What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.
This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:
The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”
The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus
What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:
The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.
Manning goes on:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”
Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:
All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.
This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.
Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:
The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.
To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”
The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…
Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Stripped and Filled
I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.
The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”
After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”
“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”
This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”
I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.
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.
This is my first post in a while, and I have so much to share, but right now I want to keep this short and just share this, which is long overdue. A few weeks ago I created a fundraiser for my sister, Lee, pictured above from more than a few years ago. As I say there:
Lee is resilient, hard-working, and giving to a fault. She has faced many challenges in life, but always chooses to keep moving forward and do her best for those around her. She has invested many years in caring for family, including her three grandchildren. Today, in her early 60’s, Lee works as a newspaper delivery person in north central Texas. It’s a hard job involving sleepless nights, and is very demanding on Lee physically. It’s also very demanding on her car as she puts over 100 miles on it every night and her route takes her into some remote areas outside her city.
Lee was advised that the car she was in was simply not safe to drive even more day on her daily paper route. So Lee felt compelled to act out of desperate fear for her own safety. She did so, and was able to get into another vehicle, one that is a little newer and in better shape, though it still already has over 100,000 miles on it. Unfortunately, because of Lee’s limited financial resources and options, she drove off the lot in this better vehicle knowing that she was already “underwater” on it (owing more than it’s worth), and looking at a schedule of payments that will likely have her paying on it long after this vehicle too has died.
Of course this is how cycles of debt are maintained in communities of people with limited financial resources. It’s how the system, unfortunately, is designed to work. And of course to make even this bad deal, Lee had to use resources she didn’t have, using rent money, for example. So, the good news is that Lee is now safe for a while in a work vehicle that will be reliable for now. What’s better, though, is that thanks to the generosity of those that have already given, she can recoup some of her cost in getting into the newer vehicle and still make rent.
I should mention that she told me to pull the plug on this fundraiser because she is in a safer vehicle (if not in a safer loan) and didn’t want to mislead anyone. I told her instead that I thought we should keep it going for awhile, while being fully transparent with this update. I said perhaps folks would continue showing up for her, and that enough funds might be raised to help her make some headway on this new loan. This way, when this vehicle needs repair as it inevitably will and/or needs to be replaced, perhaps her situation then will be much better and she can get into the next vehicle without being forced into an unenviable choice like she was with this one. Bearing that in mind, will you share this on your social media and invite others to get in on this goodness? What a story Lee will have to tell about the generosity of others and God’s goodness to her! Thank you!
So, can you please share this on your social media? Perhaps someone you share it with will want to get in on this generosity and goodness. Thank you!
Before you read this, please watch the video above, which I hope is embedded in this post correctly, and then I’ll share a bit about my reflection on the questions my friend Julius asks us to meditate on. By the way, Julius would want me to be sure to credit the creator of the Wordplay Method, whom you can find here, and I obviously want to credit Julius for his generous gift in offering the chance for reflection above and inviting others to share it.
You’ll see that the questions he asks us to reflect on, as we mourn the murder of George Floyd and so many others, are:
What is making us mad? Why is this making us mad?
What makes us feel scared? Why do we feel scared?
How can we change this?
How can we live with dignity and preserve the dignity of others?
At first I thought this would be an opportunity for me, as a heterosexual cisgendered male of European descent, to increase my empathy. The first two questions were relatively easy to enter into. What am I mad at, and why does it make me mad? I’m angry that a police officer that looks like me assassinated George Floyd slowly, for the world to see, as George pleaded for his life and called for his mom, all about 10 miles from my home. I’m angry that I wasn’t angry enough about Philando Castile or Jamar Clark, also both murdered not far from where I am. I’m angry that nothing seems to change, because “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” Of course, there’s already a problem here. Do you see what I did? Julius asks what makes us mad, and why, and I took the us and made it an I. Of course I can’t really reflect on these questions much as an “us” without being part of a we, and then I have to wonder what we am I part of? By the way, this issue of individualism and singular vs. plural language is at the heart, as I’ve said before, of much of our difficulties with Scripture. Much of Scripture is written to “you,” and I’ll remind myself and all of “you” again, that the “you’s” in Scripture are often if not usually plural. Do you read it differently if you think it’s directed at a group you’re supposed to be a part of, and not just to you sitting by yourself in your house?
