(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)
I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:
Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?
All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:
This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:
To The Third and Fourth Generation
I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:
“Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
“…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
“There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
“I was raised to be…perfect…”
She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”
So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.
Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.
‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’
I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.
Another Questionable Death
My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:
In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:
-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents. -Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children. -Obedience makes a child strong. -The body is something dirty and disgusting. -Strong feelings are harmful. -Parents are always right. -Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt. -Duty produces love. -A high degree of self-esteem is harmful. -A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic. -Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life. -A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude. -The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel. -Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)
Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.
It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle
So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.
So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”
It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.
In many ways, we are on the “apostolic edge” these days. I mean we are moving with Jesus into new territory, something like Paul, the Apostle (the “sent one”) telling the Romans: “I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.”
The post continues:
I think Paul’s idea is this: wherever he goes, Jesus is already there. He is just working with Jesus to make him known. We “name” what people already experience as the presence of God. Sometimes we do it in words. Sometimes we do it just by showing up as individuals and as a community who can be seen, known, and loved. There are many edges of our territory (the place we know, the place we have come to so far) where we border a place where Jesus is not named, yet. That’s an “apostolic edge.” And there are no walls on our border!
Extending the Table of Our Dialogue to Unexpected Places, in Unexpected Ways
The pandemic has extended that “edge” perhaps further than anyone might have imagined. Many churches are doing as much as they can online these days because of the pandemic, and we as Circle of Hope are no different. People are finding our YouTube channel and meeting us there, sometimes for the very first time. Our Sunday Meetings are online, for now, and we offer other opportunities for worship, learning, and connection throughout the week, because “Sundays aren’t enough.” The Circle of Hope pastors have a podcast called Resist and Restore, and it usually begins with them saying that they’re “extending the table of our dialogue” all the way to wherever each of us are listening. In my case, that dialogue extends all the way to Minnesota, and through the online “dispersed” cell I lead of people all over the country, it extends further to Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Here’s a picture of a map I made of where people in my cell live:
Speaking of cell groups, as Circle of Hope our primary point of connection is and always has been through our cells– our small groups of ten or so in which “Jesus is the only agenda.” Cells are not a program we offer in some kind of transactional way. We try not to be transactional, and we don’t really offer programs. As we say in our proverbs, “The church is not a ‘thing’ that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.” So cells are something else entirely. Again, as you can read in our proverbs:
– Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our “agenda.” – Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.
Our pastors have been saying that our church was made “for such a time as this.” Because of COVID, in-person gatherings remain unwise, though the vaccines give us hope that may change soon if the country can get enough people vaccinated before the virus variants take hold. This inability to gather in person is a challenge for most churches, especially those program-based churches whose life is centered on a building and what happens in it. Circle of Hope has buildings too and they offer much to the communities in which they are rooted, but they are not the center of our life together. Being a cell-based church, we could exist without buildings and would still be able to connect with one another, be who we are, and do what we have been given to do. If Jesus is the lifeblood of our church, maybe cells are the arteries that bring that life to all the parts of our body. They’re certainly the way that our body grows, and this is still happening during COVID, even though cells are for the most part meeting over Zoom or other virtual platforms. What a blessing that we aren’t having to pivot away from a program-based, transactional way of “doing church” in a building in order to try something new during the pandemic. We are trying some new things, but we already know how to be the church together in an unprogrammed way outside of a building. Thank God!
Not Just Where to Be, but Who To Be
When my wife and I rejoined Circle’s covenant from all the way in MN in the fall last year, our pastor Jonny said we were out here on Circle’s apostolic edge. Since then, we’ve been working through what that means for us. One thing it has meant is that we’ve felt a real tension between the physical space we occupy in the Upper Midwest, and the life we’re experiencing together with the rest of Circle of Hope in Philadelphia. Right now most meetings are happening online, but what will it look like when in person gatherings are possible again? So we’ve felt a real yearning to also be physically present with the rest of our Circle of Hope family in Philly, and as I wrote in my last post, we’ve been discerning what to do about that. This discernment has been about where to live, sure, but also about what kind of people we want to be, wherever we might live. I think in short that we want to be “Circle of Hope people.” We want to be Jesus-centered. We want to live into alternativity as we embrace life together, immersed in Circle’s cell-planting movement. I’ve long talked about following Jesus by resisting capitalism, violence, and individualism, and Circle has held space for that kind of life for far longer than I’ve been talking about it. It’s no wonder then that we’ve reconnected with Circle during the pandemic, and we are very, very grateful. Likewise, it’s no wonder that we feel drawn to be back in Philly again with the rest of Circle of Hope, and have been actively discerning about making such a move.
