Even happy endings aren’t happy on Mad Men

(This post has spoilers–but I tend to agree with A.O. Scott on the subject.)

“There’s more to life than work.”

Words of Stan Rizzo that echoed in my head during Mad Men’s series finale. Is he summarizing the show’s thesis? A show that captivated me and millions of others in the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s, Mad Men is a postmodern gaze on the past. Consistently told assuming the audience knows about the lessons we all learned from the 1960s, the booze-driven, women-obsessed, success-driven ad executives are something of a caricature for the audience, with their flaws so readily on display, their lessons learned and, less than subtle, exposed. Indeed, as these millionaires, Don Draper in the lead, swim through their own intoxication, they wonder if there is something more to life.

Don, early on, utters that there isn’t. “The universe is indifferent.” For Don, the universe needs to be indifferent. His life is a sham: he has stolen a man’s name, his marriage is in shambles (twice), he has little motivation but the pleasures of this world, which he makes his living by selling. There is no meaning in life for Draper because there cannot be. If there is, he has not found it. He’s made his living telling people that they can create their own meaning, just with the products they consume. He has perfectly channeled capitalism. Capitalism has made him. Capitalism has given him meaning.

When Don listens to “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the first time, the final song on the Beatles’ masterpiece Revolver, he turns it off wondering why this generation likes music so much. As Don grows up, he loses touch. He loses himself. He may be a creative director, but his minions (Peggy Olson notably) are the ones coming up with the award-winning content that sells. By the time the seventh season rolls in, the audience has to seriously try to remember the last time Don made a noteworthy ad. His ideas fall flat. In fact, his ideas are hardly even conjured up.

Now, when he’s king of the county, the real-life ad firm McCann, buys Don’s firm. With so much of their identity wrapped up in the success of their company, Peter Campbell, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris, Peggy Olson, and Don are forced to find a way to proceed. How they choose to do that reveals a lot about what happiness truly is, and what life can be beyond work. My contention is that, in every case, the characters miss what life can truly be about: fullness in Jesus, and opt for a different portion of the American Dream that’s as hollow as their ads were.

Roger drinks vermouth with Peggy as they clean up their old office and eventually faces the reality of his new job. He goes back to McCann, only this time, he’s resisting sleeping with his secretaries, and he settles in with an age-appropriate women, whom he loves (Don’s ex-wife’s mother, which no one seems to care about). He writes his will and gives portions of his “small fortune” to the son he has with his old secretary, Joan Harris. It isn’t for his legacy, it’s for the fact that he can’t take his money into the next age (and he doesn’t want his new wife to get it). I suppose that’s how Roger is making sense of it all.

Peter Campbell (whom I loved) is an ambitious Ivy-league graduate. He has risen to the top of the ad company through hard work and his intention to build something. His life has been torn apart as well—his daughter and wife live in the New York suburbs, as he tries to live Don’s life in the City. But he’s not made for it. When he’s offered a job by Learjet, he takes it and convinces his former wife and child to go with him. He moves to the Midwest, where he belongs, to start his own Middle American life. Away from bustle, and temptation, Pete personifies the suburban American Dream almost perfectly.

Joan can’t seem to work out how to be a powerful, yet beautiful woman in 1970. She has gained much of her power at her former ad firm because of long-term relationships, a demonstration of experience and competence, and ultimately, prostituting herself for a share in the company. That doesn’t mean anything to the people at McCann. When she pushes for more influence, her boss sells her back her shares at 50 cents to the dollar. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s in a secure relationship, but the prospect of getting married isn’t appealing after she’s worked so hard to be her own woman. Her partner leaves her and she starts a production firm, finally being able to answer the phone using her name as the title for the company.

Joan tries to enchant Peggy to do the same, but Peggy has different ideas. She’s tempted to be her own boss, but she’s made it from secretary to copy writer and now she’s overseeing clients and teams of advertisers. Stan, her long-time friend, knows her better. He knows that she doesn’t just want to be her own boss. Pete tells her that she’ll be a creative director that people will brag about working with by 1980. She proceeds, only this time, it’s with Stan. Stan confronts her with his own love for her, and she reciprocates. Presumably, they will live happily ever after.

Which brings to Don. In an ad meeting that birthed Miller Lite, Don flees to Wisconsin (tipping off the audience he is doing field research), while traveling the country Don reveals his secrets to people that he randomly meets.: in Wisconsin, in Utah, and finally California. Don learns of his ex-wife’s lung cancer (with all the smoking on the show, someone was bound to get it) and acknowledges how he has neglected his children. He ends up with an old friend on a hippie commune. Don’s given up on his family’s Jesus a long time ago, but he still has a spiritual vacuum. The audience is led to believe that he may indeed have hope in something greater. The entire show concludes with him meditating. Then we cut to McCann’s famous Coca-Cola ad depicting a similar scene, except this time the God being worshiped is Coke. McCann gets it:

Don doesn’t come to some greater conclusion about life. He returns, following the pattern that his friends know (Stan and Roger explicitly note his ebb-and-flow), and returns to McCann and finally brings them a relevant ad, when he becomes in touch with the hippies of the 1970s. He finally becomes part of the culture, and now can sell it stuff. It’s the same culture that convinces Roger about how to distribute his wealth, that convinces Pete to move to the Midwest to start a family again, that tells Joan she has to be her own person to find happiness, that tells Peggy that hard work alone will not save her (but maybe a marriage can).

