Many towns in the United States claim they invented Memorial Day after the horrible Civil War, from which the country has never recovered, I’d say. All over the nation, graves were growing uncared for and many people thought that was shameful. Within 30 years the government made Decoration Day into a national holiday. It was placed at the end of May when flowers are in bloom everywhere.
Roughly 2% of the U.S. population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty during the Civil War. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would have risen as high as six million people.
There are many people to remember on Memorial Day. It is hard to get a hold on just how many there are!
Most record keepers suggest that about 75 million people worldwide died in World War 2, including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians. Many civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.
America has been in 19 known wars since World War 2. But just remember the death toll from three of the bloodiest conflicts: The Korean War, The Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The total death toll of people killed by American troops in all these wars put together is over 12 million.
Our war weapons are used on our own own citizens, too.
This week last year, the sad facts of Memorial Day were heightened when we heard about 18 year old Pedro Ramos, who shot his grandmother in the face after they argued over how he did not graduate from high school. He then took his two legally purchased AR-15 automatic weapons to Robb Elementary and shot 36 people, mostly children in two adjoining classrooms, killing 21.
You probably don’t remember the details. There is a year-full of subsequent shootings. As of the end of April this year, in just four months, there have been 185 mass shootings in the U.S. (using the definition of 4 or more people shot in one incident). 254 people died. 708 were wounded. Untold numbers were traumatized.
I often say, “How could someone do that?” But there are many terrible reasons. They are not all personal. Pedro Ramos lived in a country in which leaders of his state tenaciously protected his freedom to buy an automatic weapon in the name of freedom. He lived in a country which is committed to spending, if I calculated the unfathomable right, about $26,000 a second in 2023 to maintain by far the largest military in the world to protect Pedro Ramos’ freedom. You can do your own moral math about that and watch the country refight the civil war on the “news.”
New victims to memorialize
I want to spend my Memorial Day tears on placing symbolic flowers on the graves of people killed in Uvalde on May 24, 2022. I know the survivors are more overwhelmed by their losses than I can imagine, even a year later. But I can imagine a lot.
Lord, I pause the fun at the lake. I dare to look at my lively grandkids. I force myself to look at the numbers, at the evil statistics too horrible to know.
I will ask for forgiveness later. But first I examine the sin, the heartbreak, the wounds reopened every second with every dollar spent on power, spent on the mistaken notion the right to kill makes Pedro Ramos free, like he must have thought.
Ten year old Nevaeh Bravo. Her name was heaven spelled backward.
Nine year old Jacklyn Cazares. Her first communion picture was offered to the press.
Ten year old Makenna Elrod. Four sisters and three brothers will never forget.
Ten year old Manuel Flores. His mother said, “He was very good with babies.”
Irma Garcia had taught at Robb for 23 years. Two days after her death her husband died of heart failure. Their children were told mom was seen shielding her students.
Ten year old Maile Rodriguez. She died helping others to safely hide.
There are more Lord. Always more. We are overwhelmed with more. You bear the overwhelming sins of the world.
No amount of decoration on graves will conceal the hideous truth. Humanity chooses power over love, even makes you a warrior God instead of a suffering servant.
Can you forgive us who rarely forgive? Can you save us who believe AR-15s save?
Not long after I spent a few minutes staring at this amazing piece of art in the sumptuous Seville Cathedral, I popped into a neighborhood church on the way to more gelato. Unlike how I imagine frustrated Francis patiently enduring his place in the wall of a treasure house, treasuring a lost bird winging through the air near the ceiling, and seeing Christ in the hordes of tourists, I felt a bit too much bite and bile rise up in reaction to the state of the church — my church, and God’s.
This dashed-off psalm down the road by the pool reflects my examination.
An instinctive turn into the church:
Sevillans are intoning a rosary.
The leader gives a glance to verify
We are invisible tourists.
I make my companion sit with me:
Sevillans creating a foreign atmosphere,
Making a world for the initiated.
I get through a cycle and leave.
Out on the sidewalk I speak softly,
A sotto voce of contempt lest they hear,
“That’s a good reason for the church to die.”
I am self-righteously upset.
I am right again. So right. So right.
But my scorn is also a good reason
For your beleaguered Church to die.
I kick its last leg in the shin.
Every time I wander here, I lament
When the baroque church was powerful,
When they got a cut the land and gold
From which I still benefit.
They spread out art in every corner of each town:
Brilliant details amplify your honor and glory
With the ill-gotten gains of thieves and murderers.
I inherited murderous thoughts.
I am instinctively turning into this psalm,
Into a place outside my bite and bile.
If for just a moment, I am freed by worship
As my heart sees the invisible.
One of the most memorable “characters” in the wacky Disney Nutcracker (2018) is the Mouse King. For one thing, it is a technical marvel. MPC, the animation wizards, crafted hundreds of individual mice which they then combined into a oversized monster that could ooze around humans, robots and CGI scenery.
But the Mouse King is also memorable as a fascinating idea. When I was praying, the idea came to me as I sifted through lost and longed-for loves — my own loves and those my clients recount. I thought, “Love is like the Mouse King.”
We wish love were bigger
What I mean is, just like the wicked Mouse King is a conglomeration of many little mice, the big love we long for could be a collection of the little loves presently offered to us. The one with eyes to see, let them see.
