account and committing to contributing to it. We’d have much more capacity together than we would alone, and could again, I suspect, be much more faithful in this way.
Finally, I have a co-worker with whom I largely agree about secular politics. He’s not someone who would say he’s following Jesus, not by a long shot. I have another co-worker with whom I largely disagree about secular politics. He is a professed Christian. I’ve found myself in a position of not having anything helpful, really, to say to either of them. I don’t know that my “evangelical” co-worker and I will ever agree about secular politics, and it has been a real challenge to put to death any hostility between us with Jesus on the cross. Likewise, it’s been hard to find a way to even talk about Jesus with my secular progressive co-worker….until the other day as I was telling the story of all the car issues and what we were trying to do with the car Kirsten drives and how that was connected to all the bigger changes we’re making in our life. As I told him how we got rid of our smartphones and a big TV and were ending our 401k contributions because they were supporting war and environmental degradation and the like and how we were switching banks and on and on; it only made sense to mention that we were doing those things because we were trying to follow Jesus. What I’m reminded of, again, is that we don’t have anything to share, at least in my experience, if we don’t have a story to tell about what following Jesus looks like in our lives as we swim upstream amidst the Empire we live in today. I didn’t have much of a story to tell to my co-workers anyway until recently. I actually have quite a story to tell about my life, but that doesn’t come up in every day conversation unless every day we’re living a life that’s worth talking about. I’m praying now that each day will lead us further into such a life. It’s what we’re here for, after all.
With such thoughts swimming around in my head, I found myself in downtown Minneapolis the other day. I went into the soon to be closed downtown Barnes and Noble. I like bookstores, sadly even the commodified, homogenized, big chain variety. From there I went through the skyway into the soon to be closed downtown anchor Macy’s store. As I reached the threshold of Macy’s and passed into the store, I saw her. It was hard to tell if she was a “her,” actually. What I saw was a person clearly experiencing homelessness, obviously world weary and weather beaten, curled up in a corner, leaning against the wall, asleep. She had a cardboard sign, but it had fallen over and I couldn’t make out what it said. I had Sam’s allowance cash in my wallet, a total of $30 ($20 for this month and $10 we owed him from last month). I walked into Macy’s, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and walked back out. I went to a sandwich shop I had passed in the skyway and bought her a hot sandwich and some chips. I went back and touched on the shoulder, waking her to offer her the food. She thanked me, said she was very grateful, but then explained she had arthritis, and showed me her hands. They were visibly swollen. She said what she really needed was $20 to pay for a room she rents in St. Paul, when she can, presumably. She said she had a bus pass which she would use to get there tonight, if she had the money. She said she had been cold and just “couldn’t take it any more,” and came in to try to sleep for a while. She said she didn’t want to bother anybody; so she put up her sign (which had fallen), and then fell asleep, hoping someone would help her. It wasn’t long before I pulled out the $20 I had and gave it to her. I was reminded, as I constantly am now, of this bit from God’s Economy:
Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.
I asked her what her name was, and she told me. Sadly, I’ve forgotten it already; I’m not good with names. She asked me mine, and I told her. She exclaimed that Robert was her son’s name. She asked me for a hug, and I gave it. We parted, and I wandered back in to Barnes and Noble on my way back to the car. I had about $3 left. I bought a cookie for $2-something (just what I need, I know) and walked outside. There, I passed by another person potentially experiencing homelessness who was “signing.” I gave him the coins I had left, and the cookie I had just bought. I walked back to the car, pockets empty, and a little lighter, literally and metaphorically.
Look, I know I did nothing to solve the economic and housing insecurity either of those people I met are experiencing. I know I may very well have perpetuated their “problem” and the systems that create such insecurity. But then again, as Wilson-Hartgrove said, I’m not called to “fix” the poor. They are not problems to be solved. They are people made in God’s image, people God loves, and whom I am called to love. They are folks who have been marginalized, pushed to the sidelines of the economic and political systems of our day. In very real ways they are folks who have less because I have more. Maybe the woman I met has a son named Robert; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she used a bus pass and went to a room that night and slept in a warm bed. Maybe she didn’t. What I do know is that we exchanged names, and a hug. She got lunch, and she knew that a stranger stopped to love her, if only for a moment. Now, the real work begins. Now, my family and I, both my “nuclear” family and church family, must work to not just subvert the system that marginalized those folks, but to build a better one. We must work to live as if God’s kingdom is already here. We must work to build God’s economy, an economy of love. In such an economy, no one has more than they need, and therefore there is more than enough for all. God, help us.
This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:
It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:
All the poor and powerless And all the lost and lonely All the thieves will come confess And know that You are holy Will know that You are holy And all will sing out Hallelujah And we will cry out Hallelujah And all the hearts that are content And all who feel unworthy And all who hurt with nothing left Will know that You are holy And all will sing out Hallelujah And we will cry out Hallelujah [x2] Shout it Go on and scream it from the mountains Go on and tell it to the masses That He is God [x5]
There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:
That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.
It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”
Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:
I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus. Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so. I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was. Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.
What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.
When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.
So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?
This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?
Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:
14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world. Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit. If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.
As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.
It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.
Family Update:Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:
Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:
Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:
As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”
Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan
Towards the end of my last post, part I in this little series, I said I often come back to something Bart Campolo said once in 1995 as he addressed a group of idealistic young college students doing Kingdomworks (KW), including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. I wrote in that post that I know that this was probably something he was struggling with (why or if one should keep following Jesus) even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. I said that this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? As I wrote in the last post:
How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me?
