A rich sense of blessing came over my wife and I not long ago. The experience has stuck with me and continues to loosen the barriers between me and my original union with God. Bessel van der Kolk and Psalm 139 help. Here is a bit of the psalm:
For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful;
I carry this knowledge deep within my soul. — Psalm 139:13-14 (The Voice)
You should probably take a deep breath and read that again so you can sink into it.
It took me a few decades of life before I could take a deliberate breath and appreciate what my mind and body knew about God. So much of the Christianity surrounding me as I grew up was focused on being in right relationship with God, the great “external locus of control.” You’ve heard: “Get right with God. God is good all the time. Everything happens for a reason. Jesus is Lord of all. Jehovah is King.” The Church has often been a place where men fight each other to see what image of God is going to dominate, or what philosophy will rule. You’ve seen: Pastors raised up in sky-high pulpits or on jumbotrons, giant altars, a screen from behind which a man brings out holy things, founders who end up as dictators. Even Psalm 39, above, has been used to describe a very powerful creator whose total knowledge gives him total control (“God’s in control”) and so gives infinite opportunity to criticize the smallest details of our sin.
My Christian clients often come to therapy with the predictable effects of their damaging view of God. Even when they accept Jesus into their hearts (often in response to fear of hell or fear of ostracism from their family if they don’t), he resides in them like a prison warden, and the most avoidant are in solitary confinement. Yet, once given a chance to tell their story, to be seen and heard, to explore the taboo topics of trauma and self-condemnation, they find a surprising knowledge of another God deep within. As they find their own value and exercise their own agency they get a new sense of an internal locus of control, and a new view of God emerges. They are free to form a much deeper relationship. As a result, Psalm 139 becomes more like the very gentle reading in The Voice. In that amplified translation, the rich word they translate “shaped” feels more intimate and, for what I want to say today, like a loving touch.
Is resilience all we’ve got?
As I have been languidly reading The Body Keeps Score (in order to keep up with everyone else, honestly), I have enjoyed Bessel van der Kolk’s memoir-like presentation of how the science of trauma has developed over his lifetime, since the 1970’s. He’s a learner and open to any way to help people, to whatever works to free them, including spiritual ways. In 2021, Krista Tippet unearthed that his parents were fundamentalist Christians and the fact he “spent a fair amount of time in a monastery in France called Taize.” One thing he has learned lately impressed me. It came from his own experience of MDMA as a means to revisit places where memories are stuck in a debilitating narrative of trauma.
Van der Kolk was a sickly, impoverished, hungry child with neglectful, traumatized parents. He says in the interview,
In my last experience [with MDMA}, actually, I experienced in a very deep way what that little boy went through, who was starving and his mom was not there for him. And I had a tremendous sense of compassion for, oh my God, what that little boy went through. And the people around me were extremely attuned. And it sort of took care of something so subliminal inside of myself that I think it’s produced quite a significant transformation inside myself. In terms of that I don’t feel deprived. I don’t feel that there’s a deficit anymore.
He says the drug gave him access to the “cosmic dimensions” of himself. It opened him to the “mystery of the universe” and he ended up “feeling at once insignificant and utterly precious at the same time.” He could have written Psalm 139 himself!
When van der Kolk and others explore trauma they are looking for psychological, relational and physical ways to diminish or reform memories that color future reactions to life and love and often shape us for self-destruction. When most therapists get to the “bottom of things” their main hope for healing is human resilience. In their view, our personal capacity, for the most part, is the power we have to get well and feel well, or at least stay safe and sober. Often their confidence is well placed because we are wonderfully made and have an amazing capacity for survival. For most of us, trauma often ends up transforming us, not tormenting us. In North Jersey I think most people say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
What is beyond the trauma narrative?
I am often amazed at the resilience people demonstrate. Once they rediscover their capacity, when it is affirmed, and they construct a new narrative for how their life works, they often feel good to go and they go. Others, once they have a new sense of safety and personal agency, are free to see what is deeper than their trauma. Beyond the faulty foundations of their attachment and the troubles of this world, they have always known God, in one way or another. Van der Kolk begrudgingly sees this knowledge in his parents’ infantile faith. But then he can’t miss it when his normal senses are bypassed with MDMA and wonders are revealed, received by and stored in his right brain, where he knew God before he knew language.
This post arose from a similar experience of revelation and reassurance. We were having a conversation and both felt grateful for how our faith had helped us keep going and even transforming us when we were deeply hurt, not only by each other and the forces surrounding us, but by the trauma of the last two years and experiences clear back to our early childhood. We were helping each other memorize the new narrative of love we had learned, the love that preceded our trauma, the trauma to which we had devoted much energy recounting and fearing.
Maybe now that scientists like van der Kolk are belatedly acknowledging the primacy of the right hemisphere of the brain, more and more people will be open to their natural state of oneness with God. He says in his book, “The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants” (p.79). I believe it is primarily in the right hemisphere where God also nonverbally communicated with us and continues to nurture us in a spiritual womb. I often tell about my first experience of church as a five-year old. I did not bother much with the left-brain lessons. But when we sang the songs, music being among the languages of the right brain, I felt like I was at home; they gave my senses the words to explain how I had always known God.
Psalm 139 gets at the sense we have always been with God and God has always been with us. I think it has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love. Psalm 139 is another version of my kindergarten experience of oneness, “If it happened there it happens everywhere.” We are all known by a loving God. Jesus makes that plain.
So we can all find faith in God which supports us even better than our own resilience. We can find assurance that allows us to keep going when we are hurt. In the face of all the trouble we face, it makes sense to be stubbornly loved and always looking for love, even when the absence we feel hurts, knowing it is there, sinking into it beyond words, feeling it in the love of others. If it happened then, it can always happen. Deeper than suffering, than resilience, even deeper than trauma transformed is love. My prayer remains, “Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.” I am the work of your love.
