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This month the Synchroblog is partnering with Provoketive Magazine once again. We will each explore the implications of Jesus’ words: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

“Take up your cross and follow me.” ~Jesus

As I reflect on the severely polarized and politicized struggles within American Christianity it is evident how little these struggles really have to do with Jesus. Both sides are more interested in isolating an ideology and then vilifying those who hold a different view. And of course, we are all convinced that our ideology is more “biblical” than any other. In all honesty, I think we hold on for dear life to our stances and beliefs so that we may convince ourselves that this is what Jesus really wants from us. It’s like a collective thought disorder. But it’s much easier than following him.

Because truthfully, who really wants to follow him?

He did the very thing that our American worldview does not allow. We are all about being upwardly mobile, successful, safe and prosperous and so we have co-opted God into that belief. We believe that God is all about blessing our efforts and that our success proves God’s favor. Our Christianity has become a prop for middle to upper class comfort and security. That ideal is found nowhere in the gospels. Jesus’ movement was decidedly downward. He moved right into the neighborhood of powerlessness and need.

I think what is most difficult for us is that Jesus, though already fairly poor, chose to become homeless. He claimed all humanity as his family and moved away from his nuclear family, which in his culture was a shameful act. (He obviously needs a tutorial in family values.) But in addition to that, while most good Jewish men of his age would have married and started having children, his singleness aligned him with the “non-procreators”, like the eunuchs, who were considered unclean and inferior. There were no categories of gay or straight in Jesus’ day; people were either procreative or non-procreative. Those who did not or could not produce children for any reason were suspect, or outcast. (See Jesus’ words in Matt. 19:11-12.) He chose solidarity with the most despised.

We know he treated women as full and competent disciples, he welcomed the stranger and the sick, touched the dead, and healed the children of the enemy. In his presence the tight miserly hands that held onto precious silver and gold opened wide. He undermined every structure of religion and empire and really, really ticked off those with power. Let’s just be honest. It’s far, far easier and safer to convince ourselves that being pro-life and justifying the harsh realities of the lives of those with less (money, resources, opportunity), or feeling superior for being more tolerant than thou, is somehow at all like the path Jesus walked.  Instead, Jesus asks us to pick up the instrument of our death and to follow where he goes. Any sane person would count the cost. Any sane person would struggle with it, because to follow Jesus means that we no longer get to co-opt the faith to make our own lives work.

Many of those whom I know that consider themselves to be “biblical” Christians feel that the “dying” that is asked of them means they reject the “world” and its values (hence the dogged political views). However, I wonder if how we have come to understand “the world” has become quite distorted. Blogger and Wild Goose Founder Mike Morrell says, “Jesus was referring to the world of principalities and powers, those inhuman and dehumanizing forces of religion and empire. He wasn’t referring to culture-as-such, and certainly not to planet earth. Millions of friends-of-God are awakening to the reality that we live in a God-blessed and God-beloved world that God still thinks is ‘very good,’ however marred by egoic haze and degradation its become. We’re all connected – for life or death.”

And there it is. What will “kill” us is following Jesus’ movement into the God-blessed and God-beloved world, and receiving those for whom Christ died as we would Christ Himself. That means making a home with them all, in the here and now. That means looking beyond political and doctrinal divisions into the eyes of all humanity, not to minister to them or over them, but to join them and work alongside them. Jesus asks us to do the very thing our religious and political hearts find abhorrent. But by making space within ourselves to receive the other, we are changed by them and ego dies. We begin to become less defined by our certainties and stances, and more defined by love, by becoming “we”. And Kingdom comes. That was Jesus’ prayer for us before he died, and his prayer for us as he continues to live.

It’s much easier to convince ourselves that we are following Jesus by choosing to eat or not to eat at a certain chicken restaurant. It’s much harder to share your table with those whom you have decided don’t belong. It’s even harder to admit that there is only One Table. However, we are going to need each other because let’s face it, Jesus’ path is more than a little crazy. It will cost us our lives.

Links to the Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in. :)

Carol Kuniholm Which “Way” Am I Called to Follow?

