Discipleship

Why Holding on too Tightly Is a Bad Idea

By Derek Penwell

In the Deer Park Discourses the Buddha famously observed that “life is suffering”–the first noble truth–which, when first heard by students in my world religion classes, strikes them as unnecessarily morose.

“Yeah, life sucks and all that … but it’s not all bad.”

At that point, I explain to them that the word used by the Buddha (dukkha), which often gets translated from the Pali as “suffering,” doesn’t just mean something like “unremitting agony.” It can mean that, of course; but it means much more.

Dukkha is better understood as a wheel in which the axle is off center, making the wheel wobble constantly as it turns. Dukkha is like a pebble in the shoe, which can cause great pain, but is more often experienced as a phenomenon that exists just beyond the horizon of awareness, always seeming to lurk at the edges of consciousness. It is, in short, the nagging sense that something is not right.

Suffering … not in the epic sense of the grand heroic struggle, but in the dislocative sense that life is not as it should be.

Why is life dukkha? According to the Buddha, the second noble truth is that life is dukkha is because we desire.

“Of course, we desire. Why is that bad?”

Again, I stop and explain that the word the Buddha used (tanha) is probably better translated “selfishly grasp.”

We suffer because we grasp after things intended only to satisfy ourselves. We want things because we want them, and when we don’t get them, we experience suffering.

Our selfish grasping causes us to treat things as permanent, which things are only transitory (anicca).

I believe that this time love will last forever, that my new _________ (fill in the blank) won’t break, rust, expire, wear out, etc., that the body that has served me so well in the past will persist through time. When that which we grasp for inevitably stops working, leaves, runs dry we suffer.

Moreover, as the Buddha observed, we’re extremely proficient at lying to ourselves about the nature of our existence (anatta). We tell ourselves that the world we inhabit is the real world, and not just the world we perceive, that truth is an easy thing to possess for ourselves, and not for our enemies, that we are finally who we believe ourselves to be. When we find out the extent to which we cling to illusions, we suffer.

By now, my students are itching to argue with the Buddha. That’s when I break out the third noble truth.

The third noble truth consists in seeing the first two noble truths together as inextricably bound up with one another, then seeking to untangle them. The Buddha said that “If you want not to suffer, you must not selfishly grasp.”

“That’s fine for the Buddha; he gave everything away. He didn’t have anything left to hold onto.”

Exactly!

Jesus said something very much like this about 500 years later: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35–36).

So, here’s the thing. Churches are not unlike individuals in their mad scramble to hold onto something, to grasp after that which is impermanent.

Have you ever been to a church where desperation hangs in the air–the feeling that “we’ve got to do something, or we’re going to die?”

Have you ever been to a church where every meeting is punctuated by hand-wringing over money? The lack of young families? Declining worship attendance?

Have you ever been to a church where failure is not viewed as a learning experience, but as one more step down the inevitable path toward extinction?

Dukkha. Tanha. According to the Jesus and the Buddha, they’re causally related. The more you have of one, the more you can be sure you have of the other.

If you want not to suffer, you must relinquish your grasping. That is to say, you must disentangle yourself from that which causes your suffering. You must detach from those things, ideas, expectations to which you cling so desperately. Turn loose.

“Again, easy for you to say.”

But it’s not easy for me to say, and even harder for me to do. I didn’t say it was easy, only necessary. Jesus says the cost of the whole process is a cross, which is to say, death (Mk 8:34).

So, maybe the way to think about it looks something like this:

Have you ever been to a church that spends more time struggling over what to give away than what to keep–that is, expends more energy on the Outreach committee than on the Property committee?

Have you ever been to a church that sees its small youth group not as a disappointment, but as an opportunity to offer more focused ministry?

Have you ever been to a church that views its building as a present to the world and not as a bequest to its members?

Have you ever been to a church where worship is centered on the gift that is offered to God rather than on what individual participants “get out of it?”

Have you ever been to a church where truth is a friend and illusion is the thing to be avoided at all cost?

Have you ever been to a church in which justice is not just the securing of individual rights, but the pursuit of a vision of the reign of God in which there is no justice until it gets extended to everyone?

Letting go means relinquishing everything, perhaps even the life to which we cling so desperately.

Take heart, though, if you follow Jesus, you already have a pretty good idea what giving it all away looks like.

Just A Spoonful: Why Congregations Can't Just Get By

By Derek Penwell 

One of my best friends is a funeral director. He told me the other day about a family he’d had dealings with at one point in his career. It seems that a woman had died, and the family had my friend’s funeral home take care of the arrangements. The family, according to my buddy, was especially difficult to deal with. They didn’t know what they wanted, and they never brought up the subject of how they were going to pay for the funerary services. They fiddled around long enough without making any decisions that, after fourteen days, my friend had to do something. So, he shipped body off to be cremated.

When the woman’s cremains finally came back to the funeral home, my friend invoiced the family for the cost of cremation and embalming. The bill went unpaid for quite some time, until a member of the family (the woman’s sister) eventually called and asked for the woman’s ashes. My friend said that they would gladly be turned over to the family upon receipt of the bill–$2,250.

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

.“That’s no problem. She’ll keep till you can locate it,” my friend informed her.

“Couldn’t you just give up her ashes, and we’ll pay you later?”

“Sorry, mam. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be happy to turn loose of them after you pay your bill.”

She was, of course, upset and hung up the phone.

Not long after that another sister called, “I heard you won’t let us have our sister’s ashes.”

“That’s right, mam. When you’ve paid your bill, I’ll make sure she’s turned over to you.”

The sister persisted. She was torn up over the loss, and just wanted to have something by which to remember her loved one. In a choking voice she said, “We ain’t got much money. Can’t you just let us have her?”

“Not until the bill’s been paid.”

“How about part of the ashes?”

Puzzled, my friend said, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how much,” she asked, “would you charge us for a spoonful?”

“$2,250. And if you pay for that, I’ll throw in the rest for free.”

I know congregations like that. They want to know how little they can pay and still get by.

“We don’t have much. Isn’t there an installment plan we can get on? A little up front, and then we’ll pay the rest along the way? Anything like that?”

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34b–37).

Interestingly, congregations have gotten very comfortable with individual sacrifice. Stewardship month in November every year wouldn’t be the same without the reminder that “Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his own life ought to motivate his followers to be sacrificial givers in response.” Some aspiring greeting card copy-writer wannabe even came up with that execrably jejune bumper-sticker slogan: “Give until it feels good!”[1]

One thing congregations often have a more difficult time coming to terms with, however, is the idea of sacrifice on a corporate level. I know of congregations (not all, mind you–but a notable number nevertheless)

  • who would rather the minister learn to exercise a little personal financial discipline than to give up the professionally printed letterhead contract
  • who would be much more comfortable holding the line on educational curriculum than on waiting to invest in touchless paper towel dispensers
  • who would prefer to ignore, and risk alienating, their LGBTQ members (and the straight people who love them) than to risk making even one member uncomfortable by openly addressing the possibility of becoming Open and Affirming
  • who would sooner frustrate the attempts of young leaders to try something bold and new than to seek to withstand an onslaught of recrimination from the former leaders who’ve otherwise faded into the background
  • who would rather burn bridges with the old by continually treating tradition as something to be avoided at all cost.

Surely, there’s something in there to offend most people. The point, however, is not to offend people, but to alert us to fact that congregations are generally all for personal sacrifice, but are often surprisingly skittish about the collective sacrifice of the community.

Why shouldn’t congregations have to pay too? Congregations are no less bodies than individuals.

“Well, sure, but going out on a limb might cost us our lives if the limb fails.”

Welcome to the joy and excitement of following Jesus.

“Aren’t there safer ways?”

Absolutely! It’s just that none of them have to do with living and dying like that crazy Galilean.

“How much for a spoonful?”

Full price.

__________

  1. I’m all for “giving” and “feeling good,” just not for distilling important theological concepts and experiences into bumper-stickers.  ↩

 

(Just finished up with the content editing portion of the book, so this is the last one from the archives.  Back to full production next week.) 

