The lack of difference between private and public

My recent work on my dissertation has taken me into unexpected territories. Last week it was a conundrum about what is private and what is public. The psychotherapists I am studying are, in some ways, at the cross roads of many of the confusing recent advances in communication technology. They wonder if they can keep the boundaries they are used to keeping. I think we are all wondering whether the cherished privileges of privacy that United States laws started codifying in the 1970’s make sense any more.

Some therapists I have met report that their clients (more than one!) have asked whether their sessions can be filmed as part of the reality TV show they are on! They have to decide whether to have a Facebook page and let their clients spy on them. They have to navigate how to work with confidentiality when divorce lawyers want evidence from their sessions. It is a new world.

People want more privacy at the same time that the society is allowing for less of it. We can hardly walk out of our homes without being documented by some unknown camera! As I personally found out this year, newspapers no longer research the truth of what they print; any letter to the editor will be printed as factual and added to the Google’s eternal repository of items that mention my name. What is private and what is public? Does anything need to stay private any more until it qualifies to be public?

As Jesus-followers, we have some interesting things to consider when we think about the public vs. private divide. When the PM Team Leaders were discussing Sunday meeting plans last Saturday we got off on an important tangent about “spirituality” versus “religion.” For many people these days, personal spirituality doesn’t have a lot to do with religion. “Religious” people still attend “rituals” of the institution that used to have the corner on the spirituality market: the church. But these days people feel more righteous having a private set of beliefs that don’t include public expression. During the meeting, I noted that the government has successfully sold people the “freedom” from every institution but itself, including church, family and tribe — but that’s another discussion.

When people worship, they are in a conundrum of sorts. Many feel that only their private experience is valid. The public add-on we perform kind of seems superfluous. They feel like they should attend the meeting out of some honor to their spiritual ancestors, but it feels kind of awkward and they avoid telling people they do it. I think they feel like they are kind of out-of-date when they worship, an uncool throwback, like a hippy or a Civil War re-enactor who is a little too into their hobby.

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Like so many contributions of the modern era that are coming to their logical extreme these days,  the arbitrary dichotomy between private and public is another one of those things we need to deal with for some reason, like whether we are labeled black or white, gay or straight, single or married or some other this or that which probably wouldn’t make much difference it we weren’t labeled by the nation, legalized and crammed into a niche market.

We might be better off if we let go of the technology of singularity altogether. A thought made the rounds of Facebook last week that talked about how much longer it takes restaurant patrons to eat dinner because they spend so much time alone on their phones together not paying attention to who they are with or to their waiter! When we come to worship we struggle to find a way to be together when we are so condemned to being alone. We know a little bit about private worship and our own sense of spirituality, but it doesn’t always seem to fit in to what we are doing together. We spend more time comparing and contrasting our private sense with our public experience than we do having the public experience!

I think I have more practical things to say about this. But I just wanted to offer one generality today. How about giving up the strict sense of private vs. public as an either/or and return to what most people in world history have already done and see it as a both/and?  Circle of Hope has a proverb that reflects this sense of both/and: Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” Other modern dichotomies do not make much sense to us either, like private (which is where “sacred usually lives) and public (which is dominated by the secular). We are one person in relationship with the one true God. We are in that same relationship whether we are at home or at work, on the beach or on the bus. We don’t change our ways because of our context because our context is the Kingdom of God. So whether worship is private or public is not a big deal. The worship may be different in character, which is nice, but the relationship with God and his people is the same. The public is part of the private and the private is part of the public. I am with you, in Christ, when I am alone, too.

Last Saturday we had a great example of how private faith lives in public and public faith feeds the private. At our love feast we had people revealing personal, private stories about their relationships with God that led them to their communal, public baptism or their public entry into their out-of-the-closet commitment to the body of Christ formed as Circle of Hope. In an age when people long for community so much, in which they are so alone, one would think everyone would be piling in to the togetherness of covenant love. But as we heard, there were many obstacles in the way of our friends’ commitment. Like my therapist friends, we will probably face more challenges that make us wonder what is private and what is public and whether the distinctions matter. Maybe a reality show will be asking to commodify our covenant relationships when they are done with all the other stuff they broadcast (Extreme Religious Makeover?). More likely, there is going to be some habit of the heart that needs to change so we can stay out of merely private and appreciate the public, too, like when we are having dinner together, maybe.