Glenn Hager Strange Places

So this month’s Synchroblog is an invitation to lighten up. Our faith blogs tend to become so very serious as we discuss theology and life and church and wounds and wonder. But even with all of our ponderings, we know a good belly laugh can minister to us in the deep places far more effectively than anything else at times. It seems to short-circuit our tensions and fears. Anne Lamott says that laughter is carbonated holiness. It knits our souls back together.

A consistent source of laughter for me is my dog. She’s silly, as dogs tend to be. She’s over enthusiastic about pretty much everything. She’s free of shame and conceit – she doesn’t care what she looks like. She only knows what makes her happy. Treats make her happy. Running makes her happy. People make her happy. Toys make her happy. Her favorite bed makes her happy. Her food makes her happy. Our food makes her happy. The cats’ food makes her happy. Learning to master the stairs (a big deal for track-raised greyhounds) makes her happy. Hearing her leash jingle makes her happy. The dog park makes her happy. Someone she hasn’t seen in five minutes makes her happy. You get my drift. She shows her happiness by turning in circles. Zoe’s life is made of circles.

She runs and bounces and races and gets completely distracted (squirrel!) and then pants with her long tongue lolling about, flapping like a wet sheet in the breeze. With ears pinned back behind her head, a panting greyhound looks to be all mouth, like a Pacman with legs. There’s times when she’s had me laughing for 10 minutes straight.

But laughter isn’t just about hilarity, though I certainly enjoy that. Sometimes it’s a lightness of heart that knows that no matter what, all shall be well. It’s a deep sense of rightness and joy that causes us, like Gandalf at the end of the great war in Lord of the Rings, to throw our heads back and laugh as if we’ve seen the end of all things, and we know it’s good. My goofy dog also brings about that sort of laughter. She’s taught me that dog walking is a spiritual practice. I recently posted these observations from a morning walk with Zoe:

1. The Colorado sky is bluer than ever, if that’s possible.

2. It smells like Spring.

3. Birds are really noisy but somehow their voices enhance solitude and meditation, unlike human noise.

4. Dogs are good mentors in mindfulness. They’re always in the moment.

5. Robins are magnificent.

Sometimes life isn’t very funny. But I can’t return from a walk with this simple, happy creature without that that thought in my mind: All shall be well. That makes me laugh out loud. My neighbors probably think I am just laughing at my silly, circling dog. But I also come back with the suspicion that the creator God who, in all his Holy, Glorious, Righteous, Immutable, Ineffable Seriousness created my circle dog, is in truth, hysterically funny. GK Chesterton suspected as much about Jesus of whom he writes: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

God laughs, because s/he does know the end of all things. Sometimes we can hear the echoes if we are mindful enough. I think dogs hear them all the time.

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Here’s an old post of a book review I did on a book called “Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor”. It’s received a huge amount of hits. I think that might be because there’s something very hopeful about the laughter of God. Click: Jesus Laughed

You’d have to be living under a rock these last few years to not be aware of the escalating frenzy around women’s health and women’s rights that is going on in political and religious spheres. There have been a myriad of bills that include unnecessary intrusive procedures, limiting birth control coverage, diminishing the definition of rape and even the “Protect Life Act” bill H.R. 358 which would allow women who need abortions due to life threatening conditions to be turned away. There is an extreme obsession with female “pelvic issues”, as one theologian has named it.

Then there was the recent kerfuffle about Rush Limbaugh’s vile tirade about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a slut and a prostitute for testifying about mandated insurance coverage for birth control. (Originally, no female voices were going to be allowed at all at the committee.) In addition, he showed quite a bit of unfortunate ignorance about how female contraception works, adding weight to the questions, why are men deciding what is good and necessary for the female body? Why the need for such obsessive control? I was saddened but not surprised to hear some female conservative Christian friends support him, even with the clearly uninformed and misogynistic attitudes. This all came not long after John Piper asserted that, “Christianity should have a masculine feel.” He justifies that by listing all of the men involved in Jesus’ ministry in that very patriarchal society. Apparently, God intended that the subversion of women into a male dominated religion was meant to help her “flourish.”