So, back to the matter at hand, when Julius is asking what is making us mad and why, it would be myopic evidence of my white privilege not to recognize that one obvious us– BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)- are angry because people who look like me won’t stop killing them. Likewise, I must admit that undoubtedly there is an us of people who do look like me who are angry right now about protests and property destruction, and are more upset about this than they are about the long line of people like George Floyd being murdered. They’re more upset about protests and property destruction here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul than they are about the fact that the Twin Cities rank near the top of measures for educational achievement, home ownership rate, household income, and employment rate- for “white” people, and simultaneously at or near the bottom of all those measure for BIPOC. Consequently, a recent report ranked the Twin Cities at 92nd out of 100 metros for racial equity. Hence, all the hand-wringing by local television anchors over protests and property destruction and calls for “peace” and evident delight when cops and protesters can hug it out (even though we “can’t hug our way out of this“) are just more evidence of white privilege and the desire to see white power reasserted. I pray that my “white” brothers and sisters will be “saved” from this point of view- this ideology, way of life, system, and “power-” that leads us down the wide path to destruction.
What Makes Us Feel Scared, and Why?
Then I got into the next two questions: what makes us feel scared, and why do we feel scared? And as I drummed along with Julius, it hit me, and the tears began. As much as I want to be different, better, etc., I know that I’m not. Truly critical self-reflection and awareness compels me to admit that, while I may be afraid of many things, one of them is black and brown bodies. Let’s get some semantics out of the way right here. Many terms get used in this struggle for justice for BIPOC and in the critical analysis of the power structures that got us here. They include racism, prejudice, whiteness, white privilege, white power, white supremacy, white nationalism, and more. I was ready here to relate my understanding of these terms and concepts currently, but instead I want to offer this amazing resource put out by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Seriously, if you’re a “white” person reading this, maybe your time is best spent not listening to anything else I have to say; rather, maybe it’s best spent simply reflecting with Julius above and then fully exploring that page I just linked to on “whiteness.” The page works through many of the terms above. There are videos to watch and great authors and leaders to learn from. It’s well, well worth your time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you fully explore that page and learn from it, it could save someone’s life. The page doesn’t talk about policing generally or the need to defund and abolish the police. However, maybe with a better understanding of whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, and white nationalism, you (fellow “white” person) and I will be less likely to “other” our BIPOC neighbors by fearing them and calling the police on them, which we all should know by now can get them killed (by the way, please click that link in the words “can get them killed,” and then weep with me that the story linked is 5 years old and so many more names can be added to the list of dead). Want a list? Here’s one, courtesy of Facebook and Star Tribune photographer Aaron Lavinsky:
So as I said above one thing that makes me feel scared is black and brown bodies. The next question is why? When I reflect on why I feel scared, I must confess that I’m certainly worried about my *life*, but obviously in a wholly irrational and inexcusable way (due to socialization into “whiteness,” no doubt) since black and brown bodies have endured 400+ years of abuse, oppression, and violence at the literal hands of people who look like me, not the other way around. Even more, though, my fear has to do with stuff- possessions and “property.” In short, there is an irrational fear rooted inside me that BIPOC will come and take “my” stuff. This is hard to admit, again, because I know better. I know that everything belongs to God, so nothing is actually mine. I have become and remain convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is the “canon within the canon.” I know how much Scripture as a whole, but especially the Sermon on the Mount and even the Lord’s Prayer, have to do with money and possessions. And I know that the witness of Scripture and the early church clearly contradicts the ideology of market economies, capitalism, and so on. It was three years ago that I expressed that “capitalism had me feeling sad and depressed because of my illicit taking and greedy cheating.” I know, in fact, how very, very rich I am. Back when globalrichlist.com was active (it appears to now be defunct; here is an updated calculator– please try it out to get a little perspective), my family’s results were:
Clearly, then, I am the “rich young ruler” (quite literally due to whiteness in this society) that turned away from following Jesus through the narrow door that leads to life because my wealth is so very great.
This is all the more distressing because at least for several years now I’ve known that capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand. I’ve said that you only have to pay attention and look with clear eyes, and where you see one (capitalism or violence), the other will be nearby. I can’t go much further here without again mentioning Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s seminal work God’s Economy, which I wrote quite a bit about here, and which I further reflected on here (if you only read one of these other links of mine, that last one might be the best choice). In God’s Economy, Wilson-Hartgrove says:
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.