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Six reasons why we can’t care about Palestine

Why can’t we care about much of anything beyond getting through this week?

I suppose a few of us feel some crushing guilt when we hear such a question. A few of us effectively screened out questions like “Why don’t you care?” a long time ago; we exempted ourselves, because we don’t want to feel guilt anymore. It crushes us.

Ideally, we think of ourselves as caring people. If we are Jesus followers there is quite a bit of pressure to care about others. I think most of us think we are doing OK at meeting the standards. We are probably more caring than other people — especially Israelis who are creating an apartheid system in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians like Hamas who would sacrifice their whole people for their ideology.

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You probably are more caring than they are, and I like to think I am too. But let’s face it. When it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian tragedy the vast majority of us have just barely heard about what is going on. That’s true even though our own church people have been talking about it regularly for over two years.  We didn’t read a blog post, we didn’t go to the movie, we didn’t read a newspaper or listen to a broadcast. What’s more, we did not pray about it; we did not figure out how to give money to help suffering people; we did not support others who care more than we do; we did not protest to our elected officials who fund the whole thing; we did not demand an end to weapons production and distribution, etc. If we care at all, why don’t we do something?

I think there are a lot more reasons for not caring about Palestine than we are just wicked, guilt-resistant, pseudo-Christians.

I think we may be dramatically underestimating just how powerful and demanding the powers that be really are and way underestimating just how damaging it is to buy the philosophy of self-reliance and “freedom” capitalism keeps selling.

Here are some good reasons you don’t care, or at least don’t do much to show that you do:

1) You’ve got student loan debt that must be paid off. It is the all-purpose excuse for millions of people for tunneling in to their careers and keeping whatever job they have at all costs, working whatever hours are required to do so.

2) You either have high rent or you are stuck with a high mortgage. Nationally, 50% all renters are now spending more than 30% of their income on housing, according to a comprehensive Harvard study, up from 38% of renters in 2000. In PA the average renter needs to bring in about $17.21 an hour to make the average rent for a two-bedroom. The stats show that the phenomenon of twentysomethings living at mom and dad’s home is proven by more than anecdotal evidence; the few who have ventured into their own homes spend all their hours making money to make the payments.

3) You need to pay for private school for your kids because people do not want to pay taxes or sensibly elevate standards for public education. The average private school tuition in the U.S. for a non-sectarian elementary school is $15,945 a year, and $27,302 a year for secondary school. Catholic elementary school will run you on average $4,944 for elementary school and $7,826 for secondary school; other religious schools average $6,576 for elementary and $10,493 for secondary. Everywhere we turn, some giant institution is costing a lot!

4) You have to master the insurance system and might need to pay exorbitant rates because people do not want to share in each other’s well-being. In PA the average monthly health insurance cost for a single person is $271 but could be as high as $1200. If you actually go to the doctor, be prepared to take the day off as the system tries to frustrate any use of it.

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5) You have to master technology that is too complex to master in order to participate in the society. Plus, you have to pay a fee to do so at every step: internet, phone, TV, security systems. And those are just the systems we can see. Behind every institution from law to transit the complexity is increasing exponentially. Many of us would love to respond to injustice if we could get our computer to work.

6) You have to master consumer capitalism. We did a kitchen in our home a few years back. We already replaced the dishwasher. Last week we paid $350 to fix the fridge. Our beloved repairman told us there were no better machines available. They all have the same problems and they are all junk because people have learned to expect them to fail and to change them like they are fashion, not utilities. It is a business strategy. To stay on the treadmill takes economic staying power. Which means a lot of time on the treadmill, which does not leave a lot of time for Palestinians.