I should start by acknowledging the many “hard sayings” (teachings, stories) in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. An atheist site has helpfully compiled some of them, which I’ve included below:
1. God drowns the whole earth.
In Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, fetuses, and perhaps unicorns. Only a single family survives.
2. God kills half a million people.
In 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
3. God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn.
In Exodus 12:29, God the baby-killer slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
4. God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
5. Genocide after genocide after genocide.
In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
6. God kills 50,000 people for curiosity.
In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
7. 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a god.
In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” About 3,000 people died.
8. The Amorites destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks.
In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
9. God burns two cities to death.
In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
10. God has 42 children mauled by bears.
In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
11. A tribe slaughtered and their virgins raped for not showing up at roll call.
In Judges 21:1-23, a tribe of Israelites misses roll call, so the other Israelites kill them all except for the virgins, which they take for themselves. Still not happy, they hide in vineyards and pounce on dancing women from Shiloh to take them for themselves.
12. 3,000 crushed to death.
In Judges 16:27-30, God gives Samson strength to bring down a building to crush 3,000 members of a rival tribe.
13. A concubine raped and dismembered.
In Judges 19:22-29, a mob demands to rape a godly master’s guest. The master offers his daughter and a concubine to them instead. They take the concubine and gang-rape her all night. The master finds her on his doorstep in the morning, cuts her into 12 pieces, and ships the pieces around the country.
14. Child sacrifice.
In Judges 11:30-39, Jephthah burns his daughter alive as a sacrificial offering for God’s favor in killing the Ammonites.
15. God helps Samson kill 30 men because he lost a bet.
In Judges 14:11-19, Samson loses a bet for 30 sets of clothes. The spirit of God comes upon him and he kills 30 men to steal their clothes and pay off the debt.
16. God demands you kill your wife and children for worshiping other gods.
In Deuteronomy 13:6-10, God commands that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they worship other gods.
17. God incinerates 51 men to make a point.
In 2 Kings 1:9-10, Elijah gets God to burn 51 men with fire from heaven to prove he is God.
18. God kills a man for not impregnating his brother’s widow.
In Genesis 38:9-10, God kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow.
19. God threatens forced cannibalism.
In Leviticus 26:27-29 and Jeremiah 19:9, God threatens to punish the Israelites by making them eat their own children.
20. The coming slaughter.
According to Revelation 9:7-19, God’s got more evil coming. God will make horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails, who torture people for 5 months. Then some angels will kill a third of the earth’s population. If he came today, that would be 2 billion people.
The post on the site the list above comes from concludes by adding that “Christians have spent thousands of years coming up with excuses for a loving god that would allow or create such evil. In fact, they’ve come up with 12 basic responses, which are the subject of The Tale of the Twelve Officers.” The first link (“excuses”) in this last quote takes you to the Wikipedia page for Theodicy, which is an entire line of thought that “attempts to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” The second link, to “The Tale of the Twelve Officers,” takes you to a hyperbolic story about a terrible crime committed in full view of 12 police officers who did nothing to stop it. The bulk of the story is the 12 officers accounting for why they did nothing. Each of their justifications represent ones the author of that page finds Christians commonly using to explain evil and justify how God might allow it to go on. That author concludes by adding:
Religious readers, do not take offense. I have made this parable as brazen as I could, but my purpose is not to insult or blaspheme. I have found that religious believers are often conditioned to accept trite solutions to the problem of suffering, and that it is all but impossible to shake that conditioning through dry analysis. The temptation to offer to an entity a moral blank check simply because it sports a name tag with “God” written on it, is overwhelming in our theistic culture. Hence, this attempt to make the point through a medium as far removed from dry analysis as possible. But again, it is all to make a point, not to cause anyone harm. I have not written anything that I would not have wanted directed at me when I myself was a believer.
Were I to choose not to follow Jesus as some that I know have, including Bart, this would be one of the reasons why. Another reason has to do with the nature of truth as it relates to the Bible. In a postmodern age, this boils down to a simple question: why should we trust the Bible? How can we, really, when you know as I do that the written Bible we Protestants rely on is different from the Catholic version, for starters, and more importantly (leaving divine inspiration aside for a moment) is not a single book written at one time by one person in one language but is rather many, many books (at least 66; some would argue more) that at first weren’t written at all but were instead passed on as oral traditions and then were written down by many different people in a number of different languages over the course literally of thousands of years. Some of these original writings were lost in the dust of time, but fragments of copies of them were unearthed sometimes much later and eventually compiled, and then men (usually) sat in councils to decide which of these compilations to canonize (make official) as the “Bible” we can buy in a bookstore today. Surely this must be a matter for faith because it seems to me it takes a lot of faith to believe that a holy book with such an origin story could be, well, holy.