Doing the Reassurance Dance

By Derek Penwell

The Reassurance Dance

Debbie, who comes into the church where I work at least three or four times a week, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Most of the time she’s as docile and kind as she can be. Sometimes, though she gets afraid. And when she experiences fear, she lashes out. (Who doesn’t, right?)

Debbie talks freely about her life–what kinds of things are happening at her apartment complex, who’s hassling her, what kind of health problems she has. From Debbie’s perspective, there seems to be a great deal wrong with the world … wrong in ways that threaten Debbie’s world. I’m not sure what her world looks like to her, but from my vantage point, the world Debbie inhabits looks pretty scary.

I understand Debbie’s fear, given the reality she inhabits. Because that fear seems so proximate and real, whenever she goes to leave, Debbie will come to me and ask: “Father Penwell [although I’m not a priest–at least of any recognized order, except, perhaps, the parental one]: Is everything all right? Does Debbie have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I call this the Reassurance Dance. The reassurance dance exists as a desperate need to have someone tell us everything’s going to be all right.

Debbie’s pleading strikes me as genuine. She’s afraid of a scary world, and she’s seeking a little reassurance. That makes sense to me. I look for that kind of reassurance myself sometimes. Things get hectic at work–I’m running late on a deadline or I sense some unease over a decision, and I search for ways to reassure myself that everything’s all right, that the world isn’t falling apart.

The problem with the reassurance dance, though, is that it doesn’t work … at least in any meaningful way over the longterm.

Why not?

How do I know whether everything’s going to be ok for Debbie? I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. No matter how reassuring I sound, I can’t guarantee Debbie anything–about whether her landlord is going to kick her out, or whether the rain is going to start up and drench her in the afternoon, or whether she’ll be hassled out on the street. I rely on the law of averages, and say, “Everthing’s fine.” But the reality of the situation is–I don’t know.

Same thing with me. I feel anxious, so I check my email. I’m feeling nervous about the unknown so I somehow maneuver to be able to be in the presence of someone who will tell me I’m a good person, and that everything’s going to be ok.

Well, that sounds pretty callous. Why is caring about people’s feelings a bad thing?

Look, I’m not suggesting that seeking reassurance for oneself or offering reassurance to others is always a bad thing. Seeking affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a coping mechanism. The purpose of coping mechanisms is, of course, to help us cope. Tautology notwithstanding, sometimes we need the psychic boost that reassurance provides to make it through the day. Fine.

But, what I’m talking about is the reassurance dance, which amounts to a kind of psychic feedback loop. I feel anxious, so I seek some affirmation. I feel better for a bit–not because the nature of my situation has changed, but because I’ve distracted myself for a bit–like getting drunk when you’re girlfriend breaks up with you.

But, getting drunk when you’re sad doesn’t work very well, does it. Why not? Because you wake up and you realize that your girlfriend still thinks you’re an idiot–plus, now you have a headache that will last until sometime just prior to the Vernal Equinox.

Now, you’re depressed and hungover. And Lord knows there’s only one thing to do when you feel that bad … get out a bottle of Tequila.

You see the problem.

Life Inside the Ecclesiastical Echo Chamber

Unfortunately, the church is just as prone to the reassurance dance. How often do you hear a congregation asking, "Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?

Usually, they don’t say it quite like that–but you know what I’m talking about. Want to know how to recognize the signs that a church is getting ready to dance the reassurance dance? Here’s the tip-off:

They start paying inordinate attention to the numbers–baptisms, transfers, pledging units, personnel budget, the ratio of incandescent/cfl bulbs, whatever.

Notice I said “inordinate attention to numbers.” You have to pay attention to numbers. It’s stupid to act like numbers don’t count. They do. Numbers provide information, and information isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just information.

The problem comes when you think that numbers provide all the information you need to evaluate–you name it–the effectiveness of ministry, the legitimate expression of worship, the curriculum for VBS.

"Well, that’s just hyperbole. No church makes decisions based solely on numbers."

Let’s be clear, I didn’t say decisions get made “solely” on numbers. Even extremely anxious congregations will tip their hats to concepts like faithfulness and integrity.

But let me ask you this: When was the last time you had a board meeting and everyone forgot about the treasurer’s report because you were so involved in trying to figure out the most faithful way to provide a much needed latch-key program for kids in your neighborhood?

When was the last pledge drive where the Stewardship committee said: “We need money, but you’ve always given in the past … and we trust that you’ll do so this time around. So, this year we want to devote our whole campaign drive to figuring out how we can identify and tap the gifts for ministry of everyone in the congregation?”

When was the last time the elders said, “You know, we’ve got enough members to sustain this level of ministry for awhile, why don’t we shift our focus off of membership, and put it squarely on the ministry? Why don’t we invest in doing the thing God is calling us to do and let God take care of new members?”

That’s what I thought.

Instead, congregations are almost always preoccupied by numbers. Numbers are a very human way for the church to seek reassurance that it’s successful, that it’t popular, that it means something.

Again, I’m not saying numbers don’t matter at all. What I am saying, however, is that numbers aren’t always the best way to keep score in the church.

“Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I can’t tell you because I don’t know. And besides, you wouldn’t believe me for long, even if I said yes.

Let me ask you:

  • Do you perform baptism and eucharist? .
  • Do you seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, hold hands with the fearful and the grieving? .
  • Do you open your doors and welcome those who are unwanted, those who’ve had to sit at the back of the bus, those who’ve been hurt by the church? .
  • Do you pray and study? .
  • Are people learning to be more like Jesus?

Because, until you can feel good about the answers to questions like this, the reassurance dance just isn’t that interesting.

No Red Ink on the Vision Test

By JC Mitchell

As a boy in elementary school, I would sometimes tussle with other boys. Generally we would not hurt each other, but sometimes it would result in a visit to the nurse’s office. During one such incident, my head hit against a cement wall. It hurt some, but I felt I was fine; however, the teacher did not believe me, but who would argue with a teacher that was allowing you to go to the nurse’s office and miss some of class(as we were just coming in from recess)? The nurse examined me and asked questions. I was determined to be fine, diagnosis “boy.” The last question posed during the nurse’s examination was, “Are you seeing double?” My response worried her, as I stated, “No more than usual.” I was seeing double often while reading and I just trained and strained myself to read both images simultaneously. The nurse, concerned and curious, did some tests and discovered what I thought was normal: I saw double. What I also remember about her is she did not make me feel stupid for thinking that seeing double was normal, and she did not make me nervous about this situation.

I went to the optometrist, and I must say that was an exciting experience. It was explained to me that everyone has a focal point in which when you get closer to the eyes, one will see double, but generally it is centimeters from the nose, not an arm’s length. This doctor prescribed intense exercises. I had various contraptions and ditto papers and spent one to two hours a day strengthening my eyes, so my focal point would be in a normal range. I was committed because reading, which I greatly enjoy, was much easier with only one image.

I share this anecdote to emphasize the importance of knowing vision in the church.  We in the church world use this term often, and it is not easily defined as it is different for each ministry and congregation, while also being part of God’s Vision.  I assume that there is an importance of vision, for it is what drives a congregation and/or ministry in the direction of God.  We know that it is not simple to find a vision, but it is just as important to realize when your ministry has lost or been burdened with poor vision. Just as I believed seeing double was normal, many churches and ministries keep going, not realizing they would have a difficult time reading the bottom line on the metaphorical eye chart.

For many, the reality of finances brings a congregation to the metaphorical optometrist.  However, I want to share the story of a local food bank I was involved with this past year that closed.  The bank had been serving the community for 30 years, but the original vision of helping people between applying for food stamps and receiving them is now outdated.  Other food banks had taken form over the past decade serving the community more efficiently and in greater numbers.   The food bank needed a new vision of how to utilize their resources.  For various reasons the need of a new vision was not taken up by the board and the volunteers, until the vote that closed the bank.  Even a year before, a vote keeping it open (by one vote) didn’t get enough people realizing the need of a vision.  However, this ministry did not lack resources.  We had enough food, especially canned corn (not sure why so much corn), and we could have continued for 15 years without raising anymore funds, at the level of help we were providing, give or take a couple of years.

