Tag Archives: Proverbs

Cumbersome is good for us: Love is not easy

The church makes decisions and plans in any number of ways. We decided making decisions as a community was crucial in an age where individualism kills the soul, loneliness is epidemic and people really need to see the church in action not hear about it in theory. So our mutual mapping process is central to our calling as a church. It is much more radical and important than we seem to think!

If we are used to the risky work of participating in mutual discernment, our prayer might be, “Oh Lord, that is a lot of time and energy!” But if we are mapping like it is a new beginning, here in our eternal now, then the process teases out all its inherent joys:

  • It includes the most recent partner, so a living body is strengthened and grows. I want to live in one.
  • It listens to the latest and greatest word from the Lord, so the soul of our group is fed and energized. I love it when you can feel that happening!
  • It teaches us the lessons of love that only serious public dialogue can do, so it makes us real in a world of fake. Nothing makes me feel more relevant.
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Porziuncola. Scene of a lot of Franciscan mapping, now surrounded by its pilgrim reception hall.

Resistance to the work of love has killed some of the best churches

One of the things I learned in Assisi is how the church bureaucrats stole the heart of the early Franciscan way of “mapping.” Francis called Pentecost gatherings and many of the brothers showed up to have a creative , disorganized, Spirit-led, and often-miraculous time of seeing what God was doing and feeling out what should happen next. It all happened at the navel of the Franciscan world: Porziuncola.

As soon as Francis was too weak to exercise his tremendous weight over the process, as a living “saint,” the Pope-led hierarchy of the church made the brotherhood into an “ordo” (that’s Latin for “order, rank, class”) according to canon law. The order people folded the radical Francis right back into everything he had resisted and made the Franciscans like the other monastic orders he never wanted to join.

Francis never saw a need for a rule or much of a map, but he sure managed to make an impact! He mostly relied on the presence of Jesus and the simple, but profound, style of teaching he picked up from the Bible. His own teaching style was like a living parable that he often explained in proverbial fashion.

In any organization, the “ordo” people have a point and I have reluctantly served it in order to build something for Jesus in this VERY organized United States. But the parable and proverb people have a deeper point, and I hope we never lose track of it. Or, I could say, I hope we never have it stolen from us by people who think they are doing us a favor by conforming us to the prevailing ways of the world.

Practicing discernment is harder, but more important, than interpreting law

Every subsequent Pentecost is going to be followed by “ordo people” talking over the future with “proverb people.” It happened in the early church. It happens among us every year as we map, and that is good for us.

For instance, our pastor, Ben, made a list of things he heard at the recent discernment meeting concerning our next Map. One of the things on the list popped out at me: The proverbs are cumbersome.”

Since I was probably in Padua when that critique was offered, I have no first-hand knowledge of the context. But I have my suspicions, since I have heard similar things since forever. Similar thoughts have been popping up ever since economic efficiency and Enlightenment/scientific thinking created a pulpit and tried to make Jesus preach from it. I texted Ben a smiley face and cheerfully said, “Perhaps your 10:30 meeting should become a drive-thru!”  That would be less cumbersome than relating, after all.

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Innovation from Upland, CA, my old stomping grounds.

My point was, proverbs of every kind are supposed to be “cumbersome!” — in a good way. Maybe the biggest reason they persist in being hard to handle is because we should slow down and mentalize! — they force us to do that.  Don’t you think we should resist assessing whether information is taking 30 seconds more to receive than it should?

The proverbs we have collected so far as part of our Map aren’t “information,” anyway. They are invitations to keep talking, to slow down and listen to God and each other. They are the best little parables we could come up with to express the sense of our discernment about who we are called to be. They are more than the traditional value statements ordos/organizations put in their business plans.  They are proverbs like the ones in the Bible, such as, “Love  your  enemies  and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-5). There’s cumbersome for you!

Here are a few reasons hanging in there with “cumbersome” is good for us.

Cumbersome fights the desire to control the data and feel powerful.

A proverb is designed to be open-ended. One open end faces God, who is going to supply meaning daily (like “daily bread,” right?). The other end is open to the Body of Christ, where ongoing dialogue brings the best discernment to the moment (if we have a “common spirit” as Paul hopes). Chewing on a proverb with others is part of being appropriately out of control. It is another way Jesus heals us from the wounds of data biting us in the butt all day.

Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.

It is a difficult world; we can’t afford to be spiritually shallow!

I used to “fight” with a much-loved covenant member who really wanted a Wiki for our teaching, which he thought was splendid. I told him, “I, and others in the Body, are personally much better than a Wiki, which is why you want a Wiki!” But we gave him and other “ordo” people the Way of Jesus site, which will one day have a better table of contents so people can take less time exploring and access what they are looking for.

But, I have to say, wandering around the foothills of the Kingdom of God, taking time, listening, having our normality challenged is SO much better than seeking God according to what we already know in a fashion we already understand. We don’t know anything like we are known, Paul says.