On May 4th I begged a piece of paper from Gwen to take notes at the Jesus Collective Partner Summit. One would think a serious partner would be prepared to codify his marching orders! At least Gwen came prepared to move with the movement.
A Spirit-inspired vision still being born
I really should have had a few sheets of paper because there were many good things to collect! It was nice to be among a group of committed, often brilliant partners from around the world who are united by a vision for keeping a spiritual ball rolling. Beyond the reformation of Eurocentric, capitalist-bound, principle-centered, power-struggling, often narcissistic and male Christianity, there is a movement of Jesus-centered people who see another way to be the church. It is not a new way, but after hundreds of years of European domination, it seems new. Jesus Collective is working on a practical expression of the ancient-future way of the cross and resurrection that transcends all the boundaries of the world. If you explore the website you’ll probably get an idea of what’s going on. The website won’t tell you everything however; the new zeitgeist of the Body of Christ these days is better caught by experiencing like mindedness in relationship than taught with more left-brained schooling.
I enjoyed the relating but I was also schooled during the Partner Summit and Unite22. Jesus Collective has a unique view of the future because it was born right before the pandemic hit. Life these days is kind of “before the lockdowns” and “after a million Americans died.” It was not the most advantageous time to start something, but Jesus Collective started. Then the pandemic hit and then the revelation of Bruxy Cavey’s infidelity torpedoed the Meeting House which had been the collective’s incubator. The megachurch is still the incubator, only it is more like a NICU in a Kharkiv hospital. Since the inaugural in-person gathering I attended in 2019, the whole constituency has been traumatized and reformed. I was schooled about that, too.
What to do when the movement meets resistance
But there was so much more happening among the Jesus Collective than trauma! I came away stimulated and inspired – and convicted to keep the ball rolling! I can’t vouch for my notes, since my handwriting is often indecipherable. But I am still moved by three points I noted from a speaker I can’t remember. He or she was trying to answer the question, “What do we do now?” If there is still a movement of the Spirit alive in the world, how do we not only move with it but move it along when we are exhausted and beset with overwhelming circumstances? Jesus shows us a way. Here are three elements of staying on the way and showing the way with Him: lament, commitment, and action.
Jesus wept / lament
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19-41-2
My Christian psychotherapy clients, especially, often call lamenting “griping.” They are prone to say, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings” or “I am not sure I deserve to be sad when Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation.” Jesus did not talk himself out of crying. He did not shut himself down because people would see his despair and despise him for his vulnerability.
Emmanuel Katangole, from the east of Congo, justly became more famous during the pandemic because he has written so eloquently about the necessity and the power of lament. He says:
Lament is an invitation to see reality through the eyes of the most vulnerable, and to name and admit what is broken.
In this historical moment, only through the practice of lament can we imagine a new and better future. More than a personal spiritual practice, lament has potent political implications in three ways: connecting us to the oppressed, telling the truth to governments, and transcending partisan political borders.
I believe there is a new movement of the Spirit at work in the world, just as there is tragedy and evil afoot. If we are being reduced to repentance, that is a good thing. Lament is a positive spiritual response to our shame and hopelessness. Tears often water the seeds of a better future. If we can be moved, maybe we can energize a movement.
Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” / commit
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6
I asked one of my clients that question once. They had to think about it. Their aloneness had come to feel like their safe place. The vengeance they wanted over their abusers felt more important than health. The small space of control they felt they owned seemed violated by the question. I don’t think we should underestimate just how profound a question the Lord asks us, “No, really. Do you want to be made well?”
Taking the Lord’s outstretched hand is just the beginning. The man who was healed had to relearn to walk and experience being “the guy who was lame for 38 years.” He had to change how he saw himself and keep deciding to be well. At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to life. We often have to fight for our lives. Together we’re called to fight for the life of the world too.
I think Americans are so accustomed to their imperial ease that hysteria breaks out if gas costs a dollar more a gallon. Filipinos just elected the son of their former dictator because authoritarianism looks good if it promises some semblance of order. Even churches are adopting the authoritarian playbook. In these reactions, I don’t see a commitment to wellness, just control: I see little of the Spirit, mostly fear. I know a lot of Americans and a few Filipinos; many of them are exhausted, traumatized and often numb – and a lot of them are Jesus followers! For the first time, many of us may be able to relate to the man who couldn’t get to the pool. But here comes Jesus asking us for a commitment to him, not just to our own capacity. If we can get up and move again, maybe we can stoke the spiritual movement we all need so desperately.
Jesus taught: love God and your neighbor / act
Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. – Matthew 22:36-8
When I went to the Jesus Collective Partner Summit, I admit I was wary. So it was moving when many people convinced me I was loved and accepted, even valued. I have my own trauma that makes me suspicious; I’m still recovering from a love breakdown in my former church. Quite often I need to remind myself to act love, do love, see love as my daily task. Otherwise I might just do me; I might get in the habit of being suspicious.
The leaders of the church where I completed my pastoring shunned my entire family because they imagined we were a threat to them. It was a classic cut off. Since we all still live in the same town and still care about our old friends, the absurdity of it all comes to fruit when people get married, have children, etc. and throw parties. The people remaining in the church have to wonder if it is OK to still love us and include us. They aren’t sure why, but we are out and they are supposed maintain “boundaries.” I hope we will all be back together in love one day. But until then, loving hurts. It is the task the Lord gives me as much as a delight I experience.
