My boat is so small — in search of antifragility

JFK's plaque

JFK’s plaque

The spiritual and philosophical seas are stormy. Will our small, fragile ship get broken apart in the waves? JFK kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read “Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  This Old Breton prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Rickover who gave the plaque to the President. JFK used it in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, a few months before his death in 1963. I don’t have an oval office, but I also think the powers seem rather large this week and my boat is so small.

President Obama gives a nice eulogy at the memorial at Mother Immanuel (and sings) but doesn’t mention the Lord of the departed. A Methodist pastor sets himself on fire for inclusion. The Dominican Republic disenfranchises Haitians. In Obergefell v. Hodges the Supreme Court redefines marriage for the law — the majority and dissenters sound miles apart. Stormy seas.

I don’t usually read Supreme Court arguments but the recent one about marriage is pretty interesting. We had our own dialogue last year and came up with a good conclusion that put together what the court split apart. A couple of quotes point out how stormy our political seas really are: The majority says that “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution [of marriage]. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” This may seem obvious to us who do not trust the government to deal in truth, but it is a rather breathtaking assertion. The dissenters reply, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial ‘caution’ and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own ‘new insight’ into the ‘nature of injustice.’”

It is no wonder that the ship of the church seems fragile in such an environment.

What would you say is the opposite of “fragile”?

If you immediately thought: “solid,” “robust,” or even “unbreakable” that seems about right.

But economist, philosopher and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a different response.  He says that which is “fragile” is “damaged by stress.” If you have an anxious attachment, for example, you might be more likely to spring a leak under the pressure of criticism.  But if you navigate through stress with some confidence rather than being sunk by it, you can succeed in gaining an earned secure attachment. The opposite of fragile is not something that is invulnerable to stress but something that grows stronger under it or finds new ways through it.  Maybe the person who can grow under criticism becomes “antifragile.”

attachment

The first church, as we can see in Acts, was amazingly antifragile. Consider the stress it endured.  First, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples.  He dies the ignominious death of a common criminal and is buried in a borrowed tomb.  At that point, the disciples and budding Church appear ready to collapse.  But the resurrection turns them around and at Pentecost the Spirit empowers them. However, it isn’t long before the Church once again appears fragile.  Peter and John, the church’s leaders, are arrested. Dishonesty breaks the communal sharing that had emerged. More arrests and threats happen. The Greek-speaking converts complain that they are being slighted by the Hebrew-speaking leaders. One of the first deacons, Stephen, is martyred. A Jewish leader name Saul breathes “threats and murder against them.” And that is only about a third of the way through the book!

Despite all that stress the church didn’t just endure; it prospered.  That’s because it was, as Taleb would say, “antifragile.” The pressure on it served as a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth.  That doesn’t mean that every follower of Christ or every congregation grew stronger because of the stress, but, somehow, the Church as a whole did.

antifragileEven though I know Acts rather well and know Circle of Hope very well, I often wake up and pray the Breton prayer. We feel fragile. Even though we have met our extravagant goals for nineteen years and are meeting  this year’s even-more-extravagant goals, I am still amazed that the waves of the huge forces stirring up the waters of the world don’t sink us. Right when I think we are going to break up, something amazing often happens to calm my fears. Last week it was Adam getting pulled from the river and many of us pulled into prayer and wonder as a result. Someone discovered the last vestiges of their Buddhism. A surprisingly positive response came from someone at the About Circle of Hope dinner. Jerome told his wild story about being led by God.

At the same time, it is also true that a person sent some hate mail (not kidding, it happens). And, of course, the culture in general is not too fond of the church in general these days. In reaction to constant boat-shaking and the challenges of sailing, some people have tried making being a Christian more acceptable by embracing the latest standards and “insights” of the latest laws. This avoids stress by being little different than an attractive new pub — but a pub, however communal-like, is not the church. Others have taken another tack.  They withdraw (at least figuratively) into a “spiritual” enclave, avoiding stress by avoiding interaction that might create it.  While the first reaction might, for a while, appeal and the second, for a while, appear strong, they are ultimately fragile, susceptible to the whims of the culture in the first case and to any event or idea that might disrupt their unity in the second.

