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.
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.”
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.
Was the Kansas vote last week a striking affirmation of the right to choose? Or was it a repudiation of shameless, corrupt Christianity?
I would not ask such an incendiary question if it did not beg to be answered all the time, both in my office and in other relationships. Many Jesus followers are suffering shame because they feel associated with politicians who claim to be leading the country in the name of Jesus.
I haven’t seen any confirmation of this suspicion. But it is at least possible that Kansans, about 80% of whom identify as Christians, were trying to regain their faith, not lose it, during the recent vote.
Kansas people are known for being fiercely independent. Their faith probably has an independent streak, too. The Kansas Supreme Court said, in their ruling, “The natural right of personal autonomy is fundamental.” So women can decide what to do with their bodies. The state has led the way toward greater individual freedom in the past, too. In 1861, the Kansas territory established itself as a free state — which provoked terrorist raids by pro-slavery factions and helped incite the Civil War. In 1867, Kansas held the first referendum on women’s suffrage in the United States. On the same ballot they gave voters the opportunity to eliminate the word “white” from voter qualifications in the state Constitution three years before the 15th Amendment was ratified. Both ballot measures failed, but Kansas voters would grant women the full right to vote in 1912, well ahead of the 19th Amendment. I think many Christians might like some autonomy when it comes to coercive “Christian” leaders enacting their vision of an ideal American Empire in the name of Jesus, who is about as non-coercive and welcoming as one can get as he leads his transnational and transhistorical body!
Maybe normal Christians are fed up
I wonder. Are people finally embarrassed enough by the inept autocrat, Trump, his increasingly-incarcerated gang, and his enablers to do something about it?
Call me naïve, but I don’t believe the typical Kansan, and I know a few, would ever think of doing what their legislators did in trying to overcome their Supreme Court’s 6-1 decision that abortion was protected by their state constitution. They are probably mostly pro-life, like I am, in a broad-minded way. But they are not likely in favor of politicians controlling women and controlling pregnant people with abortion bans. What’s more, whether “life” begins at conception or birth is still an open question, and they might be thinking about that, too.
I doubt a normal Kansan would want to gerrymander, voter-suppress, and dark-money their way into office, to begin with. They don’t favor elections that are threatening and where the results depend on who is running them. And they are sick of being overwhelmed with misinformation like the rest of us.
So it is possible they did something about it. The anti-abortion lawmakers and their supporters tried every trick. They placed a major referendum on a primary election ballot, in order to sneak it through at a time they expected low voter awareness and turnout. They knew Democrats would have little to vote for during a midterm primary and expected them to stay home. What’s more, about 30% of Kansas voters are unaffiliated with any party, so they don’t vote in primary elections. They might not have known the abortion measure was on a ballot normally of no concern to them.
Are Kansans the only Americans not subject to being hoodwinked by power-hungry aspirants to the Empire’s thrones? The anti-abortion side used confusing language in the amendment, which suggested a yes vote (to change the constitution) would ban taxpayer funding of abortions — a ban that already existed. They said the yes vote would institute laws to protect victims of rape and incest, who already had that protection with their legal access to abortion. The proponents insisted they had no intention to pass a total ban on abortion, but The Kansas Reflectorobtained audio from a meeting in which a state senator and amendment advocate who promised an attempt to pass just such a ban. On top of that, the day before the election, Kansas voters received deceptive texts to vote yes to preserve “choice,” confusing untold numbers of voters. (Sarah Smarsh, NYT)
All the ploys did not work. I can imagine a Kansan saying, “Just how stupid do they think we are?” And I don’t mean MSNBC-watchers who were dancing in the streets. I mean the kind of practical people I know who generally disapprove of people who don’t say what they mean and mean what they say.
Life among the hoodwinked
You would think such honest, forthright people are the kind who follow Jesus. But that assumption is like a ship that sailed long ago from the harbor of popular imagination. Christians, as far as many people know, are more likely to be led by Trump, whose friends, it appears, all specialize in illegality. They are more likely to be led by Tucker Carlson, who is enamored with an autocrat from Hungary.