So as I mentioned, my last post dealt with this discernment process we’ve been engaged in. A move back to Philly would be our third such move as a married couple, first one as a family with kids, and fourth one for me individually. I said in that post that we were approaching this decision in very uncharacteristic fashion, that is slowly and hopefully in a more communal way, with conversation partners beyond ourselves. We know that when we do almost anything by ourselves, we often do worse than if we had acted in community. We are made for community after all. We are made for mutuality, and as Jesus-followers, for being the church together. Our lives are not our own. We belong to each other, and to Jesus. So we didn’t want our decision making process about moving back to Philly to be driven by the same old impulses, impulses rooted in trauma, individualism, scarcity, and need. Instead, if being in physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope in Philly again represents a move toward the community that we are made for, we wanted our steps leading up to such a move to be rooted in community too. Our conversation partners have been very helpful in this regard, and we are grateful to them. Along the way I’ve realized, with the help of the writing of Richard Rohr and others, that I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion. So I began to wonder what a “second half of life” approach to this decision might be, and that led me to ask questions like, “Is there a gift God might have for us in this? Might moving to Philly and the physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope that such a move would afford be such a gift?” I realized then that holding space for these kinds of questions might be the fertile soil in which an answer might grow, if well tended, like a garden. Notice I said an answer, not the (“right”) answer.
When the Time is Ripe, We Hope We Are Too
And over time, an answer has emerged. The truth is that we do feel called to be in Philly, physically close to the rest of Circle of Hope. We’ve already made covenant with Circle again. Circle of Hope is our church. They are our people, and we want to be near them. We are “Circle of Hope people” already. So the only thing questionable for us about moving to Philly is when to make our move, not if. We’ve also thought about our desire to get as “small” as we can, to live in a way that outwardly reflects our stated values of generosity, sharing, simplicity, and abundance. This was especially salient because we had an opportunity this coming summer to rent a Philadelphia house that dear friends of ours own. This possibility made abstract thoughts about making this big move very real and concrete. Our friends’ house is in a neighborhood that is much less affluent than the one we currently live in here in MN, and not coincidentally, much less “white” as well. We’ve talked for a while about wanting to be in solidarity with those that live on the underside of our privilege, and we’ve known that solidarity requires proximity. So moving not just back to Philly, but particularly to our friends’ house in Philly, presented us with a rare chance to really live like we say we mean to. We began imagining what our life would be like there, in that neighborhood. I think we hoped to occupy that “small” space in, as much as we could, a “small” way. We would want to be there hopefully just to love and be loved by those around us there as we do life together as neighbors. We would hope to be humble there, not imagining ourselves to be “white saviors,” but simply desiring to learn from our neighbors and share in their lives.
This begged some questions, though. After all, we have neighbors right here. We’ve cultivated relationship with a few of them and with one in particular it might be said that there’s an extent to which we’re “doing life” together, but there are others that, truth be told, we don’t like very much, and probably more than a few around us that if we knew them at all we might feel similarly toward. We’ve experienced some of our current neighbors to not be very welcoming to people who aren’t “white.” We’ve seen a Trump sign or two around. We might even go so far as to unintentionally categorize some of our current neighbors as “enemies.” Again, this begs questions:
Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?
How can we move into a poor Black neighborhood in order to love and be loved by our neighbors there- who would be different from us in many, many ways- when we can’t or won’t love our actual, mostly “white” neighbors right here and right now, simply because we might hope that we’re somehow different from them? In other words, we have to wonder how wise it would be to move into a poor Black neighborhood in Philly as what you might call “failed” Minnesota suburbanites. We regularly hear Black folks telling “white” people who want to do anti-racism work to basically get their own house in order. Learn their history. Talk to their own people. So we had to wrestle with whether or not we might be skipping out on the work we have to do right here, right now- work that generally speaking Black folks are asking “white” folks to do, because we prefer to do what might seem to be more glamorous work, but which we aren’t actually being asked to do.
