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.

Save us from the serious authoritarian, Lord!

Gov. Whitmer of Michigan went to Kalamazoo County last week to survey damage from the tornadoes that destroyed seventeen mobile homes and damaged 173 more. The state had just passed a law to require mobile homes to be anchored in a sturdier way, since storms have become more severe. “It’s undeniable,” the governor said. “We’re seeing intense impacts from climate change….We’ve got to continue to evolve…(We need to) think about how do we protect one another and combat these impacts.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring Wisconsin, their senator, Ron Johnson, recently entered the World Climate Declaration into a Senate committee record. That statement says there is no climate emergency and aspects of climate change are actually beneficial. You can read the rebuttal here from a couple of years ago. Some people trace the disinformation in the declaration to oil companies (like the Koch conglomerate), which would not be surprising.

I don’t want to get into that argument, even though a lot of us are amused by endless wrangling. I just bring it up to ponder what is really happening these days. I’m still wondering if I am up to the demands of 2024. For instance, my church is about ready to enter their annual summer slowdown. It’s a thing. I have my own summer festivities lined up, too. My clients often take much of the summer off from their psychotherapy! Yet I keep getting info, like it or not, that something important is brewing. You can see it underneath Gretchen Whitmer fighting someone for the authority to name the impact of unusual tornados. Maybe we are too sleepy.

Are people really trying to take over the country sans election?

One of my friends sent me a podcast from the Meidas Touch Network, which three brothers started during the pandemic and now has billions of views on YouTube. It was an interview with Steven Hassan, a psychotherapist who has dedicated his career to undermining the many ways people are lured into cults. He, himself, was a member of the Unification Church (the Moonies) for 27 months. He was proselytized when he was getting a poetry degree in college. I would not recommend the podcast to you, just because I don’t trust garage-born internet sensations (although Mr. Beast keeps trying to win my favor). But it did bring up some things I had to look into.

As a result of looking, I would recommend we all have an educated opinion about what is happening in the country! I do not believe democracy will save the world, even if it has done a great job since World War 2. And capitalism is really kind of degenerative. But I do think the authoritarian types who are taking over governments, school boards and condo associations (and maybe your Mother’s Day celebration) are even less likely to save the world, even though they are saying they are going to do just that.

For instance, Trump did say he was going to save America when the eclipse came around:

I don’t think Trump really believes much of anything except Trump. But there are many people who seriously believe in some version of an ascendant, anti-democratic philosophy, which they think Trump can help put into action. They are better organized and funded all the time. You can see their influence in almost every discussion we have these days at almost every level of society.

For example, I just want highlight two authoritarian movements which are publicly and vocally calling people to join their intention to conquer the world for Jesus. Seriously.

Moonies

Steven Hassan was on the podcast because he had firsthand experience of how someone can be lured into an authoritarian organization and become a foot soldier for the cause. He followed Sung Myung Moon, who presented himself as the second coming of Jesus; that’s the unifying “truth” of the Unification Church.

Sean Moon with his “rod of iron”  and bullet crown in Rolling Stone (Click pic for article)

I talked about “Moonies” the other night at a dinner party with twentysomethings and one of them leaned over to an older person to ask, ”What is a Moony?” I honestly had not thought of them much, either, until a few years ago when I found out they had a church/compound not far from my former house in the Poconos. After Father Moon died, his wife and sons had a fallout (sounds a bit like Sunni and Shia and every other power struggle after the founder is gone).

The sons claimed leadership and moved headquarters to Pennsylvania. Sean Moon and his wife founded the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary near Newfoundland. The Pocono Herald heard about it and voiced the neighbors’ concerns. The church recently bought properties in central Texas and eastern Tennessee for retreat, self-sufficient agriculture and firearm training.

Key scriptures for them include Psalm 2:8-9

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession, You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

They think this is their mandate to bring the world under their rule. It is all on their website. Part of their statement of belief includes a “constitution” for the unification of humankind under God’s law. Here is the prologue:

Constitution

In the beginning of human history in the Garden of Eden, God’s original world of freedom, liberty, conscience, and relationship with God was to be established. It was to be a world where the powerful archangels were to be the servants of the children of God. However, due to the Fall, Eve committed adultery with the Archangel and tempted Adam into sinning against God. Thus, the world of Satan’s domination over mankind was established. History has shown centralized powers, either governmental, religious or financial, use artificial structures and power to rule over mankind, sometimes taking freedoms gradually and sometimes eliminating them by brute force. God’s Kingdom on Earth must be established where the artificial structures of power, representing Satan, shall never again rule over mankind and humanity.

The Constitution of the United States of Cheon Il Guk is not an ecclesiastical Constitution of a church or religious body, but is a Constitution for an actual, sovereign nation which will be the literal culmination of God’s Providence. Read it at http://www.sanctuary-pa.org/constitution.

These are not the only people working at this. But they are the ones in your back yard, Philadelphia.

Dominionists

The Speaker of the House is often called a “Christian nationalist” (here by another member of Congress). No one wants to be called that, since it would not help the cause. But the title has fit a number of politicians for decades. Ted Cruz is at the top of the list. Cruz’ father was a leader in the “Dominionist” movement that got going in the 1960’s and 70’s with R.J. Rushdoony. Here is a Christian Century article that tells you all about it. If you want to hear about the more radical, Pentecostal version, Salon wrote about it extensively in February.

There are many people who are “apostles” of this new movement, which is determined to take the reins of U.S. (and world) government for Jesus. Paula White was praying for Trump to succeed on January 6. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, is often seen as working towards Texas implementing a new order along the line of Dominionist principles.

Hurches in Israel funding a mobile ICU. Being grafted on to Israel lays the foundation for Christ’s return, he teaches.

Larry Hurch and New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas (between Dallas and Forth Worth, of course) is a well-known pastor who is also leading the charge. In the church’s statement of beliefs they teach:

We believe through the redemptive work of our Lord, our enemy, satan, is a defeated foe. That by the power of the 7 places Jesus shed His blood every sin can be forgiven, every generational curse can be broken and every covenant blessing can be restored.

The “power of the 7” refers to Seven Mountains Dominionism, also known as the Seven Mountains Mandate or 7MM. It has become a more prevalent manifestation of “Kingdom Now” theology since the early 2010’s. The mandate proposes there are seven “mountains” that Christians must control to establish a global Christian theocracy and prepare the world for Jesus’ return: government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family, and business. The mandate is based, among other things, on two Bible passages:

In the last days / the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established / as the highest of the mountains; / it will be exalted above the hills, / and all nations will stream to it. see Isaiah 2:2-3

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.  — see Revelation 17:1–18

There may be a dominionist constitution out there. I have not seen it yet. But there is no doubt the growing movement wants to “establish God’s kingdom” now. And they don’t mean “in your heart.” A think tank called The American Vision is one of the organizations which would be delighted to provide you with a “restorationist” worldview. Their website can tell you a lot, also this article from the Texas Observer about them.

