Category Archives: Music

Guilt: How it starves our true selves

To begin this meditation on guilt, I want to confess one of my guilty pleasures. I was (OK, still am) a John Denver fan. No, I did not think he was cool, and yes, he can still make me cringe at times. But his clear, sharp tenor often often gave melody to the best of the idealistic 1970’s and 80’s. Those were years when I also expessed some of my loftiest ideals (often in song!). Like Denver, I hoped to be accepted but sometimes I was scorned.

A hunger guiltfest

I was looking through old pictures from that era as I prepared them for digitizing and ran across one from an event for the youth group we called “The Planned Famine.” Our intentional community was devoted to living simply and sharing our resources so others could live. Many of us led the youth group so we spread our convictions into the church, as well. For instance, as part of our Famine, we charged the parents and other adults  for a “Third World Dinner,” which did not go over well with some of them who got nothing and “starved.” Even today I would remind them that getting aced out of food isn’t pleasing to the 783 million hungry people in the world right now, either.  (Here are some Mormons doing the same idea we had 25 years later).

Our theme song for the 30-hour, overnite “famine” was John Denver’s “I Want to Live.” He wrote it as a potential theme song for President Carter’s Commission on world Hunger. Here he is singing it.

A lot of the dinner and the overniter was, unfortunately, about our guilt. Not the good guilt of admitting a sin against God and our true selves, but guilt before what we should have been or guilt about what others think and say about us (or might), or guilt  about our lack of laudable courage and deficit of shining character (at least compared to others). When John Denver sang, we felt ashamed of ourselves and the earth for letting people starve. Some of us became hunger warriors. Most of us just became better educated about more things to avoid.

Life under criticism and contempt

There is some room for the shame we felt, but not in the way we often feel it. When  criticism leads to guilt and contempt leads to shame, we often defend against those awful feelings with only the tools psychology offers us. They aren’t bad tools, they just aren’t up to the full task we need to complete.  Paul Tournier says,

Freud reveals to us all that remains infantile and regressive in us, our fear of life and of responsibilities, our longing for a refuge in maternal consolation. We are all children, and we feel guilty at being so lacking in courage, in virility, in adulthood. C.G. Jung widens these notions by talking of integration and by depicting [humanity’s] destiny as the acceptance of all that is within [each of us]. — (Guilt and Grace p. 54)

We cannot blame our lingering unease with ourselves on psychology alone because Christianity has specialized in guilt. It has often been better at crushing people than fulfilling its promise to set them free. Instead of surpassing Freud’s “becoming adult” and Jung’s “integration,” Christians often  criticize one another’s behavior and pour contempt on people who threaten or offend them. Maybe you don’t do that, but the church of the last decade in the U.S. has become even more famous for it.

We pour guilt on ourselves, too, even if other don’t induce it. Instead of glorying in our weakness, as the Apostle Paul insists we should, so God’s power for transformation can break into us and break out, we feel guilty that our weakness makes us powerless. We can’t do what we are meant to do. Our fear of failing at our responsibilities has made us ineffective rulers of ever-diminishing zones of personal control. We have shriveled under the comparison with others, using the whole internet to demonstrate how incapable we are of measuring up. And we may also protect others from having their own struggle with guilt by suggesting they should not be so proud as to think their desires to live are relevant or warranted, just like ours aren’t.

Baby humpback finding her wings off Maui

Leaping from the dark

When we played John Denver’s song during the Planned Famine, we had a slide show to go with it. We needed to turn up the volume of the song enough to overcome the distracting squeal and click of slides moving around their carousel. The faces of child after child came on the screen from around the world, some happy, many starving, some dying. John sang for them,

I want to live I want to grow
I want to see I want to know
I want to share what I can give
I want to be I want to live

And then he changed to the hopeful imagery of animals marine ecologists were just coming to understand.

Have you gazed out on the ocean,
Seen the breaching of a whale?

We put up a beautiful slide of a whale leaping out of the depths. I vividly remember the small, involuntary gasp it aroused in me, “I want to do that.”

I want to do it because Freud is right. We are all children singing, “I want to live.” I want to leap because Jung is right. From the depths of the great ocean of the unconscious self, even the collective unconscious, if you like, our true selves are coming up to the surface for air. If we get out of the way, they might leap into the sky with joy.