Problems with the Bible don’t end there, though. Not only is it of dubious origin. Not only does it recount horrific tales of murder and genocide seemingly ordered by God, but for quite some time Protestants have insisted that the Bible is inerrant. Usually there’s some qualification to go along with this like “in its original writings” or something of that sort, but the basic gist is as it sounds, I would suggest. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes. There’s no error in it. As someone who’s done just a little study of Christian history, I like to point out that it’s perhaps not coincidental that this insistence on the part of Protestants seems strangely (or not) to have arisen around the same time that Catholics began insisting that the Pope was infallible. It’s as if one team needed an answer for the problem posed by the best player on the other team. Perhaps I digress, however. What’s troublesome about this and truly challenging if one is to continue to have faith is that the Bible seems to, well, have some errors. Depending on how one interprets it, one could make a case for all kinds of things the Bible seems to support which just don’t stand up under modern scientific, literary, or historical critical analysis. Questions like how old the earth is and whether dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time are ones that some find answers to in the Bible, but those answers sometimes directly contradict all other evidence that can be found outside the Bible using all the tools God has otherwise given us.
One more point should be made, again reflecting as we are in a postmodern (and, in the wake of the recent election, truly “post-truth”) age. Its worth noting as others much smarter than I have said, but which I keep echoing, that all reading is interpretation. I’ve posted and talked about this before, but a clip from the amazing film Waking Life deals with this most helpfully:
The dialogue in that scene goes:
Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like frustration? Or what is anger? Or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.
It’s terribly useful to remember that words are indeed symbols. They’re vehicles for conveying meaning. But the meaning in the mind of a speaker or writer that a word is meant to bear may or may not be the meaning that is made in the mind of the hearer or reader when that word is received. Certainly, some meanings are more easily transferred from the mind of the speaker/writer to that of the hearer/reader than others. Some symbols/words are so ubiquitous in a culture that the chances of effective communication are very high. But what if the writer and reader speak very different languages and come from very different cultures and lived thousands of years apart? So I’ll say it again, all reading is interpretation, and this is a useful concept when thinking especially about reading the Bible. Some Christians would like to say that their reading of the text is somehow “plain” or so evident as to be beyond dispute, but such a claim does not hold up. Every act of reading involves many, many decisions by the reader about what the symbols they’re presented with are meant to convey. Most of these decisions are made subconsciously or they’ve effectively been made for us by virtue of the time we’re born into, the language we speak and the abundance of words it has or doesn’t have to represent one thing or another; our socioeconomic status, who and how present our parents are, and on and on and on. For example, and I’ve talked about this before, in English “you” can be plural or singular. Many, many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to follow Jesus are plural. They’re addressed to you all, the church, because following Jesus is so wonderful and so hard that you can’t just do it alone. Yet how many of us grew up reading them as if they were addressed to me, just me, the individual? How many sermons did we who grew up “going to church” hear that reinforced this way of being a “Christian” that in its individualism was probably more “American” than “Christian?”
So then, what are we to make of all this?
Usually in discussions like this I’ll talk about my Luther Seminary days and how one professor in one class was so very helpful. Of course, at first he was decidedly un-helpful as the faith of my youth was torn down time and again by questions like “Jonah- a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” Incidentally, the Jonah story never mentions a whale; it was “a big fish,” but I digress again. In any case, after serving to deeply challenge and even deconstruct quite a bit the faith I grew up with, this prof. very helpfully provided some building blocks for constructing a very different, but hopefully more mature, faith. He suggested that when it comes to the Bible what’s most important are the questions we ask of it. So instead of asking about the Bible questions like “Is it true?” as in “was it factually observable?” or “could I have taken a video of it?” it’s far better to ask about the Bible “what is it for?” The authors of the Bible and especially the Hebrew Scriptures- with their ancient neareastern understanding and cosmology- did not set out, for example, to write a 21st century science textbook. So if some of the stories in the Bible don’t exactly jive with our modern scientific understanding, it’s because they weren’t meant to. That’s not what they’re for. No, what the Bible is for, taken as a whole, is to tell the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, culminating and centered in the person and life of Jesus. Everything in the “big God story” that comes before Christmas is best seen as somehow pointing toward him, and everything that comes after the resurrection can only be understood in light of it. Thus, as Circle of Hope says, “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible” and “the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
The notion of knowing and following the Bible being a group project is integral too. Because all reading is interpretation and language is fraught with so many ontological challenges, we best understand and receive guidance from Scripture when we do it together. One of my pastors, Michael Binder of Mill City Church, talks about this a bit when he discusses whether or not the Bible is trustworthy. He says: “I think the Bible can be trusted because it’s always being translated. In fact, I trust the Bible more because it’s always being translated.” Later, he says: “We have to do the hard work as a community to ask ‘What’s the most faithful interpretation and action based on what we know of God’s story and character and what’s said in the Bible in the midst of a constantly changing cultural setting?’ ” He goes on:
“Our engagement with the Bible becomes more important right now, not less important. One of the reactions to the question of ‘Can I trust the Bible?’ is to say, ‘Well I don’t know if I can so I’m just going to put it on the shelf.’ That’s the opposite reaction we need. We need a whole group of people who are digging into it more and asking better questions about how we faithfully translate that Scripture today. And we all have to do that together. You can’t just pick some experts and have them do it for you.”
“Community then becomes more important, not less important, because we need each other to interpret the Bible well. We have to decide what it is God is calling us to do. I can’t decide that for you. You can’t sit in a room by yourself and read the Bible and decide what you think it means. You can’t. You have to do it with other people because you need their perspective. You need to hear God through them. You have to build trust with people in community. That’s one of the reasons why we need more community in church, not less. We need to fight against the individualistic tendencies that say ‘Just go off and do it by yourself in your own spiritual journey.’ That doesn’t work. So the reasons why we can trust the Bible is 1) the Bible is the means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus, and secondly, because it’s already built to be translated, which means it can adapt and adjust and speak clearly truth into any cultural situation and if we know that then we can enter into discussions and questions about what that really means in any particular time and place and trust that as a community God will reveal it to us, because he always has.”