What does one do?

In the podcast, Steven Hassan repeated the common image, “Cancer cells are selfish. They will kill their host.” The authoritarian movements seem cancerous to me. The host is the wildly successful United States and its very fruitful church. The reformation of Christian theology into a lust for power has always been cancerous, if common. It is a wonder the church survives at all. It may not survive here in the near future if we take the year off.

It is hard to say how many of these movements are springing up. There is a zeitgeist you can probably feel when you are in a meeting and you are not saying anything because you don’t want to confront some potentially violent bully. I think we need to have an opinion about this zietgeist. We need to say something.

I think I had better be more serious about standing up to bullies and out-organizing them when it comes to building community. Just this week a member of our condo association board was called a “predator” by a woman who was threatened by him when they were arguing about an association matter. He threatened to bring a lawsuit if she did not offer a public retraction on the bulletin boards of our complex, doubling down on the bullying. Sound familiar? It is a trickle-down leadership style. I’m not sure of all I can do about it, but I will definitely dare to ask God what might be my next steps.

In all of this, I think we can be at rest without flaking out (do we still say that?). Hope is a state of being, not just an outcome. Peace is trusting in God, not just in what comes after we’ve solved all the problems. Love is the ground of reality, the engine of each day, not just a reward for being good or performing well. We’re not meant to live off the crumbs falling from the owner’s plate or by whatever we can seize for ourselves, we’re already a cookie.

How do we build the new community we need?

During our daytrip last week, I ran into a member from my former, now-dismantled, church. The church was fairly large, so it’s not unusual to connect with someone. But it has become all-too-usual to feel some real loss when I do.

A leaf falling apart

We had a lovely community, not long ago. I needed it then and I need it now. But community is hard to build if you’ve lost it. And it is even harder to rebuild once someone wrecks it. A lot us us have a lot of building to do.

I still don’t understand what life is like post-pandemic, but I know it changed. We’re more distant. And I really do not understand what is happening with U.S. politics, no matter how much I read and think about it. We’re strangely at one another’s throats. We need to get it together, as in face-to-face.

The lack of community can be jarring.

For instance, I decided to post part of Heather Cox Richardson’s column on Facebook last week. The portion I posted was mainly quotes by Donald Trump taken from an interview I found enlightening and disturbing.

My childhood neighbor and elementary school classmate commented:

Man what are you smokin’? If you believe all that clap-trap you need help.

I told my wife about this and she said, “He wrote that to his friend?” I tried to make an excuse for him, but it did not really work.

I replied to him — which I rarely do. I usually just take down self-incriminating things I think people will regret later (or I think they should regret). I said:

The “claptrap” in the excerpt were mainly quotes from Trump. I’ll leave your reply up, since we’re childhood friends (just looked at your class photo from [our elementary school]), but you did not really respond to what I posted.

I did not want to sound too defensive. But I was offended. I had not posted any commentary, just quotes, since I don’t always hear what Trump says and I thought others should just hear what he said. I’ve cast a lot of shade on Trump since 2015, but I wasn’t doing it this time. My friend replied:

Take it down, that’s what liberals always do but I guarantee you the country would be better off with Trump at the helm because the US will die a horrible death if Biden’s re-elected.

You might have examples of this kind of anti-community in your life, too.

How did we get so fragmented?

Researchers have a lot to say about our fragmentation. I’ve said a bit, too. But apart from why it is happening, we have to endure how it is happening.

  • Churches feel distant. Many of them died or were hobbled during the pandemic.
  • A lot of families are split up, even when they are together. 1.2 million people have died, so far, and are still dying from Covid. That means millions of people are still mourning. Six million children have or had long Covid; all the rest are also recovering from shock and from the loss of schooling. Mental health deteriorated so much in the past five years, it finally became a public topic. There are many reasons dissociation is a “thing.”
  • All things public have been suspected of being dangerous or false for 4 years. Many people still won’t go inside a restaurant, get vaccines, or believe a government official.
  • People think virtual groups and ideological corrals are community. They may provide like-minded connections, but they don’t build a society where free interchange and growth happens.

I can see why people who have been pastors, like me, die in the saddle. They want to be deeply embedded in a community. I decided to get out of the saddle, but I sure miss living and serving among people with whom I have built connections.

A person called me last week to see if we could get together and talk about what happened to the church and to me on the way out. They said, “I heard you got thrown out.” That is not completely true, the leadership just changed the agreement that allowed for me to stay a member of the body, but not lead. Instead, they sent me their policy saying I needed to be gone for a year and then they could discuss my return. I was already not employed by them, but I did not cause them a problem by maintaining my ties. They were well on the way to church suicide, anyway. The phone call last week, years later, was another reminder of what has been lost.

We need to build new community

My present little church I’m joining is still talking about getting back to what they were before the pandemic. I don’t think that is going to happen, but I can see why they long for it. I’m still lamenting the community I have lost, too.

But my experiences this week have encouraged me to change. I have four convictions I think the Spirit has inspired for me to follow.

1) Accept the community you have.  When I was praying this morning, I again decided not to be arelational. I may not have the community I lost. But I have the one I have and I should live in it.

2) Build something on the foundation presently given, not on the past. I spent years living in something I loved. You probably felt deeply about the last twenty years, too, one way or another. Regardless, the patterns you made are familiar to you and you would hate to change them. I can relate. It is hard to think of changing and building at my age, but what else do humans do? And if you follow Jesus, there is no time you have followed enough. He’s moving.

3) Don’t give up on the unity of the Spirit. The history of the church is consistent. In all the bad times, good people get together and create new and sometimes radical responses to their lack of community (one of my favorite examples). I know most of the encampments now on college campuses are not built in the name of Jesus. But those people are having experiences of community they will never forget – I’ve danced a bit on the quad myself! New community can spring up.

4) Have an inner life that leads to an outer love. If you are more alone than ever, you are probably closer to God than ever, even if you don’t feel it. If we turn into our aloneness and let it do the work of revelation and integration, it will lead us to self-giving love. And that love is the heartbeat of community.

Guilt: How it starves our true selves

To begin this meditation on guilt, I want to confess one of my guilty pleasures. I was (OK, still am) a John Denver fan. No, I did not think he was cool, and yes, he can still make me cringe at times. But his clear, sharp tenor often often gave melody to the best of the idealistic 1970’s and 80’s. Those were years when I also expessed some of my loftiest ideals (often in song!). Like Denver, I hoped to be accepted but sometimes I was scorned.