Another favorite book of mine of late, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, has a little paragraph that touches on this in passing. It’s just one little sentence, in which Laird writes that a man’s “…face had the freshness and peace of those whose poverty had taught them they had nothing to defend.” That, right there, is why I keep seeing this connection between capitalism and violence, and now how they so completely intersect with whiteness and racism. BIPOC are far more likely than “white” people to be poor, and the opposite is true as well. Whiteness makes it so that even if I grew up in a trailer park, which I did, I am far more likely than BIPOC to have access to resources that dramatically increase my standard of living, even if much of it is debt-financed (because capitalism doesn’t want anyone, rich or poor, to be free of its grasp). So as I said above much of the reason for my irrational fear of black and brown bodies has to do with “my” wealth relative to their poverty and my desire that it be protected. Obviously, there is much heartbreaking irony and even gaslighting here, since I live on stolen Indigenous land and benefit from an economy only made possible by 400+ years of slavery and Jim Crow laws, redlining and the carceral state, etc. The case for reparations is clear and compelling. As 4th century Greek Bishop Basil the Great is reported to have once preached:
Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.
How Can We Change This?
All of this brings me to Julius’ next set of questions, which I think are related: How can we change this, and, how can we live with dignity and preserve the dignity of others? First, let’s just acknowledge again the “we” here. I obviously don’t think I can solve the problems of or defeat the “powers” of capitalism, violence, racism, whiteness, patriarchy, and so on. I don’t even think that we can. But I do believe again that these are “principalities and powers” that we are wrestling against. That passage from Ephesians that I just linked to gives you the King James Version language of “principalities and powers.” In the NIV, it’s translated “rulers” and “authorities” in addition to “powers,” and is again worth a quote:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
By the way, this passage is the famous one that talks about the “armor of God.” Sounds violent, right? It’s not. In any case, though our struggle is against the “rulers” and “authorities,” the “powers,” the truly good news is that Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God dwells, has already defeated them, as we read in Colossians 2:9-15:
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh[b] was put off when you were circumcised by[c] Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you[d] alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Obviously, we live in a world that doesn’t much look like these powers of capitalism, violence, whiteness, racism, and patriarchy are defeated; thus we still “wrestle” with them. Why? Of course I can’t say for sure, but my suspicion has to do with one potential we that could be inferred from Julius’ last set of questions. And this we is why I strive to be anti-racist and against capitalism, violence, and patriarchy. Likewise, I think this we has everything to do with changing things, living with dignity, and preserving the dignity of others.
How Can We Live With Dignity and Preserve the Dignity of Others?
First, a little more Scripture, from an often-returned-to passage, Ephesians 2:14-18:
14 For he himself 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.
To recap, the two groups are Jews and Gentiles, but we can insert any two groups here- Black/White, Straight/Gay, Cisgender/Transgender, etc. Remember from Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Likewise from our Ephesians passage above, it is also “in Christ” that the dividing wall of hostility has forever been put to death on the cross. So, on the cross:
Jesus receives the violence of humanity without retaliating, thereby ending the cycle of violence forever.
Jesus puts to death the dividing wall of hostility separating any group of humans from any other group.
Jesus defeats the powers, the rulers and authorities of this “dark” world (not “world” in the sense of God’s good created order, but “world” in the sense of the Domination System that has been set up in opposition to the inbreaking rule of God’s kingdom).
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a]2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (italics added).3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Likewise, Paul had already said in the previous chapter (I Corinthians 1:18) that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” This power of God, revealed on the cross and in Jesus’ resurrection, is saving us from a world of domination. It is the Domination System that makes it possible for me to live in a place like this:
…while so many live in a place like this:
These two images present a stark contrast. It’s tempting to think that the folks in the lower of the two images above need to be “saved,” and maybe I should have a part in it as I commute from my high place in the upper of the two images above. But just the opposite is true. The materially poor are often “poor” enough not to fear their neighbor. The materially poor are often “poor” enough to hold what they do have loosely enough to be generous with it. Statistics show that the materially poor are always much more generous than the materially rich, even if all the materially poor have is “a few cents.” God has a special concern for the materially poor. He draws near to them. They are blessed. It is the materially rich like me who need to be saved. The materially poor might teach me how.
