AI resurrection: Questions for a “neutral” technology

My son had questions about the vagaries of his student loan. I suggested, “You could just type your question into Google and the new AI pop-up will probably give you a good answer. I’m amazed at what it comes up with.”

“I hate A.I.,” he said.

Meanwhile a colleague just a bit younger than me, I think, is in an AI class. She comes up with the most remarkable things. I asked her to feed documents I want to reconfigure into AI and good things came back. She’s a bit frustrated that our other co-workers are not nearly as interested in the time-saving and money saving possibilities. “Why hire a consultant?” she says. “We have AI! Half those people will be obsolete in 5 years.”

Is AI inevitably evil?

As with every emergent technology, evil people will use AI for evil purposes. Some past innovations, like the atomic bomb, are self-evidently an evil use of a new technology. But most new things are relatively neutral, like your smartphone.

When we were at the theater on Saturday afternoon (Yes. I did get Funny Girl for my birthday.), we were in an upper tier. It was interesting to note that at least a third of the orchestra seats had phones lit up as we waited. When the lady voice from off stage said to turn them off, it took a while for people to comply. I suppose they had to tear themselves away from the phone to see real people who need people (Fanny great, Nicky not so much). I admit, I forgot to take my phone when I went out by myself. I felt a bit anxious, since I couldn’t imagine what I would do if there were a misconnection. Should the phone have us hogtied like that?

NY Times, July 9, 2024

The problem I see with the direction AI is headed is that it may become more personal.  There are a LOT of new TV shows exploring this subject! We started watching one called “Sunny” on Apple. They call a “dramedy,” although I did not find it funny at all, just creepy.  But it is stylish. Rashida Jones has a robot delivered, purportedly made by her husband; it knows everything about her, and she can’t keep it turned off.  Here we go.

Maybe, if it can “resurrect” someone

The main reason I am thinking about AI is not “Sunny.” It is the several articles I saw about a Chinese company called Super Brain who “resurrects” dead loved ones from the massive load of pictures and data we have about them, so you can converse with their replication – so far, just on screen. It did not take AI long to monetize our deepest fear and deepest longing: death and resurrection. AI vs. Jesus right off the bat.

by Hector RETAMAL / AFP

News outlets around the world ran with this new resurrection gospel story during the past month. France 24 found Seakoo Wu who visits the graveside of his son and puts his phone on the headstone and listens to his son speak from beyond the grave. The article said:

They are words that the late student never spoke, but brought into being with artificial intelligence. “I know you’re in great pain every day because of me, and feel guilty and helpless,” intones Xuanmo [his son] in a slightly robotic voice. “Even though I can’t be by your side ever again, my soul is still in this world, accompanying you through life.”

Stricken by grief, Wu and his wife have joined a growing number of Chinese people turning to AI technology to create lifelike avatars of their departed. Ultimately Wu wants to build a fully realistic replica that behaves just like his dead son but dwells in virtual reality. “Once we synchronise reality and the metaverse, I’ll have my son with me again,” Wu said. “I can train him… so that when he sees me, he knows I’m his father.”

Super Brain charges $1400-$2800 to create a basic avatar of a deceased loved one in about twenty days. Some Chinese firms claim to have created thousands of “digital people” from as little as 30 seconds of audiovisual material of the deceased.

For Super Brain’s leader, all new technology is “a double-edged sword.” He says, “As long as we’re helping those who need it, I see no problem.” Bereaved father Wu said Xuanmo, “probably would have been willing” to be digitally revived. He told Xuanmo, as France 24 looked on, “One day, son, we will all reunite in the metaverse.” His wife dissolved into tears. “The technology is getting better every day… it’s just a matter of time.”

Assurances of neutrality

NPR had a small story about tech executive Sun Kai who works for Silicon Intelligence. He said (through an interpreter), “I thought, if I’m modeling voices, why not model my mom’s likeness as well? I raised this question with the company chairman.”

After weeks of fine-tuning, they managed to create an AI rendering of his mother, which Sun says he now talks to every day. “I don’t see her as a digital avatar but as my real mother. When work pressure ramps up, I just want to talk to her. There are some things you can only tell your mother.”

NPR also quoted Michel Puech, a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, like CNN bringing on an expert to interpret what we’ve just witnessed. Puech cautions against over-hyping the ability of current AI technology to go beyond what existing technology already does. For example, looking at a photograph or hearing a recording of a dead loved one’s voice evokes memories, just as AI clones aim to do. “So it’s just a better technology to deal with something we already do.”

I’m not so sure it is that neutral. It could also be another technological “apple” we eat to  delude ourselves into feeling the power of knowing and conquering everything, even life and death. I doubt my mother would approve of that, and I am pretty sure she would not consent to being resurrected by AI.

I hope I get a chance to ask her if I was right about that last thought. If I want to take the risk that she might be just fine with being an avatar, all my pictures and old home movies of her are already digitized. I could resurrect her, if I feel like it. Who wouldn’t like that? Super Brain has already bet we will buy it — it is only a matter of time.

Robert Putnam in his 80’s: The cause of our aloneness is moral

I was impressed to see 83-year-old Robert Putnam in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week.  I was going back to use some of the article about him for this post last Saturday when something terrible caught my eye instead. It was the news that Thomas Matthew Crooks, 20, of Bethel Park, PA tried to kill former president, Donald Trump. The first information included, “Law enforcement officials recovered an AR-15-type semiautomatic rifle from a deceased white male they believe was the gunman.”

I won’t be surprised if we discover another loner male with a gun causing havoc. Putnam has warned us about how our society is spawning such people since 2000. But our aloneness, especially among men, has only become more pronounced.

Hope springs eternal

Almost 25 years ago, Robert Putnam became something rare: a celebrity academic. His  groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, received a lot of attention and has been widely quoted ever since. In the book he demonstrated that America was transforming from a nation of joiners to a nation of loners. You know for yourself that Americans go to church less, join clubs less and have lost trust in our fellow citizens and our institutions because those things probably describe your aloneness, too. Putnam wanted his prophecy to reverse the trends, but it didn’t. Americans have also heard too much bogus prophecy to trust prophets.

I wrote about being disconnected myself not long ago. I referred to Putnam. But I admit I also expected to be ignored for the most part, just like he has been, for the most part.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in our hearts. A man after Putnam’s own heart wrote that in 1733.

Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore!
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come. — An Essay on Man: Epistle I by Alexander Pope.(1733)

And hope springs eternal, apparently, in the New York Times Magazine. Upon the screening of a new documentary lionizing Putnam’s work, the magazine got on the bandwagon. Here’s the trailer:

It seems a bit obscene to be hopeful when a twentysomething has just shot up a political rally. But Putnam persists, and so do I. So here are three excerpts from the interview which I hope move you to keep doing what you can to build community.