A hunger guiltfest

I was looking through old pictures from that era as I prepared them for digitizing and ran across one from an event for the youth group we called “The Planned Famine.” Our intentional community was devoted to living simply and sharing our resources so others could live. Many of us led the youth group so we spread our convictions into the church, as well. For instance, as part of our Famine, we charged the parents and other adults  for a “Third World Dinner,” which did not go over well with some of them who got nothing and “starved.” Even today I would remind them that getting aced out of food isn’t pleasing to the 783 million hungry people in the world right now, either.  (Here are some Mormons doing the same idea we had 25 years later).

Our theme song for the 30-hour, overnite “famine” was John Denver’s “I Want to Live.” He wrote it as a potential theme song for President Carter’s Commission on world Hunger. Here he is singing it.

A lot of the dinner and the overniter was, unfortunately, about our guilt. Not the good guilt of admitting a sin against God and our true selves, but guilt before what we should have been or guilt about what others think and say about us (or might), or guilt  about our lack of laudable courage and deficit of shining character (at least compared to others). When John Denver sang, we felt ashamed of ourselves and the earth for letting people starve. Some of us became hunger warriors. Most of us just became better educated about more things to avoid.

Life under criticism and contempt

There is some room for the shame we felt, but not in the way we often feel it. When  criticism leads to guilt and contempt leads to shame, we often defend against those awful feelings with only the tools psychology offers us. They aren’t bad tools, they just aren’t up to the full task we need to complete.  Paul Tournier says,

Freud reveals to us all that remains infantile and regressive in us, our fear of life and of responsibilities, our longing for a refuge in maternal consolation. We are all children, and we feel guilty at being so lacking in courage, in virility, in adulthood. C.G. Jung widens these notions by talking of integration and by depicting [humanity’s] destiny as the acceptance of all that is within [each of us]. — (Guilt and Grace p. 54)

We cannot blame our lingering unease with ourselves on psychology alone because Christianity has specialized in guilt. It has often been better at crushing people than fulfilling its promise to set them free. Instead of surpassing Freud’s “becoming adult” and Jung’s “integration,” Christians often  criticize one another’s behavior and pour contempt on people who threaten or offend them. Maybe you don’t do that, but the church of the last decade in the U.S. has become even more famous for it.

We pour guilt on ourselves, too, even if other don’t induce it. Instead of glorying in our weakness, as the Apostle Paul insists we should, so God’s power for transformation can break into us and break out, we feel guilty that our weakness makes us powerless. We can’t do what we are meant to do. Our fear of failing at our responsibilities has made us ineffective rulers of ever-diminishing zones of personal control. We have shriveled under the comparison with others, using the whole internet to demonstrate how incapable we are of measuring up. And we may also protect others from having their own struggle with guilt by suggesting they should not be so proud as to think their desires to live are relevant or warranted, just like ours aren’t.

Baby humpback finding her wings off Maui

Leaping from the dark

When we played John Denver’s song during the Planned Famine, we had a slide show to go with it. We needed to turn up the volume of the song enough to overcome the distracting squeal and click of slides moving around their carousel. The faces of child after child came on the screen from around the world, some happy, many starving, some dying. John sang for them,

I want to live I want to grow
I want to see I want to know
I want to share what I can give
I want to be I want to live

And then he changed to the hopeful imagery of animals marine ecologists were just coming to understand.

Have you gazed out on the ocean,
Seen the breaching of a whale?

We put up a beautiful slide of a whale leaping out of the depths. I vividly remember the small, involuntary gasp it aroused in me, “I want to do that.”

I want to do it because Freud is right. We are all children singing, “I want to live.” I want to leap because Jung is right. From the depths of the great ocean of the unconscious self, even the collective unconscious, if you like, our true selves are coming up to the surface for air. If we get out of the way, they might leap into the sky with joy.

It takes some courage to leap, to suck in clear air. It takes some effort to be real, to swim free in the ocean of grace in which we live. If we dive in and leap out, we know our previous methods of self-preservation will need to die. We know we will have to admit we cannot effectively avoid all the things that cause us to condemn ourselves: our lack of genuine relationships with mates and friends, our resistance to admitting our faults, our willingness to avoid responsibility, our lack of forgiveness, lack of solidarity with our struggling acquaintances and loved ones, our unfaithfulness to God and others. We will have to see how we flee, fight, and freeze because fear rules us.

Tournier, again says

To be faithful to oneself would mean to always be like oneself in all circumstances, in the presence of any interlocutor. We remain silent in turn about either our deepest convictions or the doubts which inevitably arise concerning them. We hide our feelings, or else we show them to be more ardent than they really are. To be faithful to oneself would mean to be natural, spontaneous, fearless of the opinions of others. (p. 57)

I think we all feel a calling to be faithful to our truest selves, perhaps from our first cry after leaving the womb. We want to live. I think we can at least imagine how God called us into being and can hear at least a faint voice encouraging us to live, full and free, embodying everything we’ve been given to be and do. I wish for you a moment of joy today when you dare to breach the surface. May your unique, childlike, fully-welcomed desires and fully-honored genius be well-fed and lively.

Is it OK for me to fly to Tahiti?: More climate questions

I love going to faraway places. I have airplane trips lined up for April and May already. But I got to wondering about all that travel when we seriously considered finally flying to Tahiti. Is it OK to fly to Tahiti? I know the law of supply-and-demand says, “It’s not only OK, please do!” But what about people who care about their carbon footprint on a warming planet? Even more, what about Christians who care about creation and the beloved creatures struggling for life on it? Will I protect them and my soul better if I stay out of planes?

I thought you might like to think about our moral dilemma with me, so I got together with God and some people on the internet and pondered the arguments people are having. I suppose you are not surprised that quite a few people are not in complete denial about what humans are doing to the atmosphere.

No. Don’t fly….But

In an ethical discussion there are usually people on one side who know all the facts and the rules derived from them. Many of them will be appalled someone is wantonly ignoring them. For instance, I feel for those poor souls who are still wearing masks (and wish everyone else would) because Covid is still being passed around! “Why are you infecting people?” they think. Maybe they would also be people who think it is obvious no one should be flying to Tahiti if the planet is warming. Airplanes are notorious for burning tons of fossil fuels that increase CO2.

Philosophers and wannabe philosophers are having more nuanced conclusions (like here).

Some people think their choice to fly or not fly differs from their choice to drive or not drive, because that particular plane would be flying anyway and the additional fuel required by your weight is marginal. This is a mistaken view. How many flights are scheduled depends on how many people choose to fly. By not flying, you would be contributing to a reduction in flights that occur.

However. Almost everything we do causes some harm to the environment. Eating meat, taking hot showers, keeping rooms at room temperature, living in a house with a yard, regularly driving to friends’ houses – all of these things cause harm. Even living a very minimal ascetic lifestyle causes some harm. For everything you do, you have to ask whether the benefit to you, plus to others who are also helped, is worth the harm to the environment.

