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You may need a good rebellion from your parents: For sure from Big Brother

Church bells have been ringing since the 7th century to mark the hours for prayer, day by day. In 1188, the leaders of Tournai, Belgium, got permission from the king to build the first belfry designed to use for town business — like calling assemblies and warning of invasion. Before long, like I found out down the road in Bruges, the church and town had a competition for who had the highest tower. If you look at Philadelphia, it is easy to see who won that contest around here. We got our annual shooing at the Comcast Center during Holy Week, as a few of us dared to to bring up Jesus at the foot of the master’s tower.

By 1309, Milan had installed the first mechanical clock in the basilica to chime the secular hours of the day so we could all conform to a machine and get to work on time. So the modern age began. In 1863, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels to say, “The entire theory of the production of uniform movement was guided by the clock.” What’s more, the clock represented the essence of science: precision. Societal change followed the mechanical clock like a landslide, burying the holy seasons of the church year. Soon the civic year started on January 1 and everyone had a standard calendar. Now the clock’s descendants  define our days — ATMs dispense our money and phones tell us when to get up.

Giotto, c. 1297, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Subverting the first sprouts of capitalism

All this change began in the century of Francis of Assisi. Part of his great inspiration and genius started with instinctively refusing to go along with any of it, starting with his own father. It is hard to follow one’s heavenly father unless you turn from the earthly one — especially if the earthly one is enthusiastically contributing to the town’s bell tower! Bernardo di Quintavalle and Chiara Offreduccio were right in step with Francis, all of them feeling disquiet about what was going on. Capitalism was being born; and they weren’t having it. When the first Franciscans did the opposite of the new capitalists their parents were becoming, they felt joy. They gave away instead of hoarded, they served instead of paying as little as possible to their servants, they looked toward getting less than getting more, they shared instead of competing. They suffered, but they felt a kind of joy they had only dreamed of.

After Francis “stole” a bolt of cloth to pay for repairs he felt commanded to make at the church in San Damiano, he came out of hiding a month later to face the consequences. That’s when he gave back everything he had from his father, including his name, and walked out of Assisi naked. His father cursed him every time he saw him from then on. When Francis went to town, he asked a beggar to go with him. Should his father see him and curse him, the beggar made the sign of the cross over him to provide a fatherly blessing. People thought he was nuts.

On my retreat in Assisi, I realized I had rejected my father’s capitalist dreams for me at about the same age Francis did. He said he would no longer pay for my room and board if I did not get back on course to becoming a lawyer. Instead, I threw it all away to build the church. My father did not curse me, but he certainly thought I was a fool. I felt inexpressible freedom.

Francis was a fool. And even though he is still loved by millions, the Comcast Tower looms over us. Capitalism and science have transformed the world and we are afraid to raise our children to be actual Jesus-followers because it is like sending them into the wilderness. Who will marry a Christian? How will they get food? Will they be happy if they feel guilty for having a Cuisinart while thousands of Africans are about to starve to death this week? If they don’t line up with Eurocentric supremacy, will they be rejected and impoverished?  Don’t they need to get the best schooling so they can keep up with the process of death-defying nanotechnology?

There are many good examples for our rebellion

What do you think? Have you ever rebelled against your parents, who are very likely ancestors of the first capitalists who called Francis (and maybe you) a fool? Jesus needed to rebel against his family, and they wanted to follow God! It says, “The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:20-21). Much more do we need to rebel against a society that follows Mammon, evaluating every minute as to its profit or loss.

We have many good examples of how to rebel. I think Francis of Assisi is still a great example. But you could just visit Jess and Josh Mints for a lesson on urban farming over in Kensington. Or look at our thrift store directors: Martha Grace for our Circle Thrift stores and Christina Saritsoglou for Philly AIDS Thrift, who work for lower than normal wages to serve their cause. Talk to any number of the social workers and teachers among us. Or investigate the community houses like the Simple Way. Get to know the foster parents. Get to know the Debt Annihilation Team. Befriend an MCC worker. Imagine what it is like to be your pastor working for a relatively low wage, trusting the body to take care of his or her family. These are all rebellious choices against capitalist ancestors. Every time you create community in your cell, use the Share Board and create a Common Fund, you are also creating an alternative.

Your phone might have been beeping your next obligation to Big Brother while you were reading this. We are being watched over by a huge web of technology. But every beep is another opportunity to do the opposite, in some joyful, subversive way in order to freely follow Jesus!

Hezekiah and His Tunnel, Beartraps and Not Being a Loser

hezekiah's tunnelWhen I was in Jerusalem not long ago I made a conscious decision not to go visit Hezekiah’s tunnel. To be honest, he was too obscure for me. I was too busy visiting Jesus. My engineer friends would never have missed his amazing engineering feat: five football fields long, chiseled out of solid rock 2700 years ago. It was dug to provide underground access to the waters of the Gihon Spring, which lay outside the city. The Assyrians were coming! (See 2 Chronicles 32).

I wish I had visited it. I like to get into the dirt of crisis and experience the vestiges of miracle. Hezekiah’s tunnel is a real “thin place.” I also like to witness the spot where some community did something together that proves that people can work together.

