The Spirit’s work of diversity

Read Isaiah 61; Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12; 1 John 2:27

While I was in seminary and a little while after, I was working as a young adults pastor, with added responsibilities in teaching Christian education classes. I also helped with special events, like organizing a walk-through, multimedia stations of the cross.

I loved working with the people and helping them discover their own callings in Christ, growing in my own walk with God and understanding of my gifts and passions as the same time.  Yet, there was a lot of dysfunction in the higher leadership.

The church had started as a very dynamic youth and single oriented congregation, becoming older and more family oriented.  Along the way, it had lost its founding pastor and his replacement had a lot of passion for God, but did not have theological education and had a lot of other personal issues.

A new group of people surrounded him, talking about his role as a visionary leader, the one who gave vision to the church and who was anointed by God to shape the church.

He took this to heart and began to make changes that alienated a great many long-involved participants, dismissing concerns and making sweeping changes to the ministry structure.  He burned out after a while, and other staff pastors stepped up in leadership, but the change was set.

A highly participatory church had morphed into a staff-driven structure and passive congregation. I had vague ideas about what was happening, but couldn’t find the right words or the right path.

I was on my way to burning out in the midst of the politics and dysfunction, so stepped away from ministry to pray, to study, to consider what God was doing in my life and my calling.

A couple years later I realized it really was an issue of pneumatology, which is the theological term for thinking about the Holy Spirit.

All the while at that church, there was a lot of discussion about the Holy Spirit, who gives gifts and encourages participation, but the pathways for involvement were increasingly narrowed.

There was a passion for God, but a lack of recognition of how God works through the Holy Spirit and how to provide space for this work while maintaining a consistent unity and commitment to the mission of God in the community.

That last statement can sum up a great deal of church history.  Almost all of our theology and church organization comes out of arguments, controversies, concerns that arise when a group of people get together to express their own sense of Christ’s revelation to us and call for us.

People, you may have noticed, have some very different ideas about what we should do when we gather together, how we should act in society, what we should believe about who Jesus is and what he’s up to.

It’s often much easier to set firm boundaries and rigid rules, to organize a community according to a set pattern and have clearly defined roles in this community.  Unity through conformity.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through conformity, the Spirit works through diversity:  different parts, different roles, different gifts, different passions, different critiques.

Unity in diversity is the model of the Spirit, but for this diversity to become music rather than a cacophony, a dance rather than a crowd, it’s important to understand the ways the Spirit moves in this world, for this world, in us, for us, through us.

That was the revelation that helped me find a way back to a love for the church.  It was the topic of my first book and a continuing topic of focus for me in both study and ministry.

How does the Spirit work? How do we bring together a group of people who have very different responses to this work and find a way of joining together in the mission of God in our contexts?  Who will save us indeed from the body of death that is expressed in alienation and division?

That is the topic of this week, considering the work of the Holy Spirit, a very practical topic while also being one that encourages deep reflection.  How do you see the Holy Spirit working in your life? What are your gifts? How would you describe your calling?

Think also about your blindspots, areas where you are weak or areas where you are so strong it is easy to bulldoze others.  Do you have people in your life who have very different gifts and callings?  How is the work of the Spirit expressed in your life and in your community? Is there a thriving diversity or more of a constrictive conformity?

What is the theology of the Spirit that is being expressed? If you had to reverse engineer your community’s pneumatology, what would you get?

The Spirit we read about in Scripture is the same Spirit working among us now, the Spirit who was with Jesus in his ministry is the Spirit working in the people who make up the Church.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Thus, we are “to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” a peace that celebrates the diversity of God’s work, a unity formed by God, which we have been invited into.

Let us consider this unity as we ponder the many facets of the work of the Spirit.

Let us be people who point to a fullness of life, speaking into the lives of others as we celebrated God’s work in them, shaping and learning, making space and adding creativity, dancing with others to the music of God’s eternal symphony.

Each week in my class on the Holy Spirit, I add a more pastoral reflection to the usual theological content. This was the one for the current week 7.

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Fruit and Feelings

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience.

It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly.

Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real.

I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.

Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history.