There are still people in Philly who operate according to the old redlining boundaries from the past. Family systems still don’t talk to descendants of a “black sheep.” Whole protestant denominations still recoil when something seems like it might be “Catholic.” For some reason the Supreme Court will sacrifice the peace of the country to overturn the right to privacy. There is a lot of broken love built right into the infrastructure. I may feel like I’m making bricks without straw, but we all need to bring at least one brick to the building of the beloved community every day. If we can move another brick onto that vision, maybe we can nurture the movement of the Spirit springing up in the strangest places.
We are called to get up every day and do the work of love. We are not called to get up every day and wish someone would do the work of loving me or get up angry about the people who don’t do the work. The desire and demand to love may flood some days with the tears of lament – let it come, let it sink in, and move with the Spirit anyway. The desire and demand to love will make us wonder if it is worth it to be well since well is hard — listen to the “yes” of the spirit resonating with the truth “You are beloved and valued” then make the commitment.
Let’s love others because we are lovers not because everything is working out well. Love is a feeling that becomes a task. Love is a desire that can’t help but become an action. Love is Jesus looking over Jerusalem with tears, reaching out his hand in compassion and challenge, getting himself killed, giving his life and forgiveness freely and in hope of resurrection. The Jesus Collective, in league with people all over the world, senses a new movement of raw, Jesus-y love like that spreading around the ever-warming globe, changing and rebuilding lives and churches. Maybe like never before we have a chance to bring good news to everyone in an era full of bad news and broken institutions.
[About 7 years into my service as Circle of Hope’s pastor I offered the congregation some teaching I first heard from Janet Hagberg in 1979. It stuck with me. I happened upon this forgotten message on Rehoboam when I was searching my files for something else and thought it was worth repeating, since it is a very challenging time for leaders, inside the church and out, as so much is changing.]
You people are amazing. In our network we have 22 cell leaders and 20 apprentice cell leaders. 4 coordinators of cell leaders. A pastor. 5 PM team leaders. 2 PM facilitators. 9 Mission Team leaders. The list goes on. Lot’s of leaders. Not only is it amazing that we have found so many wonderful, gifted, willing people to lead, you follow them well, you nurture them well, you cheer them on and support them – even when they drive you crazy.
It is the being driven crazy part that we are exploring tonight. Someone wanted to know, “What do I do when my leader seems half-baked?” It is an excellent and frequently asked question. And it has lots of variations.
I’m fifty, my leader is 23, she seems to me like a cookie that was taken out of the oven after four minutes. What do I do with that?
I’ve been a believer for fifteen years; my leader has been a follower for fifteen months. He looks like a pretty loaf of bread, but the inside is doughy.
I’m working hard on my issues and repenting of my sins, the leader doesn’t know about some important issues, apparently, and I’ve heard a few too many things about his sins. Do I report them or something?
I am serious about my faith and our mission, I want to contribute time and energy to the cause, but the person in charge seems to be on a perpetual vacation and implies that I am a pain in the neck because she thinks I am being too critical of her lack of intensity. Am I being too critical or am I being criticized?
Do you recognize any of these variations? If you do, then you are not alone. And that’s why there is a lot to say about this subject. I am not going to talk about all the ways we have structured ourselves as a body to alleviate the stress of having a half-baked leader – which mainly boils down to our reliance on being a team and the accountability and nurture involved in having apprentices and being in cells. I want to answer it at the micro level : what do Ido when the leader is half-baked – which, in one way or another, may be inevitable, since we’ve all got a long journey to completeness. Jesus is the fire, but we are the oven, and you are part of that oven. If the leader is half-baked, you may have a part in his or her completion. So let’s start with you and me this time and see where we get.
The Tragedy of Rehoboam
A tragic story about a half-baked leader and what people did about him can be found in the history of Israel in 1 Kings 12. (I know how you love 1 Kings). It kind of starts with the prophet Samuel. You know that he was not too happy to be asked to give the nation a king. He liked the old way of letting God be the king and relying on prophets and judges that were raised up by the Spirit of God in them to fulfill the leadership functions necessary for the people. But Israel wanted to “go to town” like the nations around them and have a king. So Samuel anointed Saul, who turned out to be a disobedient disaster. He replaced him with David of the great heart but dysfunctional family. David was followed by the famous King Solomon, who was probably the most famous king Israel ever had, as far as being a king of note among the other kings of his age.
King Solomon, by most accounts was a great leader. He was famous for being wise. He expanded the borders of Israel and the whole nation prospered for the forty years of his rule. But there were some flaws. It seems like the more authority a person has the more important his or her flaws become.
Solomon may have had a wise beginning, and may have been very educated, but his method for solidifying his kingdom abandoned trust for God as King and relied for security on the common approach to kingdom building of the time – marriage. (Be careful about what your leaders tell you they need to do for security). Solomon filled his life with foreign-born wives, who were the guarantors of the treaties he was making with their fathers and brothers. What’s more, he let them keep their foreign ways as he moved them into the enormous new palace that he had built at the same time he built his enormous new temple for God. The simultaneous projects, tell you that something might be mixed up right there, plus, they cost the people a huge amount in taxes and conscripted labor. He was a flaming polygamist. The son who succeeded him (some people say it was his only son from all those wives, maybe he was just the oldest one) was the son of an Ammonite princess. His name was Rehoboam.
From the little we learn of him in the account, Rehoboam sounds like an insecure man who didn’t have much direct fathering or king-training. As soon as he is crowned he ruins the kingdom. His people wanted to go with him, but they had a few questions that people always ask their leaders, and Rehoboam answered all of them wrong.
12:1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all the Israelites had gone there to make him king. 2 When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. 3 So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: 4 “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
5 Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away. 6 Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.
7 They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”
8 But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. 9 He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, `Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”
10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, `Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’–tell them, `My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.'”
12 Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” 13 The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, 14 he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”
15 So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite. 16 When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:“What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home.
If you are a leader, of a cell, a family, a school project, an outing to the Camden Waterfront, make sure to pay attention to what the people asked Rehoboam. It really wasn’t much that he couldn’t supply if he would have relied on God.