Cumbersome assumes we need help.

I hope we keep resisting well-meaning people who think it is an outrage, or a shame, if they need someone’s help. Collecting stories, parables and proverbs like the early church and first Franciscans is how we form life in Christ together. Proverbs call together a circle of people who add their personal angles to and applications of a big truth. “What is it?” and “Who am I?” are not the only questions! “Who is God? To what is Jesus calling? Who are WE?” are basic questions for forming new life in Christ.

Goodness is not found alone. It usually comes in a way that seems cumbersome to our normality. Solitude always leads to love. And love leads to goodness —  both for us and for others. Love of and for others, naturally leads to cumbersome mapping,  and irreducible proverbs in the 1200’s and in the 2000’s. I’m glad Jesus is getting us and our brothers and sisters all over the world to risk the miracle of tangible, practical, cumbersome love in an age when it is hard to find.

Ownership proverbs: More evidence that Jesus is risen

Image result for You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.

I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”  

How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape.  When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?

Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors

New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:

  • “Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
  • “Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
  • “Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.

Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.

We’re having trouble even associating!

It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!

The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published  Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution.  But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations.


Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.

I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?

It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?

That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.

It is great to give our time for the owners

Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].

Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it:  “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.

Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!

Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is  still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”

For These Sheep I Lay Down My Life
Eugene Higgins (1874-1958)

It is better to give our lives because we own them

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  — Matthew 20:28

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8

The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.

This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).

Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.

In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need  to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.

“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”

Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:

  • The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
  •  We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
  •  Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

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Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.


We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

We are called to develop a trust system.

Relationships in the community, whether it is the church community or the city community take trust if they are to flourish. The proverb says:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother — Proverbs 18:24 NIV

The proverbs are so honest about life! This one is drawing a contrast we all experience. On the one hand, there is wickedness and superficial gunk that messes up the togetherness we’d like to experience. There are friends who pretend to be friends; they fill up your time with a lie. There are companions who do nothing but chatter; they fill up conversation space but not your heart. There are acquaintances who remain superficial; they fill up on your affection and generosity but never attempt mutuality or sacrificially give. There are a lot of people who might share a drink with you in a noisy bar, but they don’t bind themselves.

On the other hand, there is a friend who is worthy of the title — it is possible! We are all looking for them, or despairing that we can’t seem to find one. There are people who will go deep, who will connect, who are real, who can be relied upon. Those are the kindred souls with whom we feel bound our whole lives. We want that.

Jesus is that kind of friend who sticks “closer than a brother” — the “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34), the one who comes with the ancient promise of God: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). People who have Jesus for a friend are blessed (see John 15:14). We can trust him. If we follow Jesus, we’ll see he is moving into the world to make friends and make more friends who can be a friend like him. He is restoring a trust system. We’re moving with him when we  dare to look at what the world is really like (and ourselves!) and try to figure out how to be like trustworthy brothers and sisters in the world.

Trust is shot down on the streets

The recent outbreak of consciousness about the proliferation and protection of automatic weapons has highlighted the level of mistrust in the United States. While hundreds of thousands rallied during the March for Our Lives, NRA allies in Congress pushed the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. “Congress is currently considering bills that would force every state to recognize every other state’s concealed carry permits,” said Sen. Stanley Chang, D- Hawaii.  Ideological warfare and mutually assured destruction playing out on every block destroys friendship; Christian intellectuals lament the death of trust.

Violence from your neighbor: a teenager or mentally unglued person with a gun no one will regulate, a drug dealer with an automatic weapon, a soldier or insurgent with bombs and weapons in your neighborhood, a super-rich country flying drones overhead, none of it makes for trusting relationships. The proverb notes this.

A violent person entices their neighbor
and leads them down a path that is not good. — Proverbs 16:29

Philly.com keeps track of homicides and puts them on a map.  Periodically they dip into Camden. They try to tell the truth. The president has 75% of the population suspecting that news outlets broadcast “fake news.”  But they try. They also point out the valiant people who try to undo the violence.

Trust is the alternativity we crave

Many people have been “lead down a path that is not good.” We, the people of God, the Jesus-followers, the Church are called to be the alternative, the antidote to the poison, along with good people who would painstakingly make a murder map so we can see what is going on. The proverbs invite us to trust those who can be seen to deserve it, because they are the cement of society. Jesus invites us to develop a trust system so we can rebuild what is being torn down.

We can start by being trustworthy and daring to trust another. We can build cells, teams, congregations, and a network that is devoted to building a trust system. The Circle of Hope proverb in the title says we are convicted to do just that. What might that practically mean today? A few general ideas:

  1. Trust first. Life is too short to wait until someone proves trustworthy (as if you had that right, anyway). Let them prove untrustworthy and make it hard for them to do it. Treat them like Jesus treats you, who entrusts you with the Spirit of God.
  2. Tell the truth. The world is too messed up to hide (as if you could succeed in that). Let people know who you are. Speak the truth in love to them like Jesus speaks to you, who affirms your value and hopes for your best.
  3. Risk relying on people. The world is too dangerous to be alone (as if you ever are). Let people hurt you and recover. Submit to others out of reverence to Christ, who will save you, who lives with you in an eternal now.