It takes some courage to leap, to suck in clear air. It takes some effort to be real, to swim free in the ocean of grace in which we live. If we dive in and leap out, we know our previous methods of self-preservation will need to die. We know we will have to admit we cannot effectively avoid all the things that cause us to condemn ourselves: our lack of genuine relationships with mates and friends, our resistance to admitting our faults, our willingness to avoid responsibility, our lack of forgiveness, lack of solidarity with our struggling acquaintances and loved ones, our unfaithfulness to God and others. We will have to see how we flee, fight, and freeze because fear rules us.

Tournier, again says

To be faithful to oneself would mean to always be like oneself in all circumstances, in the presence of any interlocutor. We remain silent in turn about either our deepest convictions or the doubts which inevitably arise concerning them. We hide our feelings, or else we show them to be more ardent than they really are. To be faithful to oneself would mean to be natural, spontaneous, fearless of the opinions of others. (p. 57)

I think we all feel a calling to be faithful to our truest selves, perhaps from our first cry after leaving the womb. We want to live. I think we can at least imagine how God called us into being and can hear at least a faint voice encouraging us to live, full and free, embodying everything we’ve been given to be and do. I wish for you a moment of joy today when you dare to breach the surface. May your unique, childlike, fully-welcomed desires and fully-honored genius be well-fed and lively.

The screens vs. the real intimacy of the soul

A.I. Irish forest
A.I. Irish forest

When John O’Donohue published Anam Cara: A Celtic Book of Wisdom in 1997, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair presided over the politics of the West. At that time, here in Philadelphia, we were a few years into planting a church. It had a great run until my successors hit the pandemic wall. The 90’s seem like a very long time ago.

Everyone Needs an Anam Cara—or Soul Friend—to Feel Understood and Loved: A Celebration ofBut in many ways, O’Donohue is even more relevant now than he was in the 90’s. Then, he was just wading in the rivulets of what is now drowning us. When the publishers released the 25th anniversary edition of O’Donohue’s classic, new readers saw how prophetic his thinking was.

His main intent was to preserve vestiges of the sacred worldview of his Celtic ancestors; he was like Cary Fowler lobbying at the time for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Only O’Donohue’s seeds were spiritual and the fields from which he gathered them were quickly disappearing from Gaelic islands like the Amazon forests from Brazil.

Even more, he was like the prophet Isaiah, who intended to make an old truth present as he spoke for God to to his chosen people. In Anam Cara O’Donohue interprets the past, establishes God in the present, and offers a surprising, prophetic message for us twenty-seven years later.

Let’s listen to just one paragraph that speaks about the sacredness of intimacy. It will give us a chance to examine how we feel and think about relationships these days and how the threat to them O’Donohue prophesied is as real as he feared. The restoration of the kind of intimacy the Celtic church experienced with God, with one other and with Creation is the way to freedom through the shadows that dominate us.

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows. Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging. Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved. (pg. 15)

Let’s cut his word into three parts and better see what he is saying to us. I hope he will help us hang on to our souls in this troubled time.

Now people live in the shadows

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows.

In 1997 the misanthropic Seinfeld was nearing its last season of nine at #1 in the ratings. We laughed at terrible people unable to connect. Jerry Seinfeld mocked our increasingly shadowy existence and normalized the despair that now dominates our cultural self-image. Here he is on the Tonight Show when Jimmy Fallon was getting started deriding our relationships and the Post Office in his much-imitated way [link].

Meanwhile, in 1997 Friends was spending the third year of its ten-year run at #4. That charming group might be even more insidious. They, in some sense, suggested the world could be united as friends, just like they formed their unlikely, alternative family in the media ether. When Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) died last October from “the acute effects of ketamine” there was a worldwide cry of anguish on the internet — as if they had lost a friend. But technology and media have not united the world, have they?

The prophecy is: It is all shadows. Increasingly, people live in these shadows. The explosive use of artificial intelligence tools has led to the fear of “shadow AI” (that is, AI used outside system protocol) destroying order and normal relationships in a business. Creations like the A.I. Irish forest above are more real to people than actual ones. The colonization of souls by technology causes people to despair of relating and to become acclimated to living in shadow.

Now loneliness is an epidemic

Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging.

Psychology has named loneliness a mental health crisis but generally has little to offer as a solution apart from trusting in individual education to cause individual change. People need something deeper and they are looking for it. One of the newly-popular, albeit usually illegal, paths they are taking is psilocybin/mushrooms; some think their use is outpacing the research.

Regardless of how you search, many of us are feeling and acting desperate. I don’t think we know what the pandemic did to the world yet. But our desperation is evidence something went wrong. An easy-to-see example of the upheaval is how the increasing loneliness of the West has become its own epidemic. Many of us are still not completely out of our lockdown. Not only are we dealing with health issues and death, our social institutions, like the church, took a hit. Many churches have also died in the last few years alongside millions of virus victims. The leaders burned out. The systems proved untrustworthy. One of the results of all this is we’re lonely because we’ve been left alone to fend for ourselves.

