Are We Building a Fear-based Community? – the power of gossip and group fear

We are afraid.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the United States we are afraid.  We live in one of the most secure countries in the world,  in one of the most secure geographical locations, surrounded by the world’s largest military complex, in the pinnacle of pinnacles of history in terms of wealth and material excess.  We throw away more food than most countries eat.  We make (and sell) more arms than any other country on earth, maybe more than all other countries.  We are a secure people who are terrified.

We not only buy and carry weapons, increasingly arguing about whether we should have the right to carry in schools and churches!  We fear people around the world.  We fear natural disaster.  And we fear crimes.

I like to blame the media.  It is fun to judge others, and I judge them guilty.

The moment of realization for me came when I did not have a television in Phoenix, but my congregation began to talk about kidnapping.  It was rampant.  Children were being snatched off the street.  People worried about our girls who did not even know them.  I was in a hospital room on a visit with an unconscious parishioner when I saw the cable news.

Kidnapping was everywhere!  Seven references in less than one minute.  Constant pictures of cute blonde girls and one little boy.  I was worried.  Then I noticed that there were only three pictures.  They were looping the same story constantly.  I looked it up online.  There were seven open cases at that moment.  The FBI agent I called said it was actually a low point in kidnapping as a national crime. It was just the news cycle.

Why do we invest so much in weapons?  Why do we idolize snipers and praise drones?  We have become a people of unjust war.  We have become a war culture.  We love Rome.  This is just plain reality.

We could point back to World War II.  Or we could blame communists.  We could look for capitalists under the blanket, but the truth is we, the American people, have become a culture of constant fear and violent reprisal.

I am a priest.  I am wearing all black except a little dash at my Adam’s apple of white.  I am a paid Christian, follower of Jesus.  Yet when I saw the news of ISIS online and read the reports, my instinct was war, bombs, murder.  I watched the beginning clip of the martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians before I was snapped out of my fervor.

“Witness” is what martyrdom means. It was the witness of the early church that we died for our faith rather than killing for it.  The Ethiopian martyrs were doing what we have done for two millennia.  But that is not my instinct.  I am more trained by Die Hard and the Terminator than Stephen and the early church.  And that concerns me deeply.

Am I willing to die for my faith?  Am I willing to say with Christ, “If it is me you seek, then let these men go”?  I am and I am not.

“Too long I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” said the Psalmist, “I am for peace, but when I talk about it, they only talk about war.”  I preached about this recently and made the tie to gossip.  Gossip is not the well meaning, Do you know what is going on?  It is the Did you hear about so and so  . . . ?  It is the sniping of the distant foe with news and rumors.  It is destructive to community as surely as war.

It is the same instinct: to protect something or gather a people we offer up a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always someone else.  I caught myself a few years ago using little bits of gossip to connect with people.  I am still deeply ashamed to say that.  It was horrendous.  It was wrong.  It was an attempt to build community.

Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (2014) names the communal responses to crisis as avoidance, shallow community, fear-based community, and deep community.  He points out that fear-based community is a perverse attempt at meeting the desire for deep community.  It is gathering a group around an enemy or perceived enemy or I would add the rumor of an enemy.

This little version that we get when we gossip is cheap community.  It does not deliver on the promises of community.  It cannot deliver trust, togetherness, support, outreach, justice, and peace.  It cannot deliver joy, but it does give us that cheap moment of being on the same side for a minute or two.  It feels like community.

We have turned this, like many vices, into a national past time.  My favorite eight feet in creation somedays is that line of magazines lined up for our downfall at the cashiers of grocery stores.  I can peruse the latest gossip about people I don’t know but judge viciously based on what I know to be half-truths, at best.  We may not know each other, but we can both agree that the Kardashians are horrible shallow people and that Jenner fellow needs our pity.

Let’s revel in our moment of togetherness.  Is this the wine of our age, the drink that lubricates our friendships?

To take one step further, open Facebook.   Look at the feeds that are gathering communities around fear.  Gay people and their allies, notice the language, fear religious people.  Religious people fear gay people.  Let’s share relevant news stories to make the point that they’re out to get us.  Look at what a violent criminal the latest black man was when the police shot him.  That cop should be afraid.  Look at those police in their special forces gear and their violence.  Be afraid.  And share this.  Like it?

We are told repeatedly in the gospel that we are not to be afraid and not to judge.  We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  We are told to build communities that cross the very lines that we use to define our fears.  We are told to be communities of love.