One more proverb:

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil,
but those who promote peace have joy. — Proverbs 12:20

There is no little deceit woven into our hearts and seeping into us from the troubled world around us. A few people reading this probably think that proverb is “fake.” But most of us know, since the Holy Spirit brings the conviction to life in us, that promoting peace is the way to joy, even if it is hard, disappointing or unaffirmed. We are called to develop a trust system. Just living in the alternativity of its promise is joy enough. When we taste more of its reality, it is that much better.

How to nurture dialogue: Discern, don’t soak up what’s unsaid

Over and over we have met as a congregation’s stakeholders or as the Council of the whole church and shown the world how Jesus lives in his body. We are a good example of an authentic church. It can be difficult to be in a large group and listen (much more to talk!), but we keep succeeding at it. And it is good that we succeed because such listening and inspired replying is one of the crucial skills for being a real Christian. Circle of Hope is blessed with hundreds of people who will engage in the deep love of dialogue. The world will be even more blessed when we can engage even more.


Don’t just soak up emotions

I think the main difficulty for a lot of people in these large, community dialogues comes down to this question: How can I hear the Holy Spirit rather than merely soak up emotions? So many of us grew up in places where there was little direct communication! We had to pick up the emotions and underlying content by squeezing them out of what was unsaid, what was nuanced, what was withheld. So many of us are such experts at reading vibes, we almost never listen to actual content; we listen for what is in between the lines – especially for the emotions we crave or fear will not be there. So put us in a Council meeting and we are overwhelmed with all the vibes that are assaulting our emotional Geiger counters. The most wicked, hurting, selfish or mistreated person can end up coloring our sense of what happened rather than the Holy Spirit.

We know the Holy Spirit is resident in the followers of Jesus, in one way or another, at some level of consciousness for the follower. When we listen to content or emotions, we are listening for the Lord, too – especially when we are in a meeting designed for that. We want to give our brothers and sisters the grace of listening for Jesus in them all the time, but we especially want to do that when we say we are doing that.

Question your discernment

Here are three sets of questions distilled from a good book on decision-making called The Discerning Heart by Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au that might help us listen. I offer them to you to help sort out what you are doing when you are listening for Jesus and trying not to merely soak up emotions and call it listening. When we are in a group dialogue ask yourself these questions and ask them of others, too.

  • Are you speaking from the Bible? Are you speaking from our common lore?
  • Does the common sense we seem to be speaking from still make sense? Do the circumstances, opportunities and new revelations confirm it?
  • What are my feelings, intuitions, gut instincts, aspirations, and that sense of being spiritually confirmed tell me about what is being said?

What are we doing when we dialogue about what the Lord is saying to us? We can listen for things we know to be true. We can chew on things that might be reasonable or become more so. We can react heart-to-heart to revelations that could be from the Spirit. All these are better than falling into the group and feeling emotions that probably have more to do with what we ate, or who is angry with us, or who helped to install our defense mechanisms as a child. The process of discernment in the body is an art form that every contributing believer will want to master as deeply as they are able.

How many times have we received a great confirmation for our direction during our Council meeting, or immediately felt someone’s inspiration needed to be incorporated into our plans, or felt convicted that we needed to resist some direction or temptation? I can’t count the times. Our dialogue has made us who we are in Christ, as a people. One time we came to a conclusion that we needed to ban comparing the congregations.  We realized that the way we were talking was, for many of us, more about our desire to fit in and to have a place that looked like each of us instead of all of us. Comparisons are odious. When we (inevitably inaccurately) stereotyped another congregation as a certain type of people, we were actually contributing to evil’s strategy to divide and conquer us. Not only were we factually wrong about each other, we were very spiritually wrong. That was good discernment.

I am sure that someone left the meeting and did not even know we decided all that. They were probably too occupied with wondering what that “dirty look” meant when someone entered the room and glanced at them, or they were wondering what happened when a couple of people got into a little argument during the middle of a discussion, or they felt slighted when their comment did not seem relevant and people did not notice they were hurt. We are all good at soaking things up, and some of us think it means love to do so, but such an instinct rarely helps us dialogue in love and hear Jesus in the midst.

It is the second act — what do we do now?

It is true that Terry Gilliam stole the title “imaginarium” from us and applied it to his devilish movie. The five people who knew about that movie before I just told you may have had trouble taking our “rolling Council” meeting seriously. Nevertheless, the others had a very visionary Imaginarium in February. Recently we have simply answered this question when we meet: “What is God telling us?” What moved the group in February was pondering what it takes to be what we have imagined and what it takes to lead it. We are implementing the vision of our “second act.” Things are loosening up, changing, and growing. What do we do now?