But we are obsessed with relationships, constantly foraging around the “empty center” for warmth and belonging. We scroll for intimacy. My heart is warmed for a second by fleeting images of pets cuddling and babies laughing which are fed to me by the algorithms. People who are serious about connecting download an app. According to a Forbes poll in late 2023 “Nearly 70% of individuals who met someone on a dating app said it led to a romantic, exclusive relationship, while 28% said it did not.” Pew’s 2023 survey says “One-in-ten partnered adults – meaning those who are married, living with a partner or in a committed romantic relationship – met their current significant other through a dating site or app.” As usual, any tool can be used to a good end, but the technology often makes the user in its image.

When the new Surgeon General put out his report on loneliness, the media started talking about it. He reported: “In a U.S.-based study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day.” 75% of social media users reported they would find it difficult to give up their internet foraging.

The prophecy is: We will not find the intimacy we crave by going to an imaginary watering hole for a drink. True intimacy requires a soul language the media can only represent, if it even cares to; it takes humans and God to share it in reality.

Now intimacy is fully hollow

Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved.

Watch Taraji P. Henson 'Push Da Button' in The Color Purple | Playbill

As soon as I re-read those lines above, I felt my reaction to The Color Purple (the new film of the musical) all over again.  It is so hollow! It has great performances, especially by Fantasia, but the music feels redundant, like it was formulaically feeding on Alice Walker’s masterpiece (1982). Even more so, it feels like Oprah and Spielberg (the producers) are feeding off the movie they made of the book (1985) — in which Oprah was tremendous. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005, and by the time the movie of it was made, the horrific story of broken intimacy had been fully bathed in “neon.” The only interesting song among a series of derivative, banal tunes is the cringeworthy “Push da Button,” the antithesis of O’Donohue’s sense of intimacy.

Likewise, pundits noted how this year’s Grammys were dominated by women whose songs all tell intimate, often excruciating stories — Sza and Taylor Swift exposed to stadiums full of people, and the brilliant Billie Eielish (with her Gaelic name meaning “pledged to God”) singing about Barbie’s search for meaning and connection as a stand-in for countless people who can relate to her yearning. The performers hollow out intimacy, which “never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye.” The under-exposed Tracy Chapman’s reserve at last week’s award ceremony made her seem like a goddess.

The prophetic word is: real intimacy is sacred. It rises from an environment where God is present and honored. There is a secrecy, a mystery to it. We don’t own it, produce it, or control it. We share it. We receive it. We appreciate it. The “voyeuristic eye of a neon culture” is like Sauron’s eye searching Middle Earth for the final ring of power and we dare not placate the eye or wear the ring.

It is as dire and hopeful as Isaiah says it is

In the short run, Isaiah prophesies, the Jewish Kingdom of Judah will be overrun by Babylon, which is deserves to be. But in the long run:

Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.

The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night,
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory. — Isaiah 60

O’Donohue has a similar prophecy. The outlook for the West is grim, but he has a lived message of intimacy with God and of security grounded in Creation. In the shadows “the Lord will be your everlasting light.” A seed of hope has taken root in him. He has seen God in the world and can’t unsee Jesus. The Holy Spirit has enlivened his soul, she has undammed the yearning that flows between heaven and earth and unleashed the joy inherent in that longing.

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Today is Fanny J. Crosby Day! Visit this spiritual ancestor at The Transhistorical Body and subscribe for reminders of future posts.

There is a lot of bloom left in you, too.

When we first moved into our high-rise condo overlooking the park and the Philadelphia skyline, we were, along with all our neighbors, shut into our units by the pandemic. Not good. What’s more, our wrap-around balconies had been condemned by License and Inspection and needed to undergo a complete, expensive and LONG rehabilitation. Also not good. If situations like that, and worse, kind of resemble your life in the last few years, shut in and in need of rehab, you are not alone my friend.

Thank God things change! The pandemic was just recently declared over – although my son and my dear friends are fighting off Covid as I write, so I guess they missed the announcement. But things are generally better when it comes to the virus. What’s also exciting: our balconies were reopened last Spring, just in time for me to experiment with a new little farm I planted on them. I had plenty of new territory to plow. My daughter-in-law remarked at our New Year’s party, “These balconies are like extra rooms!” That’s really nice.