There are all happy endings. And in a sense, this is the perfect ending to a show about capitalism. For some, they’ll buy it at face value. But for those who know the story (and know how everything in the show, with this crew, has fallen apart), knows that the marriages, businesses, commercials, and legacies will fall apart too. These endings aren’t so happy when you know the truth. Life is more than work, but it is more than family too, more than marriage, more than generosity, more than legacy. The Mad Men characters fall into their American archetypes. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Jesus gives meaning to live. Jesus gives us purpose. We can let go of all of our earthly desires, whether it’s the perils of Canadian whiskey and promiscuity, or the straight-laced Midwestern suburban dream. Don and the rest of the characters are invigorated by the possibility of new life—and so am I, but not just a new start at the same old rat race, a new morning that God gives us to be Christ to the world, to show them an alternative, to save them from the American Dream.

Capitalism informs how we share, but it isn’t the only option

I want to start with this quotation from a book that influenced me quite a bit: The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell.

“… the habits we learn as consumers in the market economy tend to carry over to other dimensions of life. Thus we are conditioned to approach religion as a commodity, as just another consumer good alongside toothpaste and vacation homes. Think, for instance, of the commonplace practice of ‘church shopping.’ This is to say, capitalism encouraged a shallow, decontextualized engagement with religious beliefs… These objections do not require anything of me; they entail no particular commitment or engagement. They do not bind me to any particular people or community. Rather, they function only to serve the end(s) or purpose(s) I choose, which, in the case of religious choices, might include shoring up my self-image as ‘spiritual,’ or provide meaning amid the stresses of my middle-class life or the right values of my children.” (p. 21)

In his book, The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell critiques capitalism using the theories of anticapitalistic philosophers (in this case, Deleuze and Foucault). Rather than merely siding with their Marxist philosophies, he presents a radical alternative to capitalism: the divine economy. Using the tools at his disposal, he manages to deconstruct capitalism and not just form another philosophical alternative. In fact, those alternatives (like socialism, anarchism, communism), Bell argues, are often still absorbed by the capitalist system, and subsequently repackaged and marketed for profit—consider the revolutionary work of Che Guevara, who is known more as an image plastered on T-shirts than as a revolutionary.

Can a Christian exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? Bell’s answer is decidedly no. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. Truly, we cannot serve two masters. Whether that means we become church shoppers or we simply look for what we are getting out of worship, making sure it meets our needs (needs that perhaps aren’t actually ours, but are what the advertisers have told us are ours) remains to be seen.

Christians are not to merely exist in a system, or be tucked away in our own intentional commune letting the authorities oppress, injure, and dominate us. Our divine response, though not integrated into the capitalist system nor directly combating it, is so radical that it changes the environment and even the very desires that the machine propagates.

Consider your daily life. How much has capitalism influenced you? It’s important to start our process knowing that capitalism is generally sinister in its goals, as well as secretive and covert in how it accomplishes them. One who has declared to follow Jesus, may need to resist the temptation to become a cog in the capitalist machine — that’s not so easy.

We could make our own consideration of capitalism another product of the rat race—this time, rather than not being wealthy enough, we could not be pious enough, still caught in “not enough.” Grace, forgiveness, and understanding — especially of oneself, subverts the capitalist notion that what we have is not good enough.

Resist that temptation, but still take inventory of your life and wonder about how you can move out of the capitalist economy and into the divine economy. Your analysis doesn’t have to be exhaustive. But try to find at least one thing you can change—a script that the capitalists have sold you that you can undo. When you discover that script, rewrite it in a way that honors God and his endless love. For instance: “I am what I own” moves to “I belong to God.” Or, “I deserve what I work for” moves to “Grace is the free gift of God.”

I think the main script I want to undo here is about how we participate in the church. I think, like Bell notes, the church has been commoditized just like everything else in the capitalist system. It’s packaged, sold, and distributed. I’m not sure that people need something else to consume. We are so overly consumed. We have endless appetites, stretched out proverbial stomachs, that can take a lot of material and content! Even as I am writing this: I have Facebook open, a Twitter application open, listening to sports talk radio, and meanwhile I have a phone with dozens of apps distracting and pulling me in all sorts of directions. I have so many TV shows to watch sometimes I get stressed out when I am behind on them! For the “church service” to just be another show is a little banal. It lacks the competitive edge.

So, for me, I don’t have a commitment to making sure I’m more entertaining than Mad Men, because I want to offer something that’s more than merely consumable. I want to offer an opportunity to connect to something bigger than who we are as individuals. You are not what you own. But I think you are the church.

This “theology” is crucial, so I am going to be as redundant as possible. This isn’t a product you buy, it isn’t a company you work for, it’s a community, filled with the Spirit, that you are part of. That you are. You own the church. And not just a part of it, like a stockholder hoping for a great return on investment. You own all of it. And I think we are responsible for it.

So, the entire paradigm is shifted and that brings us to the heart of our discussion. Church is not something that you consume, community isn’t something that you sample, it’s something that you participate in.

So with that in mind, the fundamental “economic” principle that frames our community is one of the first lines of our Cell Plan: there is enough love to go around. This is, in fact, a subversive statement for two reasons: 1) Our economy is based on scarcity. Things derive their value from how rare they are. 2) There was actually a period of time where people believed that God’s love was only distributed to the people he selected.

We’re going in a whole different direction. There is enough to go around. That’s why we can grow cells without losing something. We don’t have to hold on to the little bit that we have and not share it.

So I think fundamental to being a community, being in a community, and forming community is sharing love, sharing yourself. I think this is hard to do for the reasons we’ve already been talking about. We have many things vying for our attention and, honestly, the church is probably the easiest thing to let go by the wayside. Circle of Hope, in particular, is a safe place and that safety permits you to not give it your all. A lot of times we are so conflict avoidant that even if you are mailing it in, no one will confront it.