People keep asking the same three questions.
Essentially they began with “Do you love us?”“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
Solomon got caught up in his own grand schemes and ended up enslaving his own people. By the time he got done people were resentful because it seemed like he cared more about himself than them.
They also asked “Can we trust you? Are you listening?” “He asked the elders, “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked. They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” He did not listen to their advice. He went back to his cronies, which was like looking in the mirror. It was like these guys he’d been playing the grand prince with since he was a kid were hungry to exercise some power. When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home. The ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and Rehoboam spent the rest of his life at war trying to put the kingdom back together again. If he just would have listened to one of his father’s proverbs: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; but he that listens to counsel is wise.” (Proverbs 12:15)
I also think they were asking “Who and what do you serve?” The historian who wrote the story in 2 Chronicles said, “Rehoboam did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the LORD.” (II Chronicles 12:14). People know when the leader can see a picture that is bigger than herself and her cronies. They can sense when the direction is coming from God or from one’s half-baked maturity. They can tell if you are open to understanding what is happening with the least as well as the greatest among us. They know if a certain action is about the cause or about enjoying the exercise of power or getting one’s needs met through draining the life out of one’s followers. They can tell if you serve or dominate. And that counts even if you are just taking your nieces to the mall.
There are not too many leaders who never have a Rehoboam day. If you get one that is as unbaked as he was, poor lad (although he was 41 years old!) I guess you’ll be wondering what to do. Normally, your leaders around here will be doing the best they can and not feeling like they are all that great at it. They will be serving because someone asked them or someone had to do it, not because they always had an aspiration to give their heart and time to further an extremely difficult cause for no pay, little recognition and the headache of having people ask them penetrating questions about their character. Even so, they will have half-baked days, they’ll have bad ideas and they will undoubtedly not be complete yet. What do you do?
I would take responsibility for your leader like they were your precious first-born child. When they spill the milk, do not slap them around; keep helping them to learn to hold that cup, because they will be dealing with milk again at the next meal. Don’t just leave the spilled milk there to stink, clean it up together – if they don’t want to deal with their stinking spilled milk, make them help you – and let’s go on. My conviction is that leaders are baked; they are nurtured into completeness by caring followers.
So if the leader is half-baked, for instance, they don’t love you or even God well, love them.
We have had leaders involved in some sins that became as public as their leadership. Getting drunk. Sexual sins. Major lacks of reconciliation with other leaders. And worse things will happen and may be happening right now. In the middle of that, I think our first responsibility is to love. They are having a problem, just like you and me. For instance, right now my parents are both terribly sick and might die soon. Some days I am going to act out of my grief and conflicted feelings about that. Before you decide my actions make me a bad, unholy leader, ask me some questions. When you think a leader is half-baked, talk to them, understand them. Figure out what is baked not just half-baked. They are people, so speak the truth in love to a person, not to your abstraction of what a leader ought to be or to your fantasy of what you would like or to your unfinished business with your mother or father or with the last leader who abused you. The talking will be very instructive. Talk to God about them, too. Prayer may soften your heart to love.
Please notice that I did not say, “Love them by pretending they are baked.” That will do no one any good. I did not say, “Learn to love unbaked food.” I did not say, “Turn off your brain and stop being so critical.” But I did say, “It is easy to see where someone is. And it is relatively easy to see where they ought to be. But love calls us to help them get from here to there, even if they are the leader. If everyone has to perform perfectly for you, they will either fight you or run from you because you are scary. Either way, that won’t help them lead.”
Secondly, if the leader is half-baked, they are not altogether worthy of your trust, trust them.
Naturally, you’ll have to have hope like God’s to do this. To trust the demonstrably untrustworthy is God-like. After all, isn’t it true, that God entrusts us with his own Spirit and God is relying on you and me to advance his cause of redemption? God’s is an heroic trust. I say that trust breeds trustworthiness. It is true that we give people responsibility and authority and they get too full of themselves and run people over, their natural insensitivity is heightened, they say wrong things, say things that aren’t true, they alienate people. It is true that when my son Ben uses a butcher knife I find it almost impossible to watch, but I trust him with it. And it is also true that I have been known to cut myself, as well. He needs to learn how to do that and he needs a person who loves and trusts him and who has been cut to help him learn better.
If you can’t trust your leader, you may not be trusting God enough to bear the pain of seeing someone go through life as half-baked as he sees you are. Trust God in someone else, not just what you see them doing. Trust God’s precedent, not just their track record. Don’t build a case against them, build a case for them and then help them realize their potential. Your admiration will do more to make them trustworthy than your suspicion and anxiety.
Every leader is going to make mistakes, but we need them, and we need more of them. We live in a trust system so people can gain their fullness and serve us and transform the world. If you hold back all the time, they can’t do as much, and they can’t catalyze us to reach our potential as a body. Can you see how much power mistrust can have? I used to sit in Council meetings and have elaborate discussions about what we were going to do as the church. It seemed like I would end up paying special attention to people who could always find a flaw in any argument and always cast suspicion on the process. I finally stopped listening so carefully. What I had counted as discernment was just mistrust. People wanted to move, but the mistrusters didn’t.
You’ve noticed that I’m turning around every question people always ask of leaders and asking them back at the followers. Do you love me? Can I trust you? Now, Who and what do you serve?
Serve with them
When the leader is half-baked, when you’re not sure what they are serving, serve with them.
It is hard not to serve God when you are surrounded by people determined to follow Jesus. Our leaders either have to bake or flee the oven, because we are not changing our minds. I’d say that most of the time we get the leaders we deserve. If we are apathetic we frustrate them and make them lazy and ambivalent. If we are critical we make them defensive and short-lived, and maybe even cause them to give in and serve us, rather than the Spirit of God! If we follow Jesus first and allow the leader to catalyze and steer and discern the process of the journey, they end up being very valuable to us.
