Tag Archives: power

The Upside-down Apocalypse: Power fantasies be damned

Commons crew and the book

I get a good impression of Jeremy Duncan whenever I meet him at Jesus Collective events. I think he and his crew are doing an inventive and reparative job at Commons Church in Calgary, which he founded. Now he has written an inventive and reparative book called Upside-down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace. Once I started it, I could not put it down. What’s more, I could not resist telling anyone who would listen about the book I wish I’d read when I first started getting into the  Bible.

If you ever listened to me speak or write when I was a pastor, you didn’t hear too much about the last book in the New Testament: Revelation. I basically assigned it to obscurity in seminary. In high school I read (and was inspired by) a best selling book about Revelation and the “end times” called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. It ultimately soured me on the prevailing interpretation of apocalyptic literature among Evangelicals.

Lindsay made a career out of teaching his misreading of the Bible. I was so intrigued by his best-selling first book, I actually looked up the Bible verses he quoted. I discovered that even a cursory reading revealed he was making stuff up. When I read Revelation, I did not understand it well, but I did get the idea it was mainly about encouraging the Jesus-followers of John’s day (and, by extension, me) to hang in there even if the world seemed like a disaster. It did seem like a disaster, but not really for the reasons Lindsay and the Left Behind writers were popularizing.

Free the Revelation!

I would have done better if I had owned a copy of Pastor Duncan’s book. He articulates what I only suspected and frees Revelation from its bondage in conspiratorial, power-seeking, Empire-spawned speculation. Jarrod McKenna kind of skewers people who get it wrong in the Prologue:

All that Christ embodied and instructed is sidelined with pietistic sincerity as Christians vote, act, and desire for history to side with their end-time speculations. Most telling of all, these so-called revelations don’t reveal but rather obscure Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the gospels is displaced by diabolical readings of a murderous messiah who saves not with provocative, nonviolent, suffering love but like a Marvel villain wanting to make his enemies bleed.

Duncan brings Jesus out of obscurity and restores his central place in the book of Revelation. Here is his central premise, which you did hear if you ever heard me speak:

If we are going to read the Scriptures well, we need to read them on their terms. And even though the New Testament is written by a collection of authors addressing various contexts, two presuppositions hold all these diverse texts together. First, God is love. And second, the person of Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing that love embodied in human history. These are the assumptions that sit behind everything we read in the New Testament, including the book of Revelation.

If you put on this Jesus lens and read Revelation you see the Lord John knew and wrote about in his Gospel and Letters. It is easy to find Him in Revelation, even if you’ve been flooded with the cinematic gore of “end times” hysteria.

Restore “apocalypse!”

Duncan starts by retrieving the word “apocalypse” from its twisted use as a “disaster” or “final reckoning.” As he was doing it, I found myself having a hard time accepting its true meaning. Maybe you were influenced, like I was, by brilliant uses of the corrupted definition like in the movie Apocalypse Now. The opening scene, above, is etched in my memory as an appropriate way to see Vietnam. R.E.M. later similarly protested with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

When John titles his prophetic writing Apocalypse he is not talking about a huge crisis or the end of the world. The word means the “uncovering of something hidden.” An apocalypse, Duncan says, tells us two things: “First, there is more to the story, and second, the more will change everything we thought we knew.”

John uses the common form of apocalyptic literature and, first, turns it upside down to fit how Jesus turns the common imagination  of God upside down. “Jesus shows us the complete nonviolence of a God who would rather endure death than inflict it,” Duncan says. The second way John uses the form for his own ends is to reveal Christ, to give witness to “the unveiling of Jesus’s victory that turns our expectations of power upside down, replacing them with divine renewal.”

Reassert the structure.

Like I told you, I did not study Revelation too hard, so I am glad Jeremy did. One of my big takeaways from his book centers on how John’s prophecy is actually structured. It is usually seen as a linear story leading from the present and looking into the future, right up to the end of time. But as early as 270 A.D. Victorinus taught the book was synchronous, not successive. Like the Hebrew prophets often do, John tells one story three times, with an expanding scope: local, national and cosmic.

John borrows his structure from the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, he starts small and builds from the lived experience of individuals. Duncan sees the synchronous stories as three “rounds.”

The first round opens with seven letters to seven churches, “addressing everyday experiences of injustice and anxiety and Christ’s call to live with each other well.” Like the other rounds, it begins with a vision and ends with Jesus enthroned in the world:

To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (3:21)

In the second round, John pushes out the story further. Like in the first round (1:10), the second round begins with John “in the Spirit” in 4:2, receiving his further word from the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, that understanding does not stop at the heart level; it must change society, too. Directly opposed to the wicked Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), a wounded lamb comes to sit on the throne.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God,  singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign. (11:15-17)

Our worship leader had us singing with those elders on Easter Sunday last week.

