A couple of years ago I was in a comic book store, and while looking around I spotted something that rocked me to my core…..
This is a 1978 Spider-Man wallet. I had one of these when I was 4 years old, and I carried it everywhere. I kept it in my side pocket, because I thought it was stupid to sit on something so cool. You’ll notice that there’s stitching around the edge, and I played with mine so much that the stitching started coming out at the corners, and I had to force myself not to pull on it.
This was one of the most treasured possessions I had as a child.
And I had totally forgotten about it.
But when I saw this one sitting in a display case in that store, it was like a floodgate had been opened, and all these memories came rushing back; memories of my childhood, of taking this thing with me everywhere, of keeping it at my side, and with my favorite pair of shorts with zippers in the pockets, I’d make sure the pocket was always zipped closed—it was part of the importance and protection and ritual of caring for the wallet. And then another memory came back, and I wondered, “Wasn’t there a coin pocket inside?” And I looked through the display case, and sure enough, there it was; and then memories came back of collecting pennies and keeping them in that pouch (the only money I had access to as a 4 year old). I couldn’t believe how vividly I remembered all this, and how quickly it all came back—this piece of myself I had long forgotten.
Have you ever had an experience like that? Where some object, or smell, or sight, or sound triggered a single or series of memories so strongly, it is as though you’ve rediscovered a piece of yourself you didn’t even realize was missing.
For some of us that can be an exciting welcoming; and for others it might be something we try to avoid.
In the 2nd Stave of A Christmas Carol, the First of the Three Spirits introduces itself to Scrooge as the Spirit of Christmas Past.
“Long past?” Scrooge asks.
“No,” the Spirit replies. “Your past.”
The Spirit also tells Scrooge it is here for Scrooge’s reclamation; which begs the question: What is Scrooge being reclaimed to…..or Who?
As the Spirit flies with Scrooge over the city, they also fly into the past, where Scrooge finds himself at the boarding school he grew up in. As Scrooge is confronted with his past, this is how Dickens describes the experience:
He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten. “Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
In the previous stave/chapter, Scrooge is introduced as a hard-hearted old man, unaffected by the external cold which compares nothing to the cold within him, living a life of avoiding others, and in darkness. We gather that Scrooge has been living this way for at least 7 years, since Jacob Marley passed and Scrooge took his house, but living there with little light; not only because it’s cheaper that way, but also to avoid looking at the things which remind him he’s in his friend’s house.
Are there things we are trying to forget, or keep forgotten…? Are there things from our past we’d rather stay hidden in darkness?
Scrooge sees and remembers not just the mistakes and regrets he has, but the things which happened to him, such as being shut out by his father and forced to live at a boarding school, not having many friends, and spending so much time alone. What must have all that solitary done to Scrooge?
And yet, his excitement to see all the school children, and the surroundings, and even the time of Christmas gives Scrooge a conflict with what his life philosophy has been for so long:
Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes! What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?
We may know or believe that it seems easier to shut ourselves off from the world, so that we are not hurt again; that it is easier to forget than to confront, that it is easier to let darkness cover our pain than light to guide us through it. But at some point, there may be that experience when our memories are triggered, and we rediscover a piece of ourselves that had been long buried. What will we do with that piece once it’s brought back? Do we rejoice, or do we try to push it back?
The holiday season can be the most difficult time of the year for some, because while everyone else around seems to be celebrating, there are those of us who do not find it a joyful time. Maybe something happened years ago, or even sooner, to scar our experience, or maybe life circumstances make us feel like we don’t have much to celebrate, or maybe we feel like we don’t have anyone to celebrate with…..
Scrooge is confronted with the light of his past, memories he has tried long to bury. But the Spirit begins his journey with helping Scrooge remember who he was, and who he could have been. Scrooge is not ready to embrace these memories, and at the end of the Stave, he finally and physically tries to bury the Spirit in a giant candle snuffer.
What do we do with these memories once they resurface? How can we help those who are dealing with a harsh past, so that they may experience healing?
Perhaps like reading this story and going through Scrooge’s journey with him, we can listen to the story of someone in our life who needs to tell it, and do our best to go through it with them.
That might be the greatest give we can give this season….
Every great story is the kind which, no matter how many times you revisit it, no matter how many times you think you know it by heart, it always has one more little nugget of goodness to share with you. As much as you love the familiarity that you know, you discover it still has something new to offer.