I have a long history of failing to push back the tsunami of lies autocrat-types and their thralls use to usurp power. Back during my short stint as a pastor in Central PA, I used my “monarch pastor” status to decree that listening to Rush Limbaugh was not of the Lord. In an Anabaptish church I had to demand that no political guides be left on the info table. I did not fully succeed in converting some minds captivated by the latest deception.
The endless failure to have anything one says mean anything drives pastors to despair. They specialize in the truth business. The people who believe the election was stolen from Trump (or that the facts don’t matter) also say Jesus rose from the dead. Makes church leaders wonder, “Will anyone think anything matters?”
Heather Cox Richardson verifies how embedded the unreality propogated by power-seekers has been this whole centrury. She writes:
Way back in 2004, an advisor to President George W. Bush told journalist Ron Suskind that people like Suskind were in “the reality-based community”: they believed people could find solutions based on their observations and careful study of discernible reality. But, the aide continued, such a worldview was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Maybe reality is starting to reassert itself. It can’t be too soon for Jesus followers who are ashamed of the Church. A reader wrote of their:
intense feeling of shame as a “Christian” over how the faith has related to the creation (using and abusing it a resource to be used up since we are all going to heaven and won’t need it anymore), the treatment of indigenous peoples (as objects to be removed, subjugated, transformed into Northern Europeans), and now the movement toward white nationalism as the model for leadership going forward (even the Russian Orthodox Church is justifying the war on Ukraine using white nationalism as a base of thought, and I think it is the long term strategy of the Evangelical far right efforts at controlling the courts, women, Congress).
You can empathize. The present is saturated with the loss of something, either facts or ideals. Many people are experiencing an unusual emptiness, frailty and disappointment. It gnaws at them.
The first followers knew how to endure
For the hopeful and despairing I have five words from the first Jesus followers. You might think I am going to get them to comment on the present political landscape, since that is where this got started. But I think they can do better than bed down in nonsense. They help us endure. They overcame their own nonsense. Like them, from our blessed place of reconciliation with God we can keep on being and doing good, no matter what happens.
The success or failure of the American Empire is not your direct responsibility.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. — Mary, inLuke 2:51-3
Many Americans have an imperial point of view which implies they should have enough power to remake the world in their image. Jesus has overcome that worldliness. He endures.
Suffering for good is a terrible vocation but you may be called to it.
But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. — Peter in1 Peter 2:20-21
Most Americans have bitten the “we’re exceptional” apple (even Obama). So suffering seems inappropriate. If gas costs $4.50 ($7-8 in Europe BTW) that’s a national crisis. The economy and everything else is just supposed to get bigger and better and no one should be allowed to get a piece of my piece. Suffering for good like Jesus gets us off that hamster wheel. It is how we endure.
Shame is a soul-killer so get beyond it
[Look] to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. — Priscilla (IMO) in Hebrews 12:2
If someone (like Donald Trump) is sick enough to be shameless and leads others astray, it is not incumbent upon you to bear his unborn shame. Refuse to be shamed — if someone nails you to it, go through your seven words and rise again. It is grandiose to bear the sins of the country. Repent of your own sins, your complicity, your privilege (if you have it) and live in reconciliation with God, or the work of Jesus in bearing our shame is of little account. If you can’t access the hope of joy on your “cross,” Jesus will help you endure. Follow him.
What you do matters
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Jesus inLuke 12:6-7
I feel like a wandering fool many days. I look for my past church and for some future perfection and miss the good I might do and be in the present. It is a great temptation to not be good enough, and then to project that intolerable feeling on someone else, or the whole nation, or God — someone other than me needs to not be good enough, unworthy of love and honor.