It is true, Rehoboam was a bad leader. He was worse than half-baked. He didn’t love them, couldn’t trust him and he served himself and the god of his own power, and maybe some Ammonite idol his mother brought to town. But while the elders did try a little bit with him, it probably should be noted that the people didn’t love him too well, they did not have a radical trust for God in him, and they never served the cause larger than him. So they ended up with half a kingdom and civil war and eventually a whole boatload of them got carted off to Babylon. It’s not just about the leader.
I think you know that, for the most part. But someone asked the question, and it will come up again, because we are going with the people God calls out to lead us and many people have answered his call. They are shaping us, nurturing us, guiding us, and helping us make a difference in the world. If God is doing so much with the half-baked, what might he say to you if you came before him at the end with a whole plate full of fresh leaders for his people and the cause of his kingdom, baked to perfection by you and your little oven in Philly? I think the Lord would really enjoy that.
What do you think? Is it a problem when one is praying about love and a scene from “The Crown” and other fragments of pop culture come to mind? I suspect appropriate fragments of the Bible should come to mind! But that is how it was. I have been struggling with love in the midst of the painful binary arguments that fragment both church and society these days as both find it hard to listen to the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, the media is also struggling.
Love is not THE answer
My first fragment was England Dan & John Ford Coley singing “Love is the Answer.” I first heard the song in 1979 when my first son was born. Now you can’t get away from it in the supermarket. Ronald Reagan was running for president. Margret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain. Ayn Rand lost her husband.
When the guys sing “Light of the world shine on me,” it makes their song sound very Christian. That’s how I took it. But, according to Todd Rundgren, the songwriter, it is was just written to be Christianesque:
“From a lyrical standpoint, it’s part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love. I’m not a Christian, but it’s called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it’s still a subject” (Rolling Stone).
You may be a bit Christianesque like that yourself. Dan Seals and John Coley were Bahai at the time. Coley later returned to Jesus. Regardless, love is not THE answer, even if it is a good answer to almost everything. Jesus is the answer and healing, reuniting love becomes possible as an outgrowth of our relationship with God. Abstracted Jesus love is just an argument.
It is odd that we are still arguing about what this song purports. Is love the answer? Donald Trump is a walking poster representing the man for whom love is not the answer. He’s the bad boy from the Margaret Thatcher/Paul Ryan side of the societal binary argument about how to relate. He is selfish. The only thing that matters to him is the deal [see this Atlantic article about The Art of the Deal]. He purports to be a self-made man. He’s a personified argument ready to be the reason for whatever happens.
Reason is not THE answer, either
That brings up another fragment. I am watching The Crown and it is getting into history I personally remember. The other night Queen Elizabeth was arguing with Margaret Thatcher about the common good, loving one’s neighbor and being the keeper of one’s brother. Elizabeth is not “keen” on how her prime minister is retraining England. Thatcher is famous for saying,
“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
There is another unspoken voice in the conversation between Thatcher and the Queen. Thatcher’s sense that there is “no society” comes straight from the Ayn Rand critique of Western Democracy. As Paul Ryan said, we are in a fight between individualism and collectivism; and now we know that is a fight right down to whether you should wear a mask in South Dakota during a pandemic.
Ayn Rand’s influence in the church and in society (whether Thatcher thinks that exists or not) is probably way underestimated. In 2008-9, Atlas Shrugged sold 1 million copies! That’s one million of the seven that had been sold during the 50 years since the novel was published in 1957. Here’s a bio of Ayn Rand. She was a Russian Jew whose family was ruined by totalitarianism. After they fled to the U.S. in 1926 she soon saw the New Deal providing all sorts of new social benefits and saw big government getting bigger. She began to write, and invented a philosophy she called “objectivism.” It values its definition of selfishness, rejects altruism as slavery, and advocates unfettered, free market capitalism. Here is a tortured rationalization for how the Ayn Rand Institute could justify living off the “altruism” of the welfare state’s PPE funds this year while purporting to expose the distribution of those funds as evil: clip from their site. They insist that altruist, statist, collectivist principles are destroying the country.
When I was in high school, I read some Ayn Rand, most of her novels and The Virtue of Selfishness. When she threw off God, society and anything but Donald Trump’s gut instincts, I deserted her. She’s not all wrong, philosophically, but since she is an atheist, I’m not sure why Christians follow her. Here’s a sample from the Virtue of Selfishness.
Selfishness, however, does not mean “doing whatever you please.” Moral principles are not a matter of personal opinion — they are based in the facts of reality, in man’s nature as a rational being, who must think and act successfully in order to live and be happy. Morality’s task is to identify the kinds of action that in fact benefit oneself. These virtues (productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride) are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality.
Rand’s moral ideal is a life of reason, purpose and self-esteem. But reason is obviously not THE answer, since Kellyanne Conway just used it to construct a set of “alternative facts.” Reason is not the answer, Jesus is the answer. Our relationship with God gives reason a chance to flourish.
Jesus doesn’t need to win the argument
One of my favorite proverbs says, “Truth without love kills and love without truth lies.” One side thinks the truth about freedom is worth a few lives. The other side thinks loving the marginalized justifies whatever it takes to defeat oppressors. And on the fight goes, even in the church. In Jesus we have seen the glory of God, full of grace and truth, love and reason. Jesus is the both/and of the binary. He is the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. He’s the end of the endless struggle between polarities.