Hawaii State Flower Yellow Hawaiian Hibiscus
On the Big Island

Miracle hibiscus

I have a stories that go with each of the dear plants I have been nurturing, but in the interest of time I will just mention four that seem rather miraculous, especially the two hibiscus.

It started getting cold, so I thought I’d bring the plants inside and see if I could keep them alive until spring. They looked kind of “peak-ed” (FYI – in farm territory that means you’ve wasted away with illness until your cheek bones are pointy like mountain peaks). The hibiscus were already losing leaves, like they do when they aren’t in Hawaii.

To my surprise, when I brought them into the house to nurse them over the winter, they all got a second wind! The geranium budded. The dipladenia sent out six shoots looking for a trellis. And the hibiscus leafed out and began to bloom! My wife wondered how she was going to get rid of these plants that invaded the living room. But I was giddy with delight over late-fall blooms.

You are glad you read far enough to hear this good news, right?

Lessons from bloom to bloom

I confess, I visit these plants like they are much-loved children and attend to their buds and shoots with tender interest. So they have been central icons for my meditation. I am writing to share my revelations with you.

First, I did not know my 21st floor balconies are, in fact, more like Tibetan steppes than a Narberth backyard. I thought it was a perfect place for a farm. But if you saw my tomatoes you’d know something was very wrong. The plants baked in sun amplified by window reflection. They were rocked by unobstructed wind. Storms blasted them. They got dried out faster than I watered them (and then I went to Spain). It was very stressful for them!

It dawned on me my friends and family look like they have been on the balcony for a couple of years. Like I thought of my balconies, the world kind of looked like it should be a hospitable place. But there was virus, economic upheaval, riots, new wars, all sorts of tyrants — big and small, and unpredictable weather. A lot of us have very small tomatoes, spiritually speaking, and our leaves are about gone. My plants got small and tried to survive, so did many of my loved ones.

Opal Red Vining Dipladenia - Container
Diplandenia

Second, I did not know that moving the plants a few feet into my condo terrarium would create an environment conducive to a miracle. Those hibiscus did not need much of an excuse to let loose with some flowers; Lord, they wanted to bloom! And I thought the trellis I made for the stunted dipladenia looked silly it was so big. But now the tendrils are reaching up into the nothing above it. I think the farm still needs more experimentation. But I can see how resilient the plants are if they are given a chance.

My friends are like that too. I am thinking about three people, in particular, who had a classically terrible pandemic: lost jobs, went off the wagon, or went broke. But they are budding these days. One of them is starting on something that looks more like him than the other career ever did. They ended up in unexpected territory and started noticing unexpected growth. There is absolutely hope. I’m a bit shocked about how good I feel right now myself!

Rest in God’s presence

My recent guide, John O’Donohue, keeps reopening my mind to the reality that instead of frittering away my sleepless nights worrying about my friends and family, my frayed connections and threatening circumstances, I need to remain at rest in LOVE. The creation is friendly; look at it. Slow down. Let things develop. Suffer. Recover. Explore. Fail. Die well. Be resurrected.

The other night when I was lapsing into being a Christian and my spiritual cheeks began to plump up, I remembered a song we sang at my best friend’s funeral after he died in a plane crash when he was in his early thirties. My part in the funeral was to lead the singing for this very large crowd from the very large Assemblies of God church where we had worked together. I had never led such a big group, so I was terrified of looking foolish. I had said I’d do it because I’d do anything for Rick, not realizing what it would be like to lead in someone’s funeral I deeply loved (and still miss!). But the moment turned out to be a wonder, one of those thin places you remember when you need to find another one.

The other night, I needed that favorite song of his  and the experience of the moment we sang it at his funeral. When we sang it then, I remember the shocking feeling of God’s presence orienting me (and surely everyone else) right into the center of the Lord’s great love. I felt, “Rick is OK. We are OK even though we feel all the things we are feeling.” It was the first hint I got that goodness and grief are not mutually exclusive.

It is a simple, might be less-than-true, sort-of-sentimental song — and that made no difference. It was Rick’s song, our song, that moment’s song and the singing of it was truer than any words could convey:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in the place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings; I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. [People still sing it.]

It was as if I’d been moved just a few feet into God’s living room. I felt the bloom coming, in spite of grief, fear and everything else swirling around in that room and in my soul.

In our DNA, spiritual and physical, love is waiting to bloom. There are not too many places or moments in which that blooming is unlikely to happen. The Spirit of the Lord is in us and around us. We are suffused with Love, even when we are sick, unhappy, stupid, or somebody put us on the balcony in the burning sun, or forgot to water us.