I don’t know how many clients have told me this month, after I got excited over their growth or good deed: “It was nothing” or “Should have done that twenty years ago” or “Its no more than anyone would have done.” Meanwhile God is counting the hairs on their heads — I suppose I would say, “But I have so few hairs. No big deal.”
If everything goes wrong, you still matter. What you do in a terrible situation still matters even if it does not effect the difference you desire. We can always do more and better, but if that aspiration undermines the joy of expressing the truth and love of Jesus right now, I think it is a sinful aspiration.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. — Paul inGalatians 5:1,13
Unlike the Constitution of the U.S., the Kansas state consitution includes the promise in the Declaration of Infdependence of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I guess people did not move to Kansas so someone could tell them what to do. I also think most of them were Christians and bristled at the thought of wearing any yoke but Christ’s.
I hope many more people will declare their independence from leaders who will do anything for power, including threats and lies. I hope people all over the world will unite to use what freedom they have to “serve one another humbly in love.” Until that day, I am on the road with Jesus looking for opportunities to use my freedom to endure the trials and experience the joys of living in truth and love with all the joy I can muster.
Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future.
Climate change is like a dark cloud hanging over every week. We try not to see the changes when they roll in like stormfronts; we try to make them coincidental; we are tempted to call all truth about climate change fake news. But it is hard to hold back the flood of reality. Sometimes the truth comes in the form of a 100 year flood, like the one we had five years ago!
Climate change is depressing. But climate action can be full of joy and wonder, even hope!
Stormclouds and lightbeams
I recently read a book called The Sea Is Rising and So Are We: A Climate Justice Handbook by Cynthia Kaufman and Bill McKibben. Kaufman is a community organizer (and she teaches people how to organize!). Along with her several books, she has written about social justice at Common Dreams. Bill McKibben received the Right Livelihood Prize for The End of Nature. He is the founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement.
Their book is blunt-spoken, succinct and well-researched. They lay out what we are up against with climate change in all its depressing peril and perfidy. But they spend most of the book on what we can do about it. They painstakingly include what fine people are actually doing, all around the world, to fight for the future of the earth.
If you have not read a book on the most important subject in your lifetime, apart from following Jesus, this would be a good place to start. These two paragraphs give you a good idea of their core message.
Those of us close to the world of climate action know that huge changes are already happening [in response], as cities develop sustainable and egalitarian systems of transportation, as countries invest in renewable energy, and as regenerative agriculture is developing. But we also know that those better systems won’t naturally “outcompete” the fossil fuel–based ones for as long as our political systems remain captured by the forces of free market capitalism. As we will explore further in chapter 2, capitalism is a social arrangement that allows major social decisions to be made by for-profit businesses, those businesses operate through markets which are shaped by those with power, and it allows “externalities,” such as fossil fuel companies being able to use our atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gases.
We know that to get the changes needed, at the speed and scale we need, governments will have to be captured by those interested in a just transition to a sustainable society which serves human needs. And while that may seem wildly unimaginable, especially in the US, where our government is controlled by the interests of the 1 percent, something like this has happened before and it needs to happen again.
“Sustainable” and “egalitarian” vs. “capitalism” and “1 percent” may cause those paragraphs to feel good to you or feel out of your normality. But it might be time to stop ignoring the realities of the moment and get into the dialogue about what to do. It is a new climate out there and it is changing rapidly. We are living in it, not in a media-induced argument.
The joy of bus rapid transit
One of the many examples of creativity and invention noted in the book comes from the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Mayor Jaime Lerner, a trained architect, successfully argued that expensive subways were designed for the wealthy and the city needed to do something cheaper and better. He famously said, “if you want creativity, cut one zero from the budget. If you want sustainability cut two zeros.” He moved the discussion in his city from the idea of expensive trains and polluting cars, to making buses into something that really work.
Over two million people a day ride Curitiba’s system, and more than two hundred cities in the world now have bus rapid transit. What’s more, in 2018 the country of Luxemburg made all public transportation free. Last week, Joe Biden signed the infrastructure package that includes billions to increase the number of public charging stations for electric vehicles. The package yet to pass includes subsidies for EV purchases. People are doing things!