Thinking of the Bible as being “built” to be translated is helpful to me. Perhaps the crazy convoluted process in which Scripture came together in the form we receive it today is a testament (ha! no pun intended) to why it is trustworthy, not why it’s not. If we remember what the Bible is for- namely, it’s for telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity though the ages culminating in the person of Jesus- (a notion I think Michael affirms in saying “the Bible is a means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus”) then it also bears remembering that this storytelling has always been a group project. It was in the context of a community that the first oral traditions that later became written scripture first evolved. It was within a community that scriptures were copied, edited, and added to as the “big God story” continued on. Letters within Scripture were written to whole communities of believers in various cities, and the story continues to be told today, right at this second on a blog.
Thinking of the Bible as a means to an end also solves another problem. It rescues us from the temptation to resort to “Bibliolatry,” as unfortunately all too many would-be Jesus followers have done. Some Christians are so focused on being “Bible based” and “preaching the Word” that they lose sight of the One of whom the “word” speaks. They lose sight of the living Word, Jesus. They forgot that while the “law” in scripture is useful because it points in the direction of how to have the right relationships God made us for, what’s important are those relationships, not the rules that help us have them well. As I’ve long said using my own personal mantra, “rules are for relationship.” Or as Jesus put it, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Likewise, we’re reminded in scripture that the day will come when God “will put (his) laws in (our) hearts, and (he) will write them on (our) minds.” I’ve talked about this before. So if you ask me why I continue to trust the Bible, I can give you one crucial reason: because it reliably points to Jesus. I trust the Bible to do that. I trust it to point me in the direction of right relationship with Jesus, with those around me, and with God’s good earth. It’s a signpost along “the way” of following Jesus, but ultimately my trust does not fully and finally reside in any text. My trust finds its final home in Jesus himself. In the absence of right relationship with Jesus, the Bible has little value for me.
I’ll be honest. I still have lots of problems with the Bible, at least 20 or so, as noted above. Some of them are mitigated by remembering how the Bible came together and remembering too that what came together was not only a compilation of many different voices separated by language, culture, and time, but also many different genres. Some of what we read in scripture is narrative or prose. Some is poetry. Some is allegorical. Some is apocalyptic, a genre which many interpret as telling the future, but maybe is best understood as telling a hard truth about the present which couldn’t be heard unless it was couched in language that on its face had to with the future, much like the best science fiction today. Thus some of the stories in the Bible are clearly “stories” meant to make a point but not needing to be factually observable to be “true.” Others seem to be intended to be historical accounts, but sometimes it’s just hard to tell which is which.
Our challenges don’t end there, though. Even when it does seem somewhat clear what kind of story we’re reading in Scripture, we’re still faced with the question of what to do with that story. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve sin and a curse is pronounced. Included in that curse are the words “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ ” Remember, those words were first spoken, then written, then fragmented and put back together, then translated many, many times and finally ripped from their historical and cultural context as they were brought to us. The question is still begged, however, does this description of what is (“he will rule over you”) means that it is what should be? Is patriarchy Christian? Many Christians over many years have basically said “yes” to this question and in all too many cases women were oppressed as a result. Some of us hopefully have been smart enough to move away from complementarianism and have taken more egalitarian stances in our marriages, workplaces, and churches. Still, does the Bible give us a “right” answer? What about slavery? Many Christians were on the wrong side of this too, and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible to justify their position. Were they again right to do so according to the text(s)? How about LGBTQ issues today? Or the death penalty? Or abortion? What about war? Or killing and eating animals (yes, you can defend your position on this using Scripture)? My point is that would-be Jesus followers have been all over the map on these issues throughout history, and in most if not all cases, they used the Bible to support their answers. Does this mean that everyone’s right? That no one is? And what do we do when passages seem to contradict themselves? And what weight do we give various passages within the Bible? Are some more important than others? How do we decide? Who gets to decide?
I think what Bart so brazenly and honestly declared he did with Scripture when he was still following Jesus- which I referenced in my last post- is something we all do. He said that he “will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that” didn’t comport with his “first article of faith,” namely “that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.” He also declares just what king of a god he can believe in (at the time), namely one that is “at least as moral as he is.” He starts from there and then moves to scripture to find affirmation of this view. Some would immediately assert that this is wrong, backwards. Are we really so different, though? Remembering that all reading is interpretation, we all bring our assumptions to the Bible, and most of us too often use it as a tool to justify our pre-conceived positions.
