Category Archives: Life as the church

Jesus was “handed over”: What that means for our own passion

Le baiser de Judas (ca. 1996) — James Tissot

Let’s start with the man Christians love to hate: Judas.

In chapter 16, Luke  introduces the twelve main disciples of Jesus and gives Judas an extra title: “the traitor.” The noun is less commonly translated “the betrayer.” Judas is famous for betraying Jesus, so you’d think that verb would be all over the accounts of his deed in the Bible. But this line in Luke is the only place Judas is directly called a betrayer. In the thirty-one other occasions he or his deed is mentioned another word is used: Jesus was handed over by Judas. That verb root  should be returned to its proper theological place. The Lord’s passion and our passion is more about being “handed over” or “given over” than being betrayed.

In the Gospel of Mark, when his account gets to Judas going out and coming back as a guide for the authorities, an entire change of literary viewpoint takes place. Up to that point, Jesus has been the center of action and the verbs are mainly about what he is doing. After Judas hands him over, the verbs are mainly about what is being done to Him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is waiting,  anticipating the judgment and violence of the powers that be. Then he is handed over to them. Previously in Mark, he had given his love freely and was the main power, even if hidden, in every scene — even now we can feel his affection as his love acts on us. But once he is handed over he enters into passion (which means suffering overwhelming forces). He is dependent on who loves him. Bearing our humanity, Jesus becomes vulnerable to overwhelming powers and waits for what will be done to him.

I think we often see Jesus, and so see the image of God in our own humanity, primarily through the lens of the first half of Mark — like Jesus is another action figure on the hero’s journey, mastering his suffering and moving into transcendence. But I think it is more true to the revelation in the Bible to see the passion experienced in the garden, then during the trial and then on the cross, as elemental to our own spiritual development and our calling.  The passion of being handed over is also an example for us. We are made by the God who waits; we are endued with the capacity for suffering love.

Peter says this rather plainly, doesn’t he?

If you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21;2).

[I was happy to run across an unusual book that inspired my refined thinking on all this. You might want to read The Stature of Waiting by W.H. Vanstone.]

Trying to be impassable in the zone of control

We are innately passable

In my therapy practice, I am often talking to a suffering person who, nevertheless, feels compelled to be impassable, not experiencing negative feelings or any feelings (same root as passion).  Their face may even be devoid of expression. They think it is shameful to have endured the trauma they have experienced or feel guilty because they are suffering. If they have grown up in the church, these poor people may have an impassable God as a model, which adds further motivation for trying to be in control.

Many influential theologians have seen God as impassable. Some people accuse them of caving into a Greek philosophical lens. Others suggest the earliest theolgians were contrasting God with the very emotional and volatile descriptions of Greek gods. They emphasized how God is not controlled by human emotions but is independent and unaffected by the whims of humanity.

You can see how this thinking might go too far and imply that God has no emotions at all, even though love is central to God’s character. So some theologians qualified the doctrine of impassability to mean God is not subject to sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotion unworthy of her character. (See this article).

I don’t think there is anything unemotional about what Jesus experiences in Gethsemane and Paul says Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is passable, or able to suffer. There is nothing we went through today that was emotion-free, either. We are also passable. Though we may use a lot of energy defending against suffering and suppressing the memory of it, we suffer every day. We suffer what is past and present, and even suffer what we anticipate the future will be. Jesus struggled the same way we do and struggles with us now. Take a few seconds, at least, and feel that Jesus cares about your suffering — so much so, he is bearing it with you.

Betrayed

I think there are some good reasons to cut the first translators of the Bible into English some slack. I think they unwittingly, repeatedly, mistranslated the words based on the Greek word “to hand over” as “to betray.” They even did it in Paul’s often-repeated “words of institution” of the communion ceremony in 1 Corintians 11:

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you [there is the verb], that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed [there is the same verb mistranslated] took a loaf of bread…”

The first Jesus followers made it a point to say “the night Jesus was handed over.” Handing over and being handed over were central to their view of Jesus, themselves and the world. Maybe we could say they were passion-centered, passability thinkers.

Paul uses the verb in other significant places, and it is translated accurately:

  • And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself (handed himself over) for me (Gal. 2:20).
  • He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up (handed him over) for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32).

Paul’s letters were apparently written before the Gospels were collected. In those later writings, Judas is highlighted as the one who shows the nature of God in a significant way as he hands Jesus over and Jesus suffers the sins of humanity. Judas is still despised as a betrayer. But he begins the Passion. If he hadn’t been there someone else would have done the deed (“Is it I, Lord?”). Peter betrays him later in the evening, too.  The disciples all scatter like scared sheep. Judas just turns out to be central to Jesus being handed over, which is central to the Lord’s passion. I think the early church expected to be handed over, at some level, and encouraged one another to develop a deep trust for God instead of just a deep resistance to suffering.

I can see how the word betrayed overtakes handed over as translations evolve. For one thing, the word in the Latin translation, with which the first English translators were more familiar, is much easier to lean that way than the Greek. But I also think the word betrayed appeals to bloodthirsty humanity. Betrayed implies: “You thwarted my action. You stopped me cold. You defeated me in an underhanded way.” Doesn’t it betray your sense of agency, safety, value and power when you are handed over? Seen through the lens of betrayal, Jesus still looks powerful as he mocks the dirty deeds of sinners by dying according to God’s plan and rising up in their faces on Easter. (Check out the atonement explanations if you want to think this through).

I think the mistranslation contributes to our sinful assumption that following Jesus means we always have power over suffering and injustice — just do God’s will and it will all end up as a “win.” We have been betrayed and we should make that right. We feel entitled to such power, even though the main percentage of the Gospels are devoted to Jesus not exercising power and being handed over to suffering.

The glory of God in Jesus is also revealed when he finishes his active work and becomes subject to the authorities. As he taught quite clearly, his final passion is the ultimate turn of the other cheek. He does nothing to protect himself. He waits.

Life is not Wakanda forever

We’re all action figures here. It is Wakanda forever. There is goodness in that. Jesus is also about suffering love for the abused, oppressed and poor. But his love transcends the power struggle, just endlessly fighting the power. His own death vividly shows that the powers of the world are doomed to their redundant self-destruction and unavailable for resurrection.