This Power of God is Revealed on the Cross, but Displayed in the Church…
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Why were they of one heart and soul? Because on the cross the dividing wall of hostility between them had been torn down. Circle of Hope was talking about this again today on both of their Daily Prayer blogs. On the Wind blog they said:
They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.
More thoughts for meditation
This radical distribution the first church had a precedent. The Greek word used for “shared the money” is diamerizo, meaning “distributed among,” and it is used only one other time in Acts. In fact, the Pentecost chapter starts with it: “Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire diamerizo (was distributed among) each of them” (2:3). In other words, the Holy Spirit modeled an economy where everyone had enough and no one was left out, which caused the disciples to act out a similar economy with their “stuff”—where no one was out to fend for themselves, all were connected to a larger whole.
Sometimes the idea of sharing our property and possessions, taking only what we need, and trusting God to provide for our future needs can feel unrealistic or irresponsible. We may need the Holy Spirit to take the first step, again.
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
They reflected on this by saying:
Knowing God brings about a change in the knower. It is impossible to know joy without somehow becoming more joyful. It is impossible to know generosity without becoming generous. This I suppose was the problem for the workers in the parable. To accept the meal of generosity that the owner of the vineyard was offering would have required a change of heart on their part. They would have needed to stop eating the food their ego was giving them – all the stuff about what is deserved, what is fair, and what they ought to be getting. Those little self-consolatory morsels are so sweet that real Food tastes bland in comparison at first. Those morsels have no substance though and only leave us feeling sick. God gives us His own love as food, and it has real transforming power. It not only is good, but it makes us good and helps us see a world that holds a banquet of goodness.
In the past I’ve read this parable of workers in the vineyard as being a play in the theater of the absurd. One could read it such that the topsy-turvy nature of the last being first and first being last, if carried on indefinitely, would result in perpetual reversals of hierarchy. This reading has “worked” for me in the past because I saw it as indicating that the whole system of hierarchy was itself absurd. I still find this reading helpful. Today, though, what struck me was that the first worker received a day’s wages. He received his “daily bread.” He got enough. Though this worker who came first didn’t much like it, the worker who came last received a day’s wages too, because the giver was generous. The worker who came last also got “enough.” Though their “sharing” was forced, what they had was equality. If I and people like me, who have gathered so much more than “enough,” so much more than our daily bread, would sell our ill-gotten gain (remember: stolen land and an economy in America built by slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the carceral state) and begin to make reparations; if we would hold possessions loosely and in common among a not just racially but socioeconomically diverse church that is really going for this; if we would get “small,” then there might be no materially poor among us either.
Meanwhile, the materially poor still have much to teach us. They can teach us, if we would join them, that we have nothing to defend and therefore no enemies to fear. If we would align ourselves with the materially poor and become materially poor ourselves, like Jesus, our proximity would enable true solidarity, as my friend Jesse Curtis wrote on Twitter yesterday. Note below that he’s talking about proximity to and solidarity with Black people, while I have just now been talking about the materially poor, but the intersectionality here, because of the powers of whiteness and racism, is by now well established. He said:
Another old friend and pastor, and the person who actually introduced Jesse and I, talked about this too, I think in an email from many years ago. Duane Crabbs, who with his wife Lisa founded South Street Ministries in Akron, OH, wrote:
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…
I keep coming back to what Duane wrote me because I know he’s right. I just spent much of today in my head, thinking and writing about all this. Fortunately the day started slightly more embodied as I meditated with Circle of Hope’s Daily Prayer offerings and then drummed along with Julius. Still, Duane’s call to throw our lot in with the suffering and Jesse’s call to not treat whiteness as some kind of incurable disease and instead, through proximity and solidarity, experience actual harms that whiteness might inflict on those that don’t go along with it, are nothing short of God’s gospel word for me. Jesus binds us and all things together and makes us, united in him, embodied good news for the poor and suffering. Kirsten and I have a renewed sense of call to do this work- to sell or give away as reparations our possessions and find Jesus again, in his church among those who suffer, so that we can “learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity.” Our salvation may depend on it.
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.