I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at least once a year, usually around this time. Not only has it been a favorite book of mine since I was a kid, but I find that its themes and teaching are as strong today as when it was first published almost 175 years ago. In my reading of Stave I this year, I already found that newly discovered nugget: Scrooge’s entrance into his house.
Scrooge, who Dickens describes as “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” has spent Christmas Eve “Bah Humbug”ing anyone who forces him to socially interact; most particularly two fundraisers who are collecting money for those in need.
My favorite film version of this story is the 1950s British movie starring Alastair Sim. I had only ever seen it on TV, until one year my dad and I saw it in a theater. One of the things I had never noticed before that came so clearly was the scene near the beginning when the fundraisers come asking Scrooge for money. As Scrooge is sitting at his desk, I noticed his suit was shabbily worn and had holes all over it. Then it occurred to me: it was the same suit Scrooge was wearing back when Jacob Marley was still alive, which we find out was seven years ago. Scrooge, with all this money, was so tight-fisted that not only would he not spend it for anyone, he wouldn’t even spend it on himself.
What must it be like to care so little about anything?
Scrooge mentions there are already resources for the poor, such as the Treadmill and the Poor Law, places meant to aid those in need, but in reality are the cheapest establishments to keep the poor away from the wealthy, no matter what treatment they receive.
“Besides,” Scrooge says, “it’s not my business.”
“Isn’t it, sir?” One of the fundraisers ask. Actually in the book, Scrooge says he doesn’t know much about it or those who are badly off. “But you might know it,” is the fundraiser’s response.
You might know it.
Far past the end of the work day, when everyone else has left their offices to keep Christmas, Scrooge finally surrenders, and heads home…and this was the part I had never noticed. Vast fog, darkness, and cold surround Scrooge all the way home, though he doesn’t really mind much; in fact we read that Scrooge really prefers being blanketed in the elements which keep people away. As he approaches his house, it is described this way:
They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.
A house which has lost its way, becoming trapped and as isolated and alone as Scrooge himself.
This house, of course, is Jacob Marley’s old house, taken by Scrooge after his death, along with his “few sticks of furniture.” After Scrooge sees Marley’s ghost on the door, he is forced to light a candle and go searching around the house. In this is one of the greatest lines of the whole story: “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”
Scrooge likes the darkness, not just because it costs nothing, but also because darkness keeps hidden all the things he’s trying to avoid and forget, like how his is honoring the memory of his dead friend, how he takes such little care of himself, how he avoids life.
It’s not his business.
But it might be his business.
When Marley’s Ghost confronts Scrooge, he tells him:
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
I believe the timelessness of this story is not just the characters and the situations, but the themes and teachings of how we all must be involved in the care and awareness of others, that we are not defined by our wealth or our position, but how we reach out to one another, especially those in need. And if we do not do so in life….are we condemned to do so in death…?
The Stave ends with Scrooge once again choosing to ignore his surroundings, shutting his window of a myriad of spirits swirling around a freezing mother and her infant. This will be the last time Scrooge can choose to ignore these lesson, as he’s about to go on a journey which reminds him of truths he has tried his whole life to forget, as well as his own brokenness.
Are there things we try to avoid during the holiday season? Places, events, even people we wish would leave us alone? What kind of life do we have which is nothing but avoidance, isolation, and darkness? What or who are we shutting our hearts from? What do we consider to not be our business?
Perhaps, as we are getting ready for Christmas, it might be our business…..
The other day I was talking with a colleague about how the Church should be prophetic or pastoral: When do we be one more than the other, how do we be both, when should we be one or the other proactively rather than reactively, and how often do we wait too long to choose which one.
There are obviously a lot of things going on right now—and have been going on for quite a while—that the Church could proclaim and project an image of prophet or pastor: Taking the Knee in Protest, What it Truly Means to Honor the Flag, Racism and White Supremacy in Society, LGBTQIA+ and Biblical Interpretation, Relief Efforts to Natural Disasters. That’s just a few….and it’s already exhausting to think about all the context and history and arguing and statistics and the demand to pick a side and argue against the other until one submits or gets the most attention. And there is certainly something cathartic about standing up and shouting one’s belief and seeing all the people who agree applaud you, and even all the people who disagree curse you. Sometimes it can even fuel us in our cause to hear the criticism more than the praise, as though we’ve been trained now to be fueled by vitriol more than support.