Here are five things that God seems to be saying to us about moving into what is next for Circle of Hope. It is amazing that all this good thinking happened in one hour!

Our “second act” is like when the kids are in high school and we get a miracle baby.

  • It has disturbed the homeostasis. Some of us have to get used to imagining ourselves as parents when we were already settled into our post-reproduction phase.
  • Our system has become pretty secure. It is good to have it disrupted because it needs to be disrupted to expand. Further leaders need to emerge. Pastors need to turn to equipping others and to not being overly in charge.
  • If we follow God’s lead through this change we will win the battle we are in. But there is a remote possibility that we won’t have the faith or follow the vision. We are taking the risk to meet the challenge even though we may prefer avoiding failure rather than risking success.

Many of us are at the tipping point when our attitudes change and we think we can sway something.

  • We have stokeable imaginations. We can get fired up. This is a good trait.
  • What we are talking about becoming in this year’s Map takes prayer. If we are praying all the time, we can see it God’s way and we can be it God’s way.
  • Some of us have felt overwhelmed — like we were foster parents to a giant baby called Circle of Hope. It was like the baby was foisted upon us and we were not exactly ready to parent. We fell in love with the baby and we decided to raise it. Now that we are raising it, it feels like our baby.

One of the main calls to the Leadership Team is to pick up the load. Be responsible.

  • To be responsible probably means a change in how many of us see ourselves. We can’t lead if our faith is locked inside “personal salvation” boundaries — that means faith is something I get for myself and it mainly lives in me. We’re talking about having faith that is about others and about the cause, not locked up in our own survival, preference or good feelings.
  • One of us gave an analogy of this based on how they have changed their gardening practices. In the past their garden was not very thought out. They planted what was given to them or went with half-price plants at the end of the season. This year they have already been germinating seeds under the grow lights in expectation of spring. We need to be the kind of people who foster spiritual seedlings, not just wait for people to find us, not just think of ourselves as afterthoughts or leftovers, and not mess around with “whatever” until the season for planting has passed.
  • To pick up the load means being active as opposed to passive. We can be a movement or a monument (or even a mausoleum if we don’t watch it).

It is tempting to wait and see what is happening, like you’re watching someone else’s show.

  • What? You never saw Disney’s Hercules, either?

    It doesn’t matter if we switch around our leaders and do inventive structural changes if the church is not moved by the Spirit. If there is no movement there is nothing to steer.

  • One of us said. “If I say it, I’m more motivated.” They meant they need to talk about what they are doing because that helps them own it. For instance, people sometimes don’t want to say “I love you.” They don’t want to say it until they absolutely mean it. Some of us, even the leaders, don’t want to say, “I’m going with the ‘second act.'” They are waiting, doubtful.

Our best stuff is in the wings ready to move on stage.

  • We need to stoke what is coming. We have spent three months doing that. We switched our pastors around and founded “the hub” at 13th and Walnut. A new picture is taking shape. We deployed new local site supervisors. We refocused all our pastors more on making deeper and further disciples and less on administration of their locales. We began to refocus Rachel on being the BW Development Pastor. Our Compassion Core Team took up the challenge of getting us ALL out there in compassionate service.
  • We are meeting new people who want to be responsible. They want to build an army for the spiritual battle of our time.
  • A new proverb seems to be developing: The new person is a role you did not know you needed.
  • We even started to catch up with our sharing goals in March.

It is an exciting time to be a circle of hope in Philadelphia. There is certainly no shortage of hopelessness to fill with a bright future! It is exciting to be Circle of Hope, the people of God, too! We are filled with possibilities and we have the vision and leadership to make them happen.


The Brethren Mindset: THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days

Owen Alderfer, author of the Brethren Mindset
Owen Alderfer, 1985

The first General Conference of the Brethren in Christ I ever attended was led by the Moderator named Owen Alderfer. He impressed us so much that Gwen and I thought we had stumbled upon the Shangri-la of denominations. We had lived in intentional community for years and here was Owen Alderfer trying to teach mutual respect and dialogue to a group of over 500 delegates who took themselves rather seriously. Just the fact that he would trust the group to debate meaty issues was way beyond anything we had ever experienced beyond the local level.

His mentality has slowly eroded over the years until BIC meetings would have to resurrect the idea of dialogue and few delegates take themselves seriously since they have little purpose — other than experiencing the show. But I have not forgotten Dr. Alderfer. If you talk about what should form the character of a BIC church planting, you might look to his summary of his dissertation called The Brethren Mindset.

Alderfer summarized an ethos that had four overlapping assumptions:

  • Christian truth is open—ended.
  • No one holds a monopoly on truth; God’s truth, therefore, may come to us from a variety of sources.
  • A system of doctrine is qualified by trusting relationships among brethren.
  • Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body.