The truth is, there’s an extent to which we may not like some of our neighbors here because they look and act like us, and we may not like ourselves here very much. Wouldn’t it be wise, then, to learn to love and accept ourselves, wherever we happen to be now, in all our belovedness, and then out of the wellspring of that love, move to where we feel called, to be close to our loved ones there?
So, then, if we want to get to Philly at some point and be loving neighbors to whoever is around us, we know we have urgent work to do in preparation for that now. Like it or not, we need to work on loving these neighbors here, especially if we don’t like some of them. If we think in a close-knit rowhouse community in Philly we might share resources and live in a genuinely neighborly way, why don’t we start practicing that now with our real neighbors here instead of holding out for our imagined ones there? So, we’ve decided to embrace the good gifts God is already giving us. Thanks to the accelerated use of video technology and other online tools brought on by this terrible pandemic, we are already living a deeply connected life as part of Circle of Hope now, right where we are in MN. We are covenant members, and are in a cell which I am grateful to lead. We share resources, even from a physical distance. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel like I’m “in” the Circle of Hope, centered on Jesus, and for this I am grateful. I and my family want to be geographically close enough to share more deeply “in real life” when the time is right, but for now we are resolved to keep learning, practicing, and preparing for that time, whenever it may be. Perhaps the time will be ripe for moving back to Philly in a couple of years, when our oldest son graduates high school. We hope that by then we will be “ripe” for such a move too, as we continue to develop and grow. For now, we are glad to be on Circle of Hope’s apostolic edge, living as Circle of Hope people right where we are. Who knows what God might do with our continued presence here and what seeds might be planted as we hold space here. Maybe something beautiful will grow. That would be pretty edgy.
I got word this morning that my brother in Texas was in cardiac arrest. From what I had heard, he had been having a rough go of it of late. He had struggled with his health for quite a few years. He suffered a stroke some years ago that may have changed his personality some. He had been diagnosed some time ago with the kidney disease that killed his mother (we’re half brothers) and had received a transplant as a result, but that left him immuno-compromised. More recently, he’d been in a very bad car accident that required surgery, a lengthy hospital stay, and rehab. While hospitalized, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then got COVID. He apparently recovered from COVID and was in a rehab facility trying to build his strength back and was preparing for radiation and chemo for the cancer. Over the past few days, I’m told he was in a great deal of pain, though, and then this morning his heart stopped. Word was that he probably “wouldn’t make it.”
Over the coming days I’ll try to do the work of processing, of feeling what I feel, of grieving. Our relationship, such as it was, was nearly non-existent. My mother, of course, was the woman our dad married very soon after his mother died, and my mother was not only my abuser, but I’m sure in ways I probably can’t understand, his too, though he was nearly done with high school by the time his mom died and my parents married. My brother and I disagreed about most everything, and I wrote about our difficult relationship here. As I look back on that post, I’m sure that I was less charitable than I could and probably should have been. I said that however I thought of him, I knew I needed to love him. I wrote about his less than stellar health and how I would process our relationship when he died. It seems that day has come.
I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.
This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.
This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.
You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.
It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.
I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”
This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.
I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.
Note: I wrote this post almost four-and-a-half years ago. I was reminded of it the other day, and find that it’s as relevant as ever as Christmas in this pandemic year fast approaches. These days, I’m still choosing between consumption and community, between Mammon/Mars and Jesus. I’d like to think I’ll finally make my choice for good (no pun intended) and be done with it, but that may not be how it works. I suppose some days we’re more faithful, and some days less so. Thank God there’s very little, my own fate least of all, that’s really finally up to me. Meanwhile, beloved community beckons like a song, and a song rises in my heart in response. Together, may we join the heavenly chorus, the same chorus that greeted those shepherds so long ago to announce to the world that peace had finally come to earth. Peace be with you and yours this Christmas.
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.
I had intended for my next post to be about chapter 1 of Romans Disarmed. That post is still percolating in my brain somewhere, but I’m writing instead about my latest adventure in EMDR, the trauma therapy I’ve recently restarted in earnest, though now I’m doing it remotely. Trauma therapy, perhaps like all therapy, is interesting no doubt for many reasons, but one of them is just how repetitive it seems to be: “Really, we’re talking about this again?” “How is it even possible that I’m still dealing with that, all these years later, and after all the work I thought I’d done?”
