“We will not be silent”… will we?

Taproot Theatre in Seattle is presently running a play about one of my faith heroes, Sophie Scholl.  Along with her brother Hans, these two were German students, members of the “White Rose”, whose mission was to incite German people to resist the reign of Hitler. The play is well-written and well-delivered,  consisting primarily of dialogue between Sophie and her interrogator.  If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you don’t miss it (running through the end of April), not only because it’s a good play, but because it will provide you with a window into the heart and mind of a woman who embodied the kind of heart and mind needed today.  Here’s why I believe the White Rose’s catalyst to action is worth pondering today:

Seeing the play provoked me to re-read this book.  It’s about the role of the White Rose in the German resistance movement of the 30’s and through the WWII.  Some books are live, in the sense that they speak differently each time you read them because you’re different, your world is different.  We’re living in a time of global polarization between haves and have nots.  Were living in a time of mass migration, as people flee death squads, poverty, violence, hunger, and disease.  This migration has led to a backlash rise in unhealthy nationalistic fervor and neo-Nazi/white supremacist groups in Europe and the Americas.  Shootings in Black churches, and synagogues are just the tip of this hate-filled iceberg.

The White Rose was awakened to action by two things:

I. An awareness that their culture had lost its anchor.  One author says it this way:  “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions.”  The shattering of values that began in Germany in the early 20th century continues on, globally, at an accelerated pace, right to this very moment.  Social structures such as marriage, and institutions such as the church and university, along with the meaning of family are all “up for grabs” as we’re cut free from the moorings and anchors of western civilization.

Members of the White Rose were horrified that the Nazi movement was creating new meaning by calling people back to a mythical golden age of Aryan supremacy, full employment, and the ouster of those who were different.  Even though such an age never existed, its appeal in the wake of all the economic, political, and social chaos was strong enough to create a movement, and it was this movement that the White Rose stood against.

What enabled them to stand up against this romanticized future wasn’t simply a counterpoint set of ideals pulled out of thin air.  Their convictions were born from revelation about the dignity of all people, and the dangers of all forms of idolatry, including the idols of materialism and nationalism.  Their resistance literature essential said It’s not enough to end unemployment by building a vast military machine.  It’s not enough, never enough, to enthusiastically swear allegiance to a leader, any leader, if said leader is asking you to believe lies, diminish and marginalize other people, and sacrifice your freedom of thought and expression on the altar of national loyalty.  It’s not enough to believe that our strength is only gained through the diminishing of other peoples, other nations.  We’re made for more than this.  We are, as a nation, better than this.

What made these ideas better?  Their source!  Behind the curtain, Hans and Sophie Scholl were friends with Carl Muth, a theologian whose small magazine had been banned from publication by the Reich.  Hans and Sophie met with Carl on a regular basis in his small house in the forest, which was, “nearly bursting with book, journals, and manuscripts.”  Muth became a mentor of sorts for these two who would put their ideas into print and distribute them widely throughout Bavaria.

We too, have access to better ideas, ideas that speak to racism, addiction, loneliness, materialism, nationalism, and the many fears that inflict our culture presently.  We have the same source of revelation Hans, Sophie, and Carl had – the scriptures.  Do we know what those ideas are?  Do we believe them?  Or have we, through our own lack of discernment, allowed ourselves to be passively carried along?  The White Rose serves as a perpetual reminder that ideas matter, and that the mark of Christian maturity must, among other things, include discernment.  I say this, because lies and idols are often, as they were in Germany, couched in the same scriptures, used for dark ends instead of liberation.  Without discernment, we run the risk of unwittingly aligning ourselves with hate, fear, and violence, and doing so in Jesus name.

II. A conscience stricken by silence.  “‘Where are the Christians?’ Hans shouted after hearing an ‘enemy broadcast’ reporting that German Communists and Social Democrats had resisted the Nazis and been caught.  ‘Should we stand here with empty hands at the end of the war when they ask the question, ‘and what did you do?'”

The White Rose spoke because, as Sophie said, “somebody needed to make a start of it”.  MLK spoke for the same reason.  So did Sojourner Truth.  So did St. John of the Cross.  But for every soul who spoke, there were too many… far too many… who remained silent.