At the end of their book the authors do a little cheerleading.
The alternative to playing out our trauma by living online and trying to win the Oppression Olympics, is to focus on the bigger picture of the beloved world we are trying to create and to try as much as possible to enact that world in our work to get there.
I did not note too much overt Christianity in Kaufman’s and McKibben’s book. But that last bit sounds like some pretty good theology, doesn’t it? Jesus followers can look into the future with confidence no matter what happens. That security frees us to be the presence of that future in a troubled world with real joy.
We’ve been packing up our house for quite a while. Now we are at the last moment before the move this week. So that was disorienting enough!
Then Covid-19 stole the best together-times of the year: the sunrise meeting for Resurrection Sunday and the parties afterward. Gwen and I usually have a party. I was sad enough about moving and missing things until family and friends started telling us how much they were missing things with me! So on the most joyous day of the year, I was sad, too.
Angie sent over a video that made me cry for joy and tear up for sadness because a flash mob was praising God in the mall but we can’t do that together right now.
So that’s how it is this year. The lockdown finally got to me on Easter. But it feels kind of fresh, too. On Good Friday, I wrote the poem that follows. I thought I’d put it out there again, now that I know even better how we all have a bittersweet taste in our mouths: sweet from Easter candy and bitter from Easter coronavirus. Things may never be the same for us this year, because of joy or because of sadness, but Jesus will be our joy and ever with us in our sadness.
On Friday, my thoughts turned to the terror and ecstasy of birth. I’ve got a feeling we are all being cleansed in a way by this strange, communal experience of “social distancing” and the threat of catching the virus. I know I feel like something new is being born. It made me think of another notable birth I experienced.
My wife was as big as a barn.
Her water broke with a flood
and the twins rode the river.
The birthing room was a bedlam:
our household peeking in,
a class walking through gaping.
Crazy, wondrous — jolt after jolt.
The first twin came out blue,
The next surfed out, tubing it.
Grief — surrounded on the table.
Joy — held by a slimy ankle.
I was suspended between.
The blue baby pinked up enough,
the flying one tucked up next.
And the birth-threatened love lived.
All was well again.
Awake at 3, the night bird sang;
I’m awake to listen.
And then the siren sounded.
The song of love met the tragic:
a tulip pushes up,
a loved one moves through the veil.
Our grief is budding out this year
like an unknown blossom
in a dystopic garden.
Our birthing room is a bedlam:
Peeking, pushing, pinking.
We are suspended between.
“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:
The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love
It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.
They make Lent sound so easy
Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding in the other.
If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.
While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim. They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.
Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder
Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.
No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?
I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.
Some days of this Lent WILL be easier
I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.
Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”
As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”
Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.
I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.
I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.
If you are full of joy, maybe you can just skip this one. Conversely, if you are resisting getting into stuff and don’t feel like changing right now, maybe you can just skip this one.
Because this simple post is all about feeling bad about feeling bad and how that might change.
When I was out to dinner with good friends the other night we were complaining about how we were feeling bad about how many people feel bad. (Three therapists at a table of four will put at least a sprinkle of empathy in your tacos!) I added, to all the reasons we were collecting about why people are feeling bad: Trump is stealing our joy. I don’t mean, “I hate Trump or the people who love him and will only feel better when they are defeated.” I mean he has been on the screen for over two years, every day, disrupting, dominating, bullying, confusing, sending immigrant children to prison, now furloughing a million people, soon to be found out for how the Russians were part of his election campaign (it would appear). He’s a joy stealer par excellence. And if you were already anxious before he took control and tried to get more control, now you are really anxious!