For me, the three big things that we need to learn to share in common are our time, our money, and our heart.

Our time is valuable. It is demanded all of the time. There are books committed to making us use our time most effectively. And for many people, our time is limited. Certainly our time on earth is limited and so I think it is crucial to learn how to use it effectively and manage it well. Just like any finite resource, you can squander your time on a variety of things, and I think the worse we manage it the more stress we conjure up, and the more likely we are to be “stingy” with it. Sometimes our two-year-old takes it from us.

So, I think in order to share our time, we need to learn how to manage it. But before that, we may need to believe that there is enough to go around, especially if we are disciplined about it. You may want to consider how much you want to rest so that you can maximize the time you have when you are “on.” The church and our commitments can quickly feel like burdensome obligations if we are tired because we were over-worked that week, we stayed up too late, if our spouse was unsupportive, if our roommates didn’t do their share of the labor.

So use your time wisely and begin to invest in things that you feel passionate about. And when the passion fades, try to discern why that is, and maybe you’ll be compelled to “fake it, until you make it.” Other times, you may need to let something go and see what else God has in store for you.

Sharing our money can feel similar to time. We never feel like we have enough, it is easy to squander, sometimes we owe money, so our debt and interest rates oppress us. Money is complicated. And yet, it is something of a necessary evil. Sometimes we frame contributing to our common fund as a way of doing our part in keeping the lights on, or something.

But I think sharing our money does something to us, too. It loosens money’s grip on us. It makes us not so accountable to it. It changes our perception. I think our generosity changes us. And in fact, giving to the common fund helps you learn where your priorities are. How much are you investing in relieving the debt anxiety by making double- and triple-payments? How much do you go out to eat? How much money are you putting into your house? What matters to you? Jesus tells us where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Making a budget is a good way to consider that.

The issue with “tithing” is that it gives us the false impression that once we give what we owe to God to God, we can use the rest of our money however we want. But I want us to consider the idea that everything is God’s and once we give it all to God, there won’t be any left for Caesar or for us. Jesus talks about money quite a bit, so it’s clear that it has always had a seductive quality to it. So the struggle with how we use it, manage it, and give it away is real. I think sharing it in common is a great way to allow it to control you less.

Finally, though, is our heart. This is a little less tangible, but still as important. Where does your passion go? What consumes our emotion? Anxiety? Depression? What gets your attention? For me, I am passionate about almost everything that I like. In fact, I won’t really get into something if I don’t love it. I can love lots of things, so this isn’t a very good limiting criteria.

But we do have a limited amount of passion, and I think we need to allow God to inform what we are passionate about. I think Jesus is jealous for our passion. Investing in what we’re passionate about in the Body of Christ is a great way to get passionate about the Body of Christ.

We’re looking for partners in what we are doing. That’s a high demand. I want you to consider that partnership as you connect, knowing, honestly, however you are able to connect is OK. You may not be there yet, and you may never get there. That’s OK. I’m willing to meet you where you are. So is God.

As droves leave the church, I see an opportunity, not tragedy

Here’s some bad news for Christendom, but maybe good news for church planters: according to Pew and quoting the New York Times: “Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.”

Yikes! An eight percent drop! Makes me proud of the incremental, slowly but surely, growth of Circle of Hope.

Generally, millennials aren’t joining the church while long-time Christians are dying. But people of all ages are joining the “nones,” that vague title includes atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t believe in anything. It’s not clear exactly why this is happening, but it doesn’t affect all faiths (and even “evangelical Protestants” have increased in raw numbers).

So what does this all mean? I think it points to the seduction of the capitalist desire. We are now glued to our screens, Captureenslaved at underpaying jobs, and hoping we’ll make enough money to buy the things and live in the place that will give us the narcisstic projection that we have succeeded. In your face boomers!

More than that, though, I think it points to the abject failure of the modern church, especially Mainline and Catholic churches. Even though Evangelicals seem to have grown, they are not keeping up with population growth. Whereas, some have argued that the reasoning behind this is that people of “younger generations who are religious are more interested in a relationship with God they can sense; Catholicism is more ritual-based and many mainline churches have rejected much of the supernatural dimension of Christianity and an interactive relationship with God is less real for them.” I’m not so sure that’s the case. I like what Ed Stetzer says here, but I do not think that people are simply becoming more honest about their nominal faith, nor do I think it is just a matter of intellectual honesty. It is convenient for Evangelicals to merely point the finger at their Mainline and Catholic brothers and sisters and say, “Hey! We’re growing.” But even they aren’t matching population growth and that is a problem. Here are some more reasons what I am hearing from millennials, and why I might struggle to find a church home if it weren’t for Circle of Hope.

  1. The church has sold itself to the Republican Party. For the G.O.P. this may mean that winning another election may be harder than simply relying on the moral majority. But beyond the banality of politics, it seems to me like following the Elephant is just less attractive to a generation impacted by the quagmire war, corporate politics, and being unempowered.
  2. The church has also stayed stuck on age-old debates that only they are interested in. We are stuck in the 16th-Century arguing with Calvin and Wesley, and not moving into a the new era. The pastors just spoke about this in a videocast entitled: “Why are Christians saying things that don’t make a difference anymore?
  3. The church has become a product of the capitalist machine. Butts in seat, megachurches, and arbitrary growth goals echo in the minds of millennials and, honestly, I do not think they are interested. Ironically, they rebel against the machine that contemporary churches embody, while also allow it to subvert their whole lifestyle.

I think this is ultimately an opportunity. Circle of Hope has always had a special interest in the next generation, or at least, I have—mainly because I am the next generation. I am the millennial in question. And I am part of a church that wildly succeeds at including the people that are leaving the church in droves. Sometimes, we get criticized for not having enough ‘older people,’ but I am happy that we are meeting the people that are hardest to include. I think God is blessing us. Here are a few reasons why I think Circle of Hope works at meeting the “nones.”