Is that what it means to be “prophetic?”
We can certainly see from history that prophets were the folks who were usually alone and showed up to tick people off. They were/are usually not very soft-spoken in their speech, didn’t/don’t waste much time leading to their points, and at the end had/have more closed fists than open hands. Pastorals (and not just in the church) tend to start with open hands, trying to carefully articulate dialogue, bring people together, and perhaps often seem non-committal.
So which are we supposed to be?
I personally can’t recall many times I have either seen or participated in a discussion or a sermon where the “prophetic voice” has called people or society out on their faults, proclaimed how bad the “wrong” side is, and afterward, an individual or group which represents that side has come up afterwards and said “Thank you so much for telling me how wrong I’ve been. Your shouting and condemnation of my beliefs and values have opened my mind to seeing things differently.” On the other hand, I can think of many times I’ve been asked what my beliefs have been regarding certain issues, and I’ve used the “pastoral” card to dodge my way out of it; either because I was trying to truly be pastoral, realizing that I am to pastor and care for an entire congregation which is filled with individuals of many different views and beliefs. In the midst of this I’ve been told that I was “very diplomatic” in my response—but to be honest, there have been times when I’ve done that simply to avoid conflict and disagreements. I would venture to say there are as many pastors who are pastoral for the same reason, just as there are many pastors who are “more prophetic” who simply like to use the pulpit to spout what they think is right, regardless of who it affects and how, because they’re “proclaiming God’s Word.”
Lately I’ve been seeing many posts, articles, and videos about how stating facts to affect change really doesn’t work with the opposing arguer; in fact, all it really does is reinforce and strengthen the opponent’s belief, particularly because we as humans innately desire to be connected to a tribe—meaning we usually prefer to be surrounded in a community, even if that community’s ideology would seem unreasonable if we were able to step back and take more of an objective look at it….but most of the time we would rather not step back because of the fear of isolation. And so we can go round and round, shouting and arguing our facts which represent our side—the “right” side—and all it does it reinforce our own values, make us more furious at the others’, and creating more walls of isolation. And while this may feel cathartic in the moment, the result is this ever-widening gap of non-communication.
So does the prophet should louder? Does the pastor reach farther?
As a pastor, I came from a fairly conservative Christian background. I was taught—whether outwardly or implicitly—that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, that Christ paid the penalty for our sins, that homosexuality was one of those sins, and that those who didn’t submit to the truth of God’s Word would be punished in Hell, to name a few. The manner in which I learned these teachings was for a long time from the implied culture I grew up in, and then in my teenage years from the pastor who shouted these truths at us. Once I left that community I went off to college, and began hearing a different set of ideas—and not just from the university setting, but more importantly, from a church.
Some may remember the heap of controversy that fumed around the Harry Potter novels, how they were satanic and promoted witchcraft to kids, and it was unchristian to read them. I remember at the time being more or less done with the church; I just didn’t have the desire to get up early on Sunday morning to be surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know to continue to hear about how anything enjoyable was from the devil. But somehow, I ended up attending an evening service, and the theme of the sermon given by the pastor was about “Harry Potter and His Friends.” She preached on the power of friendship, the sacrifice needed at times from one on behalf of another, and that seeing beyond one’s own worldview is a demonstration of strength, not weakness.
It was this message that got me to try Christianity again.
But even in the midst of that, I became very conflicted; and the confliction was not so much which view was right and which was wrong, because in my heart I had already decided what that was, and I really always had….but I was afraid of losing my tribe if I said anything.
Then I realized there were other tribes all along. Not only that, but I realized I did not have to completely leave one to join the other. I could live and be present in both. That meant awkwardness at times, it meant difficult conversations, sometimes even arguments, but I always remembered that sermon, and that one simply didn’t need to argue to present one’s belief. Sometimes we can be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time. And sometimes loving “the other” pastorally can also be a prophetic message, either to the one we disagree with, or those we are trying to help when everyone else is telling us we’re wrong.
My all-time favorite depiction of Jesus in a movie is the 1959 Ben-Hur, the scene when Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is now part of a Roman slave group is being pulled along the desert, and make a pit stop in Nazareth….