Nevertheless, for most of my readers, only what we do is valued, what we produce. We don’t wait around. We inevitably introduce ourselves by what we do. If you are unemployed you are hard to see as a person at all. Retirees are expected to do things for themselves and they are reminded to keep active.  But eventually we all  will be subject to what comes upon us. Old people better hope someone loves them or they will be handed over to be housed by the state or processed by the hospital. During Covid (and for many, that is right now) we all got a taste of being passable; we were patients (from the same root as passion: bearing suffering), we were called on to be patient, since we were vulnerable – and we hate that, some people wouldn’t even submit to a mask.

The beginning of the great work of Jesus begins with being handed over. He waits for what will happen in the garden, assuming it means death. He does not fight it. Like John says, he told his disciples, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (9:4). The night came. Like John says, Jesus told Peter, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). The time came. We can’t always do something (I learned).

I got overpowered by ruthless church leaders and handed over to an unexpected future. When I complained about it, my spiritual director called the expereince “a passion.”  I did not like it. Passion, like Jesus experienced, was something I had almost never experienced. I had barely even been in the hospital. I had been pretty impassable, similar to the  heretical view of God that ends up tormenting so many people. I am still figuring out what it means to be vulnerable, passable, dependent on love or subject to the lack of love. How about you?

I hope W.H. Vanstone can sum it up and inspire you in this last quote (which is full of his  passive voice and his unassertive assertions). Your suffering has meaning, too. Your waiting for the impossible to occur is also like Jesus. Your patience in the face of tragic circumstances, your vulnerability, is also a vehicle for the love of God. Your passion is like God’s passion!

The divine image we bear may be an image of passion no less than of action; for the God Who is disclosed in Jesus in the One Who hands Himself over to be affected by the world, to receive the impact and the meaning of the world, to wait upon the world. It is of this God that we bear the image – an image that includes passion no less than action, waiting no less than working. Now within our human experience there is one kind or occasion of waiting in which it is not too difficult to discern at least the faint image of the God Who waits; and that is the waiting to which we destine ourselves by loving. In the human figure who, because he loves, finds himself exposed and vulnerable to what may be done to him, the image of God Who is disclosed in Jesus is not unrecognizable: one might almost say that that figure seems a ‘holy’ figure.

Three ways to stop the argument in your head

Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.

This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.

Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.

Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!

Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .

Shutting off an internal argument

These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.

  • Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
  • Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
  • Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
  • Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
  • If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
  • Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.

Working through the feelings

These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.

  • Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
  • Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
  • Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
  • Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.

Having a healing interpersonal process

These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.

  • Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
  • Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
  • Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
  • It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.

 What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?

Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably  would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.

If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.

You might be a green martyr sprouting despite your wound

ImageI was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual,  new place like an Anabaptish weed.

Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.

Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!

Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.

Red, white and blue/green martyrs

As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.

The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.

The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.

When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.

Red

We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo VadisThat clip still gets my own blood stirred up.

White

By the 3rd  and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”

In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade

Green

The Celtic Church added  the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green of blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).

The martyr colors need an update

The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.

The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.

The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.

Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people  I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.

Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.

Evil: N.T. Wright helps you think it through, again

Friends, clients, and loved ones were wrestling with their experiences of evil this week. One was attacked at work and felt guilty, but then realized the accusations were so irrational, they might be evil.

Another watched The Comey Rule series on Netflix and was reintroduced to the evil ways of Donald Trump. Another was overwhelmed by the sheer extent of evil that has gone into the production of climate change. Another was disheartened because the church is not better than the world and seems as subject to the aforementioned evils as anyone else.

Have I already used the word “evil” too much for you? Or is it still OK to name it where you come from? Last week, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, both claiming to be practicing Catholics, used immigrating Venezuelans to own the libs in Barack Obama’s playground. Did you call that evil? Name it a political stunt? Call it illegal human trafficking? Consider it an appropriate response to an onslaught of border crossers? Did you sink into confusion? Stay uncommitted? Remain avoidant? Evil is harder to identify than one might think and even harder to deal with, especially in an environment in which it is often a word you’d be embarrassed to say. Maybe you haven’t said “Jesus” in polite company in a while, either.

I was companioning someone in their spiritual growth not long ago and they broke into tears because of the evil done to them. They were “triggered” by their church’s feckless response to the present evils that threatened them. They asked, “Why does God allow evil to flourish if he loves us?”

Exodus 1952-66 by Marc Chagall. Used for the cover of the Chinese version.

Why is there evil?

Brilliant people have been answering that question for centuries, ever since European Christians wanted their theology to compete with every philosopher that popped up. Why is there evil and why doesn’t God save me from it all if Jesus saves? That’s the perennial question. I still like N.T. Wright’s stab at dealing with it in his book Evil and the Justice of God. I rarely think his applications have as much genius as his theologizing, but I think he was mainly gifted to think well for us, so that’s OK. Here is a summary of the book, if you like.

Spoiler alert. People criticize Wright for answering the perennial question by not answering it. He says the Bible doesn’t answer it, which leads him to believe he doesn’t need to either — what is beyond us is beyond us. He is much more interested in talking about what God is doing about evil than what, exactly, and why it is. God’s action in response to evil is a topic the Bible exhaustively explores. Likewise, the Bible leads us to learn what we should do about it, since “the line between good and evil runs through each one of us” [video including Jesus, Solzhenitsyn, and many others].

I thought about Wright when my comrades were lamenting and I was confronted with the question again, which usually feels like a temptation to me – “Why is there evil and why didn’t Jesus fix it for me?” Wright does a better job at what I am about to try, when he tries to get behind what we feel about facing evil in us and around us. But here is a small bit of thinking to keep evil in your sights before it overwhelms you.

God judging Adam — Wiliam Blake. Used for the audible version

Back to Adam and Eve

Demanding an answer to the questions “Why is there evil if the creator is good?” and “Why am I experiencing evil if our loving Savior has already defeated it?” is a lot like the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden.

God: Why did you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Adam: The woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault.