They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.

The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.

Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.

Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, often difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

Each week in my class on the Holy Spirit, I add a more pastoral reflection to the usual theological content. This was the one for the current week 4.

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The opposite of oppression is…

Oppressing is addictive, because it’s not about objective acts. It contains narratives of identity, and social status, and personal security, and family heritage.

Oppressing, in other words, isn’t just about what we do, it has become who we are. And also who we have been, who we want to be, and how we think we have to get there. It is an expression of our journey through space and time.

Ever since a guy was jealous about being rejected when his brother was accepted–which itself was built on the false hope that we could get all that we want if we are willing to cut out life-giving relationships–people have tried to make their way forward by pushing against each other, stepping on each other, minimizing each other.  We turned life into war, winners and losers and those caught in the middle, part of a millennia long feud.

We’re not free. Oppressed or oppressors.  Oppressors may think they’re free, but that makes it all the harder to discover real freedom. When we’re fighting for identity in ways that cause us isolation or keep us fighting for solutions that never really solve our needs for trust, hope, peace, joy, we’re doing a lot, but not getting very far.

Anger, loneliness, frustration, jealousy, conflict, hatred, injustice abound. And that’s just on my Facebook feed!

But we think that’s how life just is, how it has to be.  We’re not free.

It’s easy to eat a nutritious meal if you’re hungry and that’s what is on the table. It’s harder if you’ve filled up on twinkies and cheetos. You’re full, but it’s not good for you. And it’s not good for the people around you.

Far too often in our culture, we are given plates of twinkies and rationalized that there’s some good ingredients in them, so they must be what we need.  We drink gallons of Coke and assume that since our thirst is quenched we are physically fit.

We have apparent choice, but we’re not free.  And we take out our lack of real freedom on others through oppressing, and against ourselves in states of anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and all those traits that we can rationalize as being right but are tearing us apart spiritually, mentally, physically, and spiritually. But to get what we think is right, to be heard in the face of injustice, we assume that we have to assert our power, and anger can feel very powerful indeed.

We are not free.  We are responsible, which Dr. King highlights is a key expression of freedom, but in making choices, and seemingly unable or unwilling to make different choices, even to our detriment, we’re not really free.

Jurgen Moltmann expands on Dr. King’s definition of freedom with three different expressions of how freedom takes shape. These reflect the tensions of our life in this world as well as the possibilities for a bigger vision of life together.

The first dimension is “freedom as domination,” which approaches freedom in terms of power and control. This is a dysfunctional, zero-sum, approach to freedom, in which some are free while most are not. It is a very narrow understanding of freedom indeed, and not primarily interested in thorough liberation.

The second dimension is “freedom as a free community.” This dimension includes the values of friendliness and kindness rather than competition, exercising freedom as “neighborliness.” There is a cooperative sharing, giving, and receiving; trust is maintained even as people may have very different roles.

This dimension begins the process toward liberation, though can become narrow in focus and limited in scope, even becoming defensive about changes. We can see this as tribal or nationalistic freedom, where freedom is for some, but not extended to everyone, because trust and commitment can only go so far.

The third dimension understands freedom as “the creative passion for the possible.” This is the dimension of transformation. Freedom is aligned toward the future, inviting movement that leads first toward reconciliation and then into new discoveries of human thriving.

This latter kind of freedom is what I’m wanting to pursue and invite other toward. Not by saying, “Stop it!” to others, seeing myself in the posture of wise judge above the fray.  I invite others to this freedom because I need it.  The opposite of oppression, the opposition to oppression, isn’t repression. It’s creative passion for the possible, not limiting to a certain place where everyone must go, or a certain group who everyone must belong to, but finding new life that frees me to pursue freedom with and for others.

Not everything is really freeing though. There are types of freedom that seduce us into bondage, and kinds of freedom that drive us into frenzy.  Real freedom is lasting. It is peace-filled and peace-making.

I need the peace, joy, patience, hope that the Spirit brings and I know this is illusive if I live in ways that intentionally alienate the thriving of others around me.