What I love about this scene is how Jesus is portrayed as both pastor and prophet, that his first response was to care for the sufferer, not just with the water, but the personal attention, even as the Roman Commander was telling him to stop. And then as the Roman approached them, ready to enact physical violence, that’s when Jesus the Prophet stood up, and only stood up. We never see Jesus’ face, not just because we don’t need to be told who he is, but the point is to see how he was reflected in the faces of those he interacted with—to those he was the pastor, and those he was the prophet, to those he showed love and those he showed defiance.
Perhaps it comes down to this: who are we really doing it for, whether it’s prophetic arguing or pastoral care? Who are we arguing and avoiding arguments for? Who are we shouting at and listening to for? Who really benefits from our being argumentative or diplomatic, prophetic or pastoral? The other….or ourselves?
As a native Kansan now living in Florida, I really didn’t know what to expect about what my first experience with a hurricane would be; and I certainly didn’t expect my first one to be what everyone is calling “the most powerful hurricane in recorded history.” But what I have found myself seeing through outsider’s eyes here is that it almost seems like this is everyone’s first hurricane. Not really in the literal sense, but there is an anxiety here that even others have commented about not existing before. And I’m not sure that it’s really all–or just–about the hurricane. Because even without Irma, there seems to be this implicit realization:
There’s a storm coming.
Part of it is that Harvey was just last week. Part of it is no one wants to be caught off-guard and repeat the mistakes of hurricanes like Katrina and Rita. But it’s more than that. As I’ve watched people scurrying around, trying to prepare, clearing out stores, throwing sandbags up against their homes, cancelling events–it seems like more than just preparation. It’s like the storm is already here. And maybe it is.
I am not one to believe that God creates and sends storms as a reaction towards humanity’s choices or behaviors; but I have thought about what it would be like if a hurricane of this raw power and destruction was so because in it was all the frustration, all the outrage, all the anxiety, all the hostility, all the chaos that we have been watching and reading and listening and regurgitating and retorting and posting and meme-ing and preaching and shouting…..
What have we created?
And not Hurricane Irma.
When Irma comes and goes, during the destruction, during the rebuilding, after the conveniences come back, what will still be swirling around in our anxieties, our fears, our hates? Even when the hurricane passes…..will the storm still be here?
One of the images I love in the biblical story of Genesis is God creating out of chaos. That before Creation, there was this void of nothing but water and darkness, swirling around, until God breathed wind upon it….and gave peace. Where there was chaos, God interacted and created peace. Thousands of years later, Jesus placed his hands in the waters of a storm and pulled out a friend who was afraid.
Thousands of years later…..whose chaos will we dip our hand into? Whose hand will we allow to place into our chaos? What breath of peace will we allow to calm our storm?
Will we finally let the storm pass…..?
You may have seen this photo, already; I saw it first on Facebook, then an article on TIME.com. It was taken at a Nursing Home in Dickinson, TX this weekend, which you can read about here: http://time.com/4917743/la-vita-bella-nursing-home-dickinson-texas-photo/
This morning I heard an NPR story about the abuse which goes unnoticed in many Nursing Homes (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/28/546460187/serious-nursing-home-abuse-often-not-reported-to-police-federal-investigators-fi); and that’s not to say that these two stories are linked, but of the simple reality we all know: it is happening. People are suffering, many times it can go unnoticed, and there can seem to be more need than response. There is just so much out there.
As I was reading the TIME article, one of the online articles that popped on the side was “Actors Who Now Have Real Jobs,” and it showed a photo of Jennifer Connelly from the movie Shelter, probably the most iconic image to promote the movie, where Connelly plays someone who is homeless and holding up a handwritten sign on cardboard: “I Used to Be Someone.” I looked at these two photos back-to-back and thought “Jeez, really?” as I sit in my comfy coffee shop, the conversations and laughter hovering in the background.
I remember going to a worship service, and the person I sat next to groaned when one of the pastors stood up to begin her sermon. The person next to me said “Her sermons are always so depressing. All she talks about is the poor and suffering. I don’t want to come to church to be depressed.”
I should have said something….but I didn’t.
How do you have a conversation that is more productive than the guilting/chastising lecture of how we need to do something, followed by the rebuttal of how bad things are locally and we need to focus on the people here instead of the people over there, followed by how we are all one, followed by then going on our online soapboxes about how we’re right and everyone else is wrong?
The first time I saw this photo of the Nursing Home under water was on an FB post, saying that while we all were enjoying the boxing match or the football, this was going on; to which a commentator argued that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying things in life, that there are some who couldn’t or can’t do anything to help those in Texas, and that we shouldn’t use tragedies to make others feel guilty.