I may need to learn that again tomorrow, when I am surprised by tiny tomatoes. But I keep getting better at learning reality — and I at least expect another opportunity for learning to arise, just like all the other opportunities have sprung out of strange songs and unlikely situations. There are always a lot more thin places than I know about before I really need to find one. Then I stumble into one and realize again: there is absolutely hope. You’ve got some bloom in you.

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcos Witt: Prayer and worship heals our wounds

The other night in our spiritual direction group, I started us off with a classic worship song by Marcos Witt:

Tu fidelidad es grande
Tu fidelidad incomparable es
Nadie como tú, bendito Dios
Grande es tu fidelidad

Your faithfulness is great
Your faithfulness is incomparable.
No one is like you, blessed God.
Great is your faithfulness.

It is a simple truth on which to meditate and with which to worship. You might like to experience how he uses the song to lift up a crowd at one of his events.

I love how he builds the experience with just a few simple lines everyone can learn, remember, and then use by the time the arc of the song has been completed. I imagine the writer of Lamentations 3:23 would approve. Maybe the original was a song, as well! When we sing along, we are entering an eternal now which erases the divisions of time, culture and label.

Marcos Witt

I had never heard of Marcos Witt until last month when the New York Times offered a feature article about him [link]. I do not live in an Evangelical or Spanish-speaking world, so there might be all sorts of amazing things I am missing.

Lonnie Frisbee. 70’s music pioneer

Marcos Witt appears to be quite amazing. He has been on a year long swing through the U.S as part of his América Ora y Adora (America Prays and Adores) tour, which began in spring 2022. It looks like they are going to finish up on September 9 in Washington D.C., if you want to go. The tour is an attempt to undo the divisions in the church. But it also looks like a victory lap for Witt who has had a very successful ministry, beginning with introducing “Praise and Worship” music from the 1970’s to Spanish speakers everywhere.

Most Americans have never heard of him, but Witt estimates that over the past 40 years he has sold roughly 27 million copies of his albums worldwide. He has sold out arenas in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, San Salvador, Miami and Los Angeles. He has won six Latin Grammy Awards, including one last year for his 34th solo album, “Viviré” (“I Will Live”). In the early 2000’s He built one of the largest Spanish-speaking churches in U.S. as part of Lakewood Church in Houston (also famous because of  Joel Osteen).

He told the interviewer, “My music carries the breath of God. Through our songs, God is hugging on people.”

The hug of God

You could use the hug of God right now.

Doesn’t everyone need the hug of God? I will not enumerate every way the world seems to be an overwhelming mess right now. I will just offer one frightening piece of news from Senator Murphy of Connecticut, who has a bipartisan bill to address how algorithms are making kids desperately unhappy [link]. The kids really need a hug from the risen Lord and their present parents.

In just our little group the other night, worries and challenges piled up quickly. Our capacity to listen to God and one another seemed a bit weak for everything we faced. But by the end of our all-too-brief time, our confidence and trust were deepened, just like moving through Tu Fidelidad. Our hearts were enlivened and I think we felt more able to go out and do some hugging ourselves.

If you can’t find a church that makes sense to you, try to find a couple of people to hang on to, even to hug, in this wild time we are in. If you can’t quite get into relationship with Jesus followers, at least begin to renew you relationship with God. Senator Murphy notwithstanding, there are many apps that will help you stream “praise and worship” songs, like this one from Google Play. You might try that on for a new discipline. Recorded and remastered  music is a step removed, of course, from the real connections we crave. But I think the Holy Spirit can use your attention to bring you into the spiritual hug you need the most. We’ve all got to keep trying.

It is a trying time. We are challenged. But we can meet the challenge. We don’t know the future, but we do know that God will be faithful to us until the end of time and beyond. Let’s sink into that before all we can think and feel about is how we might be sinking otherwise.

Division Test : Rivalry poisons God’s farm

This was a message for the church in September of 2001, not long after 9/11

It happened again. I sat in front of MTV gape-jawed the other day. I flipped to it during the commercials on another channel and I happened upon a new video of an Elton John song called “I Want Love.”