While Sophie and Hans inspire us in the play, the interrogator is perhaps, the most important figure.  He agreed with her convictions, or so he said.  He was sympathetic.  He understood.  But he could not speak; would not speak.  To do so would be too costly.  His job; his reputation; in his time, even his life was at stake.  The risks were too great, so he allowed himself to be carried along by the tides of culture rather.

For those who give voice to their call for racial justice, or environmental justice, or for those who call lies and idols what they are, or who speak up for life in the womb, victims of sexual violence, and human trafficking, or the countless others who have no voice – the risk of loss will always be there.  But a life lived to carefully, is a life lived contrary to the fundamental principle and example of Jesus:  “he who seeks to save his life will lose it… he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Our silence, at times, is our greatest sin.

“We will not be silent” is what Sophie said.  May her tribe increase.

 

Seattle is Dying…for a third way view of justice

If you care about poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or the morale of law enforcement, I hope you find some time to watch this excellent documentary, regardless of where you live.  If you live in Seattle, this is required viewing in my opinion.  KOMO News in Seattle does an outstanding job exposing the depth of our homeless problem in Seattle, and it’s inextricable link to addiction.  It’s raw, difficult viewing, exposing visually and viscerally, the rise in homelessness and its attendant trash, human waste, and crime.  The affects of our city’s laissez faire approach to petty crime and drug use is exposed, and an anonymous survey of Seattle Police reveals frustrations to the extreme over new policies of tolerance regarding drug use, illegal parking of RV’s, property destruction, and so much more.  The lack of consequences and accountability for offenses have created a culture of anarchy and disregard for the law, resulting in Seattle being among the national leaders in property crimes last year.

The weight of these revelations should feel like a gut punch to anyone loving Seattle, and Christ followers, who are encouraged by Jeremiah to “work and pray for the blessing of the city in which they live”, must allow themselves to feel the pain of that punch in the gut.  The crime, the trash, the human lives imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and despair — this is our city!

I can tell you, as one who travels for work, that it doesn’t need to be this way.  Large urban cities across the globe are dealing with the same growth pains, the same income inequities, but they’re dealing with it better than we are, because our way of dealing with it seems to be driven by a thoughtless “tolerance” that, while emotionally appealing to many in our city, is neither loving nor just.

After the revelation of problems like these, the conversation often denigrates as people move to their respective corners and either advocate for continued tolerance or “crack down” with retributive justice.  Put another way, we’re arguing about whether to spend more money on tiny houses or just sweep everything clean, locking up violators and throwing away the key.  Thankfully, the documentary points us to a third way, by showing a Rhode Island program that’s essentially an expression of  restorative justice.  Violators of the law are cited, as violators should be if law is to have any meaning.  They’re arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  But the goal of their time in prison isn’t retributive; simply a punishment to ‘get them off our streets.  It’s restorative.  It includes a program to treat the addiction.  There are mentors who stay in contact with the person once they’ve served their time and are free.  There are check-in centers on the outside where they can continue to receive the meds that are freeing them from addiction.  And of course, woven through all this is the investment of healthy relational capital, the very thing that nearly 100% of the homeless people living on our streets and battling addiction demons are missing.

We are reaping the fruit of what our hyper-individualistic culture has sown, as the number of people who’ve no “tribe” to walk with them through life’s painful valleys continues to rise.  Our entire culture needs to look in the mirror and ask whether the rising relational poverty all around us is worth it because, though its beyond the scope of this post, the reality is that our current cultural values fracture and isolate us.  In the meantime, though, Rhode Island has decided to intervene and provide the relational capital offenders so desperately need.  They offer a model:

Arrest offenders.  Provide addiction treatment and counseling.  Provide follow-up after care upon release.  If Seattle began to think this way, act this way, the landscape of our city would change, literally – the landscape itself would change.

“Leave them alone” isn’t love.  It’s cowardly enabling, made all the worse by a city council that sometimes won’t even look up from their phones during council meetings to listen to offer common respect to law abiding citizens seeking to engage democracy.  Talk about relational poverty!!

“Lock them up and forget about them” isn’t love either.  It’s self-righteous anger that fails to see what people ultimately need isn’t just punishment, but intervention.  I counted at least five people in the Rhode Island story who said, in various ways, “the day I got arrested was the best day of my life… a turning point… it saved me life… I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been arrested.”  Those testimonies don’t happen when people are locked and forgotten.  They happen when they’re locked, treated, and equipped to return to culture and live whole lives.