When it comes to social connection, things look bad

I think we’re in a really important turning point in American history. What I wrote in Bowling Alone is even more relevant now. Because what we’ve seen over the last 25 years is a deepening and intensifying of that trend. We’ve become more socially isolated, and we can see it in every facet in our lives. We can see it in the surgeon general’s talk about loneliness. He’s been talking recently about the psychological state of being lonely. Social isolation leads to lots of bad things. It’s bad for your health, but it’s really bad for the country, because people who are isolated, and especially young men who are isolated, are vulnerable to the appeals of some false community. I can cite chapter and verse on this: Eager recruits to the Nazi Party in the 1930s were lonely young German men, and it’s not an accident that the people who are attracted today to white nationalist groups are lonely young white men. Loneliness. It’s bad for your health, but it’s also bad for the health of the people around you.

Bonding social capital and bridging social capital. 

Ties that link you to people like yourself are called bonding social capital. So, my ties to other elderly, male, white, Jewish professors — that’s my bonding social capital. And bridging social capital is your ties to people unlike yourself. So my ties to people of a different generation or a different gender or a different religion or a different politic or whatever, that’s my bridging social capital. I’m not saying “bridging good, bonding bad,” because if you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to reflect your bonding social capital. But I am saying that in a diverse society like ours, we need a lot of bridging social capital. And some forms of bonding social capital are really awful. The K.K.K. is pure social capital — bonding social capital can be very useful, but it can also be extremely dangerous. So far, so good, except that bridging social capital is harder to build than bonding social capital. That’s the challenge, as I see it, of America today.

We’re disconnected because morality is dead.

Putnam’s most recent hopeful book is called The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (2020). He and Shaylyn Romney Garrett looked at long-run trends in connectedness and trends in loneliness over the last 125 years. Here is how he sums it up:

That trend in political depolarization follows the same pattern exactly that the trends in social connectedness follow: low in the beginning of the 20th century, high in the ’60s and then plunging to where we are now. So now we have a very politically polarized country, just as we did 125 years ago.

The next dimension is inequality. America was very unequal in what was called the Gilded Age, in the 1890s and 1900s, but then that turned around, and the level of equality in America went up until the middle ’60s. In the middle ’60s, America was more equal economically than socialist Sweden! And then beginning in 1965, that turns around and we plunge and now we’re back down to where we were. We’re in a second Gilded Age.

And the third variable that we look at is harder to discuss and measure, but it’s sort of culture. To what extent do we think that we’re all in this together, or it’s every man for himself, or every man or woman? And that has exactly the same trend. What caused that? I am trying to get to the issues of causation because it turns out to be morality, according to my reading of this evidence. What stands upstream of all these other trends is morality, a sense that we’re all in this together and that we have obligations to other people. Now, suddenly, I’m no longer the social scientist, I’m a preacher. I’m trying to say, we’re not going to fix polarization, inequality, social isolation until, first of all, we start feeling we have an obligation to care for other people. And that’s not easy, so don’t ask me how to do that.

I follow Jesus, so I feel an obligation to care for other people. I won’t list the Bible verses that inspire my morality, they are too numerous.

I have also experienced the disintegration of a church due to the political polarization zeitgeist combined with frustration over inequality. It tested my morality.

But hope springs eternal. (I’ve written about that too!). In the face of aloneness I joined a new church, I was elected to my very diverse HOA Board (keep praying for me), I created a new small group to be part of, and I have a schedule of dinner parties in mind. If enough of us throw our little efforts into the basket of loaves and fishes, Jesus may change our world, too.

The U.S. mess: What is prayer going to do?

On the 4th of July we got together with a few people from our church to pray for the country. Independence Day is one of the “Other Major Feasts” in the Episcopal Church.

I was happy to do it. All week my clients, family and friends were stressed out by Biden’s stupor and Trump’s lies at the debate. Then the Supreme Court changed more fundamental principles with their wild logic. Everyone, from all sides of the political spectrum, is upset, thrashing about in a great wave of distress washing over the country. Once people are tossed about and “white with foam,” they are mad because they are jostled and dripping.

So it was good to read this portion of Psalm 33 from the day’s liturgy on Independence Day:

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
for all its strength it cannot save.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love
to pluck their lives from death,
and to feed them in time of famine.
Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield. — Psalm 33:16-20

This is basic wisdom handed down from the Jews and vivified in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Way the Truth and the Life. Wait for the Lord.

We are so tempted

I have been thinking about Psalm 33 ever since that morning prayer, and about all those beloved people I have seen  who are wondering what happened to their peace and worse, wondering what horrible thing might happen next. Many of them were anxious long before a wave of anxiety hit them. Many of them were mistrusting before before lies descended on them from all angles.

So what should we all do? It would be tempting to rely on some “mighty army” to save us. Violence is in the air we breath, right now.

For instance, here is something Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, offered last Monday:

“That Supreme Court ruling yesterday on immunity is vital, and it’s vital for a lot of reasons…” [He added the nation needs a strong leader because] “the radical left…has taken over our institutions…[W]e are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be.” (July 1)

It would be tempting to take matters into our own hands, since it appears God will not be doing what we want, and to be the arbiter of life and death ourselves.  After all, there are these kinds of candidates:

“The New Republic published a June 30 video of North Carolina lieutenant governor Mark Robinson [start at 53:00], currently the Republican nominee for governor of North Carolina, saying to a church audience about their opponents—whom he identified in a scattershot speech as anything from communists to “wicked people” to those standing against “conservatives”—”Kill them! Some liberal somewhere is gonna say that sounds awful. Too bad!… Some folks need killing! It’s time for somebody to say it.” (from Heather Richardson)

As if the pandemic were not enough to set us on our heads, there has been so much more. U.S. citizens seem awash in fear and it is clouding their judgment. Every radical that promises victory and vengeance seems plausible — even to Jesus followers!

We’ve got to do something, of course. But what is it? Infiltrate the police? Blow things up? Write books and make speeches? Build a bomb shelter? It seems like almost anything seems plausible and everything seems impossible.

In the face of all that, here are my suggestions, hatched after prayer featuring Psalm 33.

 Don’t put your trust in chariots, obey God, not men.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. — Psalm 20:7 (NIV)

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” — Acts 5:29 NASB

In the U.S. people are likely to say, “The other side of the political divide is trusting in guns not God! We are obeying God/the truth/the Constitution!” So maybe we should amplify Psalm 33 to mean, “Don’t trust in the big principle of the moment, in the media’s narrative of reality, in your own prejudices or trauma reactions. Trust in the Lord Jesus, present with you in troubled times, just like he weathered the storm with his disciples.”

It is a year for putting those verses (above) on a post-its and sticking them to our computers or dashboards.

Maybe you could add a few other notes:

  • “Don’t think of 2024 like you are fighting to rule the empire.” Be a Jesus follower.
  • Or “Making the best deal for yourself is not the essence of life.” Jesus already gave you  the best possible deal, anyway.
  • Or Nothing works, so anything might work.” We all feel so guilty for having the wrong political candidates and leaving our children a mess and causing global warming. We’re overwhelmed with our failure to make things work right. Let Go. Let God. And that will free you to be your best self.