All of this only reinforces the need to remember what Scripture is for, namely again telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages. Of course it’s also useful for what it says it is useful for, which is: “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but this is only possible within a community that is willing to do the hard work of ongoing interpretation, together, as together that community does its best to follow Jesus, to ask “what is God up to?” and “how should we respond?” Some Christians will be deeply offended by the paragraph above about Bart’s “first article of faith” (which alludes to universalism) and his approach to Scripture (which some would call brazenly cavalier), and it reminds me of something Bart’s father, Tony Campolo, used to do when he would speak at Christian colleges. He usually said something like this, which I found recorded here:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Obviously (hopefully it’s obvious, anyway) he was being hyperbolic, but his story does what good stories do. It got you to think. It raises questions about justice and rules and begs the questions: “what do we think God really cares about?” and “do we care about those things as much as He does?” So I wonder about those who would be offended by the paragraph above. Are you more offended because Bart believed, with some Scriptural support, that God’s love for humanity would be so, well, loving that it would eventually wear down our resistance to it down to every last man, woman, and child throughout history; or are you more offended that Bart would be honest about discounting some parts of the Bible or ignoring them altogether in favor of others? If the former, I’ll have more to say below. If the latter, is it possible that you’re offended because if you’re at all like me you know that deep down you’re no better? I can certainly agree with him regarding myself, and I have lots of evidence that almost every Christian does this. Many “conservative Christians,” for example, elevate some passages of scripture that touch on immoral habits like drunkenness or promiscuity to the point that they’re quick to judge those who engage in such acts while seeming to utterly ignore how Jesus seemed to interact with those who engaged in such acts. Some such would-be Jesus followers wouldn’t be caught dead with such “sinners,” while Jesus seemed to greatly prefer the company of “sinners” over that of the (self-)”righteous.” Similarly, some “single issue voters” will use abortion as the alleged metric for deciding who to vote for because murder is pretty clearly wrong and life seems to pretty clearly begin at some point in the womb (and as the father of a son born at 24 weeks and 3 days gestation I can unequivocally say my son wasn’t quite cooked enough when he was born but he was certainly my son already and he’s an amazing young man today!). Astoundingly, though, those same single issue “don’t murder” voters seem to have no difficulty supporting war and the death penalty and seem to be unwilling to lift a finger to support the social safety net and living wages and universal healthcare and early education/intervention opportunities, all of which can have a dramatic impact on continuing the already downward trend in abortion rates. And you know what? They can use scripture to defend some of those positions.
Speaking of scripture, or more accurately, some people’s interpretation of it, I started writing these two posts and spent much of the last one talking about Bart and his repudiation of faith for a reason. Actually, and importantly, my recent post with all the Kingdomworks pictures is related too. You see, there was an interesting, if not strange, confluence of events that happened lately. It started when I discovered that my old KW team-mate Holly is actually kind of famous.
Holly and I had been in touch a little in the year after KW and then again haltingly some time after that, but then we fell out of contact as was the case for all my other team members save for my friend Dean. It was a surprise to suddenly find Holly again and also find that she’s something of a star in the improv circuit, to the point where she made the main stage at Second City and even auditioned for Lorne Michaels at SNL. I’m super proud of her and gratified by her success, and because of it all and because of her presence on YouTube and other sites I was able to hear, in her own words, a little about her journey. Most poignantly, though, and part of how this all came to a head for me is that Bart interviewed her I think for over an hour on his podcast about humanism. Perhaps it goes without saying that like Bart, Holly no longer considers herself a Jesus-follower.
It’s probably worth noting that after doing KW Holly spent a long time, maybe as much as a decade, supporting her night-time work learning and training in improv by working during the day for Willow Creek, smack dab in the belly of the beast of modern-day Christendom (which, if you know me or have read this blog, you know that “Christendom” stands for everything the church should not). I don’t meant to judge (much). I’m sure there are many well-meaning would-be Jesus followers who form wonderful relationships and maybe even serve the poor in meaningful ways by virtue of their being a part of Willow Creek. But what do you have to give up to get that goodness? I can only imagine how mind-numbing and soul-sucking it was to produce dramatic experiences for rich white suburban Chicago Willow Creek kids and their parents, which I think is somewhat close to what Holly was doing for them. I can only guess it was especially soul-sucking for Holly, who famously wrote me after Kingdomworks and said this:
If you can’t make it out, it says: “…at present I desire to high tail it back the where we belong. Back on the street, where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
I can’t help but suspect there was a lot of sweat involved in serving Willow Creek kids and their parents, but not a lot of purpose. I’m not mad at Holly. I have no right to be and no place in her life now, and I recognize that her journey is her journey. I don’t judge it, or her. I can’t say that I’m emotion-less about it all, though. I feel….wistful, a bit melancholy I suppose. If you know me, you know I’ve been “mildly depressed” for most of my life; so this is not something new for me. It is…different, though. I guess as I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years in many ways trying to recreate my KW experience by moving to Philly (twice!) and working in social service and in the foster care system for some years and then with disadvantaged kids in education for the better part of a decade, through all of that I felt like I was trying to get “back to where I belong,” and it was comforting to know I may not be the only one. Perhaps I digress.
So….that happened. Then, in spending a little more time on my dear friend Bart’s website than I had of late, I came across his podcast where he interviewed his very introverted wife Marty, whom I hardly know but had the pleasure to meet a few times and was welcomed into their home once. Anyway, the subject of their talk was them wrestling with the notion that they (atheists) have gone “too easy” on Christianity (they’re careful to say not too easy on Christians, but I suppose the “institution” of Christianity, to be sure), particularly in regard to the generally-accepted-by-many-Christians doctrine regarding hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment for much of humanity throughout history, including perhaps your friends, neighbors, and loved ones. So, first I realized Holly was semi-famous but not following Jesus anymore, then that Bart had recorded a conversation of over an hour with her that touched in part on the summer that Holly and I shared doing Bart’s program, KW; then I discovered Bart’s conversation with Marty that delved deeply into this question of whether or not Christianity as an institution in the world had done great harm by espousing and inculcating many young minds with this palpable fear that they will suffer eternal torment if they don’t “believe the things and say the things” about Jesus. Thus, Bart wondered if not only had Christianity done great harm but also could rightly be accused of literally abusing the children that grew up believing this. Marty talks a little about her experience growing up believing this. I can certainly relate, and I know my wife, Kirsten, can as well. I’ve often talked about “fire insurance” Christianity and rejected it wholesale for all the reasons I’ve already said, but hearing it put in these terms was perhaps appropriately challenging.