Ayn Rand has been winning the argument with the baby boomers for their entire adult lives, in the church and out. Now it seems reasonable to be selfish in a good way and seems logical to let unfettered capitalism run over everyone who can’t exercise their “God-given freedom” fast enough or well enough to keep up with the economy. You can see how this argument goes round and round, as Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, said he was willing to sacrifice his life to the virus if he could save the economy for his grandchildren. It seems that love was his answer, but the economy had a reason of its own. Rand would not approve of him sacrificing his life for anyone, but she might approve of surrendering to the “fact” of the virus and letting the weak (or “losers” in the Donald’s parlance) die their death.
What started all this was an old song squeezing into my meditation. As it turns out, love is not the answer, but love is sure my problem. I don’t want to give it up just because I live in the middle of a constant argument — potentially despised by one side and deserted by another. I am trying to learn the Jesus, third-way love, walking a narrow path right down the middle of the binary arguments of the world which just go on and on. For some, that endless argument seems to pass for eternal life, whether anyone wants to live it or not, or just a feature of a pluralist society, whether a society exists or not. I am grateful that Jesus promises and demonstrates an eternity worth living in a community worth building.
“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning … to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera. ”
– Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
So what is love in the time of Covid-19?
Marquez notes that we share physical love from the waist down, so there may be a lot of quarantine babies after CVS runs out of birth control.
But he also notes that there is spiritual love from the waist up. And that is what I will concentrate on since that’s what Jesus concentrates on.
Being in the middle of what must be the strangest social circumstance we have ever experienced will test us in many ways. But the biggest test is always to love. Joe Biden called us to a “war on the virus” last night in the debate, which justifies all sorts of ways for the authorities to “save us.” I hope they do. But even if they save us from the waist down, what will we be after our quarantine from the waist up?
I came back from my trip from the epicenter of Covid-19 infection in Seattle and shortly departed for a trip to the home of the CDC in Atlanta. At my conference down south the discomfort among the good Christians palpably rose until people started evacuating. The speaker called the attenders of the last plenary a “remnant.” I had intended to vacation a bit afterward, but the sites we had scheduled to visit began to close down. I found myself closing down.
And I began to wonder. Even if I wanted to care for people with Covid-19, would I be allowed? What if, like the storyteller in Marquez’ book, my love was not actualized at all and I had no choice but to keep it or lose it? Will the quarantine be like a cleansing, enriching fast, a refinement of love? Or will I spend all my time figuring out how to amuse myself so I can let go of the suffering of being locked up in the middle of death?
Take some suggestions from Jesus
Last night a good number of people got into the virtual meeting the pastors gave us. I think the expressions of love in the comments were as moving as what our leaders offered. But the vast majority of us did not show up. So begins my wondering about how the love of God survives in the time of Covid-19. What would Jesus do to keep it alive?
He would come for us in love
He did that and he is still coming. Alive or dead, we will be with the Lord if we love Him. Likewise, we should come for others. People are going to isolate from the waist up, too. Don’t let them. Go to them. We certainly have enough ways to communicate these days! But if they don’t answer, you may have to dare to track them down in person.
He would risk his life to love
You know he would risk his toilet paper stash and would give people some bread. That’s a given. But people may get sick from Covid-19 and not receive decent healthcare. And they may be the people you don’t know that well, or who aren’t savvy enough to keep themselves safe. They may be people who did not follow the rules and are now facing the consequences. I hope this does not happen, and our huge, national wealth comes to the rescue. But we may need each other as the church and others may need us who can’t stand the church.
He would take time to love
People are calling this time of quarantine a great Sabbath. That is such a good idea! It would be a good time for making love, if that’s possible in your life. Much more, it would be a good time to be in love with God. I mean “in love” like in a territory, like in Pennsylvania or in New Jersey — at home in love, hunkered down in love not fear — forced to live in your home, which is the love of Jesus.
Maybe some of us will have more time away from the eyes of the boss to spend with God, meditating on how we might face the remote chance of dying and how we will be hearing about death for months. It would be a good time to not just watch Frozen 2 again (Disney’s Covid-19 gift to us, for a fee, on Disney Plus) but to watch our feelings and thoughts as we meditate about life and love and death and about whether we actually receive the promise that we will rise again.
After years of waiting and looking for love in all sorts of substandard places, the hero of Marquez’ book has his lover alone on a boat. They raise the yellow flag that means there is cholera on board and no one will let them come to port. They are condemned to be alone with their love. Marquez thinks love, itself, is the end of all good – worse points could be made. I think Love, himself, in Jesus is the end and beginning. And I wish you a quarantine deeply filled with that relationship as you travel through this time on your quarantined boat with your Lover, first, and then with all the others He has given you and leads you to love.
The pastors finished their reading of Pete Enn’s book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. They loved it. But one of them had to note that the Bible leads to a right-now experience of the Holy Spirit and discernment, not mere wisdom.
I visited a church on my travels last week and a similar sentiment kept rising to the surface among my friends. They want to be led by the Spirit, not just their pastor or tradition. Keeping the program running has value, but it is hard to do if the reason for doing so has become sketchy. A theology built on principles without Presence is hard to sustain.
Likewise, Hallowood Institute’s first offering on “spiritual bypass” last Saturday highlighted the tendency of Christians to find a work around when it comes to their deep healing and the difficulty of relating to God by keeping faith “in their head,” citing principles and following the program rather than opening up to the fullness of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Running a program is too easy
“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them — that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat-rational Paul) when they commit to their program.
Why does it so often seem like making “programming” basic to following is a good idea to Christians? Why send an email rather than making the phone call? Why make an event rather than a relationship, etc.?
I’m not suggesting that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. Circle of Hope is a very well-planned enterprise! I’m protesting how we fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationships and organic connections can and should do. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than following the Spirit behind its genius.
Just because we went to school and got trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. And the big thing is: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know and keep them moving in the right direction we suspect they can’t figure out.
Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?