My point is that vision has nothing to do with finances.

We need to not wait until it is reflected by red ink.

My question is what is, or can be, our metaphorical eye chart?  (comment away)

Femto Photography and Seeing Around Corners: Why Following Jesus Is about Risk

Transient

By Derek Penwell

In July a scientist from MIT, Ramesh Raskar, gave a Ted Talk on an amazing new innovation in photography. Femto photography films at one trillion frames per second. What this allows scientists to do, for example, is make a time lapse video of the movement of light (which is pretty dang cool on its own merits!). You can watch a burst of light projected from a laser as it shoots through a Coke bottle!

[Note: I realize that’s two exclamation points in two consecutive sentences—a grammatical practice upon which I generally frown, except to say things like “Happy birthday!” or “Congratulations on your Bassett Hound’s successful completion of agility training!”—but this stuff is pretty phenomenal! Oops. Sorry.]

The practical applications of this new technology are even more astounding. For one thing, when a burst of light is shot from a laser, it diffuses when the photons strike an object. Various photons are then reflected back to the source. Using heavy computational power, the scientists are able to stitch together the individual photon speeds to produce a 3-D model of the thing that the light hits.

The ability to produce 3-D models of things struck by a burst of light gets really interesting, however, when you realize that the reflection of light doesn’t have to come from an object in a straight line with the laser. Meaning … you can project the light around obstacles, and the computer will take into account the extra angles of reflection, and still construct an accurate 3-D image.

In other words, it allows you literally to see around the corner—to construct a 3-D image of something you can’t even see! [Again, sorry.] It’s almost like seeing into the future—getting an accurate vision of something before you ever get there.

I like the sound of that idea. It’s not flying or retractable adamantium claws, but it’s still kind of like a super power.

I understand the attraction of seeing around the corner; it’s a great metaphor for predicting the future, of telling you whether a thing will be worth doing.

But here’s the thing: In real life the only way you’ll know if a thing is worth doing is after you’ve already done it, when you look back on it—which is to say, after the toothpaste is already out of the tube.

“Should we let our daughter go on that trip to Europe?”

“Should I pay the electric bill so we don’t freeze, or should I fill my blood pressure medication so I don’t have a stroke?”

“Should I take the new job with exciting potential, or stay in the job where I’m most comfortable?”

“Should I tell my parents and friends I’m gay—risking their love and support, or should I keep it to my myself—risking my sanity?”

How do you know until after you do it?

That’s life. We have to make all sorts of calculations about what to do without enough information about what it will look like when it’s finished, or whether having done it will prove advantageous or harmful.

How do you know until after you do it.

That’s also what life following Jesus looks like. Seeing around the corner would certainly make church planning more effective, for instance. It’d be nice to know whether something is going to work before you had to take a chance on it. Face-saving is what it is.

If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you plan something, you risk failing. And failing is unacceptable to many churches.

Congregations in decline almost always understand church planning to be a matter not of achieving success, but of avoiding failure. Consequently, they tend to stand before decisions trying to do the advanced calculations necessary to see what lies around the corner, refusing to act boldly for fear that something might not work.

“Should we do this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because if we do, it might not work. We’d be out all that money, plus things like this tend to make Janice mad.”

Flourishing congregations, on the other hand, weigh a decision against past experience, then make a decision. They’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that they will never have everything nailed down before taking the leap. They’ve made peace with the knowledge that everything they try has a pretty good chance of washing out. But they’ve learned to accept the prospect of failure as the cost of doing business.

Flourishing congregations realize that there’s no way to ensure something will work on the front end. They understand that they’ll never know if an idea was a good one until they look back on it, assessing it in the rearview mirror. But the inability to look around the corner to see what’s coming doesn’t prevent them from turning corners they think faithfulness calls them to take. They understand that a life spent following Jesus is an adventure, not a tour.

Before we get there, we’d like to know that where we’re going is where we want to be.

Maybe one day there will be an ecclesiastical version of Femto photography that will make discipleship a surer thing. On the other hand, if discipleship is an adventure, whatever such an innovation might produce, it won’t have much to do with following Jesus.

Mermaids, Squids, and Christian Reality

Recently a friend of mine mentioned that a counselor had concerns about her daughter because she believed that mermaids existed.  The questioning included why she believed in their existence, and the child responded because she had read about them and had seen a documentary on the Animal Planet, yet admitted to not have seen one in person.  The “professional” was concerned.  The child did ask the interviewer if she believed if giant squids existed and if she had seen one, and as you probably have guessed the answer was, the counselor had read about them and saw a documentary.  This would be funny if the person was not a “professional” analyzing the youth. I had seen most of the mermaid documentary one late night with my brother-in-law, and I must admit I truly understand one believing that mermaids might exist on earth, after viewing the documentary.  I honestly had to choose not to believe this reality when watching the show, and I have to admit the choice is mostly because it may “freak me out” if I saw something while on a boat and that it may open me up to the reality of Bigfoot.  I did just move to the Seattle area, where there are more boats and Northwestern woods in my future, so I have decided on a reality where there are no mermaids and Yetis.

As Christians, are we simply asking people to believe in an historical reality--Jesus’ birth, teachings, death, and resurrection?  Even our Gospel accounts do not match up neatly.  This sets up a reality in which those that believe are in, and those that do not are out.  It is ok to believe in giant squids, but not mermaids.  This is not my Christianity.  My religion is reality, which I find in Christianity.

Humanity did not create God, but humans did create religion.  We must look at our rituals and beliefs with anthropologic and sociological lenses and not simply as a litmus test, such as do you believe….?  And this can be true of the progressive churches as well.  We cannot kid ourselves to think we don’t have litmus tests.  Often we stand there like the professional above, judging other’s beliefs.

“Reality:” that word is itself a question, perhaps even a riddle.  I have been enlightened by the theory of Mimesis, put forth by René Girard.  A one sentence explanation might be that we desire based from the desires of others, and this changes the dialogue immensely.  I would argue it is pre-historical, and cognitive scientists have even confirmed this as desire based off the desire (and actions) of others within our brain function.  As a confessing Christian, this theory has opened me up to Christianity that dare I say, seems “natural” and “scientific.” No longer am I claiming something that others choose not to believe, nor am I stating what I believe they will know exactly like I know.  Rather, I see the reality of religion within Christianity, which I knew before, but now worry only about divine love as an action against our human reality of rivalry from mimetic desire.

Our purpose is to help the Divine we call love be the reality we know.  Violence and rivalry are part of our human condition, and as Christians we know the realization of love by Jesus empting himself without rivalry or retaliation on the cross.  This love is the reality we all aspire to, yet we are tied together not by our individual transgressions, but our universal sin of rivalry and violence.  Thus we don’t need everyone to believe exactly the same way, but to live, what we confessing Christians call the compassion of Jesus, as our reality.  The reality is, who cares if one believes in giant squids and/or mermaids, but rather, are we teaching love--that is, nonviolence, and compassion?

That is the religion for me, religion of revealing forgiveness, compassion, and love without rivalry and violence, as the reality and culture of earth as it is in heaven. That is a transformed world reality here on this globe, not simply an eternal heaven of gold streets, where some are in and others out.

Church with No Forwarding Address

I have been called by Bellevue Christian Church to be their pastor and planter.  The latter is of course very new territory that has no physical address, and at this time, the possibilities are endless, making vision the first goal.  However, I am writing not about the plant but about the exciting existing congregation: Bellevue Christian Church.  I met this congregation in person a month after they sold their wonderful physical facilities. The building was too big and too expensive to maintain for this “graying” congregation.  The decision must have been difficult and gut-wrenching, but these heroes did just that.  This group of Christians did the unthinkable--they sold the building. Σπλαγχνίζομαι (Splanchnizomai) is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Bellevue Christian Church.  The root of this word it splangchna, “pity” or more literally “bowels.”  Specifically, it was used to refer to the organs removed in a blood sacrifice prior to the Christian context, when it started being used to refer to being moved to compassion from the gut.[i]  As I wrote above this decision was gut-wrenching, and their decision was based on self-care.