“Actions have consequences” and “We’re committed to making this moment of your failure a catalyst for your transformation” IS what love does, and what people in crisis need.  What’s more, this documentary shows Seattle that it’s doable — but it requires third way thinking, and that’s a rare commodity these days in a world where the political right and left both seem to see their ways as the “only way”.

Cory and the Seventh Story – A Children’s Book Worth Reading

I live in a city that largely rejects evangelical Christianity.  While I understand reactions of alarm, sadness, and frustration among people of faith – my reactions are different.   First, I find their reaction understandable.  People in my city care deeply about systemic issues of race, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, addictions that are tearing families apart, and the degradation of the environment.  They find the image of Christianity portrayed in American culture as being, at best, silent on race, dismissive of environmental degradation and the importance of caring for the earth, and increasingly passive regarding the gap between wealth and poverty.  Viewing Christianity as either irrelevant or antagonistic to real issues, many have turned turned away.

I don’t blame them, but I’m angry – because people who are rejecting the faith aren’t rejecting the real Jesus.  They’re rejecting an Americanized, Capitalistic, Upwardly Mobile, Anti-Science, Anti-Environmental stewardship Jesus.  What angers me is that so many, having rejected this fabricated caricature of Christianity, will never encounter the real Jesus, the one who loves all humanity, blesses enemies, disarms violence by absorbing it, cares for people on the margins, and points to Himself as the headwaters of a universal healing and restoration that humanity and our planet desperately need.

What’s needed in such a time as this is a reframing of faith – so that people come to understand that the good news of Christ is that in a world of broken stories, Christ has come to herald the beginning of a better story, one that will saturate and transform every atom in the universe by the final chapter.   It’s a story of weapons being melted into tools of agriculture.  A story of every dispute and broken relationship being settled.  A story of creation, deeply scarred by grandiose human aspirations, finding healing, and more.

Wouldn’t it be nice if children could learn this better story early in their lives, and see it lived out in a faith community?  Living it out is something churches are called to do.  Telling the story is something parents and teachers are called to do and I’m happy to report there’s now a book written for children about “God’s Better Story.”

Cory and the Seventh Story, written by Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, offers a concise, accessible recounting of six failed narratives in human history:

Domination: Us ruling over them

Revolution: Us overthrowing them

Isolation: Us getting away from them

Purification: Us marginalizing and rejecting them

Victimization: Us feeling sorry for ourselves because of them

Accumulation: Us having more shiny objects than them

They’re offered in parable form as various forest animals live out from these narratives and experience ensuing disasters, both individually and collectively.  Then a horse shows up in the forest and speaks of a better story, a seventh story, a story of reconciliation, generosity, unity, and contentment.

Like the gospel, the story is received by some, rejected by others, especially those who’ve made “gains” in the lesser stories.  The whole thing harkens back to how Pilate and Herod and the Jews were all, for different reasons, threatened by Jesus – His invitation to live into the better story of God’s kingdom would have cost them; positions, reputations, comforts, wealth.  And there’s the crux of it.  The “good news of great joy, which shall be for all people” as the angels said on Christmas night, requires that I move into that story’s values – values of inclusion, love, peace, generosity, forgiveness, hospitality.  And moving into that requires, for each of us, letting go of something – pride, hate, prejudice, victim mentality, rush to violence, individualism, materialism.

“I can’t live in two stories at the same time” seems to be a message of this book, and that’s appropriate since it was also a message of Jesus.

We’ve managed, though, with a little theological sleight of hand, to do just that.  We’ve done that by saying that what’s most central to the gospel is believing the right things about Jesus.  You know: His deity, humanity, virgin birth, death on the cross to absorb God’s wrath, resurrection to live and intercede for us…all that stuff.  The trouble is that we’ve tacitly implied that if you believe this stuff and stay away from certain big sexual sins, you can have confidence that you’re “saved”, even though you’re still stuck in one of those six unsatisfying stories.