As I prayed, I felt lonely and unloved. But I am not, objectively, alone or unloved, so I needed to see what those feelings were all about. They centered on my disappointment over people who were not responding to my attempts to connect and meaningful relationships I felt I had lost. I had a classic moment of eating the holes in the Swiss cheese. I ignored the “cheese” I had for the cheese I desired. You may have developed variations on this theme:
I am not worthy of actual cheese so I make do with holes.
I was deprived of cheese and only understand holes.
I don’t need cheese and am strong enough to live in holes.
I deserve good cheese and no one will give it to me.
Fill in the blank for yourself.
All this is to say, we are hungry for love, for the “cheese” in which we find so many holes, for the main sustenance our souls can’t live without. We usually wish we had more true love in us and coming to us. If only my love were bigger.
Could small loves add up?
Today I got to see a friend’s toddler on Zoom. He barely knew how to wave and wasn’t sure about all those faces, but he waved. Later on, he said in language only his father could understand, “I want more waving.” I said, “That’s worth the effort to get to this meeting!” It was a very little love to receive, but could little loves add up? Could we be more satisfied if we turned into them?
A 2022 movie adapted Sir Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) for the screen. The film is a funny and sinister take on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. In it, Pratchett creates another version of a rat king. This monster has a magical ability the draw non-sentient rats to itself. They pulse and bubble under his coat (above). Many little energies produce a potent villain.
I think the same can happen with love. Christians often note this when they bravely say their mustard seed of faith can move a mountain, “If we combine the individual gifts we have, we can change the world!” My small faith, hope and love are not too small to be valuable. In this vein, most Christmas cards should depict God, who is love, being born as a human baby. Amazing things came from that small being! Small loves add up to substantial impact.
I think it is a little easier to see how I am obligated to do the right thing by loving others, even if my love is small. It is harder to see and collect the small loves given by people loving me! (Did you add a bullet point above?). Nevertheless, I think these small-seeming loves combine to form enough love for me to live on. But I will need to have the eyes of my heart open so I can see them. They may seem so small they are invisible!
What’s more, these little loves, even when seen and welcomed, will have to find their way through all my defenses against the terrible feelings I fear connected to not getting enough love. I may have decided long before I had language to think about it, that my mother’s love was too small! I wish we could draw all these loves to us like a Rat King draws rats. But more than one acquaintance has said, “But that would be self-centered, wouldn’t it?” or “Wouldn’t I be taking someone else’s love?” Do you have a reason to stay unloved? Is it “big love or nothing” with you?
Make a list
Even though it seems like a daily battle, I keep trying to receive what I am given, even if I feel it is too small, even if I sometimes give into the temptation to think all I have is holes.
Why don’t you try collecting a bunch of small loves with me and see how you feel? See if they amount to more of what you need. Here’s what I piled up today from the last 24 hours or so:
My friend’s child on screen felt like a small love to me. There were a lot of layers of love in those waves.
My own amazing and devoted children are on my screensaver. I talked to one of those lovers yesterday.
I looked at the painting my granddaughter made and we framed.
My yoga app surprised me with a new soundtrack: birdsong.
New friends invited us over for 70-hour brisket. I don’t know what that is but I already appreciate the effort.
There were a LOT more bullets. I culled my list because I’m sure you get the idea. To NOT come up with a substantial list of your own will take some stubborn resistance on your part, and you may have that, like we all do. But we can overcome our resistance.
Even without God in the world, you’d have small loves all around you leading to the biggest love of all. It is a blessing the whole world shares. But God is born among us every day. Jesus is walking with us. God, who is love, is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. We’re gifted with love moment by moment.
I get a good impression of Jeremy Duncan whenever I meet him at Jesus Collective events. I think he and his crew are doing an inventive and reparative job at Commons Church in Calgary, which he founded. Now he has written an inventive and reparative book called Upside-down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace. Once I started it, I could not put it down. What’s more, I could not resist telling anyone who would listen about the book I wish I’d read when I first started getting into the Bible.
If you ever listened to me speak or write when I was a pastor, you didn’t hear too much about the last book in the New Testament: Revelation. I basically assigned it to obscurity in seminary. In high school I read (and was inspired by) a best selling book about Revelation and the “end times” called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. It ultimately soured me on the prevailing interpretation of apocalyptic literature among Evangelicals.
Lindsay made a career out of teaching his misreading of the Bible. I was so intrigued by his best-selling first book, I actually looked up the Bible verses he quoted. I discovered that even a cursory reading revealed he was making stuff up. When I read Revelation, I did not understand it well, but I did get the idea it was mainly about encouraging the Jesus-followers of John’s day (and, by extension, me) to hang in there even if the world seemed like a disaster. It did seem like a disaster, but not really for the reasons Lindsay and the Left Behindwriters were popularizing.
Free the Revelation!
I would have done better if I had owned a copy of Pastor Duncan’s book. He articulates what I only suspected and frees Revelation from its bondage in conspiratorial, power-seeking, Empire-spawned speculation. Jarrod McKenna kind of skewers people who get it wrong in the Prologue:
All that Christ embodied and instructed is sidelined with pietistic sincerity as Christians vote, act, and desire for history to side with their end-time speculations. Most telling of all, these so-called revelations don’t reveal but rather obscure Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the gospels is displaced by diabolical readings of a murderous messiah who saves not with provocative, nonviolent, suffering love but like a Marvel villain wanting to make his enemies bleed.