In the third round the camera is pulled back to view the whole cosmos as God sets her sites on the final defeat of evil. At 11:18 the final cycle begins. At that point, the nations are angry over the reign of God. Just like when the rulers killed Jesus, there is a contest between God and those who destroy creation. Unlike Isaiah, who saw a day when God would destroy evil among us, Duncan says Jesus transforms that vision into a day when God saves the world by destroying the evil in us. These famous words end the final round:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (21:3-6)

Most of the book has to do with an explication of these three rounds. I hope this little taste entices you to pick it up and do some Bible study with a Jesus lens.

Renew your hope!

I think Duncan is especially interested in the second round. The first round represents the too-small, individualized Christianity where most churches are stuck these days. And the third round is so cosmic it does not need to be understood, fully, just anticipated with gratitude. But in the second round we see that our struggles for transformation are not futile but elemental to faithfully living in the upside down kingdom revealed in John’s upside-down apocalypse.

After showing how John is writing to people under the tyranny of Domitian, Duncan shows how he cleverly sets up his readers to see that fighting Rome with Rome’s tools corrupts us and produces Domitian-like leaders and strategies.

Just as we are ready to despair, and as the scene turns from worship to tears, the Lamb emerges to take the scroll from the one who sits on the throne. The true son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), who did indeed ascend to the heavens, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant unto death – even death on a cross (2:7-8). God is not like Domitian. Jesus is not the imperial child. Destiny is not written by the violent.

In self-giving love, Jesus unveils the hidden, authentic history of the world. Faithfulness was not the illusion. Power was.

Reading that quote made me want to read the book again! In the age of Trump (and who is this Harlan Crow billionaire with a collection of dictator statues?), many Christians are coopted by the pursuit of power on the political right and the left. And many more people, it seems, are long-gone from the bankrupt church and fully given over to acquiring power in an attempt to dominate some piece of what remains of the empire. John’s Revelation was a corrective to the despair of his time and Duncan’s restoration of Revelation is a similar blessing. As we read his book, may our hearts again feel the strength to take our stand in an evil day and open our souls to hope again.

Eradication or remission: With what healing do I bless you?

What do you say when you bless a sick person?

  • “I hope you get well soon” or
  • “I hope you feel better soon?”

Both, of course, are expressions of love and a sick person probably gets the love, no matter what you say. I wondered, however, why I almost always say, “I hope you feel better soon” just like my mother.  Maybe get well, seems like a demand; while feel better is more tentative, more humble. When I say “I hope you feel better soon,” I think it is flavored with, “I am not sure where this is going. I don’t feel comfortable promising wellness. But I am hopeful.”

The other day some Circle Counseling clinicians got into the subject of getting well and feeling better applied to mental health. We discussed whether mental health was more about eradication (well) or more like remission (better). I had never really thought through the difference. Eradication vs. remission is often the tension cancer patients feel, right? They wonder “Is there a cure or will I have to worry forever?” That kind of tension also applies to mental illness. “Does being well mean I am just like I remember good times in my past — a return to normal? Is it acquiring an idealized future — what I always thought I should be?” Or is mental health feeling, thinking and behaving better, beginning where I am now and moving on?

Need to talk about power

I think eradication was paired with remission in our dialogue because people in the U.S. assume power is at their disposal or should be. Around here, successful treatment for many means eradication of the invading illness. Something like “Vaccinations would have provided a no-fly zone against the virus if people had just gotten one, two, three and now four!”

Like I was asking last week, many Americans see healing as an act of power. Should Jesus followers all be like Jesus and eradicate disease and mental illness with a word, a touch, or a prayer? Or is healing more typically resting at the feet of Jesus, having faith in the storm, and persevering in trust? In a powerful country, psychotherapists might lust for power — the power of my work, my touch, my method. I heard a different take when I talked to a person last week who lives half-time in Ecuador. They said it would be much more likely there to see health in terms of one’s relational context and one’s daily process. People there never expect to have power, so they are more comfortable with unpredictable destinations and more attuned to feeling present in their relationships and circumstances. They do not find suffering sinful.

But here, I think it is good for me to answer the questions. Am I more of a psychological technician, eradicating mental illness and discomfort? Or am I providing space for health to unfold? If the latter, I might be able to promise raising your pain tolerance instead of implying all pain is an anomaly. In a recovery mindset, I might admit I don’t know the meaning of your suffering, or whether some ideal of wellness might really be a trap!

