Category Archives: Life as the church

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?

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.

 

Interspirituality: Finding trust in the swirl of newness

The longer we talked about Maudy Thursday, the more it seemed our pastor was thinking, “I’ve got to get this discussion over with.” There was a divide happening between old-old-school members, merely old-school members, the outreaching pastor, and the new people now in the dialogue. I’m one of the new people. Afterwards, a new church friend told me someone had asked her, “So who is the Evangelical?” – meaning me! She thought I would be amused, since she knows I’ve been an Anabaptist dipped in Pentecostalism and only an acquaintance of Evangelicals. She was right, I was amused. I’m not sure I would know what to label me right now, either. I hope I will be trusted in spite of that.

The swirl

It wasn’t too surprising someone was trying to sort things out. Nobody fits the old labels too well anymore, it seems. It is not just Christians, but the Christians are in a swirl — and it is unclear what we’ll look like when we slow down. The internet and now A.I. keep stirring the spiritual pot, so maybe confusion will characterize the future for a while. It characterizes most of the people we meet – even in small discussion groups talking about Maundy Thursday! There are likely to be several ill-defined points of view in almost every person who speaks, when it comes to their spiritual awareness. In the past, religious people were mostly set up for the many becoming one. But these days we are more likely to experience the one becoming many. It can be unnerving.

With a click of the mouse, you can find anything you want about religion and spirituality, positive or negative. The offerings are not just many, they are multitudinous!

The podcast has become the equivalent of Luther nailing talking points on the Wittenberg church door, only Apple now owns the door and the points are products. If the swirl has not propelled you toward podcasts yet, you might try “Unbelievable?” where Christians and atheists engage in serious debate, or “Winter Faith” for those struggling with belief in a faithless world, or “Hermitix” where smart people tell us how they or famous philosophers approach spirituality. The list of podcasts is endless and can be a source of lifelong theological, scriptural, spiritual, and religious learning – but it can also be a source of  “always learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:1-7).

Interspirituality

Everything is changing. The more people talk about it, the more evident it becomes that the church is going through a reformation whether it wants to or not. Some people see themselves on the spiritual cutting edge in this new era. They go even farther than labels like interfaith, interreligious, post-Christian, or spiritual-but-not-religious and label themselves “interspiritual.”

In the most recent Presence magazine from Spiritual Directors International (SDI), Bruce Tallman writes about the changes spiritual directors are facing. He brings up that word I heard in my training a few years back to which I paid little attention. But within the swirl of multiplicity looking for some way to cohere, “interspirituality” may have a somewhat prophetic meaning. He writes:

Sister Margo Ritchie, a well-respected nun and national coordinator of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada, recently said at a book launch in London, Ontario that, and I’ll paraphrase, “we are not only going through an era of change, we are going through a change of eras.”

In fact, David Robert Ord and Kurt Johnson have suggested in their book The Coming Interspiritual Age that we are entering a “Second Axial Age” following the first around 500 B.C. when syntheses of Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and Judaism all simultaneously emerged.

The coming “Interspiritual Age” means that religion and spirituality are going to become ever more ecumenical and interreligious. Indeed, this has already happened to some degree – all the religious denominations and world religions have impacted and learned from each other. Catholics and Protestants have already enriched each other immensely; since the 1960s Westerners have become much more familiar with Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Taoist ideas; and more recently, many are far more aware of Indigenous spirituality than ever before.

 As a conservative reaction to all this, there may be a continued growth of “old time religion”, as is currently happening in Judaism with strictly Orthodox practices, in India with Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to restore the primacy and prominence of Hinduism in India, in Russia with the Orthodox Church, and in the United States with the ongoing growth of Protestant fundamentalism and some Catholic bishops trying to take Catholicism back to the 1950s and the pre-Vatican II church.

An ”interspiritual age” might strike you as more Joachimite imagination. But it also might strike you as common sense, since you hear the outlook popping up in conversation at church.

Do you want to adopt interspirituality?

In an interesting review of The Coming Interspiritual Age, Dr. David Brockman, who is deeply involved in interfaith dialogue,  helps us sort out their assertions. He’s mainly concerned with how they dismiss the many for the one and denigrate the traditional in the light of their new enlightenment. Here he goes:

Religion, they argue, is imbued with a “mythic-magic” mindset; a paradigm from humanity’s archaic past involving spiritual beings, rules, and “systems of reward and punishment.” In their view, religion’s main role is control, specializing in easy-to-remember notions that are “perfect for the control of partially matured apes like humankind.” Religion, they contend, is concerned about differences, and about which teachings are right and which are wrong. Worst of all, while spirituality is apparently tolerant and inclusive, religion asserts absolute truth and is “exclusive by its nature.”… [I try to rescue the word “religion” here.]

Interestingly, despite their criticism of absolute truth claims, exclusivism, and right-wrong thinking, the authors engage in these very practices themselves, in asserting the superiority of interspirituality over interfaith dialogue (which they call “trans-tradition spirituality”). In interfaith dialogue, they write, “there remains an overriding concern with the differences.” “[T]his religious experience is shallow enough that there’s still mental concern about who’s ultimately ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ When plumbed, this concern is almost always linked to deeply hidden fear about ultimate rewards and punishments.” It would be interesting to learn how the authors can know this (they do not cite a source), and who is doing the “plumbing.”

Their book came out at the beginning of a decade (2012) that ended with many “more advanced” and “golden age” philosophies being applied in a heavy-handed way.

What makes interfaith dialogue inferior to interspirituality, the authors claim, is that interspirituality understands “that there is a common ‘knowing’ at the core of all religious experience… This happens only in a mystical or contemplative understanding.” Here the authors reveal their own exclusivism (perhaps their own magic-mythic mindset?): “interspirituality recognizes a common experience within all spirituality… For interspirituality, this common experience is the ‘absolute truth’.” Interspirituality, it seems, is the one “right” experience.

But is Oneness the way forward? For me, much of Christianity’s power lies in its teaching of the divine Trinity: that the Ultimate Reality is both one and three. Equally paradoxical — and powerful — is the affirmation that the one Christ is both divine and human, without confusion and without division. Neither assertion “makes sense,” in traditional Aristotelian “x cannot equal not-x” thinking. But that’s the beauty. There is a koan-like power in these teachings: the affirmation of Oneness and Manyness simultaneously….

While those of us in interreligious dialogue learn that we have much in common (our Oneness), dialogue also reminds us of our differences, our diversity (our Manyness). Each religion brings different questions, different experiences, different perspectives to the table — and it is in grappling with those differences that we grow, and that our view of the Ultimate Reality — whatever it is — is enriched, deepened. Interspirituality seeks to tune into the signal (Oneness) by filtering out the noise (Manyness). But what if the “noise” is also the signal?

The authors might reply to Brockman’s critique by saying, “When you say things like ‘The noise is also the signal,’ you are making our point that it is all one, both noise and signal.”

Sometimes I think these arguments resemble niche marketing so someone can find your podcast on iTunes. Regardless, it surely represents the swirl and demonstrates how people will be called to commit to a dizzying array of spiritual options. I prefer “the affirmation of Oneness and Manyness.”  But I trained with respectable people who were committed to being interspiritual directors, listening for that oneness regardless of who their directee is.

Marithé Et François Girbaud

Holy Week requires trust

The way into and through this interesting new era we are entering will take some new thinking and new relationships. I for one have been looking forward to the end of the old era for a long time. It has been slowly dying for a long time. But the death of the old will require finding what to trust in what is new. Even more, it will resurrect our trust in Who is ever-new.