Circle of Hope Audio Art‘s second album, Patiently Impatient, has been a gift for growing that keeps on giving. Another song from this album, “Come Rescue Me,” was featured in my last post, and I’ve called Patiently Impatient my “pandemic playlist.” I think the whole album is worth a (repeated) listen. It features a variety of musical styles and is sung in multiple languages in typical Circle of Hope fashion, since one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs is that: “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Here are the lyrics from “Ocean,” embedded above:
Jesu, guidance. Now I know what love is
Compass, Kindness, all that I need in You
I will sit in silence and contemplate the things I don’t know
As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul
the ocean of my soul, the ocean of my soul
Jesu, lightness, now I know what life is
Center, Likeness, all that I see is You
I will sing in silence and contemplate the things I can’t know
As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul
Here are the notes from Circle of Hope for this song included on the Bandcamp site for the album (linked above):
Sometimes hymns and songs can be so personal to the writer that most people singing it do not connect with the sentimentality or content. Declarative passages about what the writer felt like or what they are promising to do can be a stretch to connect with. While this piece has that personal touch and describes a journey, see if you can latch on to the imagery of learning about life and love from Jesus. What does this personal connection inspire you to consider in that prayerful space?
The imagery does indeed evoke a prayerful space. I’m reminded of the book that I also referenced in my last post, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. Laird suggests that it is through prayerful silence- the Christian practice of contemplation- that we truly meet God. Or, perhaps better put, silence is the space in which our unbroken connection to God is revealed as the “ground of our being.” It is through silence that we remember ourselves as a “branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” Here’s that helpful page again from Laird’s book:
Laird says that we can’t not be silent, that it “is naturally present.” As I’ve come to understand it, silence is the space in which noise appears- the noise of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, desires, and distractions. But the space, the silence, is always there.
In that Silent Land, a great vastness opens up. The Circle of Hope song above describes it as “the ocean of my soul” in which God swims. There is something primal, elemental about this space in which we are always connected to God if only we can slow down and still our minds and hearts enough to know it again. I’m reminded of Paul’s writing in Colossians 1:15-23:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[a] your evil behavior.22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
My Body Keeps the Score. Spoiler Alert- Love Has An Insurmountable Lead
So it is in Jesus that all things were created and all things hold together, and in the Silent Land we re-member this as we are re-collected. I’ve talked before about how our bodies “keep the score.” Our bodies have a memory; they store trauma, trauma that our minds may not even remember. But our bodies know, and for some of us it is a lifelong journey to seek healing of this trauma in our body’s deep memory. Yet though our bodies remember pain and trauma, they also remember love and light. God declared his creation “good,” and our bodies know this too, and knew this first. So our bodies have an even deeper memory that knows, as Circle of Hope sings in “Come Rescue Me” (also from Patiently Impatient and referenced in my last post), that “you are the light, life to these bones.” In the Silent Land our minds become quiet so that our bones can tell us this.
The Circle of Hope song at the top again says that “You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul.” I suspect Jesus may have been speaking of something like this in John 14:5-21:
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7 If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
15 “If you love me, keep my commands.16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[b] in you.18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
In the Silent Land our bones remember that it is in Jesus that they have life, that they hold together. Likewise, just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him, so too through the Holy Spirit is Jesus in us, swimming in silence, in the ocean of our soul.
This ever present unity with God at the very core of who we are enlivens us to see Jesus in one another and to live like Jesus did. Again, going back to “Come Rescue Me:”
For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”
I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.
Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and the life he gives enables us not only to live like him, but to die like him, for the way of Jesus is of course a way that leads to the cross- and beyond it- to new, resurrected life.
In These Dark Times, the Fire Shut Up In My Bones…Is Love
These are dark times, or at least the darkness is a little more obvious to most of us now. I only have to look at Facebook or turn on the news to be reminded of this. Some will focus on the darkness and feel the need to tell prophetic truth to the powers-that-be, calling them to account for their sin. This is holy and often thankless work. But I, too, feel a “fire shut up in my bones” which I cannot contain. What moves me these days…is hope. In my family we talk a fair bit about following Jesus these days. I’ve said for a long while that if Jesus doesn’t absolutely change one’s life; if following him isn’t an act of devotion given to this One whose love has indeed proven mighty to save, than it’s not worth it. How could it be? Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?! Jesus calls us to be meek, merciful, and pure in heart. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to give to those who ask of us and pray for (and gather, I dare say) only enough bread for today, trusting God for what we need for tomorrow. Jesus calls us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, and to not be anxious about any of it. According to Jesus, this- this teaching– is the narrow gate that few can enter. And putting this teaching into practice is the house built on rock that can withstand the storms of life. In these stormy days, “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said. They are the ones living Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and they give me hope.