Our moral life is supposed to be based in our love.  We are to be a people of restraint, not seeking our desires and vengeance, but rather a simple people who offer forgiveness freely.  We are called to love strangers and to be open to people who are different from us, to serve them, to love them.  And to do this because God is that way toward us.

We have to admit our sins in order to confess them and be forgiven.  We have to admit our need in order to be healed.  We have to admit that we have become a people of fear, anxiety, worry.  We have to admit that we have become a people of violence, war, gossip, and lies.  And we have to do this because it is the way of Christ we seek to follow.

We know of no other name under heaven by which we might be saved. It is clear what we are to do and who we are to be.  But we are afraid.

In the last few years it has become clear to me how much fear is natural for human beings who begin to follow Jesus.  We are called into exactly the kind of places that make us the most fearful.  We have to learn to be a people of faith, trust.  We have to trust that God will watch over us, that we will be provided for without recourse to violence, and we have to trust that the Spirit will fill us with the love we need for those who terrify us, who anger us, who make us afraid.

Jesus came to his disciple in that locked room in John and breathed on them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  The sins you hold on to, you hold on to.”

Do not be afraid.

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Rule of Grace – Chapter 2

Our new life begins in baptism, where we are made children of God and heirs of the Rule of our Abba.  This great and holy calling comes with a real danger to see that God’s covenant was with us, but did Jesus not say as the elder repeats week after week in the Eucharist, “This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for the crowd for the forgiveness of sins.”  Or did Paul not say, “For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Were not all sinners?  Yes, as Paul had just affirmed in his letter to the Romans.  Salvation is not for the few, but for the whole earth.

And this is not dependent on us, for as God says seven times in the covenant with the whole earth after the flood, this covenant is made with all flesh, all creation, but it is dependent on God.

We humans have often become tribal in our survival thinking, our flesh thinking, that we roll back God’s calling and covenant to be about us.  This sin was what brought the temple down and has led to sin time and time again.  Indeed privation of good is how philosophers often describe evil.  When we take God’s covenant and make it personal only we are on the road away from the New Jerusalem and we have tossed Christ’s yoke from our necks.

It often shows up in the simplest of errors, greeting only our fellow Christians, our friends, in the marketplace.  Soon we are protecting ourselves from the very people we are called into new life for!

The followers of Jesus are to be a house of prayer for all the nations.  We are a royal priesthood.  And what does a priesthood do except represent God to the world and present the world to God!

We did not earn our belonging to God.  We came home like the prodigal son; perhaps we expect to become servants again, but to be returned to our true created status seems to good to even dream.  Did we earn it?  No, if anything we have earned our condemnation, if we are to follow Paul’s logic.  But this only makes sense if we understand the whole and holy good love that we have walked away from.

If God is the God of the so much of our theology, the angry score-keeping sacrifice-needing god of the pagan systems of sacrifice that has often replaced YHWH, especially in the deserts, then we would be brave to escape.  We would be heroic to flee from such a god to the worship of self and pleasure.  But oh, this misses the gospel by a mile or more!

We can only be said to have offended God if God is good.  We have to know our true blessing to understand the offense.  We have to return to ourselves to understand how far we have fallen from our true nature.  This is what the “depravity of man” theology can totally miss.  We were not created in sin.  We were created in goodness, in blessedness, in order to be the blessing of God in the world.  If we are to return to ourselves, we must see how we have become a blessing only to our self in our pursuit of pleasure, comfort, personal happiness.  The tragedy is that in being a blessing only to ourselves, we have become a curse to ourselves.

This seems heavy handed in the world of self-worship. But it is simple.  We were created for a purpose, to love God and care for creation including each other.  We were meant to bear the image of a creative Creator in love to others.  When we turn that to our self alone, we are like hunting doges kept in apartments, destructive creatures who are deeply unhappy.  We destroy things seeking the true nature of our purpose.

O, unhappy fate, to be a Vizsla in a city apartment!  We eat couches and chairs, dig up the furniture, and terrorize the cat looking for one moment of deep satisfaction.  We make do with the small walks in the park of worship on Sunday when we are meant to run, to stalk, and pursue through the great hunting lands of Hungary!

