Category Archives: Film/TV

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me

It is still hard to fathom how I could have attended my 50th high school reunion last week! Some of my classmates had to take a good look at the yearbook picture on my name tag to figure out who I was. I hardly remember who I was myself. If you did not know me then, you probably can’t spot me above in the El Chasqui (yearbook)!

Just like in high school, Jo Glidewell (cheerleader, choreographer, enthusiast) and Kim Tomlinson (childhood buddy, artist, hambone) got me to do a song at the reunion. I reluctantly complied, just like I always did, and pulled out my big hit of 1971: “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Here is Robert Morse, who originated the role of J. Pierpont Finch, singing it and acting kind of cringy. (You can also hear Ferris Bueller and Harry Potter give it a go on YouTube).

My reunion performance was not a triumph. My wife tried to save me some embarrassment by complaining that it was just a bad song. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience.

I liked some of the interjections with which I decided to annotate the song. So I thought I would replay them for you. They speak of love and acceptance. It might encourage you to know that believing and community still exist. I found them in many places among the Chino High School Class of 1972.

A surprisingly meaningful song

When I played the part of Finch in our very own high school musical, I sang “I Believe in You” while staring straight into a spotlight which was supposed to represent a mirror. When my father saw that spotlight flash on my face, I imagine him thinking, “You still have time to get off that stage. Run before this song begins!” Meanwhile, I imagine my mother thinking, “ Finally, my years of living vicariously through this child are coming to fruit!” I found out later that sophomore girls were enjoying my star turn, as well, which was an unexpected bonus. BTW – The character I was playing was conceited, too.

FINCH:
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.

I still remember how terrified I was to sing that line. But it was exhilarating too – like an acrophobe skydiving.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.

All my acting skill was applied to looking smooth, since, for sure, I had absolutely no trust in that young man crooning to himself in the pretend mirror.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you too hear me say it.

Even though I was performing an embarrassing and badly organized reunion skit in poor circumstances (like Whoopi in Vegas), I was not really embarrassed, which says something about singing to a community which pretty much unconditionally accepts everyone at this point. The old people at the 50th loved their small town and were no longer divided up by clique and race so much. They would have applauded any and all in the clan and not felt hypocritical at all (and clap they did).

It may embarrass you too hear me say it.
But say it I must,
Say it I must

Kim was sitting up front as I did my thing holding her guitar (“I Believe in You” is not a guitar song) and chiming in on her kazoo a bit. In sixth grade we also sang a song at our commencement. It feels very warm to be doing something silly with an old friend for the umpteenth time. I think we all felt we could use more of that kind of thing. You probably do, too.

You have the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet, there’s that up turned chin
And the grin of impetuous youth.

At this point in the performance, I was already realizing that although there was plenty of song left, I was not going to sing it. But I told them how these lines ended up being surprisingly accurate. Maybe I was type cast: Seeker, yes. Impetuous, yes.

The following summer I would be an exchange student in Indonesia. Once there. my seeking fueled a major turn in my life’s direction. In my senior year, I became fully depressed and a full-on adult Christian. By the time I “came out” as a Jesus follower in college, I was well on my way to becoming a pastor and church planter. That seems impetuous even now.

Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you.

I did not believe in me. But I certainly came to know who I could believe in, and still do.

I grabbed Kim’s hand as a symbol of what these final lines meant to me.

And when my faith in my fellow man
Oh but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine
And I take heart,
I take heart.

I have mostly lived in cities my whole life. But scrappy, relatively poor, small-town Chino, before it was gobbled up by the mega L.A., did me a lot of long-lasting good. They are my fellow people. And my people were at this reunion. Some had gone on to become very successful and wealthy. Most of us were glad we kept a job. Many of my people had deepened their faith, like me, which made the community even sweeter. I told them folks all over the country had heard stories about them and envied my sweet upbringing. I think our time together was the classic, “We don’t have much, but we have each other” kind of experience we did not know we were having when we first lived it.

In the fractious, perilous world my generation has given humanity, it is good to know that people can still love each other and focus on the community which binds them together rather than the powermongering that tears them apart. It might be a good idea to look around in your past too, and see all the good that might be hidden under the debris of all your worry and troubles. It was good for me. The goodness I found is a nice place to come from.

The Batman: Hope for the victims of trauma

The Batman gets used to the dawn.

Warning. If you are afraid of a “spoiler alert” related to a Batman movie this post might disturb you. But you’ll probably be OK. We don’t go to Batman movies to be surprised. We go to see someone re-imagine a very familiar story.  Besides, the trailer gives away some of the best parts!

To be sure, this overlong, best-Batman-in-my-opinion is cleverly re-imagined. It is so beautifully created I wouldn’t have needed a coherent plot, but I got one. The Batman is a couple of years into his nocturnal crime fighting and things don’t always go too well. He is facing an identity crisis in the daylight as Bruce Wayne (but don’t expect too much daylight in this dark movie), and more crisis in the nighttime as “Vengeance” personified. Everyone is corrupted by wicked elements that threaten to drown (and then actually drown) Gotham City, past and present. The millennial Batman is not sure he is making a difference. And he is sad, mad, and afraid he is turning bad: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones in an opening voiceover. “But I am the shadows.”

Post-traumatic growth

The movie is not another origin story; it assumes we know The Batman’s parents were murdered in front of his eyes. His iconic trauma lives on. The Batman has reinforced it by reliving it night after night and attempting to relieve it by wrecking vengeance on anyone who would dominate the good people of Gotham, like his parents were.

So far, his fury does not seem to be making a big difference on the streets. But it takes a toll on The Batman’s scarred body; it undermines the Wayne business empire; and it makes having a relationship with The Catwoman difficult. The movie does not dig into this toll deeply, even though it is three hours long. More time is taken up by chases using the first-generation Batcycle and Batmobile and by splendidly choreographed fight scenes in which the hero uses prototypes of what will become Batman’s famous collection of gear.