Um…. no.  Jesus said that when the day is done, we’ll be known by our fruits.  Are we hospitable?  Generous with our time?  Do we love our enemies or call them silly names?  Do we care for the least among us, as Jesus did?  Cross social divides, as Jesus did?  Jesus made it abundantly clear that if our religious activities don’t lead to living out these values, something’s wrong.

These practices of Jesus’ don’t happen accidentally.  They happen by waking up to the reality that Christ, living in us, desires to write Christ’s story of hope through us!  Knowing God’s story, and drawing on the resources of the author to discover our part in it IS the Christian life, and the sooner we reframe our declaration of the gospel to include these truths, the better off we’ll all be.

I, for one, will make sure that this book, and the “Jesus Storybook Bible” are a regular part of my grandchildren’s reading curriculum.

NOTE: I was given a copy of this book for free in exchange for offering this honest review.

When God was a Bird – A Book about Finding God in Creation

One of the most profound experiences of my life was attending a small retreat for pastors and scientists in 2010 on a tiny island in British Columbia.  The intersection of science and faith rocked my world in the best possible way.  Already a nature lover, I felt as if I’d been given permission, or more strongly, exhortation, to look for the fingerprints of God everywhere, from the structure and behavior of the atom to the vastness of black holes.  My curiosity about all things was gloriously affirmed, and new adventures of seeing how Christ affects everything, began.

Somewhere in between the micro of the atom and macro of the universe, reside the flora and fauna we encounter on a regular basis in our daily living.  They comprise our ecosystem and its increasingly clear that our Creator has called us to both feast on creation and care for it.  Mark Wallace’s new book, “When God was a Bird” magnifies this invitation with stunning clarity and significant weight.  His thesis might be controversial in evangelical circles because of how close it comes to “animism”.  I surely didn’t agree with every word he writes either, but here’s the thing:  profound truths often reside right near the edges of error, and our fear of error often prevents journey to those needed edges- and we’re all the poorer for having let this fear control us.  “When God was a Bird” was, for me, a book at the edge.  He posits, for example, that when the Holy Spirit shows up as a dove at Christ’s baptism, God is showing us that God animates and empowers ALL life, not just humans.  You can argue about it amongst yourselves.  For my part, I’ll note that a standard evangelical teaching is that, though humans are God’s image bearers, only humans are failing to display God’s glory.  The rest of creation is essentially doing fine!  (Psalm 19, Psalm 104).  So I’m fine believing that God’s spirit is omnipresent in creation, expressing glory through the myriad interactions of sun, rock, stars, moon, elk, bird, bee, pollen, spider, squirrel, seed, and …..  unfolding of each day.  Creation, in fact, is waiting for us to get our act together so that the universe can be healed!  (Romans 8)

This book is mostly about feasting, receiving, worshipping, through creation –  about learning to see God in all creation, to see that God is animating all life, and that all life is therefore, beautiful, ordered, and worthy of reverent preservation.

Using a different bird as his foundation for each chapter, Wallace examines God’s relationship to creation through a prism, revealing various facets of creation theology that instill, in me at least, greater sense of seeing and reverence.  I read, and then look out the window at the forest in which I’m blessed to live.  Long ago I realized that this forest wasn’t simply a stage on which my life was playing out, any more than your place, or any place, is simply stage.  My place is also my teacher.  Through the silence of winter snow, the song of the Varied Thrush in spring as I walk through the forest during after supper dusk, the chattering of squirrels  in the summer, and the diminuendo of voices in the vibrant colors of fall.   All are pointing to God as the source of beauty, provision, delight.  Wallace simply takes it a step further, seeking to show us that the delight we feel when we pay attention to creation IS a delight in God.  Argue the semantics of animism if you wish.  But the larger point is clear:  quit treating creation as either a stage for the play of humanity, or a store of harvesting by humanity.  God’s in all of it, and we ignore or abuse at our peril.

Anyone looking for a deeper relationship with God through paying attention to the book of creation would be well served to consider the claims of the book, even if you don’t agree with everything.  The only warning I’ll offer is that the book is academic.  It will, for most of us, require an expansion of vocabulary.  Coupled with interweaving of theology with ecology, it was, for me, a slow read.  Slow, though, is often worthwhile, and that was surely true for me in this case.  The wisdom and thought provoking revelation offered in this book will prove helpful in some emerging programs of a wilderness ministry our church offers for people in the greater Seattle Area.

note:  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review

Authentic Health: A Good Read to start 2019

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – I Thessalonians 5:23

If you’re taking stock of your health this New Years season, I’m happy to recommend a book that has proven helpful to me this fall.  There are more than a few of us, Christian and otherwise, who have our “pedal to the metal.”  We work long hours, stay up late, and play hard in our free time.  Our problem isn’t that we don’t exercise, or have the occasional smoothie filled with green things, it’s that we don’t have an off switch.