Somehow the dialogue about good and evil usually ends with shame and blame.

The argument goes on, something like this. We would know; we’re often replicating it.:

God: Why did you choose evil?
Adam: I wouldn’t have had the choice if you had not offered it. You’re God, after all.  Why did you supply it? Besides, I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. It is happening everywhere.
God: But aren’t your questions more important to you than my love? Didn’t you choose the question?

The deepest expression of the image of God in us is love. God is love. God is not you or your knowledge or your control or your safety. The power of the knowledge of good and evil will not protect you from others, yourself, or God.

Roku has been playing a film of a live performance of the musical Heathers in which a high school couple sings “Our Love Is God.” The thought of it was creepy when I first heard it sung and keeps getting moreso as the play goes on. The power struggle in us destroys and destroys.

The Garden dialogue went on, and goes on in us, something like this:

God: As my friend who I gave this garden, as my loved one, you greeted my question with skepticism and reproach. You set yourself up as my judge, and your own. You ate the fruit.
You prefer the control you gain by staying ignorant and miserable instead of being receptive and humble before the unknown. You don’t trust me.

Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:

It will [always] be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but [in the end] they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk.

I have often said to myself, and to others, in the middle of these questions and answers, “If evil were not happening around you, you would invent it. You are just like Adam and Eve. If we dare to look, we can see how we perpetuate the loveless habits of our childhood self-protection schemes. We can’t part with the patterns because we think we’ll lose ourself without them. Every day we get mad at people we can’t control and keep protecting against the terrible feelings of need we have and rebel against the demand to trust, hope and care.

If you want more on the themes of political and corporate aspects of evil, Wright might suggest Engaging the Powers, by Walter Wink. For thoughts on forgiveness, see Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf. For answers to the problem of evil in modern thought, see Evil in Modern Thought, by Sue Neiman or The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann.

If you want to follow Wright into what God is ultimately going to do about evil, you could check out his most accessible book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  In it, he does a final takedown on Greek philosophy and offers a vision of eternal life that matches the Bible better than what most of us have been taught. If you are tired of thinking about how terrible the world is, how evil is at the door, this book might encourage you by opening up a good thinker’s vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It is better.

How did SHOULD get into my meditation?

It is wonderful to watch the Evangelicals catch up with the rest of the Church when it comes to experiencing that personal relationship with God they always talk about. I had to desert them, for the most part, to have one.

I spent my first years of faith with the Baptists as they fought with the charismatics, who scared the pants off them (recent example). I felt a little guilty about my thrilling charismatic dalliances, because I was taught people like me were following feelings not facts and undermining the authority of scripture, thinking the Spirit was going to begin something already settled. The way I looked at, and still do, the Evangelicals arrested their development because of their Eurocentric and Enlightenment-dominated theology. They had to have the Bible front and center and had to interpret it in a way they considered “literal.” Only their “literal” was a pseudo-scientific, supposedly “innerrant” set of principles that still resemble a textbook to me. I suppose that’s why so many of them are still fighting about textbooks.

But I think a lot of Evangelicals are now catching up with last century’s main spiritual movement. Their development  parallels the translation development of a familiar Bible verse I was taught as a youngster — Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version (KJV):

For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.

My preachers regularly skipped the meaning of this Proverb to concentrate on the first eleven words, which I was assigned as a memory verse: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I got the idea, being male and all, that what we think is paramount. When CBT was invented, Evangelicals liked psychotherapy a bit more, since the modality was all about think-> feel-> behave.

But when boomers go looking for their memory verse in the new Evangelical Bible, the New International Version (NIV), they can’t find it. It has disappeared into a much more accurate rendering:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

The extricated bit the preachers emphasized in my youth has appropriately become part of the previous sentence. The readers have begun to find out, like the Bible really says, that true discernment is all about the heart and right relationships, not just about how excellent one’s thoughts are.

The staying power of should

The Evangelicals are, more and more, turning toward developing hearts. But as they do, they often bring their heresies with them and undermine the process.

I stumbled on an example of this undermining when I explored the  Pause app. It is part of John Eldridge’s latest reinvention as a spiritual director. The app is a generous free gift that encourages us to buy his book and other things, as most apps do. I have friends who are enthusiastically using it. As with most Evangelical things, it is wordy and teachy. But the heart of it is good: Please pause and center in on God with you.

I decided to try the app to see if it is a good thing for my tech-connected spiritual companions. Normally I feel like relating to God through a machine is dangerous. But that is arguable. Even though I was holding my app fears at bay, I did not get far until I ran into a problem that made me not want to run into any more.

I had a Bible isssue. The whole thing is coming from the Bible, assuming it is the essential way God is revealed and our primary means of forming a relationship with Him. The Bible does not teach itself as that, especially in the passage in question. But I love the Bible and I think studying it is fundamental to following Jesus. So what does the Pause app give me? The New Living Translation (NLT). It is the revised Living Bible from the 1970’s. I had one of the originals with a cool handmade leather cover. I tried to find it so I could take a picture but I think I threw it away when I downsized since I hadn’t cracked it in 30 years.

The very first entry centers on a beautiful key passage from Ephesians 3 which opens up an expansive picture of all it means to know God through Jesus Christ. The NLT says:

I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God

Pause and let God speak to you through that! It is a wonderful statement and very accessible writing.

The NLT has merit, but I don’t think it is a good translation. It gets rid of things that might trouble postmodern sensibilities and adds things that fit modern evangelical preferences. Maybe it is still more of the paraphrase it started out as. I found it hard to meditate on it because I love relating to the Bible writers and couldn’t get over disputing what the translators considered revelation. I was also concerned about those less suspicious than I am.

I also had a heresy issue. This is my main reason to write today. Perhaps I learned to attend to clauses too well since one in this sentence bothered me:

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

For one thing, nobody else translates the verse this way. The Greek implies to me a great celebration of the already but not fully realized place we stand in Christ, where we are one with God and growing into our fullness. Paul knows he and his readers have an eternity of revelation to relish; we are incomplete. But he also believes we are already risen with Christ, living in Him right now, and are fully entitled to know and love Him as we are known and loved. We don’t need to wait until we are dead or deserve it.