  1. Cells. Our cells are a safe place to meet Jesus. Jesus is in the body of Christ, and the cells are like little churches—little expressions of the body of Christ. So people meet Jesus, when they meet each other. More than the content of the meeting (which is usually a rich dialogue surrounding the Bible), is the fact that we are meeting intentionally, face-to-face, in a city where such opportunities are rare.
  2. Community. Perhaps more than any part of reputation, our communal life is well known. People get connected to our community and all of a sudden, don’t just have new friends, they have support, love, and grace. Our community meets needs, but helps people feel known and loved in the desert of isolation and individuality central Philadelphia is. It is unique.
  3. Public meetings. The PMs are vibrant times for worship, but more than that, they are opportunities to enter into a missional context, they are opportunities to get a purpose beyond our jobs, our debts, and our dates. The public meetings are an entry point, a launch pad, not a destination.
  4. Compassion. In a world desperate for justice, we offer compassionate opportunities that are rooted in changing the world and creating an alternative. We are known for it across town and the whole country actually. Our compassion teams live and die on people’s passion and aren’t subject to the electoral college of the judicial system. Thank God we can create an alternative and don’t have to form a political action committee to make our voice hear. We have the ear of our Lord and Savior!

Although this news is disheartening, I am emboldened and excited for the opportunity to plant the church. People may be leaving the church, but I have an empty chair for them to sit it and try something new and very old out. I hope you can help, too.

When you are your own person, intimacy increases

I want to talk about knowing where you start and where you end. We are in this large conversation about what it means to be in community and I think a very important aspect of communal life in the church, in your families, in your homes, is knowing where you start and end. Knowing who you are allows you to relate to other people in a way that is also known.

It might be hard to understand that your own self-differentiation gives you the opportunity to love more, to be more intimate, to care more, and to even give more of yourself. I think a lot of times we end up in close relationships, and we think that true communities are being enmeshed. We don’t know where we start and end because we are so intertwined and we are so connected. For some of us, this kind of mushy connection is welcome from our isolating world, but it certainly can complicate matters.

I was talking to one person the other day who was having trouble with her roommate, who was also her longtime friend, and I assured her that the likelihood of their friendship improving when she moved out was high, actually. Because our ability to grow intimately increases when we are our own people. It’s best to learn how to do that so that we can be close again. Once we start sharing toilet seats or spreading our excess toothpaste all over the sink, the relationship needs to change to survive.

In Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman writes about a couple who struggled to conceive during their marriage. They ended their marriage and decided to have sex one last time, just for the hell of it. Guess what? They got pregnant. When they became their own people, their bodies even worked properly.

I think Christians have a hard time doing this because we think “independence” and “autonomy” in some sense isn’t of the Lord, and in many cases it isn’t. We are not just independent but interdependent, and how we relate affects everyone around us. We are a body and an organism, and so when one of us hurts, we all do.

Sometimes, though, we confuse the importance of loving and caring for one another with the inability to discern and be our own people. Maybe I’m kind of stuck on this idea these days, but it doesn’t seem like a week goes by where I’m not helping someone know that God loves them as they are. Usually they despise themselves or their actions or they are accusing someone else of an egregious crime. Sometimes they think the world is on their shoulders and they need to save it from itself. Our leaders, who are well intentioned, will often make someone else’s problem theirs and they get involved. Other times, our friends in conflict triangulate us in their mess and we can’t send them back to solve the problem on their own, and we get sucked in—sometimes because it feels good and other times because we really do want to help.

More problems emerge when we cannot separate our negative feelings from someone else’s actions. Our only way to feel better or to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation is when the other person changes. Unfortunately, we can’t change other people and we need to demonstrate a level of humility to acknowledge how we feel, own those feelings, and then make personal changes to work toward wholeness.

For me, it seems like healthy community and relationships are about knowing where to begin and end and knowing what we hold in common. We are individual people who are engaged in relationships, quite intimate ones, in the context of this community.

But I don’t think this is an easy thing to do. I don’t think it is modeled well for us in our upbringing, in our culture, and I think these problems have faced humanity for all of time. I think we can find examples of this throughout scripture, but there is a great moment in the epilogue of John’s Gospel where I can demonstrate an interaction we can all learn from. Let’s move to John 21:18-23.

Jesus is talking to Peter about his own martyrdom, how he will die. John interprets Christ’s words for us when he cryptically tells us, “When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus is talking about Peter’s death.

This private interaction is apparently interrupted by John, who is following them too. Not a coincidence that Jesus says “Follow me” to Peter, and John is there also following them. John will follow Peter in the planting of the whole church.

Peter might be annoyed at John. You can imagine their relationship. They are in Jesus’ inner-circle. Peter is allegedly older than John, some even say that John is quite young and so they already have differences. Peter is forward, upfront, and gets into trouble. He says weird stuff, he makes a scene at the Last Supper about Jesus washing his whole body, he denies Jesus after saying he wouldn’t. And now here he is again, getting reinstated into the mission. Some will later call him the first Pope. He’s the Rock on which Jesus builds the church (Jesus might be sarcastically calling him Rock since that’s also his name, and he calls him Satan later on in that passage). Peter’s betrayal and his foolishness in general is contrasted by his faithfulness to Jesus and the whole movement. He starts the church at Pentecost and performs great Acts that Luke documents in the book of the same title. (Keep in mind, his stubborn and pig-headed personality gets him in trouble with Paul too.)