I’m glad I travel with people who ask good questions.  At one point last week, I listened to an Indian psychotherapist (his choice of label) explaining why Native people might not take advantage of the services of the counseling center on the reservation. The elders told him the center’s idea of “wellness” was mostly about becoming individualized (as opposed to tribal) and medicalized. If one is poor or constrained by colonization, “getting well” might mean eradicating who one is to become more “white” and more acceptable to the power structure. One’s setting or one’s relationships might be the cause of mental illness, not only what is happening inside. If a person refused mental health care, that might be the same thing as resisting the indignities of colonization, the end of which would likely improve their mental health!

Eradication/Medical model

I was not sure the interesting binary argument we therapists were making between eradication and remission was reasonable. Aren’t most mutually exclusive labels easily placed on a spectrum that meets somewhere near the middle? But once I started looking, I found a lot of eradication models that feel pretty exclusive, mostly coming from the world of medicine, from which psychotherapy emerged. They looked a bit one-sided, as in this definition: “The biological approach of the medical model focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, etc. Psychopathology says that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The approach suggests that mental conditions are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning” (link).

I usually love science. It is unintentionally miraculous. But I don’t love it when it dominates us. So I have mixed feelings about some relatively-recent approaches from the medical end of the spectrum that propose and sometimes promise eradication of mental health issues. Here is a collection.

  • A TV station gushed: “Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is a depression treatment that is “turning lives around in five days.” By adding imaging technology to the treatment and upping the dose of rTMS, scientists have developed an approach that’s more effective and works more than eight times faster than the current approved treatment for the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • The medical terms are Psilocybin and MDMA. The terms you know are ‘shrooms and ecstasy. Psychedelics have resurfaced as a means to treat stubborn disorders. Psilocybin (the essence of mushrooms) has been used for severe depression and MDMA for PTSD. One of my clients ended up in psychotherapy because an uninvited night of ‘shrooms unveiled an inner world he never dreamed he contained.
  • Ketamine injections have become a new mental health industry, lately. The anesthesia has been found useful for treating depression, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. Mindbloom is the company that a new client connected with; the effects were real, but apparently short-lived for them.
  • I am not sure I think of EMDR as a “medical model” in essence. But it is another way to short-cut lengthy talk therapy. I’ve done some training myself. It gives a lot of authority to the technician. Brainspotting seems, to me, like a more easy going, user-friendly version of EMDR. Both use bi-lateral stimulation of the brain to allow for entrenched feelings and patterns to be accessed and renegotiated.

Remission/Recovery Model

I hesitate to say the “remission” end of the spectrum is more “right-brained,” but there, I said it. While the medical model gets more specific and tiny all the time, right down to your neurotransmitters, the recovery model allows for a wider range of possibilities and contexts for the state called mental health. The documentary Bedlam is one of the latest critiques of the results of the medical model the recovery model seeks to correct.

The recovery model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery: 1) Choices that support physical and mental well-being, 2) a safe place to live, 3) meaningful occupation and participation in the community, 4) supportive relationships of love, emotional availability, and respect.

The recovery model is in direct response to the unmet promises of the medical model. Rather than focusing on “the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning” these are more systemic approaches emphasizing “one’s personal ‘resilience’ and control over problems and life” (NCBI). For instance, the medical model makes many promises to alleviate depression, the leading cause of disability  worldwide (WHO). The recovery model is honest about the shortcut approaches that sometimes prove ineffective and discouraging.

In the case of depression, a sufferer is moving toward recovery when symptoms respond to treatment and diminish, however slowly. Remission is achieving a symptom-free state and returning to normal functioning. After several month s of remission, one enters the recovery stage (more). For many people, looking for remission may be more satisfying than never achieving eradication. Finding a new normal, rather than lamenting the lost one, allows a person to live the life they have.

With what healing do I bless you?

I think I can bless someone with “Be well.” Whatever wellness you have in your present state today, I hope you can have it rather than lusting for what you don’t have and condemning yourself for not being healthier. If you don’t see yourself in the light of the medical industry’s “gaze” and label yourself according to your faults, I think you’ll find amazing tools there to use.

I also think I can bless someone with “I hope you’ll feel better.” Whatever process of development or recovery you are in, there is hope of appreciating it, moving beyond it, or suffering it creatively. You have personal resources – some you know about and some which are yet to be fully realized or even discovered. You are valuable as you are right now and there are likely people who can see that. Even when you feel ill and less capable than you desire, what you bring to the community is worthwhile right now and will likely grow in blessing as you learn to love and share your true self.

Andres the refugee: Lessons in powerlessness from Honduras

Way back in the 90’s I took my first MCC immersion trip to El Salvador and Honduras. It was before cell phones worked well, so I had one scratchy phone call to Gwen in two weeks – that was a first. I remember the trip as my baptism by fire into the reality of white supremacy and empire thinking. This week that memory has seemed important.