This most offending sentence includes the word SHOULD: “[M]ay you have the power to understand ” (as if you don’t ), “as all God’s people should.”  I was too irritated by the ever-present Evangelical “should” inserted, at the very beginning of the app’s program, no less! I could not even get started! I don’t think that “should” can be construed from the Greek. The paraphrasers just had to get it in there. I don’t think Paul is looking at his readers ruefully as if they should get their act together. Nor does he think God looks at him that way.

l am particularly sensitive to the overriding should my Evangelical directees bring to their development. They got the point. They get arrested by it. When they look inside they see guilt. They are always an aspiration, never acceptable, never enough. Their hope is often based on getting better, thinking better, behaving better, not on pausing to experience being better by being with Jesus, as Paul is praying they will know.

Drugs: What do you know about the rising sea in which we swim?

Are you among the many people who will use a drug this month? When you answer, you may first think about what prescriptions you are taking. But include “self-medicating” with alcohol and marijuana — and maybe some other stuff.

You may also be experimenting with “psychedelics.” I am acquainted with people who have had profound experiences with two of the increasingly popular array of mind-altering drugs being offered to people seeking mental health (whether health means eradication or remission to them). Ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA are high on the list of researchers as they look for new solutions to age-old problems.

In the consumer-driven U.S., buying whatever products are offered almost seems like an obligation, whether we need them or not. We have a lot of what we need, here, and a lot we probably don’t. Drugs are a well-advertised product, so you are more likely to be using them than not. I am with you. I will keep using the prescription drug I have been taking every day until the treatment is over. On our walk yesterday, I thanked God for a pain-killer that was so helpful to my wife, not long ago. According to SAMHSA, about half the people in the United States used a prescription drug in the last month. 24% used two or more. 13% used five or more (13% of the U.S. is 43 million people).

According to the CDC, when people went to see their doctor in 2018, 860+ million of them were given or prescribed drugs. 68.7% of visits included drug therapy. The drugs frequently prescribed were analgesics (pain), antihyperlipidemics (blood), and antidepressants (mental health).

In the same year, people who went to the emergency room were given or prescribed drugs 336 million times. 79.5% of the visits involved drug therapy. The drugs most frequently prescribed were analgesics, minerals and electrolytes (hydration), and antiemetics (nausea) or antivertigo agents (dizziness, nausea).

drugs: top ten drug companies 2022
The FDA approved 50 new drugs in 2021

Last year, the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer (42nd St. NYC), netted $21.98 billion. Johnson and Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) netted $20.88 billion. Two Swiss companies, Novartis and Roche were #1 and #4 in the top five profit-makers. Local favorite, Merck (Kenilworth, NJ), netted $12.35 billion to be #5. If you watch commercial TV for five minutes, you are likely to hear from one of these worldwide mega-corporations selling their latest wonder.

The medical/pharmaceutical industry is designed to sell products for consumers, like everything else in consumer economies. It is no wonder, with huge corporations needing to sell so shareholders profit and a huge distribution system dispensing drugs as a primary means of healing, there is a lot of encouragement, even pressure, to use drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal.

Suspicious drugs

Like so many products people want, certain drugs that used to be illegal are creeping into mainstream acceptance. People will kill the planet to inject fossil fuels into their environment, so we have companies too big to die who extract and refine those products for them to buy. It is not the same, but similar, with drugs. People do not think they should suffer and die (ever) and will buy whatever promises to stop that.

Drugs that were formerly illegal (or still are) are creeping into mainstream use. People appear to be more desperate for them every year. Legal opioids famously addict and kill thousands of people every year. Prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone), along with heroin and synthetic opioids other than methadone (primarily fentanyl) caused 21,000 overdoses in 2010. People were aghast when that number rose to 69,000 in 2020. In 2021 the number shot up to 107,622.  2022 is expected to see further increase.

The sea of drugs we live in is full of wonders, but there are a lot of predators in it, too. So the experts are doing studies and the news people are reporting on what they are finding. I am writing because I think the researchers and reporters could be a bit more suspicious.

drugs: psilocybin capsule
A psilocybin capsule Credit…John Karsten Moran/NYU Langone Health, via Associated Press

For instance, the NYTimes published a story last week about how psilocybin (‘shrooms) curbed excessive drinking. The researchers suggested it might be a new treatment in the making. AA suspects it is more likely a new way to lose one’s sobriety. MDMA (ecstasy) is being tested as a treatment for PTSD.

In general, psychedelics are moving into mainstream mental health treatment. Forbes recently published a helpful article about the trend, focusing on treating autism. In it, the author noted the increasing use of ketamine for mental health purposes:

While the drug’s usage carries serious risks if used recreationally, there is a reliable protocol for doctor-controlled use that has a steadily increasing track record of success for treatment-resistant depression. There’s even an FDA-approved spray called Spravato that is helping to make ketamine more and more mainstream, and improve more lives each day.

I think it is easy to notice that most drugs which provide out-of-control experiences are rarely effectively controlled. The Spravato website is worth a look to see, again, how salesmanship leads the way when it comes to introducing treatments.

Generosity about drug use needs limits

With the legalization of marijuana and mainstreaming of hallucinogens, it is no surprise that the use of those substances among young adults rose to an all time high in 2021, according to the NIH.

When the NIH, CDC, DHHS, etc. talk about drugs, they are even-handed. They try to stick to the facts — even though they track illegal uses and deaths, which implies disapproval. I think I might have a similar generosity. I have clients who use cannabis for more than recreation. Other clients have had life-altering experiences with ketamine and mushrooms. In their cases, the impact was not long-lasting. But I don’t know about everyone else. I generally reserve judgment.

Even though our minds are open, our discernment needs to be sharp when we introduce drug technology into our bodies. About seven years ago, the church in which I served offered a time for our theologians to think about drugs together. I wrote about our findings and I think they still provide helpful discernment. What do God and the Church think about drugs? What are some practical ways to approach life in the midst of constant wooing into and opportunity for drug use?