This mindset helped form the way of Christ for the Brethren in Christ. Unwittingly, perhaps, it is amazingly suited for the postmodern world. I have often said, and thought when I joined up, that the BIC’s capacity to be a little “big tent” was the main thing it could offer to the future. Right now I think that has been reduced to a “mosaic” of identities with little reason to hold together. Alderfer’s mindset offers a framework to actually make that diversity into a dynamic unity. I think he matches what Cavanaugh calls the pilgrim way through the mobility of the globalized world (see previous post).

I have to admit that I don’t really care if we plant “Brethren in Christ” churches, not really. I am not a so-called “cradle BIC.” I am not even a cradle Christian, since my parents never attended a church. So that kind of blood-family loyalty is not my strong suit. Instead of just extending the blood-line, what I want to do is make disciples who have the hope of making disciples and plant churches that have the hope of reproducing churches. I want to live in a lively incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ — a body influencing individuals and whole regions by its unusual presence and prophetically demonstrating as well as explaining how it is the alternative to the fallen world around it, starting with introducing the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I love the four-legged stool idea of Anabaptist, Pietist, Wesleyan and now Evangelical ways that combine to make a foundation for the Brethren in Christ. But I would add more legs: the charismatic movement, the “purpose driven” influence from a few years ago, and I would go further back and include the original desert father and mothers, the Benedictine movement in the 600’s, the Cluniac reforms of the 900’s, and the Franciscan movement of the 1200’s – it all comes from a common yearning from people who want to be Jesus followers, not just part of some “thing.” I came into Christianity with a trip through the history of Christianity, being personally attracted to all the radicals who just wanted to follow Jesus the best they could, and I was basically opposed to all the men who wanted to systematize and dominate the church to death.

So I am not that interested in the historic character of the Brethren in Christ or the very limited theological contours it has written for itself. I doubt that most, if any, of the BIC church people are that interested, either. (This blog post may be boring you already!). It just so happens that I think the Brethren in Christ stumbled upon a rather appropriate way to be the church. To the extent that we can express our genius and keep it living and not merely codified, then we are a good team to join. If we aren’t really a team and we are just trying to drum up enthusiasm for our dying tradition, then we won’t really have a good way to make disciples and plant churches, and I think we should just close down and go juice up the Church of the Brethren, or change our name and become something relevant.

I think we should be what Cavanaugh calls “pilgrims” in this interesting age. I have been a pilgrim and I think Alderfer was, too. A pilgrim is moving toward the center looking for gravity, not moving toward the periphery looking for difference or newness. The pilgrim, unlike the tourist, has a motivator outside themselves: God, rather than the interior motivator of satisfying themselves with relationships, knowledge or experiences. They are mobile, but they are not looking from above with the imperial gaze, they are looking ahead into what is next and looking inside for what needs to be emptied. They are humble.

When we planted Circle of Hope, we elaborately planned to build a church that had a brethren mindset. If you want to have one, I think it takes four features that match Alderfer’s premise: dialogue, a culture, listening leaders, and mutuality. See whether you think this bit of our genius is well-suited to making lifelong disciples from the people of our era.

Invite people into a dialogue.
Christian truth is open—ended; that is, it is not captured in a closed system and articulated in creeds and formal theological statements.

The idea is: “God may yet illumine the minds of His children to grasp new insights. True Christian faith is more a relationship than a system. We must, therefore, be open to the Holy Spirit that he may bring us new truth as our relationships to God and each other are enhanced throughout our Christian pilgrimage. We must continually be open to God lest we miss some fresh word from beyond.”

As the people God used to build Circle of Hope we had and still have choices. Our “small groups” could have just been a “program” of the church or the cells could be the church. We could have spawned independent congregations, dependent congregations, or do what we did: plant equal congregations joined as one church. We consciously formed a network of cells and congregations that are held together by a dialogue of love. The dialogue begins in the cells. It extends to cells of cell leaders and the Leaderships Teams that facilitate our life together. It is generated in the public meetings and works its way back down into the life of the body. The church is a breathing organism. That’s why we often warn people not to merely consume it, as Americans are accustomed to doing with everything, that would be cannibalism.

Everything we do has a feeling of being open-ended. Someone suggested a new proverb the other day: a newcomer is a gift you didn’t know you needed yet. That’s how dialogue should work. Alderfer quoted Vernard Eller saying that “’The central factor in brethrenism…is a commitment to follow Christ in radical discipleship.’ This thrust immediately skews Brethren thought away from the conceptual, the theoretical, the systematic, the theological, and toward the practical, the applicable, the existential. One’s positions are not as important as is the quality of one’s commitment and discipleship. The Bible is enough, and further creeds and regimentation are distractions.” God is splendidly complete, but God is humbly walking with us through our time until we are finished.