When our group took off for San Salvador, I thought I was a rather “with it,” comparatively-activist kind of guy. I wanted to go to El Salvador before the war was over. I was already upset that the U.S. was complicit in all sorts of evil deeds and had hidden a titanic military base at Soto Cano. I felt a lot of love for people in Central America, especially since I came from Southern California where Spanish speakers were childhood friends. I soon found out I was less with it and loving than I thought, but that’s how I started.

We talked to Army officials, U.S. Embassy reps, church leaders, activists, and MCC workers. We met Jon Sobrino, were forced off our bus by eighteen-year-old soldiers with automatic weapons, and took a ride out into the far reaches of Honduras, almost to Nicaragua, where a village had waited up into the night under the one, public lightbulb to greet us. It was a very educational trip. But the most lasting memory has to be of Andres.

Mesa Grande Refugee Camp — Wikipedia/Linda Hess Miller

My upending memory of Andres

I admit that this incident is one of those that may have a lot more meaning than the facts deserve. I was having an “aha” moment, so who knows what really happened? We were in a refugee camp in Honduras for Salvadorans who had been driven out of their homes by the war. They expected to be gone until the soldiers passed on, but that never happened. Many years later they were still stuck in a strange limbo. Some had come as children, literally naked. One person who had fled with nothing but the clothes on his back was Andres. In his imprisonment, he had become a Christian and the catechist for the camp. We were meeting him because he was one of the leading people who should be seeing a group of well-dressed “dignitaries” from the United States.

He was very kind and very hospitable. We sat in his house made of cast-off scraps of wood. I still remember being fascinated as I watched chickens walking in and out of the walls. This sweet, godly, respectable man kept enlightening me as they pecked about. We might as well had come from the moon, as far as Andres was concerned. He had never been to San Salvador, the capital, from which we had just driven. I think I asked him if he ever wanted to own a car. He said he had not considered that, since he had never been in one. (That is one of my memories that makes me wonder if this really happened. Did he actually say that? You’ve never been in a car?). The longer I got to be with Andres, the more I loved him. My preconceptions about him began to fade into the background the more he talked – preconceptions like, “Surely he would want a car” and, “Surely he would like to go to the capitol city”). He was happy with his house and honored to be the catechist. Unlike all his visitors from the U.S. that day, he was content. He did not have big ideas about how to make everything better, and made me a bit ashamed of myself for cluttering up his honest, simple life with my expensive sandals.

Eventually, we were finished with our overwhelming two weeks and sitting in room in Tegucigalpa for the final debrief. At that point in my life I was especially not a crier. But when it came time for me to share, I uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I feel so helpless,” is what I remember saying. Maybe I was just feeling, “I can’t do anything.” I had come to Central America equipped with health, energy and assurance that I could be a part of something great. I would end the war, figure out rural poverty and go back to the U.S. equipped to organize great things to resettle refugees and effect reconciliation. Instead, I was sitting beside the road in Teguci-whatever crying out to Jesus. When He called to me, I told him I wanted to see. The scales of my “imperial gaze” were not removed, as of yet, but I certainly felt blind.

A few, certainly not all, of the lessons I need to learn

As we were in the middle of the always-overdue crisis over racism and police brutality in the United States last week (white supremacy, imperialism, militarism, inequality, etc. etc.), my mind turned to Andres and the things he began to teach me about being powerless and changing things, way back when.

1) People get along fine without western culture

I had never seen just how huge my list of assumptions about reality actually were until that trip. I thought I was a Christian – and I had been in trouble for how radical I was! But the Bible looked a lot more like Andres than like me. Whenever invisible people become visible to the rulers, it is always disturbing. Andres still disturbs me. I never really knew I was a ruler until I sat on a three-legged stool he made out of firewood in his house and realized he was getting along fine without me and my late-capitalist culture, or whatever it is that’s happening.

2) Not everyone wants to trade community for commodities

How in the world can one be so wise and content with a chicken walking through one’s walls? I could not keep my eyes off that chicken! Later that day another refugee family invited several of us to dinner. We shared a soup featuring their one potato as they happily watched us eat it. We investigated to see just how coerced they were to do this, but we were assured they really thought it would be a hoot to entertain us. Is it more amazing that we were flabbergasted or that they shared their potato? Even as a Christian, I am still tempted to have an economic answer for everything.

3) “Poor” people often have ways to get along in the shadow of the monsters that rule them just fine and don’t need instruction from the monsters when they finally deign to see them.