Colombian drugs smugglers shipwrecked
Shipwrecked cocaine smugglers on rising seas in 2019

I’m still pondering and applying what I learned then and have learned over the past few years. Each year, as overdose deaths rise (significantly in my own hometown!), the need to think and act becomes more urgent. I can’t help but notice that as the oceans have risen due to climate change, the sea of drugs has been rising with them. Do the powers-that-be extravagantly use them to pacify the most vulnerable? Regardless, like the Covid-19 vaccines did not solve all the problems of the pandemic, most drugs over-promise and under-perform until the general population feels it is normal to have 100-year floods and 100+ thousand opioid deaths in a year.

I repeatedly encouraged drug use for my clients and loved ones last year. Some wonders were worked. But I suspect I am being too generous about the new normal, in which we use drugs as the first act of healing. I think of giant drug companies as part of the powerful forces who brought the world to the present disasters we face. Now they want us to rely on them to solve the problems with their latest products.

While I don’t think the blanket mistrust rampant these days is the answer, Psalm 146 comes to mind. Discernment begins with trusting God, not just assessing the data and making endless, experimental choices.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish. (Whole psalm)

Is MrBeast teaching us philanthropy or greed?

One of the benefits of a week with my teen-age grandchildren is learning about what is going on with the internet. That’s how I was introduced to MrBeast. If you are under 25 you probably know all about him. I am way out of his target audience, but he corraled my eyes anyway. He is very good at that.

All week we were watching movies together and spent some interesting time after each film “breaking it open,” as we say (thank you Mel White, I think). Part of our dialogue included seeing the films through a Jesus lens. After one such session, I made a reference to seeing the MrBeast video we watched earlier in the day through a Jesus lens (the one replicating Squid Game). I made the hyperbolic statement, “That video was the greediest thing I have ever seen.” I soon found out a few of my grandchildren knew the myth of MrBeast more exhaustively than they knew much of the New Testament.

My contention was, and is, that MrBeast is an amazing entrepreneur and his money giveaways are, though well-intended, a great marketing ploy and a fun way to surf the wave of greed which constantly churns through the United States. Maybe I stated my contention too defensively, since I feel unfashionable when I mention what the Bible mentions all the time: greed is deadly. I will quote just one verse. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

When I suggested MrBeast was dealing in greed, one of my grandchildren immediately looked up his counterpoint on Google, which was “He gives away most of his money. He is not greedy.” I stood corrected, since I had just met MrBeast and was not quick-to-the-draw with Google.

I gave one of those apologies that has a “but” on the end and said, “I just watched him spend a boatload of money, which came from somewhere, to produce that elaborate video full of people doing stunts to get money.” Now that I know more about MrBeast, I could have said, “Most of them got the fun of acting in his video for free. Many got an unusually generous payout. The winner got an amazing sum. Then Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast) got all the ad revenue from the video, which has 282K+ views on the MrBeast channel with its 102M+ subscribers. Plus he got to sell his merch.” According to YouTube analytics service SocialBlade, MrBeast makes up to $2 million a month from YouTube ads alone. That does not include the in-video brand deals which earn him untold millions.

MrBeast in Rolling Stone

Who is MrBeast?

Jimmy Donaldson is a social media influencer. He was born in Kansas but raised in North Carolina, where he still lives.  Donaldson uploaded his first video to YouTube in 2012. He was just 13 at the time, operating under the handle “MrBeast6000” and rarely appearing in his videos. His earliest output was mostly of the “let’s play” (video games) variety, though he’d also comment on various YouTube dramas, offer tips to potential content creators, and estimate the net worths of well-known YouTube celebrities. His subscriber base consisted of about 240 loyal followers by 2013.

By 2016, Donaldson was gaining in popularity on the heels of his “worst intro” videos, which poked fun at the various introductions he found on YouTube. He dropped out of college around this time to focus on content creation, wrangling old friends to help him and gaming the platform’s algorithm as the subscriber count increased.

His first viral video aired in 2017 when he was 19. He counted to 100,000. It took him more than 40 hours but his efforts paid off.  As a result, he broke the 100,000 subscriber mark. Since first airing, the video has been viewed over 26 million times. It was followed by other successes like counting to 200,000, reading the dictionary, and watching Jake Paul’s music video for “It’s Every Day Bro” for 10 hours straight.

In 2018, the man now known as YouTube’s biggest philanthropist found his niche in the online world: giving away money to strangers. His stunts tend to have a philanthropic angle, like adopting an entire shelter of rescue dogs. It has almost become a joke that when people first see him, they hope/expect to get money.  He talked to his mom about this in 2018 when he decided to give her money. She did not want it. In a video, he told her, “If I don’t give it to you, I don’t have a viral video.”

Where does the money come from?

Like so many popular (and unpopular) YouTube channels, MrBeast’s comes with video ads. See MrBeast (103M), Beast Reacts (19M), MrBeast Gaming (29M), MrBeast Shorts (15M). With each ad comes a respective cost per mille (CPM), which is the amount an advertiser pays a website for every one thousand people who see the ad. The exact CPM can vary from one country to the next, but most sources suggest that it averages out at around US$5 per one thousand views. Multiply that by the millions of views that each MrBeast video racks up and you begin to see all kinds of dollar signs. By 2021, when he turned 23, Forbes estimates he made $54 million.

Donaldson quickly understood his worldwide reach and began to “localize” his videos to increase his influence and revenue. He reports that the English channel views amounted to more than 122M in the first half of 2022, and the localized channel views added up to more than 160M in the same period. In March alone, the combined total number of views for all his channels was above 283M.

MrBeast approaches localization through dubbing. He has created separate channels for Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and French content, and hired native speakers to provide voice-overs for his videos. These are MrBeast’s international YouTube channels:  MrBeast en español (Spanish), Beast Reacts en español (Spanish), MrBeast На Русском (Russian), MrBeast Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese), MrBeast Gaming en español (Spanish), MrBeast en Français (French), MrBeast Gaming Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese).