Thus, one of the main pieces of theology my children learned is that the people of God do not “go” to church, they “are” the church. They were forbidden to say, “We are going to church.” That’s impossible. Cavanaugh says the pilgrim mentality sees no differentiation between sacred and secular, clergy and laity, worship and work, spiritual and temporal. Speaking the truth in love undermines those, and other, false dichotomies. I like to talk about who is moving, not who is right or wrong, in or out, up or down. Those either/or identity arguments are the tricks of the powers. Having the arguments ultimately reduces faith to one’s private opinion. And when faith is private, the nation state owns the dialogue.

Nurture a culture
The first characteristic leads into the second: The body of belief held by Gods people may well incorporate principles from a variety of sources.

The idea is: “No one person or group has a monopoly on truth; we need to draw upon and learn from one another–using discernment and wise judgment all the while–lest our system of truth be dwarfed or truncated.”

This characteristic is seen in the early development of brethren-ish people. They were descendants of radical reformed Christianity. But they did not find this intense enough, so they searched for a deeper, richer expression of the faith. Their journey was later influenced by Pietism—-from which they drew a personal, immediate experience of God’s presence coloring all of life by the pervasive activity of the Holy Spirit.

God is always creating the culture by the power of the Spirit. As the people of God move through time they adapt, redeem and bring hope. Their pilgrim sense of having a center in Christ that they carry along their way and having a destination outside themselves, given by God, allows them to be agents of an ongoing creation. When Joe Snell (one of our early church planting pastors) answered our call to try to mother our first new congregation, one of the first things he did was organize our proverbs as he got a handle on our culture. We had collected the sayings of Circle of Hope in a rather disorganized document. In the course of our dialogue, certain things had become more important than others and we could reduce them to a line Our own rendition of the Brethren Mindsetor two like the Old Testament proverbs. Joe put them in order. Ultimately, I was assigned to write a book about them, which I outlined as a group project with a few of my twentysomething comrades. We created a culture. We keep doing it: we write songs, we invent teams, we make a Map of our future together. The process makes us like family – we know who we are and who we are to each other and it makes us able to feel secure in hearing what God might be doing next.

Be a leader who listens
The thought system of the Brethren was something worked out in life among the Brethren.

The idea is: “A system of doctrine is not isolated from the trusting relationship of believing persons. The Brethren do not hesitate to state their beliefs and to support them with Scripture and argument; still, they are uncomfortable with a rigidly stated system regarded as capturing the entire body of truth and standing as the final measure of orthodoxy. More important is the Christian lifestyle and the caring relationships among Brethren. Minor and lesser differences may exist within a body as long as trusting relationship is maintained and fruitful conversation is progressing relative to the faith. Doctrine is seen as relational as well as logical; if there are differences between us we can work them out as long as we are under the Spirit and the Word and we maintain a trusting relationship.”

I think this mindset is perfect for the postmodern era. It would greatly enhance Brethren in Christ church planting, if we would stop diminishing the dialogue among the church at large, and our leaders demonstrated their trust for us rather than insisting that we trust them. I have objected, as I most recently did at the last General Conference, about the secrecy and trust-the-leaders mentality – not because I think the leaders are untrustworthy, but because I think they are undermining our unique capacity to plant churches that could make radical disciples. In the “global economy” radical Christians are like a boutique, like monasticism is within the Catholic church. Being small, familial, intense communities is our brand. Listening leaders culture that very necessary gift.

So when I came to Philadelphia to plant a church I first formed a formation team. They decided the church name; they helped form the plan. The first act was to begin cells and I was not even the first leader of one. While we want to double in size right now, I do not want to double by stealing the opportunity for individuals to become real Christians. No one needs to be a cog on a big machine. Just the opposite, they need opportunity to become deeper and to realize the full expression of their true selves as members of the body and full partners in the Lord’s mission. People often leave the church in their thirties because it is not meaty enough. It is boring, run by old white men who stopped listening in their thirties and just ran the organization. Leaders who listen demonstrate that the people are trustworthy and trustworthy people make a trustworthy church through which trust-starved postmoderns can find Jesus.

Practice mutuality
Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body and to the working out of its system of belief.

The idea is: “Individuality is a valuable reality among the Brethren–the preciousness of the individual and the contribution of one single person to the whole; however individualism is a dangerous heresy which allows barriers to be erected between brethren and cuts one off from the inspiration and discipline of the whole. Brethren need one another in the identification of Christian thought, in the mutual discipline of the sanctifying process, and in life—warming, life-giving fellowship among believers.”

A leader can say whatever she likes but the culture, the system, the practices are what ultimately teach. We recently had an exciting Council meeting. In an inspiration we changed around our leaders and decided to spend Circle Thrift profits on risky dreams of expanding our influence and numbers. We call it the “second act” of Circle of Hope. At this meeting people cried. They questioned one another’s sensitivity and wisdom. We demonstrated how precious we think individuals are and we also reinforced that we want to be subject to the inspiration and discipline of the whole. We welcome the visible process of being the body of Christ in all our diversity, held together by a dialogue of love in the Spirit. It is a mutual process that takes all of us — at least the process reveals who’s not moving. You cannot present a brethren mindset in a powerpoint, it requires a community to learn. Life in Christ is a mutual endeavor if it is merely happening in one’s personal philosophy, it has left the Bible behind.