I admit, I am regularly tormented by MTV, but I don’t think I have ever seen or heard such a misleading, stick-in-your-head little pop poem as this song — and Elton is probably scheduled to perform it at the Kimmel Arts Center when he’s over there to help open it in December! I’m almost afraid to play it for you, but I have to. Because we need to be able to differentiate between the love of Christ and this false love Elton is overwhelmed by. And even though our scripture is not speaking directly about this tonight, at the base of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 3 is his own torment about the plight of the Elton Johns of the world and their influence. Listen to cravings Elton describes as he sings through the vacant eyes of Robert Downey Jr.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin are probably writing about the “love” of drugs and how the obsession with them kills people on the inside with easy ecstasy. Robert Downey Jr. had about ruined his career with drug use and this video is the start of his resurrection. Maybe all the MTV viewers get this backstory, but I am afraid more of them admired the song for  “owning” the “reality” of being isolated from true love and being “brave” about it, as follows:

I want love on my own terms. Don’t be nice to me because I can’t feel anything. I’m dead in places where other people are liberated. Don’t make me submit to anything. Don’t ask me to be surrounded by anything. It is what it is.

That’s the kind of  I-want-it-the-way-I-want-it “love” scaring Paul when he is writing to the Corinthian church. In chapter 13 he gives them a little love song of his own, which is a worthy alternative to Elton’s. But here, in chapter 3, he is just trying to get people to look at the symptoms of caving-in to what is worst about us as people. He is not judging people, or saying we should never struggle, he’s just trying to get the love of Jesus at the center of inevitable troubles we face and cause.

Elton’s kind of “love,” the kind of relating he’s describing, kills souls, as I think Elton knows. He can see it makes him dead in places where other men feel liberated. I see that kind of unlove killing whole churches which should be all about liberation. When struggle turns to strife and trouble turns to trauma, we’re into the kind of thinking and acting that killed Jesus. Thank God Jesus rises again! That’s chapter 15.

So let’s check out 1 Corinthians 3. Here’s an outline of what Paul is saying to them, and, by extension, to us:

  1. The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (1-4)
  2. So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (5-17)
  3. To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (18-23)

The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (vv. 1-4)

Paul says (I’m paraphrasing):

“People, I won’t talk to you as if you are spiritual because you are worldly–mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, because  you weren’t ready for solids yet. And you apparently are still not ready.  You’re still stuck in pre-Jesus habits of the heart. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not just like the world has always been? Are you not acting like humans out of relationship with God? When one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ what’s new about you?”

Can we agree on this? Jealousy and strife are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. One thing, among many things, that has really made me stop and think since September 11 is that many people are amazed that anyone could hate the U.S. so much as to bomb the Trade Centers. It is as if seeing people fight each other surprises them; it’s as if they missed the history of the last century. It is like they never heard themselves going off on their children, or never had anyone go off on them, or never stopped talking to someone because they would just as soon they moved away and were never heard from again. It is like they didn’t know that thousands of children die each day of starvation because no one cares for them. It is like they never heard of the Native American eradication project in the 1800’s in our own country.

We can be so blind. We really need a savior. Jealousy and quarreling should surprise no one. They are our mother’s milk. Most of us think fighting our rivals is an essential way to get justice, even as a way to have a self. We don’t think anything bad is happening among us sometimes, because we think it is “normal.” But it kills us and it kills the church.

The whole point of being the church is to undo this “carnality, this being-a-human-without-God-lifestyle” in us. The love of Jesus is at work among us to free us from being stuck in the world-as-usual. Paul is telling these good people that the rivalries they think are normal and right are going to kill their church. They will close the door to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and close the door to the Holy Spirit in the midst of them as a church if they keep it up. We need to be open to the Spirit of God to feel anything but we are pitted against this group, or excluded from that group, or suspicious or jealous of that group.

We have a lot of love here, but you can see how much we need the Holy Spirit of God as people assess their rivals and feel jealous or opposed to others. Just listen to some innuendo or actual quotes I’ve heard lately:

The artists in our church don’t care about racial reconciliation.
Center City people talk about living simply but they obviously don’t.
I haven’t been to worship in ages because there aren’t any good churches in Philadelphia.
A few people in the church make all the decisions.
I’m not in a cell because I doubt that people would be deep enough to handle how I share my soul.
I’m not going clear up to Germantown. No one goes there.
I don’t fit in because everyone is so young.
I don’t fit because everyone is a Democrat.
I don’t fit in because I am not such an evangelical Christian.

It goes on.

I don’t know whether those things are true or not. But I do know they cause strife. You may have gotten a little steam building up in you just thinking someone said one of them. They make for quarreling. And I know, even deeper, that they are often spoken under the spell of jealousy.

Jealousy is hostility toward someone, often a knee-jerk feeling about a rival who seems to have an advantage over you. I think we are all born jealous of God’s advantage over us. Jealousy let loose in God’s church, where the Holy Spirit resides, is a disaster. It is the anti-love that acts like a computer worm taking over your reactions. Jealousy makes you suspicious, it makes you guarded and defensive. Jealousy makes you competitive, makes your rivalries more important than your contribution to building community. Jealousy makes what others seem to have and what you lack the most important thing to you.