Authentic Health by Gus Vickery M.D., is just the book for such people.  Though there are chapters on nutrition and exercise, they weren’t game changers for me (though the material about intermittent fasting was compelling).  My health problems stem more from doing too much than too little, from going too fast than too slow.  For these reasons, the chapters on sleep and stress reduction through meditation were a big deal.  The material presented was compelling enough to motivate, and simple enough to take action immediately.  I did, and am now sleeping eight hours a night most nights, and have moved my morning practice of meditating on scripture and praying to a higher level of priority and thus consistency.  The results of these two things have been measurable; reduced resting pulse, reduced blood pressure, increased presence in the moment when in conversations with people, increased sense of peace and joy in situations that previously created stress for me, and less anxiety about the future.

Before the chapters on these matters are presented, the good doctor spends time challenging us to think about whether we really want good health enough to make needed changes, or if it’s just a wish dream.  The chapters on motivation and habits are, in my opinion, worth the price of the book because the reality is that most of us reading this have ample time to create the kind of habits that will allow us to live in the fulness of Paul’s prayer that we prosper in spirit, soul, AND body.  He suggests that we often unconsciously choose habits (foods, sedentary use of time, anxious thoughts).  This book isn’t a promise, by any means, of immunity from disease or suffering.  Far from it.  Countless people do all the right things, and yet are victimized by cancer, or heart disease.  On the other hand, it’s equally true, that a commitment to spirit/soul/body health not only mitigates the risks of contracting chronic diseases, it empowers us to do what we’re born to do!

My interest in health is, at the core, an interest in calling.  I fully realize that whatever contribution I’m called to share with the world can only be made to the extent that I have the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to be poured out.  That energy cache is filled or depleted, to a large extent, by what I think about, what I consume, and how I use my time.  As I grow older, I’ve discovered that my body is less forgiving of bad habits, too little sleep, too much exercise, too much junk food, too little meditation and prayer, have almost immediate negative effects showing up in my body and emotions.

I recommend the book because for too long, followers of Jesus have lived like gnostics, nurturing the invisible realm, while neglecting the body.  This is not better than the opposite problem of materialists who are seeking to prolong bodily health forever, fearing its all they have.  The real truth:  You are an ecosystem, and your body, spirit, and soul feed off of each other’s health.  Neglect any one of these three legs on the stool that is your life and you’ll fall over.

If you’re even thinking about “movement and play”, “eating for health”, “sleeping better” or “getting in the right mindset to live well” in 2019, I wholeheartedly recommend Authentic Health.

Note:  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Fight for Hope: A Life Worth Living

I was sick last week, and in my down time thoroughly enjoyed reading “A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War:  How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918”.  Aside from being the longest book title I’ve encountered recently, the book was a sort of wake up call for me, a reminder of how easily I, and perhaps others, are lulled into complacent slumber these days.  Many in the western world find ourselves disillusioned with the loss of integrity in politics, religion, business, and education.  It feels as if the ground is crumbling all around us and there’s no safe place to find shelter.

My temptation in such times is what sociologists call ‘cocooning’, a tendency to withdraw into the predictability of our homes, close the drapes, and live our private lives.  The temptation is real because fighting, even if the pen and words are your tools, and even if your intent is solely to point people toward a greater hope, is hard work, and at times discouraging.  Those intent on pointing people to the possibilities of a better world, a lasting hope, encounter an avalanche of cynicism, if not outright opposition.  There are stakeholders in our culture who deal in the currency of fear, hate, and tribalism – and these stakeholders exist on the both the left and the right.  They have language intended to objectify and incite rather than build and heal.  As a result, many of us have stopped talking to each other, choosing the cocoon rather than the front lines of ideological discourse.