Scorekeeping Produces a Loser
My most recent session was informed by how triggered I got this past weekend. It’s an age-old dance in my life and marriage, my struggle to live into my best self as a full and equal partner to my longsuffering spouse regarding how we divvy up our many household responsibilities. We try not to keep score, but I suspect she and I both know if we did I would lose, handily. It’s not that I don’t pitch in (and here’s where I would recite all the things I do do in a mostly conscious effort to balance the ledger, but you probably don’t want to read that, and I don’t want to write it). The fact is I could work from dawn to dusk on innumerable projects that better our life together as a family, and it would matter not a whit for one unavoidable reason- my wife has specifically asked me to share equally in certain household tasks as best I can- and obviously the “right” thing to do is to say yes, mean it, and follow through.
So why can’t I seem to consistently do this, two-and-a-half decades in? Of course, again, it’s not about the work. What often happens is I’ll often avoid those very specific tasks by instead taking on big projects that everyone benefits from, including my wife. Those projects often (but not always) involve more work, at least in the short run. And I’m keenly aware of our patriarchal and chauvinistic society and the ways that I continue to benefit from it; so I certainly don’t want or mean to perpetuate those stereotypes in my home, nor model it for my boys. No, there’s clearly something else going on. The truth is that these again very specific household duties invariably produce in me emotional flashbacks to the trauma of my youth. The mere thought of them can send my heart racing and make me flighty, and those thoughts- those neural pathways- are well-entrenched and hard to avoid.
That is, of course, the work of EMDR- not avoiding per se those entrenched, maladaptive pathways, but feeling what needs to be felt about the original trauma so that the brain scarring might heal, and then building some new pathways, a “workaround” to the damaged tracks that were laid. At least that’s how I understand EMDR these days. I have some vague memory of how my mother related to me over these very same household tasks when I was a kid: demanding that I do them from a young age while never lifting a finger to do any of it herself and then micro-managing, controlling, and second-guessing me every step of the way, eventually resorting to rage and screaming at me when invariably I didn’t get it right.
It’s funny (or not); I just said “right.” I’m right-handed, and here’s what virtual EMDR looks like these days. Instead of sitting in my clinician’s office with paddles in my hands that alternately buzz to stimulate each side of my brain (how EMDR works, and my preferred method for doing it- the paddles, I mean), I hear a “buzz” in my headphones during our virtual session as I sit with my arms crossed over my chest and alternately pat each arm, synced to the audible buzz. Today we were processing the time around my own conception, and I noticed along the way that the pattern with which I was patting my arms just felt wrong. I knew instinctively that I wasn’t doing it right, and ironically the “problem” was that I had starting patting my arm with my left hand and then was alternating from there. I stopped and started over with my right hand first, and it was better. Now, your guess as to what this means is as good as mine, but this was mine: I needed to start with my right hand because part of my entrenched trauma response is a perpetual effort to get everything “right.” It was simply too dangerous in the home of my youth to get something wrong, and I carry that felt sense of potential danger lurking behind every mistake around with me to this day, every minute of every day.
A Tiring Story
That wasn’t even the big revelation for today, though. Today’s big revelation was a feeling: resentment. It used to be that I could tell my story with all of its trauma and all the drama and get some sense of relief from doing so, some validation for my resilience and survival. For a while though, now, that has no longer been the case. Mostly now my story just makes me tired. I’m tired of hearing myself talk about it, tired of looking for external validation from every new person to hear it, tired of having to carry it around. It’s probably no coincidence that I’m tired generally– always tired, bone-crushingly so, but almost never restful. I do suffer from Complex PTSD after all. Take, for example, the graph of my sleep last night from my sleep app:
Now, I will admit that not every night is quite as bad as last night, but a night like this is not unheard of. Sometimes there’s a lot more green indicating restful sleep, but usually with frequent yellow restless interludes showing that rest just doesn’t seem to be very sustainable for me.