That’s a “No” with a “But.” People who want to say “NO!” to everything that harms the planet usually soften that no with the admission that there is no way one cannot cause harm to others or the planet. As far as making all your choices count, soem say individual choice is too miniscule to really think you are changing the world with it — big change requires a movement of individual choosers. Others say not even a movement can help the climate now because the planet is already warmed, you can only try to help people cope with the impact. Yet others say the law of supply and demand runs the world; old, utopian ideas of forcing the hand with millions of personal choices is irrational and does not work. Of course, these conclusions can be debated and that’s what philosophers are going to do.

Right now, after listening to the qualified “no” side. I think I need to fly modestly. I think modest means I do not have a lifestyle or work that depends on flying (like the Philadelphia Phillies do). What is modest for an American is, of course, immodest compared to many people in the world who have never even thought of flying in an airplane. I will never forget Andres, the Salvadoran refugee I met just over the border in Honduras who had never ridden in a car and could not imagine going to San Salvador, from which I had just come, about 75 miles away.

Yes. You can fly.…But

On the other hand, some people say my individual efforts and my guilt, even my modesty, though noble and necessary, are not what I should be measuring too strictly.  In an ethical discussion there are ofen people who will be frustrated with all the strictures and nitpicking of the other side. I feel for these “Yes” people, too, who are dealing with all us self-centered people who can’t see outside our boxes! Maybe they are like the State Department workers crisscrossing the Middle East to tamp down Israeli and Iranian hotheads and to encourage Saudis and Turks to keep their eyes on the bigger picture.

I tend to be a “yes” person by nature. But I want to pay attention to my carbon footprint — I took the test and I did not fare that well! But I don’t want to put the weight of the world my footprint. The idea behind measuring our individual carbon footprints is to make us aware of our personal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (and “No” people would say “And to hold us accountable!”). The idea aims to encourage individuals to adopt a  sustainable lifestyle and make environmentally conscious choices. That’s a good thing. But it remains true that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions are not generated by individuals, but by industries and large-scale commercial activities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), around 70% of carbon dioxide emissions stem from just 100 companies (!) worldwide. Either they get on board or our individual efforts are silly. Nevertheless, when individuals collectively adopt sustainable practices, it can create a ripple effect, influencing larger entities and prompting policy changes.

The IPCC, itself, has been a very successful big-picture process. It presented at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) which closed in December with an agreement that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. In Dubai, no less, negotiators from nearly 200 Parties came together with a decision which agrees to transition away from fossil fuels and reduce global emissions by 43% by 2030

The COP28 action is the kind that makes a real difference. So when one of the editors of Sierra wrote about deciding whether to have children in an age of climate chaos and potential mass extinction last year, some of the readers got in her face for thinking individuals are responsible for addressing the climate crisis.

Responding to the article on Twitter, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University complained,

“The ‘don’t have kids because of climate’ argument is bunk, & absolves the choices of companies & policymakers.” Sandra Steingraber, a prominent anti-fracking activist wrote, “Stop policing women’s fertility. The fossil fuel industry along with the banks and political leaders who keep the fossil fuel party going is the cause of the problem.” Another commenter posted, “This argument only serves the big CO2 producing corps. It’s like they threw a white [tablecloth] party, served nothing but sloppy bbq, and then watched [as] the guests blamed EACH OTHER for dry cleaning bills.”

Even  environmental advocates are dismissing the importance of individual responsibility. In The Daily BeastJay Michaelson recently argued,

“Individual behavior change isn’t action—it’s distraction. . . . It shifts the blame from the actual causes of climate change to fake ones, and shifts attention away from meaningful actions to meaningless, psychological ones. . . . The focus on individual behavior makes fighting global warming more controversial while letting the actual entities causing climate change off the hook.”

In June Michael Mann, the climatologist, made a similar argument in USA Today,

“A fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. …One recent study suggests that the emphasis on smaller personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed.”

So I would say all that is a qualified “Yes” for little old me to fly to Tahiti. I agree that the powers-that-be love to keep us individually responsible and keep the huge corporations shrouded in mystery — invisible and inaccessible. Even worse, if we protest or try to organize a union in their VW plant, they call us socialists, as if Jesus were not a common-good and common-goods kind of man.

But I also think scorning the importance of my individual lifestyle changes would be an overcorrection. It’s true that taking personal responsibility for climate change is insufficient to address the crisis, but it is also true that individual action is essential to the climate justice equation. Westerners really like their binary arguments, don’t they?

Right now, I think the best response to the arguments is the usual both/and. Ultimately, a  binary argument pitting personal action versus political action is unhelpful. We need to agitate and organize for systemic change and also encourage individual behavior changes. Or, put another way: If you say fixating on personal behavior distracts from the political changes we need, you should also say dismissing the value of personal behaviors detracts from the political movement for climate justice.

So can I go to Tahiti?

If I go, I will be aware that I am probably cashing in most of my personal carbon footprint chips. Perhaps I will buy some carbon credits (but PBS reported last week that is not working so well, either).  Credits or not, I cannot absolve myself with any certitude. Maybe the guilt monitors would feel better about me if I went to Tahiti and at least felt miserable about it — just like I should feel when I eat beef and drive cars (honestly I already cut out most beef and my new car is a hybrid).

I think the best way to feel OK about my extravagant use of fuel (along with the other 200 people in the plane) is to keep the pressure where it belongs. Governments, corporations, and institutions must implement policies that promote renewable energy, invest in sustainable infrastructure, and regulate emissions from major industries. They implemented the policies that let fossil fuels rule society, they need to reverse them.

If I just focus just on my individual carbon footprint the guilt will likely lead to overwhelm. We end up feeling our efforts are futile when that happens. When we feel guilty, we demobilize. If I overestimate my individual impact on the climate crisis I’ll probably get anxious. Such a view of self can lead to climate anxiety, especially among kids. It might be easier to stay anxious and be immobilized. But I think we need to do the harder thing and bravely stand up to the people willing to sacrifice the future for their immediate profits.

What do you think I should do?

In the world’s dark night of the soul: Do these three old things

In the Woods by Lourdes Bernard. https://www.lourdesbernard.com/

I began my psalm last Sunday like this:

The world is inconsolable,
on constant alert for the next trauma,
perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I can feel it in my old bones, too.

A lot of us feel dragged down.

Poor Joe Biden has an administration doing amazing things and everyone hates him. The economy is the best in the world and people say it is going to the dogs, poll after poll. If you are a local leader or a church leader, you’ll likely be criticized in much the same way and be looking for the door.

Poor Lourdes Bernard! She’s a Dominican artist from Brooklyn making her way in the art world. She recently became the “visiting scholar as artist in residence” at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary. The center recently relocated from Yale, but it was originally in Ventnor, NJ. The enterprise began in the early 20th century as a recovery ministry on the beach for missionaries. Bernard is doing amazing work (I love the piece above). But artists have to cobble together an income in the art-disparaging world. She’s sponsored by an organization with a history chock-full of vision, but which struggles to find a place in a deteriorating spiritual landscape. Why is everything so hard?