Return to the basics

I really wanted to go to that prayer time on the 4th! It felt good and right to pray. It felt necessary to pray in the face of national hysteria or despair.

We are tempted to do everything but what is the secret goodness we bring to the world: Prayer. Community. Worship. But practicing our reality with sincerity makes the world a place where that goodness can and does happen, where our Savior is among us all. If no one sees you or comes to your meeting, don’t worry about it. We are doing a spiritual work, not gaining a market share. Think eternally and act minute by minute.

Assert the truth

I know we are truth challenged, but Jesus isn’t. I know we have variations on what the priority truths are. Don’t worry about it. Jesus fed 5000 with a few loave sand fish, he can use the meager truth he has to work with.

Quite often, during spiritual direction, a person will be up in the air. They don’t know what to think or do. And I often will say, “I think you may know more than you can grasp right now. Let’s be quiet and listen.” It is often surprising just how quickly the right thought or feeling becomes clear.

As for me, I think it has already been revealed that Jesus is my fundamental truth. I mention him a lot and just see what happens. Grace, justice, hope seem to be truths I can follow through every situation. I think my proverb is: Be present with your best, don’t just reactively argue with what is worst. Whatever I have to bring to the world is what it is in who I am and what I do because Jesus is with me.

Embrace unknowing, curiosity, trust, love.

I am meeting with several bewildered couples and experiencing our fractious HOA. So I know people are very tempted to apply whatever power they have to “take someone out.” Like the candidate said, “Some people just need to be killed!” You think that is absurd until you witness people wrecking their marriage or taking down their own community because they are sure some other person is wrong and will ruin them.

Fear feeds the what ifs. Anxiety becomes its own logic. I often suggest to married people, “Really, you do not know what is going to happen. You do not know what can change and grow.” Jesus followers are not fools waiting to get devoured by lions prowling around, of course, but they are also not afraid, because they are already taken care of. They don’t have to know what will happen. They have a destiny. So they can enter toxic times with hope. They can brazenly love their enemies. They can pick out what they can trust and let the chaff blow away.

The seed planting we do always seems small in the face of frightening threats. But each seed has the possibility to grow into the life-changing tree under which some overwhelmed American needs to rest.

Take hold of your anger so you can let it go

I have talked to many Christians about their anger. Many of them could barely tolerate the subject because they were ashamed of their lack at self-control. I’ve concluded they felt that way because they had concentrated on talking themselves out of it. They were looking for their thoughts to align with God’s and then expected such an alignment to fix their anger problem. They really wanted to stop being a time bomb their mate was afraid they were going to set off. They understood their problem. But they just could not get their problem to listen to reason.

Pixar boils it down to this.

You might carry some anger

If the description above resembles you or someone you know, I hope you won’t hold it against them. They may have grown up in a church that was so convinced the Bible was God’s gift to solve all their problems they were obsessed with learning and applying the words correctly. They might have been so into the interpretation of the words they stopped listening with anything but their minds. Chances are they have been angry at themselves for being such a terrible listener and apply-er!

I have often preached, as I am about to, that the people who wrote the Bible were a lot deeper than the Bible. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, plainly says he did not scratch the surface of what Jesus said and did at the end of his profound Gospel. The Apostle Paul apparently spent 14 years  listening and meditating before he was sent on his missionary journeys and wrote his wonderful teaching. They experienced deep transformation that went way beyond words.

Here is one thing Paul learned from God (not merely the Bible) that applies to letting go of your anger.

Not that I have already obtained all this [new life], or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. – Philippians 3:12

He wrote that line because he was taken hold of by Jesus and he was moved to take hold of Jesus. He did not apply a loosely understood set of words to write his letter and he was not teaching his readers to do that. He believed the Holy Spirit would take hold of his readers just like he was, and they would be able to let go of the past and live a new life with new goals just like he was.

If you are so angry your children are afraid of what you will do or say to them; if you can’t get along in your work or it makes you so frustrated you can’t resist venting about it; if you are angry in advance about what you suspect someone will do to you much of the time; if you use intoxicants to “take the edge off” because you are perpetually on the edge of anger; Jesus is reaching right into that place, Spirit-to-spirit, to save you. Take his hand and good things will follow.

When anger comes up, take hold of it

Lots of people want to be saved and have taken all sorts of steps to reap the benefits of faith. But many of them have done it via words and thoughts, not by Spirit and experience. They say to me with frustration, “I have done the right thing. I study the Bible every day. And I am still this way.“ You may have grasped the content, but not the hand of Jesus.

When it comes to anger, when we pray (which is mostly too deep for words), anger will likely come up if we have it, unless we are committed to repressing it. If we let our anger surface, acknowledge it — you could say “grasp it,” then we can let it go.

Some people I’ve heard lately want the Spirit of God to fulfill promises on their behalf and take care of their anger. They say things like, “I did what the Bible says to do. I cast my anger on God because God cares for me. So why was I still furious as soon as I saw my wife?”

There are a lot of answers to that question which go beyond what I am trying to do here.  But one answer would be. “I think you may have really just cast your anger back into the place where you usually keep it, and you expected Jesus to guard the door for you.”

What we need to do is let the anger out when we are with Jesus. We need to see it as best we can. And then we can let it go. The mindfulness people do a nice job at getting to this idea, only without Jesus in the room. Here is a nice meditation one of them suggests. I think Jesus wouldn’t mind sharing that YouTube with you. When I looked for a Christian variation designed for the same purpose, it was mainly a collection of words we were supposed to think about. I’m not even going to show it to you.

When you let the anger up it might be like a hot ball. One person described it as a dark slimy mass. Another envisioned a heart with chains around it struggling to beat. It might feel terrifying to intentionally look at your anger and feel it, to take hold of it like it takes hold of you. But you can do it.

You could get with your therapist or spiritual director and they might help you experience the feeling of anger when it is not just a reaction. You could start by talking about what you’re feeling with anyone who will listen, which might be your spouse if you let them. They might help you remember the earliest times you experienced anger coming at you or coming from you and how you formed the habits you formed for defending against it or using it. You might learn why you protect it, or dominate with it, or love it, or are afraid of losing it.

Sunset at Sea — Renoir, 1879

Then let go of it

I think we have to grasp the self-defeating emotional habits and thoughts we carry before we can let them go. It might be a gentle process like loading our anger on a little boat made of fallen twigs carefully putting it in the stream and watching it float away. Or it might be more aggressive like wrestling with an opponent through the night until something new happens.

We need to apprehend our anger before we can set it loose. The translation of Philippians 3:12 which is most accurate, in my opinion, includes the word “apprehend.” It reads something like, “I want to apprehend what apprehended me.”