They give me hope that the Jesus Way is possible. It’s possible when we take time to enter the Silent Land, where we remember who and whose we are. In silence, the ocean of our soul, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. In the Silent Land we can plumb the depths of God’s great love for us, and it will invariably overflow into love of neighbor and help for those who are suffering. And somehow, mysteriously, by entering the Deep Memory of the Silent Land my brokenness and trauma are healed as I participate in the healing of others. My healing is terribly important, because “hurt people, hurt people.” So I must pursue it. But how do I find it? How do I find my (healed) life? The Jesus Way provides a clue, perhaps. Jesus enters our suffering and suffers with us even to the point of death. So following Jesus means that we too are called and sent to love others in this co-suffering way. We are invited, really, to lose (give up) our life. And that’s how we find it.
Hit “play” on the video above and listen to one of my new favorite songs, written by Rachel, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. The song was recorded by the people of Circle of Hope and included on the Patiently Impatient album from Circle of Hope Audio Art. I’ve been aware of the album for some time but must not have really listened to this particular track before, or if I did, it didn’t hit me in the way that it has recently. Whatever the case, I encountered it again during one of the first online Sunday meetings for Circle of Hope during the pandemic. Here are the lyrics:
Come Rescue Me, be my retreat
I feel alone, darkness seems strong
I need Your touch, Your promise of peace
A Hope for my weary eyes.
For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”
I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.
You are the Light, life to these bones,
I am Your child, You rescue me.
I especially appreciated the way the song was sung and interwoven with words from the community about what they were receiving from God during that online meeting, as COVID-19 began to really take hold in the U.S. You can see that below:
Beautiful, isn’t it? Since that meeting, I’ve had this song playing perpetually in the background of my imagination, a balm during these troubling times.
This morning it came to the fore of my mind as I was following along with this morning’s Circle of Hope Daily Prayer(s). I wrote in my last post about Why I (Still) Keep Talking About Circle of Hope and how the pandemic has counterintuitively lowered barriers to participating in the life of Circle of Hope, in my case from afar. Part of that participation has meant really following along with the Daily Prayer: Water blog. I try to fully immerse myself in that observance each morning, but have actually also been reading the Daily Prayer: Wind blog too. The “Water” blog is described as being “encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith” (so perhaps for folks who have been following Jesus for a while, like I have been very poorly trying to), while the “Wind” blog is described as “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Like I said, I really try to immerse myself in the “Water,” but recognize that the journey of faith is perhaps seldom very linear, and sometimes I need a little “Wind” at my back too. One thing I like about “Wind” is the way it continually introduces readers not only to Jesus and the life of faith, but to Circle of Hope and the life of that particular community, whose “gravity” I continue to feel the pull of.
What Have I Done? My “False Self” Keeps Making a Mess of Things
So again that brings us to this morning. In today’s “Water” entry, titled “What Have I Done?”, we continue learning from a children’s story by Mercer Mayer, Herbert the Timid Dragon. Today’s part of that story helps us to see how even our best efforts to live into who we want to be can go horribly wrong when we haven’t reckoned with our “False Self,” which is described as “a way of being in the world that doesn’t match who (we) want to be.” When this “False Self” drives our behavior, we can be misunderstood and relationships can be damaged. We get scared, and we “jump right back into…old patterns” that do not reflect our “True Self.” In the “Suggestions for Action” section from this morning’s entry, it says:
To discover our true selves and to draw close to God (intertwined actions) we, too, need to learn through taking new action, meeting failure and fear, and starting to identify our patterns of living (like running to hide) that may need to change. It’s a conflict. What have I done? is the inevitable question we all ask as we seek to know God and ourselves. On this journey within, we first discover how we are not who we think we are, and we are surprised in the process. Many spiritual seekers have called this, the discovery the False Self: the habits of thoughts, feelings, and choices we make unconsciously, trying to make ourselves safe and happy. (For more on this, see Invitation to Love by Thomas Keating).