By most estimates, 40-50% of MrBeast’s net worth comes as a result of merchandising and other business opportunities. Some sources report that the YouTube star earns as much as $2.25 million a month through merchandising alone, including sales of his own clothing line. Well-versed in internet economics, MrBeast reportedly receives around $1 million a month from the main sponsors on his primary YouTube page. There are further sponsors for his secondary channels and other social media accounts, as well as sponsors for his various charitable efforts and sweepstakes.

In 2020, Donaldson launched MrBeast Burger, a delivery app that brings signature fast food items straight to your door. It’s currently under contract with over 1000 brick-and-mortar locations throughout North America and Europe, with plans to expand. Along similar lines is Feastables, a chocolate bar company that MrBeast launched in 2022. In the spirit of Willy Wonka, the company routinely holds sweepstakes with prizes ranging from an Xbox game system to a Tesla Model 3. You can also download his game app: Finger on the App

Behind the scenes, MrBeast is a fairly active investor and partner in various startups and companies, including Backbone, Juice Funds, Current, Quidd, CSGO Lotto, and TikTok. He is a firm believer in crypto, but he received backlash in 2021 after Refinable, a token and NFT platform that he personally backed and promoted, plunged in value.

He is popular in Greenville, where his headquarters continues to expand.  As of 2022, the MrBeast team was made up of 60 people.

Shall we look through a Jesus lens?

Philanthropy is an essential part of MrBeast’s operation. Not only does he give away considerable cash prizes to the participants of his many stunts, he also donates tons of money directly to charity. Over on the Beast Philanthropy channel (10M), 100% of the ad revenue, sponsorships, and merchandise sales go to charitable organizations (like to my pet causes through Team Trees and The Ocean Clean Up).

He’s also quite modest in terms of his lifestyle. As he told Joe Rogan, “I think living your life chasing like a nicer car, and a bigger and bigger box to live in is kind of like a dumb way to go about life.” Mr. Beast also talked to Rogan about his ongoing struggle with Crohn’s Disease.

Put everything together and you get the picture of a passionate content creator, with an eye on his mortality, who would produce a blockbuster stunt and donate the proceeds before buying himself a fancy car. But keep in mind, MrBeast is only 24 years old and has plenty of time to build upon his already impressive fortune and develop a taste for big houses and sweet rides.

As with every person, I have no intention of judging what Jesus is doing with Jimmy Donaldson, personally. Not.My.Job. As far as what he is doing publically, and as a person who profits from influencing people I love, I have to exercise some discernment. So I did my research.

What I like about him is his alternativity, his simplicity and his community-building.

What I think deserves some skepticism, is #1, the greed factor. Most of what he is doing is about money: making it, giving a lot of it away, and investing it in a masterful, entrepreneurial empire. The Greenville headquarters alone is worth at least $14 million and they are scouting the town for more property. The attention of the greedy, gullible young, worldwide, is the fuel for the enterprise.

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

Individually, Jimmy Donaldson “appears” (the all-important YouTube word) unconcerned with possessions. So maybe he could be considered interested in the second clause of Luke 12:15.

But MrBeast sure is good at acquiring possessions — especially subscribers! And his millions of followers are fascinated by his handouts. Most of his performers (except his mother) are greedy for some spillage.

Since we live in the hyper-capitalist US, we should beware of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of living greedy all day but trying not to really be (or appear) greedy. I think MrBeast teaches us greed, but Jimmy Donaldson might like his life to be about philanthropy. If you watch the video about headquarters, you will see that Jimmy lives in a little room inside of the huge MrBeast enterprise (he also has another house) — that picture is a visual warning to us all. We live in the house of greed and only Jesus can save us. Without Him, we will be swallowed. Look at poor Jimmy! Isn’t he a feastable?

In appreciation for Ron Sider

Ron Sider was a large influence in my life, especially as a twentysomething seminarian. His seminal book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1978) changed my viewpoint and helped make me a lifelong advocate for the poor. He even influenced our intentional community’s vision to devote ourselves to caring for the hungry.

In seminary I wrote a paper that compared his book to Vernard Eller’s The Simple Life: The Christian Stance Toward Possessions (1973), in which I found myself more committed to Eller’s premise than Sider’s more-evangelical stance. But Sider continued to influence me theologically and relationally, as I ended up in his first denomination and in his home town. Meeting him for the first time was a thrill.

In honor of his good, long life I thought I should republish a book review I wrote with Jonny Rashid in 2017 for a Brethren in Christ publication.  It demonstrates how he kept fresh and engaged for over sixty years in the cause of keeping the American church, in particular, accountable for our social action. Rest in peace good teacher and partner.

Book Review: The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church.
By Ronald J. Sider and Ben Lowe. Brazos Press. 2016
Reviewed by Rod White and Jonny Rashid

Ambitious people flock together

Ron Sider and Ben Lowe demonstrate their admirable ambition for the life of the church throughout The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church — the latest of the more than thirty books Sider has published. When some of us read it, we may feel pale in comparison as they marshal their experiences, drop names, and demonstrate their points with great acumen. Ron, especially, has amassed a wealth of knowledge and connections during his stimulating intellectual, ecumenical and literary life. He’s had quite a journey out of a little BIC church in southern Ontario! The Future of Our Faith is an extravagant title but don’t let it intimidate you. It is really about two caring people who are brilliant enough to deserve attention as they demonstrate the kind of dialogue that might stem the American church’s swift decline as it meets the next generation.

We share similar convictions about the next generation of the church and the dialogue that holds it together in love.

When I (Rod) was asked to write this review, I immediately thought it would be good to write it with Jonny. The book is trying to bridge differences between young and old, new and seasoned, and is interested in bridging the divides that societal labels reinforce. Ron appreciates the multicultural Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, where we live. Ben’s church, the Wheaton Chinese Church, is consciously working at a multicultural oneness. Jonny and I also represent the ambition, the age difference and the discipline of connecting people in the love of Jesus who might normally be at odds..

This book gravitates toward getting involved in the bigger issues on which both men have been concentrating. Both men mainly address their concerns through parachurch organizations, which are mostly driven by their personal energy. Jonny and I have been concentrating on the same issues in our community context, relying on our mutuality to take us where we need to go. I think we are the church they are looking for when they keep pointing out how lost the evangelical church has been since it first started hearing from Ron in the 1970’s.