The sentence reflects how Jesus apprehended Paul like He was chasing down a terrorist that day Paul was on the way to Damascus to do more crimes against the Lord’s fledgling community of followers. For the rest of Paul’s life he relished being imprisoned by Jesus, stolen from the world of sin and made a slave to righteousness. What a guy! His deeply spiritual and helpful sentence has the feeling of his exhilaration: “You’ve got to grab it!” You probably won’t share his excitement unless you open up to being grabbed in the deep places you organized to defend your heart when you were very young, or when disaster struck.

See if you are angry about being apprehended after reading what I just said. See what parts of you are off limits to being touched by the Spirit or by love. Anger is usually a first line of defense against what we fear or hate. Is there anything don’t you trust Jesus to handle with you, something your anger is trying to handle instead? Ask him yourself, and you will probably be well down the road to letting go of your anger.

I know people who are angry with their spouses about how they are angry with them. But they all love and depend on their spouse! They would like not to be angry at all. They would like to stop having arguments with people in their heads. It makes no sense. When you notice that irrationality, that’s the part of you that needs to be grasped and ultimately let go. Just withdrawing with the feeling back to safety or detonating it for the same reason will not work for good.

When you are contemplating with God and anger comes up, welcome it. It is not just a distraction, it is you. You may not know everything about it: “Why I am like this? Where did this come from? Why don’t I want to deal with it?” But if you listen in the quiet you may grasp a lot more in your soul than you understand with your words. You probably know a lot about your anger you would rather not handle.

Grasp what you can so far, maybe even put your hands around that ball and look at Jesus looking at it with you. Shame, fear, loss, disappointment, all sorts of deeper emotions may start to rise. That’s OK. They may move you to let the ball go and let Jesus heal you.

Maybe you will see that hot ball of anger float away when you let go of it, blown by a spiritual breeze until you can’t see it anymore, like Renoir’s little boat (above) out in his spiritual sea. Then turn back to Jesus to see how he looks and what he wants to do. Let him do it. Lay hold of him.

I hope some kind of embrace comes to your mind when you turn to Jesus — He loves you, angry or not, after all. You’ll get to feel that love more when you’ve taken hold of your anger so you can let it go. You’ll undoubtedly feel more love from others, too, and they will feel more love from you, for sure.

*******

Today is Harriet Beecher Stowe Day! Few, if any, American women have had more influence on the United States than she had. Meet her at The Transhistorical Body.

Disentangling from perfectionism — 2013

Our teaching for Lent in 2013 had to do with “getting disentangled from the world.” Here is one of the first speeches I offered on that theme.

The movie Enchanted (from 2007) had Dr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy as an unlikely prince charming from New York to Amy Adams playing a princess from fairy tale land. (This is the same Ms. Adams who was nominated this year for an Oscar for the wretched film The Master. “Wretched” is not peer-reviewed.). In France they named the movie “Once Upon a Time” and made the better-looking Adams the main face.

The movie Enchanted, (or Il Etait Une Fois) is a sweet-ish fable that deconstructs the old sweetness of being a princess in your imagination and gets you to face the new overwhelming reality of postmodern, urban life and messy, noncommittal relationships. It asks the question, “Can I get some enchantment into the megalopolis?” And, as in many Disney movies, the answer is “Yes, there is a Prince Charming or Princess Giselle for you — probably not the one you are looking for, but you will miraculously find them and everything will be perfect, just as it should be in your own private fairy tale.”

This piece of fluff  is a surprisingly philosophical movi for being a little fairy tale. I think you will see that fact as you watch one of my favorite scenes from it. Amy Adams, Princess Giselle, has just arrived in gritty New York from happily-ever-after land. She wants to make her environment tidy, like at home, where everything is as it should be, so she calls on animal friends to help her like she used to do back in her native land. You’ll see the homage to Snow White. It’s a fun way to get started on our subject.

The song is being ironic instead of seriously asking the question, which is how we keep from addressing the real questions that bother us. But it presents the dilemma we feel about our very messy environments and our need for special powers to make it all perfect. Amy teaches us that:

You could do a lot when you’ve got such a happy working tune to hum
While you’re sponging up the soapy scum.
We adore each filthy chore that we determine.
So friends, even though you’re vermin, we’re a happy working throng.

Our dilemma: we are supposed to make things neat, tidy, working things out together, ultimately loving and never getting your white gown dirty, happy and talented, filmable, effortless, quick, efficient and you win best song for your ditty.

But, it is a big mess, and often feels like it is getting bigger, the only friends we have to help us are pigeons and rats, we have a lot of filthy chores and we are in charge of them, and we don’t get paid enough to do them, and the big one: we are vermin — not happy and can’t sing.

The world’s answer to our dilemma

I think the world’s answer, including Disney’s most of the time, which is the #14 corporation on Forbes 500, is to “make it work” as they say on Project Runway. You can do it; it’s up to you, it’s a DIY world and you have the tools. Dream like an American, just get educated, assert your rights, make all the right choices — consumer choices and otherwise, especially in a mate, and it can all be made well.

The moral to Enchanted, if I recall, is that if you just stick with it, you can make it all work in reality and not just in the movies. If you just believe in the real you instead of the make-believe you, love will find a way and it will be beautiful.

I suppose there are worse things that could be said, but I think the whole premise ends up making us very tangled up, not only tangled up in our responsibility to make everything tidied up, but tangled up in the need to do it with the right attitude, and right psychology, not tripped up with any of the mess from the past, and being pretty much prescient about how we might be messing up the future, AND with the just right person, or church, for that matter.

The alternative way of Jesus

Jesus has a better way. In a huge contrast, in the face of his impending disaster, not just a dirty apartment, when Jesus knows the true frailty of his disciples is going to be fully revealed and evil is going show itself without disguise, when all the facades of the self-sufficient world are going to be shown up for their true self-destructive purpose, he says:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

In Disney’s hands, the way is: “Let’s be honest, you are vermin, but you’ve got to make this work or there is no hope.”

In Jesus’ hands, the way is: “There is hope because I have overcome the world. Take heart, because it is not all up to you. Perfection is not the goal, anyway. The goal is a heart at peace in the kingdom of God.”

This might seem like it is an obvious thing a Christian might say. But I am not sure we even hear Jesus talking to us in the middle of our normal pursuits. We even get hung up on whether we are performing Christianity perfectly enough! Christians argue all the time about how badly the other Christians are doing. We do that, even though Paul clearly wants us to imitate him when he says,

“Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8

There were some overachievers in the Corinthian church who not only thought they could make it work, they thought they were making it work — and better than Paul! Paul says, “Who in the world do you think you are, all puffed up and competing for the highest rank, thinking you need to be number one and, in fact, are number one? You think you are kings in the kingdom of God, while we apostles are still having trouble in the world and rely on Jesus every minute to give us joy in our very difficult circumstances. I’m talking about Jesus who gives us whatever life we have.”

Why don’t you talk back to the Disney faction in Corinth with Paul by reading the rest of this scripture as if you were saying it to someone yourself:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!  For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! — 1 Corinthians 4:8-10

You would think we would all be on Paul’s side, but even the first believers were already taking things into their own hands and doing Paul better than Paul and telling him so! — becoming perfect, thinking that was what Jesus had in mind all along, and getting there without Jesus!