This is a road I seek to travel, and in my journey, I’ve wrestled with my own tendencies to dysfunction and the many ways I’ve been invited to compete with, demand from, or undermine those around me for my own benefit.

There has to be a better way.

There is. But walking it involves risk. Because if we give up oppressing, where will that leave us?  If we let go our privilege, how will we keep up our sense of self and purpose?

That’s why, as Moltmann first argued, that we can’t begin by telling people what they have to give up, because they won’t “Stop it.” Rather, what is there to be gained? If people have a vision of a better life, and an experience of it, they stop doing the things that interfere.

What is this better way?


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Oppressing is not freedom

The scandal of suggesting that oppressors need hope is built on the idea that oppressors already have what they want and are preventing others from getting it.  There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, and throughout my book Hope for the Oppressor, I show how something that seems so obvious is actually not necessarily true.

The subtitle of the book is “Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community.” Discovering something implies that it needs to be found, and so isn’t actually in place.  In other words, my argument is that while privileged, oppressors are not actually free.

Indeed, that’s the problem we’re facing, and why it’s not enough to just say, a la Bob Newhart, to just stop it.

Even though this isn’t enough, it sure feels good if you’re the one saying it.  That’s how a lot of ethical and social conversations are really framed. Really simple message once you see through the 1000s of words describing the problem, why it’s a problem, and why people are horrible if they disagree.

“Here’s your problem, you stop it!” We could save a lot of trees and e-ink if books had different titles but just this one sentence in it.

Everyone is telling each other to stop the things they don’t like, while ignoring their own dysfunction.  Meanwhile, anyone who has the slightest experience with psychology, or children, or humanity in general, knows that just saying “Stop it!” never actually works.

So either has to be more incisive in addressing the reasons for the behavior or just rely on threats to force action, “Stop it! Or I’ll bury you alive in a box!” Which is basically what government is all about.  Who gets to choose what gets stopped? What happens if they don’t stop it? Well, now we’re arguing about which political party is in charge. Even religious do this, if they’re able. After Constantine took power, it was a lot easier to force people to stop doing and believing things rather than listen, learn, and convince.  It didn’t really work.

To just say “stop it!” isn’t just psychologically unhelpful, it’s also not theologically helpful. There’s a teaching on human behavior in Christianity that says people are going to be awful to each other.  Even when they know they’re being awful to each other, let alone when they don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong.

Then people really are competing about who gets to be awful to whom. That’s a negative way of describing society, but it’s not inaccurate.  Our status is often defined by who we can be arrogant or dismissive with, and who we must be humble toward.  Even if life is full of troubles, at least we can treat a waiter or supermarket employee rudely, right?

In much liberation theology, it is stated that oppressors will never give up their power. That the only way oppressors will be liberated is by the oppressed rising up and changing society.  So we have revolutions of one kind or another, which only rarely actually results in widespread liberation.

Much of the time it just changes who is in power, who then has to be “liberated” by whoever lost the power.  Even if this isn’t objectively true, it sure seems to be true by those who are being treated badly.  Conflict continues, with no real reconciliation or transformation.

Saying that oppressors will never give up oppressing is admitting they are not actually free.  After all, there’s only a small number of actual sociopaths among us, so most people in oppressing circumstances may be aware of the dysfunction but are able to rationalize it away, or just ignore it, all while feeling compelled to keep feeding into cycles of privilege and abuse.  A cycle everyone using an Apple product, for instance, are very familiar with.

They’re not alone, of course. Oppressing is embedded at almost every level of our society. We might hate it, but we need it to keep going in this world.

Even people who make their living protesting oppression often do so from positions of power that depend on oppressing in order to be maintained. So politicians and academics deride structures of power while justifying their own status.  It’s those other people who need to change. Always those other people.

Oppressing is not unlike how an alcoholic can rationalize drinking even when aware of how destructive it has become. It may be destructive, but it’s fulfilling some demanding drive that cannot be ignored.

That’s why it’s not enough to stay, “Stop it!” And even if it feels good and right, it’s not really all that effective either. That’s more my point. It might be right to call out oppressing, make people feel guilty, and feel better about ourselves in the process. But if it doesn’t lead to transformation, then we’re really just playing the same game. Systems of dysfunction are often happy to have critics. The critics let out some steam and the systems keep doing what they’re doing. Everyone is still caught in the cycles.  Not really free.