John doesn’t often get into trouble. The one noteworthy time is when he and his brother James go up and ask Jesus if they can sit by his side in his Kingdom. They have a teenaged sense of entitlement, and Peter and the other disciples grumble about it later on. They don’t understand the “politics” of the Kingdom of God. But generally, John is depicted as a genuine, faithful follower of Christ. He cuddles with Jesus at the Last Supper and witnesses the resurrection. He calls himself the beloved one. Even in this passage he makes reference to that, and he also makes reference to the fact that he didn’t deny Jesus like Peter or betray him.

So maybe there’s a little sibling rivalry between John and Peter. You can see it in their Gospels if you go with tradition and assume Peter inspired Mark and John wrote John. But nevertheless, the Gospel of John is a book that took a lifetime to write. It’s the magnum opus of the apostle and it reads like it took a lifetime of pondering to produce. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the other Gospels, which is why it has so little in common with the other Gospels, but it’s deep enough for an elephant and shallow enough for a child. You can see the calmness that’s written into it. The high level of reverence given to Jesus—scholars call it the Gospel with the highest Christology. Compare that to the suffering Jesus in Mark, the Gospel historically thought to have been narrated by Peter. It is action-oriented, truncated, and fast-paced. John’s is slower. The Gospel of Mark runs to the shore to find Jesus. The Gospel of John stays back, and then follows. Mark is the first Gospel, John’s the last.

You see their rivalry in this interaction. Peter is dealing with the fact that Jesus basically told him that he is going to die and die early. Caravaggio depicts it in this painting (see side) rather brutally. And then he sees the pretty boy, clean, bright eyed, ready for what’s next. “And what about him?” Is he gonna die too? I hope. We’ve been doing this thing together for a long time, and now what?

John’s fate is much different than Peter’s—at least as far as we can tell. First of all, he’s probably a teenager when this is all happening, so his death probably isn’t as imminent. In fact, he’s the only disciple that observes Jesus’ death on the cross—probably because he doesn’t have a beard yet and he looks like a kid.

Jesus has this amazing line, and that’s where I want to settle: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

Yes, what is it to us? What does it matter what someone else is doing? Can we be our own people in Jesus and then relate to others in healthy ways?

We can get so caught up in what other people are doing, what they are thinking of us, what they mean to us, how we’re relating. We can blame them for all of our troubles and hold them responsible for all of our joy. Our own problems and distress we can blame and burden other people with. Your wife is the reason you are miserable. Your kids are why you are tired. You job is why you are depressed. The weather is why you are annoyed all the time. Like Peter reconciling his own martyrdom, all of a sudden he is pulling John into the conflict and trying to involve him in it. It’s like Peter thinks it’ll feel better to die if John does to. I might be reading into the text, but it is certainly a possibility.

We need to own ourselves and be responsible for us. Our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. I don’t want to go overboard here, because you could feel entitled to be inconsiderate. We are not obsessed with individuality here, and individual rights. But there’s more to the story. I want you have boundaries in your own spiritual life and your own relationships so that your intimacy can grow with others.

Since this has been rather “vague” and probably hard to apply, let me give you some tangible ways you can carry out this basic idea. It might be as simple as Jesus is saying—love God and discern what he has for you to do. Discern what you want and what God wants for you and pursue it regardless of your surroundings. People’s anxiety can often inhibit us from following God and even leading. We can never let go of the childhood wounds we have, or make steps toward not letting your past control who you are now and what you can do. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and make sure your feelings and needs are known and understood, so that you can work toward meeting your needs, but also so that you can begin to define who you are and what you are doing and how you are feeling. You know where start and end, and now you are free to relate to others.

Justice without salvation isn’t justice at all

Summer blockbuster movies, like Age of Ultron, which came out last weekend, can reveal a little bit about our own desire for justice. We know the world is full of evil and wickedness. Turning on the news station exposes that kind of evil—and not just because the reporters are telling us about it, but major media conglomerates are profiting off us in exploitation, sometimes making situations even worse by their reporting. So, we see the wickedness upon wickedness. It really is entertaining then to witness a band of benevolent heroes conquer evil. We root for them because we want love to prevail, goodness to prevail, truth to prevail, justice to prevail. I think God gives us a hunger for saving the world because he has that same desire.

In fact, God loves salvation so much, that he sent his son to die and resurrect and save the whole world. He fulfilled his own desire to save humanity and gave us a little bit of that too. I think that’s why we love superhero movies. God loves saving the world, and so do we.

For Christians, though, that love of salvation is not always what we are known for. We are known for being judgmental, hypocritical, and even anti-gay. Those are the three words that millennials use to describe the church. One of the reasons we have such a bad reputation is because when we consider wickedness we can ignore the big issues of our day: income inequality, systemic racism and sexism, massive incarceration, militarization. We ignore the weightier matters of the law, as Jesus would say, justice, mercy, and faith, and we focus on the little stuff. Clearly, in Matthew 23, Jesus tells us to focus on one without neglecting the other. I think if we ended up focusing on those weighty matters, we might even get a better reputation among the next generation.

In Circle of Hope we think that “Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.” It’s one of the main things that people know about Circle of Hope. I am honored and proud to have that reputation. We attract any justice-loving people to our congregations and we often have people with strong prophetic voices. In fact, we hope compassion is among the first things people notice about us. It is a welcome departure from the typical reception that Christians receive.

In fact, it even seems like Jesus may only recognize us if we recognize the least among us, if we are advocates of justice. I’m drawing that basic idea from Matthew just a few chapters after the famous seven woes (in Matthew 23, where we just quoted) where Jesus speaks about separating the sheep and goats at the end of the age. There are many other examples of justice in the Bible, but my purpose today isn’t to do a survey of the Bible for this subject, but just to offer us a starting point: Matthew 25.

