Category Archives: Doing Theology

Reflection is facing up to your new face

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

Facing up to your new face

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

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

1) Looking is also doing.

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

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

2) Resisting deception is also doing.

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

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

3) Receiving is also doing  

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

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

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

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

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

Wrangling about law when “nothing is written”

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

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

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

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

Daily Mail captures Johnson at the courthouse

The fight for what is written

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t we resist bad teachers intuitively?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

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?

Biden in Israel: The problem with being the chosen ones

Being chosen is a wonderful thing. The surprising hit show The Chosen films the feeling wonderfully, most of the time. Everyone who finds themselves chosen by God — including Jesus appreciating his own self-awareness, is thrilled with the pleasant absurdity of being noticed, appreciated and singled out. There is a lot of “why me?” voiced, both in joy and suffering. We see that being chosen is an experience, a relational reality, an undeserved grace, love.

When I think about the delight of being chosen I usually go back to having a higher-than-expected rank, at times, when I was picked for a team at recess. Or I remember the evening I asked a  young woman at the jr. high cotillion dance (yes, I did that) to be my partner when she did not feel like she was someone who would be asked. She was surprisingly pleased.

Gideon’s army being reduced. James Tissot.

The “chosen people” in the Bible are having the same experience, as far as I can tell. Sarah is chosen to give birth as an old woman and laughs out loud. Her grandson, Jacob is blessed as the second son and is shocked his elder brother does not try to kill him. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is elevated from an Egyptian prison to the highest ranks of government. Moses is called to lead even though he is a stuttering felon. Gideon is told to make a point by collecting a weaker army which can only succeed by relying on God. David is called from the forgotten outskirts to be king and repeatedly restored from utter failure. Then, of course, there is Jesus, the Chosen One, born in a manger in the Roman Empire backwater Israel still is at the time.

The perversion of being chosen

Then there are the people who apparently missed the main teaching. They are proud of being chosen and do not intend to let anyone take that mark of their value away from them. Jesus tells the Pharisees who are restoring and beefing up their identity as Abraham’s offspring:

“Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:8).

After Emperor Constantine co-opts the Church in the 300’s, Jesus followers generally stopped accepting the main teaching and started living in palaces instead of prisons. After Constantine, being a “chosen one” becomes a badge of privilege and entitlement instead of an experience of surprise and undeserved endowment. By the time Europeans divide us all into nationalities and identities, everyone can have a little sense of being chosen over someone else.

Americans, especially the Evangelical portion, have mostly assumed the privileges and responsibilities of being the chosen people. Even Barack Obama made a point to reaffirm  the idea the United States deserves its special place in the world. He, like the rest of us, was taught the U.S., like Israel was given Canaan, was given North America. (Thus we have towns named New Canaan, CT). The myth is, CRT notwithstanding, we kept becoming more deserving of our special place in the world. After WW2 we were chosen to lead the free world. (As if the country had not always had such designs– Thomas Jefferson famously called it an “empire of liberty”). The idea is, the U.S. is chosen to give the world a choice, unfettered by tyrants and tradition. Obama said in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech,

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law, it is our willingness to affirm them by our actions.“

He wanted a new kind of exceptionalism, but he did not doubt he is one of the chosen people.

When Biden spoke to the country last week about Israel and Ukraine he asked,

What would happen if we walked away? We are the essential nation… And as I walked through Kyiv with President Zelensky, with air raid sirens sounding in the distance, I felt something I’ve always believed more strongly than ever before: America is a beacon to the world, still, still.

We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.

The dangers of protecting one’s choseness

Ronald Reagan, of course, was much more directly religious than Obama or Biden about it. He was always quoting John Winthrop calling Massachusetts a “city on a hill”  (as in “the light of the world” in Matt. 5:14). He said it again it in his farewell address (here lovingly augmented with background music by the Reagan Library).

At the same time Reagan was preaching, some Christians were writing books about how proud they were to be part of the chosen American people. When my wife took over directing a bookstore in an Assemblies of God church during the Reagan years, she came upon a big display of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall Jr., son of the famous Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall, and the famous author Catherine Marshall. It is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.

If you are looking for a starting point that ends in the Trump cult, peopled greatly by Evangelicals, this engaging book could be it. In the intro, Marshall and his co-author David Manuel summarize their thesis with this rhetorical question:

“Could it be that we Americans, as a people were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

Their answer is “Yes!”  And they proceed to make an historical argument that the U. S. came into being as a Christian nation; it had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

These thoughts have been developing since then. When Catholic, Supreme Court “originalists” ask “What would the Founders do?” it becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” Pastors all over the country impute this kind of moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry. But idolatry or not, many people thought they were taking back the country for God on January 6. I suspect some Representatives think breaking the House is a small price to pray for returning America to its “calling.”