Pause now and ask God to help you see beyond your current understanding of yourself. Let yourself remember failures you’ve known or times you have felt misunderstood by those around you. Instead of dwelling on the pain/guilt/shame of these memories, see if you can catch any patterns that those failures or conflicts might reveal about how you “do” life or how you pursue happiness. Jot down whatever floats into your awareness.
As I reflected on the times of significant failure in my life, and especially those times when I felt misunderstood and hurt, I did indeed see some patterns. It’s not like I haven’t looked for such patterns before. I’ve had years of therapy, including almost a year most recently of EMDR. I know how much my childhood trauma so often drives me into the “back of my brain” as I seek attachment and approval in inappropriate ways, which inevitably results in being misunderstood and hurt. Still, when I did this work again this morning, it struck me in a new way. I think one of the reasons is actually because of yesterday’s “Water” entry. The “Suggestions for Action” from yesterday made the following invitation:
To know God and know our true selves, we can make a good start by listening deeply to our hidden wishes. What do you wish you could be? The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are important. The longings we often turn away from, perhaps because they seem childish, are important. Pause and invite your wishes for yourself to come into your mind. Maybe you’ll remember a childhood memory of what you wanted to be and do. Don’t dismiss these. Welcome them. Look within them to see what they might tell you about yourself that you have forgotten. Write a brief summary in your journal.
As I reflected yesterday, I was reminded that when I fled Texas and the abusive upbringing of my youth and went away to Gordon College, I wanted to be….(wait for it)….President. Just what we need, right, another “white” male President? Thank God that didn’t pan out. Still, at the time, my intentions were good, I thought. I wanted to help people, and thought that position would give me the best chance to help the most people. So I enrolled as a Political Science major and completed three years of that program before “life” happened and I eventually graduated from another school with a different, more “utilitarian,” degree. I’ve told that tale elsewhere. What I wrote down from yesterday’s reflection, though, was: “Leaving the trailer park for college to be President was a continuation of the seeking attachment/approval through rescuing that I had been branded with as a child, but on a grand scale.”
I’ve written extensively again about my childhood trauma and how I was “parentified” from a very young age, particularly in regard to my mother. What I continue to learn, though, is that as emotionally infantile as my mother was and as much as that demanded that I learn how to “care” for and even parent her, my father’s role was in some ways even more complicated. 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.
How Jesus Rescues
Upon further reflection over my 4+ decades of life, it seems pretty obvious. My biggest “failures” in life (I have several in mind)- the times when I’ve felt most misunderstood- I can now see more clearly as times when I was trying to “save” somebody. Some of these efforts were more “successful” than others, but always I can see how I was trying to do what I thought was a “good” thing, but in a (very) wrong way. And this is where today’s “Wind” entry comes into play. As the post explains how Circle of Hope tries to “resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit,” there is a lengthy quotation from Eugene Peterson. Peterson is talking about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and he supposes that each temptation can be interpreted as a way of doing something good. The temptation to feed himself when he’s starving by turning rocks into bread is an invitation to also feed others who are hungry. The temptation to throw himself down from the temple and be rescued miraculously is an invitation to evangelize, to demonstrate the good news that Jesus embodies. The temptation to worship the devil and thereby receive the right to rule the nations is a chance to finally have the world be ruled justly (by Jesus). Thus, Peterson says:
In the three great refusals, Jesus refuses to do good things in the wrong way. Each temptation is wrapped around something good: feed a lot of people, evangelize by miracle, rule the world justly. The devil’s temptation is to depersonalize the ways of Jesus but leave the way intact. His strategy is the same with us. But a way that is depersonalized, carried out without love or intimacy or participation, is not, no matter how well we do it, no matter how much good is accomplished, the Jesus way. We cannot do the Lord’s work in the devil’s ways.
The “Suggestions for Action” from this “Wind” post are:
If the devil thought he could dominate Jesus, how much he must think he can express himself through us! We need to take a daily inventory. Am I trying to do good in an evil way? How unconsciously am I part of something that claims to be a good way but is not the Jesus way? This will take some meditation.