The world has always been full of monsters. Jesus announced their doom when he rose from the dead after they killed him. I was so full of power, I really wanted to fight those monsters. But after that debrief, I began to think that witnessing to their doom by embracing resurrection in their shadow was my best hope at having a life in a world where Bill Barr is Attorney General. Ever since, I keep trying to find a way to live an alternative in Christ in the shadow of the doomed monsters. They are passing away, after all, and what they thought was the Lord’s powerlessness will upend them forever. Plus, even they need a place to which to escape after they have killed and raped and despoiled the earth. I sat with Andres and felt like I deserved to die from my complicity with the monster from the north, but his gentle ignorance of my political plight and deep wisdom of our common spiritual future comforted and directed me.

4) Fighting it out for justice as if it amounted to percentages of a limited pie doesn’t make sense unless you want the pie.

We’ve been having the endless argument again this week after the looters smashed up corporate windows and messed up too many small businesspeople, too. “Thou shalt not steal” vs. “It’s not stealing; it’s just a bit of reparations for what was stolen.” Everyone is stealing, as usual, because in our society we live in a capitalist box. It seems to me that God is knocking on the box like (decidedly white, admittedly) Jesus in the famous painting, standing at the door. Behold, if there is not a better life than succeeding in the capitalist free-for-all, the vortex of injustice, that’s sad. Andres couldn’t have cared less about my car. How did he get so happy without a car? How did he seem so wise without knowing about my 401K? How could he know anything if he was not prepared to fight off the monster lurking in Soto Cano?

I take heart that the protests seemed to get free of the violence this weekend and turn into the morality that is uniting people around the world. But economic inequality is not going away any time soon, if ever. I’m glad I’ve met people all over the world, who don’t follow that inequality around, but follow Jesus instead.

5) There is an alternative that Anabaptists like to talk about but rarely find in North America.

I am happy we talk about the Third Way, and we (I mainly know about Circle of Hope) represent an alternative in a lot of ways. But we spend an awful lot of time sorting out the first and second ways, or whatever binary the media loves to amplify. I admit, I love to fire up my computer and read all the news every day. I might spend more time on that than time in meditation most days! I know an awful lot about the awful Trump, tromping across the street to run humanity-loving Episcopalians off their own porch. I suspect Andres never had a computer.  He missed the endless arguing; he missed the moralizing about moralizing, fury about fury and, exclusion over excluding. Maybe I am over-idealizing him, but I remember him as being strangely at peace. I not only want that peace, I want to make it.

I know I am making “points” as I go along telling these little stories. I’m not trying to tidy up my experience or yours – not really. It’s more of a confession. If you are a so-called white person, you probably have some of your own confession to make. So I am not trying to whitesplain anything, just trying to learn old lessons better. My lessons are not final and it would not be surprising if they aren’t the ones you want or need to hear. So let’s be friends. I just thought I’d tell you about a good man in the middle of nowhere who was driven out of his home and ended up in a refugee camp. He learned faith and it made him remarkable to me. Maybe he had an easier situation in which to learn faith at that point than we have in the belly of this beast – good for him. But maybe we can do it, too, instead of biting and devouring one another in reflection of the monster.

I think MCC made a decent investment by baptizing me. I certainly became better friends with the refugees of the world and with a lot of other people I probably would have continued to otherize. We are so preoccupied with stealing in the U.S., the country has ended up with a lot of stuff. When we ship it off to people with one potato periodically, I feel like some justice is done. Even better, when we get to know them and figure out our whole way of looking at things may not have much of a Jesus lens, love gets a chance to bloom. Then I feel we might be able to see a little bit.

Power: What does “pastor dominated” really mean functionally?

The Good Shepherd — Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome

We poll our Leadership Team once a year or so and they come up with the most interesting and useful stuff! They not only help us think about ourselves better, they ask questions all sorts of people might ask if they ever got a chance. So this might apply to you and your church. Somebody asked, “What does pastor dominated really mean functionally?”

I am not sure where the person got the phrase “pastor dominated.” It is not like we have a proverb, or a line in the Cell Plan that says “We are pastor dominated” (as opposed to the undominated churches!). I’ve got a feeling I wrote it someplace. Because I have often said it when I was trying to be frank about how we operate. I don’t mean it in a bad way; I want to be pastor dominated. I want to be led. I need the leader.

Domination is almost a dirty word.

But I should use a gentler word than “dominated” shouldn’t I? I like things too colorful, I think (my grandchildren knew my favorite color was red before they asked me). I don’t think anyone in the  Untied States thinks highly of the word dominated, do they? Just look at the definition that comes up on Google:

“Domination” is “the exercise of control or influence over someone or something, or the state of being so controlled.”