I sometimes ask my favorite twentysomethings why they are not more rebellious. A lot of them gave it a whirl with the Occupy movement — and some are still engaged in the aftermath of that. Some are implementing beautiful responses to the traps the culture has set for them. But most of them are just too busy and tired to do anything. I feel their plight. It is hard to be an agent of transformation when the powers that be are so damnably well-outfitted. For instance, whatever they might try to do just might be filmed.  That alone could make you want to hunker down with a good video game. If anyone is choked by the cares of the world, they are. If they complain, they are told that they have the freedom to make any changes they want, “Just DIY. You’re special and your country is exceptional.” Honestly! It takes a lot of energy to be special when you’re not feeling it.

I hope my honesty about what it is like for many people also sounds like sympathy. We want to care about Palestine and much more. But a lot of us are pretty busy just trying to get through this week. Even saying “Jesus will give you strength,” just sounds like there will be another duty to perform if he does! But Jesus is the master of overcoming gigantic powers. If you are doomed to some kind of slavery, He’s your savior.

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Imagine something beyond your “state.”

you can't killWe often sing this revolutionary song at the PM: “You can’t kill the Spirit; she’s like a mountain; she goes on and on.” But even so, it sometimes feels like the Spirit is quite dead —  particularly in our own hearts.

So what kills the Spirit, if in fact it can’t be killed? I think we don’t feel alive enough sometimes because we can’t imagine not being dead. We can’t imagine not being subject to what is killing us. We can’t imagine being alive because our dominant image of where we live is in a “state” and not in love. It is so often that “state” that is killing the Spirit, who just goes on without us. So let’s imagine.

Revolutionary imagination has always been basic to radical Christianity. The Anabaptists honed their distinctives on 1) their basic refusal to live in the arbitrary construction of nation states and 2) their basic conviction to live in the kingdom of God. They resisted and restored. Everybody else crammed their Christianity into the idea of the nation state and let their faith be ruled by whatever king or political philosophy ruled the state. Most people still do that and get mad at you if you don’t. It might sound like basic Bible to be ruled by God, not by humans. But even when Anabaptist practice sounds like an obvious and attractive idea, it is hard to realize.

In our era the “state” has effectively become the end-all of most people’s sense of authority. It has captured our imagination. We belong to our country. We are Americans. It isn’t even a discussion item. So if you want something done, you have to get the state to do it. The liberals and conservatives in the United States argue about how much the federal and other governments should do, but I don’t think any will argue that the governments (at least the kind implemented in our exceptional country) are not the inevitable arrangements civilization requires. When we ponder the big problems confronting society, like poverty, disease or environmental degradation, we don’t ask, “What should the church do?” or “What should General Motors do?” We think about governmental policies and action. We are used to thinking about the state as the chief social actor. Even at the BIC General Conference meeting on Saturday there were many times when the leaders told us how they formed their proposals on the advice of lawyers and by imagining future relationships in relation to possible lawsuits — in the back of our minds the state was imminent and the Kingdom distant. The kingdom was preferable, but the state is practical.

All over the world, the commitment to the power of the state has become so complete and overriding that people lose their imagination for a world without nation states that is better than the present order of things. We even end up thinking of ourselves in terms of our “state of being” rather than in terms that are much more familiar to Jesus. For instance, in John 5 the Lord confronts opponents who object to him healing on the Sabbath. They object to what he is doing because it is outside what they think everyone agrees are the God-given boundaries. He has what seems to be a strange notion of how things work when He says, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working….Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.  For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” ( John 5:17, 19-21).

How Jesus responds demonstrates the kind of mindset that allows the Spirit to live freely. Jesus could never have a red state/blue state argument because it would be too static to talk about. His “argument” is an act of love that doesn’t even recognize the state of being dead as relevant!  You can’t kill His Spirit. The working of God that Jesus demonstrates is alive, moving. You can experience it, but you cannot capture it. You might be able to harness it, but you can’t manufacture it. It produces; it gives; it creates. It is outside of death and brings life to that state. It is a positive force spoken into being by God in every circumstance so that it always has a relational sense to it — relating to people as they are in their present condition, insisting on being heard, on touching. The working is about connecting, embracing, collaborating and reconciling. It is truth revealed in love.