Paul says, “I can’t even talk about God to you! When you pass the division test, maybe we can get somewhere. But as long as jealousy is making you all rivals and not family, we’re back at square one, and even that square is in danger.”

So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (vv. 5-17)

This is the idea: God is reclaiming the world from the wilderness. In Jesus, he is the sower, seeds are growing, and the farm is being tilled in territory that was once overgrown with weeds, infested and unproductive. It is like God’s farm, the earth, was overtaken by the jungle, like one of those Mayan cities in Yucatan that Gwen and I saw. One temple near Copan was so covered by vegetation that it looked like steep hill, not a pyramid (like in the pic). The Corinthian church is like part of God’s farm that has been placed back in cultivation and it is growing good things. Paul says, you’ve got to keep it free of weeds. Rivalry is like kudzu. It takes you over. It tangles you up and chokes out love. If you are one of those people who are forming a group around yourself, or even if you just are stubborn enough to want “love” the way you want it, you are like some big thistle of division planted in the middle of everyone’s life.

There is a lot more in these verses we could learn about, but the main thing I want to emphasize is this picture of what life is all about, because farming with God is what our church is all about. Farming is such a great organic picture and we want to thrive with the life of the Spirit growing in us. Being God’s farm is what being a cell, being a congregation and being a network of congregations is all about.

Let’s concentrate on the small group, the cell. Being God’s farm is what a cell is all about. We were discussing this at our meeting the other night. We aren’t similar people in our cell. Some of us would be natural rivals. But we are together because our common faith and love has given us this radical notion that we can grow something new in the world. It crosses divisions. We are God’s fellow-workers in this. So take note about how you relate to cells. If you like to go there and argue so you can feel like someone, you could be a weed. If you want them to give you love the way you want it and get mad if they disappoint you, you could be a thistle. If you can’t even get next to a group of people face to face at all and love them for Jesus sake and for the sake of reclaiming the farm with him, you may need to check out how he wants you to get involved another way.

To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (vv. 18-23)

Paul thinks his argument is pretty compelling. And don’t misunderstand him, he writes in a particular style that seems sort of combative. But it is just a style. He’s trying to get across God’s heart, not just win an argument. He says, in essence: If you are hearing me, if you agree that division kills and God has a plan for his farm, then, let’s give up the rivalries! All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are ours. We are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Jesus has opened up the way to eternity. The best is ours — even the best of these different groups in Corinth, the best of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whoever or whatever, is ours. We don’t have to fight for it. God is delivering what is best to us. He started by giving himself in His son.

I think this is a profound way to live and I am trying to go with it. For instance: Periodically people ask me “what are you guys?” Maybe they mean, “What denomination are you against?” If they wonder if we are Presbyterians, I say, “Basically.” Baptists? “Of course.” Pentecostal? “Yes.” 

When I answer that way I am not being cute, because all are mine. One woman asked me if I were a priest. “Pastor” didn’t make any sense to her. So I finally said, “Sure, I’m sort of a priest.” I am of Christ. Who cares about being this or that other, I have the best of them all.

We are looking to be the new humanity without race or class, where there is no Jew or Arab, low-class or high-class, majority or minority, male or female, simple-liver or entrepreneur but Christ is all and is in all. In our church, where Jesus is in his temple, we are trying to get our minds and hearts around something bigger and deeper. Sometimes we call it the “both/and,” but that is too philosophical. In Christ it is just all – no balance necessary because Jesus personally holds everything together in love.

I don’t know what all this is meaning “practically” to you.

  • I at least think it should mean you look around the room tonight with Jesus eyes rather than the old, killer-instinct eyes of sorting out your rivals.
  • We should at least ask ourselves if we can pass a basic division test to see if we are more than just pre-Jesus humans.
  • At best it could practically mean that we can all breathe easier, now. We’ve got it all. All we can do is get better at accessing all that God is trying to get to us.

So we can let go of that painful, disappointing process of trying to find ourselves in comparison to another person, for better or worse. And we can stop trying to get for ourselves the life that God is desperate to give to us. We’ve got it. Connected to Jesus we have access to all of it, and it is just going to get more complete. I want that love.

A call to prayer: Frodo and Sza on Mt. Doom

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.

Our Gollum

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.

Our Sam

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)

Our group

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.

Our prayer

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.

The blessings lurking in elementary school and behind the screen

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.