Perfectionism has always been tempting

This perfectionism is very tempting for us, which is why we are bringing it up during Lent.

Last week I experienced us in the middle of the dilemma in two ways. And I’ll close by talking about them. I feel bad, if all I am getting you to do so far is wondering if you understand what Paul is talking about well enough, or whether you trust Jesus well enough, or whether you are good enough to be in the church, or whether you can take on one more big idea because you already have so much on your plate to handle, or whether you can be responsible for following Jesus and get spread so thin, you are already so responsible. But if I am getting you to wonder these things, you are not alone. In the world we have trouble. But Jesus has overcome it and brings us peace. I’m shooting for helping you receive that.

Fall 2012
  • Internal perfection police

We were at the prospective cell leader training last Monday and great people were learning all about the ambitious mission we have been given as part of God’s redemption project. At the end of the evening people were invited to express some of the fears they had as they imagined themselves eventually being cell leaders. I think some of their answers reflected the perfectionism we are all saddled with: the need to do it right, to be unjudgable, to not mess up.  I don’t think anyone was unaware that this wasn’t where they wanted to be, they were just being honest.

Someone said, “If I become a cell leader, I want to do it 100%.”
Whatever that means. I think it usually means “the extra effort I am not able to give.” It does not always mean, “Doing the best I can” or “Acting with passion and abandon.” It often means matching up to the best effort I can imagine myself doing with the best outcome.

I am afraid I will alienate someone if I say “Christian.”
And you will. We started out our day at Childs Elementary yesterday with worship and two ladies from the neighborhood walked out and waited until we were done. I felt like I had offended them. As it turns out, I hadn’t, they were just kind of dismissive and sort of rude and self-consumed. But I felt I was supposed to be better than that, better than Jesus, and not be alienating. That perfectionism might lead us to only mention being a Christian in the most controlled of circumstances, when I could be sure I was doing the right thing. Whenever that is.

I am afraid I won’t have the right words.
Cell leaders are know-it-alls, after all.

I am afraid of looking flaky or uncommitted.
I am anxious about making it happen, because I have to make things happen right.

I am afraid to represent Jesus or the church.
I am not wise enough. I don’t match up to what’s in the book. I am not good enough. So I have to wait until I am perfect before I put myself out there and am judged by the perfection police.

And just who are these perfection police? Paul doesn’t even judge himself. And Jesus who will judge the living and dead at the end of time, says  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

  • Perfectionism is beaming at us

I just talked about an internal process that keeps us tangled up in trying to be perfect, but there are a huge external forces, too! One of our pastors sent out a very interesting article that adds sociological reasoning for why we are so perfectionistic. The powers-that-be totally convince us to disbelieve the trouble we are in for their vision of a perfectible future.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin shows off Google Glass

As far as the Forbes 500 know, everything is getting better. The iPhone 6 will dispense with the annoying home button and feature a 4.8-inch screen and quad-core processor. Google is developing Google Glass, which will allow users to text, take pictures and videos, perform Google searches, by talking in a normal voice to a smart lens. The Dow Jones average just reached an all-time high last week, corporate profits are enjoying “a golden age.” Day by day, problem by problem, American life is being fine-tuned to the point where experts now confidently predict a state of near-complete perfection. We are a happy working throng.

But in other news, America’s economic and social decline continues. The percentage of corporate profits going to employees is at its lowest level since 1966. Unemployment remains stuck around eight per cent, and the long-term jobless make up almost forty per cent of the total.  The concentration of wealth at the top grows ever more pronounced all over the world. From 2009 to 2011—the years of the financial crisis and the recovery—the income of the top one per cent rose 11.2 per cent. The income of the bottom ninety-nine per cent actually shrank 0.4 per cent. Eighty per cent of Americans believe their children will be worse off than they are. We are vermin.

The author of the article said this: When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes presents a dilemma, we can take refuge in the virtual world, where we can solve problems like – how do I make a video of my skydiving adventure while keeping my hands free? Problems most people in the world don’t even know exist! Futurist Ayesha Khanna, from her think tank in London, which funds research into human-technology co-evolution and its implications, described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, “enhancing our basic sense” and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness—unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person.

We need to stay disentangled from all the forces that would lead us to believe human ingenuity will lead to perfection and evolution is inevitably making progress. Human ingenuity — great. Evolution — whatever. The reality of what is going on in our troubling world was striking us in the face at Childs Elementary yesterday. We made ourselves look again at how the powers keep asking people (like teachers) to make bricks without straw. We can’t make things work well enough. Even though we are smart and caring, we are not changing things fast enough to get where we think we ought to go and it makes us angry, depressed, frustrated and self-hating. Part of our anguish is caused by what is bearing down on us from the weird world that technology is creating. But most of our guilt is just that same old sin that leads us to believe that all we have us what we are and we are who we are without God giving us life.

“Take heart,” Jesus says “I have overcome the world.” When you become silent or you move into your worship connection in a few minutes, when you pray as you pray next week, take heart. Let’s receive the gift that Jesus is giving by overcoming the world and reopening the door to true, everlasting life.

God loves the world and we love it with him. But we can’t receive peace from the dying world or our false selves. We take heart, Jesus has overcome and we will too.

When we feel like we have to get it all right, we let that perfectionism lie pass right by and receive our goodness and strength from the Giver of Life.

When we think we have to do it by ourselves in the face of all the huge forces or even judge our community by how good we are, we need to recognize the seeds of a graceless future and let that impulse, that temptation, pass by and be restored and be restoring in relationship to the Lord of all. Jesus is disentangling us from the temptation to be perfect. He’s good right now, right where you’re at.

Music matters: A message to Boomer prison guards

Is it just me, or do you sometimes feel like you will never be released from your Boomer music prison? I was in the dim sum restaurant celebrating 8th-grade graduates and one of them stopped eating dan dan noodles as soon as “Build Me Up, Buttercup” came on the background music. We belted out, “I need you (I need you) more than anyone darling,” which was sweet. But I also thought, “Will we never be free of this song?”

Graduation Day

I went to two commencement ceremonies (loved them!) and heard 8th graders singing Boomer anthems to Boomers. But most of their parents were born in the 70’s and 80’s, weren’t they? In the first ceremony  the kids actually sang “Graduation Day” which was a hit for the Four Freshmen in 1956! I went down to gym floor as the director was cleaning up the band music to congratulate her, “Extra points for ‘Graduation Day.’ Where did you discover that?” She said, “Oh, we always sing it. It’s a tradition.”

How did that piece of fluff become a tradition? You could say, “The same reason your son  makes the Jello dessert for Thanksgiving your mother’s family still calls a salad.” Touche. But still, any use of that song does not make perfect sense to me.

I was out in the Redwoods with ten-year-olds where we discovered our cool farmhouse VRBO had a TV in their room with the Disney channel. We turned it on and there was the new Beach Boys documentary being headlined. I was interested in the Beach Boys, so we watched a bit. But I thought, “The Beach Boys hold some interest for the Disney Plus watchers?”