These are their concerns, in brief

Ron Sider is concerned about evangelism surviving as millennials embrace social action more than biblical principles, truth in the postmodern era, the foundation for marriage where it is deteriorating, and having a gracious debate on homosexuality. Ben Lowe is concerned about having lifestyles that reflect faith, good political engagement, reconciling divisions in the church, and caring for creation.

There is little disagreement between them. Ron sounds like an engaging and aware 70-something who is going to die trying to make a difference. Ben sounds like an orthodox, been-burned 30-something who likes to push the boundaries of his background in order to do good.

Jonny and I do not disagree with each other much either, if at all. We agree to agree. But our agreement is forged in the fires of dialogue, which is mostly missing in the church, The BIC Church has spent a decade eradicating meaningful dialogue from their General and Regional Conferences (which are now more accurately labeled “assemblies”) as well as in general principle and practice. If this book has any wisdom to share, it is that such a move is the exact wrong direction for the future of our faith.

Jonny and I decided we could best serve you if we modeled the structure of the book and each chose a teaching to share and then responded to what the other said.

Rod’s thoughts on a big assumption

I do not think there is much wrong with this book. It might be a bit hard to read for people less aware of evangelical organizations; the authors are steeped in the subculture and in evangelical academia. But they are good writers who break it down well. They want to talk about key issues and they succeed in doing that.

What I will say has to do with their assumptions. They note an intergenerational tension in the family of God over what it means to be faithful today, and how we need to find a better way to sort these things out. This is true. But the problem might be that evangelicals (and church people in general) can’t stop talking about themselves. This book assumes people can talk to each other in the church about the intergenerational tension when one generation is quickly exiting the building.

Last summer, the Mennonite Review included a review of Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America. That book summarizes what Sider and Lowe are combatting. “Younger people today are simply less interested in religion. Looking at the numbers, Jones says the proportion of Americans who are white mainline Protestants and white evangelicals today is 32 percent, down from 51 percent in 1993. The reason for this change? More and more Americans are leaving organized religion, with 20 percent today considering themselves religiously unaffiliated. Many of the unaffiliated are young adults, who are less than half as likely as seniors to identify with a church. This rejection of organized religion by youth, Jones says, is a ‘major force of change in the religious landscape.’ Looking ahead, ‘there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon,’ he says. “By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.”

We started working on this crisis of faith twenty years ago and most of our church members are millennials. It is not easy to evangelize among them when the vast majority of what is left of the evangelicals vote for the godless Trump who epitomizes what Lowe laments as faith without lifestyle. Plus Pence represents the narrow agenda of the religious right while climate change action is rolled back and minoritized people are targeted for police action. Sider and Lowe may be talking to a church that ceased to exist ten years ago.

Jonny’s response

I also do not find much issue with the text and I am grateful for Ron and Ben’s contribution. I think it will be good for those that need to read it. As I will say below, the assumptions are a little too vague and broad. I am unsure the audience of the text is listed specifically enough, and at times I think the strokes the authors paint with are too broad. But they definitely have their place, especially when considering popular (and vocal) evangelical audiences.

Jonny’s thoughts on priorities

As a 31-year-old pastor, it was quite an interesting experience Sider and Lowe speak to me about my priorities. As it turns out, Sider wasn’t far from the truth when he listed what my generation thinks is important, but I think one thing they may also find important is not being generalized. Across race, class, and regions, I think young Christians have a myriad of priorities. I think that the generalizations the authors made about millennials were particularly germane to a city-dwelling transplant in the Northeast U.S., but I do not think they would translate well to say, black people, suburban folks, or even millennials I know in the Midwest and the South. Since Jason Fileta wrote a sidebar in the text, I will note, that millennial Egyptian immigrants–like him and me–would likely “side” with Ron on many of his issues, and might actually need to learn something from Ben’s chapters.

Rod and I have had many robust discussions over the years in which I was on the side of the “older” generation and he the “younger.” The stereotypes (or “generalizations” to put it more mildly) simply have not been true in my experience. As it turns out, many millennials I know, are not interested in politics, race, or the environment; while many older folks I know are progressive on issues like gay marriage, are steeped in postmodernism, and are on the front lines of our political witness. Bifurcating the audience may cement them in their stereotyped places (or create more conflict between the groups).

As a millennial, the main thing that develops my faith is being taken seriously by my elders, especially in Circle of Hope. I was only 24 when I planted the church with fifty comrades six and a half years ago! When older leaders took me seriously, I took them seriously too. Our divisions, if any existed, were erased by working toward a common vision together.

But let me conclude by saying, I think this book does a service to the church by undoing many of the stereotypes unbelievers, from every generation, have about it. Like Rod noted already, the loudest Christians in our country are making it hard for us to prioritize issues like evangelism and truth, as well as debunk misunderstandings about how Christians see the environment and U.S. race relations.

Rod’s response

Jonny points out what might be a flaw in the book’s premise and in evangelical thinking. The authors seem to be speaking mainly to their subculture but they make universal assertions. That being said, it is good to know that Ben Lowe, in particular, is working hard at bridging the divisions. He even ran for Congress as a pro-life Democrat! His book Doing Good Without Giving Up reminds us, as C. S. Lewis put it, we don’t get second things by placing them first; we get second things by keeping first things first. As Christians, we don’t just aim at change; we aim at faithfulness, and out of faithfulness comes fruitfulness. Ron Sider also has an impressive history of not giving up — even writing this book in his 70’s! Ben Lowe is similarly inspirational (as is Jonny Rashid!)

We are glad to share their conclusion

As they summarize their work, the authors share an inspiring conclusion we could all share. “We come from different contexts and perspectives, and often struggle to understand or relate to one another. Overcoming this involves intentionally reaching out, opening up, and being vulnerable. It takes humility, patience, and sacrificial love. It may often be hard, and sometimes we’ll get hurt. But it’s still both possible and worthwhile. We all have weaknesses, prejudices and blind spots, both as individuals and as generations, often it’s our differences that help draw these out into the light where we can deal with and grow from them….The reality is that what separates us is far less significant  than what binds us together. Or rather, who binds us together.”