It seems as though we have a new reason (and maybe not so new) to feel overwhelmed and even apathetic or stuck when it comes to our part in help: which side do we choose? How do we do more than see/hear/read about all these tragedies and suffering, and not be overwhelmed in the chaos all day, every day?
Yesterday Bishop Ken Carter, bishop of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church preached at the church I serve (First UMC, Lakeland), talking about Prayer. He talked about a church he once served in a community which suffered the tragedy of some teenagers being killed in a car accident; that after he officiated the funeral services, people in the community would tell him that it was too awful a tragedy to think about or talk about. He said people would tell him two things: 1) “I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like for those families,” and 2) “I don’t even want to go there.”
Bishop Carter went on to say, “If you take prayer seriously, for the sufferings of this world….you go there. Whether it was those families, or Charlottesville, or Hurricane Harvey, you go there. Why? Because Jesus went there. And that’s what Intercession is; it’s going more deeply into the struggles of others.”
Intercessory Prayer is a type of prayer where one prays to God on behalf of others. It’s one of the most popular types of prayer in our culture, even if people don’t call it that, but there can be many who wonder what the point is. If God is in control, if God already has everything planned, what’s the point in praying to God for something to change? And then you can start wondering, “Why did God allow/cause these tragedies to happen in the first place?” And then you might get the response that it’s not our place to know, we have to trust, but that doesn’t make sense to many rational thinkers, or to those who truly empathize and want to do something, and you can get caught in yet another chaotic whirlwind. But part of Bishop Carter’s point was that we allow ourselves to go into the places and people we are praying for, as best we can. We do not just pray while disconnected, we become a part of it. We intercess, which I know is not a real word, but as a professional theologian, it’s one of the niftier things I get to do.
We go into the places and the people we are thinking about.
How do we do that in a way that matters, and in a way that doesn’t make us sink into the Swamp of Sadness? If you’re stronger than I, here it is, but I always have to skip this scene:
The part I think is worth noting, is that Sebastian–the boy who’s reading this story, and experiencing everything Atreyu expriences, including loss–turns the page, and he keeps going.
We don’t go there so that we might feel bad, as well, at least as the main reason. We must go there so that we are affected and experience our connection with others, remembering that we are not separate; but at the same time, we cannot allow our connection and feeling hinder us from what we can do. And obviously we can only do what we can do, but we should not feel as though we must measure our level of action with others.
We do what we can do, and if we act and work honestly, out of our desire to help, to act out of our empathy and human connection (and not to just make ourselves feel better/more comfortable), then the smallest act will make a world of difference to someone.
How do we help those in that Nursing Home, or the people of Texas right now? We may feel like we want to drive to Texas, or send a bunch of food and clothes–but many times that response can cause more headache than help. There needs to be time to organize, for professionals to see the damage and get the message out. For the time being, one way to help is to donate to organizations like United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). 100% of whatever you donate goes specifically to that relief effort. There will undoubtably be organized trips in the near future to help aid and rebuild, to be with those who have experienced loss.
Funds may not be what some of us can give; perhaps what we can give is time, and even if it’s not in Texas, perhaps it can be a Nursing Home in our community, to visit someone who doesn’t get any visitors. Or to volunteer to read with kids at a local school. Or to feed the homeless in your local community. I just found out my community (where I just moved) has a group called Street Warriors, who feed the homeless, so I’m goin’!
Or perhaps we have neither extra funds or extra time. Perhaps, in our own way, we are trying to stay afloat from the flooding in our own lives. Remember you don’t need to feel as though your challenges need to be pushed aside any more than anyone else’s; but also remember that sometimes the best way to pull ourselves out of our feelings of despair, can be pulling someone else out of theirs.
The point is….go there. It may be uncomfortable, it may be awkward, it may cause you to feel overwhelmed and even depressed, to in the midst of suffering. Maybe afterwards you listen to your favorite song, or watch something funny, or eat your favorite. There’s nothing wrong with being happy or enjoying life, and we should not serve purely out of guilt. We should serve because we know we are connected with each other, and no matter how big or small we can help, it all makes a difference.
Don’t get bogged down in the sadness, or the arguments, or the chaos. But let yourself go there, to those who are in need, who need to know they are not abandoned. And whatever you can do, if it’s out of honesty and love, it will mean something to someone else.