Duncan brings Jesus out of obscurity and restores his central place in the book of Revelation. Here is his central premise, which you did hear if you ever heard me speak:
If we are going to read the Scriptures well, we need to read them on their terms. And even though the New Testament is written by a collection of authors addressing various contexts, two presuppositions hold all these diverse texts together. First, God is love. And second, the person of Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing that love embodied in human history. These are the assumptions that sit behind everything we read in the New Testament, including the book of Revelation.
If you put on this Jesus lens and read Revelation you see the Lord John knew and wrote about in his Gospel and Letters. It is easy to find Him in Revelation, even if you’ve been flooded with the cinematic gore of “end times” hysteria.
Duncan starts by retrieving the word “apocalypse” from its twisted use as a “disaster” or “final reckoning.” As he was doing it, I found myself having a hard time accepting its true meaning. Maybe you were influenced, like I was, by brilliant uses of the corrupted definition like in the movie Apocalypse Now. The opening scene, above, is etched in my memory as an appropriate way to see Vietnam. R.E.M. later similarly protested with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
When John titles his prophetic writing Apocalypse he is not talking about a huge crisis or the end of the world. The word means the “uncovering of something hidden.” An apocalypse, Duncan says, tells us two things: “First, there is more to the story, and second, the more will change everything we thought we knew.”
John uses the common form of apocalyptic literature and, first, turns it upside down to fit how Jesus turns the common imagination of God upside down. “Jesus shows us the complete nonviolence of a God who would rather endure death than inflict it,” Duncan says. The second way John uses the form for his own ends is to reveal Christ, to give witness to “the unveiling of Jesus’s victory that turns our expectations of power upside down, replacing them with divine renewal.”
Reassert the structure.
Like I told you, I did not study Revelation too hard, so I am glad Jeremy did. One of my big takeaways from his book centers on how John’s prophecy is actually structured. It is usually seen as a linear story leading from the present and looking into the future, right up to the end of time. But as early as 270 A.D. Victorinus taught the book was synchronous, not successive. Like the Hebrew prophets often do, John tells one story three times, with an expanding scope: local, national and cosmic.
John borrows his structure from the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, he starts small and builds from the lived experience of individuals. Duncan sees the synchronous stories as three “rounds.”
The first roundopens with seven letters to seven churches, “addressing everyday experiences of injustice and anxiety and Christ’s call to live with each other well.” Like the other rounds, it begins with a vision and ends with Jesus enthroned in the world:
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (3:21)
In the second round, John pushes out the story further. Like in the first round (1:10), the second round begins with John “in the Spirit” in 4:2, receiving his further word from the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, that understanding does not stop at the heart level; it must change society, too. Directly opposed to the wicked Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), a wounded lamb comes to sit on the throne.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”
Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,
“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign. (11:15-17)
Our worship leader had us singing with those elders on Easter Sunday last week.
In the third roundthe camera is pulled back to view the whole cosmos as God sets her sites on the final defeat of evil. At 11:18 the final cycle begins. At that point, the nations are angry over the reign of God. Just like when the rulers killed Jesus, there is a contest between God and those who destroy creation. Unlike Isaiah, who saw a day when God would destroy evil among us, Duncan says Jesus transforms that vision into a day when God saves the world by destroying the evil in us. These famous words end the final round:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (21:3-6)
Most of the book has to do with an explication of these three rounds. I hope this little taste entices you to pick it up and do some Bible study with a Jesus lens.
Renew your hope!
I think Duncan is especially interested in the second round. The first round represents the too-small, individualized Christianity where most churches are stuck these days. And the third round is so cosmic it does not need to be understood, fully, just anticipated with gratitude. But in the second round we see that our struggles for transformation are not futile but elemental to faithfully living in the upside down kingdom revealed in John’s upside-down apocalypse.
After showing how John is writing to people under the tyranny of Domitian, Duncan shows how he cleverly sets up his readers to see that fighting Rome with Rome’s tools corrupts us and produces Domitian-like leaders and strategies.
Just as we are ready to despair, and as the scene turns from worship to tears, the Lamb emerges to take the scroll from the one who sits on the throne. The true son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), who did indeed ascend to the heavens, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant unto death – even death on a cross (2:7-8). God is not like Domitian. Jesus is not the imperial child. Destiny is not written by the violent.
In self-giving love, Jesus unveils the hidden, authentic history of the world. Faithfulness was not the illusion. Power was.
Reading that quote made me want to read the book again! In the age of Trump (and who is this Harlan Crow billionaire with a collection of dictator statues?), many Christians are coopted by the pursuit of power on the political right and the left. And many more people, it seems, are long-gone from the bankrupt church and fully given over to acquiring power in an attempt to dominate some piece of what remains of the empire. John’s Revelation was a corrective to the despair of his time and Duncan’s restoration of Revelation is a similar blessing. As we read his book, may our hearts again feel the strength to take our stand in an evil day and open our souls to hope again.
He confessed a classic movie scene:
a hero must offer Dad’s eulogy
and can’t complete it because he sobs.
That’s not him. He’s a stone lit by flickers,
afraid someone will see his tearless guilt,
or hear his relief echoing in the loss
of the father he never had — that death
finally completed, his secret resurrection.
She held a service in her mind:
another tree fell in her strained forest
when the dominator finally left —
moved on to a new host, declaring victory,
leaving the rotting hulk of their influence,
a shadow still dimming the light in her bunker,
where she reflexively cowered in the springtime
of their crucifixion, weeping at the tomb.
Both pleaded, “Please stay dead, so I can rise.”