While so much of this is justified and defended as “biblical truth” it more accurately reflects an interpretation forged through long term, deep-seated, negative attitudes towards women. These attitudes deny the humanity and dignity of women as full Image bearers. To believe that woman can only flourish while being ruled over by men is the same rationale used to justify colonialism in Africa and the worldwide slave trade in which it was believed that whites should rule over blacks for their own good. The roots of beliefs like these spring from the ancient patriarchal belief system that held women to be property and whose duty it was to enhance the power and numbers of the male leaders’ tribe. Therefore, he must control her reproduction to protect his interests.

What we see happening today in parts of conservative Christianity is that it has become a very disembodied religion. It has become belief in beliefs. (Insert a long boring historical explanation about the impact of the enlightenment, rationalism and singular trust in cognitive ways of knowing here.) It’s like when Jesus was faced with the Pharisees as he healed a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees knew the law. They had their beliefs. I imagine they could also see the disconnect – the cruelty that existed in refusing healing to this man, yet they insisted on the following the letter of the Law, certain that to do so would please God. Over and over, Jesus challenged religious beliefs for the sake of love. He healed on the Sabbath, touched women- even bleeding ones, and touched the dead among other things that were forbidden for a Jewish man. The Pharisees had beliefs; Jesus lived an incarnational faith.

Like the Pharisees, those who are acting in ways that diminish the voice of women and the needs of women are trapped in their beliefs. There is admittedly a lot at stake for them here. One (conservative) seminary professor has said, “I contend that if we lose the battle over the gender debate, we lose a proper interpretation of God’s word,… We lose inerrancy. We lose the authority of the Bible, and that is detrimental to the gospel.” There’s little wonder that it feels so threatening to them to even consider that their interpretation may have problems. If your belief is in beliefs and one belief is found to be faulty, the whole house of cards will come down. Such a precarious situation means that they must defend their beliefs fiercely. When that is the case, they must not only enforce their beliefs over others but also absolve themselves from the inherent disconnect: responsibility for the suffering they might impose. They remain safely removed from the messiness of lives and stay unmovable in their beliefs, certain that this pleases God.

The problem is of course, that this is far more than a problem with interpretation. This has real life impact on half of the human race. Other examples include the refusal of the Catholic Church to allow condom use which has been shown to contribute to the proliferation of HIV in Africa. The book Angela’s Ashes follows the story of an Irish Catholic man and the chronically hungry children of his community that was pressured by beliefs that to forbid reliable birth control was pleasing to God. In addition, many women who take birth control do not do it for family planning reasons but for medical reasons, such as to prevent ovarian cysts or to correct hormonal problems. A woman who uses birth control is no more a slut than a man who uses Viagra is a dog. But these woman and their children are the flesh and blood realities impacted by the rigid adherence to beliefs over faith.

Most importantly, Jesus came to unseat our enslavement to beliefs, literally the letter of the Law, and to center us on himself, God revealing Godself in Christ. Jesus said nothing about doctrine or positions during his years on earth. But he did teach and demonstrate an embodied love – cool water for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, food for the hungry, help for a wounded stranger by the side of the road, and human dignity for all, even or perhaps especially, for women. To reduce following Jesus down to a set of beliefs to be enforced has turned his emphasis upside down.

I admit that beliefs are easier than faith. And lest anyone make assumptions, I do hold to Christian creeds about God and our faith. I have many conservative Christian friends whom I respect and admire. They are still my homies and I would consider many of them the very best people on earth. But there must be room for healthy self-criticism and self-reflection for the parts that seem to have shifted their gaze. When beliefs become the most important thing, it changes the very nature of our faith because Jesus in flesh and blood is no longer the center. This is how we tell the difference: Beliefs cause us to hide and preserve and rule over, faith draws us across borders into the reality of others’ lives and needs in humble love. Then people, not beliefs, become the point.

Jesus expanded the gist of the “moral law” a thousand fold. And some of Jesus’ best friends were (are) sluts. Just saying.

Enjoy the other Synchrobloggers:

Marta Layton The War on Terror and the War on Women

Kathy Escobar replacing the “f” word with the “d” word (no, not one of those ones!)