So during my most recent EMDR session when I became aware that I was feeling resentful about my own story, the story I was born into, I described myself moving from feeling “clenched” to feeling collapsed. At the time of my conception and ever since, there is a (metaphorical, maybe) sense in which I’ve always been clenched, knowing that pain is coming, and doing my best to endure it, to survive. So apparently I resent being born into trauma, and knowing that my very existence is evidence of the trauma of others. I’ve recounted elsewhere on this blog about my parents marrying very shortly after my dad’s first wife died, and my mother being a trauma survivor in her own right, having endured even worse trauma than she inflicted on me, and how her entrance into my dad’s existing family (in which he had three kids already) utterly devastated that family and sent the lives of my half-siblings on trajectories that they would not have chosen for themselves, certainly. Objectively, of course their lives would have been better had their mom lived, and if she had, I would not exist. I’ve known and wrestled with that for some time. In my most recent EMDR session, though, I realized that (shocker!) I have a feeling about this (aside from longstanding guilt)- I resent it. It probably makes me angry too, but I think the resentment is deeper. Realizing this, I felt a little less clinched, and moved to collapse from all the effort. Fatigue washed over me yet again, and I’m sitting with it today.
Plan to Fail
This being the season of Advent, an Advent unlike any other in my living memory at least, and one in which Circle of Hope is leaning into lament as an alternative to despair, I’m tempted to end on a hopeful note. I realized the other day that lament is a move toward hope, while despair is a move in the other direction. I’m not sure if I can make that move just yet, but I suppose it’s good that (with some therapeutic help) at least I came up with a plan for the next time I’m confronted with the need to engage in common household duties that sustain our life together and make me a good partner in it. In short, I plan to fail. I know with the wisdom of experience that I’m going to get it “wrong.” I’ll feel agitated. I may be tempted to metaphorically if not literally run. That’s okay. Feelings are just…feelings. They’re weather on the mountain. They’ll pass. I’ll try to build in some time to freak out about what I know I need to do, and I’ll try to do it quietly, and once I’m done, I’ll get to work. That’s the plan, anyway.
I write as Pandora’s algorithms serve up a bittersweet tune on my “Christmas Choral Classics” station. I wonder what previous likes or dislikes, my input to the algorithm, has led to this outcome. The tune is instrumental. Maybe I am too. How much of my writing on this blog, intermittent and streaky as it may be, is marked by music? If I could write music, I would. If someone would teach me to play the guitar that sits idly in my bedroom, I might never put it down. Writing is in my blood, but who’s to say what my best expression of it might be? If I live long enough, maybe I’ll discover that I’m a songwriter. Wouldn’t that be something?
Today, though, you get this writing, and so do I. Reading is to writing as hearing is to speaking, and today I finally started in earnest to read Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh’s Romans Disarmed.
The back cover says it’s about “Reading the Bible from the underside of empire.” It comes highly recommended from the venerable Byron Borger, proprietor of Hearts and Minds Books. He’s a friend of the authors, from what I can tell, and is credited with reading the entire manuscript and giving feedback on it. He wrote effusively about it in a not too long ago edition of his Booknotes newsletter, which I highly recommend you subscribe to. I asked for and received it as a gift last year, I think, but it has been among the many books I have lying about that I think will be important, but haven’t made time to read yet.
I heard somewhere once (I can’t remember where) that “deeper than the part of me that can’t, is the part of me that doesn’t want to.” Whatever the original context, I apply it to reading this book because while I may have felt too busy or undisciplined or scattered to finally give it a go, I have deep suspicion that underneath all that can’t is a won’t. I think some of my reluctance to finally pick it up and dive in comes from a judgmental place within me. I have always felt like my own worst critic, and honestly, I do not yet know if that critical self is my shadow or true self. My mother is all mixed up in this, and in me. Strange- as I write this I’m reminded that I’m just a few days removed from the 22nd anniversary of her death. If COVID doesn’t claim me before this time next year, then I will have lived half my life with, and half my life without her, and yet she’s always with me whether I want her to be or acknowledge it or not. In any case, my ongoing work to be differentiated from my mother includes sorting out just whose voice is so judgmental inside me. Is it really mine, or is it hers? Or doesn’t it really matter, if perhaps I am a proverbial chip off the old block?