Resistance and restoration are always possible. The Spirit-born love that graces us is a world-recreating power. It cannot be captured in one social, political, economic or cultural form. We are always working with God who is always working regardless of the present form, which may or may not be useful to His cause. Every act of love is leading to another as we keep following the Truth. We are given the life and what we can do with it is amazing, if we can lift our imaginations beyond the godless forms that demand our attention and allegiance.

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We need spiritual resources

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? In Frozen, the main character goes a typical route. First, she withdraws in order to save everyone from having to deal with her and then enjoys the perverse freedom of being alone to be fully herself without any responsibilities. Her sister goes another route. She teams up with bad people and good, but their combined strength saves the day. What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? Do you typically go for autonomy? Or do you react by turning to the community? Most of us try both. Sadly, they both supply about equally dissatisfying results.

We need what seems like a “third” way to us. We need spiritual resources, not just personal or communal resources. Think of the pursuit of spiritual resources as “paradigm shift.” If you think you have to solve it yourself, or if you think you have to solve it with all these people because, in either case, those options are all you’ve got, then think again. In Jesus, you have God to give you resources beyond what you have inside or at your fingertips. Beyond your ordinary awareness or even your spiritual awareness, is strength from the living God. When we have become a wound or we are being wounded and we can’t stop it, where do we go? Dig deeper? Connect closer? Those are not the worst ideas unless that’s all you think there is to do. Because there is more.

Jesus-in-GethsemaneIn the famous scene of Jesus praying in the garden the night before his crucifixion, Jesus came back from praying alone to find his community. It says in Luke: “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’”

Luke is generous to say that the disciples are “exhausted from sorrow.” It is also likely that they have not learned to turn to prayer when they are exhausted or exasperated or confronted with their typical temptations. They came to the end of themselves and conked out. Many of us have a habit of falling asleep right when we need to pray. Many of us come to the end of ourselves and purposely put ourselves to sleep with some drug or media. Frozen has anesthetized millions, for instance. When Jesus is crucified the next day he demonstrates how he has accessed resources beyond his personal strength or the power of his community. When he receives the wounds of the world, he cries out, “Father forgive them.”

What do you cry out? The other day when I was praying, I realized I have a few places in my daily life that provide regular temptations. I have unhealed wounds that are easily injured, typical exasperation points, and things that make me want to take a long nap somehow. I have some things I often cry out, but I need to follow Jesus and access resources beyond myself rather than just sitting at the end of my meager capacity feeling alone and resenting my meager community. What are those places for you? A few of mine are:

  • Leaders who are out for themselves and do not listen, do not serve, do not know.
  • Cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Parents abusing their children because they are at the end of themselves.
  • Being falsely accused by customer service people.
  • When the power of my convictions are eroded by the apathy of my colleagues.

Like Jesus, we are also dealing with the wounds of the world. We are exhausted and exasperated. I think Jesus is frustrated with us because we prefer sleep to prayer. But I also think he looks on us fondly even when he is frustrated because he knows we are mostly dust in our own eyes. He is calling attention to that place deep within us that we can access by prayer. We have access to resources beyond ourselves and our communities. Our perverted instincts might tell us otherwise, so it is going to be a battle to get healed. Some things will have to die. But in the midst of that battle, amazing capacity is gained and we give birth to the wonders of God with us.

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Set the Holes Aside for a Day and Eat Cheese

Rod White:

Jonny gave a replay to this. Why not?

Originally posted on Rod's Blog:

I am one of those people often accused of being anti-American. That’s not true. I am not anti-American, I am just so pro-Kingdom of God, it looks like I am anti-American in comparison. If I get thrown in a lion’s den  (like Daniel) or if I get run out of Thessalonica, (like Paul) for not pledging my allegiance to whatever power is usurping God’s place, that would be an honor. So I suppose that compounds the issue.

But I don’t think Jesus is anti-American in the slightest. So I am not. I doubt that he’s happy about everything the government does, but I leave that to him to work out. While He is working on that, I have no doubt that he loves every American right down to the hairs on their heads — and I know he loves his people who are all over the fifty states. Did you know there are over…

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