If oppressors are not really free, then there’s something that is enslaving and controlling the apparent freedom. Lying to us all the while, like the snake in the garden, that this is a better way of life.

Rather than the promised life, that way resulted in separation. Rather than freedom from God, it resulted in isolation, difficulties, even death. That’s the cycle oppressors are still in. Privilege isn’t freedom.  As anyone who follows celebrity news knows full well.

Where is the way of real freedom? That’s what I’ll keep writing about in future posts.

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Hope for Oppressors

Last summer, Fortress Academic published my book called Hope for the Oppressors.

It’s an evocative even provocative title.  Oppressors, after all, already are in positions of power, it is thought, and privilege, it is assumed. Why do they of all people need to hear a message of hope?

It’s a good question. I spent 300+ pages answering that question using sociology, psychology, philosophy, Scripture, history, contemporary theology and ministry resources.

Not just answering that question, indeed pointing to not only why oppressors need to hear a message of hope, but what this message is, and how we can be people who live it out.

I need hope, after all.  I am in positions of privilege, to be sure, but also experiencing how the privileges of others can cause my life to seem dimmer, and push me into more and more frenzy.

There has to be a better way than the idea that some are oppressed and some are oppressors and we have to fight about who gets put in each category.

The hope is that there is real and genuine liberation. Not for some, in contrast to others, but offered to everyone, with and for others.

That leads back to the question. Why do oppressors need to hear a message of hope? It seems obvious that the message to oppressors should just be “stop oppressing.”  If they don’t listen, they then need to be helped to hear.

This reminds me of a conversation Amy and I overheard on the day I proposed to her.

We went to the Huntington Library for the day. They have a very nice tea room there, all proper and elegant in a Southern Californian way.  We were seated at a table near the back. This wasn’t where I was going to propose, but it was certainly setting the mood.  And we started in a great mood.  I was about to begin my PhD studies in the Fall, and while the day out like this certainly wasn’t in my very meager budget, there are times to stretch and enjoy.

The place was filling up.  A small group came in, clearly of a higher social class, used to having their way. They were seated at a table in the corner, which was not too far from the bathrooms.  That would not do. They complained. Not quietly.  Made a little scene about service and expectations and all the rest.  The staff, clearly frustrated, quickly shuffled around some tables, and set this group up nearby our table.

As they settled in, one of them said, “First you let them do it right. If that doesn’t work, then, you help them do it right.”  Helping in this case was raising a stink so that their privilege upset the atmosphere for everyone in the room. But for this group their privilege and experience was paramount.

Amy and I laughed. It was a good day and we were in a good mood. We still say this line occasionally.  Not as a model for us but as a way of mocking those who don’t realize how their pursuit of privilege is making them look like boors to everyone else.  I was poor, but I felt sad that this is their experience of life.  Always on the lookout for validation and always ready to put others in this place if it didn’t happen.

That’s privilege. But that’s not freedom.  Well, it’s a kind of freedom, but not a life-giving freedom. Liberation, ultimately, is about freedom lived in life-giving ways.  Which brings us back to why we can’t just say stop to people and if they don’t stop, to help them (by which I mean make them).  In forcing people to do things against their will, we are becoming potential oppressors.

Of course there are times we have to force people to stop doing evil, but that stopping them isn’t itself yet liberation. The challenge for a liberative freedom is for people to come to terms with how they use their choices and to choose to live in a liberated way.

Martin Luther King jr. defined freedom as composed of three elements. First, freedom is “the capacity to deliberate or weigh alternatives.” Second, freedom “expresses itself in decision.” A decision makes a choice, cutting off an alternative for the preference of the chosen path. Third, freedom involves responsibility, the ability to respond to why a choice was made, and the responsibility to respond as no one else can speak for that free person.

Everyone wants this freedom for themselves, but oftentimes has trouble with this freedom being available for all. Why? Because what if I use my freedom in a way that interferes in your freedom? We tend to collide into each other when there’s unrestrained freedom. Literally so if this was applied to driving and intersections.