I’m struck by the word “participation” from the little bit of the Peterson quote that I copied above, and I’m reminded actually of another Circle of Hope’s “gifts for growing,” a recent episode of the Resist and Restore Podcast, in which part of the time is spent wrestling with the question: “How is God being with me in the midst of suffering and tragedy better than God protecting me from suffering and tragedy?” This question really gets at what I hope and pray is one of the central tenets of Christian theology, namely that if the Way of Jesus is anything, it is a way of co-suffering love. We see this most clearly in Jesus, who saves us from ourselves and from the violence and destruction of the world we’ve tried to make without God, not by scooping us out of it so that we can go to Heaven when we die, but by entering it as one of us and suffering its effects with us. In Jesus, again as Eugene Peterson put it (this time in his Message translation of the Bible), God “put on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Fully embodied, God-in-the-flesh humbled himself and subjected himself to everything flesh experiences, “even death on a cross.” This is how Jesus, the Suffering Servant (nay, Slave) rescues us, by suffering with us. This suffering led Jesus all the way to persecution and death, and beyond it, to the resurrection life that we are invited to live into in this season after Easter.
In the Silent Land, I’m a Ray of God’s Own Light, a Branch on the Vine
“This will take some meditation,” indeed. Some initial observations are that (obviously, I know) I need to stop trying to rescue people. I know of course that I can’t even save myself (from myself, no less). I am perpetually as much in need of rescue as anybody. And Jesus is my rescuer. I’m grateful for this season of late, especially as Circle of Hope in their Daily Prayer blogs and in their online meetings has been inviting us all to keep watch throughout the day with breath prayers. I had been struggling for a while to develop a practice of meditation using a breath prayer and had been greatly helped in this by the Martin Laird book Into the Silent Land (another Circle of Hope recommendation). Here’s a page from that book that I’ve found most helpful:
As I try to hew close to my practice of contemplation, I am reminded that I am “a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” I have already been rescued, and this rescue helps me to see that part of me which has always been rescued. On the very next page from the one copied above, Laird writes:
“That’s right,” cheered Father Alypius. “Thoughts keep coming back because that’s just what thoughts do. But if you look directly at the thought or the feeling and ask who is the chatterer, who is suffering, you won’t find anybody, you won’t find a sufferer. There will be chattering, sure. Suffering, sure. The thoughts coming and going. Don’t look at the suffering, the anguish, the fear. These are objects of awareness. I’m asking you to look into the awareness itself. Not the objects of awareness. These have dominated your attention for decades.
When, through contemplation, I can be still long enough to know that God is God, that Jesus is the vine and I am a branch that knows no distinction between branch and vine, I can see all my thoughts and feelings for what they are, weather on the mountain of my awareness. I am not the weather. I have thoughts and feelings; I am not thoughts and feelings. I am a ray of God’s own light. This awareness, which requires daily practice to cultivate, “frees me from the need to be free of what others do to me,” and it helps me to remember that I don’t need to rescue anyone in an unconscious attempt to rescue myself (or either one of my parents).
There is, of course, still suffering in this world. But the world-to-come is already here because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and as we participate with Jesus in his resurrected life, we have the sacred privilege to do good things in the right way, the Jesus Way. We can suffer with those who are suffering just like Jesus does, by being close to them. Just like Jesus interrupted the world’s cycle of violence forever on the cross by receiving the world’s violence without retaliating, we too can follow him in this way. Here’s a picture of someone teaching us what that looks like:
The Civil Rights Movement is instructive in this regard. Much ink, obviously, has been spilled regarding this from voices far more learned than mine; so suffice it for me simply to notice that while many “white” people were the perpetrators of racial oppression, injustice, and violence, there were a few who mobilized to join their black brothers and sisters who were suffering, not to rescue them (because the “domination system” was and is still very powerful), but to learn from them and suffer with them. For some, this resulted, like Jesus, in suffering to the point of death.
Such co-suffering love is the “fruit” of a good tree, a tree that has matured to the point of bearing fruit. I pray to bear such fruit some day. Meanwhile, thank God I have a rescuer. Thank God my failure and fear can show me those parts of me that still need rescuing. May I learn their lessons so that, armed with my True Self- a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light- I can get on with the “family business” of reconciliation and co-suffering love. It’s urgent work.