The Boys also came to mind during the first commencement, since Brian Wilson was obsessed with the Four Freshman and much of the brilliant harmonies he built into surf music were directly from them. The Beach Boys also recorded “Graduation Day.”

The first record Brian Wilson bought when he was a teenager in Hawthorne, CA (about an hour from where I lived), was the Four Freshmen’s 1955 album Four Freshmen And 5 Trombones. The story goes that 30 years later he still loved the album. He told an interviewer, “They had a demonstration booth where you could listen in the store and I found the Freshmen album. My mother said, ‘Do you really want to hear this?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ So I went into the little booth and played it and fell in love with it.”

I aspired to BE one of the Beach Boys when I was young. So I find them very appealing and have almost all the songs from Pet Sounds on my playlist. But “Graduation Day” was a bit of nostalgia when the Beach Boys were young! What was it doing in an amazingly diverse class of 8th graders in Philly in 2024? Has it become “America the Beautiful?”

I turned to the grad’s older brother and said, “Couldn’t they find a more representative song than that?  Do they think people have stopped writing music?” He wasn’t really listening to me complain but he was polite. I went on to suggest, “How about ‘What Was I Made For?’” (which I recently Smuled for my sister). That would be a great commencement song for the present generation, some of whom were dressed like Barbie before our very eyes.

Forever Young

The next day we celebrated with an even more diverse class of 8th graders and they were also programmed to sing for us, which they did very nicely. But what song did their Boomer teachers (or were they GenX?) pull out for them to learn? — the classic “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan, written for his son in 1974. He recorded a couple of versions but, honestly, I have never been able to listen to him sing. Here’s my favorite of his interpreters:

Last year there was a Joan Baez documentary, too: I am A Noise. I watched part of it because I have always admired her voice and activism. She’s inspiring. It ends with her dancing in a field as an old woman, but much like any hippy would imagine Joan Baez dancing.

But what was Dylan’s song doing in a commencement ceremony 50 years after it was written? Has it become classic, like the “Hallelujah” chorus? I looked at my wife when the kids first sang, “Forever young,” and said, “No thank you.” Who in the world would want to stay young, especially always in 8th grade? I want them to be full of the brightness and hope of that moment, but I am not sure they’ll make it if they are stuck in Dylan prison.

My mind turned to all the other, more recent, sentimental music they could have used. I think Dear Evan Hansen’s  “You Will Be Found” from 2016 would have been much better. It is just like Disney but always makes me cry. This year’s grads endured the pandemic, after all.

Music matters

We live in an environment in which every sound wave is monetized. Molecules will probably soon come with pop-up adds. There is a lot of competition for our attention, which means were are mostly not attending at all. But we need to listen to the music. Music matters. The Boomer/GenX teachers keep sampling the past for feel-good nostalgia, for the muffled sounds they heard in the womb, I suspect. That’s OK. But that’s not real enough.

Music is such a wonderfully integrative art, especially singing, if we let our whole bodies get into it. That’s why churches are holding out as a place where singing in public still happens (well, there is the Phillies games and Luke Combs concerts, too). Singing is a spiritual discipline. But even if you aren’t disciplined, or aren’t really listening, it is still a spiritual experience.

The teachers, it seems to me, chose to keep their kids enclosed in a small space — the kind of space stores offer when they dish up more “Build Me Up Buttercup” while you’re looking for polenta (which they keep moving around!). The kids of the future will need a lot more than sedation or amorphous feelings of well-being. They will need a lot of spiritual imagination to get out of the mess they are in. As the atmosphere gets warmer and the warzones get wider, they will need real music to live on, not just leftovers. I hope they learn to remember way beyond 1956 and dare to write the soundtracks of healing and building way into the future.

Reflection is facing up to your new face

My wife does not turn her phone off at night because we have been listening for children calling in the dark for over forty years, so why stop now? Some unknown person called at 3:30 the other night and then called again a short time later. I hear they called again after I had left in a daze.

I started my day in the dark because I could not get back to sleep and got all sorts of things accomplished. I have many new duties these days. Then I saw clients and oversaw the installation of our long-overdue window in the façade of our counseling offices. After I came home and tried to fix the TV, which had lost its sound, I was, again, a bit dazed. I asked, “Was it just last night those phone calls came?”

As I sat down to reflect and pray the next morning, one of my favorite verses came to mind. I had just said to God, “I am not sure who I am right now.” It turns out, that was a good move, since turning to look into the face of “the perfect law, the law of liberty” immediately reassured me that I was still in the presence of the One who loves me. And then I remembered James.

Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. — James 1:22-4

Reflection

I’m in a season when I often wake up and say, as I am reflecting, “I need more reflection.” I will eventually take some extended time or take a retreat, which I need to do. But I also need to remember that the day-to-day discipline of taking as much time as possible to deliberately turn toward God has transformed my life.

I think it was the same for James, too. And he is not shy about taking a dig at us in his book of wisdom for lagging in transformation. He basically says, “If you don’t do something deliberate about the new reality you have entered, you’ll still be like a person who doesn’t seem to know what they look like. You’ll still be checking yourself out in every mirror you pass, or in store windows and phone screens. You will never quite know what you’re doing because you’re still looking at your old self in the mirror instead of the transformed self Jesus has made you.”

Why do we love to look in the mirror? — well, at least most of us love it, or at least can’t help doing it. We have a magnifying mirror in our bathroom for advanced plucking, but I also use it to eliminate those stray hairs old men grow. I admit a bit of fascination about how different I look over time. The reflection of my face tells my history, collects my criticism, and always reminds me I reached my peak beauty decades ago. It is easy to forget, day by day, just who we are for all we have been and all we are not. We’re fascinated by our own story, and there it is looking at us.

James is trying to change our usual mirror experience. He comes right out and says it, “That old law you lived by was a pack of lies.” We deceived ourselves so much, we got trapped in checking ourselves out all the time to see if we were performing well, to see if things were all under control. The old law ended up being about regretting who we were and fearing who we need to become. Very few of us looked in the mirror and said, “Yes. You’re crushing it.”

The new law, which is really the oldest law from which the world was created, the law of love, is not like the endless self-criticism and defensiveness that saddled us to fear. It is a law of liberty, a lens through which we see ourselves as God gives us to become.

Facing up to your new face

The other day I said something impolitic in a private meeting and I offended someone. They wrote a letter to me and my board members, publicly shaming me and demanding an apology. I apologized, since I should watch what I say (James has something to say about our tongues right after today’s quote!). Someone called me and wondered if my apology had just given an adversary something to weaponize! Trump has taught us all to deceive and deceive ourselves, to be perpetually defensive. But I wondered if my friend was not right. We’ll see.

With my apology, I was trying to “face up to my new face.” I am in new situations these days. I often wonder “Who am I?” I keep learning who I am by turning away from the mirror of merely me and looking into the mirror where God is looking back at me. How does one do that?