Liberation is having the ability to experience freedom, and freedom is the capacity to make choices in a responsible way. Oppressors have this kind of experience more than others.  Everyone wants this more than others. So, again, why the need for a message of hope?

Because it’s not real and thorough freedom, it’s something more temporary and artificial.

Because if we use our choices to oppress others we are actually undermining not only our experience of freedom but indeed our very humanity. That degradation of our humanity is called sin.

In his book on John Brown, W. E. B Du Bois highlights the issue: “The price of repression is greater than the cost of liberty. The degradation of men costs something both to the degraded and those who degrade.” Repressing others may provide privilege in societal sense, but not necessarily real freedom, and in indulging oppression, they are cut off from the possibilities of fullness and life that is promised in Christ, both now and in eternity.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be.  Is there a better way? Is this way actually possible?

That’s what I wrote about in my book and what I’m going to spend the next while talking about here on my blog. I feel passionate about what I wrote about, but frustrated by the $130 selling price the publisher attached to the book (which is not what I expected by any means).  Oddly enough, that very pricing exemplifies the very problem I’m trying to address in the book.

I indeed have hope there’s a better way and rather than feel stifled, I am choosing to explore this better way in this setting too, where costs are minimal and the invitation to chatting about this is open to everyone.

Stay tuned as I talk more about liberation and freedom in the next post. I’ll then follow up with what I think is a better model for describing what we’re dealing with in society.

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Where does our help come from?

Read: Isaiah 61; Psalm 104; 1 Thessalonians 1

One of the big questions in pneumatology and Christian history is the direction of God’s work. Where does God’s help come from?  Where do we see the emanating presence of God’s activity? Where do we go to discover God?

In Exodus, we see God giving the Law to Moses, filling Moses with authority and wisdom, passing this on to Joshua. Later, judges are anointed to provide wisdom when needed, though we find the people often wandered astray.

The king, not God’s ideal, becomes a center of focus and God’s ordaining, though likewise without consistent faithfulness.

There is the Temple, which God filled with his presence. The ark of the covenant become a unifying symbol of God’s favor.

Even still, where did God’s help really come from? From the centers of power and influence?

Sometimes, not always.  Centers of power and control are where we seek validation and authority and influence.  We are, we might even say, addicted to leadership, if not the pursuit of it then at least the validation by it.

But God is not so limited. There is the gift of leadership, but it is God’s gift.  And when leaders abuse God’s mission, calling, values, dismissing his love and care for all people, then leaders find themselves countering God’s grace.  Which is not a healthy place to be.

When their privilege is put before God’s mission, then the Spirit is grieved.  But doesn’t stop working for the sake of God’s people.

Where does our help come from? How we answer that says a great deal about our understanding of God and especially our understanding of the Spirit.

God is not limited to the powers of this world because God is not limited to the systems of this world. Jesus did not concede to the institutional leaders, the religious leaders, the political leaders, or the zealots in adapting his mission to meet their demands and expectations, to meet their assumptions about how peace and hope are found.

God guides in a different way, and this way is a way from below, where the Spirit works to enliven people where they are at and to find an identity that transcends that which the world provides.  We are more than conquerors because the kingdom we participate in is everlasting and it is life-giving.

This is a message of hope and life and calling, pushing us to see past the immediate and to invest in God’s vision of this world and each other.

Are you discouraged? God’s Spirit is with you, leading you and not abandoning you. Are you weak? God’s power can work even in death, where there is by definition no hope.

The resurrection means that God is not limited by what we see or hear or assume. This power of new life always among us gives us hope in even the darkest places, to live in a new way, caught up in neither anger nor despair.

In this hope we become bearers of light to others, resisting that which claims death, pushing against that which seeks to minimize or anonymize each person.

We are called by name and we can live in a new way in the midst of our present circumstances, knowing the Spirit who works from below and within, a fractal transformation that envelops the world in new life. This is not fully realized but it is in play, and we can choose which way we live for.

Where do you see the Spirit working in your life today? Where is the Spirit working in your community? What can you do to participate in this more fully?