Tammy Carter Pat Summitt: Changing the Game & Changing the World

Wendy McCaig Letting Junia Fly: Releasing the Called

Words Half Heard Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō

Jeremy Myers Women Must Lead the Church

KW Leslie Churches and Women

 Michelle Morr Krabill – Why I Love Being a Woman

Jeanette Altes – On Being Female

Melody Hanson – Call Me Crazy, But I Talk To Jesus Too

Glenn Hager – Walked Into A Bar

Steve Hayes – St. Christina of Persi

Leah Sophia – March Syncroblog-All About Eve

Liz Dyer – The Problem Is Not That I See Sexism Everywhere…

Sonja Andrews – International Women’s Day

Sonnie Swenston-Forbes – The Women

Christine Sine – It All Begins With Love

K.W. Leslie – Undoing the Subordination of Women

Carie Good – The Math of Mr. Cardinal

Dan Brennan – Ten Women I Want To Honor 

Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity
By Roger Wolsey
Xlibris Corporation

It’s important to remember while reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity, that the stated purpose of this book is to reach out to those who “don’t currently identify as being Christian, or who do privately, but are hesitant to let others know because the word “Christian” has come to be associated with behaviors, stances, and attitudes that they don’t want to be associated with.” The author brings an evangelistic passion for offering a broader, more progressive point of view to those who for one reason or another stand apart from Christianity. I understand his fervor, having experienced the same frustrations and hurts from within conservative Christianity that much of Wolsey’s target audience has seen and felt. However, at times the tone of the book seems to reflect the very type of thinking that the author criticizes in the parts of conservative Christianity that say, “This is why they are off base, and why we are right.” I admit, at one time this stance would have felt affirming to me. However, at this point in my faith journey, I wonder if that posture only creates more confusion about it all.

The book is best understood through the author’s profoundly personal faith journey that has shaped his beliefs and devotion. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves on the campus of the University of Colorado. “I shouldn’t be a Christian,” he tells us, “The odds were against it.” His deep disappointment with the church as a youth and young adult confused him about God and repelled him from the church. His faith was later re-ignited through time spent with an intimate community that was “unobtrusive, authentic, down to earth and intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying.” He came to love Christianity through their communal lens, in contrast to the more individualistic “flying solo” lens of the more conservative traditions that he had seen.

Through his own story, Wolsey seeks to advocate an understanding of Christianity that speaks to today’s postmodern young adults who “embrace a more nuanced, experiential, paradoxical, mystical and relational approach to faith and spirituality” than what has been presented to them through the more outspoken and fundamentalist forms. In this light Wolsey presents his treatise on Progressive Christianity, which he claims, actually “represents a reformation of the church to its earlier, pre-modernist and pre-Constantine roots.” He adds, “Ironically, this implies that in reality, it is progressive Christianity that is conservative and “conservative Christianity” isn’t.”

He offers a series of contrasts and challenges to consider that juxtapose conservative and progressive Christian thought. For example, there are many statements such as, “Conservative Christianity focuses on the religion about Jesus and getting people to agree with certain intellectual truth claims and that its important for people to believe all these things here and now so that they can go to heaven when they die. Progressive Christianity focuses on a more radical way of life, namely, the counter-cultural, subversive and life-giving teachings of Jesus.” And, “Conservative Christianity emphasizes people’s personal relationships with God, Progressive Christianity remembers the Jewish (and Jesus’) understanding of salvation by additionally focusing upon the broader pursuits of inter-human hesed (loving kindness) and the societal Kingdom of God and striving for personal wholeness and social peace, justice and liberation from oppression and bondage.” There are many who will resonate with the first halves of the statements, weary of the narrowness of focus in the conservative church. The progressive alternative is certainly compelling. And the author’s intent is to offer a different lens upon what it means to follow Jesus, and in that he succeeds. However, I do have to wonder if the portrayals of conservative Christianity– and in all fairness I must add that conservatism has made me want to scream all too often– are perhaps too reductionistic and therefore, unfair. Then again, maybe not. Even so, the propensity within us to vilify the other, whomever they may be, stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ imperative to love one another (even those with whom we disagree) and that is something that I wish the author had addressed with more force.