Not everyone at the table thought I knew what I was talking about and maybe you don’t either. But whether I am right or wrong, I will still need to hang on to my joy, won’t I? It is basic to my new-birthright. Jesus says:
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:20-22
Having joy does not mean turning off contrary feelings
Those words from Jesus could encourage you or they might just drive you Christian-crazy. What I mean is, many Christians turn off their minds and hearts in order to perfect a fake joy that is really just a masterful defense against their anxiety and depression. They take charge of their joy and try to do joy right so they won’t be doing something wrong which might send them to hell, or might uncover their secret sins and unhealthy habits. Let’s not go Christian crazy, but let’s have some hope for joy in troubled times.
I love proverbs, in general, and this one in particular helps right now:
A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22
This is one of those “factual” proverbs, that state the obvious we might forget. It simply says, if you are thankful and hopeful, the past does not clog up your feelings with regret and the future does not look so frightening; when you are depressed and anxious it feels like you are slowly dying from the inside out.
So it makes sense to hold on to our joy, tend it, even see it as a power that overcomes the woes of the world. The Bible gives repeated examples of receiving and using joy. Here are a few.
Affirm joy exists for you
Here is the famous Nehemiah 8:10
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah called for a party to celebrate the building of the restored wall in Jerusalem. We should all make a note to self – “Do not have vacuous parties that don’t include a reason people can hang on to.” Parties breed joy. Nehemiah wanted people to affirm the goodness of God and their own togetherness and love, as well as their accomplishment – all the things that bring people joy. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That is, joy the joy of knowing the love of God and receiving goodness from the Lord is the core of what makes us strong.
The word used here in Nehemiah for “strength” means “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold.” When we let go of our joy, we are vulnerable to the things that destroy us – our own weaknesses and sins and the bullies in the world. The joy of the Lord is my fortress. Don’t go crazy Christian and think God is all about keeping bad people and experiences away from you. But do affirm that if we have an impenetrable joy at the core of us, we have the strength to open ourselves to suffering and all sorts of “dangerous people” and take all sorts of “sacrificial” risks.
Remember past joy
Here is the wonderful Psalm 126 in its entirety:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
One good way to hang on to joy in troubled times is to remember past joys. The story we tell about our lives makes a difference. When anxious people cannot sleep, they have a difficult choice to learn. Instead of rehearsing their past failures and troubles, they need to search out the joys. Such searching is part of their strength.
Use your joy
When Paul was in prison instead of sailing for Spain, as he hoped he would, this is how he began his letter to his first church plant in Europe:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:3-6
Joy lives in us and we live in the expression of God’s joy. Creation is an enactment of the Lord’s generous love. Joy is the creative exuberance that the world reveals around every corner. Evolutionists don’t quite know, according to their theory, why animals prefer beautiful mates. Paul would say all creation is made to love our generous, beautiful God. Animals know that instinctively. The world is, in itself, an expression of joyful generosity. Jesus has opened up our hearts to love God and love with Jesus; when we do it, we experience joy, deeply.
When Paul writes his letter, he is also using his joy and sees it as a way to send joy reverberating all the way from Rome to Philippi. Along with joy being a wonderful feeling, it is also something we do. Paul is praying with joy. He uses his joy as a shield against what would do him in. And he uses it as an offensive weapon, too. A shield can deflect a sword blow, but it was also used to knock an enemy down.
Peacemaking types may not like the idea that they do anything that remotely resembles violence. I think that kind of “empire-thinking” is a tempting luxury for people who imagine themselves above it all like that. Regular folks are having a day-to-day problem with forces that want to steal their lives. We must fight those forces, coming from the inside and out, with joy, among other things. Here are some examples:
I believe God loves me. (Pow!)
I believe God is actively loving me right now in this situation. (Crash!)
I believe God’s love will never fail. (Wham!)
I believe God will not withhold any good thing from me. (Smash!)
You could not possibly steal my Christ-given joy! (Flattened!)
I still kind of feel bad that I ever feel bad. (Come Lord Jesus!) But I also remember when I did not feel the joy of the Lord! You may have been there last week, you were so depressed and anxious, living in this Trump-dominated country.