How can you spend time to cultivate this life? Let us live in the life of the Spirit who is with life and invites life to be fully awakened.

Let us enter fully into our present so that we begin to see that God doesn’t need the right election results or any other indications of power to do a magnificent work.

Let us be thankful that the Spirit works and works even among, especially among, those the world abandons or dismisses.  Let us be thankful because most of us are in this situation and God still, oddly enough, calls us to join in this amazing mission.

Where does our help come from? Where are you looking for help on this day?

Each week in my class on the Holy Spirit, I add a more pastoral reflection to the usual theological content. This was the one for the current week 3.

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Faith and Depression

From what I can figure, I’ve been dealing with clinical depression for about 35 years.

I started taking an anti-depressant for the first time in mid-October.

I’m taking an anti-depressant because of the faith I have in Christ and the hope I have in God’s work.

I know there’s some pushback from folks about doing something like that. So here’s why I’m doing it.

God doesn’t ask us to prove our faith by taking on additional challenges. God calls us to be free in the grace we’ve been given in Christ, to have hope in God’s promise of salvation, and to be obedient to the calling we have been given.  As Samuel told Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

My calling is to help empower women and men for ministry, so that in the church and well outside the church, they express the fullness of the Spirit’s work, learning to deeply and broadly resonate the work of Christ wherever they go.

It is not my calling to prove my faith by adding then overcoming barriers that make life harder.  It is not my calling to prove my faith to others who make their relationship with Christ about competition, or evidence, or another ego-oriented comparision.

I am taking an anti-depressant precisely because I have faith, faith enough to “throw off everything that hinders” and to run with perseverance the race marked out for me.  Inasmuch as I see depression as itself my enemy or my cause, I’m weakened for what I can and should be doing.  Inasmuch as I see the bounty of Christ in providing a way forward for me now, to invite me to embrace what I can to better do what I should, I’m taking seriously the work of the Spirit in me.

My way is easy, my burden is light, Jesus says.  I’m not gaining any points with him by holding onto extra burdens and weights other people insist I carry.

I’m responsible to the Spirit.  So, over the years I’ve learned that is precisely faith that calls me to be proactive in addressing my failings and brokenness as I can.

That’s the quick version of why I’m taking an anti-depressant now. Here’s the longer version: Continue reading

Posted in personal, spirituality, theology, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Aspiring rather than Expecting

Among the problems of social media is the confusion between an aspirational post (“this is a good example and encouragement to me”) versus an expectational post (“You other people need to do this”) The first is helpful and a sign of seeking growth, seeing the problem of self. The second is pedantic and sees the problem as other people.

We bring our own experiences and frustrations and challenges, and then generalize, thinking everyone is posting something for the same reasons we might post it.

The challenge is that history is filled with both moral expectational hypocrisy and ennobling moral aspirations. Without knowing a particular person’s story, it’s hard to know which is happening.

But that’s hard work. It’s much easier, thought significantly less transformative, to assert what we think others are doing, and why, then judge them for not living up to what we think they should do. We make it about ego-competition, and that always devolves into anger, division, frustration.

We should make it about love.

Which is me being aspirational. I want to social media differently than the world demands, neither giving into the dysfunction nor retreating altogether.

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Society and the Church after September 11

In late Summer 2001, I was 26 years old, and I was dealing with some wonderful ups and significant downs. I had traveled to Ireland in July, working at a center that sought religious reconciliation among youth.  I I was enrolled in one of my favorite classes during my Fuller MDiv years, “Faith and Human Development,” taught by James Loder (whose work I use extensively in my new book).

Meanwhile, I was getting more and more frustrated by church politics. In August, my car was stolen. By early September, I was deeply discouraged and depressed. My friend Peter did what only a really good friend would know to do, he invited me to go camping on a Channel Island and even paid my way. That was the balm I needed.  Then September 11th happened, and that was an even deeper wake-up call.

There’s much to be said, but what I’ve not seen too much about is how the church responded to this tragedy and wake-up call.  There was, of course, a lot of very appropriate mourning and commemoration over the years, but I wonder if the lessons of the aftermath have yet to be heard.