All that aside, there is much in what Wolsey presents as progressive Christianity that is beautiful and hopeful. He takes on a hefty task by exploring a wide range of topics such as liberation theology, process theology and openness theology. In addition, he explores current hot spots such as the nature of the atonement, the realities of heaven and hell, eschatology, and the problem of theodicy. He also addresses differences and problems of interpretation of scripture and the hermeneutical lenses that both enhance and distort our reading. Obviously, in a work of this length these topics cannot be fully explored. In order to be thorough and fair (to both sides), this work could or should have been multiple books. But his ideas serve as conversation starters, designed to challenge and captivate the minds of those who are frustrated by their perception of the Christian gospel, and to answer some of their struggles.

Problems to be aware of include the fact that Wolsey appears to speak as if Progressive Christianity is a singular group with a clear statement of faith. He also does not clearly differentiate between what is progressive and what is liberal Christianity. (Many of my Progressive friends tell me pointedly that there is a difference!)  Finally, the author often approaches issues as if there are just two possible points of view, conservative or progressive. The diversity of thinking within the Catholic Church as well as well as a multitude of Protestant traditions (and Eastern Orthodox) do bring much more varied and diverse perspectives to all of the issues discussed. Again, the point of the book is to address those who have been repelled by certain strains of conservative Christianity and to offer them what the author has found to be a life-giving alternative. But its hard not to feel as though the vast diversity of the Body of Christ has been diminished a bit by lumping all of us into one of these two categories.

The most compelling arguments for the author’s point of view lie in the last few chapters of the book which emphasize both personal practices such as prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the outward practices of serving and loving others. Wolsey’s passion and compassion for our hurting world is palpable. The “love chapters” push past all of the theological arguments of who or what best represents Christianity, and bring to mind Jesus’ words, “You will know [my followers] by their fruits.” Progressive Christians value orthopraxis, the “right” and radical way of love taught by Jesus. It is here that we are presented with a Christianity that is truly worth giving our all.

Even with all of the problems of the book, it’s hard to dismiss the zeal of a man who desires to entice college students (and yeah, probably the rest of us too) to follow Jesus and help to create the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Wolsey says, “Christians are called to be peacemakers and evangelists of the Christian gospel of forgiveness of sins. Christian are also called to be justice makers – people who do what they can do to create a world where there will be as few sins and transgressions committed as possible. For we know that there will be less to forgive if there are fewer sins and offenses committed. And we know there’ll be less of a need for bandages in a world where ‘justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.’” (Amos 5:24)

It’s a worthy read.

Our Synchroblog this month explores the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor in our country and others. Reports show that this gap is has reached its highest level in 30 years. One only needs to look at history to see that money equals power in this world. And when so much power is in the hands of a few, the many are disadvantaged. The extremely poor are even more at a disadvantage. Dr. Cornel West says, “Poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people.”

I didn’t want to be part of this blog. It gives me a pain in the gut to think about these things. I have seen few issues create more anger and divisiveness than this one. I have seen it turn seemingly civil and kind people into raging, snarling foes. Even for those who can contain their anger, there remains a certain unwillingness to see the plight of others who are impacted by their views. And I have no solutions. I do believe that re-regulating Wall St.* and insisting that the very rich and the big corporations pay their fair share in taxes is the right thing to do. That’s just common sense. But I don’t know how to change our love for this beast that ensnares our lives. We need to try. There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that reference the poor. That’s a significant clue that this is supposed to matter.

In all honesty, all I know to do is call out to the church, for we are the embodiment of Jesus now. Jesus turns power upside-down. He is the one who takes an axe to the roots of systems that exploit and oppress. Like Jesus, we are the persistent little stream of water that gradually softens the rock hard foundations of the structures of power. I don’t know so much about what to do, but I do think we can explore who we are meant to be.