What’s the call of Jesus here? What’s he saying? After he demonstrates his frustration with the Jewish leaders who have not followed him in chapter 23, he proceeds to engage in an eschatological discourse that predicts the end times—or for his Jewish audience, the end times as they know them, the destruction of the Second Temple. He continues his eschatological discourse in chapter 25 and he is talking about something of a final judgment for people, and in this case he is referring to how much they advocate for the “least of these.” It’s clear as day in the text: Jesus is in all of us and he is notably in the least among us, and so our inclusion of them and our advocacy for them is inclusion and advocacy for Christ himself. Jesus says we don’t even know him if we aren’t caring for the least of these. In a sense, at least to Matthew’s Jewish audience, this fundamentalizes the importance of including people and advocating for them.

I don’t think Christians disagree about Jesus’ call here. It’s hard to think of such an explicit commandment being theoretical, metaphorical, to be applied to “back then” and not now. Certainly some scriptures should be treated as such, and usually we treat scriptures that convict us to do something uncomfortable that way, but I think most of us actually read a passage like this and we get the gist and we want to do our part.

But it’s so easy to let contemporary thought cloud our vision. Maybe your mind immediately jumps to the discussion of who the agent of change is. For most of us, whether we think the government should get smaller or bigger, we think of the government as the main agent of change—rarely do we think of the church, or even ourselves, beyond an act of philanthropy. This might be getting too philosophical, but I am compelled to share with you a quotation from a book that has inspired me, The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell.

“When you ponder the ‘big problems’ that confront humanity and society, like poverty or disease or environmental degradation or even the economic crisis, inevitably where does your thinking turn? To the state and the proper policies it should enact. You do not think first and foremost, ‘What should the church do?’ or ‘What should General Motors do?’ Instead, you think about governmental policies and action. It is a habit of mind that is deeply ingrained. We are used to thinking of the state as the chief social actor. Even those who espouse the currently popular view that the state should have a smaller economic footprint do not really relinquish politics as statecraft insofar as they do not really want the state to surrender its supervisory control of society; rather, they want it to enforce policies that protect and preserve the market.” (p. 39)

The government is still how we think we accomplish our notion of justice. Put another way, the government and the laws it creates and enforces, are the way we may even think Matthew 25 is followed. We may even think that legislation is as good as Christian action. The government can certainly cause a lot of harm. In Circle of Hope we say that we are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.

The government may not be the liberator that Jesus wants Christians and the church to be, but it can certainly oppose our efforts or make them easier. With that in mind, engaging in a policy discussion is a little banal and I would consider that to be a weak application, really void of Christ, of Matthew 25. We can’t just talk about justice, we have to act.

I think the architects of the civil religion would love us to consider the state our God, and the laws that they create our Bible. But we have an alternative, a different kingdom. Unfortunately, the state and its laws won’t cause the revolution that I think the Kingdom of God is. And we can endlessly debate until the state issues out human rights to us, the rights that God has already assured us, and the rights that the state seemingly will never give us. I’m not interested in that. I think that is like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

I may be very cynical, even though legislation can sometimes make scenarios better, I don’t think it causes that kind of revolution that Jesus had in mind. But I think some of the reasons why we think this is because of the indoctrination we have received. For one, I think the church has done a bad job, practically, of developing a holistic salvation. So often we have personalized it and individualized the Gospel into little consumable packages, that we’ve lost sight about how the Gospel is seen in the least among us and our service to them.

We’ve removed salvation from justice. Social justice is about equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in society. A nice notion, but it may never happen. Even if it does, are we really following Matthew 25? Jesus is making an intrinsic connection between salvation at the end of the age and service of people who Jesus is in, in whom he is embodied. It isn’t just about equal distribution of rights, it’s about creating an alternative community and kingdom.

We aren’t just saving the world from a menacing villain. This isn’t a superhero movie where if the wickedness is removed, then the world can prosper. There is a sin in the world and the world needs to repent of that sin. We may need to bring a prophetic spirit in order to cause such repentance. But a big evil distraction—something like ISIS or police brutality in Baltimore—can blind us from the more sinister, menacing, and less-obvious sins that change how we see the world. We may not be killing black teens, but what kinds of racism are we perpetuating? How does Jesus need to transform us today?

Truly, repenting ourselves of our sins and transforming with Jesus is a challenge. Combatting a system that needs reform is equally challenging. It is easy to get discouraged. To feel like we’ll never progress against the powers that be. But I believe God is with us and with him we can do impossible things. Moreover, I think our perception of success can change too. Just because we aren’t perfectly changing the world, doesn’t mean we aren’t following Jesus, it doesn’t mean we aren’t committed to justice. In the passage from Matthew 25, the people who serve the needs of the least of these, who repent of their own prejudices, are received by Jesus.

I think the love we share with others when we are engaging in the work of justice means that we are representing Jesus well. Certainly, Jesus says he is in the least of these, but he is as much in us, especially when our humble service precedes. Jesus wants to save the whole world, and a world that sees that salvation acted out in an incarnational way is more likely to receive him as their savior. God’s ultimate act of justice is the incarnation of Christ, sending Jesus in human form to earth to redeem the world. Jesus acts for justice not only to redeem the least among us, the castaways that he so willingly and readily included into his mission, but to model such generosity to his people. The mark of a follower of Jesus, then, is their ability to include, the ability to advocate for justice.

For Jesus’ sake, I think it is best if we sometimes let our actions do the talking. I think Jesus should proudly be on our sleeves and even in our words, but I think the world, just like Christ himself, will know that we follow him by our deeds too.