Splanchnizomai is the word Jesus uses for the hungry crowds (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2).  It is wonderful that Jesus refers to this feeling of pity coming up through his “guts.”  Thus it should be also when the Body of Christ (Church) should also feel and act.  To truly understand compassion it is important that the empathy is from the gut.  Even when you are part of the crowd and the Body of Christ, even when it’s about your local congregation, you need to search your gut for the way.

Bellevue acted on this compassion, and left their building.  They have funded some great things with the sale, but what is important is this congregation still exists.  They are currently visiting a local UCC congregation for Sunday morning worship, which may or may not be a new home, and may or may not be 50% more people to the congregation.

It may have felt like, and still is, a sacrifice for some of the members. It is also self-care.  They could have kept the church in the building, renting it out more, developing programs that would attract a family or two.  However, in their collective gut they knew what was compassionate.  And just as Jesus was moved to feed the thousands with limited resources, they opened up many resources for scholarships, multiple plants, regional ministries, and their own authenticity.

Their own authenticity is going to be their greatest gift to themselves, as well as part of their new vision.   Instead of worrying about the building or growing, we will be worrying about our spiritual practices, about each other, and we will grow.  However, I don’t know where.

Attention: O&A Doesn't Just Mean "Gay Friendly"

So, let me tell you about another argument people offer up, without the apparatus of a staged conversation,[1] as a reason why their congregation doesn’t feel that declaring itself O&A is necessarily a good idea:[2] “We don’t want to be known as a ‘one issue church.’”

Put less diplomatically, as some people have done, the reservation is expressed this way:

“We don’t want to be known as the ‘gay church.’”

I want to address this matter because it can prove to be an obstacle for churches in entertaining the radical notion of becoming Open and Affirming. (Also, I have something of a personal interest in broadly addressing this matter, since some of my critics have voiced their concern that I am also in danger of being known as a “one-issue guy,” beating only this particular theological drum—to the exclusion of other important theological questions.)[3]

This is worth talking about. The charge that focusing on LGBTQ inclusion carries with it the danger of consigning oneself or one’s congregation to a box reserved for single issue (and thus ) matters marked, “identity politics” (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, etc.), misses a very important point.

Open and Affirming is not simply code for “gay friendly.” In writing up a resolution about our denomination declaring itself Open and Affirming, I was cautioned by more than a few people that O&A is seen by many to be a euphemism for militant gay friendliness.

“Urging churches to be O&A is a sure way to turn people off, because there’s a long history behind that designation that many people hear as a call to become a ‘gay church.’”

Ok. I get that, if by “Open and Affirming” what people mean is just another sneaky way to squeeze into the life of the church the “agenda driven politics” of the LGBTQ community (perhaps a straw man argument all its own?).

But the thing is: Nobody I know is making that argument.

Open and Affirming, though it carries a specific and important association with the LGBTQ community is so much more than making churches “gay friendly”; it is a call to the church to fundamentally reorient its understanding of hospitality and justice. The full inclusion of LGBTQ people only scratches the surface of the church’s radical vocation to love those who’ve been kicked to the margins.

When a church becomes Open and Affirming, it soon finds that welcoming LGBTQ folks is just the beginning. Pretty soon, if you’re anything like serious about your faith, you begin to ask,“Who else has been left out that the church should be welcoming in? About who else has society generally said, ‘You need not worry about those folks. We’ve got much more pressing concerns. Their stuff (even if we think they have a right to it, which oftentimes we do not) can wait?’”

Immigrants (legal and otherwise)? People of races different from mine? The poor? AIDS patients? Those who can’t get health insurance? The disabled? Drug addicts? Ex-cons? Prostitutes and tax-collectors? Lepers? You know, the disposable people?

Open and Affirming, after you live with it a while, instead of narrowing your focus to one beleaguered group, broadens your vision. It is a way of beginning to take seriously what otherwise gets so casually tossed about by popular Christianity: What would Jesus do?

Indeed, what would Jesus do? Which question is another way of asking, “Who would Jesus love? Who would Jesus welcome? Who would Jesus see cast off from the rest of ‘normal’ life, drop what he’s doing with the highly accomplished and well situated, and go hang out?”

Open and Affirming congregations, I want to suggest, are much less “single issue” churches than those congregations that spend the bulk of their time in extended instances of applied ecclesiological navel-gazing.

To the extent that a church spends the bulk of its time hand-wringing about its impending demise, for instance, it’s a single issue church.

Congregations that obsess about attracting young families are much closer to being single issue churches than O&A congregations.

You might just be a single issue church … if you spend more time talking about not having enough money than about what kinds of interesting things you’re going to do with the money you’ve got.

You get the idea.

The point is that becoming O&A doesn’t limit the horizon of discipleship; in fact, it stretches it in revolutionary ways, offering a point of access to the radical hospitality and the institution-challenging justice practiced by Jesus himself.

Perhaps discipleship, when all is said and done, is a single issue: Does the faith you practice assist you or prevent you from following Jesus to the wrong side of town?

  1. I’ve written quite a bit about why churches should declare themselves Open and Affirming. These pieces have often started with reconstructed and condensed versions of conversations I’ve had with real people. However, that literary conceit upsets some—understandably, I think, because as the author, I always get to appear in control. I have an unfair advantage in such an exchange, since it’s perhaps a bit too tempting to paint people who have a different set of convictions on the issue as less than thoughtful. Let me set the record straight: I believe that many of the people who disagree with me on the issue of the full acceptance of LGBTQ people in general, and on the issue of becoming Open and Affirming in particular, are just as thoughtful and committed to their faith as I am. I just think they’re wrong. (I don’t suppose that’s going to win hearts and minds either.)  ↩
  2. This post, like other posts I’ve done on this issue is specifically written for those people who agree with me that full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church is appropriate, but who have yet to press the conversation in their congregations. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don’€™t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.  ↩
  3. Let me attend to that specific charge but briefly: I do, in fact, write and comment on a wide range of issues that extend beyond the acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ people. If you’re really that interested, you can go back through the archives of my writings here or here and check.  ↩

Scapegoating Satan

Conflict is a part of life.  We have to deal with differences of opinions and beliefs.  Sometimes our differences create conflict in our relationships, and churches are no different from any other social institution: conflict can be destructive, but conflict can also be constructive.  Healthy conflict, where differences are shared, viewpoints expressed in ways that share one’s views rather than condemn others can help us to learn from each other and to grow.  It can, in the long run, help us to grow closer together and work towards common ground. However, more often than not conflict can bring out the worst in us, because we don’t know how to deal with it in a healthy way.  We don’t know how to confront conflict, when we have a disagreement with someone, or if someone has rubbed us the wrong way.  Bad behavior happens in every social gathering.  Churches are no exception.  Someone rubs us the wrong way.  We tell another friend about it.  Gossip gets woven into the fabric of the group.  The hurtful words come back around to the person they were about and the damage is done.  Rather than dealing with conflict head on, we go round about ways of dealing with it to the point we often create more conflict over other issues than the original issue that was at conflict.

Case in point: in one church a big brouhaha occurred over an extra cake making its entrance at a church lunch.  The person in charge of the lunch said quite sternly that they already had a cake and didn’t need another one. The person who brought the cake was hurt by those words and told several others they would leave the church.  Yes. Over a cake.

The issue was not the cake.  The issue went far beyond and before my time at the church, but it came to a head over the cake and the bad behavior was going around and talking to others rather than addressing the person they felt offended by.

Since moving to the South, I have found another layer of defense: “The devil must be in her.”  “The devil is in control of that church.”  Satan gets a lot of blame for personal conflict and poor leadership.  I’m not going to debate the existence of Satan here, but I do think we blame others, or we blame Satan, rather than looking at ourselves.

When we have been wronged or hurt by someone in the church, what is the best way to deal with it?  All too often, we talk to others rather than talking to the one who has wronged us, who may not even realize their actions were perceived as hurtful (as in the situation with the cake).  While there are times when actions can be purposefully hurtful, many times it is our own reaction, based on experiences of the past that causes us to overreact and make mountains out of molehills.