I have come to believe that money stands in opposition to the Kingdom. There is nothing else about which Jesus gave such an explicit warning. He made it very plain in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6:24) Jesus is rarely so dualistic in his thinking. But here He is very plain. It’s either/or.

Money seems to break down the very essence of who we are meant to be as human beings. It disembodies our faith. It quickly divides us into the haves and have-nots, distancing us from the realities of each others’ lives. The money/power thing exposes how one of the saddest questions in the scripture has played out throughout time: “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” With the heart of Cain, our answer is a loud and definitive, no. We do write out our checks to a local charity or dish out food at a homeless shelter. But truthfully, we are the jealous workers in the vineyard, so afraid that someone will get something they don’t deserve, especially when we’ve worked so hard.

We have forgotten that the source of the goods we produce buy and sell were never ours to begin with. We are divorced from the acts of others in our communities that make it possible for us to work at all, to manufacture, create, transport materials, or buy and sell anything. The further away we have moved from tilling the earth to forth food in order to survive, the more disembodied our lives and services have become. Trading stocks and making decisions that affect the lives of millions have become an a-moral acts, truly distanced and disconnected from the men, women and children who are affected. Finally, we have dared to believe that what we have earned is our own. We have hidden ourselves away from any reminder that in truth we all are needy, dependent people because our very ability to think and create and work comes from God from the start.

Christianity involves coming back to ourselves as a whole. Jesus is not just a ticket to heaven, but the means of reconciliation and restoration to a communal life of Shalom, which is a community of universal flourishing, wholeness and delight**. Even the Our Father prayer invokes community. Together we say, “Give US this day OUR daily bread.” This Jesus thing is all about being intimately connected with the needs and realities of the other.

In small ways and within small groups, some things are beginning to change. Churches are connecting with those who create community gardens for themselves and others in need. This allows for the dignity of taking part in working for all, as well. Interest is growing in establishing more local, sustainable food supplies. There is a renewed interest in handmade goods and skills. People are simplifying their lives and getting rid of stuff. With less to protect, perhaps we’ll have more to share. With less to protect, we may recover faith in a new way. We might actually remember what it means to trust for our daily bread, trusting God by trusting each other. Maybe we’ll also remember what is means to be grateful.

In light of all this, I celebrate a woman with a level of faith I don’t know yet: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

[*Seriously, how did de-regulation happen? Was everyone asleep? That de-regulation happened was a clear example of the power wielded by those with extreme wealth.]
[** The word shalom is described in “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.]

LInks to the other Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in:

Marta Layton – Fear Leads to Anger. Anger Leads to hate …

Kathy Escobar – Pawn Shops, Empty Refrigerators, The Long Hill Up

Carol Kuniholm - Wondering About Wealth

Glenn Hager - Shrinking The Gap

Jeremy Myers – Wealth Distribution

Liz Dyer – The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

Ellen Haroutunian – Economic Inequality: Coming Back To Our Senses 

K.W. Leslie – Wealth, Christians, and Justice

Abbie Watters – My Confession

Steve Hayes – Obscenity

[This month our Synchroblog partnered with Provoketive Magazine. See below for links to other Synchrobloggers.]

Sometimes, ok, perhaps it’s often, I weary of the discipline it takes to stay faithful to the routines of tending life. I begin to skimp on the practices that nurture body, mind, soul and community. Fortunately, every now and then something wonderful comes along to enliven my efforts.

My husband and I met with friends for dinner a couple of nights ago. They are the type of friends with whom you always wish you could spend much more time. We enjoyed delicious food, wine, conversation, and heaping platefuls of hope. Interestingly, we had decided beforehand that we would discuss the end of the world. We were only half-joking. This idea was instigated by the distress of another mutual friend, a very wealthy man, over his fear of an impending world-wide economic collapse. He was ready to liquidate all his assets, pack up and move to South America. (I am not sure why South America would be better if the whole world was in trouble but there you have it.) One of our dinner mates is also in the financial world and well acquainted with the inner workings of the struggling economy. We looked forward to hearing what she might have to say.