Take it from Jesus: your seeds are good enough

It’s hard to know where to get started when we are journeying with Jesus. For so long, it seems to me like our faith has been reduced to a matter of principles. Evangelicals in the 20th Century reduced it to fundamentals. C.S. Lewis wrote a book about the subject called Mere Christianity (I’m a fan of Lewis, but not so much what followed him). There may be some basic and important things about our faith, but thanks to the architects of the Enlightenment in Europe, it has sometimes been reduced to mental assent. In other words, our faith is just about having the right ideas in our heads, memorizing the right Bible verses, making sure the right creeds are recited and supposedly believed. In fact, for many people, you can’t be a believer until you agree to the right doctrine.

Christians, throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, spent a lot of time debating what the basics of Christianity were, the starting point if you will. Today, in the slowly adapting Christian subculture, we are still debating old issues. My class was embroiled in a discussion on Wednesday on a controversial subject, and it left me wondering if anyone else in the region would remotely be interested in our minutia. While Christians are engaged in a conversation that begins and ends in our minds, the rest of the country and especially the northeast of the United States, has a different kind of philosophical persuasion.

As opposed to considering and subsequently cementing a philosophy (one that can suffer no alteration or else it might break), I think postmodernists simply select the philosophy for the time and place that they find themselves in. That level of adaption can vary rapidly. Literally, someone can change their mind about something the next day. Who’s the more foolish? The person who resolutely doesn’t change? Or the one who is loose as a goose? Another question is what is better to plant a seed in? Cement or the air itself? It turns out both are foolish.

I don’t think I’ve had success living in either camp. The world is bigger than my brain, and it’s also bigger than my eyes. I try not to be so rigid with my ideas because they aren’t the things that define me. However, neither is merely my vantage point. The alternative community that we are forming here poses a different option: revelation. The truth is revealed in the body and that revelation happens in a process.

One way that we’ve expressed this journey and this process is in the Way of Jesus. It’s not just a website, but much of the content that I am talking about tonight is on that site. One of the sayings that may describe this process is that it takes a lifetime. The Way of Jesus isn’t about mental assent and it isn’t about consuming the most popular ideology of the day. It’s about entering into a body, into a tribe.

We are helping people “get from here to there.” You may be tempted to make this a linear process. But even the concept of linearity, the idea that you can only be in one place and not another, may lead you to judge yourself as better or worse depending on where you find yourself in this journey. Like many things, this is a both/and journey. We are always starting fresh in every stage of our maturation. Each of the four stages may be present in us—it’s more circular than linear.

Today, we’re in the ground. We are planted roots and seeds. Think sprouts and roots, breezes blowing in the change of season and scattering seeds, sun-greening leaves and lighting causing blazes, rain and river nourishing growth.

The image of planting seeds is an old one. The parable of the sower gives us a great image of faith. Let’s go to Matthew 13. Jesus uses a lot of agricultural imagery in this chapter mainly because his audience would clearly understand it. I think for the most part, even though we live in a concrete jungle, we basically know these images. Let’s start at v. 1.

The seed here is the word of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the word of God planted in the earth—the seed of reconciliation, the regenerative power of eternity in time. The image of seed and soil is not the only metaphor that makes sense in “earth.” God is our lover and we are his bride. His desire is for us and his seed generates new life in us.

In Matthew, the seeds that Jesus is planting are seeds of faith expressed in stories. They are sowed generously, since Jesus shares his stories publicly, but they only grow in certain hearts, in certain ears, among certain people. Matthew uses this story as a way to begin the parabolic discourse in his Gospel. Jesus is using stories to spread his seeds because not all ears are innocent, some cause trouble, some intend to trip him up.

Going back to the story, Matthew’s Gospel is all about this conflict that Jesus is having with the Jewish authorities who oppose him, who are threatened by him, who are interested in killing him. So, he is speaking in something of a code. The disciples actually ask this question in the same chapter—why do you speak in parables?—and the reason he lists is so that those who have ears can hear. Blessed are those who can hear these messages, who have a little bit of the seed in them.

If you look at the text itself you may add the interpretation of the words that you’ve heard before (or that Jesus supplies later on in the passage). But it’s a fairly straightforward image, but that’s all it is. Jesus doesn’t even make it clear to his public audience that he’s telling them a story that needs to be unpacked. Parables are interesting ways of delivering the truth. They don’t fit into the molds of the world, they are new, but they are intriguing.

Ben White, one of our pastors, shared with me this definition of parables from C.H. Dodd: At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

It’s not meant to be clear, it’s not meant to be consumable. It’s not meant to offer us a simple didactic application, nor made into some edible allegory. It’s left to make us ponder. In some sense, that’s what faith in Jesus is like, too. That seed of faith that’s planted in you, it might take time to grow. Your expectation of it and its trajectory may not even help grow. You may assess and judge and think it’s bad seed and you’re a bad seed. Let it be. Receive it. Let it grow.

Jesus befuddles his disciples at this point, though, and so they ask him to explain the parable a little more. Let’s keep reading, now we’re at v. 18.

Jesus privately speaks to his disciples and offers his interpretation of the parable. Really, this is a meta-parable in many respects. It’s about listening. It’s about responding to God. In his analysis of the parable, it isn’t Jesus that’s making the people not listen, they just haven’t cultivated themselves as listeners. Jesus is trying to help his disciples listen to what he’s saying because they’ve proven themselves as loyal followers.