Let us admit that a deeper purpose is calling us.  In our pursuit let us turn our search outward to the welcome and service of others.  Let us worship the good God, creator and Abba, YHWH who is always beyond our grasp but who welcomes us home in open arms; and let us study God’s ways in the Scriptures and in our deepest selves, in tradition, the apostle’s teachings and in fellowship.  Let us look outward to our world, that God loves and Christ died for.

In practice, take a person, any person on the street, that you can see, and practice seeing them as God’s child, beloved.  Can you see God’s delight in them?

Begin your day the same way, remembering who you are.  Come to your self daily as a child of God among God’s children.  Sit up straight, breathe deeply, and delight in our Abba who delights in you.  This is the right beginning to set us on the way of salvation.

Do not be discouraged when you realize how far you have wandered from your calling, God is waiting for your return.  The road may be short or long, but God will put a ring on your finger and sandals on your feet.  He will put you again under the mantle of Christ your savior.  Breathe deep and start walking.

Addicted to the Apple – Theology as Addiction Treatment

Okay, so I am not the first person to notice this, but the Apple on my Mac has a bite taken out of it.  This little observation always haunts me a little bit whenever I see it, which is often.  I write on a Macbook, text and talk on a iPhone.  I did sell my iPod, iPad mini 2, and the older Mac at home is a half-frozen antiquity from 2008.  I am addicted.

Okay, so I don’t really mean addicted, nor am I really talking about my preference for an operating system on my computer.  I am addicted to this world, the world of the apple.  The world of the knowledge of good and evil, post-garden of eden, clothing world.  I am an addict to the world of sin.  And I bet you are too, even if you use a PC or Chromebook or nothing.  We are addicted.

I was reminded of my state by a conversation with a recovery rockstar locally, Thomas Gilbert.  He was talking about what makes effective recovery and laying the groundwork for a sober house and retreat center here in Traverse City.  I am all about people in recovery.  They are models of new creation living in the most brutal and honest way.

We Christians should be major supporters of recovery because of what it is, what it says, and what it means.  As sober Christians we are really passive about love for people in recovery generally.   As an Episcopal church, we host AA and have treatment available for clergy, but I am talking about local Christians understanding and rejoicing and celebrating recovery as a model of embracing new life.

The Navy Seals have a saying, Embrace the Suck.  I love that saying because it means to accept the suffering of this moment in order to do your job and do it well.  It is going to suck, and if you want to get where you want to go, you are going to have to embrace it.  I want the solitude of desert solitude and survive, so I carry water.  In recovery, I understand that we have to embrace the suck of life.  We, all of us human beings, embrace opiation, medication, numbing agents, until we are no more fully alive.  We avoid real life.

This is the essence of addiction as I understand it.  Our minds become shaped, rutted, preset to the addicted substance instead of real life.  We prefer the addiction object instead of life and loved ones and even food and water.  These objects usually have a numbing effect, an opiate of some sort.  We, of course, prefer to be numb rather than deal with the world.  Being sober means embracing the suck of real life.  It is hard and will be if we want to get where we want to go.

Have you ever heard someone who was so addicted to their beliefs that they no longer embraced real life?  The NRA member who cannot deal with the realities of handgun deaths of children, or rich people who cannot look long at poverty?  I think the allegation that faith is an opiate is fair when our faith is a way of avoiding the world, of numbing ourselves to reality.  That does not mean that ecstatic realities are not real, but rather that they can lead toward or away from real life, just like a glass of wine can lubricate conversation and allow people to be real or be a numbing agent that avoids the difficulties of conversation.

Doing theology is difficult, but it is one of the ways that we get a new mind, that we learn to think as a mature engaged human beings.  I need a new mind.  Yes, Jesus can just give me one, but that is not the way God always works.  We are given freedom and then have to learn to live in freedom and responsibility.  We have to metanoia, or repent, to get a new mind in Christ Jesus. The word metanoia is the Greek word for repent, and it means to have a new way of knowing, a larger mind, a more mature understanding or view.  Learning theology, alongside learning to concentrate, contemplate, and meditate, alongside learning to submit and pray are the practices of getting a new mind.  All of these practices are rooted in and soaked by the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus.

When we get a new mind, the questions we ask change as well as the answers we have.  Can we ever go back to not knowing that we are naked?  Is it possible to go back to a state of purity?  I don’t think so.  The addicts we have, our recovery heroes, are always going to have addictions, just like us.  We should celebrate their work and their successes, and we should be patient when they fall off the wagon and return to the object of their addictions; after all, who could understand that better than us?  We should embrace their suck and embrace them as they wrestle with real lives and the complications and convictions of their lives under the apple.  After all, they are us.