I guess since we broke out into this song one night at our cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:
My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.
When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.
I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.
What is the basic thing Christians do?
Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.
Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We are tempted to organize all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”
It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.
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I have had a great time lately, learning about how people pray – or don’t pray.
It seems like a lot of people have experienced their childhood faith wearing out, but they have not succeeded in growing into something new. Maybe they replaced developing their relationship with God in prayer with mindfulness, which is an anxiety-reducing knock-off. Maybe they replaced following Jesus, whose example of true humanity is suffused with prayer, by following the wisdom and moral principles of Jesus without the presence of the Holy Spirit, since they were not feeling the presence.
There are many books written about these questions and troubles [Pastors’ Goodreads], but many discouraged people did not find the time or have the motivation to develop their understanding and practice of prayer, so they just stopped. Now, in Jude’s colorful term, they are “clouds without rainwater.” Jude is upset that such people keep the desert landscape dry, even though they should have water. They upset me, too, but I prefer to see them as clouds who have the potential to rain, if they are ever filled with living water as Jesus-following clouds are designed to be.
In the troubling era of our lives when faith needs to grow beyond its childhood and adolescence, I think people often miss a couple of basic steps of development.
If you’re troubled, your struggle might be with Bible passages like this one:
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
(Like I said, great books are written about these things. Maybe you should make the whole year about reading a book about prayer every month.)
When some people read this particular part of the New Testament, it causes them to test out prayer quite materially, since the Lord appears to promise a material answer, especially with the line “everyone who asks receives.” This can be proved false quite quickly when someone does not recover from cancer or one does not get into the college they want or someone can’t find a suitable mate. The fact that it has been miraculously proven true for centuries, now, is not satisfying if one feels their test did not “work.” When one’s scientific experiment proves the theory of prayer unrepeatable, it makes a lot of people think they might be doing something that is just not valid — “It’s not working for me.”
Many people seem to miss the point of the teaching: the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Prayer is an entry into a much deeper territory than manipulating the material world with a satisfying sense of power.
I sometimes think Harry Potter’s magic, however well-intended, makes people without wands distressed. Prayer is not like magic, it is relating to the living God at the invitation of Jesus Christ. Getting beyond the distressing loss of the magic of childhood (obviously some people hang on as long as possible) is a key problem with faith we need to solve. Prayer is the solution. We will always need to approach God as child-to-parent, but Jesus is calling us to get into our adulthood and learn to deal with the deeper things of God and ourselves.
Sometimes even Disney asks the right questions;
Given my recent exploration with people, I feel like offering two important steps that might help you get a new start with prayer if you’ve basically given up on it.
Come to prayer loved
The Lord’s teaching above implies what John says in his letter.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
One of the big childhood issues that prayer brings up is fear of not being loved — “Am I really alone?” The answer of God in Jesus is, “No you are not alone, you are loved enough to find and rescue. I would die for you.” If God needs to prove her love for you every day to satisfy your nagging fear, you are more like a child of your parents or a child of this age than a child of God.
Don’t come to prayer covetous
The comparisons the Lord makes in the teaching above are mirrored in what James says in his letter:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
We think of our desires as expressions of our needs. But, most of the time, they are about wanting what we see or perceive others having that we don’t. It would be great if competition were a pure quest for the best, but it is usually an attempt to be better than someone else, or better than the self I am.
Such covetousness reinforces the shame we feel about being ourselves. So prayer can end up a terrifying process of asking the questions: “Am I wanted? Do I matter?” I often feel sorry for Jesus, God trying so hard to undo our shame: “Of course I want you just as you are as I show up in this moment. I made you to matter and you matter to me.” We have trouble hearing that from anyone, maybe more from God. We are so well defended against the dreaded answers we expect to our questions, we may learn to avoid prayer too. If you come to prayer out of covetousness instead of trust, the experience could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy about how ineffectual prayer is.
Jesus demonstrated how a human prays and connects with God. Thank you, Jesus! And he taught his first disciples, and all the rest of the disciples like us, about how to pray. People did receive that Holy Spirit as the great gift of connection Jesus unleashed and such people have been teaching us more about prayer ever since. Prayer is such a great reinforcement of our togetherness with God, such a great way to become open to our value as we pray in all the forms we are given; it is the basic way we relate to God. And it is amazing how often I receive the “fish” I crave, too.
This small post hardly solves your problems, if you feel disappointed with prayer. It brings up more questions than it answers, I’m sure. But I hope it gives you an idea for exploring two basic steps you might just be discovering and opens up new avenues of learning you might have missed so far. You are not alone and you do matter. And you are part of a circle of hope, or could be, who would love to struggle with you as you grow into your adult faith.
I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.
I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.
A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.
The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple.Full review
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience.Full review
It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more. Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.
Instead, I ended up with two reactions:
Enough already with the magical alternative family!
Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.
The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!
Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.
I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.
Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!
Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.
To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?
But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.
When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:
Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.
That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!
I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married. Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.
Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.
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Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.
The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot. We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?
Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?” It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”
So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.
Most of what I think is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
“[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
What holds us together?
The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.
More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some more.)
1) We assume people are not infants…
(or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.
We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.
This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.
2) The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know
we are a “ship of fools”
as far as the deluded world is concerned.
You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.
I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.
3) Dialogue is practiced.
Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.
Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.
I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.
4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head,
not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”
The hardest thing to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.
People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.
5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other,
and promote such dissolution.
Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.
This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.
My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.
Do you need to read this blog post because I am going to offer you some bit of info that makes your life better? Maybe. You’ll be better off if you read it for love.
I want to read your blog post for love. I’d rather you read mine because you love me — or at least you would like to. I would rather read your post because I want to know you, or at least know of you: your gifts, your wisdom, your part in the community we share, whether face to face or just as members of humanity. I don’t think you are an info machine regurgitating data you have effectively evaluated and reconstituted and I am surely not that.