An antifragile church (and person), on the other hand, understands that pressures are necessary for growth.  Rather than hide from them, the antifragile church embraces them and, by God’s grace, becomes stronger in the process. We’ve done this and say we intend to do it, but how are you doing today? How are we doing? Do you have any examples of what makes us so antifragile? Or maybe you think I am being too optimistic about our ability to ride that next wave on the horizon.

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Tagged with “cult”

Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.

Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion elvisdirected toward a particular figure or object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect people thought he was a cult leader.

Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.

The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.  People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.

Mimi and Eunice on the matter

A  commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:

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Did Taylor mean to run over Jesus?

T-swizzle

T-swizzle

Taylor Swift was in town this past weekend. Thus caps off my ten-day meditation on Bad Blood. Now, of course, I love Taylor Swift like everyone else. But that does not mean I don’t want to speak some truth as part of my love.

I wrote in my Facebook page: “I think I am spending a week with this Taylor Swift vid — Mad Max meets Project Runway meets 50 Shades? What do YOU think this mashup means?” Some people taught me some stuff.

On the face of things, Bad Blood is just a very thin “I’m really mad at you” break up song: “Did you have to do this? I was thinking that you could be trusted. Did you have to ruin what was shiny? Now it’s all rusted.” But it quickly moves to: “Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes.” 

It is OK to tell me I am over-reacting. But can I just point out how anti-Christ it is to deal with a broken relationship by renaming yourself “Catastrophe” and imagining getting together with your superhero friends for a fight to the death? Have we all become Lindsay Graham? Is this mentality running Jesus over?

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Does following Jesus feel too demanding to you?

Our mission in Christ is like a long, endurance race (Hebrews 12:1). If you watch the Olympics, you have seen long distance runners race in a pack, gauging the capacity of the other runners until it is time to give it their all on the last leg. Living in the resurrection is like that. If you feel tired, if you resist the demand to race, or if you hate being part of the pack, this post is especially for you.

professorThis past week several of us were talking about how hard it is for the present generation to hear something like “faith is like running a long race.” For one thing, they expect to make the demands, not meet them. Chris uncovered an interesting article by a college professor about how consumerism and identity politics make it impossible for him to teach people who never expect to run hard, stumble, or need to be in a race with others at all — unless that is what they choose to do, of course. He was too demanding. On a similar track, the pastors were talking about the surprising discovery  at the last Imaginarium that some people feel a persistent resistance to an irritating “demand” from God and the church.

Do you think a lot of us have become unable to hear the Bible at all? Is it too demanding? Are more and more of us unable to listen to anyone correcting us or calling us to something beyond ourselves? — does that even seem illegal? Did the world effectively do away with sin by making nothing wrong, by making everything one feels their “right?” Maybe. At least I have not heard anyone quoting Hebrews 12 lately. The writer says:

Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12-13)

I can hear “Ugh. More demands!” And “Who are you to say what a straight path is — and why should I be on a straight path anyway?” And “Don’t label me ‘lame.’ Who gives you the right to tell me I need to be ‘healed’ instead of accepted as ‘out of joint’?” The generation excels at deconstruction, not at moving toward a preferable end. Is hope too demanding?

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The pleasure of dreaming with God

Let’s consider how God might move us through a dream. Last night I talked a lot about dreaming in honor of Peter’s great outburst of enthusiasm as he quoted the prophet Joel to explain what the Holy Spirit of God had done in the gathered disciples on Pentecost.

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’ Acts 2:16-17 (from Joel 2:28)

Prophecy, visions and dreams are being poured out “upon all flesh” as God calls us back into the spiritual intimacy we were created to enjoy.

This reality is a bit off the grid for many of us. We have been trained to think our dreams, in particular, are a matter of predictable, physical processes we can measure — and it is true, researchers have been watching our dreams for a long time. The invention of the electroencephalograph allowed scientists to study sleep in ways that were not previously

Eugene Aserinsky

Eugene Aserinsky

possible. During the 1950s, a graduate student named Eugene Aserinsky (along with others, but long live graduate students!) used this tool to discover what is known today as REM sleep. Further studies demonstrated how sleep progresses through a series of stages in which different brain wave patterns are displayed. We mainly dream during stage four when we experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep (also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep).