I was surprised to learn that both Tolkien and Lewis, two of my favorite Christian authors, fought on the front lines in WWI, literally serving in the trenches because the weight of western civilization hung in the balance.  After the war, when nearly every other author was ripe with cynicism, these two swam upstream, invoking that people be willing to courageously fight for the better world that only comes when the real king, the eternal One, reigns.  They held the line through words, myths and tales  of Lions, Wardrobes, and Rings.  To read their correspondence is to discover that at a time when the whole world was cynical, these two held on to hope.  What’s more, it shows me that each of them provided needed encouragement to  the other, a sort of sustenance for the battle. Lewis encouraged Tolkien to publish The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien told Lewis to keep writing the Narnia series.

The book’s a good read for anyone who’s a fan of Tolkien and Lewis, but in addition to discovering their life stories, I came away with some deepened convictions:

  1. I’ll be called outside my zone of giftedness at times.  I still need to go.  Neither of these two were soldiers by nature, and yet when called, they rose to the occasion, doing what was needed in the hour of trial.  Many of us withdraw from anything “uncomfortable” or anything out of alignment with “our passions” and I’d suggest that these two teach us that’s a big mistake.  Their lives in the trenches, with the stench of war and death, became the soil out from which two of the great literary works of all time were created.  Nothing in your life is ever lost if you show up fully.
  2. The call to hope is usually challenged.  I still need to fight for it Just look at the Bible; the hope of entering the promised land is challenged – the hope of Peter’s fidelity to Christ is challenged – the hope of remaining steadfast in the midst of trials and setbacks is challenged.  I’m increasingly convinced that every step of forward progress toward embodying hope, inviting people to hope, or creating hope, will be met with naysayers, rock slingers, and haters, and that they’ll come in all forms from atheist to evangelical, left to right, rich to poor.  That’s because, conversely, those committed to “The Return of the King” and the “Destruction of the Ring” and the “Freedom of Narnia” are found in all those same forms of rich, poor, left, right, etc. Aslan’s on the move, sweeping through all the categories that divide and building a tribe out of the displaced and disillusioned, the wounded and scarred, the frightened and the sick – and it’s this tribe that is God’s army of hope for today.    Are you in?   This book will sustain you… to the last battle. 

Time heals nothing

I’m not sure why “This is Us” even found its way into my life as a show to watch, but however it did, I’m often amazed by its power to speak to me at so many levels.  Aside from being well crafted, the show has lots of freaky parallels to my own story, enough to make me feel, at times, like I’m watching a movie of some sections of my life:

The show has an adopted child in the family – I’m an adopted child in my family.

The sister among the siblings struggles with weight  – my sister struggled with her weight.

The dad in the story dies during the adopted son’s senior year in high school – my dad died my senior year in high school.

The death of the dad overwhelms the mom.  The death of my dad overwhelmed my mom.

It just goes on and on, so that in last night’s episode, when the son who got accepted to an exclusive college called and said he was going to delay for year to stay at home and care for his mom, I felt every ounce of his pain because I also delayed my entry into an exclusive college to stay home and care for my mom for a year, a year that turned out to be one of the hardest of my life.  These episodes have had me reliving family history stuff related to weight, performance, how we dealt with conflict, sibling dynamics, marriage dynamics, parenting styles, adoption, and so much more.

Here’s the point though, for now:  Life, Art, and Revelation are, at their best, woven together in a cord, so tightly that it’s difficult to pull them apart, separating the one from the other, so that deep transformation or understanding can arise from short periods of intense revelation.  This happened in the past 24 hours with respect to the subject of time.

The leaving of the leaves is an annual reminder that we too will leave.

Life:  I’m driving east on I-90 after an intense period of work in the city: big meetings; small meetings; one on one meetings; board meetings.  I’m tired yes, but quickly brought to awe and worship as I see the maples and cottonwoods changing color, and leaves falling in the wind.  Every autumn is a reminder of both the gift and brevity of life for me.  Something about the trees losing their leaves shakes me awake, and I ask God, at least annually, at least in the fall, to empower me to live wisely, and well because I’m mindful that life is short.  An autumn will happen, someday, when I won’t be here to see it.  That’s why my hope is to keep my daily priorities more or less aligned with my mission statement.  I don’t want to get to the end of the game and realize that I’ve lived just to survive rather than serve, to consume rather than create, to gain rather than give.   “…teach us to number our days…” said the Psalmist, and yesterday the annual reminder of that prayer was in full color on the trees and in the air.