Though free they still felt oppressed,
surrounded by the blare of faux idealism,
screens teaching what no one is
but who everyone is supposed to be.
They could not confess their liberty,
consigned to forgive people who were not sorry,
bearing sins which others committed,
forever fearing the day they trusted again.
Both prayed, “I can’t die with you; only the living can.
I’m killed, choiceless, double crossed.”
Lord, the old confession finally seems relevant.
I welcome You into the fullness of your death:
the “daily death” Paul dies from the wild beasts
snapping at his soul, sitting at dinner tables,
leading business meetings, filling pulpits,
the stench of their breath accepted as atmosphere.
When it lifts, we feel normal might be in the air.
But it is the breeze of resurrection we smell.
We pray, “Make me alive so I see death dying,
so I am not an empty, tearless loss,
or still at home in a toxic memory.
When I discovered John Donne’s sonnet in my college literature anthology, it preoccupied me for months. I even turned it into a song for my Music 1 course. My TA thought the tune was a little strange, but I still sing it in my head.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
— John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet XIV (pub. 1633)
I still sing this poem because I often need to. Like Donne, from the first days of my faith I doubted the primacy of my mind when it came to my relationship with God — reason is about as good as the reasoner. I was more concerned with the irrational thinking (and the habits associated with it) that felt like a prison. So I loved Donne’s image of God battering on the big oak doors of my heart like always happened in movies about knights and sieges. And I secretly loved the erotic imagery of a passion so insistent I could use it as a touchstone memory of ecstasy.
Donne’s sonnet helps me put the proper passion into the work of Jesus. God comes to free me from my prison: sin, unbelief, death and, ultimately, sadness, physical pain and mental illness. He’s not doing the paperwork, he’s risking his life for a lover.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. – Hebrews 2:14-15
God shares our flesh and blood. The other day at Chuck E. Cheese, my son was recounting his astonishment when he opened his birthday-present-subscription to The New Yorker and read about the condition of gold miners in South Africa. I’m not sure we needed more evidence of the evil in the world than driving up Roosevelt Boulevard offers every day, but there it was, brazenly at work among the poor in South Africa. And there it is in the fact Russia has stolen children from Ukrainian parents! And there it is in the mirror most of the time. It appears we are all betrothed to God’s enemy whether we choose it or not. John says, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
But God is with us. So the apostle, Paul, writes to his protégé and instructs him to act
with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. — 2 Tim 2:25-6
The preacher last Sunday deftly sidestepped the skepticism people have about the devil. He didn’t exactly say there wasn’t one, he just implied it didn’t make much difference if I said there wasn’t. I did not mind that much (John might mind, however). I think he was working with what was in front of him. Powerful and power-grabbing people from the U.S. Empire think there is no legitimate opposition to their authority, which is why we will likely be ruled by AI and overrun by nanotechnology before long, if Antarctica does not melt first. Who needs a devil?
I’m fine with the origin of evil being mysterious. The effects of it are ever-present. We’re surrounded and often manacled. I think any spiritually aware person is amazed at how free they can be and still feel pushed around by sin, death, and suspicious spirits. If Jesus does not ransom and rescue us, we’re in trouble.
Paul basically assumes his readers in Corinth know God ransomed them from the prison of sin and death by the work of Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Then he assumes it again in the next chapter: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans” (7:23).
Origen (c. 185–c. 253), the famous scholar from the early church in Alexandria, is often accused of popularizing a “ransom view” of the atonement. I think post-1900s theologians are more likely the culprits. They needed a neat way to explain church history according to Enlightenment theories. I think they put the word “atonement” at the top of their chart like it was a genus and went looking for species; the “ransom theory” became one of many. Origen describes his idea of ransom but I doubt he was being too specific, since even in First Principles he assumes most concepts can be considered in a literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical way. Origen was primarily an ascetic, so he was probably enjoying the feeling of being ransomed and feeling the desperate need for it, just like John Donne.
But he did say:
To whom gave he his life “a ransom for many?” It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it. (apparently in his Commentary on Romans, but I did not find the source online for you).
Whether we need to credit Origen or not, for the next 1000 years this understanding of the atonement is probably the most popular. Many people think “ransom” is a better metaphor than a doctrine, but most people just take it for how it is taught by the big names, like Augustine, who in the 400’s says,
“The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, part 2).
People have always had some problems with this explanation of the Lord’s work for the basic reason it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained when the philosophers get a hold of it.
What’s more, there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid. But that is a bit like saying there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that grants women political rights. Origen and Augustine were offering an amendment to the Bible and the church folded it in.
The ransomed ransom
I welcome being ransomed, me and John Donne. I don’t need a theory to approve my eligibility for rescue. I need to be rescued. Every day in psychotherapy I become better acquainted in the many variations of our captivity. We can’t rescue ourselves or each other effectively. We need Jesus, our ransom and rescuer. I am less interested in how, exactly, the ransoming occurs. I am more interested in the passion I feel being enacted on my behalf. It is good to know Jesus is tirelessly beating on the castle door.
I think Lent is a good time to get out of prison and help set others free. Jesus taught:
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45
A lot of people looking for a theory have an “Aha” moment when they hear Jesus giving his life as a ransom, “So THAT’s how it works!” But it seems clear that Jesus thinks his disciples won’t get how things work until they enact a passion like his. Be loved and love. Be ransomed and be a ransom. Be suffered for and suffer. In my experience, I feel more ransomed when I ransom. Like the abused often become abusers, the ransomed become ransom.