That doesn’t sound so bad, right off, since parents obviously dominate their children for their own good, if they are a trustworthy parent. I have been using the word in a parental way. But the Google dictionary immediately uses the definition in a sentence like this: “evil plans for domination of the universe.” That sounds bad.

The synonyms given for “domination” are: “rule, government, sovereignty, control, command, authority, power, dominion, dominance, mastery, supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, sway.” That doesn’t really sound so bad. We need people in the lead and there are usually good reasons we put them there. I was using the word in a more discernment-process way, as if I had a love relationship with whoever was given sway. But the immediate example that followed the synonyms was “she was put off by the male domination sanctioned by her boyfriend’s family.”

Apparently the dictionary writers have never experienced a benevolent power, but have experienced a lot of untrustworthy dominators, especially men! When I was saying “pastor dominated” I assumed everyone was in Christ, who is Lord of the church, and “pastor” is just a function we recognize for the leader, who does indeed “dominate” us in the sense that we listen to him or her and trust them to bring us together and lead as we have all discerned the Spirit wants us to go. The pastors are precious to us.

I think people don’t see dominators like I do

Of course, if I have a pastor who is dominating for the sake of domination, I am, indeed, in trouble. It is a common trouble, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone who has been around the church for long hasn’t met a leader who thinks leading is enjoying their supremacy and using command and control to exercise power for the sake of shoring up their weak ego or manipulating the system for their self-interest, conscious or otherwise. I have experienced that! I’ve probably done it! How could we not fear having such leaders when the White House staff acts so odd everyday under the leadership of a President who takes historical cues from Napoleon, apparently. If my pastor is unconscious, lazy, or does not serve me or us but serves their own interests instead, it is pretty disastrous. Then the leader of our dominion is a dominator like Google thinks they are, not a servant like Jesus.

I think I should not use the word anymore. But I still have to ask whether we ought to stick with how Jesus puts His own content into words or adopt the way the world uses words to describe its obsession with power. I think the person who asked the question, possibly, and certainly the people who wrote the Google definition are suspicious of everyone with power — maybe because they are are guarding their own! Paul appears to think very differently:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. — Ephesians 1:20-25

There is power and Jesus uses it well. I am not trying to write the ultimate theology of power, here. But if you think Jesus is a ruler like Trump, you are mistaken. I thank God that Jesus is my Lord! I don’t have to diminish the word “Lord” because I am afraid of power or I think I have to resist God’s potential abuse of power to protect my autonomy and my own power! I gladly submit to the rightful king of the kingdom. I submit to his rule. Anyone who leads us is also submitted to her rule, or we are in trouble.

So what about the power to dominate?

The Bible writers talk about power all the time, and Jesus demonstrates what he thinks of earthly domination quite clearly. Paul says:

But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 5:20-21

Isn’t he joyfully saying that it is grace that properly exercises dominion? It is sin and death that want to adjudicate who is wrong all day. If we are sure our pastors will dominate us for evil (or we just want to make sure they are properly suspected and surrounded by controlling policies), who is dominating, and by what power are they attempting to dominate?

We are called to live in trust of Jesus, who has been revealed as the power above all powers, ruling in truth and love. In his light, anyone who claims an inappropriate authority will be shown up for who they are, if not now, then in the end. I share Paul’s praise of Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Colossians 1:15-17

If anything is going to hold together in the church, it will be because Jesus is holding it together, not because we have everyone in properly-defined corrals to protect against  their abuse of power. One the contrary, we celebrate the power of Jesus unleashed among us.

So functionally, calling us “pastor dominated” (which I will stop doing, since Google has a lot of power) comes from an egalitarian place, since we are all listening to Jesus and following. The leader has a specific role in the body, not a right to dominate us in some antichrist way. They exercise leader power for our common good. We help them do this. We nurture, correct, encourage and love our pastors into their full capacity to move us, shape us, help us, and  teach us. We set them apart for a special role because we think they are given it by God, not because their innate power deserves it or demands it or because we are so foolish we can’t follow God without them. And that goes for all the other leaders we have unleashed — there must be 100 or more! They all lead because they are loved, not because they are greedy for power.

We know that any one of us might be called out to lead, if it were necessary. Would you do it? Probably. But, after all this, you might be afraid to heed the call because someone might tag you “dominating!” That would be trouble.

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Turn to resilient love: History is bearing the fruit of nominalism

Last week I offered an article to my Facebook friends about the “secret” war the U.S. is helping to sustain in Yemen as the unhinged Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the Defense Minister, causes war crimes out of the view of journalists. Our own unhinged ruler further loosened the  long leash the Obama administration had given the Saudis as the civil war between Shias and Sunnis raged on Yemen, the sides backed by Iranians and Saudis with Al Qaeda in the wings.