It helps me get back into the reality of God’s love when I affirm what is my destiny, then I begin to see and recall how God has surprised me and gifted me with joy, then I really get rolling when I use my joy in the same generous spirit in which it was used to find me and rescue me.
Our character is tested every day. We need wisdom to survive.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. — Proverbs 4:6
Wisdom is hard to find. If you talk to social scientists they will tell you it is a combination of IQ, EQ and personality and toss in a description of brain research to verify what they say. That’s all fine, but while we are trying to apply their science, we are being tested. We are dealing with toxic relationships, maybe a dead-end job, or a struggling marriage or family issue. Whatever the challenge, Jesus calls us to see things through a new lens, take confident action and keep moving in the wisdom God provides.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t.
Spiritually wise people find a way to see and act that allows them to go a different way from the self-destructive crowd. Where others see impenetrable barriers, they tend to see opportunities for faith, hope and love or they see challenges to overcome trouble with the strength Jesus provides.
Too many people fall prey to the mistaken belief that inner strength comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few. It’s a common misconception. In reality, faithful, available and teachable people can grow in spiritual wisdom and grow in effective application of it. Social scientists helpfully label various quadrants of our being and define common experiences and behaviors that we can watch to good effect, but spiritual wisdom goes deeper.
Getting wisdom mystifies a few of us because it is somewhat intangible. But we can learn it from people we know who have it. Like Paul tells the Corinthian church:
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. “ — 1 Corinthians 11:1
If you’re up for it, start with these twelve things that spiritually wise people are careful to avoid. Each of these categories started, for me, with a category an EQ salesman concocted. I quickly realized that his science had led him back to the Bible! So see what you think. Wisdom from social sciences agree with the Bible that we should consciously avoid these behaviors because they lead us to destruction.
They don’t stay in their comfort zone.
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7
Let’s just say spiritually wise people no longer think their comfort zones define reality. They live with God in a comfort zone that does not depend on their circumstances working out according to plan. This makes them brave enough to look into eternity and to look into the depths of themselves – neither being immediately comfortable places. But one does not become wise unless they dare to look at someone and something outside themselves.
They don’t give in to fear.
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:30
They say that bravery is being scared to death to do something and doing it anyway. Many times, that’s true, even when it comes to one’s career, or marriage, or spiritual experience. The fear doesn’t have to come from facing something extreme like rushing into a burning building; it can be a fear of public speaking or going out on a limb to try for a promotion or expressing your needs and desires. Spiritually wise people are as afraid as anyone else, probably, they simply trust God, respect their gifts and fight on regardless of the fear.
They don’t stop believing in their potential.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5
Spiritually wise people persevere. They don’t give up in the face of failure, and they don’t give up because they are tired or uncomfortable. They are focused on their goals, not on momentary feelings, and that keeps them going even when things are hard. They don’t take failing to mean that they’re a failure. Likewise, they don’t let the opinions of others keep them from fulfilling their calling. When someone says, “You’ll never be able to do that,” they check that opinion out with God.
They don’t beg for attention.
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. – 1 Corinthians 4:3
People who are always begging for attention are soaking up energy they should be distributing. We are tempted to rely on the attention of others to form an identity – we are what others see in us, or say we are, or allow us to be. Spiritually wise people do not make relationships like that. They do what they want to do and what needs to be done, regardless of whether anyone is protecting their fragile self-image. They find their main source of attention by attending to God and finding God’s love and hope in those who follow Jesus.
5. They don’t act like jerks.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32
Acting like a “jerk” is a relative term – being mean is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. But you probably have an idea of what I mean, and may have some opinions about when you are acting like a jerk. People act like jerks when they act out of the things that make them unhappy and insecure. They act like jerks because they don’t have the strength to be nice when they don’t feel like it, to forgive as they have been forgiven. Spiritually wise people place high value on their relationships, which means they treat everyone with respect, regardless of the kind of mood they’re in. They love like Jesus.