Back to Romans Disarmed then, I think part of my “won’t” about reading it has been some expected self-judgment about Keesmat and Walsh’s admirable life vs. my own. They live in a solar-powered farm in Canada that is heated by a wood fire which they also cook by, if I have all that right. They also happen to be PhD’s who have long had what I would now call a proper understanding of the “empire” we live in and the Jesus-follower’s place in contradistinction to it. I don’t know if I could, or would even truly want to, live the kind of life they do, but I sure admire it and feel no small amount of guilt about how my own life stacks up to it.
All that said, I know they have something to teach me, and I’m eager to learn. Perhaps, then, if I both can and will make time to do so, I’ll do some writing as I read Romans Disarmed, which at this moment I’ve only just begun. It has ten chapters. If I really want to wrestle with what they say, maybe I’ll try to write one post per chapter over the next month or two.
Light In The Darkness
It may be fortuitous, serendipitous, even providential, dare I say, that I begin reading (and writing!) with Advent and Christmas on the horizon. Circle of Hope, my faith community mostly located in Philly, is looking forward to Advent this year as a season in which to experience lament in the midst of hope. Here is how they frame the Advent journey this year:
Advent is all about the drama of hope — light in the darkness, presence in the midst of brutality, trust in the face of fear. We are choosing to go through the suffering rather than around it. We can trust God to be with us because so many years ago God was born as a tiny baby. Can we rejoice in the Lord, Jesus, even now?
We are following this description of hope from Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, “In the midst of suffering, hope takes the form of “arguing” and “wrestling” with God. Such lament is not merely a cry of pain—it is a way of mourning, protesting, and appealing to God.”
“In the midst of suffering” We are, indeed, suffering. Collectively, we are suffering more consciously than we have in recent memory. There is a mutuality God desires with us. God hushes in our disconsolate ears, and we hush back in the ears of the vulnerable baby God was. We are caring for the fragile way God shows up by caring for the fragile way we are showing up right now.
“Not merely a cry of pain” Entering our pain is an invitation into something new—a call from the future—rather than only rumination on the past.
“With God” God has been born into our lament already. The presence of the baby is already here. The STORY is already told. Advent tells our story in the light of God-with-us. This season, we will highlight the power of anticipation, and paint a picture of hope lived out in real life.
Somehow this framing of the Advent season seems especially appropriate this year. I write on the day after the U.S. earned yet another infamous record in its inexorable march toward the worst kind of exceptionalism, having passed 200,000 new coronavirus infections in a single day. Likewise, another day has passed without justice for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and so many others. Today is another day in what is hopefully the waning days of the Trump administration, but even if the government of the U.S. follows the obvious will of the voters and inaugurates Biden in January, Trumpism seems entrenched in a large minority of the populace, and it is hopefully obvious that Joe Biden will not save us from this or much of anything else. U.S. presidential administrations come and go, but the unfettered consumer capitalism and the violence with which it is inextricably linked, both hallmarks of the U.S. empire, remain.
So hope and lament seem inextricably bound too, so long as we wait for Jesus to fully and finally set all things to right. Keesmaat and Walsh seem to have something to say about this in the little I’ve read so far. They begin Romans Disarmed by setting the stage for their work of really seeking to understand the Apostle’s letter to the church in Rome in a new, but paradoxically very old, way. In saying it’s a “new” way, I reveal of course where I stand in relation to Paul’s writing. I may not understand it very well because I don’t stand under it at all. As a cisgender straight male of European descent, firmly ensconced in middle-class life in the middle of U.S. empire, my position is one of standing “over” those to whom Paul wrote, and those like them today. That Paul lived and worked in the midst of empire should be obvious. We name his sociohistorical location as such today- the Roman Empire. Of course, Rome’s ancient empire was secured and maintained by that Roman “peace” which was anything but peaceful, the Pax Romana. It may be somewhat less obvious that we live in such an empire that is secured by such a peace today. Nonetheless, that we are now in what may be the waning days of a Pax Americana should be fairly clear to the careful observer.
That context for Paul’s writing and our reading matters greatly. As Keesmaat and Walsh write:
What happens if we read Paul’s letter to the Christian house churches in Rome as something akin to a call to disarm the empire? What happens if we read this letter written to the heart of the empire from the perspective of the margins of that empire?
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
Those who wear “slavish shoes,” whether Paul’s and those to whom he writes on the margins of Roman empire, or their counterparts today on the margins of U.S. empire, know suffering and sorrow, and have reason to lament. Keesmaat and Walsh say:
Paul writes his epistle to the Romans from a place of “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). We suspect that you can’t really understand what Paul is up to in this ancient letter if you don’t have access to such a place.