So for Lent, how about being ransomed? If you just made up your own tune for John Donne’s sonnet, it might lead to feeling rescued.
But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:20-21
What is Lent for? If Peter has anything to do with it, we will use it to meditate on the passion of Jesus and turn our lives to model his, including the dying that leads to rising. Christ suffered for each of us, leaving us an example, beckoning us to follow in his steps. Lent is the opportunity to renew the journey and deepen the turning.
I felt surrounded by small opportunities to turn in the past two days. There were small ways to do what Paul calls “dying daily.”
For instance, in the Enola Holmes movie on Netflix, the plot swirls around a person from 1888 named Sarah Chapman. The whole cast suffers for doing good as they uncover the corruption of the Bryant and May Match Factory. The nonfictional Sarah Chapman is rightly remembered as the first woman who organized a strike by women. Activist Annie Besant encouraged her work by writing an article called “White Slavery in London.”
If you look up 1 Peter 2, you’ll see Peter was talking to slaves when he spoke about following in the steps of Jesus. And if you look around the U.S. and the world, you’ll see that slavery still exists; prisoners are designated slaves in the Constitution! When the movie was over, I went to throw away my Cheezits box and was choked with tears. If you can’t see people suffering for good during Lent, it will be hard to experience the crucifixion and resurrection during the first week of April.
The next day, I woke up early to take my wife for a medical procedure. I interrupted a meeting I was enjoying to pick her up earlier than expected. I would not characterize loving my devoted and wonderful wife as suffering. But, as I often tell couples, if you want to live for yourself, there is nothing worse than a mate. They call out the selfless love in you; they demand a lack of self-protection; they incite turning and growing.
As I was rushing to the doctor’s office, I rode in the elevator with two women who seemed dressed for work. I commented on that. They told me they were going to Harlem for a funeral. I knew the church they were talking about. I sympathized. I blessed them on their way. Just talking to someone on the elevator can feel like a passion. When we’re relating across racial lines which seem more radioactive than ever, that’s a passion. It takes a little death, some suffering, to love.
You see how this goes. We don’t just die daily, we die all day daily. The point of Lent made in 1 Peter is to turn into the suffering of love and truth because it is our destiny to be fully human and united with eternity, just as Jesus demonstrates.
The atonement as an example
Looking at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an example was common among the Apostolic Fathers (ca. 100-200). Later, it was further developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). People who compare theories named it the “exemplar” or “moral influence” view.
Clement of Rome (ca. 96) wrote:
For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that being reduced to the measure of our weakness he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.
Saint Clement was probably taught by Peter and Paul in Rome. After those apostles were killed, he became the leader of the church. I have been to his namesake church in Rome (San Clemente), which was supposedly built on the site of his house. And I have spent many days on his namesake beach in California (San Clemente).
A key work of Lent is to follow in Jesus’ steps, to “willingly endure the suffering of humanity” like he did. Our relationship with Jesus, calls out the love in us. It is a daily challenge to work out the truth Clement relays to his generation: “For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.” Some people think this is just a moral argument and we should all be good people. That’s true. But it is really a promise of newness. Transformed people love like Jesus, not people who try real hard to be good.
For me, the call means caring about someone in the elevator, caring for my wife, and very likely risking my life and reputation to do what I can do to love the world, like Jesus, knowing I will suffer. I have many examples who help me stick with it. For instance, now that Jimmy Carter is in hospice care, the media is eulogizing him, he is such a good example! They keep quoting him with a good quote to apply during Lent.
I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.
You may argue with Peter, Clement and Jimmy Carter because they just seem impractical. There are many critics who have gone before you. They ask, “Where is the power? Where is the miracle? How do we rule the world if all we do is love? How can you make a living being this way? If Jesus is merely an example of suffering love, why have a crucifixion?”
Jesus is not merely an example. He’s not merely anything. He is the Son of God, demonstrating what God does and what humankind should reflect. God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, Jesus invites and beckons, “Follow me.” The cross is the ultimate invitation to each human being to live the life they are given by God. “Lay down your life for your friends. Love your enemies.” Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
It is not what Jesus says that saves us or having correct thoughts about what he says that makes us good. What saves us is receiving the love of God which transforms us, then following the entire pattern of the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ example does not give us a list of instructions, it provides us a way, a paradigm, a narrative to live into. He is a revelation. The Lord’s example reframes our entire existence: incarnation, mission, crucifixion, resurrection – these become the sea in which we swim, the fount of our feelings, the grammar that structures our thought, and the inspiration for our behavior.
Frodo’s picture, above, is a call to prayer. Isn’t that how you feel sometimes when you go to God? Hanging off your own cliff?
Frodo is not my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings because I am too much like him. All his problems and struggles seem too close to home to be part of a character.
I think my favorite character is still Gollum. Tolkien based him on all sorts of slimy, dark creatures in European stories, and gave us a psychologically interesting being to whom we can all relate. In Gollum we can recognize the parts of us living out in some cave where we exiled them — ugly, unwanted, unacceptable parts lurking in the shadows. We, too, are the Smeagol who might kill Deagol (the Cain who might kill Abel, if just in our hearts) to get the ring of power.
In the story, Gollum shadows Frodo (like he did Bilbo) looking for a chance to get his “precious” back: the ring which had the power to enslave him and deform him. Dark desire for the ring’s power drove him to follow Frodo right to the edge of the fires of Mt. Doom.