Biden's visit to Israel yields no quick fixes: ANALYSIS - ABC News

Biden and Netanyahu: a meeting of the chosen peoples

Equating the state of Israel and the United States with the Bible’s description of the “chosen people” is not only heretical, it is dangerous.

Nevertheless, the idea is laced into the country’s thinking and maybe yours. Dallas Jenkins, the writer and the director ot The Chosen says, when it came time to give the show a title, he decided on the name because of the term “Chosen One” is used when referring to Christ.

“We look at and use the term for Christ as the ‘Chosen One. ‘ So, it refers to Christ in many ways. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Even as an Evangelical, I believe that. And the people that Christ chose to follow Him and be on his team – as we like to say – it’s a little bit of a nod to that.”

What if you take that farther and apply Israel’s Old Testament, land-based assumptions to preserving a Christian nation-state?

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

For many Evangelicals, the U.S. is Israel 2.0. The countries are team mates making sure history turns out right.

The state of Israel translates  its choseness as a right to exist, which Hamas decries. Radically religious Israeli settlers are willing to risk their lives to secure Abraham’s patrimony. The mostly-secular states of the U.S. and Israel are absolutely committed to securing the safety of the Jewish state, even though it has a diverse population that includes Palestinian Christians, both in Israel, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The religion involved in all this political turmoil is ancient and complex. But the sense of chosenness is clear.  Biden promoted his “arsenal of democracy” as an expression of the obligation of being chosen  in his speech. He spoke of the “iron dome” protecting Israel as if it were sacred.

Reclaim being chosen

Psychologically and spiritually, we need help to be sure we are chosen, which always needs to be metered by our desire for the Chooser. Like with sex, we can settle for pleasure and never make the vulnerable connection of love. Being chosen can stay dangerously superficial, attached to whoever has enough power to protect their special status. But that quest for power never satisfies our desire to feel chosen, which requires an ongoing experience of mutuality. We wake up every day wondering if we are wanted, together, and safe. Against our best interests, we might defend our chosenness against anything that threatens our status, but that usually leaves us alone behind our defenses, insecure about being chosen.

The powers that have corrupted God’s gift of being chosen cause us great misery. I keep pondering the irony of the “great Christian nation” firmly supporting Israel’s recent bombs on the Christians of Palestine. The dissonance flabbergasts a doctor at the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which provided shelter to people until it proved unsafe. [Link in case the embed does not show up]

In the middle of the power struggles of the world the upstart, crowd-funded TV series The Chosen reasserts what it means to be chosen over and over. It is an obscure, overtly Christian show that doesn’t deserve to get made or be popular itself! But there it is. When it depicts Matthew chosen by Jesus to become his disciple (in the following clip), it gives me hope that many, if not most, Christians understand the Bible and feel the truth about being chosen in their very bones.

 

Emergence: New discoveries and new books enrich how we see the work of God

When you are feeling good, like after being in the park last Wednesday or Thursday (!), you probably feel like something good is “emerging.” Maybe you feel like Tony singing “something’s coming” in Westside Story.

Emergence is a constant we feel inside and experience coming at us. It is like catching a wave rippling through the universe and finding yourself moved to a new place. One of my clients said their therapy process led them to a new place of peace and understanding —  and they had no idea how they got there. But they felt, finally, like something new was possible. It is likely that something will “emerge” tomorrow. It will seem to come from out of no where.

President Garfield

The three books I’ve been reading (not always a good idea) have each encouraged me to think about “emergence” in one way or another. The first one moved me because it seems like the United States is never going to emerge out of the dreadful sin of racism and all the other hatred which laid in wait to be stirred up by Trump and his cronies. The book is President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (2023).

Garfield colorized

I did not know how much I would relate to Garfield’s life! How he ran away from and ran into racism and hate during and after the Civil War sounds like a replay of what’s been happening since 9/11! Can the United States possibly be tempted to disenfranchise and otherize entire classes of people in the old name of white supremacy? This week it is a debate about Venezuelans.

In 2019, I thought we might actually emerge into new territory. People seemed to be susceptible to enlightenment in new ways. I hoped that white people, mainly, would repent of our sin and we’d come to new reconciliation. But the exact same thing happened as it did in 1876 when tired out, threatened men, tabled the issue in honor of profit protection and their own power – and those were the nice ones. The mean ones planned violence – and don’t imagine a new KKK is not possible! It seems like we periodically push the boundaries like the alien in John Hurt’s body, but some things never quite emerge.

I think James Garfield felt discouraged, too. He could feel the possibilities. He road a wave quite a way from his log cabin, preaching and teaching in the Ohio Reserve, clear to the Congress and then to the White House.

In 1878 Garfield quoted Junius Brutus from Coriolanus in his diary, “Let’s carry with us eyes and ears for the time / But hearts for the event.” The “event” was the emergence of something better. Coriolanus represents the arrogant old guard hurtling to a fall, and Garfield the plebian, idealistically undermining their surety. Ironically, the man who assassinated President Garfield three years later was angry with him for not rewarding him with a job from the spoils system Garfield had spent most of his career trying to eradicate. I picked up this book because I often wondered what it might have been like if he had not been killed. What was trying to emerge?