It is in the atmosphere

I did not put climate change in my title because I was pretty sure half my usual readers would skip this one if I did. But I really want us to grapple with the fact that everything we do these days, from admin to art, is enacted in front of the backdrop of our quickly-changing environment. The United States is debating abortion without noting that women are  giving birth to someone today who will be 20 years old in 2044. What will it be like for them?

The Administration has ambitious goals for make a habitable planet for them:

  • Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030.
  • Reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.
  • Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

When our baby is 26 will the world have reached net-zero emissions in time for them to ponder having a family of their own? According to the United Nations, NO. Despite the enormous benefits of climate action to date and the brilliant people giving their lives to save the world, progress is happening far too slowly for the world to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. The UN finds that climate policies currently in place point to a 2.8 degrees C temperature rise by the end of the century. If our present weather patterns disturb you, wait till you see what is happening then!

The recitation of those stats is a good reason to stop reading this post for many of us. Maybe a lot of people stopped at the word “atmosphere.” My “old bones” feel the resistance, too. For instance, I got excited for a minute and commited to the daily consciousness of MCC’s A Month of Climate Actions for Peace. I downloaded their calendar and tacked it to the board where we keep track of our donations and compassionate action. That was fifteen days ago. I have followed a couple of days of disciplined caring with them. But I admit it was hard the other day to just make the effort to find the email with the link in it so I could do something online.  I almost gave up altogether. What is wrong with me?

In the face of the world’s dark night of the soul…

Seifu Anil Singh-Molares is the Executive Director of Spiritual Directors International. In the December issue of Presence he made this summary of what’s wrong with ALL of us:

These are specially challenging times on our planet, with an unfortunate avalanche of woes besetting us: the accumulated stress of dealing with pandemics of various kinds, growing alienation and despair, geopolitical conflicts, cultural divides, the pernicious effects of embedded discrimination across the board, and spiritual wounds that cut deep and very wide at the moment.

There are a lot of good writers out there making insightful lists. But I think there may be more of us turning up our ear buds than paying attention.

Nevertheless, he has good advice for how do do more than survive and how to not lose hope in an “unprecedented” (word of the decade) time. And I will add some of my own.

…Develop contemplative practice

The other day I was treated to lunch at my favorite place by some enthusiasts from Lancaster County who schooled me on the recent realignments happening in the Mennonite Church. There is an outpouring of spiritual re-creation happening in the world! Too much of it is apocalyptic in the worst sense. But a lot of the newness is like my friends, who are feeding a lot of people with a few loaves and fish.

Amish kids not thinking about 2050

In the face of the turmoil of rapid change in every direction I look, I am determined to follow the spiritual direction I provide others and hang on to my contemplative practices. If you feel a bit unschooled in what that means, you could hit the link “spiritual direction” in the right column and I could help you get started.

Singh-Molares says

contemplation allows us to get some distance from our own tiredness and distress, and to reconnect to the spiritual root of what nurtures us the most. And we must find ways to make even more time available to engage with these, in direct proportion to the increased demands surrounding us.

This is age-old advice for people who care about their own souls and care for the souls of others (as in your children and the struggling families of the soccer team). If we do not tend to ourselves, we can’t tend to others. What we give out must at least match what we absorb. We are consistently absorbing bad news about the planet. It dulls our spirits and forces us into denial, into defensive reactions to an intolerable reality. Psychotherapists are naming is “climate trauma.” Sticking with the presence of God in that trauma is the key to soul survival.

The man who put the phrase “dark night of the soul” into common understanding, St. John of the Cross, encourages newcomers to contemplation like this:

The more clear and evident divine things are, the more dark and hidden they are to the soul naturally. Thus the more clear the light the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the stronger the sun’s rays the more it blinds the visual organs; overcoming them, by reason of their weakness, and depriving them of the power of seeing. So the divine light of contemplation, when it beats on the soul, not yet perfectly enlightened, causes spiritual darkness, because it not only surpasses its strength, but because it blinds it and deprives it of its natural perceptions.

We experienced the truth of the sun’s rays last week. Hopefully we also noted the parallel inner experience of how awesome and frightening it feels when our souls are plunged into an unnatural darkness.  The light of life is being eclipsed by the disaster of a warming planet. Our work to changed humanity’s course has to be met with the inner work of staying on our spiritual journey.

…Find companions

This year, a few men and I have enjoyed a new season of companionship in our monthly meetings. We do a lot of listening, which leads to loving, which could lead anywhere. This is not everyone’s experience, I hear. Unfortunately, one of the things that often happens in disaster is people get less-connected, not more. In the United States there is an epidemic of aloneness. But it is not a good time to be alone. We cannot confront the bad news of climate change alone. But the only recourse many alone people have is to go into denial and pretend things are normal — the abnormal climate is just too much to bear.

Singh-Molares adds:

[O]ur spiritual director and companion friends can remind us not just to find the right balance, but how to. Spiritual hygiene in various other forms is also key as we navigate this global dark night of the soul, perhaps through purifying rituals, long walks in the mountains, soothing immersions in water, or in whatever other way may be available to us, regardless of our circumstances. Taking the time to catch our breath, wherever we may find ourselves, comes to mind!

One of my clients said not long ago, “I stink at spiritual disciplines.”  They were concerned with their “spiritual hygiene!” While spiritual disciplines are best developed alone in silence, it is not likely you will keep after them if you are just alone. My favorite hermits usually end up in a community, themselves! Maybe you should find a spiritual director (or start by trying psychotherapy). Maybe you should find the best person in your church to be your friend. I’d just ask them if they want to make a relationship rather than just hanging out and waiting for one to happen. Church meetings are important, but they are too superficial to meet the demands of this era. We all need some real relationships.

…Get a new mindset for a new world
LBStudio__LamentationLourdesBernard.jpg
“Lamentation” by Lourdes Bernard

The normal ups and downs of life become more extreme the more trauma is applied to them. The Bible is rather frank about this, since God is going through death and resurrection as the central visual aid for us. It says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30).

Some of us need to wake up to our need to deal with the death hanging over the world. People in other places generally do this better, since they’ve experienced the nearness of death since they were born. Americans sneer at death as only heirs of an empire dare. But our confidence is shaken these days. We need a new normal to dominate our minds.

I need to stop wondering why things aren’t like when I was 25. If you’re 25, you’ll need to let go of 8. This morning, as it is, is the morning when joy comes. Whatever is good, we’ll hang on to it like we are defiantly staring down the dark night. When it is night we are going to hang on to faith, hope and love, defiantly refusing to be drowned by our troubles. The era of “make it work” is pretty much over.  Something bigger than our capacity and expertise needs to happen.