Maybe it’s a regional thing to blame Satan (I never heard that when I served churches in the Northeast) but whether we blame Satan or the other person, the only thing we truly can control is our own reaction.  How do we respond when we’ve been hurt?  Where do we go?  Who do we talk to?

As a minister, it has been a slow lesson for me to learn over the years that yes, there are toxic people in churches.  Yes, there are times people do things on purpose to hurt others, even ministers.  But most of the time, it is our reactions that can make conflict a place of growth and learning or a place of division.  We can only control how we react and manage our own emotional response.  We can’t change others.  We can’t change the fact that there are control freaks and “Lone Rangers” and all sorts of different personalities in our congregations, but we can change how we react to them, and by our model, we can perhaps show others how to learn from conflict.

Then in the end, instead of one person in control and another person hurt, perhaps we’ll learn that the miracle is there are two cakes to enjoy.  Or at the very least, maybe one will learn how their actions cause negative reactions in others, whether it be the controller of the lunch or the cake baker.   And whether or not one believes Satan was involved, let us all at least remember we have control over our own actions and reaction, and that is the one thing we can fix, we can change.  We can learn from conflict and grow from it, rather than being paralyzed and watching it spin out of control.  And by our lesson, we can model for others a different way to live with each other in true Christian community.

Following Jesus

A post from the archives.  This article first appeared June 14, 2010.

“If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”

-Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Following Jesus.  I think it boils down to that, really.  I have struggled for some time with the realization that when the church fails—as it often does—it fails most egregiously in giving people the resources necessary for the outrageously radical act of following Jesus.  My reading of emerging/ent theology has led me to conclude that there is increasing energy around the simple idea that followers of Jesus ought to embody the revolutionary spirit found in the Gospels.  I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional view of the church as either a clearinghouse for heavenly bus passes, or as a respectable organization whose primary function centers on affirming middle-class American values.  People, especially young people, are having trouble squaring the Jesus they read about in the Gospels with the infinitely malleable Jesus they see placed on offer by popular Christianity—Jesus as personal genie, Jesus as chief security guard at the courthouse of private morality, Jesus as a cheerleader for free-market capitalism, etc.  Jesus, stripped of the layers of religious spackling used to domesticate him, is irremediably subversive.

Subversive.  That appeals to me.  Of course, I’d like to continue writing clinically, about the religious climate shift underway at the hands of restless “young people,” fed up with a tame Jesus.  I’d like to make it sound as though I’m just a disinterested observer of religious trends.  But the truth is that I too find myself growing dissatisfied with that image of Jesus.  After all these years of a Jesus who I thought would help make me _______ (holier? kinder? more spiritual? more self-actualized?), I’ve come to believe that Jesus has a more cosmic, more interesting agenda in mind than super-tuning my soul.  On my way to spiritual superstardom, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to squeeze past Jesus, who stands in the middle of the road pointing to the weak, the homeless, the sick, the widowed, the displaced and un-embraced.

I’ve tried.  I’ve put forth a valiant effort.  But I can no longer envision Jesus the way I once did.  I can’t, for the life of me, picture Jesus saying, “Healthcare isn’t a right; it’s a privilege."  I can’t figure out a way to get Jesus to say, “Homosexuality is a capital crime; but fleecing the poor is a misdemeanor.”    I’m trying to track down, but as of yet have been unable to find, where Jesus says, “If you fear someone will strike you on one cheek, dial in a Predator drone.”  The church has too often been asked to give religious cover to moralities that were conceived absent the theological reflection provided by the church.  I find that the chasm between the revolutionary Jesus of first century Jerusalem and the domesticated Jesus of twenty-first century America grows more difficult for me to span all the time.

In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life.  The good news of the reign of God is that God’s reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God not one of God’s children will be left to die alone and unloved.

Living Like You Say You Do

“The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

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“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it.  This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483).  That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours.  Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).

I remember being in a history of preaching class my first year in seminary.  Different styles.  Different points of emphasis.  One of the early issues that preachers had to deal with was whether or not it was possible to be a good preacher while living a life uncommitted to the gospel.  That is to say, are there good preachers who are bad people?  Or, is it impossible, by definition, to be a good preacher and a scoundrel?  You’ve probably thought about that.

I remember thinking at the time that what one said as a preacher stood on its own—that the truth of my speech was unrelated to my actions.  I thought, “Sure you could be a jerk and still be a good preacher.  Look at Peter.

Getting it right first has never been a prerequisite for proclaiming the gospel.”  A study of Scripture reveals that God is constantly calling on the crooks and deadbeats of the world to be standard-bearers for the new kingdom (Jacob, Rahab, David, Paul, etc.).  I didn’t think the integrity of the preacher’s life impinged upon the integrity of the preacher’s words.

But the more I step into the pulpit, the more I am inclined to think I was wrong about the potential disconnect between the preacher’s life and the preacher’s words.  One thing my professor said during our classroom debate that I continue to see demonstrated in ministry is that if your primary job is telling the truth from the pulpit, you can’t lie with your life and expect people to listen to what you say on Sunday mornings.  If preaching is about telling the truth, you’d better get in the habit twenty four hours a day.

Ostensibly, he meant that preachers must always live truthfully—not just behind the pulpit—because there is no way after awhile to keep the different roles straight.  In other words, it’s impossible to sustain faithful ministry in a life that is schizophrenically removed from faithfulness.  If you live one way, while professing another, you’ll forget your story.

But not only will you forget your story, you will lose the ability to tell what a true story looks like.  The church has maintained through most of its history that, after awhile, there’s no way to recognize the beauty of truth while continuing to stand in a dunghill of lies.  You might be able to get away with it on a temporary basis, but sooner or later, you will lose the ability to discern truth from deceit.  “If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

“So what?” you may be asking.

Your life is a proclamation of the gospel; it’s either a true account of who Jesus Christ is or it’s not, but you’re telling the world something about Jesus with every word you speak and every thing you do.  Neither virtue nor Jesus can be loved from a distance.

The truth of the gospel is that you can’t really even love Jesus if you refuse to live like him.

Jesus Rode in with a Colt 45

Somewhere along the way, I think we have become numb to violence. This is very ironic understanding this whole week we are in that leads to the suffering execution of the One we proclaim to be the Lord and Savior of the World.

As Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe in The Last Week, there were two processions on that day we know as Palm Sunday. From the West came the Roman Governor, coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival to ensure that things remained calm. After all, this was an occupied people celebrating and remembering how God delivered them from bondage and slavery by their Egyptian oppressors. It seemed like a good time to consider how much things had changed and how far they still had to go.

In this imperial procession were soldiers, horses, chariots, weapons, armor, fanfare and glamour. It was a demonstration of power and a reminder to everyone of how much "peace" had been made through the arm of Rome. Everyone could see in that parade just how much prosperity the Empire had brought about, and no one could forget how it was accomplished. As Borg and Crossan state plainly, this state of "peace" was forged through  military victory. (Think 1984 long before 1984.) The soldiers were there as heroes (those who had helped make the Empire what it was today) and as reinforcement (those who would see that it stayed that way). They wouldn't tolerate an uprising by a bunch of folks seeking liberation and a New Way.

On the other side of town, Jesus enters Jerusalem from the East in this magnificent theatrical procession where he rides upon a colt. There are no soldiers, only friends. There are no weapons, only palms. There is no glamour or power (did I mention the colt?).

But what is there and what isn't there speaks volumes.

The Gospel of Mark sets the stage for this final week and it begins with a counter-procession that has all of the followers that a solidarity march might attract in downtown Cleveland. And yet, while the people are few and the threat seems to be myopic, the power within this humble procession from the East would endure and outlast the power of the Roman Empire.

It would do so because those who followed Jesus understood that the Way that Christ sets before us and asks us to follow is different from the Way that the empire set up for everyone. It isn't a way that will use power and the threat of power to accomplish its desires; it isn't a way that confuses "peace" with "stability"; it isn't a way that views people as disposable.

It's different.

In fact, it's just about the opposite.