On that precipice Frodo is overtaken by his shadow as Gollum is lost in the perverse joy of retrieivng his “precious.” As they wrestle, Gollum falls off the edge, and Frodo almost goes with him. In their wrestling, I see us all battling with our own shadows (as I think Tolkien saw, too), tempted to give in to our lust for power and self-sufficiency when we are called to love and community. Frodo almost lets himself go into the lava – you might be feeling that look in his eyes right now.
In case you think this LOTR stuff is a topic that got beat to death 20 years ago, I refer you to Sza wondering how her shadow took over in Kill Bill. I had to laugh when I first heard her clever song. But then I watched the video [not suitable for any ages] and wondered why she let go.
My second favorite character in The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien called Sam the “chief hero” of the saga, adding:
I think the simple “rustic” love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty.
If Gollum is Frodo’s shadow, Sam might be his idealized self. The former being his shameful parts, the traits and feelings that our family and community would rather not have us deal with. The latter being the part of us that only admits to having good and admirable qualities even though this might not be true. In between the two hangs Frodo, now missing a ring finger, wondering if a true self is even possible.
As Gollum is burning up. Sam looks down on Frodo with love and hope. (Who would not like to be as free and loyal as Sam?!). Frodo is hanging by his fingertips, trying to find enough strength to lunge for Sam’s hand. It is definitely a Christian story! You may have been in that scene too. At least I hope you were on the edge of transformation some time and thought, “I must ‘lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus.’” (Phil 3:12)
The other reason I like Gollum and Sam is the collaborative effort they make with Frodo. Life is a group effort. We have a collection of selves inside to coordinate. We also need help from other people to get anywhere in a human/spiritual life. I can’t help but think Tolkien might see them as a prayer group, the two or three gathered in His name.
It is easy to see how Sam is crucial to Frodo’s effort. Without his friendship, all of Middle Earth would be taken over by orcs! It is harder to see what Gollum has to do with the success of Frodo’s quest, but his negative motivation also ends up being used for good. There is a lot going on with us, which is why the prayer of discernment in so important. Frodo is, in himself, a little community inside and he travels in one outside – so are we and so do we. We all need to pray to figure out who we are now, how we belong, and where we are going.
The quest to Mt. Doom is not just about what is happening inside Frodo (or you) it is also about what happens in the group. Three people went. Their journey went forward just like the familiar Akan proverb:
It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that the two antelopes walk together.
They do not know where they are going, how they will complete their task, or whether they will die before they get there. They need individual and group discernment, none of which is easy to find. Sound familiar? We need awareness of all our parts to be our true selves. And we need our brothers and sisters to get to our awareness — they blow the dust out of our eyes. Frodo gets to see the self-destruction of his avoidance and invisibility in Gollum and sees the possibility of love and honor in Sam. As he bravely stays on the path of his destiny, he becomes himself.
When we are discerning the presence of God in our lives it is wonderful to sit face to face or in a circle where the caring love of God is respected. As our companions question, challenge or simply hold us in prayer, they blow the dust from our eyes and we recognize the leading of God’s Spirit. Sometimes they might clarify our vision with their insights, but most of the time they just lend us support as we claim the truth we see and commit to its implications for our lives.
It is a dusty world. Seeing what God gives us to see is not always easy. It takes serious living to discern, to perceive clearly and judge accurately. We have to sift through a lot of illusion to discover what is real. That is just what Frodo had to do, isn’t it?
Poor Gollum! He gave up sifting and lost his name! His sense of self was bent. He was stuck in avoidance. He loved the power to make himself invisible. The ring of power finally killed him (Poor Sza!). Our unacknowledged and unloved shadow parts often drive us the same direction. We may not fall into lava, but our true selves might be invisible, even to ourselves.
The whole drama on the precipice seems like a replication of what a good time of prayer might look like. We are often wrestling in the presence of God. And what transpires is often a matter of really living or falling into some abyss.
Prayer, with the community within or without, is love for God in action. For me it is often love for God in inaction, in silence. But it can be taking a walk or walking with a friend. It could be five minutes of centering at work. For some right now it is all night in their seminary chapel. It could be a pause to listen to geese returning, or sorting donations at the thrift store.
Prayer fine-tunes our hearts to hear the prayer of God in us, to feel God’s desire for us. After a journey in prayer, we may come to live out of that desire in all of life. As we pray, our attachments (our rings) are soon easier to recognize and we are freed to latch on to the hand reaching to save us.
I’ve been improving my EMDR skills and enjoying the process of helping people install “safe places” to which they can return when the trauma they are processing feels overwhelming. We also imagine nurturing, wise, or protective people who can be called upon to help in the lonely process of bringing up dreadful past experiences — trauma stuck in the deep parts of the brain and then inexplicably triggered and replayed as if they were happening in the present. Feeling safe is strangely uncommon, it seems. Welcoming new feelings of being nurtured, helped or protected, or imagining those feelings if they are hard to recall, can be very useful for healing.
The wonder of being saved
It is not easy to be healed. Many people have despaired for a long time of ever being saved from what troubles them. When we watched The Whale the other day, Brendan Fraser’s character really did not want to be saved. And his long lost daughter did not want to be saved by him. The rain-drenched missionary who came in with salvation was soundly berated. Even after the unexpected forgiveness of his parents came through, he was still vilified. The movie is like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale of personal meaning and Moby Dick tangling him up in his own futility.