They don’t hold grudges.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. – Ephesians 4:31
Spiritually wise people know they are not just looking out for themselves when they overcome evil with good. But not doing self-destructive things, like holding a grudge, is actually good for them, too. The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on one’s body and can have negative health consequences over time. Researchers have shown that holding onto stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Grudges not only wreck the body politic and the body of Christ, they wreck our own bodies.
7. They don’t hang around negative people.
Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself. – Proverbs 22:24-5
“Negative” is a judgment we need to apply judiciously. Because people act in ways we label “negative” because they can’t solve problems and can’t focus on mutual solutions. They often try to draw people into blaming others for their faults and failures so they can feel better about themselves. We often feel pressure to listen to negative people because we don’t want to be callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear to someone and getting sucked into their downward emotional spiral. Spiritually wise people avoid getting drawn in by setting limits and distancing themselves from negative people when necessary; it is possible to judge a situation without being judgmental.
They don’t feel entitled.
For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? – 1 Corinthians 4:7
Spiritually wise people know that the world is a gift. They soberly assess what they have been given and freely exercise it without competition. They do not worry about their earning power and are not subject to the meritocracy. Yet they are also free to work hard and deserve what they earn. They live in a world that has love behind it, so they can love it back, not fight over maintaining a locus of control within themselves or be solely responsible for their successes or failures.
They don’t close their minds.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. – 1 Corinthians 2:14
When people close their minds to new information or opinions, it’s usually because they find them threatening. They think admitting someone else is right means they’re wrong, and that’s very uncomfortable for people lacking spiritual wisdom. Jesus followers are not threatened by new things; they are open to new information and new ideas, even if it means admitting that they were wrong. Their wisdom is based on following their Guide into what is next, eternally, fearlessly.
They don’t let anyone limit their joy.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:12
When our sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from comparing ourselves with others, they have become our masters. When spiritually wise people feel good about who they are or what they have done, they don’t let another’s detraction or a comparison with another’s accomplishments steal their joy. Even when they need forgiveness or have failed, they still have a kernel of joy inside that comes from being the beloved of God. We are free to listen to others and learn from them, even when they hurt us or just barely know what they are talking about. But our main interest is how God thinks of us. The Lord’s view is incisively true but overwhelmingly kind.
11. They don’t get eaten up by jealousy and envy.
For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:3
Spiritually wise people understand that the happiness and success of others doesn’t take away from their own, so jealousy and envy aren’t an issue for them. They see grace as being in unlimited supply, so they can celebrate the successes of others. They are not clawing their way to get a piece of a limited pie anymore, so they can share with others and rely on someone else to care for them, as well.
They don’t live in the past.
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:11-14
Failure can erode our self-confidence and make it hard to believe we will have a better outcome in the future. Most of the time, failure results from taking risks and trying to achieve things that aren’t easy. Spiritually wise people know that success lies in their ability to “rise from the dead.” Jesus followers, of all people, know their past is forgiven and their future is bright. So they are free to take risks to be true selves and loving members of humanity because they know that their past failures as a human cannot stop them. When you live in the past, that is exactly what happens—your past becomes your present and prevents you from moving forward.
So what do you think of this recasting of thoughts from the EQ community? Maybe you would like to add further things to the list. What DON’T spiritually wise people do?
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There is far too little tribal dancing in the church. That is my critique for the day, so if your train stop is coming up, you can stop reading, you’re good.
I think we may have finally “got it” the other night on Mardi Gras and “did the word”:
“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp” — Psalm 149
We did not have specialists interpreting with dance or waving flags and such (which is fine too); we just got out there and shook it as the common good we are.
We even had a flash mob moment in honor of Ben/Gwyn and Nate/Jen — which made Gwyneth teary over Uptown Funk.
Of course we did that! It’s in the Bible!:
Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” — Jeremiah 31:13.