Being the church has always been challenging. The postmodern era is just another challenge the world presents on its way through the dark. We carry the light of Christ with us as we also make our way and we see the dawn on our horizon. It is worth the effort to make an authentic church with an ethos that matches the heart of Jesus as best we can.

Here is the lead in:
What it takes to plant churches

A corresponding post:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?

We are called to develop a trust system.

Like I was saying last night, relationships in the community, whether it is the church community or the city community take trust if they are to flourish. The proverb says:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (18:24 NIV)

On the one hand, there is wickedness and superficial gunk that is messing up the togetherness we’d like to experience. There are friends who pretend to be friends. There are companions who do nothing but chatter; they fill up time but not your heart. There are acquaintances who remain superficial; they never attempt mutuality or sacrificially give. There are a lot of people who are fine for sharing a drink in a noisy bar, but they don’t bind themselves.

On the other hand, there is a friend who is worthy of the title — it is possible! There are people who will go deep, who will connect, who are real, who can be relied upon. Those are the kindred souls with whom we feel bound our whole lives. We want that.

Jesus is that kind of friend who sticks “closer than a brother.” And Jesus is moving into the world to make friends and make more friends like himself. We’re moving with him when we  dare to look at what the world is really like (and ourselves!) and try to figure out how to be like brothers and sisters in the world.

I think the Inquirer did an OK job of lamenting the state of relationships in the Philadelphia region last week. They made a graphic that served to highlight the level of mistrust in Philadelphia and Camden. It is at the left. Since 2003 in Philadelphia and Camden, the number of murders almost equaled the number of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq during the course of the war. That is a shocking comparison.

It is worth being shocked about, but I have to point out that it is a false comparison. We have enough self-esteem issues without the Inquirer making it worse with misleading graphics! The highest number of soldiers in Iraq was in 2008 when there were about 158,000. That is less than one-tenth the number of people in Philly/Camden. What’s more, the comparison is grossly misleading because upwards to 127,000 Iraqi civilians have been documented casualties of the war. In case you are bad at math, that’s nearly thirty-seven times the number of U.S. soldiers killed, and it is also just the number of documented casualties. So it was actually much, much safer to live in Philly during the Iraq war.

Nevertheless, such violence from your neighbor: a teenager or mentally unglued person with a gun no one will regulate, a drug dealer with an automatic weapon, a soldier or insurgent with bombs and weapons in your neighborhood, a super-rich country flying drones overhead, none of it makes for trusting relationships. The proverbs note this.

A violent person entices their neighbor
and leads them down a path that is not good. (16:29)

The Inquirer made us feel like we are terrible (again). I think it was important for them to tell the truth. They tried. They also pointed out the valiant people who have been trying to undo the violence every year since 2003 and beyond. Someone in the organization either procured or made a map of every homicide in the city. Here are the murders in the immediate area of our building at Broad and Washington since Circle of Hope began in 1997.

Many people have been “lead down a path that is not good.” We are called to be the antidote, along with good people who would painstakingly make a murder map so we can see what is going on. The proverbs invite us to trust those who can be seen to deserve it, because they are the cement of society. Jesus invites us to be the cement of society. We can start by being trustworthy and daring to trust another. We can build cells, teams, congregations, and a network that is devoted to building a trust system. The Circle of Hope proverb in the title says we are convicted to do just that.

Err on the Side of Singing

Like a broken tooth or a lame foot
is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble.
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on a wound,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Proverbs 25:19-20

In light of this proverb, my aspirations for the day:

1) When you use me to bite down on an apple, I will not fall out of your mouth (metaphorically, at least).
2) When we need to get away from the bad guys, I will not turn up lame (I am working on not being lame).
3) When it is cold, I will not have left the coat I said I’d bring for you in the closet. (Sorry Gwen).
4) When you are wounded, I will not pour vinegar on your wound. (But then, why would anyone but a psychopath do this?) 

But I might sing. 

I love this proverb and I hate it. I guess that is what the Proverbs are all about — to get me thinking. The translation of this one even gets argues about which makes it even more interesting. Of course, it is hard to know how the language even worked in 700-400BC, or whenever the sayings were written. But there is an alternative version of pouring vinegar on a “wound” — some translators say it is pouring vinegar on “soda” and causing an irritating chemical reaction that neutralizes and spoils the soda. Regardless, it is a proverb about doing all the wrong things when someone is sad — like singing.

Honestly, Solomon seems kind of crabby, to me. If he’s like me, if I don’t want to be cheered up, nothing is good enough. So why blame someone for bothering you when everything bothers you? I know plenty of people who think everyone is lame like it is a conviction, like it is their declaration of independence from the pressure to be happy. You don’t need to take away their garment, they have already walked over in the rain without one on purpose.