I think the tunnel is even more than those things, however. It is such a great metaphor for the story of Hezekiah’s life and of ours. It is a metaphor for digging down and finding what we need — finding the water of life that supplies us and protecting our access to the source as huge forces bear down on us. Hezekiah’s story burrows into the depths of us just like his tunnel burrows into the hard rock under Jerusalem — if our hearts are soft enough to listen, or we apply enough chisel.

Set upon by huge forces

The monster of the Assyrian war machine is bearing down on Judah. The huge forces convince them that they are losers. They’ve got to do something or be consumed. We felt that a bit when we had lunch in Love Park the other day. The huge Comcast Center peered down at us over the nearby buildings. Stacey said it was constructed so that the Death Star could dock on top of it. So we might relate to what the people of Judah felt. In the face of Sennacherib’s attack, the people in Jerusalem had to find a source of water that was beyond their normal sources.

We are set upon by huge forces, too. Most of them are internal as well as external. We have to get to sources of life that are beyond the problems we have. Hezekiah tries to be a great king and he succeeds. But he still gets sick and he still faces monsters. Isaiah tries to get him to trust God completely. He kind of does and he kind of doesn’t. Mostly he does, like most of us. In the middle of his big mess, God touches him and convinces him that He is with him. He is not a loser.

beckWhen I was speaking about all this, I used Beck as the poster child for the internal forces that ail us. In 1994 Beck dashed off a song that has been haunting us ever since. I think you’ll remember the hook, like almost everyone in the meeting did: “Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” The columnists interpreted the song as a parody of Generation X’s “slacker” culture. But Beck has always denied that, instead saying that the chorus is simply about his lack of skill as a rapper — Whatever. The media dubbed Beck the center of the new so-called “slacker” movement. Beck refuted this characterization of himself, saying, “Slacker my ass. I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.” – Chill out.

Part of me feels like a loser

But the fact is, Beck’s picture still became an icon in the church of VH1. And the huge forces continue to tell us we are losers in one way or another: “You are not part of the 1%. You have flabby abs. Your resume is skimpy. You work retail. You came in second place. You think you are entitled. Nobody’s perfect, especially you.”  If they don’t get us to think we are losers, they are making sure we think we’d better never become one: “You can do it if you just believe in yourself and get a good education. If you put your mind to it, you can achieve the American dream.”

There are good reasons that parts of us feel like we are losers. Those are the parts we avoid the most. We dread them. They make us desperate for redemption.  We get obsessed with the person who gave us the message that we are worthless and we either avoid them or avoid the thought of them like the plague. Or we work desperately to try to get the person who gave us the message that we are a loser to reverse the judgment. We get addicted to fleeting moments of approval and we will put up with mountains of denigration and exploitation just to get it. When we get the love, we feel good, when we don’t get it we crash. We walk around with a psychological bear trap on our leg searching for the person with a key to unlock it.

I have often talked to people who are doing this with us, the people of God formed as Circle of Hope. They come from abusive places and get connected to Jesus with the appropriate hope that they are going to be saved. The process begins. They begin to work out their stuff with us, often moving around the congregation finding people they hope will unlock their bear trap and release them from being such a loser. And they find a lot of people who give them the love, along with a lot of people who are an awful lot like the people who put the traps on their legs in the first place.

This process is one of the reasons our family-like atmosphere often feels so messy. It is messy. People are messed up and they need a Savior. We have cells and public meetings devoted to including messed up people. Not everyone likes or even approves of messy churches. That messiness is a reason many Christians keep faith a matter of what they think and not how they love. They prefer the church to be a place to get happy; they like to keep it superficial and not get “real” in some cell group or compassion team or, God help them, therapy.

People get out of their traps

So these dear people I am talking about who are walking around with their bear traps getting loosened and re-clamped, loosened and re-clamped — they go through their process and some of them get to the end of it. They come to know they are OK in Christ. And then some of them move on from the church. And some of us feel bad about this. We feel bad because they went through all their stuff, found out they are not a loser, then they seem to judge us for having made them feel all these difficult things and they leave us feeling like we are losers.  Very few people respond this way, but some do. We’re so competitive for souls that that we often believe, “Soy un perdedor” if our statistics look too bad in comparison to our ambitions. People get healed, get launched into a better adulthood, and we end up feeling like losers because they moved on. That’s ironic.

Hezekiah is not a typical American success story, nor is the kingdom of Judah. Neither end up world dominators. Hezekiah gets sick and must be healed. He invests all the country’s money in a scheme that does not work out. He is a rebel without a lot of power to back up his rebellion. His chief prophet seems to think he is kind of a loser. Other kings think he is a pipsqueak who can be used as a pawn. But God is moved by his prayer. With God, he is not a loser.

I rejoice in that. I can be a Hezekiah at the end of my rope, forced to rely on God and to see what God does. I know that can seem like a less-than-perfect approach to being a Jesus follower, but it seems realistic — and it is in the Bible. I hope you will burrow wherever you need to burrow with me until you get convinced that even when the circumstances and the powers that control them tell you that you are a loser, that’s just a lie. Listen to your prophets, dare what you need to dare, get yourself in trouble trying to lead or serve in the best way you can so you can be convinced that you are not a loser. Try to let a different hook burrow into your heart other than the already-present, “I’m a loser, baby.” How about, “I am not a loser. I am God’s child.