For the interested and the engaged, your seed is working and it’s growing. Thank God. He’s sustaining it. What do you do? You plant it. You set in roots, in a good and fertile soil. For some of us that means we need to uproot ourselves. That can be a painful process. There are so many things that we may need to be uprooted from, or to draw from the previous analogy, there are things that strangle us and our seeds. You can make a list of them if you like with me: our families, our loneliness, a bad relationship, our jobs, our mental health, our physical well being, a consumer debt. We may need to be uprooted because our ground is too rigid and won’t let us grow.

We plant and re-plant all through life—sometimes you get uprooted—it can feel raw, like you’re dangling.  In these times, remember that there’s more going on below in the soil of your heart than you can see. Christ is at home in our hearts—renovation is messy—trust in Him. This takes time, but it comes as does the bearing of fruit in season. We can’t create fruit with our will or desire. It is the product of the process of staying at the water and letting our roots go deep.

Circle of Hope is a great place to be planted and replanted. Your cell is a good place to start your journey or even revisit the start of it or where you are. Sometimes even getting into a cell with people who are new to faith or enthusiastic about our mission might invigorate you. Those fertile environments are good for us. I think we are creating a culture of growth, personal and otherwise.

I think our community can help us feel comforted when we’ve been uprooted. Our leaders can help us know where our growth may be even if we feel dead. Jesus, as expressed in his body, can help us trust in Him and his process. You might even want to view the whole body here as a stream by which you can plant your water. It will take time to grow, but be gentle to yourself as you go through this process and know that you aren’t ‘stuck’ here, and that God could be using you and growing you in other areas of your life. Let your roots grow deep and be patient at they do, perhaps that patience to let the growth and the rootedness come when it does is part of the process too. Maybe getting there will get you where you think you should be.

What George Lucas does when he’s resisted

There is something about the new Star Wars movies that gets me really giddy. I couldn’t really comprehend what was happening when I saw Han Solo utter those now-famous words to his Wookiee comrade, “We’re home, Chewie” on the lastest teaser. But it feels like a dream still. Star Wars fans all over the country are excited for how J.J. Abrams will redeem the series that George Lucas allegedly destroyed.

Granted, the prequels are horrific movies, but I think fans criticize George Lucas too much for them. When we heard that we would learn the origin story, I think the sky was the limit for how awesome it would be. No matter what, I think our expectations were impossibly high. So it’s not surprising that Lucas has received a deluge of criticism, especially while making so much money off of the movies and their merchandise.

Red Letter Media deconstructs the films, and not without being creepy, in excruciating detail. But take a trip down memory late for a moment: it’s not like critics universally praised the original movies. Bad acting and writing plagued the originals too. I think I may even prefer Jar Jar to the Ewoks (whose names were never uttered in Jedi, but whose name we all know because of how marketed they were).

The original movies grew in status over time. They became untouchable because the kids that fell in love with them grew up with their childhood idealism intact. When Lucas didn’t give them something as perfect as their idealism crafted, the response was drastic. Here’s my favorite parody of Gotye’s overplayed single that covers this very subject:

What happened to the Star Wars that I used to know? I’m afraid that the nostalgic concept of Star Wars in our minds is impossible to replicate. I won’t be surprised if J.J. Abrams movies are criticized as much as the prequels (but they probably won’t be because at this point Star Wars fans just want something to get the bad taste of midi-chlorians out of their mouths).

Like a poor sport, George Lucas seems to be getting jealous of J.J. Abrams’ popularity. At least that’s how the Internet is telling the story. Here’s Rolling Stone making fun of him for not seeing the new trailer. The Guardian here notes that all of Lucas’ ideas were rejected. Can you feel the resistance against Lucas? Are you relating to it yet?

I wanted to write about Star Wars just to highlight some of the ways that we can act when we are resisted.

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for loyalty, but I feel sorry for him. I think George Lucas made kids movies that kids like. That was his mission. He may have lost sight of it. When those kids grew up, they just lost interest in that kind of movie and led us all in a different direction. It’s very interesting to me that the movie that heralded the best out of the prequels is the most violent one—Revenge of the Sith earned a PG-13 rating and has Anakin killing younglins on-screen!

Lucas may have succumbed to pressure to make his movies darker to match the maturation of his audience, when I think he really just wanted to make kids’ movies. It’s easy to listen to the haters and go against our God-given instinct. Criticism is painful and resistance is hard to bear sometimes. Lucas doesn’t always do a good job with it, especially when he’s killing young Jedis and manufacturing Ewoks. But the fans were telling him something—simplify it, make it about the story, gives us characters that we understand that have conflicts that are relatable. It’s not just about fan service like Yoda swinging a tiny lightsaber. There’s more that we liked, even when we were kids. We were compelled by the battle of good and evil, not Anakin decapitating Count Dooku with two lightsabers.

Though Lucas might act like a sore loser sometimes and a buffoon at other times, he still seems to be trying to do the right thing. He still has some humanity. All of his money and celebrity hasn’t sucked the life out of him.

Two more stories of how he is responding to resistance. First, Lucas wants to build affordable housing on his land. He got the idea after his community rejected the prospect of expanding his company’s studios—now he’s advocated for the least of these. Second, he repented of his sin of making Star Wars way too scientific and Jedis way too rigid when a young fan asked him to change the rules so that Jedi could get married. Check out this heartwarming article—the kids gets a letter with the rules changed, plus a lot of super cool Star Wars stuff (I was very jealous, truly).

So what do you do when the world resists you? Here’s what Lucas is teaching me. 1) Listen to your resisters. They very well might be telling you something that you should change. 2) Help them along, don’t just move along. If they are wrong, don’t just bulldoze them with arrogance, respond in love. 3) But don’t forget what you’re about. Consider what you want to do and keep going back to it. For Lucas, it may have been just to make kids have fun. And I’m glad he’s still finding ways to do that.