So why should I feel bad about singing, just because misery loves company? (Let me slip in one of the most absurdly amusing renditions of misappropriated religion ever, here, in case you aren’t feeling too well. It might cheer you up: link ).

I choose to interpret this proverb as not against singing in some universal, anti-Jackson Five kind of way. It must be talking about singing just to be mean. It is against singing with a snaggle-toothed leer, singing like it is hiding your coat, singing like it is pouring salt in your wound. It must be talking about the time my sister was sick of traveling across Colorado from Amarillo and she wouldn’t stop singing a little song she had made up: “I long to see the beauty of the Colorado Springs.” The tune still is stuck in my mind and I still feel like killing her, since the car did not have air conditioning, either, and mom was conserving snacks.

So let’s make a promise to each other today: “I will not be that irritating, just because I am miserable, or because I am prone to being irritating.”

But go ahead and sing. If you fear someone will think you are like a bad tooth, I think it is OK to ask them, “If I sing you this song (link), will you think I am like a bad tooth?” They will let you know. Better to err on the side of singing, in my opinion.

“Best Practices” Aren’t, Necessarily

I suppose today’s thoughts could go in the category “things Americans never tire of doing.” The newest business preoccupation to creep into the mainstream (like into your poor child’s school) is “best practices.” Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about “best practices” because my wife, the professor, and my son, the teacher, have been invaded by the fear of not performing according to these practices by their colleagues.

early best practices

A world of efficiency experts

The whole discussion reminds me of the 1950 movie (even more the book that spawned it) called Cheaper by the Dozen. It is a humorous look at the family of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy) who are time/motion study and efficiency experts. The comedy comes from watching them try to run their children according to their theories, and the drama comes when father’s body proves to be all-too inefficient. The title comes from one of Dad’s favorite jokes. In the movie, the family is out in the car, stopped at a red light. A pedestrian asks, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Dad pretends to ponder the question carefully, and then, just as the light turns green, he says, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”

Now they want to produce our children cheaper by the dozen. What was most useful in developing software has leaked into developing people and we are just foolish enough to go with that as if it makes sense. “Best practices” are techniques that are believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer complications. For years we have been tormented with “outcome-based” everything. God save us from the people who believe that data is law and then decide the outcomes accordingly!

Slaves to the data

It seems to me that Americans (maybe humans) repeatedly have the same arguments. I don’t want to use the most hysterical example just for show, but it comes to mind that slaveowners made the argument in the 1850s that the most efficient way of farming for them included slavery. It had shown itself to be the most profitable way of accomplishing the production of cotton, in particular, with repeatable procedures that had proven effective for a large number of planters over generations. It took brave Christians, in particular, to demand an end to that “best practice.”

But Christians don’t seem to be as vocal as they used to be. They seem to be as subject as anybody else to the tyranny of “best practices.” The Bible repeatedly says (in the face of former outbreaks of human-reliance) that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But these days we seem to be in step with everyone else in fear of the taliban of “scientists” overwhelming us with inscrutable data about the best way to do everything (until they change their mind again). “Best practices” should be suggestions from well-meaning people. Instead they become rules from “science” ayatollahs who make it plain that not following the practices is, essentially, immoral if they can’t make it illegal. And many Christians go with that.

Courage to cure the headache

For educators, therapists and social workers (for many of my family and friends!) this outcomes-based mentality is a real headache. The data is not so bad if it is suggestive (since figures lie and liars figure); but life becomes untenable when you end up “teaching to the test” and lobbyists get regulations passed that force you to conform to their interpretation of the “best practices.” For a Christian, who has little faith in hyper-rational world views, it is a particularly oppressive moment when fellow believers have bent the knee to the baal of “best practices” and one’s tenuous grip on viability within the system is stretched to a breaking point. For instance,  CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) has a line in their core values statement  that says the board of directors believes in “creating and strengthening standards that … encourage program improvement and best practices.” So when these wannabe accreditors get your legislature to adopt their standards of accreditation, pretty soon you’re subject to their idea of “best practices” for your counseling. It is a surprisingly small degree of separation between efficiently producing mother boards and thinking one could mother children with mothering “best practices.”

I hope in that by 2050 (when I will only be 96, after all) I will get to see the fruit of brave Christians showing up the ludicrous nature of wisdom that does not begin with the fear of the Lord. One does not need to be anti-science to see its limitations. One does not need to be very loving to see that people are often driven by fear, not wisdom. One does not need to be very observant to notice that movies keep prophesying the horrendous effects of the rational-extension machines. But one does need to be faithful and courageous to work, plot and persevere in the institutions that can be devoured by the latest version of the same old arguments. Even more, one must be downright creative to live in an alternative to the latest attempt to enslave us to what the antichrist powers deem best.