Micky and Minnie nostalgic for their more authentic past — Kinkade Studio

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.

The third week of Advent: The joy of being named free

In a Covid haze, I watched the Jan Zizka movie on Prime (titled Medieval in the U.S. and apparently titled Warrior of God somewhere else). It is based on the early life of the Czech national hero, Jan Zizka (1360-1424) who was finally taken down by plague but never lost a battle. It is the most expensive Czech movie ever made. The film is dedicated to “everyone who fights for freedom.” [It is interesting to see the trailer in Czech and you will not miss an ounce of meaning].

I’ve studied Medieval European history for decades and still found the politics of the movie incomprehensible. Nevertheless, despite the gore, I enjoyed a view of the time when Jan Hus stirred up what became the Protestant Reformation of the church in Europe. Zizka starts out as a mercenary faithful to God and his king and ends up the populist leader of an innovative peasant army who says, “Kings may be chosen by God, but they still make the mistakes of men.”

Such revolutionary thoughts unleash 200 years of death and destruction as kings defend their rights and peasants get some rights. I don’t know if the U.S. founders would claim Zizka as an ancestor, but his spirit of “fighting for freedom” is a sacred thought in America. Unfortunately, the “survival of the fittest” built into that fighting (and into Medieval fighting) has left the country dominated by petty kings and warlords like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the wannabe Trump, and that guy at L&I who think their best interests equals the common good. We are still taught that sacrificing lives for the “freedom” to fight for freedom is a holy act.

A better way

Maybe Zizka would have kept maturing if he would have lived a lot longer until the Anabaptists came along to free themselves from the bondage of competing for the state’s approval to be alive. They are the logical ancestors of what he was fighting for.

In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, my spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists say,

From all these things we shall be separated and have no part with them for they are nothing but an abomination, and they are the cause of our being hated before our Christ Jesus, who has set us free from the slavery of the flesh and fitted us for the service of God through the Spirit whom he has given us.

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one’s enemies — by virtue of the Word of Christ. “Resist not (him that is) evil.”

The Anabaptists take Jesus at his word and example and excuse themselves from the constant fighting. As a result, both sides attack and persecute them. But they do manage to keep hope alive for the freedom given to those whom “the Son has set free.”

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds — Thomas Cole (1833-4)

Americans are still divided as to what the word freedom actually means. When John Lewis called on us to “let freedom ring” he was calling for emancipation and equality. Alongside that call there has always been a cry for “liberty” which consists of the private enjoyment of one’s life and goods. The latter fear the emancipated who might elect majorities which might make them share their property. I think those two approaches to freedom can be balanced, but then what would we have to fight about?

I began thinking thoughts of freedom because of several Advent experiences came my way last week which demonstrrated the Lord’s better way.

The first had to do with the song O Holy Night. I was going to record it on Smule and scrolled through various karaoke renditions. I did not realize that many recent versions truncate the second verse, which is all about emancipation. They just use the second line:

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression will cease.

They cut out the first line:

Truly he taught us to love one another
his law if love and is gospel in peace.

They could just be shortening an overlong song (they skip the third verse completely), while retaining one of the most dramatic lines. But I think they might also have erased that pesky love and peace in honor of freedom fighting. People don’t love Jesus but they certainly love their rights.

A second experience was hearing about my friend totally immobilized by sciatica. He could not even get out of bed without severe pain. Yet he wrote me a note to tell me he had experienced the most profound sense of God’s presence and joy he had ever known while confined to his bed. He felt freed from all sorts of burdens he had been carrying. The experience completely confounded him since he was so bound physically and so freed spiritually. But he completely welcomed it. He was overjoyed to be free of the past.

Freedom is the experience of life in the Spirit. It is not the result of fighting everyone else to dominate them or to be free of them. The endless fight for justice is real but it will never be conclusive, as our Anabaptist forebears discerned. I would like to take on their attitude as they sought to take on Christ’s

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness. (Phil. 2)

The Bible does not condone slavery. But does say the enslaved are free in Christ and the masters are mastered. Even if you are laid out with Covid or some other ailment, the joy of Christ can transcend your pain. Freedom is not something doled out by the powerful or something to be stolen from them. It is the gift of God.

The baby in the manger in Bethlehem is God emptied of her rights, taking on our bondage, and showing the way of transcendence.  “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” How you define freedom may end up encapsulating how much of it you experience. One of the things I am learning this Advent, again, is freedom names me. In chains, in bed, diseased, despised, disempowered or empowered, Jesus sets me free and that’s enough. He calls me free and I respond when I am called. It is joy.

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.