Two things happened last week that made me think many of my friends are overly influenced by two mutually detrimental experiences: their social science teachers and their evangelical preachers. It makes them treat people as if they are data and data sources. Before I tell you about that, I can probably sum up my reaction to my experiences with the Brian Wilson song that came to my mind as I pondered my discomfort. What we need is love and mercy, not another teaching that tells us we’ve got it all wrong or another preaching that tells us we can never get it right.
We took a survey of the people who came to our church planting summit last week. They had a LOT of wise things to say off the top of their heads that I will be pondering (and helping us to incorporate) for a long time.
But there was an interesting streak that a few responders added to the mix. It bothered me. They apparently looked around the room and quickly sized us up according to the ideal church/social group they thought we ought to be. They asked things like, “Why are we so much this and not enough that?” and “Where is the data that proves what you are saying?” Even though we have a proverb that enjoins people to resist “bean counting” they applied a mentality that is very common these days. Aren’t most things reduced to, “What does it cost?” or “What don’t we have enough of?” Apply that mentality to a social group, like the church, and it is “Who is underrepresented” or “What is missing?” I often say the mentality leads us to eating the holes in the Swiss cheese.
I’m not saying facing facts is irrelevant. I think Jesus-followers should be the people most able to face the harsh truth about themselves and their group. So bring on any truth that statistics and spreadsheets can tell! But let’s also admit that figures lie and liars figure. And even when they tell the truth, their truth is never deep enough. The great truth we know as Jesus followers is that the facts which prove how worthy we are of condemnation are not the facts we live by. Jesus looks at us like a mother getting the first glimpse of her newborn, or a father looking down the road and seeing a figure who looks like his son coming home. We could not possibly have it all wrong, being so loved. Even if nothing is working out, love and mercy are working out.
Are we really never going to get it right?
The next night I sat under the teaching of the spectacularly-talented Gungor family. I appreciated the depth and variety of their music. I was also very interested in their fan base, who seemed happy to get a chance to ask them personal questions.
From what I can tell, they are refugees from Evangelicalism, but they haven’t completely lost touch with their homeland. As a person who never quite got into the Evangelical fold, it is usually hard for me to describe what I think about it until I run into it again, like I did with Gungor. Their music was all about light and connecting with God, but at the same time it was deeply intellectual and bent on making a point. When they started talking, it became even clearer that their view of us was as unrealized projects who need to conform to ways we have yet to perfect. We haven’t got it right yet and we never will.
Like Michael and Lisa, God’s leadership motivates me to grow and change. We are travelling onward. So bring on your expanded vistas and the hope of eternity! I think they were trying to bring that. But there was also this other streak. Like when Lisa said her new revelation of late was “If we’re not all free, none of us are free.” That is a great word to the powers that be as they insist that Americans are free because of the society’s goodness and power, when they are not. But the impossible dream of waiting for Christians to take over the world and make democracy and capitalism (or anything) work is the kind of thing Evangelicals hope for that make everyone in the meeting get the idea that there is endless toil to complete.
In a similar vein, when a young man asked about how to make an album, Michael told him, among other things, to “Follow what is in you.” Given more time, he might have told him to “Follow Jesus, who is in you.” But, as it is, the young man got the word to assess what is in himself and follow it to success, or to not care about success and be content with whatever is in him – be yourself. That’s a good word to a young man who sees Gungor and can’t feel good until he is Gungor, but it is also and invitation to “Be that perfect you and you’ll be happy.”
When the New Testament writers tell us our hearts are deceitful and assure us God is greater than our hearts, I don’t think they are merely calling me to change everyone’s heart or follow my heart, in the sense that life is an endless project I need to get right. The “burnt out evangelicals” I promise to never disparage again (since most of the people at the summit said they could wear that description!) have been pushing such a rock up the hill long enough. The work makes them feel like crap and the only solution they are given is work harder and like it! Our good works do not make us good people. We can get it right because Jesus got it right for us. It is not going to get any better than that because we somehow out-save Jesus. It is already done. Love and mercy is where we live.
We’re already more than the moral to the story
I don’t know every bean-counter and evangelical on the planet, so whatever stereotype I concoct is just that: a concoction. I’d rather love people than relate to them as a concoction I should assess or exhort. So I am pondering how to end this post. These days little stories, like I have just told, are commodities people consume and store in data bases, if they “like” them. If they are Evangelicals their story is a new way to preach and every story has a moral. In both cases, bean counter or evangelical, the story is rarely about us as we are, it is always about who we should be or who we aren’t yet.
I can face who I should be and who I am not — I live in love and mercy, after all! But I surely need to be careful or I will become an aspiration, never to be realized, rather than a person in Christ who has aspirations. I am not sure it is even safe to look into eternity if you are not securely by the Lord’s side while you are doing it!
So see if this works for you. When Jesus says “Before Abraham was born, I am!” in John 8, I don’t think he was assessing himself honestly or making a point, or even telling a story. I think he was being vulnerable, being himself. In a similar way, I think we can say, “We are who we are” and rest in that, even though we know there is more to do and a long road ahead. Even the most ambitious man in the Bible, the Apostle Paul, says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” – basically, “I am who I am.“
We live in the love and mercy of God. That’s who we are and that’s the essence of what we bring to the meeting or the concert. We are not the facts, or the work, or the moral to the story. Facts, work and morals are all great. But who can live under the weight of them? Who wants to be judged by them? Even now, when you are at the end of what I have said, can I live under your assessment or can you live under whatever judgment you have strained out of what I have written? Probably not. So listen to Brian again and end up in love and mercy, instead. Be in the church too and let it be: we are who we are, and whatever we become will be a gift of love and mercy.
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