In the midst of watching the Charlottesville footage, the news, all the articles and all the conversations, I’ve been watching The Defenders on Netflix. It’s not really been a means of escape, because the whole concept of the series is how 4 people from different backgrounds come together for a common purpose.
Like most of Marvel’s Netflix series, its richness comes not just from great portrayals of comic book characters, but in using them to embody themes and issues we see happening in our own world. For Daredevil, it was justice vs. vengeance, for Jessica Jones it was abuse and personal choice, for Luke Cage it was racism, for Iron Fist…..yeah, we don’t really need to go into Iron Fist….
Now they’re all together. The formula for any team-up in the 21st century is that you have to start out hating one another. No more “Super Friends,” where heroes automatically get along; and while that can get as old as the cliché of “golly-gee good guys,” when it’s done right it is a powerful mirror into how we conflict with each other, coming from our own history and POV, and realizing we have more to learn from others.
In the 2nd episode of The Defenders, we see the first team-up of Luke Cage and Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist), which was epic. Back in the 1970s they shared the comic book Power Man & Iron Fist, and even then, didn’t always get along. While Cage was more of a hothead and Fist was more peaceful in the comics than their TV representations, the conflict which transfers over to the show is not only true to the comic material, it also articulates the racial tension which is going on right now, and has been throughout history.
In the Netflix show, Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) tracks down an African American teenager who is unknowingly a part of a villainous organization he’s been fighting—The Hand. Luke Cage is also following this boy to help out his family, thus the two heroes meet. In the 3rd episode, the argument with Luke and Danny symbolizes not only their conflicted relationship, but the realities of where they both come from:
LUKE: You were gonna beat that kid within an inch of his life.
DANNY: C’mon….I wasn’t gonna kill him…..
LUKE: Sure looked like it….
DANNY: The Hand is dangerous. They murdered my parents. Invaded the city I was sworn to protect.
LUKE: That kid’s got nothing to do with all that.
DANNY: Of course he does. He works for them.
LUKE: He needed a job.
DANNY: That’s not an excuse. You’ve never fought someone to protect someone else?
LUKE: Of course I have.
DANNY: Ok, so what’s the difference?
LUKE: The difference is I live on their block! The difference is I’m not some billionaire white boy taking justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against a wall for his own personal vendetta!
DANNY: My money doesn’t define me.
LUKE: Maybe not. But that kid is sitting in a jail cell tonight, and you’re not.
DANNY: Neither are you.
LUKE: Not this time. But I’ve seen my share of injustice.
DANNY: You don’t know anything about me!
LUKE: I know enough. I know privilege when I see it. You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born. You have the power to change the world, without getting anybody hurt. If I were in your shoes, I’d think twice about using that Fist on people who were trying to feed their families.
The disdain we can have when we are called out on our views oftentimes will keep us from learning how to change or see things differently. But Luke’s point is not just for Danny.
It’s for me.
It’s for any of us who don’t know what it’s like to live through the conflicts others have because we are a different color. The truth is Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil have all faced personal tragedies and loss, as most people have–but they are able to fight in a world which accepts them much easier than they accept someone like Luke Cage. And while Daredevil inspires fear, Iron Fist carries a legacy, and Jessica Jones isn’t out to do either, Luke is the one who embodies nobility, strength, and most importantly: hope. Not even necessarily hope that things will change, but hope that someone will stand for those others won’t. As Method Man said in an episode of Luke Cage: “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof, and unafraid.”
The hope can also be the question Danny shares after his talk with Luke:
“What if he’s right….?”
Who likes to wait, really? I don’t know of many people go get up in the morning because today’s the day they get to go sit in a doctor’s office or stand around the DMV. The other day my wife and son had to spend two hours of their day waiting at a health clinic to get something signed off, and I don’t remember either of them saying to me afterwards, “Boy, that sure was fun!”
No one likes being in that limbo period of uncertainty; not in the routine inconveniences of life we all have to deal with, but also in the bigger issues that come from time to time: where we’ll go to school, whether or not we’ll get that job, whether or not this relationship will last, what the diagnosis is going to be…..
I think about what Dr. Seuss described as “The Waiting Place,” this purgatory of vagueness where “Everyone is just waiting.” Many heroes of mythology have a time in their story where they are waiting for their time as a hero to begin, as part of their journey. Which, of course, there is a difference between those who choose to wait, and those who have to.