The faith and love of the Episcopal Church will be tested by our ability to love the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook and hold her close and visit her while being honest about the atrocity and sin and brokenness of her addiction.  Can we let her be human and still love her, honor her, uphold her dignity, while admitting the depths and realities of her sin?  Can we do that while honoring and upholding and embracing the dignity of her victim, a family man who was bicycling through his own complicated and beautiful life? Can we hold the contradictions and complications of this story and not neglect the human being involved?  Can we embrace the suck here?

This is the test we face right now, or at least one of them.  I know that if I am going to embrace the suck of real life and work for an even more real life of Christ and the Rule of God, where every human being is loved by God and has justice and peace and where sins are forgiven and justice done, I am going to need a new mind.

So I lean into the Daily Office, and I sit in meditation and prayer, and I read theology, even though none of these is easy today.  I need a new mind, and a community that loves me, and I need the close and constant work of the Holy Spirit breathing in me, speaking the Word and his Way into being in me, and I need the God of all creation who is bringing the whole back one day.

Until then, I love you even when it sucks, because Christ embraced the manger and the cross, and on my way out of the Garden still picking my teeth, God made me something to wear, and the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation still move and even darkness is not dark to God.

Je ne suis pas Charlie!

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Je ne suis pas Charlie!  I am not Charlie.  But I am learning to love him while disagreeing with everything he stands for.

After the horrific events in the last week, I saw a number of Christian leaders and social commentaries lead with the French slogan “I am Charlie” or Je suis Charlie.  This strikes me as extremely shortsighted.  I know the impulse.  There is a victim, and we want to identify, empathize, and support victims.  We fear terrorism too.  We value freedom of the press.  We are love the French, sort of, in America.

But, I am a little horrified too.  I am familiar with Charlie Hebdo.  I have read the magazine and seen the comics over the years.  And I have to say, “No.  I am not that.”  And I don’t think Christians should be so quick to claim something that is not good, may even be evil, either in the name of empathy or freedom.  Charlie was and is a source of horrific themes of misogyny, racial and religious stereotypes, and sexual and gender ridicule.  We cover these things politically. We allow them as a matter of social order.  I am not going to argue for censorship.  But as a Christian, I have found this magazine to be offensive at a level that would make Alfred P. Newman blush with shame.

We have to be more discerning than Je suis Charlie.  We don’t have to become neonazis to stop on the side of the road and change their tire.  We don’t have to become prostitutes to care for them in the hospital.  And we don’t have to think every kind of speech or action is okay, even if we allow it politically.

My fear is that the United States is losing its ethics.  We are losing our ability to think and reason beyond the soundbite.  And this is incredibly dangerous.  The tendency to think thin thoughts that are not centered in a way of being that is deeper than the current context is not simply a symptom of our age; it is a loss of an internal moral compass.  It hearkens to 1935.

We see this everywhere in media.  The bad guy does bad things, so we do bad things to the bad guy and cheer.  We torture our enemies.  We murder their children.  We hate them.  We call them names.  We ridicule them.  We kill them and anyone around them out of the clear blue sky.  And we call it good.

But we are not Americans first or French.  We are Christians.  And our Lord has told us how to respond when someone hits us, when someone calls us names, when someone hates us.  He showed us on the cross.  And those commands are not conditional demands.  They come before the pledge.

I do not condone the violence done in Paris this week.  No one should.  It was evil.  The people who were shot were human beings who were loved by God and us.  We, as Christians, must love them and do.  All of them.

This is the brutal end of our Gospel.  It may cost us our very lives, but we even then we have nothing to fear.  We are a people of love.  Charlie Hebdo did not represent that.  Neither did the terrorists.  Neither do our drones.  We must find a new way forward.

I am not Charlie, but I love him, even if he hates me.  But I don’t have to pretend like he is right, either.  I can love my enemy and bandage his wounds.

Intimacy and Incarnation: Christmas and Love

Okay, so I am not a great husband.  My personal history and my lovely wife bear this out.  I am constantly in reform, always reading and realizing what a dope I am maritally.  So it is with relish that I approach premarital counseling as a priest.  Don’t worry, I always send couples with big obvious issues away to someone who knows what they are doing, but the rest I figure I can at least save from my stupidest mistakes.