Art:  That episode last night ended with the mom owning up, for the first time, to her passivity regarding her daughter’s struggles with weight – owned up to the fact that her husband’s death, and particularly the circumstances surrounding it, left her empty, with no love to give her children.  The daughter owned some stuff too, in a real conversation that came about 25 years later than it needed to because we think that “time heals all wounds” for some stupid reason.

Right there, in the midst of that conversation, the producer embedded a profound Damien Rice song called “Older Chests” which poetically exposes how we speak out of both sides of our mouths regarding time.  On the one hand: “I’ll be fine.  I just need time” and on the other, “Everything’s falling apart as time marches on”.  He exposes the folly that time heals anything at all.  Yes, time is needed, but only time plus the hard work of forgiveness, or confession, or a next step of service or generosity, or a reconciliation of a relationship, or a naming of your addiction and getting help, or a step of brutal honesty — only those things heal.  Time, without the intervention of our next steps, just leads to decay, and ‘presenting problems’ and unchecked addictions that are either visible or hidden.

Revelation:  Then next, I read my devotions this morning, and came to this:  The conventional explanation regarding suffering is that God sends us the burden because God knows that we are strong enough to handle it, but this is all wrong. Living in a fallen world sends us the problem, not God. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. (My paraphrase of a good word from Richard Rohr this morning.)

So there you have it.  A theme just keeps coming up over and over again with incredible intensity for 24 hours:  “You’re getting older Richard, and your years of enjoying autumn leaves are numbered.  Use your time wisely!”  Next up:  “Time heals nothing Richard, and that show which mirrors your life so closely exposes the steps you need to take toward community in certain relationships because time doesn’t create community – calls, and supper, and conversations, and hikes, and laughter and truth telling – these create community in time.  And finally, “There are times of suffering, but these times can be only be redeemed, not by passively riding the waves of more time, but by actively taking steps that move us to whatever we need to move toward, be it forgiveness, gratitude, dependency, truth telling, or whatever.

Time heals nothing.  And I know it better today than yesterday at this time because God speaks through falling leaves, TV shows, and text… thanks be to God.

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

Quotables: Immortal Diamond

I was privileged to speak to a group of university students on Monday night and in the Q&A I was asked, “What are the books that have had the greatest impact on your life?”  The truth of the matter is that I read so widely that nothing came to mind immediately, jumping out as the one or two life changing books.  However, the truth is that there have been hundreds, so I thought it would be fun to add a “quotables” section to this blog, highlighting various authors and books.

I don’t present them in order of importance.  Rather, I read this book last fall, saw it on my shelf, and thought, “Why not start with this one?” You need to know that when I recommend books, I’m not ever endorsing everything I read in the book.  Rather, I’m saying that, on the whole, a person with discernment can be well fed and shaped by the material this author shares.  The quotes, on the other hand, are truths I buy into!

Enjoy these as a starter, from Richard Rohr’s “Immortal Diamond”, one of many books I’ve read about the importance of being firmly established in our true identity “in Christ”.  Here are a few of my favorite thoughts from this book.

Church in any form should be a laboratory for resurrection.

All posturing and pretending are largely unnecessary….all accessorizing of any small fragile self henceforth shows itself to be a massive waste of time and energy.

Inside your true self you know that you are not alone, and you foundationally belong to God (I Cor. 3:23).  You no longer have to work to feel important.  You are intrinsically important, and it has all been ‘done unto you’ (Luke 1:38)

…if you do not learn the art of dying and letting go early, you will hold onto your false self for far too long, until it kills you anyway.

Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons.

…only the false self can and will sin

The anger and disrespect I find among both conservative and progressive Christians is disturbing.  It feels aligned much more with political ideologies of right and left than any immersion in the beautiful love of God.

The spiritual question is this:  Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God? Does this encounter bring about any of the things that Paul describes as the ‘fruits of the spirit’, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

What most of Christian history did was largely dress up and disguise the false self (in Christian clothing).

Remember that resurrection is not woundedness denied, forgotten, or even totally healed.  It is woundedness transformed.

The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul.