Not long after I spent a few minutes staring at this amazing piece of art in the sumptuous Seville Cathedral, I popped into a neighborhood church on the way to more gelato. Unlike how I imagine frustrated Francis patiently enduring his place in the wall of a treasure house, treasuring a lost bird winging through the air near the ceiling, and seeing Christ in the hordes of tourists, I felt a bit too much bite and bile rise up in reaction to the state of the church — my church, and God’s.
This dashed-off psalm down the road by the pool reflects my examination.
An instinctive turn into the church:
Sevillans are intoning a rosary.
The leader gives a glance to verify
We are invisible tourists.
I make my companion sit with me:
Sevillans creating a foreign atmosphere,
Making a world for the initiated.
I get through a cycle and leave.
Out on the sidewalk I speak softly,
A sotto voce of contempt lest they hear,
“That’s a good reason for the church to die.”
I am self-righteously upset.
I am right again. So right. So right.
But my scorn is also a good reason
For your beleaguered Church to die.
I kick its last leg in the shin.
Every time I wander here, I lament
When the baroque church was powerful,
When they got a cut the land and gold
From which I still benefit.
They spread out art in every corner of each town:
Brilliant details amplify your honor and glory
With the ill-gotten gains of thieves and murderers.
I inherited murderous thoughts.
I am instinctively turning into this psalm,
Into a place outside my bite and bile.
If for just a moment, I am freed by worship
As my heart sees the invisible.
I thank God for every moment of honest soul-searching I run into during my week. Probably the best thing about the last two, terrible years is they have reduced people to asking the basic question of soul-life: Who are you Lord? And who am I? In an uncertain time, we have many terrible opportunities to ask those basic questions.
I would never tell you exactly what a client said, or even a recognizable story about them. But you probably know that Black people continue to be tormented by the violence and subjugation they experience. On April 4, Patrick Lyoya was executed when he ran from a traffic stop in Grand Rapids. On May 14, 19-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo — last week he was also indicted on 27 federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. On May 28, a hurting Jayland Walker ran away, unarmed, from a traffic stop and was shot 60 times by 13 Akron police officers. Black parents with young sons are terrified.
The Supreme Court rulings are returning the country to the divisions that started the Civil War. The main one I hear about is Roe V. Wade. A woman’s past choices are criminalized. Medical care is politicized. Husbands question wives about routine procedures following a miscarriage. People are again debating “quickening” and whether unused frozen fetuses can be destroyed (Embryo Project).
This just begins to describe the challenging times in which we live. Who am I, now that my post-pandemic church fell apart? (CT) Who am I, after the deconstructers upended our institution and grabbed power without a purpose? (Northern Architecture) Who am, I when the one percent continue to game the system (even during a pandemic!) to make record profits? (Fortune) As we ask our immediate questions, the atmosphere continues to warm.
Burned on the bulb?
All my interactions last week seemed to lead back to these fundamental questions. Now that I am this age, in this country, re-forming community, surrounded by distraught people, who are you Lord? And who am I?
The other day a group of us in the Jesus Collective were drawn into a discussion on Jesus-centered leadership. The leader loves the Mural app so we each made virtual post-it notes of leadership traits we then offered to the whole group for discussion and ordering. The process was mostly bereft of personality, dialogue and context so it ended up more like editing than revelation. It used a method which, essentially, presumes deconstruction and so requires social construction, mostly centered on words and fragments of meaning (Wiki). But it still has me thinking. It was asking an abstract question, but it again begged the basic, organic question, “Who am I as a Jesus-centered leader?”
Two of my three post-it offerings (I can’t remember the third) about a Jesus-centered leader’s traits were “at rest” and “indomitable.” I think I was mainly recalling an analogy I often make about a lion and a moth. When a lion rests in the sun, he or she has little to fear; they are secure in their place. It is good to be at rest, indomitable, like a lion in the sun. When we live in the light of God’s love and truth, we have an inner security which allows us to be at rest even when we are working hard for a troubled world. The moth, on the other hand is drawn to the light but is always beating its head against the bulb — a frantic restlessness, always seeking and never finding. It is exhausting.
A Jesus-centered leader (or anyone) is not coercive because they can’t be coerced. They are who they are in Christ. They share the Lord’s sense of “I am.” The Mural exercise easily reinforced a moth-like seeking of “what” I am, what is required of me, how do I fit in. It took some effort for someone to be “I am who I am” doing this exercise with this beloved collective.
Or relentlessly asking the right questions?
But, like I said, the process still has me thinking. It led me back to Francis of Assisi being spied upon by Brother Leo as he prayed.
About 100 years after his death this story appeared in a compilation:
Brother Leo knelt and with great reverence asked the saint: “I ask you, Father, to explain for me the words which I heard and tell me what I did not hear.” Saint Francis had a great love for Brother Leo because of his purity and his gentleness, and he said: “O Brother Little Lamb of Jesus Christ, two lights were opened for me in what you saw and heard: one, a knowledge of the Creator, and the other a knowledge of myself. When I said: ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I,’ then I was in the light of contemplation in which I saw the abyss of infinite divine Goodness and the tearful depths of my own vileness. Therefore, I kept on saying: ‘Who are you, O Lord, supremely wise and supremely good and supremely merciful, that you visit me who am utterly vile, an abominable and despised little worm.’ The flame was God who was speaking to me as he spoke to Moses in a flame. (The Deeds of the Blessed St. Francis & His Companions 1328-1337)
Like a lion, Francis was “in the light of contemplation.” Who am I? I see the “abyss of infinite divine Goodness.” This is not a personal trait one can find by completing an inventory. It is reality one can experience. Who am I? I see the depths of my own self-deception and brokenness. I think being a worm, to Francis, is more about being tiny, meritless and slimy than being unlawful. But what quickly follows this wormthought is the question, “Who am I?” I am the visited one, the one to whom God speaks like in the burning bush that drew Moses into his true self and best action.
But who is God now?
In a socially constructed world, now habitually deconstructed, most questions end up answered through the lens of “me” (maybe “us”) and this moment – like the Mural exercise. But there is no true wisdom and little self-awareness if one does not know God.
Even though a lot of people are seeking to know God, God seems hard to find, these days. Many churches are just a big mess. And the church in the news looks terrible. A mentee was thrilled the other day when a man my age told him, “It is so nice that you aren’t an asshole like all the other pastors I know.” And where does one find a way for themselves, much less their grandchildren, through such an era? David Brooks calls it “some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.” Overwhelmed, uncertain, isolated are the characterizations someone will use to describe their circumstances almost every day in therapy.
I have the same experiences, so I have the same questions for God.
What about the future? How I knew you before won’t quite do for the next 20 years will it?
What can I trust? What we thought was certain or needed to be certain probably doesn’t matter, does it?
How do I find comfort? Our focus on ourselves is bearing its fruit, isn’t it?
We might have to stay up all night and pray, won’t we? We might have to commit months, not minutes, to build a community that matters. We might have to listen in new ways when Jesus tells us to leave it all behind and follow him. We might need to sink into the eternal now in this moment and hear God speak in the contemplative flame.
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.
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!
A few years after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) had been quickly canonized (1228), the learned Franciscans who took over the order were already distributing an “authorized” and sanitized biography of him penned by St. Bonaventure. He and his cronies ordered Brother Leo’s collection of stories destroyed (1266). Many of the brothers did not follow their order. When you read the stories his friends told, they present a man who should not have been sentimentalized inThomas Celano’s Little Flowers and turned into a birdbath or turned into a soulless moral lesson by Bonaventure.
I’m here in Assisi, which is a lovely, spit-shined shrine to Italy’s patron saint. There is plenty or birdbath Francis to be found in the stores lining the pilgrim ways. There is plenty of Bonaventure’s classier Francis as well. A street sweeper is rumbling outside my window as I write, making sure the dirty 1200’s and Francis’ Lady-Poverty-loving beggars are not allowed in the city for too long.
Yet Francis and his Jesus do manage to leak through the well-managed 21st century. I met Jesus again on the original San Damiano cross (above) yesterday in Clare’s church. A replica of the one that spoke to Francis is outside the city at the little church where Francis received his life changing call. I heard the message again and, of course, put it on Instagram: “Go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is fallen into ruin.”
Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies
I first witnessed the scene of Francis’ revelation in Brother Sun Sister Moon, the 70s version of the uncontrollable story . I religiously watch it every October 4. From my first steps of adult faith I felt moved to do my part in the rebuilding. I think we are doing OK, so far. But the church is a bigger wreck than ever in the U.S., preoccupied with sex, trying to control how people deal with reproduction instead of meeting and demonstrating the Alternative: the half-naked Jesus on the cross, speaking more outrageous sermons from his new “mount.” The church not only generally despises voluntary poverty, it persecutes people who don’t get in bed with capitalists and support the huge military it takes to prevent any hint of mutuality. But we keep building.
Yesterday morning, as I began my retreat in earnest, I wondered how many stories from the early days of the Lord’s movement in me, or in Circle of Hope, I have suppressed. Now I have Bonaventure-like credentials, and the financial ability to spit-shine my environment —or at least to buy some more illusion of control, do I present a more socially acceptable version of me and of us? As I wrote that line, a chorus of church bells began to ring, announcing 7:30am. My attention was turned to the chorus of birds celebrating a beautiful Umbrian day.
I suspect the Lord will be able to disrupt me, and you, no matter how many ways we find to subdue his impact. Later at mass at San Damiano, a butterfly flew through the window and fluttered over the priests just as we sang the Gloria. It was not only a fitting tribute to Franco Zeffirelli (RIP), but to the Lord, who asks us to stop trying to control nature and join him in it, tending it together for glory, not just using it for pleasure or profit.
Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.
“Cult” is not good
Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or an object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect some people thought he was a cult leader.
Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.
It’s all about the Kool-Aid
The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing. People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.
A commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:
Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong” and “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
Restrictive or coercive. A human leader or structure expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
Unorthodox revelations. They distort the Bible or come up with another book as foundational.
Christians, in general, recognize that Jesus has followers in many different denominations and nondenominational congregations, large and small. We have an adaptable and variegated faith. We don’t believe that the truth is available only to a select few—instead, salvation through Jesus is open to everyone and the Lord is our leader above any human leader.
Even though we don’t qualify, we decided we needed to put a tagline of our own on some of our advertising to deter potential taggers: “Circle of Hope: affiliated with the Brethren in Christ – Pennsylvania natives since 1780.” Maybe that might roll back any impressions that we are any weirder than the people who think we are “one of those cults” like the Presbyterians or something (that’s just a joke, Presbyterians are Christians, too).
So what if you get accused?
An accusation is often as good as a conviction these days. People who are falsely accused seem to be filling up the jails. Tales of being falsely accused at work and becoming the subject of an investigation are not that unusual. Circle of Hope has been taken down with false accusations a few times in the newspaper. So excuse me if I seem a little hypervigilant when I hear it through the grapevine that we are being accused of being a cult. Here are some things suggested by Dr. Phil (really, and I am not too fond of Phil) that might help anyone feeling falsely accused:
It can be destructive to be accused. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). I need to accept that it happened and deal with it. These things don’t just go away.
There is guilt by accusation. People hear something negative and tend to believe it. If you accuse a person unfairly, he/she still has that twinge — just from having the finger pointed at him/her. I feel that. I need to admit it.
But it is not THAT big of a deal. I may feel damaged but Jesus is still my Savior. My internal dialogue might need a redirect into more truthful and hopeful territory.
Besides, what other people label me is not necessarily who I am. Jesus calls me by name. Am I part of a cult? The answer is no. The other person might be hurting me, but that is their problem.
We need to talk about this (thus, this post). Sharing the problem is one thing that could help someone who is weighed down by an accusation or is scared about having a poor reputation with a few people we’d rather did not notice us (mainly because they tell lies about us).
Maybe I should try to find the people who actually think we’re a cult and have a face-to-face dialogue. I’ve only heard a rumor; I’ve never talked to anyone who thinks I’m weird in a bad way. But conversation might dispel some questions.
I’m mainly going to let it go and let God deal with it. If people say things behind my back, I can wait to react until they say it when I turn around. Until then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is possible that people are dive bombing us with their own stuff. Maybe they would like to intimidate because that is their thing. Since I don’t know, I’m not locking myself in the prison of some perverse possibility.
Has something like this ever happened to you, or have you been aware of it happening to us? If it it is just one bit of slander it can spread like poison until the whole body is tainted by it. So chances are, you may have heard this word applied to us, too. It feels bad. Try to be someone and there is likely to be at least one person who will try to get you back into the world as they know it. Try to follow Jesus in the way he is going and the takedown factor doubles.
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