Recently in a conversation about needing to make changes and being anxious about the future, a comment was made that there are good reasons to “being still in the tension,” allowing ourselves to sit in the midst of the uncertainty and anxiety of waiting, to simply be, instead of trying so hard to make the tension go away so that we can get back to being comfortable, or hurrying the process along because we are wanting the next big thing to happen.
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes turning a 5,000 pound flywheel. And so you push this flywheel—again, and again, and again. After how-ever-many turns it finally breaks through with tremendous success and speed. And someone asks you which turn it was that finally produced the success….and you have no idea.
The flywheel image captures the overall feel of what it was like inside the companies as they went from good to great. No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.
That is great imagery in terms of how great things take time and persistence, that eventually things start spinning better and faster, and we have to learn to be patient and consistent.
On the other hand, some wait because they have no choice, because others in power refuse to give up that power, or that comfort. Many people would say they are tired of waiting for equality, for fairness, for justice, for understanding, for having the means of living the kind of life they see so many others able to enjoy.
When do we wait with calm persistence, and when do we affect change because people should wait no longer?
Waiting can at times bring clarity, but it can also bring depression and subjugation. There is a time for waiting, and there is a time for action. How will we show the difference….?
Most competitive swimmers–whether they’re an Olympian or your average 6th grader–will likely tell you that the hardest part of any event or even a practice day….is that first jump into the water.
When I was on my High School Swim Team, we would practice at the local community college. Every now and then schedules would conflict where we could not practice after school, so we would have to meet at 5:00am. In the morning. In the dark. The cold….cold…dark. Swim season was mostly in the winter, and so to get up before 5:00am to jump into 70 degree water was the most exciting idea. I will still occasionally swim for exercise….but not in the winter; it’s just too depressing. But back then we had to, and the worst part wasn’t the darkness, it wasn’t the trudge up the hill to the pool door, it was standing at that start block, looking down at the inevitable horror of that first jump in–to water that looked so cold it could have been glass. I didn’t want to go in. I wanted to be back home, snug and warm in my cozy, comfortable bed, shielded from all the harshness and uncertainty of the world.
But, of course, no one grows and evolves from staying cozy. Growth, and maturation, and evolution always some from pushing boundaries, usually uncomfortably, usually with uncertainty, and usually starting with taking that first plunge. The truth is most of the time, once that first jump happens, the other pieces start to fall into place. Once you’re in the water, your choices are to just float there, complaining about how cold the water is, or you can start swimming. And, of course, once you start swimming, your body adapts, your mind starts focusing on accomplishing the task rather than so much on how the environment feels. After a while, the water doesn’t feel so freezing, the practice is over, and you can head to your local Perkins for Pigs-In-a-Blanket. Extra pigs.
Yesterday my family and I officially became Floridians. We arrived in Lakeland 2 days ago, and have changed our IDs, gotten insurance, library cards, enrolled our son in school, and went to Publix. It has been an incredible feat, including a 3 day drive, selling our house, and saying Goodbye to lots of family, friends & colleagues, and former parishioners. It has taken years of discernment, patience, and listening, it has taken uncertainty, and eventually it took simply taking that first plunge.
I have never lived anywhere except Kansas. My family did not travel very much, and, kind of like Hobbits, never had many adventures or did anything unexpected. But, as I have gone through a life of professional ministry and married a wonderful, adventurous person, I have learned that there are times when one needs to step out into the unknown. Perhaps not many times; there is much honor and much to be said of those who stay in one place all their lives and can tell from personal experience the story of that place–but even then there will be those opportunities of testing, uncertainty, and having to take that first plunge.
It is likely going to be scary most times. There will be uncertainty, there will haziness, and it will likely feel better just to stay in bed. But the exhilaration of the possibilities can far outweigh the simply comfort of doing what is already known. We’re all going to have our time when we finally need to jump off the start block. Jump in, start swimming, and it won’t be long before the water doesn’t seem as freezing. Then, you can get your Pigs-In-a-Blanket, with extra pigs.
Have you ever seen the show “Rev?”
It was a BBC series about a Vicar in London and his small congregation. Kind of like “Vicar of Dibley,” but male and much more introverted. In one epsiode, the pastor invites a new young adult evangelical group to the church. During the set-up, the evangelical pastor talks about setting up spotlights, flat screens, speakers, etc., with the suffix: “Jesus is awesome.”