1) Looking is also doing.

Most people see James’ teaching as, “You need to take care of some widows, not just sit there like a saved lump!” I think that’s a fair interpretation.

But James did not get to his teaching about doing the word just by visiting widows. I think he first looked deeply into the new law as part of his rhythm. Being a doer of the word means looking into the law of liberty. That is a basic “doing” that creates a “doer.”

2) Resisting deception is also doing.

I’ve heard many (and may have preached a few) sermons about people who merely listen to sermons (podcasts, videos, lectures, etc.) and think that is the essence of being a Christian. It is not, even if most Protestant churches have a big fat pulpit in the center of the meeting. Merely-hearers are taking in info to advance their project — they are “getting it right.” They are getting justified, over and over, which feels good as long as they are in the echo chamber. And they are creating an image that looks justified;  they are a principle they can articulately justify (or just loudly defend). They are proving themselves, so when they check the mirror to see if they are still there, they will feel OK and maybe even feel like they deserve to represent Jesus.

James wants us to prove ourselves by doing what our true selves should do, not just get more material to shore up our weak sense of self. We’ve got enough material! But before James got to that conclusion, I think he had to go through the hard process of not deceiving himself. He, like all of us, had a story he lived by before he heard the story of Jesus. It is hard to say it, but we were deceiving ourselves, living a lie, and were desperate to get that lie justified. Facing up to our new face means looking at ourselves in new ways. When you look in the mirror and see “the Beloved of God” and not just “a wrinkly old man” or “a fat woman” or “the one who must not be seen,” or “a lot of work left to do,” we’re getting somewhere.

3) Receiving is also doing  

In this era we tend to manualize everything. A co-worker is mastering A.I. at a ripe old age. They ask A.I. everything and it is amazing what gets produced. It is easy for us (or A.I., I guess) to take James and spit out best practices — reduce him to “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Since the world is warming at an alarming rate, that might be great advice. But he’s deeper than that.

James did not get to his advice about doing the word because he had a good idea or a revelation. He probably would not go to A.I. to find out who he is. He appears to have some personal experience. When he says, “If you persevere and keep acting for good with the freedom you have received from your past ways, you will be blessed,” I think he knew about being blessed that way. I don’t think he was channeling a theory.

If you cannot receive God’s blessing of new life and love in Jesus, you probably won’t keep acting. Receiving new life is the first thing we do. If you only feel “blessed” because you succeed as a Christian in the ways you thought of success in your old narrative, you’ll probably give up the whole Christian enterprise. Maybe you should, since you’re following yourself instead of Jesus.

The reality of being blessed is also an experience of being blessed. I turn to God because I am alive, not just trying to be alive. I am blessed because I live under God’s watchful eye, listening for me like a mother in the night, not just because, “I did the right thing and I ought to get something for it.” I reflect because I am a reflection, not just because I need to improve myself and figure out how to survive this day.

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Yesterday was Columba Day! He is one of my favorites of the apostles of the earliest Celtic church. He is larger-than-life, flawed, artistic, ambitious and leaves a legacy many still admire. Click his name and get to know him at The Transhistorical Body.

Prayer: Stay until God blesses you

I added a couple of major commitments to my schedule. They are not like I just moved to Chicago for a new job; not like welcoming a new baby into the family; not like being enrolled at Philly’s University of the Arts and it shutting down in an instant; not like losing a lawsuit or finally ending up a felon after years of avoiding that outcome. But I am feeling the weight of new commitments. We all get new burdens placed on us, one time or another.

I got elected to my condo board, God help me. Plus I became more integral to my church. And I was feeling full enough before those things happened, since I have a job, like most of you do. I have a dearly loved family nearby. I have trips to take. I have to figure out the City of Philadelphia’s websites periodically and wonder what has happened to my latest lost online shopping delivery —  not to mention Gaza, and it is 126 degrees in New Delhi.

Staying

In the midst of all this, I noticed my prayer felt a little stale, for lack of a better description. It was still bread, but not as nice as fresh-baked. I realized that almost as soon as I sat down to pray, I was tempted to get up. Or some days I had to admit that I did not sit down at all, the schedule was so pressing. So God and I felt a little like “ships passing in the night.” At least the Lord was moving and I was a bit adrift.

One day I had that restless feeling and decided, “I am going to stay here, even if all I do is feel like I need to get up.” I did not feel trapped or irritated. I did not feel sinful. But I did not feel like there was room for intimacy, either. So I stayed.

The image that popped into my mind as I stayed was one of the most famous scenes in the story of Jacob in Genesis. You probably remember it. He is finally going back to the territory of his forefathers, Isaac and Abraham, and he is about to meet his brother Esau, who he cheated out of his birthright as the older brother and who he hasn’t seen for fourteen years.

Contemporary icon by Deacon Nikita Andrejev. https://n-andrejev.squarespace.com/

Jacob’s all-nighter

Here is the part of the story that intrigued me the most. Jacob sent his family and all his possessions across the Jabbok ford and into his homeland, now a threatening place. He stayed on the other side by himself all night and wrestled with God until he was blessed.

I realized I was doing what every God-lover needs to do. I was staying. I was staying like Jacob stayed all night. Fortunately, I was not fearing the 400 men my brother was reportedly leading to meet me. I just had a lot to do, and people throw trash out their car windows where I live. I needed to stay.

The art of having a relationship with God and becoming a non-anxious presence yourself requires staying. I had to sit in the chair where I pray, stay on the bench or kneeler where I pray, go into a bathroom stall in the office where I can be alone and stay until I felt blessed.

It is not that I am not blessed when I am figuring out my condominium problems, or  imagining how a traditional church can make a difference, or caring for my clients. I just don’t know I’m blessed. I have trouble feeling it. And I mean knowing in the “You dislocated my hip with a touch” sense; feeling  in the “I am walking with a limp because of you” sense.

God dislocates me when I am located in my preoccupations, fears, lusts, or ignorance, you name it. He sets me walking in a way that demonstrates I have been with her. I love that reality. But it is hard to stay in it, unless I stay. My spiritual awareness happens in time and in a body and always will. I need to do the physical things that allow spiritual things to overwhelm what overwhelms me.

Michel Keck will sell you this work. Click the pic.

Stay and meet God

As you can tell, the Jacob story has been grounding me. In it, I could hear Jesus asking me to stay with him as he wrestled in prayer in the night in Gethsemane. Such praying comes to good result:

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. — Genesis 32:30-31

The place where Jacob stayed was named Penuel: “God was seen there.” Jacob renamed that place for himself, Peniel: “I saw God here.”

Whatever we are facing today, whatever is built up from the past, we need to stay with God in it until we realize we are blessed. Go to the place you pray and stay there. Otherwise, our prayer could be a place where “God was seen sometime.” But I think each day needs to be marked with “I have seen God here.”

Thank you Jesus. God is with us. Here and now.