But how often do we remember this? How often do we succumb to the ideas that

Hope resists; Hopelessness Adapts. WSC

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down... or we can all find hope

Lent begins today, the traditional 40 days (not including Sundays) of repentance and reflection.  We hear the familiar words: journeying towards the cross, giving up something for Lent to help us draw closer to God, repenting where we have gone wrong, etc. Lent can be dark and depressing. But Lent can also be refreshing, a time for self-reflection, a time to deepen one’s faith.  Many churches have turned away from the dreary darkness of Lent and the self-denial towards a brighter outlook—preparing for the resurrection, taking on a spiritual practice to deepen one’s relationship.  Lent can be almost a joyous time, as the days get brighter and warmer and Easter approaches.

This year, Lent falls in the heat of the election cycle.  The language is getting more intense, the attacks have become personal, to the point of attacking our president’s own religious beliefs by make assumptions and declarations based simply on the fact that the president has a different viewpoint on an issue than a candidate.  In our own local politics, at times we hear that real Christians vote with one political party and not the other.  It is enough to make one’s head explode with rage or make my stomach turn over.

However you look at Lent, it has traditionally been a time of self-introspection.  As the political climate has become volatile, perhaps this year we might take the time of Lent to look inward.  Do I allow my own anger and rage to consume my thoughts and actions?  Do I take cheap shots and aim at others with the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality?  Do I determine that all those who differ from me are truly evil, greedy, selfish and ignorant?  Do I become the very thing that I detest in others?

And maybe it’s time to look outward: how can I best model the life and ministry of Christ in my own actions?  How can I stand up for the poor, the sick and uninsured, the immigrant, the suicidal teen, the imprisoned, the oppressed, without taking on the attributes of those who make my blood boil?

This season of Lent, I hope that those of us who claim Christ and the name of Christian might look at how we are engaging the political sphere as followers and witnesses of Jesus.  How can we uphold the inherit worth and dignity of all persons, even those who would not include us in the faith?  How can we speak out on matters of justice authentically without taking on the rage and insults that often accompany political discussion?

It is hard to be authentic and be consistent with our faith and action.  The disciples couldn’t cut it.  Peter followed Jesus throughout his ministry only to draw a sword in the garden and then desert Jesus when he was arrested.  So we shouldn’t feel too awful when we fail to follow through all the time.  But we should strive to minister in the way Christ ministered to others—to be concerned about people more than issues, doing right more than “being right,” and proclaiming the Good News (the Gospel) instead of judgment and condemnation.

And this Lent, as the political rhetoric at times makes me want to vomit, I am reminded that beyond the cross is the Resurrection.  We will get through this.  We will make it to the promised hope.  We will see the New Life promised by Christ.  And we have this promise now—it is up to us to live into that New Life here on earth.  It does us no good to become just like those we disagree with when their actions don't follow up to how Jesus ministered, but in following Jesus, we are shown the better Way.  We can either live in the darkness and ashes, or we can do our part to live into the resurrection.

Pacifying the Inevitable Resurrection

Change is inevitable, or so it has been said.  There are many types of changes, and preparation for change is also inevitable.  The classic metaphor of preparation of change is the nursery for one’s first child.  As we prepared our son’s first room, we researched what we may expect and need.  Once A.J. moved into his nursery we were prepared for the change, or as prepared as any parents could be for such a huge change. Parenting has many changes, and some are easier than others, and sometimes there are changes that you do not expect.  I recall Mindi, my wife, did not want to use a pacifier, however on the second day of A.J.’s life I was sent out to find what will become known as his “binky.”  The first two years A.J. seemed to always have his binky.

We discussed different methods of getting him parted from his binky.  Originally it was based around reasoning with him, such as giving all his binkies to a younger baby who needed them or perhaps a little trickery that included the “binky fairy.”  However, A.J. to this day still does not communicate (part of his autism) on the level one would need for either of those plans to have a chance to work.  We got him into a Headstart program starting shortly after he turned three, and while we had at least weaned him to only have the binky when he slept or napped, he would not be allowed to have one for nap time at the center.  He would rarely fall asleep without the pacifier in place.

We dreaded taking the binky from him, but if we wanted him to nap at Headstart he was going to have to learn to sleep without it. Not to mention we knew he was sometimes going to “nap” just to have the binky time, but not sleep.  We considered just not giving it to him, cold turkey, but how could we explain why since he does not communicate?  My wife found a great idea-- she was going to cut off the nub and hand him the binky and say it was broken.  So that was the plan.  We kept putting it off, for we liked him sleeping at night and an occasional nap.  We were terrified and convinced he would not sleep well, and thus keep us up.  Since we felt we knew what this change would entail, we even picked a week where it seemed less of a burden.

So we even threw out all binkies, save the one Mindi cut the bulb off, no turning back.  She handed him the broken binky at bed time as she usually would, saying, “Mama broke it.”  He looked at it and laughed and laughed.  He held it and fell asleep almost as quickly as normal.  The next night he laughed as well.  By the end of the week he wasn’t even looking for the binky.

We delayed this process for fear of what we knew certainly would happen.  Honestly, we can often predict our son’s behavior, and it is smart to be prepared, hence the diaper bag filled not only with pull-ups, but snacks, books, straws, crayons, coloring pages, and of course wipes for any sort of mess.

During the Transfiguration, Peter came up the mountain saw the great event and assumed making booths to contain and hold this event was the answer.  This assumption came out of fear, as it says in the scripture, and I believe this not only refers to this specific moment on the mountain, but the inevitable resurrection.  Jesus even tells them to hold onto this sign and God’s command to listen to Him, after He had been raised from the dead.

We know what Peter witnessed, that the tomb was empty and the change was not the change we were terrified of—death—it was resurrection.  To contain the church of the good ol’ days, to believe we know the Bible, to worry about change we are terrified of actually doing, having programs without vision--this is how we try to put Jesus in a booth.  We need to share the empty tomb, the great change, the laughter over death, the Resurrection!!!

Autism Sculpts Divine Desire (ASDD)

Have you ever had to run to the store for diapers?  Well for the first 20 months or so of our son’s life we used cloth diapers, so it was never for diapers that I ran to the store.  At about that time he grew out of the cloth diapers we owned, we figured we would use disposable diapers until he was potty trained instead of making a large investment.  Of course we were quite optimistic, and continue to be.  It truly was not out of the question, for he was already learning things quickly and was sitting well on the thrown.  Little did we know that 22 months later he would still not be potty trained which we attribute to his development of autism. Now I keep a standing order of disposable diapers online so I save money, but this night we were too low before the next delivery, so I went out to Walmart.  It was late evening and busy, but not crowded.  I found myself walking through the section of Christmas items on sale, which was what we packed away earlier that day, since Epiphany had arrived.  Around the corner was another aisle of toys that were on sale.  I began to look for a toy on sale for my son.  I thought I could find a bargain and surprise him.  I must have taken ten minutes looking at all these fun toys that were on sale, but I could not find anything.   I could find many items that were age appropriate, many items that were fun, but none seemed right.

I then remembered that there were still two wrapped presents under the tree that we took down that afternoon.  They were both for our son, and it was not that he had an excessive number of presents.  This three-year-old had really no interest in Santa, or the reindeer.  He met that jolly man three times during Advent, was never scared, but also never interested.  We learned he liked the lights, the tree, and the song “Jingle Bells” (it may help that Elmo utilizes the tune for all his songs).  AJ’s stocking had a few presents, and that included his two favorites: chocolate peanut butter cups and a DVD with the Wonder Pets on it.  After that he was done; the bubble machine was loud, the books were fine,  the clothes fun for his parents, but the change of routine to rip paper off boxes was simply uninteresting to him; honestly he seem annoyed we kept showing him these wrapped items.

I should not have been so surprised, for 5 months earlier at his birthday party, his first present was a book he loved.  He opened it, saw an open place on the couch, ran from my lap where he was the center of attention, and sat right down amongst his party guests to read his beloved book.  We had to give up on him opening presents and had his “friends” open the gifts as he read his book.

Of course as a parent I am responsible to teach him, and have him taught. Of course there is the cliché that children teach us grown people, as well as Jesus telling adults to be like children.  However, there is something unique a child (a person) with autism can teach all of us, especially the church.