The lessons of the movie made me wonder what people are learning these days. If The Whale is indicative, they can’t be saved and they can’t save. But they don’t have the resources to save themselves. All they can do is avoid the pain hard, even when they thirst for meaning. Trauma therapists all over the world are working overtime to get some tools into their hands. Quite often their collaboration saves them. Just don’t tell the philosophers of the day such a thing is happening.
As the movie ended, I had to stop and thank God for saving me. For some reason, from an early age, I never thought it was reasonable to think I could save myself. The numbers just did not add up – what was required overwhelmed that with which I was equipped. Just before I typed that sentence a person texted me and reminded me of a lunch we had 20 years ago, which I completely do not remember — don’t even have a face. But they buzzed in to connect because of a piece of advice I gave them when they were in college. They never forgot that, given the way they work, they would never have faith if they just approached it intellectually. They needed the grace of God in Jesus.
I had to stop and thank God for saving me. I was reminded that the skills I am teaching people to help unravel the trauma that ties them up are skills I was taught by God and his people long before I knew about EMDR, or psychotherapy for that matter. As I remembered all the ways God has provided me safety and security, I came up with something of a memoir of the riches of faith I’ve received. I keep seeing how they not only work in conjunction with psychotherapy, they work much deeper. So often they have been blessing me long before I become aware of them.
The ways of being saved
I thank God for the healing presence of compassionate psychotherapists. I am grateful even when they act like they discover things God-fearing people have always known, then codify them like they belong to science, and then sell them. They encourage me to see what I have been given in new ways as they repackage old truths that are new to their clients. I’ve learned so many of their lists of “tools” I decided to make one of my own. These some of are the ways I have been saved and I am being saved.
Breathing– Deliberate breathing/mindfulness is central to reducing anxiety and becoming attentive to our capacity to develop. It may have been Father Keating who opened up this practice to me. Now, every day, I spend some time centering and opening my heart by first attending to my breathing. At this point, I am usually sensing my place in God’s presence as soon as I intentionally inhale.
Imagining– I love how EMDR practices require people to use their renewed imagination as a tool for overcoming their trouble. That was a central element of my prayer in my thirties when I needed to be healed and encouraged to grow.
Recalling people, places, experiences– People overcoming trauma search their souls for anything that can be a resource. Sometimes they have drops of water in the desert and it has to be enough for now. When I look back on my life of faith there are hundreds of people to call on, living and dead, who have made my way sure, I am even confident about the future! I have countless experiences of faith, hope and love to call on. It is all an amazing collection of riches.
Wildly good ways
I decided to list ways of being saved because even some of my spiritual direction clients do not know about them. And really, why would they? The atmosphere in which we live gives birth to movies like The Whale in which people are stuck, stuck, stuck and defending their right to be hopeless and self-destructive. But even now, there are wildly good ways to exprerience the life beyond our ways.
My place:Tomorrow I will sit down in the chair in which I pray, study and meditate and enjoy God’s presence. Maybe I will decide to taken my kneeling bench out and kneel before my icon wall where significant art and symbols come around me like nurturing, wise friends and teachers.
Beads:At some point I may take up my new Anglican prayer beads and pray through my own “rosary,” remembering family, friends and clients.
Journal:At some point I will take out my journal, note my thanks, note the signs of God in the past day as well as acknowledge my sins and then ponder the events and challenges of the new day with God. I might sing.
Direction: Last week I visited my spiritual director and had the benefit of a kind mirror questioning my story and pulling me toward the guidance he could see. I also enjoyed the company of men in my new spiritual direction group as they inspired me with their sincerity and vulnerability.
Retreat: This week I hope to take a retreat. These experiences are central disciplines that have marked my life in the Spirit for decades. Dedicated time alone with God gives me space to hear and rest and hope in new directions. Part of what I will do is remember what has happened during the last quarter and see how I have been accompanied.
Church meetings: Being part of the church meetings and enjoying group worship used to be my central weekly discipline as well as a way to appreciate the historic Christian calendar. I am in between congregations at the moment. But slowly, much larger ways to be the church as well as much smaller ways are proving satisfying.
My brief listing of the riches of my life in the Spirit is hardly about all my accomplishments. I made the effort to show up, of course, but mostly I responded to the whispers and wooing of God’s grace. Beyond the traumas of the world and my own injured sense of self, there was God providing security and reinforcing love. When I meet up with people who have not experienced these riches yet, I can’t judge them. My journey can’t be explained and theirs doesn’t need to be either. I wonder at my blessings and can feel how deep the darkness would be if I lived without the ways of salvation.
As I recall it, the closest my grandson’s winter concert got to noting the meaning of Christmas was singing the song “Count Your Blessings.” The school managed to accurately describe Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but missed the incarnation of Jesus — unless “Jingle Bells” (by the much-loved and enthusiastic kindergarten) is enough of a hint for you. (Honestly, I probably could have discerned the presence of Spirit in anything those 5-year-olds sang. I shouted for an encore.)
I was counting my blessings when I left the school, despite the sting of witnessing Jesus being despised. Pointedly ignoring Jesus makes Christian supremacy that much more obvious, it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have not stopped singing “Count Your Blessings” in my head, which is not a bad thing. I even recorded it for my sister so she could enjoy remembering our mother singing it.
The lyrics matter
When you think about most popular American songs very long, they tend to fall apart. But think about them we must, or they might help us fall apart. So here we go.
The chorus of this little song is what got it into the elementary holiday concert of 2022. The kids’ great grandparents heard it first in 1954.