So let me be clear again. Much as Bart did with his embrace of universalism before deciding not to follow Jesus, I reject, outright, the idea that God will eternally torment in a pit of fire anyone that doesn’t “believe the things and say the things” for whatever reason. As I’ve said before, Bart can tell his own story far better than I and he has and continues to do so, but I would like to suggest that to whatever extent he rejected Jesus because of this notion that God would cause his children to suffer forever, whatever the justification; this need not have been so. I know many Christians over many years have supported this idea with words from the Bible and whole generations have grown up taking this idea of hell as “gospel truth.” I remain convinced that they’re wrong, for several reasons.
First of all, as I said here a couple of years ago while wrestling with some of these same questions (including conversing a bit with the same writings by Bart that I have continued to wrestle with in these more recent posts), I defer to Rod White of Circle of Hope, who writes the following here:
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”
I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).
“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).
Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.
I added in that post from a couple of years ago:
Thus, as Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.” So God persistently, stubbornly, despite it being a “long and difficult task” in Bart’s words, works to overcome evil, respecting our freedom all along the way to choose to join him or not. When, in the end, whenever and however that comes, we finally choose not to join him in that task, God respects that choice too and in his mercy permits us to “get ourselves without God,” which is death/nonexistence.
To my theological imagination, this makes perfect sense. If it is in Christ that “all things hold together,” and sin is separation, then eventually those who resist to the end God’s goodness and grace and refuse to accept his invitation into right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world will then experience final separation from God, which means no longer “holding together,” no longer being. This is a final end/death. Think of babies who die tragically from “failure to thrive,” from a lack of loving touch and of human kindness. We were so obviously made in and for love that it’s hard to imagine how we could go on existing in any place where there was fully and finally none of it. If it were possible, that place would be hellish indeed.
This is what Michael Binder suggests in another of his sermons to Mill City Church. If you go here and scroll all the way down you’ll eventually see a sermon titled “The Separation of Hell” by Michael Binder from 5/2/10. Before echoing many of the larger points I’ve just made, he starts by sharing a bit of pop theology on hell from Seinfeld:
Then he moves on to his sermon proper, using the story of the “rich man” and Lazarus from Luke 16:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
His sermon is worth a listen, but some of what he gets at is that first of all this is not a story necessarily about hell. It’s a story about money. Just a few verses before Jesus had given his oft-quoted statement on money: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The passage then adds: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.15 He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’ “
In a culture where health and wealth were regarded as rewards from God and conversely sickness and poverty were seen as judgment, Michael says Jesus preached the coming of a kingdom that was radically different. He says: “In a place were God is king, no one gets to lie in the filth with untreated sores, hungry. That doesn’t happen in God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying, ‘You don’t understand; the wealth you were given, it’s meant to help that guy; it’s meant to bless this person who’s having a terrible time and needs someone to aid him’.” Thus Jesus was preaching something radically different from the accepted practice of the day, though this should not have been the case, as way back in Genesis 12, speaking to Abram, God had made clear that God’s people were “blessed to be a blessing:”
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.[a] 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Somehow the message hadn’t stuck; so Jesus uses this story from Luke to make the point. Michael adds, “This person (the nameless rich man, whom the Pharisees and teachers of the law are meant to identify with) is justifying their lifestyle, justifying their lack of action, lack of help for this person with their religious beliefs. Nothing makes Jesus more angry than the people who are in charge of religion saying that not only do I not acknowledge this (poor) person, but I have no obligation to help them.”
Michael says that one of the most remarkable things about this passage is that the rich man, when he can communicate with Lazarus, doesn’t ask to be rescued, to be taken from that hellish place as you or I might have thought to request. Instead, he asks that Lazarus, a man who when each of them were still alive was clearly in a much lower class than he, be sent essentially to serve him, to “increase his comfort level,” as Michael said. Thus, even in a hellish place, the rich man is so locked into his selfish ways that he seems unable to even conceive of the steps necessary to change. By this time in the rich man’s story he’s so trapped in his self-centered way of being that it doesn’t even occur to him to humbly ask for rescue. Thus, Michael says, it’s this text that have led C.S. Lewis and others to conclude that “hell is locked from the inside,” not the outside. I’m reminded again of the The Great Divorce.
That said, though this passage is much more about money than hell, Michael goes on a little to explore the two main words used in the New Testament for hell: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, Michael says, comes from the “Greco-Roman” world and just means “the underworld, the afterlife, the place of the dead; and it often means a place that you can’t escape, and it can be a place of punishment.” Michael adds that:
Gehenna was referring to a valley that was out behind Jerusalem, and this is where a lot of the imagery of fire, and burning, and torture (regarding hell) comes from. The south side of Jerusalem had this big valley and that’s where Jerusalem would dump all their trash…and they burned it…and so there was this constant burning in this valley going (on) behind Jerusalem and there would have been worms and maggots and things eating up all the trash that was in there.