Singh-Molares adds:

[I]t is good to recall that out of all this individual and collective turmoil we are living through, spiritual flourishing can emerge. Loss and heartbreak are as much features of all our existence as their polar opposites, the thrill of communion and the exhilarating experience of Joy and Love. Both ends of the spectrum dance and commingle with one another. This realization, and the practical steps that emerge from it on our path…can make navigating our current Global Dark Night of the Soul less fraught and more fruitful.

Maybe these words are, basically, Bible 101 and well-known spiritualilty from the self-help aisle. But we have to do it. The old, psychological dike holding back the flood of climate disaster (and some dike actually holding it back) is not strong enough. I have to do new things, like going through the daily practices for April I signed up to do with MCC. I need to continue to talk about climate action even though I fear people will be sick of me bringing it up and spoiling our perfect societal denial (do your kids know how you are working with this?). I need to never just go to church again but actually build the kingdom of God with Jesus. You need to do that thing or change that behavior that came to your mind.

I ended my psalm last Sunday like this:

“Blessed be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies
and the God of all consolation,
who consoles us in all our affliction:”
affliction which descends on us like a cloud or an army,
affliction which we invent for ourselves, godlike, out of nothing
affliction which we disavow as if we would never do such a thing.

I was awash in experiences with people who were drowning when I wrote that. God was lifting me up, but I still felt weighed down by the darkness the light revealed.

The troubles of climate are not just another thing on the list. They are a backdrop accentuating all the other troubles. The distractions I invent for myself to keep my private worry world whirring are deadly. The reality I disavow, as if the troubles are caused by “all those other people” and not me, despoils my inner environment, too.

This week I am up. I feel consoled. I am trying not to wait for a shoe to drop. I am enjoying how lives are being transformed. I am rejoicing in the brilliant people all over the world and throughout history doing transformative things. I am sensing God’s presence right now filling this moment with mercy. But I am also remembering to keep talking about the darkness and death stalking us, especialy the least among us. More than ever, the light and dark need to dance.

**************************

Today is Corrie ten Boom Day! Celebrate her at The Transhistorical Body. 

The impact of siblings: Five things you are probably sharing

There I am with my sibs, dressed to impess at the Grand Canyon.

I might have just learned the legendary tales I heard about my behavior at the Grand Canyon, or I actually formed some of my earliest memories on that trip when I was 3 1/2  years old. It might be the latter because I remember loving that cowboy hat I’m wearing in the picture. My oldest brother bought it for me with his own money! I also remember getting home with it and securing it in my toy box/treasure chest by stuffing it in and sitting on the lid. Maybe I just remember the trauma of my brother’s fury when he found out I’d ruined it. Or maybe  I’m remembering the verse my older brothers added the song they wrote about my shameful exploits (yes, that really happened), which I can still sing. For good and ill, my siblings made a difference.

Siblings finally found their place within the last twenty years as one of the main influences that make us who we are. They are kind of at the end of a list of understandings about human development that kept growing. The list is someting like this. We’re born with certain traits, as any parent can tell you. We’re shaped by our early experiences with our parents and other caregivers, especially mom. Our genes help define us. Our socioeconomic environment shapes us. Our the race and other labels pasted on us force us into molds. And then, the researchers finally started talking about our siblings. They may influence us more than we think! Much of this post aligns with an early proponent of their importance: Jeffrey Kluger in his 2006 book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.  [And an NPR story, of course].

Family systems used to be of primary importance

Before Europe became overly individualistic and spawned the epitome of it’s philosophy: the United States, our membership in a family, our relationships with parents and siblings, was the primary way we were identified.

The two Testaments of the Bible demonstrate the primacy of family by placing one at the center of the story: that of Moses and Jesus.

  • In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister, are among those named as opposing Moses’ leadership. (In Exodus, they are at his right hand, but some say they could also be construed to be members of his clan, not siblings).
  • Jesus’s siblings go with him to the wedding at Cana (John 2). Later they seek an audience with him (Matt. 12, Mk. 3, Luke 8). They ask him to prove his messiahship (John 7). They are among those waiting for Pentecost in Acts 1. His brother James leads the Jersualem church, and with another brother, Jude, writes part of the New Testament Canon. (Some say these were older step-siblings from Joseph’s first marriage. Some claim they were cousins. Some say Mary had one child and was, in the flesh, a perpetual vigin, or why was she left in the care of John?).

The plain reading of the Bible reinforces what most people in history have seen as obvious: families are central to life. That assumption still holds, although it is less relevant than it used to be. Nevertheless, Harry and Megan can scandalize the world by breaking from the royal family. Trump’s and Biden’s children are central to the drama that surrounds them. If your parents are still with us, one of their friends probably got the report on how you are doing this week. I’ve already reported to two of my friends and it is just Thursday, as I write. Everyone, including me, cares about the family.

The researchers validate our siblings still matter

By this time, we might all resent how social scientists keep discovering what everyone already knew. They seem to think nothing is true until they prove it with a peer reviewed research project. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how their data leads them to think our siblings have made much more difference in our lives than they are usually credited.

From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. At our Easter brunch I overheard one older sib instructing the much younger grandchild how to behave for most of the afternoon.

  • They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to.
  • They show us how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.
  • Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys.
  • They steer us into risky behavior or away from it. They make us brave or fearful.
  • They form a protective buffer against family upheaval and sometimes cause it.
  • They compete for family recognition and come to terms–or blows–over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.
  • Whether they love and accept us or not is huge.
  • Whether they stick with us or not could prove life-saving or deadly.

Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. “Siblings,” says family sociologist Katherine Conger of UC Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

5 enduring impacts of sibling relationships

Not appreciating being dethroned by my one-year-old sister
The fighting is useful

My younger sister and I tied jump ropes around the necks of our teddy bears and engaged in  hysterical aerial combat. But I don’t remember having many fights with her directly, even though we shared a room  for probably too long. We still feel close even though we rarely see each other.

With our older brothers it was another story. To hear us tell it, we lived in a constant state of preparedness for the next attack. They were five and seven years older than me. So you can call me a “lost middle child” or the firstborn of the second family. The year I was born, our family moved to a new home in another city which my dad helped build with his own hands. My sister and I were part of that new beginning and probably responsible, as far as our brothers were concerned, for what they lost. Neither of us were welcome in the world of my older brothers. I spent quite a bit of time locked in a bathroom for fear of them, or locked in a closet because of them, or hiding under a bed. I had to be fast on my feet or my very accurate brother could nail me in the back with a green walnut.

“In general,” says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh, “parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.” All that proximity breeds an awful lot of intimacy–and an awful lot of friction. Being “stuck” with the involuntary relationships we have with sibs develops certain skills that can prove useful later in life.

Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that, on average, sibs between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 age group top out at 6.3–or more than one clash every 10 minutes, according to a Canadian study. “Getting along with a sister or brother,” Kramer says dryly, “can be a frustrating experience.” But think of all the lessons you learned about how to deal with future difficult people! You might want to take a minute and jot down how you learned to deal with conflict in your family, you are probably still acting out the same pattern, perhaps unconsciously.