In December of 2001, I wrote a paper for my class on Mission to Modern and Post-Modern Society titled, “Society and the Church after September 11.” I re-read it again this morning after many years, and it got me thinking. Some of the issues I raise, I’ve recently addressed much more thoroughly in my new book Hope for the Oppressors, while other issues are still concerns I’m trying to work out as I continue in both church work and in the academy. So I thought I’d share it here (knowing it is not without its issues/weaknesses): 

Everyone has their own story.  What they were doing, who they were with, where they were when “they heard”.  I was getting coffee in the Fuller Seminary refectory.  As I walked in, a small crowd was gathered in the back of the room watching CNN.  While I poured some cream into my cup I overheard someone say that the Trade Centers had sustained major damage, the result of 2 planes flying into them.

Though I was only able to watch a few minutes of the coverage, it was very obvious how truly horrendous this event was.  I wandered down to my class, but ended up leaving early as the images and discussion left me rather incapable of any kind of other focus.  So I walked over to a friend’s nearby house.  There I found my friend, along with another friend who was sent home from work at JPL, watching the news.

Over the next two hours about six other people wandered in, their work also being closed down, not really planned, but simply because no one wanted to be alone.  So we watched the news, talked, and simply sat absorbing the unconscionable. This was unlike any other event in our lives.  What we had seen happen in the movies now was happening in reality.  A poignant moment came later in the day.  As night fell on the East Coast, the members of Congress gathered together for a press conference.  Seemingly spontaneously they, the leaders of our country, began to sing God Bless America.

The initial effect was to stir that cynicism that tends to dwell at some level in all of those in my generation, having grown up in baseless rhetoric and partisan politics (symbolized by the recent posturing during the Presidential crisis).  Politicians singing God Bless America?  They’re wanting votes.  This came up in our continuing commentary, but someone said, “This time though I think they really are sincere, they really are singing from their depths.”  Rhetoric was lost, sincerity was found.  The age of irony which had developed during the 1990s was if not over, certainly very wounded.

Although it is far too early to make any kind of definite statements, it may be worth looking at how the events of September 11, 2001 have impacted the culture in which we live, and thus how should the church respond and interact with this culture.  The goal of this brief paper is to look at basic underlying philosophies which were revealed or confirmed in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Having done this I will discuss how the church has responded, and how possibly the church should respond to this continuing crisis.  What was certain is that while the purposeful destruction was a surprise, it seems as though many cultural observers are just as surprised by our response and reactions, reactions which may in fact point to great areas of interest for those in the church to pursue.

In the light of this tragedy, insights have been revealed, I believe which show that the Christian witness has not been totally unsuccessful, though we may need to change how we understand this success, and understand new ways which would take advantage of the important cultural indicators.  The church must respond now by reexamining its own perspectives, by looking at its own faults and society’s qualities. Continue reading

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The problem of “a good heart”

Saul’s excuse to Samuel in 1 Samuel 15 was, “But I have a good heart.” He claimed his devotion to God was what excused his disobedience to his calling. Having “a good heart” is one of the chief ways we excuse our own and other people’s deep dysfunction. It’s the co-dependent mantra.
Claiming “a good heart” as a reason to keep someone around keeps abusers abusing and it keeps the abused excusing.
It’s not just a distracting excuse, it’s also not even true. Someone with a good heart is passionate about others and fulfills their obligations, showing their heart by what they do. They empower others, free others, not demand and constrict others for their own gain.
If they cause hurt, diminish others, always need excuses for not doing what they should, they don’t have good heart. They need healing and they need to removed from places of responsibility.
God doesn’t, as Samuel reminds us, want sacrifice. God seeks obedience, because the way of obedience is a way of transformation. Saul claimed a good heart, but he was disobedient to what he was called to do, leaving chaos all around, and God said to him, “No more.”
Heaven save me from just having a good heart. I want to be someone who loves and shares and gives in ways that empower the people around me.  I want to be obedient to what I’m called to do, in the big things and in the daily, little things that are really what shows what kind of heart I actually have .
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