We agreed that the mutual-friend-turned-conversation-starter is very bright and very rational man. This reaction seemed very out of character for him. But this sort of thinking is entrenched in our collective psyches and probably has been since the beginning of time. We are all afraid of what we cannot control. We are all afraid of loss. This fear is amplified through the lens of round the clock disaster movies and documentaries, and the Mayan, Nostradamus and Left Behind theories that all seek to interpret many world events in catastrophic terms. In response, there are survivalist websites selling packaged food and gear. Self-protective instincts run deep.

Our conversation moved to what if? Specifically, if major calamity does strike, how do people of faith respond? How do we create safe space for ourselves and how do we care for our neighbors? How do we share meager supplies with those who have run out? How do we offer the hospitality of God?

And, what would it be like? Would desperation finally push us to the faith that we have not grown into yet? You know, the kind of faith that feeds 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes, the faith that heals sickness and that finds the coins we need in the mouths of fish? We had no answers. These probably weren’t our real questions anyway. We have not been asked to live this way, not yet.

It was in this context that one friend brought up the idea of spiritual eldering. Spiritual elders are the folks who have been around a while. They have seen suffering and they have seen great beauty. They have seen heart-breaking betrayals, and they have seen love and sacrifice like that of Christ himself. They have seen faith fail and they have seen grace overflow. These are the ones who have “set their faces towards Jerusalem”, that is, they have set out finally on the journey that is Christ’s. They have seen Kingdom and can do nothing else but live in a way that brings it forth. They have let go of what brings only fleeting hope here on earth. They have learned what is truly important.

And there we were, the four of us, each moving into our sixth decade on earth. We recognized that we are entering the elder stage. And of course, none of us felt ready or adequate. My friend then asked, “So, when will we be old enough to give it all away?” It became apparent that while we are not old enough yet, our shared conviction was to move in that direction together as community. This is never a journey that we need walk alone. In that realization, we felt the growing potential, desire, and joy of the possibilities held between us.

Therein lies the hope. We were sitting in communion with friends who hope for Kingdom. Their hearts were for the left behind, the people in need. They were not thinking about preparing for disasters as much as much as learning to be good shepherds. They were concerned about growing into the people we would each need to become in order to bring forth the equities and the sweet, inclusive shalom of Kingdom life, no matter what happens. We all felt caught up in a quiet thrill at the thought of this communal dream. And just for once, the cost didn’t seem to obscure the prize.

None of this stuff would be surprising to my dear mentor nun, Sr. Marilyn. She is a spiritual elder in the truest sense of those words and she is helping to grow us up. She once told me a story of a priest whose South American monastery faced apocalypse when it was invaded by gunmen. The humble priest greeted them with open arms. They shot him. “It was the practices,” said Sister, “that prepared his heart to meet them that way.” Indeed, it was the practices that prepared him for anything.

Richard Rohr notes that in our younger days, we typically use the type of prayer posture that we feel will help to build our careers, fill our coffers, and create a life. As we move towards eldering, we need the kind of prayer practices that help us to let it all go. We need what will bring us to the place where being emptied enough to truly open ourselves to the reality and need of the other, becomes as compelling a desire as any other we have known here. Then, instead of grasping and protecting what is ours, we can begin to walk this earth with arms held open wide.

How do we get there? “Do the practices,” says Sr. Marilyn. “The practices will get you ready.” And the hope birthed by good friends does, too.

[The practices she refers to include regular engagement with faith community, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, the daily Examen and others.]

Synchrobloggers at Provoketive Magazine :