Actually, my general plan is to present some models and guide couples into a series of conversations with a little well-seasoned wisdom from someone who has been there.  I really do read a lot because I really do feel inadequate to be married.  But then we all are according to David Schnarch, PhD.  He is the therapist I use the most.  His book Passionate Marriage should be on your reading list if you are a person.  There is no qualifier for that because the book presents deep wisdom about life through the lens of marriage and sex.

I will not go into the whole thing here, but I have preached about it before.  (See Sounds Like Grace at gracetc.blogspot.com.) So as I said in the sermon, this year I was asked to do a wedding the weekend before Christmas, and I said yes.  It was a great wedding, wonderful couple, great church, and I was only mildly stressed by it all.

But it weirded my preparation for Christmas.  We have seven services between Christmas Eve and Day, beginning with one for our Jubilee Ministries Community, and going through a whole gamut of styles and shapes.  I preach along an arc, so I don’t bore myself or the people who come to multiple services.  So I have been thinking and writing about Incarnation for a while in preparation, like normal.

Incarnation is the theological notion that God is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The enfleshed reality of God is a hard one to swallow these days, and I think more people doubt Jesus’ divinity than his teachings, though to be honest the teachings aren’t all that popular at the implementation level.  Jesus is God and fully human.  This idea is at the heart of our faith.  I think it is beautiful, and while it is unique in Christ, it is also made true in all of us in Christ.  But what does this have to do with sex?

Intimacy is this loaded topic for most of us.  We want more, we want to be closer to our spouses and other people, yet being close to people freaks us out.  It brings up some pretty basic insecurities and even existential terror.  We are scared of intimacy because it asks us to be open, honest, present, vulnerable.  It asks us to have integrity and stay close as we become scared.  Scharch points out that self-validated intimacy is the only real kind we can have, really, because we can do it no matter what the other person does.  I can show you who I really am.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in response.  I cannot control you.  I want to, but I can’t.  What I can do is soothe my fears and anxiety and stay present with you.  You have to choose your response.  In marriage it would seem that this is what we want from our spouse.  Show me who you are and I will love you, we seem to say.  But we don’t really either, because their self revelation, while not demanding anything in itself, changes our relationship and challenges us and our ways of insecurity and fear.  It asks us without asking us to show up and reveal ourselves and love them by giving like the little drummer boy, the only gift we really have.

And so we get back to incarnation.  In Jesus, God reveals God’s own self.  And it does not seem to demand anything really.  I think that is why we prefer Christmas to Easter sometimes.  God shows up.  God Emmanuel.  We long for that, and yet when God does show up, even mediated as angels, what do they have to say every time?  Peace.  Be still.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all are told.  Do not be afraid.

This Christmas, what if we entered into this divine offering of God’s self, this earthy and heavenly intimacy without fear?  Can we be present to God’s self and unhook our fears and expectations, our self-doubts and self-concern and trust that God loves us and just wants us to show up?

To be able to be present to another while being intimate requires self-differentiation.  We have to recognize that we are not our partner and see them as they are.  This is harder and more demanding that it sounds as I write it.  My wife and I laugh about her leaving town a couple of years ago, when I bought Velveeta shells and cheese.  She was startled to realize that I would choose something she would never choose.  It was like a revelation to her that I would eat it.  It was also a massive disappointment, and it challenged my secret love of fake horrible cheese-like products.

Now I am no master of intimacy.  I have often hidden, like others, behind all sorts of defenses, from anger and distance to knowledge and judgement.  I am amazed this Christmas at how the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings point right through all of these issues and call us to live courageously open, intimate lives.

I don’t think this is possible without strong morals and integrity and boundaries.  If we are to able to stand so close to others and hold ourselves open and loving, we have to be able to do so without victimizing the other or abusing them or losing ourselves in sloppy sentimentalism.  We need the whole teachings of Christ.  Love and courage and holiness together.

So it is Christmas, and I am trying to figure out how to talk about all of this.  Are you more open this year?  Are you more courageous and loving?  Are you more holy?  I want that intimacy with Amy that we both long for, and I fear that I am going to have to keep growing up to get there.  I want that intimacy with God that I hear promised in the prophets and in Christ.  And I fear that I come to the manger as a place of hope of course, but also a place of challenge to my deepest, most human self to be with the God who loves me enough to show up, vulnerable, honest, and holy.