Even worse, says Michael, in one of the worst periods of Israel’s history two of her kings sacrificed their sons there, in Gehenna, to the god Molech, and afterwards the valley was considered cursed. So this is known imagery. Michael then concludes: “At times I think people reject the idea of hell because they don’t like this caricature of a fiery burning place and like I said most scholars think this was a metaphorical piece, but what’s frustrating to me,” Michael goes on, “is that somehow when people hear that….that’s comforting to them; it’s consoling to think, ‘well, maybe there really isn’t a fiery hell’.” “No,” Michael says, “no there probably isn’t a fiery hell; there’s something much worse than that. There’s something far worse than burning for all eternity; there’s a place completely absent of God’s presence…completely absent of love…” I’m still not sure that we could exist in any place devoid fully and finally of love, but I pray I’ll never have to find out.
Either way, God isn’t a cosmic child abuser. He didn’t kill his son to satisfy some perverse system of justice that we could never adhere to. God is love. God loves us enough to make us free, and in our freedom we have fallen short of loving him and one another as we should. That leaves us isolated, alone, separated from God and one another. God still loves us, though, and so rescues us, even though bridging the gap between us requires him to traverse death itself, because any place without love, without God, is necessarily a place without life. We can choose to receive this free gift, this offer of rescue, of the restoration of the right, loving relationships we were made for. Or, I suppose, we can choose not to. If so, God doesn’t vindictively torment us forever. Instead, as Volf said above, those who continue to resist God’s love right to the very end, “…get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.”
I should begin to close with the words of another mentor in my life that I’ve mentioned before, Duane Crabbs. Duane once responded to an email thread I forwarded him that contained some theological arguments about some of the big questions I’ve been wrestling with above. He answered me by saying:
I have little or no interest in debating beliefs/opinions with anyone, even about ultimate matters like suffering. As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated, dare I say re-incarnated. I don’t think God will give us the grace to intellectualy figure out suffering and its causes. I do know he offers every one of us the grace sufficient to bear our own suffering and to enter into the suffering of others!
Wow! As usual, I think Duane is right, and again I think the church has done the world a great disservice for quite some time now. We abstracted a personal (but communal and relational) faith and reduced it to “believing the (right) things and saying the (right) things” about Jesus. We made it about lending intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and checking all the right boxes on a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s. Thus, an intellectual, moralistic faith leads to intellectual problems that only a personal (but communal and relational) God can solve. As Bart said, it doesn’t matter quite as much why I started following Jesus; it matters why I’m still trying to. And so again I will echo Bart when he said:
I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.
I too think following Jesus is the best kind of life. Though I am so very much a work in progress, I am being transformed by the gospel right here and right now. I’ve known love deep in my soul in a way that I can’t explain, but I’ve felt it well up inside me and overflow with love for those around me that simply defies any other explanation. My heart continues to break for “all the poor and powerless, for all the lost and lonely,” not because I’m a swell guy, but because the King of the universe reigns in my heart, and he won’t quit until the beloved community he dreams of, the new humanity he’s creating, is a reality for every last one of us, if we’ll have it.
I think Bart’s right, by the way. To whatever extent “Christianity” terrifies little kids into saying a magic prayer so that a vengeful god won’t torment them forever in a fiery pit, it is an evil in the world. I don’t think that has much to do with following Jesus, though, and I pray the day comes when enough of us follow Jesus closely enough that such a caricature loses its potency. In the meantime I’ll keep plumbing the depths of God’s love for me and doing my best to love those around me well enough that they want to jump in and experience it too. And who knows? Maybe Bart and Holly will join me again some day. After all, the arc of our lives may be long, but I suspect it bends towards Jesus, because Jesus is love, and love is what we were made for.
We were out on a hike yesterday in our old N. Minneapolis neighborhood. There’s an amazing trail there through the North Mississipi Regional Park. As we entered the Webber Park portion of the trail, which is across from our old apartment building, we came across this bridge where local artists had obviously been encouraged to decorate the bridge with positive words and images. Here are some pictures of the bridge and those words/images:
It’s a pretty cool bridge, encouraging us to “work to save planet earth” and to “imagine peace.” One panel, a larger view of which is at the top of this post, also has the words “community” and “one love.” Those who know me know that the pursuit of (meaningful and sometimes “intentional,” even occasionally “Christian”) community has been an enormous part of my adult life. I’ve written about this pursuit frequently on this blog before, but several formative experiences have served to root this ideal at the center of my yearnings for the kind of life I want to be a part of. I suppose my first experience of (something like) “real” community occurred as an undergraduate at Gordon College. This continued in a hyper intense setting during my Kingdomworks experience, and then, not much more than a year later, was cemented as I was immersed as a newlywed in the just started Circle of Hope.
It was through the teaching and more importantly, the experience of community through Circle of Hope that I first came to understand that the Christian life is a communal one, or it is no life at all. Shane Claiborne, peripherally connected to Circle of Hope in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly since its early days, would later pose the question in his seminal book, The Irresistible Revolution, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” It’s a basic, but powerful query that distills much of what I now strive for as someone who purports to follow Jesus. At 41, I’ve come to believe that I no longer have time to “mess around.” If following Jesus won’t make much of a difference to me as I live my life, much less to anyone else, I’m not interested because it’s simply too hard. And the thing is, I want it to be hard. I wrote about this years ago in both my undergraduate and graduate thesis, but it’s hard to put the energy into doing something that isn’t perceived as being worthwhile, and part of the perception of worth is wrapped up in notions of difficulty. I would hope I’m not naive or reductive enough to think that any hard thing is a thing worth doing; obviously there’s a little more to it than that. But if Jesus “really meant what he said,” what a life we’ve been invited to participate in and help create!