Jesus has saved us and made us his people. We’re happy. That’s a good enough reason to dance. So if you are getting off the train now, feel free to stop reading. You probably have what you need.
We have good reasons to dance
But I do want to point out that there are some more very good reasons to dance. I’m glad we exercised a few. Yes, people showed up for our party! –- and they even danced with nothing lubricating their system but fastnachts and root beer!
Dancing makes trust.
For most of us, it is hard to get out on the dance floor. Ra begged Gwen and me to get out there and get the party rolling, since nobody will dance at a dance for the first half hour. She reminded me of jr. high when I was in dance class and the teacher would taunt us boys to walk across the multipurpose room floor and ask a girl to waltz. Terror.
Being pushed out on the floor was threatening. It reminded me that people love looking at dancers and talking about how they dance. A couple of my dear friends were, indeed, rating the best COH dancers the other night. That’s scary. Some men, in particular, refused to dance all night and stood off to the side like the kids in the Lord’s quote: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance’” (Luke 7:32).
But when you get out on the floor and realize we are all in this together, heedless of the fear, forgetting the judgment, and despising our shame, it loosens the place in us that trusts God and works trust into our very bodies! And getting out there does wonders for trusting others, too. Dancing with someone is pretty intimate, pretty vulnerable – its trusting someone because you think they love you enough to do so. We need that. Dancing is a trust system and we want to live in one.
Dancing commits us to joy
Very few people can dance with the tribe without a smile on their face. I suppose that’s why the Baptists I worked for were against it. Actually these Baptists were privately pretty fun and happy, but publicly they were straight-laced and sober because they thought that was being holy and they didn’t want anyone to know they were secretly a lot less perfect than they appeared. For quite a few years my dancing instincts were squashed by the Bible lovers who ignored all the dancing in the Bible.
They were like Michal watching David dance when you’d think everyone would want to be as out-of-control holy as David was: “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart” (2. Sam 6). I don’t know, for sure, why Michal despised David, but she sure was not increasing the joy in town that day!
There cannot be too much joy, even when things are bad and people are bad and they don’t deserve to be joyful – or insert any Michal-like judgment you feel here____. The fact is, most of us are not Michals and it makes us happy to see you dance. It probably makes you happier too.
Dancing represents a common good.
One time, a long time ago now, a close-knit church I was in realized that they felt really good whenever someone got married and the whole church got our on the floor at the reception and danced like one big group, partners notwithstanding. A few times they made such a positive impression with their happiness and togetherness that it became the talk of the rest of the guests and the bride and groom were proud of their cool, Christian friends. So we decided to hold a dance for All Saints Day. The one glitch was that the Brethren in Christ also thought dancing was not a holy thing to do. So we asked the bishop to give us a special dispensation. He did not think we would fall into sin, so he dispensed with the policy. I’m not sure he had the power to do that, but we went ahead.
In a communal group like the BIC, dancing is a great visual aid. It is an incarnational demonstration of being the visible body doing what Jesus does. At least it represents God’s mindset as Jesus describes it in the story of the lost son. The father says, “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing (Luke 15).
You could have “heard” our dancing a long way off on Mardi Gras! — stomping, hooting, Cyndi Lauper wailing about girls and fun. It drew quite a few people into our common good. Near the end I was dancing with a group of men who were finally into it. One of them came in mentally worn out and for a while got some relief. He could feel his spirit rise. That’s what Jesus does. We hope to dip people in the music of his body to share some happy resonance.
Everything else we do builds trust, joy and the common good, as well. But I really like it when we dance — even though it is kind of silly for me to dance. We don’t hear about Jesus dancing (I bet he did, though) –- but we do hear a lot about people thinking he was silly, and we still hear that directed at us whenever we act like Him, too. His whole life was kind of out on the dance floor, wasn’t it? — asking people to dance, making people know joy, demonstrating a different way to live. Our Mardi Gras party was a good training.