This is not to say that any of this is bad; but if you are either clergy or a part of an established church congregation, you’ve probably been in conversations about what we need to be doing to revitalize, grow, or simply survive. And probably the conversation has steered toward how we need to be more energetic and dynamic.
At some point, someone, typically in a pastoral role, says that we “just need to preach the gospel,” or we “just need to focus on being like Jesus.” And I believe that’s true…..however……firstly, I think more churches are doing that we sometimes generalize and/or clump churches’ declining on the basis that they’re just being stingy. However it’s always that one word that makes me squint like hearing that awful flat note in a solo:
“If we just preach more biblically.” “If we just be more missionally-minded.” “If we just give more.” It’s like what Jon Acuff refers to as the Just Prayer:
“Lord, just hear us tonight. We just lift up our hands to you and pray that you will just send your love down to us in ways we just can’t understand. Take us just as we are, Lord. Just, just. Just, just.”
The increasing concern I have over this is the idea that all this is easily solvable; and if we just keep hearing it from enough celebrity clergy on enough stages or in enough articles, it will finally click for the rest of us.
For example, one of the latest articles comes here–“Every Dying Church in America Has a Community Garden.” (https://www.faithandleadership.com/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-america-has-community-garden?utm_source=FL_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=FL_feature) One of the points this pastor in the article make is that instead of creating gimmicks to get people to come to church, we simply need to make disciples; or, we “just“ need to make disciples. He never actually says that, but here’s what he does say:
- “We’re just trying to do things that Christians have been doing for 2,000 years.”
- “One thing you do is just tell the same story over and over.”
- “We’re just trying to do what the Lord told us to do.”
- “I’m also just deciding that the most important thing for me to do is try to be a faithful pastor now and try to help disciple our people now.”
The thing is, I don’t think this pastor is saying “just” intentionally, and it’s easy for all of us to do this when we talk about what we’re involved with. But the growing problem here is this feeds into an implication that there’s this handful of successful pastors and successful churches who are “just” doing the right things, while the rest of the congregations continue to die; and they wouldn’t if they would “just……”
And in the meantime, you’ve got a whole lot people in the audience now feeling horrible about themselves, or doubting themselves–maybe even their call–because they can’t be just like that successful pastor on stage.
What I never see or read about is a pastor on stage who’s telling their “success” story, and part of it includes: “Actually….I’m not really sure how this all worked. It could just as easily have failed as well as it succeeded. There’s a lot of this I’m still trying to figure out. I’m not the only one who should be up here. It was the right time, with the right people, and any other time it probably wouldn’t have exploded the way it did. I don’t know that this could ever happen again the way it did here.”
And I don’t write all this from an advisory role on the sidelines….I write this as someone who’s been to many of these events and read many of these articles, and often come from them thinking what a failure I must be…..if I can’t just…….And I know I’m not the only one.
Hacking Christianity today published an article written by a pastor in the same city as the pastor in the article about “Community Gardens,” who says they know each other, and offers an alternative perspective. You can read it here: (http://hackingchristianity.net/2017/04/if-dying-churches-have-community-gardens-what-do-growing-churches-have.html), but the writer points out some things that this pastor was able to have:
- A position of campus pastor that did not require weekly preaching since the very successful preacher of the contemporary worship service at the mother church would be recorded and replayed at this campus every Sunday;
- A beautiful, historical but newly remodeled, updated space (over $3 million renovation);
- A space without an existing congregation with its time-honored traditions, good & bad habits, preferences, history, pride, fears, doctrines, etc.
- A committed launch team from the mother church to ensure that all events were well attended;
- A tech, custodial, web design, graphic design, video, pastoral care, etc. support from the mother church;
- A no expectation of financial sustainability for the short term
Now, there’s always multiple sides to this. I don’t know if all/any this is true. I don’t know if these two pastors really do know each other, or how well. There could be a lot of things I don’t know about all this….and that’s exactly the point.
It is never “just.”
There are always other factors, complications, messy vulnerability, and screwing up–and that’s part of the story, too. If we keep this image that all we need to do in revitalizing the Church is “just”….whatever….we make get a few more lucky clergy who are able to “succeed” and get their moment on stage, but the consequence is another roomful of pastors and church members going back to their own worlds feeling defeated and alone.
But you’re not alone.
And you’re doing good work.