Favoritism leaves a lasting  impression

I think I was about 50 years old when my sister stated what she thought was obvious, “You were the favorite.” Plus, “Mom and Dad did not cross you. When you were away on a foreign exchange trip, all hell broke loose.”  I was flabbergasted. I thought I was just an oddball. I did not feel special, just overly criticized. But her revelation did explain the car I did not have to pay for (like my older brothers had to), the clothes I had, and my father’s habit of zeroing his binoculars in on me alone at every football game.

At first, kids appear to adapt well to the disparity in their household and often learn to game the system, flipping blatant favoritism back to their shared advantage. They’ll say to one another, “Why don’t you ask Mom if we can go to the mall because she never says no to you. ” I am evidence of that finding.

But at a deeper level, second-tier children may pay a price. “They tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions,” Conger says. “They feel like they’re not as worthy, and they’re trying to figure out why.” Some of them feel a deep guilt for causing problems or shame for being such an imposition; they can feel like “No one wants me” when they see how their sibling is wanted.

If this does not seem to register with you, you might try thinking again. In the workplace, employees often instinctively know which person to send into the lion’s den of the corner office with a risky proposal or a bit of bad news. What’s more, it is really no coincidence when you feel that old, adolescent envy after that same colleague emerges with the proposal approved and the boss’s affirmation. I think a lot of people have been cancelled in the past couple of years because they are the favorite and someone needs to be scapegoated to expiate leftover sibling rivalry.

It is also true when you experienced those old feelings you pulled up the knowledge you gained back in the family room — the smartest strategy is not to compete for approval but to strike a partnership with the favorite and spin the situation to benefit yourself as well. Such an idea did not come from nowhere — you learned by relating to your siblings. Maybe you learned it on the playground, in the extended familiy or in the neighborhood. But if you had a sibling, the pattern was probably part of the mimetic experience we all have with them. Would you like to take a few seconds to remember where you landed in the order of things in your family? Naming your place or your role might help you not to mindlessly repeat it in your present circumstances.

 The role modeling works for good or ill

I set myself apart from my family in many ways (or as my sister might say, “I was set apart”). For one thing, like I said, I became a Christian. I also did a lot of reading, unlike the rest, got educated and, unlike my father, I did not smoke.

Smoking is one of those things researchers have studied in relation to role modeling among siblings. Joseph Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, published a study of more than 9,500 young smokers. He found that while older brothers and sisters often introduce younger ones to the habit, the closer they are in age, the more likely the younger one is to resist. Apparently, their proximity in years has already made them too similar. One conspicuous way for a baby brother to set himself apart is to look at the older sibling’s smoking habits and then do the opposite. We might emulate a good trait, even idolize an attractive older sibling. Or we might differentiate from a negative trait or devalue an ill-behaved sibling. Either way, we learn.

You would think that siblings raised by the same parents in relatively stable enironments would be very similar. But my four children have all found their way to be distinct. They are all curious and read, they all make good rational arguments, they are all forthright, and they all share a similar moral compass. They all have a strong streak of faith and feel obliged to do good in the world. But the second did not follow the lead of the first and the last two who are twins can still conjur up their personal universe. The oldest and youngest vie to be the role model. The middle two tend to ignore them.

If you have/had older siblings what did you emulate? How did they influence? What did they instill in you? Celebrate it or finally let it go! If you have/had younger siblings, what did you do to them? How did their competition motivate you? Enjoy your role, or maybe apologize for it!

Having an other-gendered sibling makes a difference.

I spent an inordinate amount of time making designer clothes for baby dolls out of old socks on rainy days. My sister was available to me and I was often the only playmate available to her. Plus, we enjoyed a rather imaginative play-world. Such time spent made me a more approachable high schooler. My home was pretty dominated my testosterone, so being on my sister’s side gave me a different look at the other half of humanity.

Brothers and sisters can be fierce de-identifiers. In a study of adolescent boys and girls in central Pennsylvania in families with male and female siblings, the boys unsurprisingly scored higher in such traits as independence and competitiveness while girls did better in empathic characteristics like sensitivity and helpfulness. What was less expected is that when kids grow up with an opposite-sex sibling, such exposure doesn’t temper gender-linked traits but accentuates them. Both boys and girls hew closer still to gender stereotype and even seek friends who conform to those norms. “It’s known as niche picking,” says Kimberly Updegraff, a professor of family and human development at Arizona State University and the person who conducted the study. “By having a sibling who is one way, you strive to be different.”

As kids get older, the distance from the other gender tends to close. At that point, children with opposite-sex siblings have a relational advantage. William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, published a study in which he paired up male and female students who had both grown up with an opposite-sex sibling — and set them up for a chat. Then he questioned them about how the conversation went. In general, boys with older sisters or girls with older brothers were less fumbling at getting things going and kept the exchange flowing much more naturally. “The guys who had older sisters had more involving interactions and were liked significantly more by their new female acquaintances,” says Ickes. “Women with older brothers were more likely to strike up a conversation with the male stranger and to smile at him more than he smiled at her.”

How did your sister or brother impact how you see yourself and your gender? Do you see any evidence of how they prepared you for future relationships? Do you need to process or let go of any abuses you endured?

Singing for the folks at their 50th
The ties bind

I think my siblings feel an affinity, a tie that somewhat binds. I suspect if I needed something, they would want to help me. But as a foursome, we are not too bound. The older two have a rift going that has kept them from even speaking for many years. My sister is most in touch and I try to keep up. But none of them are likely to call me or visit. So I think we feel the bind but it does not have a lot of force. It is possible, when a family system has a habit of cutting people off, everyone learns that trait. My mother’s three sisters had one whose husband cut her off. On my father’s side there is a brother who cut himself off. My sibs may feel like going it alone is normal.

More typical than in my family, the powerful connection siblings form becomes even more important as the inevitable illnesses or and losses of late life lead us to lean on the people we’ve known the longest. It is typical for siblings who have drifted apart in their middle years to drift back together as they age. “The relationship is especially strong between sisters,” who are more likely to be predeceased by their spouses than brothers are, says Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist at London’s Kings College. “When asked what contributes to the importance of the relationship now, they say it’s the shared early childhood experiences, which cast a long shadow for all of us.”

While sibling relationships, of all relationships, may have an “inevitability” to them, it is still true that all relationships take willing partners. Love is not just a concept, it is a lived experience. So even the closest ties can fray and the loosest ones can be re-tied. (Watch The Miracle Club on Netflix right now). Inactive or not, our life experiences with siblings have shaped us and the ongoing feelings of conection and loss, the lessons learned, the wounds yet to heal and the unique joys and triumphs experienced continue to have a force for good and ill. In an age which deludes people into thinking they can or must go it alone, it is important to note the impact of the siblings who travel with us in our deepest memories and feeling patterns. For a minute, maybe you should mourn the loss of the siblings you have lost, acknowledge the value of those you have, maybe let go of the pains, and contact your sibling(s) if it is safe to do so. Their existence mattered and matters. You matter to them, too, one way or another.