Nancy Abrams

A much more profound book is by a philosopher of science married to the famous cosmologist Joel R. Primack: A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet (2015) by Nancy Abrams.  Abrams essentially made a god for herself out of “emergence.”

Mysteries abound and are simplified for public consumption when Abrams and Primack get a hold of them. I won’t even try to summarize their science-shattering revelations. But this video will help you (below). I hardly ever watch a long video, but this one is engaging and enlightening, especially if you want to keep up with the revolution of understanding our new space telescopes have provided.

Their exciting new theory is that stars are about 1% of the 99% of the universe we cannot see. “Cold dark matter” is interacting with “dark energy” creating something that looks like a web or like a picture of a cell in our bodies.

Abrams and Primack

Nancy was not troubled by the lack of God in their groundbreaking models until she entered a 12-step program for eating disorders and realized that, as an atheist, she had no way to connect with the “higher power” that was supposed to help her with her struggle. That got her thinking, “I had this sinking feeling that I had never really tried to understand God.”  Her book answers her question, “Can anything actually exist in the universe as science understands it that is worthy of being called God?”

What she comes up with is “emergence.” She describes it as something “new and radically unpredictable” which arises out of a collective. One example of emergence is the complex global economy that arose from local buying and selling. Another example is the way a swarm of ants can build an anthill even as no individual ant can understand how that might be done. She sees the universe working that way and that is her higher power.

For humans, God, she believes, is a phenomenon that emerges from our collective human aspirations. “We need to redefine God,” she said. “The emerging God is not king of the universe; it’s humanity’s bridge to understanding the universe.”

Boiling down her thoughts this way does not do them justice and does not describe the wonder of seeing how the universe has “emerged.” As she was teaching, my thoughts turned to questions about how slavery and the Civil War “emerged.” And how in 2019 a wave of power struggle upended my church and so many other collectives and institutions. Now we are all worrying about what will emerge from the wonder of A.I. I’m not known for focusing on the dark side of the dark matter. But I do admit it is there. If you are James Garfield or Nancy Abrams, you are expecting goodness and development or at least inevitability to emerge. I would like to be a point of light, myself.

Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson

The third book comes from a professor I knew of when I attended his seminary, Fuller. Ray Anderson died in 2009, but I am just getting to one of his last books: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (2006). I never thought of the church we planted as an “emerging” church, but I think Anderson would have.  His ideas sort of bring Garfield and Abrams into the ongoing work of God I have experienced, as I think they experienced too. We all looked out into the stars and felt a shiver of wonder at what is coming, what seems to be moving, and how we are caught up in life.

Anderson loved the emergence he saw in the church. But he wanted to write a book to supply some underpinnings he thought the movement was missing. Beware, I’m going to boil down another philosopher; here goes. He saw the emerging church of the 2000’s as another expression of the Spirit, like we see the energy of the first church of Antioch escaping the gravitational pull of the mother church in Jerusalem. Here is how Brian McClaren asked his question in the intro:

Are we going to follow an Athens-based faith, where our message is domesticated and diluted by new cultures it encounters? Are we going to follow a Jerusalem-based faith, where our message is tamed and contained by a dominant culture from the past? Or are we going to follow an Antioch-based faith, where our message never loses its wild, untamed essence (flames of fie, rushing wind), but like a spring of living water or vibrant new wine, it always flows and is never contained in new forms?

The aspiration of the last sentence sounds like Garfield’s Disciples of Christ heart and Abrams’ brilliant insight: emergence.

Anderson distinguishes between what is “emergent” and what is “emerging.” When Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate what was going on, he was caught up in the emerging church that represented the newness their faith represented. The powers in Jerusalem rejected the Church’s “emergent” message of resurrection life and scattered the believers all over the world. Antioch was the fertile place an “anthill” formed, and soon ants were in every kitchen of the Roman Empire. To the honor of the Jerusalem elders, when Paul and Barnabas came back to report, they blessed them even if they did not become them.

That “untamed essence” is what Garfield, Abrams and Anderson all see and want to move with. Me too. I can see emergence in the past and I want to move with like-minded aspirants to see the best of the future.

I think it is a bit ironic for Abrams’ to rest her new faith in the latest discovery of science, which always thinks its latest revolution is the last one.  But what she is feeling about what she is seeing resonates with me. From the detritus of the last few years, I keep seeing “ants” aspiring together and bringing forth new things. Dare I say that the aspirations of David Hogg and his fellow survivors of the Stoneman High shooting finally resulted in the Office of Gun Violence Protection President Biden announced last week? Is my energetic local pastor, committed to the emergent gospel, going to build an emerging church on the crumbling foundation of the old? Something’s coming! I hope to move with that “dark energy” that makes for starshine.