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Today is Kizito Day. He is one of the many Ugandan martyrs still remembered for keeping faith when it was new. Get to know this spiritual ancestor at https://www.transhistoricalbody.com/

Today is also Hudson Taylor Day. He is one of the most inventive, dedicated and strange missionaries ever. He made a huge impact in China. I think his story will challenge, puzzle and inspire you. Meet him at https://www.transhistoricalbody.com/

 

 

Pentecost season

You are so kind Lord!
When I wondered who I am,
You said, “Call me Abba”
and the calling made me. Makes me!
I call your name and you call mine.
I name you mine and you name me back.
You are so kind, Lord!

In a day of meaningless words,
who will you send into the streets? Who?
In a day of CGI-fantasy fire,
who will marvel at the tongues? Who?
In an ocean of one-bedroom apartments,
who will join your fire-born community? Who?
In your broken-down church,
wearing its terrible reputation,
where will you show your face to the world? You!

You are so kind Lord!
I shied away from saying, “Let it be me!”
and you still said, “I’ll let it be you.
It has always been you and me.
Always. Before you were born, I knew you.
I loved you and waited for you to grow.
Waited. When you first saw me, I was looking at you.
When you were a twentysomething,
I knew what could happen and laughed.
I laughed at you thinking you were too old
to burn with fire and energize grace.
Old! If you are too old, what am I?”
You are so kind Lord!

In this season of celebration —
wearing red, singing confident songs —
this season of unimagined beginnings,
help me. Help me to be looking for you
as you seek me out again and name me.
Seek me! Lick me with the presence of the future.

Wrangling about law when “nothing is written”

One of my favorite scenes in the masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, shows what happens after Lawrence returns from his journey across the Nefud desert. He has just accomplished the impossible by taking the Ottoman port of Aqaba from the desert side.  Having returned across the deadly, scorching expanse, he is told one of his companions, Gasim, fell off his camel and was left behind. He is advised any attempt to save him is futile — Gasim’s death is “written.”

Lawrence goes into the desert to find Gasim.  I give you the long version of the scene of his return just to celebrate the cinematography and score. It is worth your four minutes just to watch David Lean humanize the abstraction of sand and sky.

Later on that night, after Lawrence has rehydrated and awakened in time for dinner, Sherrif Ali, in all humility, says, “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”

I think it is safe to say Lawrence was teaching Ali to think, “Everyone decides their own fate. No one’s destiny is predetermined.” And “I’ll be damned if I let that man die.” I hesitate to disagree with Hollywood, but Lawrence is wrong even if he is brave. I don’t think it is “me, or us, against the world.” If nothing is “written” it is not because men rule  the world, but because  the world is alive with the Spirit of its Creator and is growing in grace (or in spite of it). We should be beyond arguing about what is merely written by now. But we wrangle.

Daily Mail captures Johnson at the courthouse

The fight for what is written

Last week the spectacle of Trump in court continued, with Mike Johnson, himself, attending in order to subvert the gag order (possibly in the name of Jesus), with Matt Gaetz tweeting in the ex-president’s honor, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President.” For those guys “nothing is written until they write it,” for sure, as far as I can see.

For the prosecutors who dare to bring Trump to trial, “It is written, in the law. And no one is above it.” The law is god in a pluralisitc democracy and the prosecutors want it known the assaulters are crashing up against the stone of the legal code.

We’re having a national crisis about the law. But all those Christians involved in this battle should remember that law is just a tutor (disciplinarian, guardian, etc.) to teach us how to exercise our freedom to live in grace. Isn’t that the clear New Testament teaching? Subvert the law or apply it, it can’t kill you or save you, at least not forever.

The temptation to fight for or against what is written is everywhere, it seems.

  • Right now, many people are so afraid, they are reverting to certainty and order. Jesus Collective devolved into a teaching platform instead the catalyst for a movement. They may have fallen off their camel in the desert.
  • My former denomination has vainly tried to quash a book people have written about their experiences of being LGBTQ in their branch of the Church, cast out, and abused by what someone said was “written.” This contrary book was written by people who refused to leave someone in the desert, refused to be confined to principles imposed in the 1600’s.
  • My HOA leaders keep trying to shore up what went wrong with the past management of our old building instead of starting here and now and working together for the future. Like I said last time, someone threatened a lawsuit because of some words thrown their way! There are many lawyers scheming away.
  • My church splendidly presents ancient humans with lovely words each week and performs classic chants with great voices and instruments. They are heirs of someone else’s invention instead of inventing like the heirs we are. I think we may love being ruled by the liturgical rules.

You have your own examples, I’m sure. I think I am effectively tired, again, of everyone who teaches, “It is written.” I’m a Jesus follower, so I am mainly talking about church leaders, pulpiteers and dueling factions splitting up the Methodist Church, etc., who are wrangling over words, litigating righteousness constantly, sometimes like Trump, sometimes like the  prosecutors, but rarely in grace.

Don’t we resist bad teachers intuitively?

That is a wishful question, of course, since we follow tracks that are bad for us all the time. We believe the voices in our head defending us against what we thought might kill us as a child! We all have our own laws we follow. But don’t most of us also have an operable b.s. detector?

If we connect with Jesus at all, the Holy Spirit will be helping us detect what might really kill us.  The main way God does that is to bear witness in our own hearts, souls, minds and strengths that we are God’s adopted children in Jesus.

We tend to settle for much less than that wondrous place in the world. Nevertheless, I think we all know about it at some level. I think I felt the following truth before I read it in the Bible when I was seventeen for the first time, as a relatively aware adult:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption [into the full legal standing as an heir]. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. — Romans 8:14-17 (NRSVUE)

I’ABBA, FATHER! – The Place of Praiseve always resisted the heresy of power-hungry men saying they love the Bible and then undermining the fundamental truth Paul taught. Nothing in the New Testament was written about how we should live  which was not first written by the Spirit witnessing to us, just like God taught Paul. Our organic relationship with our loving-parent-of-a-God is the central example Jesus wants to demonstrate. We’re not an application of principle, nothing is merely “written;” the Spirit is writing. We’re not unforgiveable, merely the sum of what we can make of ourselves, we’re all imminent miracles.

I have to admit, I’ve got that power-hunger in me, too. I also often feel I, alone, must solve the problems I face. We were talking in a meeting of psychotherapists not long ago about clients who struggle so hard with their view of themselves, views that have a repeating narrative, something “written,” making ruts in their brains.   They come up against certain situations and a voice comes from nowhere, it seems. It could insist, “We never cause conflict. It is deadly.” Or worse, “You are unlovable. Don’t bother.” You probably have stories that repeat in you, too.

Yet In the surprisingly psychologically-sound Romans 8 (only surprising to people who think humanity has progressed until they and their pleasant splendor is possible), we are reminded, or promised, what every one who shares Christ’s death and resurrection knows. Nothing is “written,” at least not in stone. Everything is a new creation in Jesus. We’re changing and growing in grace. The Spirit of God is creating us right now and we’re creating right alongside.