The Batman is quick to learn about crime fighting, but he is slower to learn about his trauma. I wondered if the script writers had consulted a book I assigned a class a couple of years ago called The Post-traumatic Growth Workbook. The film reflects the increased awareness people have gained in the last ten years about how trauma can shape us. Some people end up perpetual victims and may even victimize others. But some people use their trauma to become more resilient and hopeful. (Most people land in between). The workbook (which you can use yourself, it is not just for professionals) assumes everyone can be positively transformed by trauma. By the end of the movie, The Batman seems to be validating that hope. In service to that theme, the movie is too short, since it often takes a long time for people to uncover and explore their trauma and find a way out of it and into new patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving.

Bruce Wayne spots his inner child

The inner Batboy

The search for mental health often starts on the outside and works its way into our hearts, a lot like God coming to find us and rescue us in Jesus. Jesus pops up here and there in the movie, but the “caped crusader” is saved from saving himself by a trinity of important people: the likewise-traumatized Catwoman, the injured Alfred, and the newly-fatherless son of the assassinated mayor.

  • Catwoman begins to undo his steely isolation“Maybe we’re not so different. Who are you under there?…Are you just hideously scarred?” (He grimly answers, “Yes.”)
  • The threat of losing his surrogate father reminds him how he has been loved by Alfred and offered the attachment he lost; some bat-tears even well up. – “You needed a father. All you had was me.”
  • But it is the speechless boy the filmmakers make sure you don’t miss. On three occasions time stops; The Batman and the boy lock eyes and make a mysterious connection. Some people say this is Robin-in-the-making. Maybe.

Someone told me a much better idea than Robin, since they experienced Bruce Wayne’s revelation vicariously while they watched the film. This lost boy, who Batman rescues twice, is the image of the batboy suffering within The Batman. As he rescues the boy he is rescuing himself. As he attends to and attaches to this boy, he is attending to his own wounded soul. You can usefully watch the whole movie through this lens. (Even the parts Colin Farrell steals as the Penguin). Try it!

My friend’s moment of truth centered on the scene when the The Batman tries to rescue the new mayor, who understandably, in her traumatized state, is reluctant to take his hand. To our surprise, another hand rises from behind the wreckage. It is the former mayor’s son reaching out. The boy slowly comes into the camera’s view and his formerly unreachable, new friend pulls him from the wreckage. That might be the adult you reaching back to care for that poor orphaned you still stuck in the wreckage of the past. It is certainly the Spirit of God in us overriding our personal rules of life to free us from our victimhood and welcome even the abused parts of us into their dignity and transformation.

The final scenes of mayhem are probably worth the admission price for most of us. But I reveled in watching The Batman assisting in the final cleanup that followed. In the process of cleaning up, he gets cleaned up. The sun rises after a night full of horror and he is out in his mud covered, designed-for-the-dark uniform helping the injured into helicopter stretchers. One youngster won’t let him go, which would probably soften your hardened heart, too.

The movie is not all tidied up at the end, or how could there be sequel (which would be the 14th live-action rendition, and that does not include Lego movies)? The messiness makes it a great movie for the mud-spattered spring of 2022. Many of us feel a post-Covid fear of being stuck in the mud as we watch Russian trucks running on fumes through muck-season in Ukraine. Will we ever get out of feeling victimized by our trauma, newly-experienced and triggered every day? Getting used to the dawn, The Batman realizes, “Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. People need hope.”

Waterworld: The climate prophet as a box office flop

It is “shark week” here at the Big Cousins week (not THAT shark week). So this year Nana and Papa are screening shark-related movies each night by decade, starting with the 70’s. Last night we let a naked lady sneak onto the screen during Waterworld from the 1990’s (think Mad Max on the water, as off the big island of Hawaii). The ice caps have melted, and 500 years in the future the only dry land is on the upper slopes of Mt. Everest, now a roosting place for seagulls. People have forgotten other dry land ever existed and the remaining bit is considered a myth by most.

There are a lot of profound observations in the film which tempt me to tell you the whole plot. But the main one about ice caps is apropos. Isn’t it amazing that Waterworld premiered 26 years ago? During that time the governments of the world began to think about the doom it depicts; the corporations have just recently got on board. And the next generation began to have issues when Greta Thunberg got fed up (don’t miss that link). But people are still debating whether global warming is a hoax — and I don’t mean you, I mean the U.S. Congress! The IPCC put out an alarming report recently and about half the population got alarmed. Then the news cycle moved on to how embarrassing it is to leave Afghanistan the way the army is evacuating — the place the country spent its climate-change-combating money.

At the time it was made, Waterworld was considered the biggest waste of film money ever, since it was the most expensive movie ever made at that point. It had problems. For instance, a million dollar set had to be reconstructed because a hurricane destroyed it. The sets are amazing; there is no CGI, for the most part. Two Pirates of the Caribbean movies subsequently beat it by over 100 million dollars and three Avengers movies are not far behind. Waterworld made a return on its huge investment, but people called it a flop and Kevin Costner got a bad reputation for a while. He and I are about the same age, but he somehow is about $250 million dollars richer. I was there when his profitable “flop” came out. Even now, as I did then, I think I think it was labeled a flop because it proposed the melting ice caps were going to be a problem and vested commercial interests were not yet finished selling the spoils they had pumped out of a world captive to capitalism.

Is there a future for a warming wicked world?

My mostly-tween grandchildren had quite a bit to say about the movie. I’m the only one who mentioned the naked lady. They had a lot of speculation about what land would actually be left when the ice melted and they debated other less-than-reasonable elements of the plot (like where are you refining the gasoline for all those tricked-out jets skis?). I made the point that the people commandeering all the gasoline would be the same ones who tried to develop the mythic place called “dry land” if they ever found it and conquered it. The grandkids vaguely relate to my application of Anabaptist/Celtic/Franciscan theology colored with Kevin Costner/Southern California sensibilities (he started as a Baptist from Lakewood). But I persist.