A Saudi-led air strike that killed eight of this lone-survivor’s family

I lamented the lack of a moral center in the whole, horrible mess. American wonder out loud how Putin can think the ends justify the means as Russia supports how the Syrian government bombs and starves civilians. Yet the U.S. government is doing the same thing through its ally Saudi Arabia. It is just as unconscionable when the U.S. is complicit in war crimes.

It breaks our hearts to see children starving. But how can anyone decide what to do? It appears that most people are sinking in a philosophical morass that started a long time ago and is bearing the fruit of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and many other horrors. The myth of freedom demands that desire is at the center of everything we do. It is how we decide. Desire defines our “individuality.” Western culture believes an individual must be the author of his or her desire in order to be free. Nothing or no one can tell us what to do. So how could the U.S. tell the Saudis not to starve Yemenis in the name of their country’s desire to be free according to its sense of identity?

Last week’s blog post was about Donald Trump’s lack of moral center, as he pardoned the racist Joe Arpaio. A couple of friends got on my son’s feed after he posted my work and made light of it, mainly because I dared use the tragedy of Congolese slaves as part of my example. I think I violated their sense of ownership of their own experience, co-opted the story of their desire, and appeared to thwart their struggle to be the authors of their own destiny. I was trying to be a Christian with them, but I don’t think I got there. We’ll have to keep trying.

Nominalism degraded goodness

Finding a moral center in a Trumpian world is difficult. People can’t seem to agree on what is good. There are many reasons for this difficulty that Jesus followers should ponder. For one thing, progressives and conservatives alike serve the same god: individuality. They lean toward nominalism, as opposed to realism — the age old Eurocentric philosophical debate. If Christians are to speak the truth in love, we need to get off red or blue bandwagons. We may find some affinity with good-hearted people in either camp, but the world desperately needs the church to get back in God’s camp and provide an alternative to the madness. When will we clearly say, “No, we are not going to ‘follow our hearts’ no matter what society, the church or anyone else says, no matter how many times Disney preaches it to our children”?

I’ve been studying and pondering how we got to the place where Christians can support Trump and the place where identity wars can divide brothers and sisters in faith. Here’s the philosophical/theological trail toward the answer I’ve discovered so far (with help from Rod Dreher).

In the 1300’s “nominalism” took the medieval philosopher’s sense that everything has an inherent, God-given meaning and tweaked it to say that the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends on what humans assign them. You can see the seeds of our present preoccupation with our individual identities in this thought. How we have been named and how we name ourselves makes all the difference to most of us, and the title “child of God” is not usually our number one sense of self, since that derives from God and not ourselves.

In the 1400’s optimism about human potential shifted Europe’s focus from God to humanity who were seen as “the measure of all things.” We’ve been measuring our progress ever since.

In the 1500’s the Reformation broke any remaining sense of religious authority to shreds and started the infighting that makes Christians hard to trust. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand” and ably expressed the personal conviction that has been individualizing faith ever since.

In the 1600’s The Wars of Religion in Europe further discredited religion and helped usher in the modern nation state. The scientific revolution  replaced the organic sense of the universe with a machine. Descartes applied the mechanistic thinking to the body: “I think therefore I am,” not “I am an organic part of God’s world.” Most Europeans, like Descartes, still thought of themselves as faithful Christians at this time, but the way they thought of themselves and decided what is true began to change.

In the 1700’s the Enlightenment created a framework for existence with reason, not God, at the center. Religion became private, not public. The United States protected an  individual’s right to faith in a faithless state. France created an antifaith democracy.

In the 1800’s The industrial revolution ended the connection most people had with the land. Relationships became defined by money. The romantic movement rebelled by emphasizing individualism and passion.

In the 1900’s The horrible world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress as well as faith in Jesus. The growth of technology and consumerism further convinced people to fulfill individual desires and submit to huge corporations which supplied that fulfillment. The sexual revolution elevated the desiring individual as the center of a new social order, deposing enfeebled Christianity and all other religions.

Now in the 2000’s people have almost no moral center outside themselves to rely on, no community that is respected to monitor their behavior, and no sense of covenant that can require their sacrifice. We are reduced to individuals gathering enough power to win an argument about whether our desires will be legalized and our identity protected.

Good is faith working in love

All along the way, the Church has been sustained by the Holy Spirit and has continued to perform miracles and connect people to God, in spite of increasing opposition and a persuasive counter-narrative to the Gospel. Moana’s song, above, sounds fresh, new resonant, while Sunday’s songs are made to seem old and discordant. Christians readily adopt the demands of the new order just so they can stay in business, or at least not have the endless arguments with judgmental people who parse their every word looking for some insidious oppression that would steal away the freedom to be whatever they desire and to do whatever money can buy. Even so, God’s love is resilient.