Jesus inaugurated his ministry by declaring the fulfillment of the proclamation of “good news to the poor.. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” of setting “the oppressed free” and of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this election year especially but in every year, who wouldn’t want good news for the poor to be a reality? Aside from the powerful corporations and politicians that benefit from the prison-industrial complex, who wouldn’t want prisoners and the oppressed in USAmerica and around the world to be set free? Who doesn’t want to see the blind recover their sight? This is a political platform and agenda for life that I can get behind. This is, of course, all about reconciliation. It’s about reconciling and pursuing right relationship not only with God but with one another and with the beautiful world God made. It’s about right relationship within our own broken hearts, with our own fractured selves. Thus, Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation, but this is a profoundly difficult task, and it was the experience of Christian community through Circle of Hope that taught me that in no small part because this is such a difficult task, it’s one that can only truly be undertaken together. As I came to learn, all those “you’s” in the Bible that address how we are to live as Jesus followers are largely plural; they’re addressed, to you, the community of Christ followers. If we are to have any hope of living a life devoted to delivering (tangible, practical) real good news for the poor and imprisoned and oppressed and blind in the world; if we are to have any real hope of living a reconciled life, we must attempt it together, because we need each other.
We need each other to resist the temptation to pursue the American dream. It’s an enticing dream, after all, one that has captivated the imagination of large swaths of the world. It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination can get you every(material)thing you want out of life. It’s tempting to think that material things are the best of what can be had in life, and even simply that having is what life is about. To the extent that the “American dream” (not to mention the USAmerican economy) whatever it once might have been or been about, has now been reduced to one centered on consumption and the acquisition of goods, it can rightly be said to be more of a nightmare. Don’t we all know by now that “money can’t buy you love,” after all, and isn’t love what we really want? Love requires work, though, and involves reconciliation. Thus, “stuff” can often be a tempting, if unsatisfying, substitute. The “American dream” is more of a nightmare, however, for many other reasons, including notably that it’s simply unsustainable. It’s not possible for all the world to live like middle class USAmericans, we who consume such disproportionate amounts of the world’s resources. The planet is already damaged, perhaps irreversibly so, now, in large part due to our exploitation of its resources so that we can afford our middle class lifestyle. If everyone lived as we do, there would be nothing left. I believe at some level the most powerful in our society know this, and care not a whit. So long as some can achieve this way of life, though largely as a result of the circumstances of their birth (too customarily as white USAmericans), then the allure of the “dream” can continue to be held out as a hope for all both here and abroad. Thus the system is perpetuated with a few (we white middle class USAmericans, largely) benefiting a little and fewer still (the much talked about “1%”) benefiting a lot, to the detriment of everyone else.
And yet even I find this “dream” all too captivating much of the time. Absent a community of like-minded (and “Spirited,” dare I say) Christ followers around me to help me live the life I know I’m called to- a life marked by the pursuit of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed, in short, a reconciled life- I fall too easily into the pursuit of that lesser “dream.” My Amazon cart is full of “saved for later” items I’m ready to purchase the moment I can, and for good measure I even have an Amazon “wish list” of (high-minded, how ironic) books I’d add to my cart and would buy if I could as well. The Ikea catalog adorns my bathroom shelf above the toilet, and I spent much of this past Sunday morning communing not with God and his church but with my own consumptive desires as I refined the list of items I want to buy when I can. This is the life the corporations that run our (consumption based) economy and largely our “democracy” want me to live. They even know I’m on to them and I suspect without a hint of irony play into this meager self-knowledge by subtitling that Ikea catalog with the words “designed for people, not consumers.” It’s only people-as-consumers that buy their products and keep them in business, however; so let’s be honest.
In my heart of hearts, though, I know I don’t want to merely consume; I want to commune. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want my life to matter to myself and, if it’s not too much to hope, to others, to the world. So we need each other to resist the promise of the lie that consumption brings happiness. We need each other too simply to do the work of a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. is rife with racial strife that has bubbled to the surface of the consciousness of white America. As I understand it as a white person, for people of color, that strife has always been at the surface because they’re daily confronted with the stress of institutional racism and oppression. It is only my privilege that literally affords me the opportunity not to think about this injustice on a daily basis, if I choose (not) to. Racial reconciliation, then, and the hard work of deconstructing racism and my own white privilege, is obviously very, very hard work. As W.E.B. Dubois said at the outset of the last century, “The problem of the…century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s likely true that this is no less the case for the 21st century than it was for the 20th, despite whatever progress may have been made in the last century. Again, we need each other to do this work.
I could go on, but I think the basic point has been made. As someone who wants to follow Jesus I believe that I and that all of us were made in and for love. We were created to exist in loving, right relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s good created order, the world. We are our best selves, I believe, when we live life with and for those around us, when we choose to serve one another, to esteem the other as better than ourselves, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” My family and I have experienced this type of community (or at least the meaningful, dedicated pursuit of it) most fully when we’ve been part of a larger faith community that puts this idea of love and peace with justice at the center of its understanding of what it means to have Jesus at the center of its identity. We hope to experience such community again soon, and will redouble our efforts to work at bringing it about.