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?

I thank God for every moment of honest soul-searching I run into during my week. Probably the best thing about the last two, terrible years is they have reduced people to asking the basic question of soul-life: Who are you Lord? And who am I? In an uncertain time, we have many terrible opportunities to ask those basic questions.

I would never tell you exactly what a client said, or even a recognizable story about them. But you probably know that Black people continue to be tormented by the violence and subjugation they experience. On April 4, Patrick Lyoya was executed when he ran from a traffic stop in Grand Rapids. On May 14, 19-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo — last week he was also indicted on 27 federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. On May 28, a hurting Jayland Walker ran away, unarmed, from a traffic stop and was shot 60 times by 13 Akron police officers. Black parents with young sons are terrified.

The Supreme Court rulings are returning the country to the divisions that started the Civil War. The main one I hear about is Roe V. Wade. A woman’s past choices are criminalized. Medical care is politicized. Husbands question wives about routine procedures following a miscarriage. People are again debating “quickening” and whether unused frozen fetuses can be destroyed (Embryo Project).

This just begins to describe the challenging times in which we live. Who am I, now that my post-pandemic church fell apart? (CT) Who am I, after the deconstructers upended our institution and grabbed power without a purpose? (Northern Architecture) Who am, I when the one percent continue to game the system (even during a pandemic!) to make record profits? (Fortune)  As we ask our immediate questions, the atmosphere continues to warm.

Burned on the bulb?

All my interactions last week seemed to lead back to these fundamental questions. Now that I am this age, in this country, re-forming community, surrounded by distraught people, who are you Lord? And who am I?

The other day a group of us in the Jesus Collective were drawn into a discussion on Jesus-centered leadership. The leader loves the Mural app so we each made virtual post-it notes of leadership traits we then offered to the whole group for discussion and ordering. The process was mostly bereft of personality, dialogue and context so it ended up more like editing than revelation. It used a method which, essentially, presumes deconstruction and so requires social construction, mostly centered on words and fragments of meaning (Wiki). But it still has me thinking. It was asking an abstract question, but it again begged the basic, organic question, “Who am I as a Jesus-centered leader?”

Two of my three post-it offerings (I can’t remember the third) about a Jesus-centered leader’s traits were “at rest” and “indomitable.” I think I was mainly recalling an analogy I often make about a lion and a moth. When a lion rests in the sun, he or she has little to fear; they are secure in their place. It is good to be at rest, indomitable, like a lion in the sun. When we live in the light of God’s love and truth, we have an inner security which allows us to be at rest even when we are working hard for a troubled world. The moth, on the other hand is drawn to the light but is always beating its head against the bulb — a frantic restlessness, always seeking and never finding. It is exhausting.

A Jesus-centered leader (or anyone) is not coercive because they can’t be coerced. They are who they are in Christ. They share the Lord’s sense of “I am.” The Mural exercise easily reinforced a moth-like seeking of “what” I am, what is required of me, how do I fit in. It took some effort for someone to be “I am who I am” doing this exercise with this beloved collective.

Or relentlessly asking the right questions?

Rubens – 1635

But, like I said, the process still has me thinking. It led me back to Francis of Assisi being spied upon by Brother Leo as he prayed.

About 100 years after his death this story appeared in a compilation:

Brother Leo knelt and with great reverence asked the saint: “I ask you, Father, to explain for me the words which I heard and tell me what I did not hear.” Saint Francis had a great love for Brother Leo because of his purity and his gentleness, and he said: “O Brother Little Lamb of Jesus Christ, two lights were opened for me in what you saw and heard: one, a knowledge of the Creator, and the other a knowledge of myself. When I said: ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I,’ then I was in the light of contemplation in which I saw the abyss of infinite divine Goodness and the tearful depths of my own vileness. Therefore, I kept on saying: ‘Who are you, O Lord, supremely wise and supremely good and supremely merciful, that you visit me who am utterly vile, an abominable and despised little worm.’ The flame was God who was speaking to me as he spoke to Moses in a flame. (The Deeds of the Blessed St. Francis & His Companions 1328-1337)

Like a lion, Francis was “in the light of contemplation.” Who am I? I see the “abyss of infinite divine Goodness.” This is not a personal trait one can find by completing an inventory. It is reality one can experience. Who am I? I see the depths of my own self-deception and brokenness. I think being a worm, to Francis, is more about being tiny, meritless and slimy than being unlawful. But what quickly follows this wormthought is the question, “Who am I?” I am the visited one, the one to whom God speaks like in the burning bush that drew Moses into his true self and best action.

But who is God now?

In a socially constructed world, now habitually deconstructed, most questions end up answered through the lens of “me” (maybe “us”) and this moment – like the Mural exercise. But there is no true wisdom and little self-awareness if one does not know God.

Even though a lot of people are seeking to know God, God seems hard to find, these days. Many churches are just a big mess. And the church in the news looks terrible. A mentee was thrilled the other day when a man my age told him, “It is so nice that you aren’t an asshole like all the other pastors I know.” And where does one find a way for themselves, much less their grandchildren, through such an era? David Brooks calls it “some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.” Overwhelmed, uncertain, isolated are the characterizations someone will use to describe their circumstances almost every day in therapy.

I have the same experiences, so I have the same questions for God.

  • What about the future? How I knew you before won’t quite do for the next 20 years will it?
  • What can I trust? What we thought was certain or needed to be certain probably doesn’t matter, does it?
  • How do I find comfort? Our focus on ourselves is bearing its fruit, isn’t it?

We might have to stay up all night and pray, won’t we? We might have to commit months, not minutes, to build a community that matters. We might have to listen in new ways when Jesus tells us to leave it all behind and follow him. We might need to sink into the eternal now in this moment and hear God speak in the contemplative flame.

Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.

But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.

The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.

In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

The French Revolution

What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.

After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.

As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France.  After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

The age of the Huguenots

The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.

One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot  looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.

The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides we spent some time in the church during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” But he was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.

I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).

What Church are we building?

It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They were often beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.

We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?

History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things, so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.