I believe there is a theological anthropology which helps our understanding how the Divine works with us messy humans.  An important part of this theological anthropology includes the theory of mimesis.  This theory is based on the fact that humans are social beings and our individuality and desires are based on the desires of others.  Even babies develop by mimicking their caregivers.  “It is made concrete in the imitation, learning, and repetition which is what enables an infant to become a socialized human being” (Alison 28). However, as humans develop we are socialized through  imitation and modeling, which is evident by the draw of a baby to the adult caregivers. “We all take such a draw, such a movement, for granted, though of course it isn’t automatic, as is evidenced by autistic children, who lack precisely the attraction, the draw the movement toward an adult” (Allison 27-28) I agree that my son proves that human beings are socially as well as biologically reared to adulthood, as we are struggling to teach and demonstrate the importance of the draw of socialization, especially communication.  Mimetic Theory  truly has great implication for our development of religion and our salvation through Jesus the Christ, who does not deny these desires, but wants us to model them after the perfect Divine:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

However, our socialization is based on the mimetic relationship with other humans, and not inherently the Divine.  The end result is violence.  This violence can be direct, but often results in scapegoating that happens because humans desire the same object, position, etc.  This violence is exactly what Jesus found Himself hung on a tree from, but is exactly what He saves us from.  Our desires should line up with the new age opened by the Resurrection.  However, we still have one foot in our world that our individuality is formed by the desires of others and often comes into conflict. This, though, brings up the issue of how a child with autism models someone that can avoid mimetic violence.

Walmart does sell basic items for life: fruit, vegetables, and coffee; yet much of the items depend on our desire to have items we do not truly need, but because we desire to be like others, we end up buying these items.  Of course I am not immune, which was very evident when I kept searching for a toy for AJ.  Now a lot of children have enough toys, or more toys than others, but for AJ it is that he does not fully participate in mimetic desire.  He is also still young, but generally a boy approaching 3 ½ years will want toys and not just the box (and he doesn’t even want a box either).  I watched all but one other child in his Headstart class (another boy on the spectrum), get excited and communicate their desires to a wonderful man dressed up like Santa.  That time we did get a good picture of our son with Santa, for in his stocking was an apple.  He was enamored at the apple, for he likes apples and he explored the smooth red surface as we snapped pictures, no idea he was the center of attention, nor was he going to sit with the man in the red suit.

AJ’s desires are not based as clearly on the reflection from others as a neurologically normal child.  Let me be quite frank, it is difficult, heart wrenching, scary, sad, and wonderful.  Wonderful, I write, because he makes us wonder about life.  I realized that I had been sucked into needing to buy a toy, because my desire is influenced by others and I desire to be like others.  That realization came from my son’s modeling of developing his identity with much less care of other’s desires.  What a great lesson.

The work ahead of us is to keep some of the special and unique advantages of his thinking while encouraging socialization and communication.  Honestly, I believe the best way is for those of us that are socialized to realize our desires can be based on the model Jesus suggests, which is the action of love, and that is the one desire my son has, and he has for every human being.  He is consistent and perfect like the Divine parent.  We all learn from our children; yet I believe those with the unique take on mimetic desire can teach us, as we teach them to communicate.  My prayer is that I can teach AJ to communicate, and yet still keep the desire of love the first priority; for if we model Jesus’ love, will that not be the social normative?

Work Cited:  Alison, James. The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York:  Crossroad, 1998

Reading the Bible, Again

On January 1st, in the evening, I picked up my Bible that I had been given at my baptism, flipped to the “Read The Bible Through a Year” chart, and began with day one.  I’ve read the Bible all the way through twice, once taking several years just reading a chapter an evening, and once in our first year of marriage, JC and I read the “One Year Bible.”  But I’ve begun this project many times throughout the years, only to fail for one of two reasons: I get behind in my daily reading about midway through January, or I get bored in Leviticus. I’ve heard a number of mainline preachers over the years say you shouldn't read the Bible straight through: there’s a lot of useless information such as the “Begats” which you don’t need to know, plus all the outdated law codes, and on top of it, the stories may begin in chronological order but it gets messy in the history and prophets—they weren’t written in chronological order to begin with.

Another argument I hear against reading the Bible straight through is from those who came out of more fundamentalist/evangelical traditions, who argue that they were forced to read the Bible this way, as-is, verse by verse, with no study guide or in-depth study on what they were reading.

But I think there’s something missing by not reading the Bible all the way through, at least once in your lifetime. This is how our scriptures have been put together. This is the canon we have now (though one can argue for Protestants this version has been around for much less time than the fuller version our Catholic and Orthodox siblings have).  This is the Bible, love it or loathe it, that we have, that millions around the world read (of course in various languages, translations and paraphrases).

I love the simple fact that I and perhaps thousands of other people have begun reading the Bible together on January 1st.  We may be reading at different paces, with different charts, we may get behind or read more quickly, but almost all of us started on January 1st with Genesis 1:1 and will end on December 31st with Revelation 22:21. Some of us will read the Psalms throughout the year, some of us will read both Old and New Testaments at the same time, but we all are reading these scriptures together, throughout the year, in an individual but collective way, as Christians and as skeptics, as conservative and as liberals, from all walks of life.

There are other reasons for reading the Bible all the way through as well: every time I read it, I understand a passage differently.  I pick up on something I didn’t before (Digression: This time, only eleven days in I have noticed that in Genesis 5:29 Noah is really the first Messianic figure in a sense: “He named him Noah, saying ‘Out of the ground that the Lord had cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’“  I had never noticed that before—that the curse Adam experiences after disobeying God in the garden, which is the basis of the doctrine of original sin, is overcome with Noah, prophesied at his birth by his name!) I know the context of all those verses that have been taken out of context and use as proof texts for Scripturally-based arguments.  I remember where certain passages and stories are in the Bible more clearly each time I read when someone asks me my opinion or has a question about the Bible.  I gain new, fresh insights on the Scriptures and on their application in my own life.

As clergy, I think the practice of reading Scripture as a spiritual practice is a tough discipline to take on. We have to read the Bible to prepare for Sunday sermons or Bible studies.  We read it as part of our work, part of the job we do, and it’s hard to look at the Scripture without a critical eye for study or how to bring the Scripture to relevancy in our congregational life.  It can be difficult to let go and read the Scriptures in a way that is part of our spiritual life.  I think of all spiritual practices that clergy and lay leaders engage in both in leadership and in personal life—such as prayer, charity, fellowship, etc—devotional reading of the Scriptures may be the hardest to do in our personal life.  This does not mean to take away our critical eye or to not store away and take notes for sermons in the future, but it does mean to allow for the words to simply be sacred, for the words to simply be inspiring, for the words of Scripture to connect us with the Divine.  Lectio Divina is a practice that has become popular again in recent years, in Protestant circles as well as Catholic, as a way of prayerfully reading and meditating on the Scriptures, rather than studying and critiquing them.

So as this New Year is still dawning, there is still time to develop a practice of reading the Scriptures devotionally. You don’t have to do it in a year’s time, just one chapter a day.  Or you can double-up and be caught up by the end of January if you prefer.  I continue to marvel in the new insights I find in Scripture, and at the fact that millions around the world declare the Bible to be their sacred scripture, and that thousands of us are trying to read it all in a year, every year.

The KKK, The Annunciation, and Hope in the Midst of It All

Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38a).

Some years ago, when I was a pastor in Middlesboro, Kentucky, an African-American man shot and killed his white girlfriend’s seven year-old boy, Jeremy. He said it was an accident, that they’d just been playing around when his pistol fell and discharged, hitting the boy in the back. He was charged with murder.

At his arraignment the judge set bail—which someone put up the money for—and he was released. Unusual in a murder trial, to be sure. I don’t remember now what reason the judge gave for setting bail, but the Ku Klux Klan up in Indiana got wind of it. They were outraged that the man was out walking the streets. They made a big fuss—said they were going to stage a big rally in the parking lot at city hall—said they were going to fight for “Justice for Jeremy.”