There was supposed to be a Waterworld 2. But the production was so mired in slander it never quite got off the ground. And Costner was not that interested in doing more. At one point he said something like, “They can just re-release the first one. It makes more sense now than ever.” But people would love to make “Waterworld 2: The attack on Dry Land” (at least that is what I would name it).  It is just too ironic. The ice is melting and dry land is being attacked by fires and floods; hurricanes are lining up to deck Haiti and developers  are still trying to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the housing market before everything changes. It is ironic that everything already changed.

Kevin’s gills

When Kevin and I were about 20, I learned a section of the Bible that is always close at hand when the rulers of the world (and the church, etc.) are not paying attention to reality, but assuming they can make their own:

All you wild animals,
All you animals in the forest,
Come to eat.
His watchmen are blind,
All of them know nothing.
All of them are mute dogs unable to bark,
Dreamers lying down, who love to slumber;
And the dogs are greedy, they are never satisfied.
And they are shepherds who have no understanding;
They have all turned to their own way,
Each one to his unjust gain, without exception.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get wine, and let’s drink heavily of intoxicating drink;
And tomorrow will be like today, only more so.” (Isaiah 56:9-12 NASB)

Waterworld and Isaiah are on the same prophetic page and the same people are not listening.

I woke up this morning and had a couple more conversations with the kids. We were still marveling over the spectacle of imagination Waterworld represents. Those sets! That weird plot! John Dutton was once a mutant? Great stuff. In your face Dennis Hopper!

Palmer amaranth aka Pigweed

People are creative. This is kind of a strange aside here at the end of this piece. But I just discovered that farmers in Kansas are being taken over by a weed from the Southwest which has developed a tolerance for Roundup and other even-riskier weed killers. They may have to cultivate the weed as a food source, since they can’t keep ramping up the chemical bombs they use to kill it. That method is over. They are getting inventive. Organic farmers do not have the same issues with the weed. Maybe the corporate farmers will get more organic! They may finally get creative with the Creator rather than exploitative with the Invisible Hand.

It is pathetic to spend 20 something years on a failed war in Afghanistan, on a doomed method of farming and on debating whether the climate is changing due to human wickedness. All those are much more a waste of human ingenuity than a bloated bit of movie prophecy. But it is still true that when people put their mind and treasure to it, they come up with something wildly creative, like Waterworld, like the church which reinvents itself every generation, and like you, listening to the prophets wherever you find them and probably being one yourself. We might yet make it to dry land — or develop gills!

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!

The way of significance: Our Lent pilgrimage through the media debris

Is it just me, or does your mind sometimes seem like a collection of sound bites and tune fragments stored up over decades of media saturation? My brother told me that even though his voice changed, with age, from a remarkable tenor to a mundane baritone, he was still a valuable member of the cover band because he could remember complete lyrics to all the old songs. (He also plays several instruments, I must add!). The rest of us are stuck in an ever-growing collection of undifferentiated mental debris — reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean plastic “gyre” I am fond of talking about, bits of stuff floating around in our heads.

The pandemic is waning (Lord, hear our prayer), but our media consumption is probably not. Entire new islands of media pollution may be forming right now! I know I have been filling my limited brain capacity with even MORE stuff. I think two favorites, Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland were a lot like Lent — somewhat depressing subjects, calls to change and grow, and road trips. In the case of Lent, our “road trip” is like drawing back the curtain on a movie about our spiritual pilgrimages and seeing whether we are actually moving or, alternatively, trapped on screen, appearing to move by watching images move.

Can I keep moving through this mess?

I am trying to stay on pilgrimage, even though it is perilously easy to permanently stay at my latest point on the map. The courage it takes to keep growing is daunting. Wandering around with godless Frances McDormand in Nomadland felt vicariously heroic, free and honest. I did not like her or her life, but it sure looked more authentic than staying trapped in some subdivision like her prospective mate ended up. I have felt trapped a lot during the pandemic and it is easy to just stay trapped until someone sounds the all clear. Don’t you periodically wake up and see yourself sitting in your cage munching fake food, listening to fake news and fake exposés of fake news and inexplicably funding Netflix? We need to force ourselves onto our personal pilgrimages for Lent.

My Lent book, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home by Alan Jones, is helping me stay on the road. And, in my case, it is helping me write an elegy for my own past, as I move on into what is next. In the chapter I just read, “The Road that Leads Nowhere,” Jones is highlighting how our many choices as Americans has basically ended up with us not making any choices. He says, “We get lost spiritually precisely in proportion to the casualness of our choices.”

Does being in the band have meaning or am I just filling up my time? Should I explore my past and figure out how I got on the road I am on or just watch others doing that on the screen? Is the terrible thing I am experiencing pushing me out on the “road” or shall I push that energy back inside somewhere? Shall I keep writing this blog or decide I need more readership to be relevant? Shall I let the Lent story draw me into the eternal story about going home or shall I just stay trapped at home? You can tell I think everything I have talked about so far is filled with significance.

It always takes risking significance

Jones says, “Our smallest actions and decisions can be fraught with significance and have serious consequences, [because] the same energy that made the sun and the stars came into play, and the result was you. You matter and your choices matter. If you lose sight of that, you get frozen and lost. You are not an accident. To discover that is already to have recovered enough passion to turn you away from a dead end and toward life.”

I rarely think relating to Frances McDormand or Glenn Close on the screen is a dead end. Although their stories were filled with roads to nowhere, they are helping me with Lent, as we speak. Getting something out of the screen rather than it just sucking the the life out of us is hardly automatic. Christians often hide the fact that we are in the screen’s “tractor beam” just like everyone else, being dragged places we might not choose if we were more conscious. My cell group always has great suggestions for what to watch next; it is one thing we all know. None of us need to risk significance, we can just sit there and make choices with our remotes.

The series I have been recommending is another import on Hulu from the Brits, Larkrise to Candleford. The show is about a village girl and her townie relative experiencing the 1890s as everyone begins to move into the modern age. All the innovations of the next era crowd into village life and cause people to choose about things they don’t want to think about. As a result, people hang on to the past or jump into the future, with poignant personal and relational consequences. What I like about the series most, however, is how we can watch people from the past take their lives seriously. We let people from the past do these things we long to do. I like shows like Larkrise (calling Call the Midwife) because I long for the characters’ experiences. The past is clearer in memory than it was when it happened, so nostalgia is comforting. But I honestly think more people in the past felt their lives had meaning and their choices made a difference. Such significance seems harder than ever. Wasn’t it just last week that Trump claimed he won the election at CPAC? Didn’t Republican Senators just extract compromises in the Covid Relief Bill and then all vote against it? It is hard to take life seriously in a reality like ours.

Choosing against our illusions is hard

We make fun of people in the simpler past. But we also suffer from a twinge of envy when we weigh our lightness against their heaviness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says people in the past engaged in “something and not nothing; hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequences, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically name ‘True.’”

I can still remember the jingles of True cigarette commercials from my first stage of media saturation as a child. Of course, they are on YouTube:

My book for Lent and my latest show choice challenge me to be true and make true choices. Shall I do something hard (like have a serious marriage) or stay soft? Shall I do something that is meaningfully part of God’s creation or keep acting like what I do has no consequences as long as I do not harm someone else according to the law? Shall I just accept the absolute b.s. of almost every TV commercial or get furious that “True” cigarettes were and are an abomination that subvert the very word “true” and disgrace the Way the Truth and the Life?

My father died of emphysema and my mother chronically suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. Fortunately, smoking and the addiction and health disasters that go with it are on the decline — but not fast enough for me. American cigarette producers got thwarted at home so they marketed worldwide. Worldwide tobacco use and addiction is just now reaching a peak and heading for decline. True cigarettes were introduced in 1966 when I was twelve. My Dad was at the height of his cigarette smoking. I was just beginning to refuse to collude with his habit. There are a lot of choices I had to make or avoid. I wanted Dad to love me. But I did not want to accept cigarettes to procure that love. I made many compromises I am still pondering and repenting.

Lent is a great season for repenting, which is basically a choice to go another way, to go home. Lent is a season that lures us out on the road, away from our addictions and resistance, and makes us susceptible to cooperation with God’s grace. As a result of making any of these true choices, we’ll probably uncover many of the false ones that tie us up, especially in our relationships. So we will repent and even feel better.

We try to get by with unhealthy habits, especially in unhealthy relationships, by not making a choice or by choosing everything. We don’t really want to do anything that has “long and dire consequences” like refusing to be codependent with someone who is killing themselves spiritually and otherwise or like making the commitment to hold a church together. To do so, we would need to risk going against the flow. What has society created? — a no-fault, guiltless world. How do policemen keep killing people with impunity and governmental grifters get away with breathtaking corruption? How is it that it is so easy to blame and hard to forgive?

Even in the church, reconciliation often means not having to say you’re sorry because no one will admit you (or they) are that wrong or even that significant. We avoid conflict by not recognizing anything for which repentance is required. That makes for a very soft response to an increasingly hard world. Are we getting used to being little Trumps demanding our right to choose whatever we want – even if it does not exist? I know it is terrible to imagine, but are we little Trumps starring in our own show, making up our own reality, and daring everyone to tell us we lost the election? Did we watch TV long enough for that to be a possibility?

I hope not. That’s why I wrote to you, since you are the kind of person who steps into Lent every year and lets it take you somewhere true.

Beginning steps toward feeling beloved

you are my beloved son

“There are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful.

—  Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son

I have recommended Nouwen’s book many times over the years, especially to many people who struggle to see themselves as the beloved of God. You might sum up their struggle something like this: “That quote seems great but impossible. I haven’t earned it. My discomfort is related to the luxury of it. I am unworthy of something for which I did not work. I’m not saying that in regard to my salvation. I know I cannot work for that. I feel it in regard to the favor.  To declare victory over my need to work for the favor of God seems premature.”

Every human, regardless of their outward struggle in this unjust and unpredictable world, has an inner struggle with being loved – by others, by God and by themselves, usually in that order. I think the end of the struggle often begins with accepting love from another. And many people see accepting God’s love as a logical possibility as a result of human love. The problem with real liberation usually comes with loving ourselves — such love may seem unseemly or downright impossible, given all we know about ourselves.

The sound of genuineness

We may love others like the Lord loves us long before we love ourselves that way. Our first steps into love may be more faking it than making it. But such steps of love are better than no steps.  In Howard Thurman’s famous commencement address to Spelman College in 1980 he said:

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

It is good to be at the beck and call of your mates, your friends and your church. But it is best to answer their call from the genuine, the “I am” of you, the image of God in you, the spiritual gift in you, the conviction of the Holy Spirit in you.

It is good to listen to God’s voice, saving you in the word and work of Jesus, drawing and pushing you toward fullness. But it is best to respond genuinely, not just as an obedient child, but as a friend and partner, a lover.

Nouwen makes a point of reminding us that Jesus went into the wilderness to face the inner voices which told him he was not the one God named Beloved.  He needed that time and space because it takes contemplation to overcome the resistance we feel to genuine self love like God loves us. When I meet people for spiritual direction, their freedom often comes by telling the story of their inner journey. They often see how their past has trapped them and begin to imagine a future path to fullness.

Hate may be a surprising prelude to beloved

We sometimes think our present path is so despicable or hopeless we have a hard time imagining a future of living as God’s beloved, collaborating with our acceptance into the Family. In Jesus and the Disinherited, my favorite reread of 2020, Thurman says,

Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness, a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization…From within the intensity of their necessity, they declare their right to exist, despite the judgment of the environment. Hatred makes this sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.

I think Thurman would be fine if you related to this truth even if you are not descended from American slaves who still have a lot of glory to hammer out of the raw materials of injustice. It could easily be said that the best elements of Christianity unique to America is their ongoing work. You may or may not share their injustice, but you undoubtedly feel your own share.

I hope we are careful with one another as we help each other navigate to the self love which is often a final hurdle before freedom — the “love your neighbor as yourself” love that means you are beloved enough to love. Hatred of others and even oneself may be a beginning point for some people, but it is a self-defeating end point.

“Hate has no boundaries, and behaviors such as hypervigilance, suspicion, negativity, resentment, and bitterness will eventually spill over into other relationships,” even our relationship with God (see Adensanya). Eventually we need to forgive “the other,” God and ourselves. That’s moving toward “genuine.” Most of us won’t be able to meet such a demand at the beginning of our journey; there is hurt under that hate. We’ll need to be seen and heard, hopefully by a loving other, certainly by God and usually, finally, by ourselves.

Last week Gwen and I watched American Skin, which could serve as a parable for much of what I am trying to say.

The movie is a story in which hate propels an action against injustice, and in which people struggle to find forgiveness instead of vengeance, mutuality instead of constant warfare. It provides scant hope that the system is going to become less violent any time soon. But it beautifully shows how individuals and small groups, like your church, can experience another way. I think hating the “Great Other” of American racism makes sense. But I know loving God and loving my neighbor as myself makes more.

Devalued people devalue others. More tragically, they devalue themselves. They listen to the voices of condemnation and destruction that tell them they must fight for the right to be beloved. Each of us is on a journey toward liberation from that hell of violence with which we often collaborate. If some hater scares us, maybe we should light a candle of hope in their honor. Maybe that tiny spark of self-realization in their hate will grow into glory under God’s loving care. I think such an act of love might meet the definition of what Thurman calls “genuine.”

If we are tired of running into the same victimization that has plagued us for what seems like forever, maybe we can see that fatigue as the last gasp of control before we give up our struggle to be proven worthy and trust in God’s name for us. If we have experienced the love of others and understand the love of God on our behalf in Jesus but still run into our self-condemnation, maybe we can see that experience as a sign we are very close to more of the freedom we crave — at least we see and hear ourselves! Now we can turn into another step of trusting the One who calls each of us, “My beloved child,” and love that child ourselves.

Jesus on the narrow way through the power struggle

What do you think? Is it a problem when one is praying about love and a scene from “The Crown” and other fragments of pop culture come to mind? I suspect appropriate fragments of the Bible should come to mind! But that is how it was. I have been struggling with love in the midst of the painful binary arguments that fragment both church and society these days as both find it hard to listen to the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, the media is also struggling.

Love is not THE answer

My first fragment was England Dan & John Ford Coley singing “Love is the Answer.” I first heard the song in 1979 when my first son was born. Now you can’t get away from it in the supermarket. Ronald Reagan was running for president. Margret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain. Ayn Rand lost her husband.

When the guys sing “Light of the world shine on me,” it makes their song sound very Christian. That’s how I took it. But, according to Todd Rundgren, the songwriter, it is was just written to be Christianesque:

“From a lyrical standpoint, it’s part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love. I’m not a Christian, but it’s called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it’s still a subject” (Rolling Stone).

You may be a bit Christianesque like that yourself. Dan Seals and John Coley were Bahai at the time. Coley later returned to Jesus. Regardless, love is not THE answer, even if it is a good answer to almost everything. Jesus is the answer and healing, reuniting love becomes possible as an outgrowth of our relationship with God. Abstracted Jesus love is just an argument.

It is odd that we are still arguing about what this song purports. Is love the answer? Donald Trump is a walking poster representing the man for whom love is not the answer. He’s the bad boy from the Margaret Thatcher/Paul Ryan side of the societal binary argument about how to relate. He is selfish. The only thing that matters to him is the deal [see this Atlantic article about The Art of the Deal]. He purports to be a self-made man. He’s a personified argument ready to be the reason for whatever  happens.

Reason is not THE answer, either

That brings up another fragment. I am watching The Crown and it is getting into history I personally remember. The other night Queen Elizabeth was arguing with Margaret Thatcher about the common good, loving one’s neighbor and being the keeper of one’s brother. Elizabeth is not “keen” on how her prime minister is retraining England. Thatcher is famous for saying,

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

There is another unspoken voice in the conversation between Thatcher and the Queen. Thatcher’s sense that there is “no society” comes straight from the Ayn Rand critique of Western Democracy. As Paul Ryan said, we are in a fight between individualism and collectivism; and now we know that is a fight right down to whether you should wear a mask in South Dakota during a pandemic.

Ayn Rand’s influence in the church and in society (whether Thatcher thinks that exists or not) is probably way underestimated. In 2008-9, Atlas Shrugged sold 1 million copies! That’s one million of the seven that had been sold during the 50 years since the novel was published in 1957. Here’s a bio of Ayn Rand.  She was a Russian Jew whose family was ruined by totalitarianism. After they fled to the U.S. in 1926 she soon saw the New Deal providing all sorts of new social benefits and saw big government getting bigger. She began to write, and invented a philosophy she called “objectivism.” It values its definition of selfishness, rejects altruism as slavery, and advocates unfettered, free market capitalism. Here is a tortured rationalization for how the Ayn Rand Institute could justify living off the “altruism” of the welfare state’s PPE funds this year while purporting to expose the distribution of those funds as evil: clip from their site. They insist that altruist, statist, collectivist principles are destroying the country.

When I was in high school, I read some Ayn Rand, most of her novels and The Virtue of Selfishness. When she threw off God, society and anything but Donald Trump’s gut instincts, I deserted her. She’s not all wrong, philosophically, but since she is an atheist, I’m not sure why Christians follow her. Here’s a sample from the Virtue of Selfishness.

Selfishness, however, does not mean “doing whatever you please.” Moral principles are not a matter of personal opinion — they are based in the facts of reality, in man’s nature as a rational being, who must think and act successfully in order to live and be happy. Morality’s task is to identify the kinds of action that in fact benefit oneself. These virtues (productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride) are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality.

Rand’s moral ideal is a life of reason, purpose and self-esteem. But reason is obviously not THE answer, since Kellyanne Conway just used it to construct a set of “alternative facts.” Reason is not the answer, Jesus is the answer. Our relationship with God gives reason a chance to flourish.

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Expressing dignity on the Bethlehem side of the wall.

Jesus doesn’t need to win the argument

One of my favorite proverbs says, “Truth without love kills and love without truth lies.” One side thinks the truth about freedom is worth a few lives. The other side thinks loving the marginalized justifies whatever it takes to defeat oppressors. And on the fight goes, even in the church. In Jesus we have seen the glory of God, full of grace and truth, love and reason. Jesus is the both/and of the binary. He is the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. He’s the end of the endless struggle between polarities.

Ayn Rand has been winning the argument with the baby boomers for their entire adult lives, in the church and out. Now it seems reasonable to be selfish in a good way and seems logical to let unfettered capitalism run over everyone who can’t exercise their “God-given freedom” fast enough or well enough to keep up with the economy. You can see how this argument goes round and round, as Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, said he was willing to sacrifice his life to the virus if he could save the economy for his grandchildren. It seems that love was his answer, but the economy had a reason of its own. Rand would not approve of him sacrificing his life for anyone, but she might approve of surrendering to the  “fact” of the virus and letting the weak (or “losers” in the Donald’s parlance) die their death.

What started all this was an old song squeezing into my meditation. As it turns out, love is not the answer, but love is sure my problem. I don’t want to give it up just because I live in the middle of a constant argument — potentially despised by one side and deserted by another. I am trying to learn the Jesus, third-way love, walking a narrow path right down the middle of the binary arguments of the world which just go on and on. For some, that endless argument seems to pass for eternal life, whether anyone wants to live it or not, or just a feature of a pluralist society, whether a society exists or not.  I am grateful that Jesus promises and demonstrates an eternity worth living in a community worth building.

Oscars 2020 teach the virtue of being the best supporting

In SNL’s Weekend Update the guest commentators have traditionally stolen the show ever since Roseanne Roseannadanna. It was no different last Saturday when Chloe Fineman got us ready for the Oscars with her unhinged impressions.

The Oscars always have a lot to teach us Jesus followers

As Roseanne Roseannadanna might say, “You can always learn SOMEthin.” And the Oscar broadcast was full of lessons. The Cadillac commercials appealed to predators and the Rolex commercials disguised themselves as tenderhearted. I flipped to TCM when the breaks got too long and Judy Garland was hamming it up with Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band — later in the show Judy won another Oscar! It was a year for impressions. Janelle Monae lit up the stage as a queer, black, woman Mr. Rogers — then lit up the front row with her crystal gown.

My biggest lesson came from the first award given: for Best Supporting Actor. On the one hand, it resembled the presidential race: old men and Pete Butigieg, or rich people and the rest of us: Tom Hanks (63) worth $350 million, Anthony Hopkins (83) $160 million, Al Pacino (79) $165 million, Joe Pesci (77) only $50 million, and Brad Pitt (only 56) $300 million.

On the other hand, it was an amazing collection of great actors doing what they do. The first three did amazing impressions of famous people. Joe Pesci did not act like a crazy gangster. And Brad Pitt still looks like Achilles in middle age. There were lessons in all of that. You can always learn something.

Image result for best supporting actor 2020 nominees

We need good supporters to put on a good show

My favorite lesson came when I looked at the line-up for Best Supporting Actor and thought, “The lead actors might have been afraid to be upstaged by these guys.” Except for The Two Popes (which I recommend), I think they were all upstaged.

I think all these actors relished the juicy parts they got in relation to the players who got top billing. Like some of us noted during the Second Half of Life retreat last Saturday,  playing a great part for which we are well suited can be quite satisfying — maybe even more satisfying than trying to survive the leading roles we’ve been handed in the family or on the job. Brad Pitt had never won an Oscar for acting so this was a nice frosting on his cake. But Hanks won two in the 90’s, Hopkins has one, Pacino has one, Pesci has one, all from the 90’s. I think they were probably happy to get a juicy part whether it resulted in praise or not. Who else could have played Pope Benedict better than Anthony Hopkins?

One of the participants in the retreat reminisced at how he had sort of wandered into his starring roles that made him such a great supporter of the church. He had never followed the “best practices” career counselors pass out.  Instead, he had always taken positions that would allow him to stay planted in Philadelphia and stay connected to Circle of Hope. That worked out well for his career, contrary to what passes for common sense, and worked out very well for Circle of Hope. Just like a movie needs good supporting actors (and the 500+ people on the credits) to tell a good story, the church needs good supporters to show Jesus to the world.

We all need support and we should feel good about giving it.

When Eugene Peterson rendered Matthew 6 in The Message paraphrase of the Bible he used an acting metaphor:

The World Is Not a Stage

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Perhaps the old guys acting and running for president just can’t get off the stage. But it is at least possible that they have reached the age or maturity when they just like the craft for the craft itself and not the applause.  Jesus is calling us to let the inner connection with God sustain us no matter whether we are recognized for our prayerfulness, or not.

We will be rewarded for our often-unobserved, supporting roles. Like Paul teaches the Colossians:

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.

Paul may have been the “star” apostle who became immortalized in the Bible. but he would not have gotten very far without Barnabas. And Barnabas would never have been there for Paul if not for the unknown person who brought the good new of Jesus to Antioch. In the age to come, that unknown person might be rewarded with a greater chunk of our common inheritance than all of us. But just like Joe Pesci is probably not feeling too bad about his paltry $50 million fortune, we probably won’t regret our part of eternal glory we get to share after we play our supporting roles in the unfinished work of Jesus.

Can we feel good about our parts?

Some of us feel terrified we might be called upon to lead or to be too noticeably necessary. Some of us feel terrified we will end up looking useless or less-important than some shiny newcomer. We all have a lot to learn. But wouldn’t it be great if we all felt good about the parts we are given to play in the body of Christ? That wonder is certainly a place where we need a lot of supporting roles filled by players eager to do their best for the joy of the work.

We need good leaders and it is a blessing to have them. But we only need enough of them. We mostly need people in supporting roles: making and sharing the money like my career-blessed friend, figuring out how to put up the South Broad sign (eventually) and make Circle Kids viable (as was also happening yesterday). We need a lot of people who feel good about praying because praying is good and serving because our Master is good. Even the narcissists who end up getting Oscars are usually quick to point out that they would not be getting an award unless a whole dedicated team loved making movies. A church feels flat and proves useless unless it has a lot of people who just love Jesus and his people and can’t resist doing good whether anyone cares about whether they did it or not.

That kind of lesson is especially a good one for me, since I have just been given a supporting role to play. I doubt that I will ever feel like Al Pacino about it, but some people have suggested I might feel my way into some Mr. Rogers rather easily. Mostly, I am just glad I get to be in the process because I like giving my gifts for the work of God’s people in this crazy era. For Christ’s sake we need to get together and make a difference about climate change and the ongoing mass incarceration of African Americans — not to mention the ruin of the church under the thumb of Trump! Some people wonder if I miss my leading role. Sometimes I do — two months won’t undo 20 years.  But mostly I relish the juicy part I get to play supporting the wonders we continue to work. Circle of Hope is like a beautiful, odd woman in a shiny gown in the front row of the Kingdom — I find her irresistible.

What to expect if your loved one is in the media

The first thing we’ll probably do if our loved one is in the media is have a big emotion, right? — like when the cameraperson in the stadium puts you on the jumbotron.

Most of us will be excited. I was VERY excited when NPR discovered our Debt Annihilation Team and talked about them on two different podcasts, recently.  I hope you saw the notice on the Covenant List:

My loved ones sounded like their brilliant selves and our vision for following Jesus looked pretty great, too.

But sometimes you might feel puzzled, at best, and horrified, at worst, at how your loved ones gets twisted by inaccurate or unscrupulous reporting that will probably be on the internet forever.  The first time I ever got my picture in the newspaper they said my name was “Tod.” They got both the dogs’ names correct, however.

Our most recent relationship with the powerful media was pretty great.  NPR treated us generously. But I also feel disappointed with how the producer of “This is Uncomfortable” summed up  our radicality in a way none of his subjects implied.

Here are two things to expect if your loved one is in the media.

It is going to be depersonalized while looking personal

The segment of Marketplace I heard was the 23rd in a series about “Life and how money messes with it.” “Life” is a thing” and “money” is a force.  You’ve entered the media machine and it has a worldview. The show has a topic and you are being fit into it.

I kind of like the show’s point of view. We need to know that the average amount for people with credit card debt is over $6000. They said our team was “turning to a very ancient text, the Bible, to solve a very modern problem.” That’s all great.

Caroline Butcher sounded like a very charming, sincere person. The story of her troubles, joys, problems, and hopes was inspiring. They said saving, and living within one’s means is a social act.  They showed how sincere the group was about not compromising their Integrity. Caroline said the money helped her finances, but maybe even more profound, the group helped her change her view from “me” to “us.” When the reporter outed her in the Sunday meeting she owned her place on the usually-anonymous DAT — that made her shame lose some power, which might be the most profound experience of all. So that was all good.

I was impressed how love and hope kept leaking through the carefully-flat presentation of the format.

The producer will have a way of inserting their agenda which does not match what you said

There was really only one line in the segment that made me sigh with disappointment and a little bit of irritation. It was this:

“What’s so radical about that church’s system to pay off debt is that God doesn’t actually have to be a part of it. It’s really just a community helping each other out.”

Nobody said anything like that. God was a main player in all of it. It is hard to come to his conclusion from what he presented himself!

On the one hand, it’s true. We would like to help people who don’t trust Jesus and his people. Being mutual with them would be great. Community is powerful. But I don’t think the producer meant to say just that. He was interested in the radicality of having community, not knowing God. He pointedly took God out of the question, for some reason.

So on the other hand what he said wasn’t true and was just plain poor reporting. He tweaked the whole thing on the sign off, after Caroline was up front about her faith journey, after people had allowed him to record them praying, and after Joshua gave a dandy explanation of the Debt Annihilation Team’s biblical foundation in a few sentences. All the people in the piece were open and vulnerable with their faith and the author summed it up with “Faith doesn’t matter anyway; this is all about people getting together, not God.”

Peter Balonon-Rosen | WBUR
The producer

Most of us wake up every day with some indecision about what matters or whether we even matter. So I can give the producer, Peter Balonon-Rosen, a pass on his conclusion. Most listeners probably listened to his summary and wondered what people he had listened to, anyway, like I did. But he would probably be a fine dinner guest.

When you get involved with the media, don’t be surprised if the producers produce what they want with the raw material of your story. They’re running a big machine looking for stuff to process and the machine has  some big assumptions to organize our thinking — on purpose or unwittingly.

Goose and pig stories: The opposite of what the domination system demands

I flew to Italy on St. Kevin’s Day this year (June 3). He is another in a long line of “saints” who have shown me the beauty of doing the opposite of what the domination system demands. For more about the “domination system,” here is a summary of Walter Wink.

 

Kevin and King O’Toole’s goose

Kevin lived through the entire 500’s in Ireland, it appears [see this old post for more]. But, of course, people were less concerned with scientific precision at that point, so who knows exactly what happened? Regardless, Kevin’s legacy is still happening, and most people you know named Kevin are, ultimately, named after him. He wandered off into the mountains south of what was not yet Dublin and found a remote cave, an old bronze age tomb, overlooking the upper lake of the beautiful valley of Glendalough. There he entered his hermitage to be with God and his beloved creatures.

However, people found Kevin and wanted to be near him. The story goes he decided to establish a monastery. But the pagan King O’Toole who ruled Glendalough would not allow it. Here we go.

As the story continues, it happened that the king had a much beloved pet goose, which was quite old. As time passed, the goose became so weak it was unable to fly. The king was very upset, for he loved the goose very much. Hearing of Kevin’s sanctity and power, the  king sent for him, and asked him to make his beloved goose young. Kevin asked for a payment of whatever land the goose would fly over. As the goose could no longer take flight, O’Toole agreed. When Kevin touched the bird, it grew young, and flew over the entire valley of Glendalough, and on that site his monastery was established, as well as a settlement that was famous for a 1000 years after Kevin died, the ruins of which can still be visited.

However it happened, the aristocrat, Kevin, having given up all he owned and the prerogatives of his class, made a deal with the domination system on his radical new terms, which included miracle and audacity.

Image result for brother juniper pig
From Rossellini’s movie The Little Flowers (1950)

Juniper and the pig

Likewise, Francis of Assisi, about 600 years later, rediscovered the joy of returning to Caesar what he thinks belongs to him touched with the glory of God (things like a dying goose).  So often the “render to Caesar” account is used to justify the division of the world into sacred and secular and paying one’s taxes on time. But Jesus isn’t even carrying a denarius with which to make his point. And when the system kills him, he makes his point about rendering big time with his resurrection.

Francis and the other children of the budding middle class of Assisi, whose parents were inventing capitalism, got the Lord’s point. It scared people mightily when the returning crusader, Benardo de Quintivalle sold off his extensive estate and gave it all away. The bishop of Assisi told Francis, “Your life seems hard to me; it must be burdensome not to have any earthly possession.” Francis answered, “My Lord, if we wanted to possess anything, then we would also need arms to defend ourselves. That is how all the quarrels and conflicts get started, and they are obstacles to love. For this reason we can possess nothing.” He did not convince the bishop, and the church has been presiding over battles and blessing big business ever since. Lately some evangelicals have even embraced the godless Trump with just such power in mind.

Like Kevin, Francis brazenly confronted people with their excess by begging for it. One gave him his hermitage site on Mt. Subasio, where I had this revelation. Another donated the little chapel in the woods of Porziuncola that became Franciscan headquarters.

The story of Brother Juniper and the pig demonstrates a mentality that flourished among the brothers of Francis before the domination system tamed them all again.  This is how it goes.

One of the brothers was sick and Juniper asked him what he might like to eat to make him feel better. The man answered, “A pig’s foot.” So Juniper went over to a herd fattening on acorns nearby and cut the leg off a pig. He cooked it up and served it to the man as he joyfully told the story of his attack.

The swineherds who had witnessed the deed, furiously marched up to Francis and insulted their settlement as a bunch of thieves. Francis apologized, saying he knew nothing of the incident they reported. Vowing revenge the men headed for Assisi.

This was a serious matter  — the good name of the brothers would be history. So Francis found Juniper and casually asked him if he had cut off the foot of a pig recently. “Si, naturalmente.” With satisfaction he told him all about his charitable deed. Francis was not so satisfied. He said, “Go find the man, throw yourself at his feet, and promise complete restoration.”  Juniper was astounded that someone would get excited about his good deed. “I’ll give the man satisfaction, “he said, “but I can’t understand the fuss over a pig. It belongs to God, anyway, not to the man, and may as well be put to good use.”

When Juniper caught up with the incensed owner, he tried to make him understand how he came to cut off the pig’s foot. He was full of zeal and enthusiasm and acted as if he had done the man a great service. The man flew into a rage. But Juniper just persisted in trying to be heard. He finally threw himself around the man’s neck, kissed him and assured him him he had done it all out of love. Then he asked for the rest of the pig.

This audacity resulted in the miracle. Juniper’s simplicity and sincerity were so credible the man’s assumptions began to crumble. With tears in his eyes, he confessed he had done the brothers wrong. He went and got the maimed pig, slaughtered it, roasted it, and with great emotion carried it to the brother’s table to make up for the injustice he had done them.

Follow the goose and the pig

As opponents try to undo the deceptions and corruption of the Trump regime, they often say, “Follow the money.” That’s exactly what Kevin and Francis, and their many followers, refused to do. They were more likely to follow the goose and the pig, to rely on the Spirit and the work of love rather than stay on the treadmill of acquisition and self-defense – the rule of law, some call it. In Kevin’s day, the Roman Empire was caput. 600 years later in Francis’ day, feudal economics was coming to an end. In our day the American empire, as we’ve known it, and the Enlightenment experiment in general, may be coming to an end. We’ll see. But what is a Jesus follower to do?

The point of goose and pig stories in every era is that God has ways that do not depend on capitalism or power. Jesus demonstrated that in full. His followers have always found ways to make their own demonstration again and again. The formation and constant reinvention of Circle of Hope is a miracle story of people finding more than they bargained for and sharing their pigs in great quantities. We’ve asked and received. Maybe we are afraid sometimes to squat the king’s land or ask for the owner’s pig, to rely on the miracle and act out of love. But many times we aren’t afraid, too.