In the middle of all the turmoil, I think the church has an opportunity to save the world. One of the ways we do it is to resist being co-opted by the arguments that are fragmenting it. If you want to satisfy your nominalist itch, name yourself a “Jesus follower.” If you are drawn by all the Disney propaganda and worry that your desires will not find enough freedom to flourish (or you are worried about the freedom of others)  at least wonder, with James, whether your desires will lead to life, as they promise. And when the constant, conflict-promoting media tempts you to turn a suspicious eye on your loved one or neighbor and require some test of their truth to gain your acceptance, turn to love, which covers a multitude of sin. Trust first, accept first, include first and then sort out the inevitable issues that only faith working out in  resilient love together can solve.

Memorial Day lessons in Bruges

Thank God for GPS! We managed to squeeze our rental car through the medieval gates of Brugge (Bruges if you are coming from France instead of the Netherlands) and then navigate the cobblestone streets to our bed and breakfast. Every time we walked out our charming accommodation, I turned the wrong direction, but my phone delivered us. So we found our way to the significant sites where I learned a few stories of what happened in Bruges.

I am not writing this to tell you all about my trip to Europe; you can go to Brugge yourself sometime; Lord knows everyone else does. The city is so attractive, It is like Disney made Main Street, Belgium and dragooned people onto tour buses. With a chocolate store on every corner it’s irresistible.

Memorial Day is every day in Burg Square in Brugge

I’m writing to tell you one little story that seems appropriate for Memorial Day, when we remember people who have died in war. Belgium has been a big battlefield for about 400 years, so it seems appropriate to include them in our remembrance. Today, many of us will remember the valor and convictions of lost soldiers and the nobility of their sacrifice. Even when I think they were deluded and abused, I still respect their honor. Others of us remember how awful and senseless war is on Memorial Day, how it is a cyclical outbreak of evil that proves how much we need a Savior. No matter what it causes, gratitude or tears, I think turning the holiday into an excuse to BBQ is debasing what it means; not protesting the wickedness it signifies undermines our credibility as Jesus-followers; and just ignoring it diminishes our love. So let’s have a moment of seriousness, my friends.

My little story has to do with the war memorialized in architecture on Burg Square in Brugge — a war between church and state in Europe that is one of the many memories that make the church seem like a thing of the past throughout most of the continent.

We stumbled out of the bed and breakfast, disputing which way to turn, until I led Gwen the wrong way and Siri rerouted us. We were headed for Burg Square, the center of ancient Brugge, where we found the landmark (above) which Rick Steves told us would be the best vantage point. I opened my big, blue Belgium book, which flashed a “tourist” signal to the others in the square and began to read. A nice man speaking Dutch-seasoned English came up to us and began to embellish stories we had just started reading. One was about the two towers we could see from our vantage point. One was the tower on the church in the opulent Archbishop’s compound. One was the municipal tower connected to the civic authorities. Word is that the bishop made sure his tower was taller. The guide kind of sneered at the bishop and mocked the civil authorities because their fighting was so absurd. The constant fighting about which power would have the upper hand is embedded into Europe’s idea of the church.

On the same square was Brugge’s medieval claim to fame: the Church of the Holy Blood, in which resides a relic a Crusader brought back from the Holy Land – a vial of God’s blood. Periodically, this treasure is paraded through the streets for general veneration. We soon suspected that our friendly storyteller was working on a commission for being our unasked-for tour guide. So we told him we needed to make our pilgrimage to the afore-disparaged church.

Billy Graham’s 95th birthday

This memory sits in my mind like an indigestible bit of foreign food. I studied the investiture conflicts in history classes, but every time I run into the after-affects memorialized in European architecture I get a sick feeling. It is the same kind of queasiness I feel when Franklin Graham calls Trump God’s choice for president, or I hear of a white supremacist in Portland channeling the political zeitgeist by threatening Muslims on the train and then killing their protectors (about which Trump is so far silent, BTW). These kinds of actions are why people desert the church and and despise its search for coercive dominance. Gaining power does not mean justice. The only justice we’ll get is the kind Jesus distributes by the means he chose and chooses. When I remember war and the wars sponsored by the church, I get sin sick.

So, like I said on Friday, i expect to have some tears on my burger along with the ketchup today. It is a sin sick world and the leaders of the church, in general, let’s admit it, have been painfully susceptible to fighting for power in the name of Jesus while Jesus is fighting the powerful in the name of love. God help us to be the alternative.