When I’m worried and cannot sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
Sweet and comforting, isn’t it? The country had experienced some hard years. And those lyrics have some practical value don’t they? They are somewhat psychologically and spiritually sound.
The idea of “counting sheep” to get to sleep was purportedly donated to European culture by shepherds who had to keep a count of their sheep entering the pen. It was boring enough to put you to sleep – or so became the popular thought. A brave sheep will jump a fence under about four feet, and then the followers will jump, one by one, which is also mesmerizing. In the 1800’s, the image worked its way into plays and such, and became a cliché. It is probably better to imagine something like waves on the beach or a soothing symphony orchestra. But counting blessings might do the trick. It is surely better than piling up worries! So many of us sleep so poorly, we could use some tricks.
Counting stuff might not help you sleep
The American song problems arise when we get to the other part of the chorus and the verse.
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
I think about a nursery
And I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them
As they slumber in their beds.
I am not sure the teacher should have resurrected this old chestnut. But that’s undoubtedly because I follow Jesus and don’t like how his holiday has turned into a shopping spree all over the world. When the kids got further in this song, they found out the “blessings” are all about money and stuff. And it kind of looks like children are among the “possessions.” This seems in line with the American sense of well-being: “I think about when I was poor, but now I have stuff; about when I was childless but now I’m not.”
I’m not sure how the poor, unmarried and childless Jesus fits into all of that! Not to mention the third graders! So stick with the first stanza up there! Otherwise, going to sleep kind of depends on having enough stuff, which very few of us are good at having, even when we’re as rich as Carrie Fisher.
[BTW, Carrie Fisher (AKA Princess Leia) is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher had the most-selling rendition of “Count Your Blessings” in 1954 right after Irving Berlin published it].
There is meaning behind the idealization
Irving Berlin, the Russian secular Jew, was married to an Irish Catholic heiress for 63 years. He wrote “Count Your Blessings” for the movie White Christmas (named after the #1 best selling single ever), a redux of Holiday Inn, which both fenced off the idea of a godless winter holiday. White Christmas was nominated for an academy award in 1955.
The parents of Berlin’s wife were opposed to their interfaith marriage and wouldn’t speak to the couple for years until they lost their second child a month after he was born, on Christmas Day. So you can see the lyric came out of his own rags-to-riches and terrible pain. Berlin said the song came from his doctor telling him to stop belly-aching and count his blessings.
The movie stars who sang it to each other in the movie were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt and Debbie Boone’s mother-in-law). Their stories kind of undermine the sentiment with which Berlin probably wrote the song, because they didn’t or couldn’t perform it authentically. But they could perform the idea of it. Their lives demonstrate just how committed we Americans can be to presenting an image packed with idealized meaning (like “the holidays”), even down to being our own brand, becoming an ideal, public “self.”
Bing Crosby was an amazing showman but was probably an even better entrepreneur and visionary. His unique voice catapulted him to fame from nowhere and he took it from there. He pioneered sound equipment (and was instrumental in stealing advanced devices from Germany after WW2) which made him sound even better. He might be the first person to perfect a personal “brand.” His “Bingness” made him even richer and more famous when it was translated into big movies like White Christmas and Going My Way. In his “on the road” movies with Bob Hope he was the smooth, calm, connective , all-American guy to Hope’s goofier and more accident-prone guy. It sold. His kids said they wished some of that “Bingness” would have come home with him, where he was a distant, driven loner. It was mostly acting.
Rosemary Clooney also recorded the song and it was well received. But her own story belied its gentle confidence even more than Bing’s. She was a traumatized child who escaped to Hollywood. She married Jose Ferrer and birthed five children in five years. She divorced him over his affairs and married him again, then divorced him over his affairs again. She then waited thirty years before marrying again, all the while dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she had a nervous breakdown onstage and entered psychoanalysis for eight years. Always a heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer. She presented herself as a fulfilled mother, and she did love mothering. But the “Rosemaryness” on screen masked the trauma of her childhood and the ongoing instability of her life.
I think the stories of these people are fascinating. So is your story. But theirs has quite a lesson for me. In the U.S. especially, the screen lures us into what is ideal. I don’t mean fake, since it has truth and love in it, but it is never true to what is. The song “Count Your Blessings” ends up with sweetness rather than actually being sweet. It is strange, isn’t it? It is a song about vulnerability sung by people who can’t seem to manage their own vulnerability, at least in real life. So in that sense it becomes an anti-vulnerability song we are supposed to swallow even if we don’t have the blessings. We use it to salve the vulnerability we can’t face when the lights are on.
We may have a little “Aww. That’s sweet” feeling (and then immediately mock it) but we don’t have the real sense of resting in real comfort. Accepting that idealized sweetness as real seems to actually blunt our receptors for truly being blessed. Maybe it is comfort porn. The love we get in real life is not as ideal as what characters are having on screen (or Instagram).
“Count Your Blessings” is only 2:42 minutes long! In that brief time we get a little taste of blessingness performed with Bingness and Rosemaryness, which I kind of like. Like I said, it is a pleasant earworm. But I would hate to live off it! By this time, the postmoderns have effectively deconstructed all that and exposed every dark underbelly available, anyway, so we probably get only a minute’s worth of the sweetness. What is left?
Maybe people will go with a relationship with God through Jesus, or though whatever preliminary means they discern. The real stuff is better. And it’s left when all the idealizations have been exposed as such.