The Trouble With Hope: John Ptacek

Hope = Possibility x Imagination: Wayne Rumsby

Little Reminders: Mike Victorino

Where Is My Hope: Jonathan Brink

Hope for Hypocrites: Jeremy Myers

Now These Three Remain: Sonny Lemmons

Perplexed, But Still Hopeful: Carol Kuniholm

A Hope that Lives: Amy Mitchell

Generations Come and Generations Go: Adam Gonnerman

Demystifying Hope: Glenn Hager

God in the Dark: On Hope: Renee Ronika Klug

Keeping Hope Alive: Maurice Broaddus

Are We Afraid to Hope?: Christine Sine

On Wobbly Wheels, Split Churches and Fear: Laura Droege

Adopting Hope: Travis Klassen

Hope is Held Between Us: Ellen Haroutunian

Hope: In the Hands of the Creatively Maladjusted: Mihee Kim-Kort

Paradox, Hope and Revival: City Safari

Good Theology Saves: Reverend Robyn

Linear: Never Was, Never Will Be: Kathy Escobar

Better Than Hope: Liz Dyer

Caroline for Congress: Hope for the Future: Wendy McCaig

Fumbling the Ball on Hope: KW Leslie

Content to Hope: Alise Wright

Hope: Oh, the Humanity!: Deanna Ogle

Jesus came, did you get what you expected?

I pray that the answer is no.

I realize how strange that sounds. When I wished my friends and family Merry Christmas, I truly meant it. I wished for each one a season of peace and enjoyment and that each would experience life-altering moments of kindness and love. I wished everyone could be a part of a gathering in which they felt a sense of belonging. I hoped that each of us could offer that to others as well, especially those with no place to go. I wished that everyone would feel noticed and known through the gift giving, and that each one would feel as though they matter.

I confess I love the beauty and ribbons and lights and music and anticipation of it all. It’s all too easy to get caught up into the commercialism and sentimentality that has taken over the holiday season and that causes so many of us to rack up big bills and stress in order to make it all happen. Let’s be honest, that stuff is just as alive in the Christian world as it is in the secular. But sentimentality is a cheapened version of true celebration. It tells a lie that what our hearts most desire can truly be found here, through our money and our parties.

Therefore, even though I truly wished you all Merry Christmas, I hope you were blessed enough to leave the holiday unsatisfied. I hope you all enjoyed a lovely holiday as did my family and I, and, I pray that none of us would be satisfied with so little ever again.

My prayer is that the Christian church would have to courage to begin to grow up. May we become less afraid of the mystery, the great paradox of our Christian lives which is the reality of the already/not yet. Christ has come and shown us the way of His Kingdom. Alleluia. However, Christian celebration on this side of heaven must always carry with it a morsel of grief. That is why three of our Advent candles are purple, the color of penitence and suffering. We must outgrow the Jesus who, as my pastor says, is too often viewed as our “bearded girlfriend who wants to be our lifecoach.” We must outgrow our “religious narcissism”. May we dare to follow God to places far outside of ourselves.

Those who walk in the footsteps of Emmanuel may not forget that the world aches in pain, oppression and need. We ache because even though we enjoyed a feast day with all the trimmings, many of our children in West Africa passed away from hunger. We are troubled because though we are free, too many of us are still in chains through sex trafficking, dictatorships or the selfishness of others. We ache because we do not yet know how to die enough to our own fears and greed to allow Kingdom to be birthed fully alive and full term everywhere.

If we lose our sense of ache, of longing for something better, we lose who we truly are. We are made for something, Someone, far better than what the pretty, sentimental holidays can ever provide. And, we are meant to begin to realize that truth in context of community. Theologian Miroslav Volf says that when we “receive” Christ, we receive all who come with Him. We cannot fully know and bring Kingdom without those whom we have left behind.

May the awe that we feel at the coming of God Incarnate jar our hearts awake to this exquisite longing. May this Holy Discontent drive us to the Story to live as deeply liturgical people, people who live with rejoicing and ache, all while figuring out a bit more of what it might mean to love God and love others. And if you have been fully satisfied and your life is near perfect, may you be blessed enough for God to come in and mess it up enough so that you are not left behind in slumber. Amen.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
(Quaker Blessing)

Enjoy the Synchrobloggers:

Glenn Hager – Underwear For Christmas

Jeremy Myers – The Unexpected Gift From Jesus

Tammy Carter  – Unstuck

Jeff Goins - The Day After Christmas: A Lament

Wendy McCaig – Unwanted Gifts: You Can Run But You Can Not Hide

Christine Sine – The Wait Is Over – What Did I Get?

Maria Kettleson Anderson – Following The Baby We Just Celebrated 

Leah – Still Waiting For Redemption

Kathy Escobar – Pain Relief Not Pain Removal

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