Thirty-three and thirty-three again

Today, the sun rises again
and the Son again rises with it.
You may want to sleep through it again,
the pillow over your head in dread again.
It may burn your eyelids as it invades your bed,
make you queasy with its sky turning red,
make your dizzy brain reel in the face of new day.
You may resist it all and hit the snooze,
pick up the phone and zero out, or lay
and feel the uneasy knowledge of staying still.

On your road to your Emmaus
you may not spy the bloom among us
right there at the edge of your blinders.
You may not recognize the warming,
the gentle, but binding, binding heat
of burning light in the deep, in the dark,
in the places you are sure no one sees,
in the old pains you feel will never heal,
in the memories you cannot forget,
in the aches you never could forgive.

But there He is again. You
turn your head and catch his eye again.
You take the bread from his hand again
and the moment is an eternity before
he’s gone missing, gone in some fog —
working and loving, God in God,
until he rises from the good earth again,
descends through a thin place again,
connects through a tender touch again,
surprises with that distant voice again.

My new friends call it Eastertide. It
ebbs and flows unstoppable, again and again; its
waves of life, sweet and swelling, wake us up to live again.

Would you like to hear me read it? Here is a link.

Today is John Leonhard Dober Day! He is the first missionary the Moravian Brethren chose to send out from Herrnhut in 1727. He has a remarkable story of faith and courage. Get to know him at The Transhistorical Body. 

Emergent identities: The queer future of the church, too

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https://twitter.com/markyarhouse

At the recent CAPS conference in Atlanta, Mark Yarhouse and friends again brought me up-to-date on the quickly developing gender/sexual identity landscape. Their workshop centered on three things: a 2019 book by Rob Cover, the re-examination of their own data, and their practical experience with young people and parents navigating the new queer world on the internet. It was enlightening to explore emergent identities with them.

Emergent identities

Cover’s book, Emergent Identities: New Sexualities, Genders and Relationships in a Digital Era shows how traditional, binary understandings of sexuality and gender are being challenged and overridden by a taxonomy of non-binary, fluid classifications and descriptors.

He explores how and why traditional masculine/feminine and hetero/homo dichotomies are quickly being replaced with identity labels such as heteroflexible, bigender, non-binary, asexual, sapiosexual, demisexual, ciswoman and transcurious. New ways of perceiving relationships, attraction and desire are contesting authorized, institutional knowledge on gender and sexuality. The digital world in which young people have grown up has played a central role in developing new approaches to identity, individuality, creativity, media, healthcare and social belonging.

Two charts from the presentation show how descriptions of gender and sexual identity have changed since the 1990’s. The “residual” are vestiges of the past terms still in use. The “dominant” are terms widely accepted and presently in use. The “emergent” terms are those rapidly replacing the dominant understandings. If you have a teenager in your life, they might be able to teach you a few things about the emergent terms personally, since they are likely being asked (or pressured) to adopt a way to describe who they are using one of many new “micro-minoritized” identity labels. My seatmate suggested “micro-marginalized” might be better. I came away preferring invited to the “queer smorgasbord.”

The Church is notorious for being at least 20 years behind the dominant culture’s debates about the society being constructed. There are some good reasons for this; the best being that the church sees itself as a dominant culture for its members with an historical and eternal worldview. The worst reason being that the church only listens to itself and is defensive of its power to use words to dominate its population.

The church has been having a fight about “homosexual lifestyles” since the 1990’s and churches are still breaking up over it. Christians in Congress are trying to turn the tide back to some imagined past. The pandemic unleashed a wave of division over racial inequity in the Church (which made sense to me), but those concerns were often supplanted by sexual identity issues. My own former church basically dissolved itself over arguments from which the culture was quickly moving away.

I don’t know if I prefer the chaos and hyper-individuality of the new era dawning. I doubt that 14-year olds can adopt an “authentic” identity in order to find themselves. And I am afraid tender hearts and minds may perform gender and sexual identity and end up with even more doubt and a tragic sense of being alone with an overwhelming, over-scrutinized landscape. I texted my son while I was in the session and said, “Right now I am listening about asexual demiboys.” He replied, “People failing to overcome their anxiety and trusting a pornography-filled society.” He might be right.

Regardless, I think I prefer the “queer” worldview that is emerging. It may never become dominant, but it provides a helpful corrective to the “born that way”/this-or-that views of the past. It is a great gift from the LGBTQ community. Even without a queer theory to describe a common sense approach, my acquaintances and clients would show how gender and sexual identity are much more fluid than us older people were taught. We may have felt that in our own souls and accepted it in others, but we would not have talked about it because we’d be in an argument. Nevertheless, I know more than one man with a wife and children who decided he was gay and left it all behind. I know of a twentysomething transwoman who decided, after a few years, she preferred presenting as male after all. I know a man who left his wife to marry a lesbian who left her partner. If they dare, many straight friends can recount their various gay or lesbian experiences. Life has always been a bit “queer.”

Philosophers with a “queer theory” are talking about more than gender and sexual identity, even if that is where they personally begin. The Q in LGBTQ is becoming an umbrella idea under which the dominant and emerging “letters” find shelter. Even more, “queer” is a lens through which academics and others can approach their disciplines with greater imagination, seeing “outside the box” as so many entrepreneurs like to do. Queer is the anti-binary worldview.

Innately queer grace

As I look back on my work in the church, a lot of what I was thinking could be called “queer.” In terms of sexual identity, I resisted forcing people to choose according to  a church policy. I did not win that fight, even though I asked Janelle Paris to introduce us to her book The End of Sexual Identity in 2012. When we finally offered a “policy,” it had a queerness, a both/andness, which did not satisfy everyone, but it allowed for people to find their own ways and stay in grace. I’m not sure we knew what we were talking about, but it was in line with the zeitgeist. That alignment ultimately did not last either, like I mentioned, but I still think it was more about the future than what people fought about.

The church could use a big dose of queering. The biggest reason might be so it can have any hope of listening and speaking to the next generation. Some healthy queering would help theology emerge from its captivity to Eurocentric, Enlightenment/binary, cis-male domination. It would also let the Bible be as honest as it is about humanity, including sexual expression. When it comes to sexual relationships, the Bible is rather queer: there are polygamists, eunuchs for Christ and almost no nuclear families. While there is an assumption a man and woman should covenant and make a family, it seems like there is a lot of room for people who don’t do that (like Jesus!) and lots of room for love that goes beyond whatever the present boundaries might suggest. I wouldn’t put the Bible under the “queer” umbrella, but I do think queer fits easily under the umbrella of grace.