They add, recognizing their own privilege as highly educated Canadians, that “if we have any access to the margins” (where they argue Paul’s epistle is best understood)…”it can only be through deep listening and shared tears.” This deep listening by the powerful to the powerless and sharing that brings tears can perhaps only come through the work of solidarity, which in turn requires proximity. We who inherit unearned privilege and power must give it away as best we can and get close to those who were marginalized so that we could be centered. We may not have been born on the margins, but if we want to really understand Paul, let alone Jesus, we might need to get there. Keesmaat and Walsh again:
There is a pathos to Paul’s writing that gets lost when interpretation gets too focused on the nature of the theological argument Paul is mounting.
…the pathos that goes all the way down to the core of creation also goes all the way up the heart of God.
Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans.
You Need a Great Capacity for Joy
So whether we were born on the margins or recognize our need to in some way get there so that we can better see Jesus in his slavish shoes, there is a question of how, then, to live. On the margins, resources can seem scarce. Healthcare can be hard to come by. Social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic may be impossible. There is, again, suffering and sorrow. Keesmaat and Walsh offer an answer, if not a solution:
You need a great capacity for joy if you are to sustain life in the midst of such sorrow. But any “joy” that averts its gaze from sorrow, any “joy” that will not embrace the grief and hurt at the heart of things, is cheap sentimentality at best, an emotional cover-up and lie at worst.
They add, reflecting Paul, that “We need joy…if we are to have hope.” I said above that Circle of Hope was “my faith community, mostly located in Philly.” I say “mostly,” because in the midst of the pandemic as Circle and so many other churches pivoted to offer everything they could online, my wife and I began to reconnect with them. We have deep roots among them, and I have written about those roots quite a bit on this blog. In any case, we began reconnecting with them during Lent and Easter, and it was with no great surprise that we found ourselves experiencing joy as we did so, for the first time in a long time. Since that time, that deepening connection has only grown and finally culminated in us rejoining their covenant at the recent quarterly Love Feast. Today, I even lead a Circle of Hope cell group of people dispersed all over the country.
We do not know what this means for us. Right now many Circle of Hope cell groups continue to meet online because of the pandemic. So mine is not much different. Right now Circle’s regular Sunday meeting(s) continue to happen online too. Of course, that will not always be so. So we have much discernment to engage in as we figure out what the new “normal” looks like in a world where it’s safer to meet in person again. That may mean that we need to move back to Philly again. The Circle of Hope pastors use a metaphor for their podcast that I keep coming back to. They say in the podcast that they’re “extending the table of their dialogue” through the podcast to wherever folks tune in to it. Right now that table comes all the way to Minneapolis and, through my cell, to Texas and Wisconsin and Illinois. I don’t yet know what the outcome of the dialogue will be, but I sure am glad to be part of the conversation.
Being a part of Circle again, even from a geographic distance, has helped me to find joy, and hope. It is, after all, a “circle of hope,” and I believe it will help me to sustain life in the midst of the sorrow of COVID, of racial oppression and economic disparity, and in the midst of endless war to maintain U.S. “homeland security.” Advent is about the drama of hope as we choose to go through suffering rather than around it. Jesus endured suffering on the cross of course, but in a larger way the promise of Christmas, of Immanuel, “God with us,” is a promise that God enters our suffering more broadly too. As Bono infamously said at that 2006 National Prayer Breakfast:
God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.
I might quibble with some of what Bono said. There is an “us” and a “them” that he describes, and he could be seen as being somewhat condescending to “them.” Nonetheless, he was addressing the powerful in his speech, and I know that I occupy a place of power in this society. So I have much work to do to relinquish as much of it as I can so that I can get closer to the margins where Jesus and Paul are, in their “slavish shoes.”
All of this is why I’m so looking forward to Advent this year. I’m glad to be walking in the Circle of Hope as we recognize the suffering around us and lament it, even as our joy sustains us and moves us to hope. Likewise, I know that Keesmaat and Walsh will be wise guides as they help me to more fully get into Paul’s slavish shoes in order to understand his letter to the Romans from the underside of empire. Lord, let it be so.
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.