The announcement of a rally drew a great deal of media attention. So, the ministerial association got together and decided that we had to respond somehow. It was tough. What could we do? We were only about ten ministers. As we sat there contemplating a response, someone said, “What can we do that nobody else can?”

Not much.

“Wrong answer. We can worship. Why don’t we have a worship service of reconciliation and healing at the arts auditorium at the same time the Klan is doing their white-hooded sheet dance down at city hall? What if we could draw people away from their hate-filled bull-horn rally, and convince them to come pray?”

So, that’s what we did. We had speakers come in, people from all over the state came down to join us to proclaim that things were different in Middlesboro, Kentucky, that the heart of Appalachia, beaten down by so many other things—joblessness, poverty, illiteracy, drugs—was at least not a place where hate could find a home.

The town was tense—ready for some kind of pyrotechnics. We had our service and they had their rally. We received a great deal of criticism for doing it, but we felt like we had no other choice.

After the prayer service, which about 250 people attended, someone came up to me and said, “There were like 2,500 people downtown at the Klan rally.”[1]

“Seriously?” I thought. “They had ten times as many people as we did? How did that happen?”

And I have to be honest with you. I was angry. I was depressed. Here we’d spent the better part of three weeks trying to get people to stay away from downtown, trying to convince them that the way to answer this threat to the unity of our city was to stay away from the hate group that was going to gather down at city hall. Instead of rubbernecking the yahoos in sheets, we offered a way of responding to the hate through love in a service of prayer.

Now, it’s not like we didn’t get the word out. You’d have had to have been hiding under an extraordinarily large rock not to know that there was an alternative service. The media across the state, for their part, were wonderfully helpful in trying to get the message out that a prayer service was being held at the same time as the Klan rally. We tried as much as humanly possible to get people to understand what we thought was the faithful response in this situation.

Well, when I heard that 10 times as many people thought it was more important for them to get a look at the spectacle down at city hall, I confess: I was upset–and later I was downright discouraged.

But then I did something that I always do; I shared my disappointment with my wife. And in her always wise way she pointed out to me that perhaps all the people God needed to make a difference in this situation were down at the arts center, praying for healing and reconciliation. The implication being that maybe the success or failure of our efforts didn’t rise or fall with my interpretation of the numbers, that maybe God was doing exactly what God needed to do to get God’s work accomplished.

We pleaded and begged, thinking that if we didn’t produce the results no results would be produced. But upon reflection, I think Susan was right. I believe that we had exactly the right number of people there to accomplish God’s purposes. God generally doesn’t call big crowds anyway. Usually, God calls one or two folks. But even in the hands of one willing person, the work of God can set the world on its ear.

That’s the reason I like the annunciation; it’s the story of one unknown teenage girl from out in the sticks who, when told that she’s the centerpiece of God’s plan to become present to a lost and dying world says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that, Mary becomes what the Greek Orthodox call, the theotokos, the “God-bearer.”

God extends that same call to us.

Now, we can say no and get on with our lives as we’ve laid them out. We can choose to ignore the messenger, and chances are the messenger will go away.

But if we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” we become Mary’s people. We become “God-bearers” to a world fueled by hatred and sin.

The great mercy of God proclaimed to us during Advent is that there are still a few folks, a few of Mary’s people out there who are capable of saying, “let it be with me according to your word.”

It doesn’t take much. Just a few people willing to bear God to a world where the poor and the powerless continue to receive the short end of the stick, a few people willing to sit at the bedside of the sick and the addicted and the dying, a few people willing to put their arms around the shoulders of a troubled teen to say, “It’s going to be all right—I promise, it’s going to be all right,” just a few people willing to hold the hands of the aging, a few people to stand by the side of the lost, the unwelcome, the forgotten ones and say, “Welcome. Hate has no home here.”

The good news of the Gospel is that it doesn’t take much, only a teenaged girl from the middle of nowhere willing to say, “let it be with me according to your word,” and the world can never be the same.


  1. The local paper later reported that it was more like 1,000.  ↩

Where Are We Again?

This article, written by the Rev. Maggie Sebastian, originally appeared on her blog, revmother.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.

I hadn't intended on doing it.  I was tired - day four of a five-day week that was going to end in a 24 hour shift.  I wanted to be home.  It was cold and rainy; I was in Portland.  I got off of the #8 bus and looked down the street.  #N17.  Occupy the Banks.  The chants of the crowd down the street acted on me like a siren.  Toting all my junk on my shoulder, I walked towards the protest with curiosity, expectation and some fear.

With each step I saw them.  On horses, on bicycles, on motorcycles, in SUV's, on foot.  Cops in riot gear.  Cops fitted for violent response every where I turned.  I walked as far as I could.  The police stood shoulder-to-shoulder, batons in hand, zip cuffs on their belt, blocking the street.  This was real.  This wasn't some distant news report, but right in front of me.  I questioned my decision to investigate.

So many cops in riot gear.  They were everywhere.  And here I was, much like the 81-year-old man in town that had his head slammed on the ground last week,  just wanting to observe.    Was I going to get accosted as well?    The scene was chilling and more than sobering.  It was out and out frightening.  What country am I in again?

I wound up standing behind the "front line" of protesters facing the police.  The protesters chatted happily amongst themselves - not about hatred or violence - but about the Constitution and American History.  "You know nowadays, the Founding Fathers would be classified as terrorists for what they did to the tea."  "Do you know the exact wording of the First Amendment?  It goes . . ."  I understood that in part their conversation was supposed to be overheard by the police officers in front of them.  Hey, friend.  You are one of us, really.  We are all Americans.  One young fellow tried to start the chant, "You're sexy.  You're cute.  Take off your riot suit," but he couldn't quite pull it off and dissolved into giggles.

When I turned around to head back to my bus stop, I saw a young man with a homemade sign.  He was a little taller than me with wire-rimmed glasses, a long reddish beard, and a few extra pounds.  "Bookish" came to mind.  His sign had a message of social justice.  I can't remember the words exactly, but I remember thinking, "Yeah, we should actually live the Gospel.  What an idea."  I told him that I liked his sign and unexpectedly, he asked me where I worked.  "I'm a chaplain at the VA."  Then this young man's face lit up.  "I am studying to be a spiritual director."  I told him about the Chaplains Guild for Occupy Portland, and gave him a "cool to meet you."  He wasn't a "dirty hippie" that should "get a job," but a person of faith trying to make a difference.

Some people refuse to get it.  They are frightened by what they don't know, by change, by what they perceive might threaten their status quo.  Consequently, they vilify the Occupy protesters without hearing the overarching narrative:  The scales are lopsided and there is suffering.  No more. Many have suffered from our social/political policies in the last 30 years, and shame on us for just now taking to the streets.  No more.

Seems simple enough to me.

Only 43% of these protesters are 25 or under.  The other 57% are older with a good 12% eligible for an AARP card.  They are from all walks of life, beliefs, and ideologies.  And yes, there are some who are "high" or looking for confrontation.  But this hodgepodge of people understand something that most people in the pews don't grasp or refuse to grasp.  Justice happens when all of God's people are cared for, not just "me."  Capitalism is not Christianity.  Justice happens when we actually follow the lessons of the prophets and Christ and are willing to stick our necks out a bit.  Most of the protesters don't have a clue on how to fix what is wrong, but they are no longer willing to sit back and be silent.  They are boldly naming the ills - prophets in their own rights.  And much like the Biblical prophets, some are paying a heavy price for their efforts.

I hiked back up the street to wait for my bus.  I could have grabbed a bus as I walked but a line of police on horses blocked my way, so I walked all the way back to where I started.  As I stood in the rain and cold there was sudden movement.  State troopers marched up the sidewalk eerily reminding me of some bad movie about a lawless future America.  They boarded specially equipped SUV's so 10 or so rode on running boards.  The mounted police moved out.  What was going on?

I realized later that I had apparently just missed being in that place and at that moment of the pepper spraying.  Pepper spray against loud but peaceful protesters who up to this point have not broken one window.  Not in New York  Not in Chicago.  Not in Portland.  Where are we again?