In our simple discussion of how to present Maundy Thursday again — that observance where the Trinity comes together around a table with us and the oneness is handed to our manyness in a cup, we were a good example of how challenging it will be to feel comfortable in our own skins and buildings in the near future. It will take a lot of trust.

The need to trust those in front of us became very clear when one of the members of our table group tried to add our particular contributions to the whole discussion. She started off speaking a bit too-softly to be heard across the room, so someone shouted, “We can’t hear you.” So she gathered herself and gave a short recap in a much louder voice with an almost completely different tone.

I could not help adding when she was done, “I think what just happened is a good example of what we are trying to bring together in this observance. The intimacy of the small group in which we could quickly share a sense of oneness, is different than how we act when we speak to the whole.” On Maundy Thursday Jesus speaks softly and lovingly to his intimates. We want that. But His message now moves around the whole world. We are part of that reality, too. In our discussion we had, and in our future observance we will have: softer and louder, gentler and harder, present and past, crystal clear and in a swirl, just like Jesus and his disciples, just like churches all over the world, and just like our little crew — all in the same meeting, remembering the same event.

Beyond our discussion of labels, we’ll need to trust the Spirit in each of us and the God beyond all of us to trust the experience of receiving the cup and entering into the death and resurrection of Jesus in us, in the world.

 

Is it disobedient to be afraid? (2012)

In my long stint as a Philly pastor, I often answered “frequently asked questions.” This speech reflects a time when someone asked me, “Is it disobedient to be  afraid?” Someone must have asked me for more Bible study, because there is a surprising amount of scripture here.

Is it disobedient to be afraid? We are going to talk about that. The answer is, generally, yes, but probably not for generally accepted reasons.

Rhyolite bank building

What are you afraid of?

I am afraid of heights. I’ve done a lot of things to try to overcome this fear, but I am not very successful. One time I got stuck on a ruin Rhyolite, Nevada (like the one above) when I was out in the desert with some friends and could not get down from my climb because I was too afraid to bridge the gap between my foot and the next foothold. They had to come up and rescue me.

But I think I am more afraid of depths. It is hard to look into certain territories inside. I am not alone in this.

But the worst thing might be that I am most afraid of people I am close to, even people I love. I have a nagging fear of you, right now. I am so afraid of the things that might hurt me again, or make me feel too alone, or make me feel smothered or shamed. My reaction is so automatically fearful I am afraid of my reaction! What’s more, I am afraid to be myself because that might hurt someone else. I not only don’t want to do that, I don’t want them to do it to me.  Are you as messy as me?

So if the Bible teaches I am being disobedient to God when I am afraid, I am pretty much disobedient a lot. I’ve got sin ready to pop out all the time!

The Bible does say, “Do not be afraid” a lot. Like in the famous account of the resurrection. Some one read it and everyone read the bold part.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  — Matthew 28

Jesus has died, there has been an earthquake, an angel has appeared to the soldiers and they have fainted they were so afraid. The women see the angel (note they do not faint) and he says, “Do not be afraid.” I suppose it is disobedient to not do what a messenger of God tells you to do.

But also note that in verse 8, they are disobedient, still afraid, but they are filled with joy. You might want to hold on to that seeming incongruity for later.

So they are obediently running to tell the disciples the news that Jesus is risen, when they run into Jesus! They fall on the ground. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

Is it disobedient to be afraid when Jesus says “Do not be afraid?” I honestly think the answer to the question is “Yes.” It is, at some level, basically disobedient to be afraid. It is idolatry, the fear has a bigger place in your worship than Jesus.

People organize their lives around fear every day. Why are our national leaders so afraid of people in Northwest Pakistan? There are a lot of reasons that could be given. But they are not afraid because they trust God!

Why are we so afraid of each other? You get next to someone and suddenly you are afraid of what they think of what you just said. You are so concerned about what they might feel  you are anxious and miserable all day. When all the while, if you actually follow Jesus, you are going to live forever, which means even if what you experience kills you, things will work out OK.

What can mere humans do to me?

The writers of scriptures from about 1000 BC to 64 AD have a common memory verse that you might like to add to your thinking: what can mere humans do to me? My spiritual director often asks me, “What can really happen here? Really, what’s the worst thing? Why be so locked in fear?” He does not always succeed in getting me to not be afraid, but he is right to ask.

Four of you read one of these as an invitation to us to give up our fear. Don’t read the reference:

  • In God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere human beings do to me? — Psalm 56:11
  • When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; / he brought me into a spacious place.
    The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. / What can human beings do to me?
    The Lord is with me; he is my helper. / I look in triumph on my enemies. — Psalm 118:5-7
  • What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. — Matthew 10:27-9
  • God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can human beings do to me?” — Hebrews 13:5-6

So yes, God tells us to not be afraid — and for some very good reasons. If we don’t trust him and are afraid for our usual bad reasons, then it is disobedient. God commands us to act for our best interests. Trusting God is in our best interests.

How to Calm a Fussy Baby: Tips for Parents & Caregivers - HealthyChildren.org

Is there a fearless human somewhere?

All that being said it would be bizarre to find a fearless human. They might be a sociopath. Some Christians seem to be to have some kind of psychological talent that allows them to act like they are not afraid and pretend they have no fear.  They are committed to being obedient, they saw that the Bible said “Do not be afraid.” So, by God!, they are not afraid. But I think they might be afraid of being afraid, deep down inside. And they might be so afraid of God that they would shut their feelings down in order not to offend her. They might be afraid their religious house of cards will tumble if they call God “her!”

Contrary to that, I think it is very likely that all those scriptures that say “Do not be afraid,” were intended to be comforting scriptures. Those passages are more like when you are holding your screaming child and you say, “Don’t cry honey.” I think they are saying “God and all his messengers know you are afraid. Don’t be afraid.” They are pointing out our fear, acknowledging it exists and working with it.

We have a strange problem in this era. We think what we feel is who we are. If I feel fear, I am afraid. I think It makes more sense to separate feelings from actions. You can be afraid and filled with joy, too! God and his angels might scare you, but you could respond with worship.

After all, Isaiah says:

Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did. “

Isaiah is speaking for the Lord, who is telling his children, the people of Israel — the whole nation is like his offspring, “Don’t be afraid of the Assyrians,” even though the Assyrian Empire is huge and is undoubtedly going to take you over, and your King, Ahaz, is trying to make a deal with them instead of trusting God. Be faithful to God.

Isaiah notes however, that the experience of being beaten is installed in the nation’s memory, since that is what happened in Egypt when they were slaves. When they were just a child of a nation God rescued them from their abusive condition, but the fears born of having been in that condition are still real.

When God tells you don’t be afraid, he remembers your beginnings, too. I have a story about why I am still afraid inside, even though I can act fearlessly in many ways. I have an Egypt in my past where I was hurt. Some of you have stories you don’t even want to tell, they are so painful to recall. Some of you have stories you can’t tell because you blocked them out completely. They were being formed when you were just a small human. There is no way God is telling you, “Don’t be afraid,” as if you were never in Egypt. He encourages us to not be afraid because we were in Egypt and we needed to be rescued. And now the Assyrians are coming upon us.

We have a lot to be afraid of

Get a picture of what you are afraid of in your mind. Even make a mental list. I am not going to make you tell us what it is, so don’t be afraid. But I am going to offer the opportunity to a couple of people, so we can be honest, like God is, about carrying things that scare us. Any body want to tell us the first thing that came to mind?

I don’t think being obedient is not ever being afraid. I think being obedient is listening to God’s call and trusting him when we are afraid, which is pretty much all the time. “Do not be afraid,” should be translated, “I know you are afraid. Listen to me. Trust me. This is going to go someplace. I am with you. Act in faith even though you are afraid.” The scriptures suggest ways to live that out.

Meet God in the night

Everyone read this if you can:

Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you, …
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. — Proverbs 3:21-2,24

I sometimes wake up in the night and can’t resist making a list of things that trouble me. I did it last night, because I forgot to do something I needed to do and I was afraid of the consequences. My fears get to me when my defenses are quieted by sleep and they can get out. I hope that does not happen to you. But for most of us, it does happen, at least once in a while.

To be obedient, try some rituals. You might need to get up and pray or get up and deal. You might need to push it off. You might recite the Jesus prayer and re-center. You might use your new memory verse “what can humans do to me?’

When we become aware of our fear it tests our obedience to God’s command. We need to meet him in the fear. The Lord is calling into the fear for us — calling us out. If you experience fear, it is a place to meet God.

Trust in the touch

Let’s all read this in a mysterious whisper:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. — Revelation 1:17

 This is John in Revelation thinking about the end of time. The other day we got a movie out of Red Box called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It turned out to be a God-free rendition of John’s revelation! The movie was all about fear and finding someone to touch before the meteor hit. It was touchingly disobedient and lovingly hopeless. I think John’s vision is better. John’s vision is such a wonderful thing he experiences as he is awaiting the end of this age, exiled on his island. He has a vision of the risen, ruling Jesus, and Jesus tenderly touches him. Do not be afraid.

God is going to touch you where you are afraid. But you will have to let him and learn to let him when you are too afraid to let him or too accustomed to not letting him. You learned to be afraid and not let it touch you. You have a tendency to fall down dead in the face of what you fear. The touch of God, who is the beginning and the end, before you began and bringing you to your end, is how we deal. That is obedient.

Take a step

Let’s have a woman be Moses:

See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  — Deuteronomy 1:21

This is Moses telling the people of Israel that the people of the promised land are not too big for them and they should go inhabit what God has given them. They are afraid. We come up against things that make us feel tiny and helpless every day, don’t we?

One of my grandsons is learning to swim. When he is done screaming, he is quite proud of what he can do. He feels better because he has gone through a fearful thing. We don’t get very far if we don’t travel through fear to get there.

One of my directees talked to his father after five years recently. It turned out even worse than he expected. But not talking to him had clogged him up with the fear of not making that connection. He feels like he is getting free. He took a step.

You are not going to be unafraid when you take a step. See what the Lord has given to you. See what those who have taken steps before you are telling you. Go with it.

So is it disobedient to be afraid? Yes, if what you mean is you are ruled by your fear and not by your faith in God. But no, it is not disobedient to be afraid. You are just afraid. It is a feeling, and one that makes a lot of sense, given your circumstances. It will pass through.  “Do not be afraid.” Have joy in your fear, Jesus is with you.

Did the devil write The Sound of Music?

“What?!” the Evangelicals say, “The only movie my parents would allow me to watch is being subjected to the latest litmus test?”

Well, if that is how you want to see it, yes. Call it deconstructing, if you like. But the population was fed a lot of hogwash. That’s especially true when it comes to the sweet, romantic, almost iconic scene I want to briefly discuss.

There is some ambivalence about this earworm

I have the misfortune/blessing of having a song in my head most of the day. My mind seems to trap them. The other day this one from The Sound of Music popped up. I was upset, because it had been banished for while due to its terrible theology. But it is a hard earworm to resist.

Before I ask you to give it another look, you might want to give it another look. If you choose to do that, you can hit this link to the YouTube (less than 2 minutes long). I’m going to give it some disrespect. But before I do,  it is fine with me if you look beyond its terrible lyrics.

While you are watching it, go ahead and vicariously enjoy being a grieving, angry man who  has been re-awakened by the governess who initially irritated him. Or vicariously relish the wonder of being a woman poorly assigned as a nun who has found her place as a wife and mother, loved and accepted as she is. I hope someone has met you in the gazebo! If not, I hope they will. Be glad that love can unexpectedly happen – even when the Nazis are at the door! Good grief! Stop being too cynical for this lovely story!

Feel free to get a little tear in your eye for a second before we cast off the terrible, supposedly Christian, logic that led to this scene in this strangely religious musical.

Here’s the problem with this lyric

It is evangelism for a gospel that is not THE Gospel and believing it lands people in misery.

Richard Rogers (who wrote the music) was reportedly an atheist. Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote the words) said this about his faith is a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace. He was telling a story about an exchange he had with a fan. The fan asked,

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” and I said “No.” “He said are you religious?” and I said, “Well I don’t belong to any church,” and then he patted me on the back and he said, “Ah, you’re religious alright.”

And I went on feeling as if I’d been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion — I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.

In The Sound of Music Hammerstein is trying to picture what he thinks Catholics would probably be thinking if they were getting into this wonderful love relationship – a bit like he looks into Polynesian culture in South Pacific or Oklahomans in Oklahoma. He’s painting in stereotypes (and often undermining them).

Unfortunately, he got it right when it comes to the mess people make of Christianity, which is why I hate it when this messy song pops up. It has such a lovely feeling and such terrible thoughts!

Let’s go through this once and for all

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

To be clear, he’s teaching usto beleive: “there must have been a moment of truth” because otherwise I could not deserve this moment. I must have done something right because me doing the right thing is how I get good things and, what’s more, it is how I get into heaven.

I have atonement explanations in the side column over there if you want to revisit what Jesus Christ is all about. He is certainly not about noting our “moment of truth” so he can reward it later by fulfilling our deepest desires. My Christian clients are often tormented by the thought of how unworthy they are of being loved by God or anyone. They may accept that God is good enough to love them but they don’t accept that they are good enough to be loved. Hammerstein captured their dilemma in a song:

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Yes, you were wicked and miserable (and many times still are), but you were not and will never be responsible enough to be good enough to balance it all out. You will not be able to perform well enough to solve the problem, even if you can sing like Julie Andrews! You did not merit the blessings God delivered out of love in Jesus. And if someone professes their love for you, you should probably just take it instead of evaluating it according to your self-loathing.

I think many people believe the theory of God’s grace. But we still feel it is unlikely, if not impossible, for God or anyone to love the real us. Many of us feel if we were just better everything would be better — that’s the truth we live by and deeply suffer as a result. We never get good enough. Whatever nasty thing you say to yourself when you look in the mirror (or suppress saying,  it is so terrible), it is probably spawned by “truth” that pops up like this lyric I’m decrying. We vainly try to control the conditions that led to our lack of love. We’re always sorting things out, “I’m wicked. I’m good.” But inconclusive sorting ends up being the habit of our heart and closes us off to what we need.

A lot of the problem stems from this terrible line of logic I wish I did not remember:

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

If you are a Jesus follower and you believe this nonsense, dash back to your Bible and go directly to:

1 Cor 1:26-30: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Colossians 1:15-23: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 4:16-23: [We] share the faith of Abraham (who is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”), in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Everything comes from nothing by God’s grace.

It is the presence of God that matters, not how well you present or whether what you  present is good enough.

So did the devil write it?

I don’t know and neither do you. But so what if he did? If he didn’t write it, any one of us might be saying a similar thought in our head right now: “Maybe I did the wrong thing and that is why no one loves me” etc. The fact we are awash in such thoughts is why we need a Savior. When my clients triumph over the wicked, miserable thoughts in their heads, it is still not enough. Ultimately, we are all seeking to live in the presence of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” who out of great love chooses “what is low and despised.” People also call and choose like that in various gazebos — it is a wonder.

Maria von Trapp died in 2014

I hate to spoil the lovely scene. But we all know that after the kiss it will only be a decade until the Captain is dead and the von Trapp family is making a living in Vermont as struggling immigrants. Maria von Trapp was not thrilled with The Sound of Music. She thought the stage and screen stars, Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, “Were too gentle – like girls out of Bryn Mawr” (times change, eh?). Her life was tough. You might not be thrilled with how your life story looks on film, either (or how it is torn apart like in Anatomy of a Fall). Our lives are messy.

The Sound of Music certainly got that right. What a mess! Love in 2024 is a miracle, too, and yet it happens all the time. It happens even when a false line in a sweet song threatens to corrupt the whole thing. When the temptation to control the world pops into our minds, we hang on to the faith — of millions living and hundreds of millions dead, in the presence of God in Jesus,  “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. “

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.
My new group reminded me of two things Virginia Satir taught me: 1) Tell your own story, 2) Be aware of your communication style.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it
Trump has unleashed a slanderfest. If it threatenes to swallow you, what are some things you can do? I’ve needed to try a few myself!

The Upside-down Apocalypse: Power fantasies be damned
My acquaintance, Jeremy Duncan, wrote an intriguing commentary on Revelation that makes so much sense I wanted to add my review to advertise it.

A call to prayer: Frodo and Sza on Mt. Doom
The dialogue Frodo has with Sam and Gollum on Mt. Doom is just like what is happening in us (and Sza).

The Spirit of God is Praying for You
Forget cetrainty. Prayer is all about discerning the presence of God who is constantly praying for us, who desires to be with us and hopes to see us flourish.

The Sad History of Christians Co-opted by the Powerful
The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity.

The Common Emotion Wheels Need Unpacking
The emotion wheel charts imply emotions just happen in us, they are built in, “it is what it is.” I not only think we make meaning of our thoughts and feelings, I think we make choices that create them and heal them.

Beyond Trauma and Resilience Is Love
Psalm 139 has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love.

I am Disconnected: Why? Can I change?
A perfect storm of troubles has atomized the country and wicked people are capitalizing on our disconnection to seize power and keep us divided, as they historically do in such circumstances.  What should we do?

The Wonder of Being Saved: A collection of Ways
Nobody in The Whale wanted to be saved. If you do, there are many ways to get there and stay there.

2022

FFF #17 — Brendon Grimshaw and his Seychelles wonder
I loved being in solidarity with the Fridays for the Future climate strikers.

The church in the rearview mirror
While on retreat I get some vision for my future that might help you move on, too.

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me
My 50th reunion gives me a lot to love about the community I have.

Jesus gives 5 ways to endure the shame: Kansans lead the way 
The first followers of Jesus would applaud the declarations of independence from corrupt Christianity some people are proclaiming.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology? 
Forgiveness is hard under all circumstances. When reconciliation is unlikely, it is even harder.

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022
I have been singing with Mahalia all year. She did, indeed, help me get over.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action
Time with the Jesus Collective inspires me to move with the Spirit now.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it
The word of the year might be “overwhelm.”  Better to name it than just wear it.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet
The elements of the Trump effect are not going away too soon. The wickedness has a “trickle down” impact.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?
I have had a tough couple of years in a few ways. How about you? Who are you and who is God now?

Top ten posts from the past — many of them read more than 2023’s

Is choice a spiritual problem?  (2010)

In 2010 our church was coming to its fullness in number and effectiveness. This speech reflects how we were forming a sense of “alternativity.” Serious people. 

A little late in the game, I imagined someone asking me what this week’s final FAQ was. When I told them it was, “Is choice a spiritual problem?” They said, “Oh wow, you are going to tackle abortion this week! Interesting. But I don’t think I will invite my mother.” It did not even dawn on me that people might think I was talking about a woman’s right to choose, or about the opposite argument that is often voiced on the bumper sticker as, “It’s a child, not a choice” – choosing for the choiceless.

Drowning in choices

But it should have dawned on me, because the preoccupation with choice, to the point where it could be boiled down to a slogan about someone’s right to choose, is just the spiritual issue I want to talk about. Maybe I am on a subject that is just too abstract to be understood. But I am focusing on the general opportunity or even the obligation in our society to choose.

We have a lot of choices to make and every one seems to include more options all the time: Make a phone deal. Buy a car. Shop in the King of Prussia megamall. Endlessly swipe for a mate. Be entertained by something on a screen. Or visit my favorite example of the proliferation of choices: the cereal aisle. I was at Pathmark yesterday. To get some cereal, one must sift through an amazing array of choices, most of which are some variation of corn.

In the movie the Hurt Locker (2008), we see Sergeant First Class, William James, come back from his tour of duty in Iraq. First we saw him go through the amazing, traumatizing craziness he endured as the number one cowboy on the bomb-defusing squad. He has total PTSD and he’s trying to cope with normality back home. His wife Connie asks him “Do you wanna get some cereal and I’ll meet you at the checkout stand?” Her patient smile tells us that she is challenged by having to live with this guy who has become an alien from having all his choices be life and death ones. There he is in the aisle facing a new kind of enemy that he can’t defuse – too many choices. He has a little minor explosion before he gets out of the aisle, as you will see.

What I want to say is that the choice presented and demanded by the cereal aisle is no friend to the Jesus-follower. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the spiritual problem. It is the implication that we need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good. Even worse, it is the implication that we have a right to choose, because what we choose is what makes meaning.

We will see if I get all the way to what I want to say.

But choice is basic, isn’t it?

It is a little ironic for me to be complaining about choice as a Christian, because it is basic to our story that once we had no choice and now we do.

Here is a version of our common story: We were imprisoned in sin and death. There was no way out. We were dead in our sins. We were groping around in that dim-light-before-night-falls-completely thinking it was the only light there was. But the light of the world came to us and freed us. We had no choice but to sin and die. Now we have a choice to live.

John and Charles Wesley used to take that story out of its confinement in big fat Anglican churches in the 1700’s and go tell it to coal miners who were in slavery to the man, who were doing an incredibly dangerous job. They lived near death, poor, illiterate, basically slaves, choiceless. The Wesley’s high-class friends were scandalized by their mission. Charles put their message into music. One of my favorites songs of his fits here, you might help me sing it.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? — Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

The coal miners would stand in the fields after work and listen to the story of Jesus and tears ran down their cheeks and left streaks in the coal dust. They were not doomed after all. They were free. They could choose to follow Jesus; their chains were off. It was revolutionary. A lot of the human rights and freedoms Western democracies have built into their laws are influenced by faith in Jesus undermining the domination system. [Here is the hymn extracted from its original context).

But this freedom to choose has become a problem because people took out God and grabbed for the freedom without him. It is a little bit like when Aubrey left Brendan with baby Nat the other day for thirty seconds and suddenly Brendan had freedom to parent the baby the way he wanted without mom’s guidance or participation. By the time she got back, Nat had sippy cup water all over his head and Brendan was blowing it around his face with a flute of some sort.

Freedom boiled down to choosing

Once this intoxicating sense of freedom and human worth got built into the laws without any regard for God, Christians responded by fighting for the choices people were allowed to make. American Protestants, in particular, made an aggressive sales pitch for Jesus and demanded that people stand up in public and make their choice known.

My favorite example of this adaptation is probably Billy Sunday. Here he is making front page news in 1915. I like Billy Sunday because he had been a professional baseball player (he even played for Philadelphia) before he came into the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, heard about Jesus in a way he could understand and not only surrendered his will to the Lord but became one of the most famous speakers in the country from 1893 to 1935. He was not sophisticated—he was famous for his theatrics: jumping, shouting, posing, and hitting the pulpit. He also took an aggressive stand against the evils of his day – especially booze. Here’s a famous quote: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile, but public, definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian.”

He boiled becoming a Christian down to making a choice. And you could express that choice by simply walking down the aisle to shake his hand. Up to our day, most people seem to think that being a Christian is all about one’s personal choice — like choosing your favorite cereal among the brands of religions. If you are more advanced, it is choosing bits and pieces of religious-like thinking and concocting one’s own personal collection of choices into a playlist on your spiritual ipod. In the end, the Christian becomes no different than the world at large, who think that having a choice and making a choice is not only a right, it is how one makes a life for themselves. People think we are the sum of our choices. It is a spiritual problem.

I am trying to set up my simple discussion by highlighting the problem we need to solve or processes we need to face. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the problem.

  • What we need to consider is the implication that you need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good — that is the spiritual problem.
  • Even harder, we need to consider the implication that you have a right to choose, a psychological obligation to choose well, because what you choose is what makes meaning — I think that is a huge spiritual issue.

Jesus has many important things to say about this spiritual issue. I want to give you two. Let’s see if I can bring it down to two sound bites.

Being chosen is more important than choosing well

The main spiritual issue we have today is not ‘choosing well,” it is surrendering to being chosen.

You did not choose me, but I chose you — John 15:16

Jesus frees us for this surrender. Before Jesus presents us with the gift of being chosen, we are basically stuck in whatever choices we make. As we see recorded in John, Jesus was about to leave his disciples, and before they got the wrong idea, he wanted to make sure they knew who they were – chosen by him to be his disciples and to bear the fruit of a life in his Spirit. Each of us has been called by Jesus. The story of Jesus calls us into our destiny. We are chosen people.

The other day I shared a psalm I wrote with Gwen and she laughed at the line that said, “I still feel like a fat girl asked to dance.” She could not imagine me relating to that. But I have had many girlfriends who thought they were fat even when they weren’t, and really suffered at the hands of men when they were. I can relate. God help me, I am still shocked when Jesus comes across the dance floor of the universe and chooses me, fat, ugly me waiting over here to be considered valuable.  Before I take his hand, I am imprisoned in whatever I can choose to do to make myself safe and not go crazy from feeling alone and unwanted. I’m helpless, really.

One of the main spiritual issues of our choice-ridden day is to stop choosing and be chosen. You do not have to choose. You don’t need cereal or anything else they say you’ve got to decide about, you’ve been chosen.

Not being choosy is more important than choosing well.

Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? — 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

Paul was talking to people who were well-acquainted with life in the Spirit. But they still got tripped up when their teachers seemed to be competing and they seemed to be asked to choose. They began to choose which camp they belonged to, like we might, as well: “I’m of Rod or I’m of Joshua or I’m of Nate” or “I’m too holy to bother with your petty distinctions – I’m of Jesus.” Paul is trying to ramp down this natural choosiness. He said, “You are acting like you can choose a better life for yourself than what someone else gets from God. Why are you acting like you got something more than anyone else when Jesus chose you?”

It is so tempting. We have become so automatically choosy and we think it really matters whether we have a Droid or an IPhone, a bike or a car, a mate or not, cool Bellagio glasses or contacts, urban life or country life, on and on. We are always on the edge of a slippery slope to thinking we are making ourselves by what we choose. The Jeep commercial before the new George Clooney movie (not good) celebrated the recovery of the American car industry by saying that what we make makes us. We think things like that: what we do makes us, what we choose makes us. Not so.

The discipline of not choosing

A main spiritual discipline of each day is to sit down and be chosen and work at not choosing for a while. Work at opening up space in our hearts to receive. Gain some receptivity. Do some nothing so God can give you life. Stop thinking that if you choose the right path, choose the right book, choose the right church, choose the right day to come to the right church with your right mate it will all be OK, as if you could choose from the good things God has to give and make it all good, or worse, just give up on that and say, “Its all good.”

This is not the only way you can do that, but why not spend this next week having no other choices for your daily time with God than just the two portions of scripture I have given you tonight. Starve your lust for more, craving for new, anticipating of what’s available next. Just stay with God until you have what you can receive from what you’ve been given already. Someone took me up on a challenge like that a week or so ago and it was quite revolutionary for them.

In closing, I beg you not to get me wrong, I am not saying our choices don’t make any difference so just do “whatever.” I am ultimately saying exactly the opposite. Now that I have been chosen and I have given up making the world be all about my choosing, what I choose really makes a difference. My true-self expression just keeps getting better. When I come to you, I am a lot more like Jesus who came to me knowing he was chosen. I am more like Jesus who obviously was not too choosy when he decided to love me and serve me, even serving to death.

When I have received my place with Jesus, I stick out among the people of the world because what I choose comes from somewhere more than just the right to choose. I am not on an endless treadmill of my endless choices. I actually come from somewhere and get somewhere, my choices make an eternal difference. I don’t fear them; I look forward to them, no matter how hard they are. Some of us might feel scared about being that important, but that is how God sees us. He is endlessly interested in how we are going to turn out, because what we do in relation to him makes all the difference in eternity.

Let’s have some dialogue about all this and see if I got close to where you thought I should go.

Accept the one whose faith is weak (2009)

In 2009 my former church was going through growing pains. We were organized in a way that required many leaders to take initiative and get along. This speech reflects that. 

In the letter to the church at Colossae, Paul says: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” It appears a lot of people in the first century can’t read. And no one has invented the printing press, yet, even if you wanted to get your own copy of something to read. So people read to each other. That seems nice to me. There is something about hearing something read that makes it more personal, I think, more communal. There is also something ceremonial about public readings, tribal. The new churches to whom Paul is writing are getting their identity shaped by doing new things together, like hearing a letter to them. So since this chapter of Romans is all about creating redeemed people and being together in love, let’s have a major reading of Romans 14:1-15:7.

Let’s take turns, a man and then a woman, and everyone read the parts that are in yellow. We’re going to read it slow and ceremonially. Let it sink in. Maybe you can imagine it is a time, like the first century, before last vestige of tribal activity was gathering on Wednesdays to watch Lost and having a letter read to you might seem important.

Activated acceptance

Isn’t that a great chapter? And did you notice how well it fits into our era! So often the Bible seems kind of dated (since it is 2000 years old) — but not this chapter.

The thing I like best about living in the postmodern world is that the post-Christian, Eurocentric countries hung on to and activated Paul’s message about acceptance. A great contribution to western thought from Christianity is the duty to accept others as having a basic, God-given freedom of conscience that should be respected. That principle is clearly stated in this chapter.

Without Full Acceptance by Christians, Gays Are Demeaned and Hurt - NYTimes.comOne of the things I like least about living in the postmodern world is that the Christians are known for NOT activating Paul’s message of acceptance. I’m not sure the reputation is deserved, since many Jesus-followers are performing the miracle of reconciliation all the time – they are mostly unnoticed as great lovers often prefer to be. But there are Christians who like to get noticed who are out there front and center. Such signs were in the background of the recent Equality Forum. Those are Christians making sure that they are known for not accepting what they consider unacceptable. Paul says don’t dispute about disputable issues, but it looks like there are not too many issues that Christians find indisputable.

The Horning Church of Black-bumper Weaverland Mennonites split from their church in 1927 over the use of cars, but covered up the flashy chrome with black paint.

My favorite example of disputatious Christians has always been the Amish, who are supposedly among the peaceful people of the world. But they are quite disputatious.  Some won’t use any modern conveniences and are stuck around 1880. Others own vehicles but won’t drive them – they hire the English to do that. Others own vehicles but won’t allow any ornamentation on them – they are known as the black bumper Amish. Others can have chrome. They seem to accept one another’s weirdness OK, but it is kind of hard to imagine how someone got the argument going that started a new sect of black bumper Amish.

Acceptance forms a peculiar culture

In our church, in which some of us are the only-own-a-bicycle people, we are pretty good at accepting one another’s weirdness, too. But even though we are pretty acclimated to the best thing about postmodernism and we also like Paul’s ideas about accepting people, we still have our moments when we just don’t know how far acceptance should go. That is what Paul’s chapter is trying to sort out.

Like how much accommodation do meat-eaters make for vegetarians and vegans? How much should the rule-followers allow the footloose to NOT follow all the incomprehensible laws of Licenses and Inspections when we rehab another derelict building? Can a proactive peacemaker accept someone who thinks war can be OK? What matters of faith are not disputable?

As you can see in the chapter, these kinds of issues have always been with us. If we weren’t to be respected as people with individual choices to make, then we could just make rules and kill those on the other side – but God’s grace is more right than that kind of right.

The other day I was talking to someone about one of our blessed church leaders. There is a whole new crew of them now who are forming a new leadership team, if the Council approves this improvement on June 6.  I was seeing that a whole new crew of people has a whole new level of acceptance to exercise. It is very interesting to see how these things work out. This group doesn’t fully know how to communicate yet, so they have to listen hard. They all have power in their respective teams and now they have to actively share it. They don’t have mutual habits and agreements set, so they have to create them. These things all take a great deal of acceptance. To make the team work well, everyone has to start with Paul’s fact that everyone has their own beauty and value before God and God is able to make them beautiful and valuable to us.

The postmodern mindset leaves God out of this process acceptance. Most of us leave God out these days, too. When someone is about to go for a new job, like one of my friends did last week, we say Good luck! not God bless you! “God bless you” has fallen out of favor unless you are sneezing in certain parts of the city – some places less than others. So our acceptance these days takes on a form of godliness but denies God’s presence. We have laws that enforce acceptance and lawsuits to go with them. Now it is popular to be a comedian who is all about not accepting people, since comedians get mileage out of being cleverly contrary.

But true acceptance is another miracle born of the Spirit. We rely on that miracle happening among our leadership team, who are at the heart of a church where accepting one another is elemental to our character. That kind of grace can’t really be legislated, or willed; it is part of being redeemed and being a redeemer with the Redeemer. 15:7  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

The point of accepting one another is not merely because it is SO much more pleasant than not doing it, it is to bring praise to God who crosses barriers and builds love in the world. The point of accepting one another is not just to be nice and be acceptable to God, it is much more active than that, it is all about redemption. Accepting someone like Jesus accepted you is an act of aggressive, world-changing love like the Lord’s.

Jesus concentrates this aggressive, world-changing love in the church until the church gets mass and pulls other people into mutual acceptance. But receiving someone where they are and respecting the light they have is also a weapon for goodness every day among people who don’t have intimacy with God or his people.

Like Paul said, the acceptance we have been shown by Jesus is the kind we should show. Jesus died and rose so that HE would be the Lord of all. Judging people as if we were the Lord is the reason Jesus had to die and rise, so He could gain his own authority and undo all that judgment with his world-changing acceptance. People will stand before Jesus and he is all about making them stand. If we’re moving with the Lord, we are doing that, too.

Using acceptance as a tool for spreading redemption

In Romans 14 and 15, Paul is mainly talking about accepting a person who is weak in faith.  This mainly means that he or she has a tender conscience. They can be drawn into behavior that makes them feel guilty – either before God or others. Their faith is not resilient enough to stand up to pressure or argument. They may not have a lot of light or strength or love. So even though their conscience might tell them they should not take their clothes off, if you ask them, they might take them off. So don’t ask them. If they are alcoholic or just think drinking is wrong for them, they might be thrown into a problem if you, their trusted friend, served them a drink. Don’t do that. Stuff like that.

File:Messene, Agora 2015-09 (5).jpg
Ruins of the agora in Messina, likely area for the temple meat market.

The example in Paul’s mind is all about meat that is sold at the pagan temple’s butcher shop. Some people don’t think they should eat demon-tainted meat, either because it might infect them, or because it is beneath them, or because their pagan mother-in-law might see them doing it and think they are violating their morals. Paul considers this a weak version of faith.

Paul, when he is just being himself,  doesn’t care what people think and knows meat belongs to God. And he blesses it before he eats it anyway, so any demon influence is eradicated. I think he quite likes being strong and taking control of his temple-sold meat and eating it with gusto in the name of Jesus in the face of any so-called god that might lay claim to it. So he is talking to himself as much as anyone else. Because it is really even stronger to not act strong, like God acts weak for us. I’ll be “weak” if being “strong” injures someone’s conscience and set them back. If you’re having dinner with people of weak conscience, don’t serve them temple meat. And yes, you need to be aware of who it is who has problems with temple meat, as best you can. Just because you don’t know doesn’t make you any less responsible for messing someone up.

Paul is hardly saying, “Just keep quiet and don’t offend anyone.” I don’t think anyone thinks Paul is never disputatious! His whole letter to the Romans has been one long argument! The goal is not to avoid disputes altogether, it is to use acceptance as a redemption tool.

The heart of the matter is that is makes sense to err on the side of being overly accepting since that is how Jesus is with us. We aren’t avoiding conflict, just like God doesn’t avoid conflict with us. But our conflicts with others, just like God’s with us, should be based in an underlying love that accepts another person as someone God loves, someone Jesus died for and is someone Jesus is in the process of transforming. No one gets damned – certainly not for whether they think driving emission-spewing vehicles is acceptable or not, or whether they break your heart with their faithlessness, or upend you with their mindless sin, or torment you with their unprocessed psychology.

The strong should accept the weak

I tend to take Paul’s admonition to its logical extreme. He says the strong should accept the weak. I presume everyone’s faith is weak. I presume everyone’s conscience is as challenged as mine, even if they look strong and even if they think they are strong and I should not be presuming they have weak faith. I think we all have something that makes our conscience tender. It is always something. So it makes sense to start out assuming that I don’t know what I might be doing to someone. That makes me trust God, and it helps me not to trust my judgment too much.

So let’s get as practical as we can,

  • since you have to go home and re-accept your wife or husband after hearing this, even though you feel a lot of judgment about all the disputable things they do.
  • since you need to go back to work and deal with that obnoxious person you have been telling stories about.
  • since you need to go on the sidewalk and meet up with a person who looks suspiciously like they might do something objectionable if you looked at them.

We all need to develop an aggressive acceptance that changes the judgment people normally live under into salvation and grace. We are making a safe place to explore and express God’s love when we start with someone where they are starting whenever we meet them and hope for their best in Christ, even if they are clueless about Jesus.

Very briefly, here are two of many things in the scripture passage that we can do that will help us develop and use this acceptance.

Make it a rule to Accept the one who is weak in faith…without passing judgment on disputable matters.

Most things that bother you just do not matter to God. Stop noticing what people are doing that seems wrong to you. Everyone will stand before God, not you, and the Lord is able to make him or her stand

Most things that bug us don’t matter that much, most things we want to hold on to don’t matter that much, but every person does matter. Even for the most toxic person, God has a plan in mind for what to do next to help them stand and to stop them from cutting the legs out from others. If you do not presume that and see them accordingly, it will be hard to accept them. That applies to yourself, too, since you need to treat yourself like God treats you.

Someone is going to bother you in the next half hour or so. I may be doing it now by bringing that up. Don’t just swallow being bugged or avoid noting how messed up they are – accept them like God accepts you. You’ll feel better; the world will be better. And you will certainly have a better place to have a conflict, if one is necessary.

Accept the one who is weak in faith…make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way… make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Don’t merely react well, be a proactive accepter. Be strategic. If not strategic, then at least considerate. If not considerate, then at least not a pain in the neck.

Paul wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Eurocentric societies have been all about power, all about competition, all about blame, all about fear of not getting what we want or all about fear of not being respected for who we are. Our minds are infected and in need of renewing. In contrast to Eurocentric ways, Jesus insists on a new mindset of love, born God’s love which graces us all day. We didn’t know God’s acceptance, but Jesus has made it known and is making it known to us. So we have something good to do every day. We make peace. We build people up.

We need to make up our mind to accept one another like Jesus accepts us — do it and learn to love it. It won’t do much good to look like you accept someone on the outside but you judge them when you are talking to someone else, or hold on to their badness in your heart. Being outwardly nice it better than not being nice, but it is not the life-changing acceptance that Paul is describing.

An influx of migrant children tests the preparedness of NYC schoolsWe need to take this habit with us into the street, too. For instance, there are laws about discriminating against Spanish-speakers. They aren’t working. But we are not necessarily working that well either. Spanish speakers inhabit our neighborhood, but they are still invisible to a lot of us. I won’t suggest that each of us can undo this invisibility, but we could plan to look at someone and smile on the sidewalk – at least have that much proactive acceptance! Say “Hi.” Same goes for moments with our landlords or our  clientele. Same with the police and security guards. Same with the rich people and with the people working out at Sweat across the street. They are all potential brothers and sisters.

Paul is working hard to help us react well and help us act well. Just make sure to NOT think you can follow that law well and accomplish it. Accepting others starts with being accepted by God as he aggressively seeks us out in Jesus Christ and connects in love. It was hard to do that, and Lord knows we keep making it hard on him. Accepting someone who is weak in faith is hard because it is that good.

What Makes for a Non-Consumeristic Church? 

I did not create as many messages in 2008 because I was gifted a four-month sabbatical. Before I left, I answered a question someone offered.

I want to answer a question that someone slipped into the offering box, which doubles as our question box. “What would a consumeristic vs. non-consumeristic church look like?” I suspect this good person picked up on a bias against consumerism around here, especially when it comes to people “church shopping.” Maybe they witnessed one of my random outbursts of rebellion about being treated like a “product,” and they wondered, “What’s with that? It is a good question. Ask some more.

So this is how I want to structure the answer, which what I often do when I make a speech. I’m going to set up the problem as I see it, tell you what the Bible might say about the problem, and then let’s think about how to solve it and do something about what we’ve concluded.

The problem: Living in consumer culture

The problem with the church in the U.S. is a lot like the other problems I can associate with being a consumer culture. It is all a lie. Life is not about buying and selling things. People and experiences are not products. Jesus can’t be bought or sold. The church and worship are not commodities.

On the contrary, the church is a spiritual-physical ecosystem; it is an organic thing. If you turn it into a product, you mess it up. Consumerism is not good for organisms, for creation, in general. For instance, we’re not sure we should raise animals in industrial contexts; animals are not mere products. Likewise, we’re not sure you should endlessly burn carbon fuels; the atmosphere is not a big trash can for byproducts. When we are run by what we consume, bad things happen.

I heard a story on NPR that provide a helpul example for everyone who wants to mess with organic things, like the church. You may have heard about the elephants, ants and a particular tree (which would be a bush in Pennsylvania).

Elephants gather around the ant-plant Acacia drepanolobium.

Think of the church as the tree in this tale. African elephants eat a lot; they are big consumers. They like to eat trees. A certain tree found a way to protect itself from being eaten by exuding a tasty sap that ferocious ants like. When an elephant goes after this tree it just might get a snoot full of ants. So the tree is nibbled and not devoured.

 A little aside, here: 

  • If this were an American tree it would find a way to pump up and get rid of elephants for good. You’d see this redundant commercial for “New extra strength anti-elephant sap.”
  • If the elephants were American they might try to get rid of the ants so they could eat trees. The news story would say, “No Amnesty for Ants: The Freedom to Eat Trees Act has allotted 100 million dollars to capture and deport illegal, tree-invading ants.”

But back to the story. In a long-term experiment, a scientist cordoned off some of these trees to see what would happen if elephants were prevented from getting to them. He expected the trees to flourish. But instead of flourishing, the trees stopped producing sap, since the ants were not needed. The trees kind of dried up. They didn’t grow as much as when they needed to produce sap for ants and leaves for elephants. What’s more, without the protector ants, other bugs infested them and started drilling holes in their bark and hollowing them out.

The moral I draw from this story for the ecosystem of the church is, don’t try to turn the church into a feel-good, easy-buy, no-fuss, no-pain, instantly satisfying product. It won’t work. Just like the acacia tree needs the tension between ants and elephants to flourish, every living tree has giving, and taking, and hurting going on. If you mess with it, you will end up hollowed out. The church is a living tree.

Getting hollowed out is exactly what I think happens to the church that adapts to consumer capitalism. When the church gets commodified, people buy it, they find out it is not really what was advertised and the whole enterprise gets a little more attackable and empty. Isn’t that generally happening?

You can see what consumerism does to the church by seeing what people who are cultured to be consumers do to this meeting. This meeting is the most visible part of the tree, you might say. This meeting is where ants explore for sap and elephants nibble on leaves. It is a rather complex, mixed bag of a meeting and the church has always used it in a number of ways and leaned it in many directions. Is it a show that anyone can come and enjoy, or is it a disciplined spiritual exercise for the initiated? Should we tamp the deep things down so the spiritually hungry ants coming to sip will like it, or should we fill it full of meaty things so the ravenous elephants won’t get bored, move away or even starve? Needless to say, if you come to it looking for what you wish you had, you’ll probably be disappointed, at least a little.

I’m not sure we know exactly what we are doing with this meeting, either. But I don’t think we have just concocted a great product. This meeting is an expression of us. For us, it is the family’s public meeting. It could careen from light to heavy at any moment. In the course of five minutes one person might find it shallow and another deep. I might seem like a great show to some and a total flop to others.

It is kind of painful to hold a public meeting. Ants and elephants both live off this tree – but strangely enough, we thrive when our sap is eaten and our leaves are stripped.

Non-family are welcome at the family meeting — people don’t show up and automatically love us like family, so it hurts — people who feel connected don’t have all their needs met, so it hurts. But I honestly think it may be in the hurting that we are most valuable, so I am willing to do it.

People criticize what we are doing as if we are just another show when we are an organism. They check out our schedule of events to see what’s in it for them or to see if they fit, as if we were an investment or a pair of shoes – being treated like that hurts! I’m not $3.99 a pound, I am a cow!

What are you going to do? We are a nation of consumers. George Bush is famous for being interpreted in 2005 as saying our duty in the present state of warfare is to shop (redacted video above as evidence). The president of the seminary I went to wrote an article in the latest Christianity Today magazine that defended what some people label consumerist tendencies as more a matter of freedom to grow and choose than just being a slave to fashion or personal taste. He doesn’t think it is automatically bad to consider whether you want a Big Mac or a Whopper, a Pentecostal or a Catholic. He has a point. Since he is a philosopher, he probably IS making a choice and he is rich enough to make whatever choice he wants. But for the rest of us, I fear that an awful lot of us haven’t thought over how we choose and just go with what is going. We perpetually shop. That’s the problem. Consumers by nature make the church a commodity to be consumed in the typical pattern, and that kills the tree.

I have two Bible passages that tell us what to do instead.

The Bible speaks to consumer culture

The first quote encourages us to have our pain, rather than just go for “What’s in it for me.”

[H]old out (or hold on to) the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.  So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-8

The basic example of Jesus, who is our model for being created in the image of God, is living a life of self-giving love. Living a life of self-giving love is our true destiny. Lust for self-getting should not drive us; the quest for a true self that lives in love and expresses love should drive us.

In the case of Paul and Jesus, they both think their highest calling is about being poured out in service and worship, not being poured into. Paul finds joy in his connection with God which transcends even the joy of seeing some fruit come from his tireless labor. He is filled with the Spirit of God and doesn’t feel an endless need to be filled. This is a very anti-consumeristic verse, wouldn’t you say? But I do think it is honest about the pain involved in being anti-consumeristic – not shopping feels like being poured out, without getting a good return. It is not a good deal.

I have told you before that in seminary I was actually taught (by “church growth experts”) that Americans will not come to your church (note “come to,” like coming to the show) unless you WIIFT them, as in “What’s In It For Them?” People must be WIIFTed; that’s how they work.

I think the experts are right about how to get people to come to the show, but they might be wrong about making followers of Jesus. If people are cultured in the church to always consider what’s in it for me, they’ll have more trouble connecting with God or others than they already have, because, as Jesus shows, to connect takes suffering. There will be pain to connect. I’m not sure there will be blood, but there was God’s blood. To paraphrase one of the Lord’s most basic teachings: If you consume as a way of life, you’ll lose your life, but if you pour out your life in worship and service, you’ll find joy.

Endless shopping and deal-making creates insecurity, even when you find something you like or you make a good deal. When we are always shopping, our relationships end up being about “Do I feel good?” or “Can I make you feel good?” We’re always pondering ourselves and never connecting, and then we wonder why we never feel connected and we wonder who or what might make me feel loved? It is endless.

If we endlessly shop, we end up looking around our cell skeptically, wondering if we should get in any deeper with these flawed people, since people in Phoenix are reportedly friendlier. We look at ourselves and feel ashamed, because if we were more saleable someone would have bought us by now. We think “No one shops in the extra-large or extra small section for love,” or “No one would want a used product like me.” Our value ends up based on whether we are a good deal. Shopping creates false expectations, good and bad, “I deserve the best” and “I deserve the worst.” You see how this goes.

Within my lifetime, Americans became mere consumers; they started being labelled “consumers.” People began raising their children as consumers. Like the children are even consumers of parenting. Like they need to be the best parents possible or their children will have gotten a bad deal and they will tell their therapist what bad parents they had and feel deprived. As a result, the children are predictably insecure and demanding; they never get enough, they are perpetual shoppers – and as a result they never pour their lives out, and have a tough time receiving and giving God’s love.

Given that self-giving love is at the heart of being a Christian, how can we make a non-consumeristic church?

Being consumed in the right way

Let me give you another verse. But first let me admit that I haven’t made a very clear definition of what consumeristic means. I don’t think consuming things is bad, of course, unless that is all you do. Being “consumeristic” is being a slave to consuming and organizing everything to be consumed effortlessly and as a top priority, regardless of the consequences. But like my seminary president says, not everything about church shopping is bad. I have been Baptist, been rather Franciscan, been pretty Pentecostal, and mostly Brethren in Christ, which is in itself, a little supermarket of Christian brands. I looked around. I grew. Life is not an either or. We need to choose.

But you can’t make good choices just by consuming. Eventually, you need to be consumed if you are connected to Jesus. Lately I have been talking to people who have tasted it all and they are sick of it all when it comes to Christianity. They are jaded consumers. They never got to faith. They tried to eat the wrapper and missed the candy bar, I guess.

A fire that does not consume - nac.today

Here’s the other verse for them and you.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-9

Maybe the difference between a follower of Jesus and a consumer of Christian products is that the follower is consumed by the Fire. A follower is filled with the Spirit of God. A follower is loved in the light. The consumer is considering whether they want it. The consumer is aspiring to get something more than they have. The consumer is trying it on to see if it fits.

Don’t take that the wrong way, if you are a consumer. Consumers belong in this meeting. Because if you eat enough rice you might learn to like Asian food. Before I went to Indonesia as a teenager, I could not choke down a spoonful of rice. I hated rice. The smell of rice cooking in my host family home in Semarang almost made me sick. But I was served rice constantly. I learned to love it and now I yearn for a spoonful. Consume the right thing and you might become like it. This verse kind of says, sit by the fire and you’ll get warm. Live in the light and you’ll have less shadow. Be in relationship with God and the Spirit of God will make you real.

The writer of Hebrews is talking about coming to the glorious kingdom of heaven that is far beyond the smoking mountain where God wrote the ten commandments with fire on Moses’ tablets. Jesus reveals how God is even bigger than his commandments. You can’t consume God, you can only relate to God, who is all-consuming. You can pour out your offering on the altar fire, like Paul imagined his life, and worship.

It is not like God is a consumer and you’re not. God is consuming, like the ultimate fire. We can’t put him in a box to buy, we can’t package her neatly (in the correct gender term), we can’t manufacture God, we can’t keep them on the shelf. God is. Jesus says, “I am.” We can be with him and do with him. If not, we might be consumed.

Making a non-consumeristic church

I think people are working with God around here and managing to pull off a non-consumeristic church. Rather than tell you what to do in theory, let me tell you about people who pour themselves out before God, who is a consuming fire.

For instance, we recently scrambled the Public Meeting Teams — the teams that make this meeting, our three acacia trees. The East teams had scrambled this and they kind of inspired and baited the BW teams to mix themselves up, too. Shake things up. Get the ants and elephants back to the tree. Cause some pouring out and needing God. Rachel and Angie took new leadership, here. Some of our valuable servants felt uprooted. New, even risky people were added in. But, all in all, it has been amazing how people are working out a weird thing. It hurts. It requires love. We’re not just keeping what we’ve got or just getting what we want, we are going for the consuming fire, trying to get beyond what’s typical. We’ll see what happens.

But whether it all works or not, at least those 30 people or so who make up our PM teams are not sipping to see if they like it. They aren’t sniffing around to see if they are welcome. They aren’t visiting. They are the church.

Likewise, look at the Council meeting we had yesterday anchored by our 43 cell leaders. It is very optimistic to expect such a high level of interest and commitment in the middle of a consumeristic culture. Can’t you people find a more exciting way to spend Saturday morning? You could be sleeping, working, going shopping, fixing the house, having sex, looking for someone to have sex with, being amused, doing as little as possible because you are always asked to do too much. There are a lot of other choices to make than pouring oneself out with an expanding group of people pushing along an enterprise that often seems like it is already out of control! We have a remarkable level of being – and we trust it. We don’t just wait around for someone to sell it to us, we build it. We don’t passively consume it, we are it. The Council meeting is another place we trust God very seriously. And if we do not have that trust, we expect to justly die.

That brings me back to the dual nature of this meeting. I think most people come in as consumers. We love them. God loves them. But we don’t conform to them. That means our relationships might need to develop. We might have conflict. We might even witness some elephants running off with a snoot full of ants, at times. There is a bit of pain on the way to joy. But we want to be that spiritual ecosystem that trusts the Creator to bring it all to fruit and put it in order just the way she sees fit. We want God to be the consuming presence of life in the midst of us — can’t shop for anything better than that!

Talk back – What Do you think? Questions? Further thoughts?

If creation were friendly, how would you love?

It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.

John O'Donohue: How he loved and how he died - Irland News
John O’Donohue (1956-2008)

Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their  traumatized and confused parents.

A soul friend to yourself and others

When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:

“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “

Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.

Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.

John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.

If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,
together.

No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.

Interiority

Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.

Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.

I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.

Picture
Fleurs et mains by Pablo Picasso

Threshold

To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the threshold into the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.

People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.

The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.

Friendly creation

Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”

But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.

When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.