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Pentecost on Memorial Day Weekend.

Rod White:

Pentecost on Memorial Day weekend! Enjoy but engage.

Originally posted on Rod's Blog:

1) Memorial Day is a hard one. It really means something significant and is sad on so many levels.

  • It is sad that we ignore it as we go to the beach.
  • It is sad that it is “religious” and the dead are made sacred sacrifices to American “freedom.”
  • It is sad that Christians have no more voice in a heavily Christian country. Or that they have used their influence to justify the war machine instead of advocating “love your neighbor as yourself,” much less, “love your enemy.” I wrote a poem.

https://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/a-psalm-for-memorial-day/

2) What a wonderful night observing Pentecost last night! It makes me want to talk about it! I think thoughts from last year are still worth considering.

https://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/post-pentecost-top-ten-list/

3) My poem about Pentecost and the beach.

https://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/the-p-for-pentecost/

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Parenting as a community

Some people saw “parenting” in the title of my post and never got further than the title. They are not a parent at all, or not a parent of young children, so they are skipping this post because it is “not about me.” At some level, that’s OK, since we don’t have to be universally responsible for everything. But children are not just a subject, they are not merely an activity, they are members of the body of Christ.

Children are not of age to make a covenant, so they are those kind of members of the body. But they are members by virtue, generally, of being present with their parents. As a result, they are the special charges we are all given to nurture into faith until they can make an adult decision to walk with Jesus with us. If you ignore them, or you don’t think they are watching you ignore them, you will not only miss your opportunity and shirk your responsibility to care, you may actually prove to be a detriment to their development. (Did you listen to Into the Woods last year?)

parentsWe are parenting as a community. One way or another, we will all be parenting when children are around in the church. This is how it should be. We are the family of God, after all. The church is either a great environment where everyone, children included, can be connected to God and form a secure attachment — or not. We want to be a church who…

  • encourages everyone to care for our weakest people: the children,
  • helps parents with their difficult and crucial ministry to their children,
  • helps parenting households in an individualized society to develop practical ways to share their burdens
  • opens doors for including new parents in the systems we come up with to share the load.

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5 reasons some people are tired of being a Christian

More and more people are just plain tired out from being a Christian. They feel a change in their world. They are uncomfortable about adapting. I think they are feeling a nostalgia for a time that may have never existed: “Christendom” — a time when the state and the church had some kind of joint rule of the society. (If it ever really worked like that, it was a LONG time ago). The privatization of the church accelerated after WW2 when science took over truth at government expense; now the day of the church being consulted about society is over. I am not sure I feel that nostalgia, since when I became a Christian I changed my allegiance to the Kingdom and didn’t worry about how I fit into the “public.” But a lot of people did not see their conversion like I did, so they are hurting. Here are some reasons they are tired — and why you might be tired of being a Christian, too.

  1. post christian

    Click pic for more

    Leaders are fighting to fill the post-Christian vacuum

Regardless of how it happened, the church as an institution in society is not as important as it used to be. (Of course we have always thought that being a mere institution under the umbrella of “society” was wrong anyway!). I celebrate the end of the unholy alliance — it marginalized Jesus and distorted the Gospel. But the end of it does leave a cultural vacuum – and a lot of Christians spend a lot of time getting sucked into the debates over ideas, theology, and the relationship between faith and a changing culture.  If they are Americans, they tend to think their culture is crucial and their ideas extremely important. So their leaders talk about what to do now all the time (like I am) and get them to fight for the soul of nation (like I hope not to do). Conflict makes people tired. Any time there is some kind of cultural vacuum being flooded with a mixture of new and old ideas, there will be conflict. We hate conflict.  It makes us tired — tired enough to switch on the tube and binge again — or something.

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What does it take to make a church happen in your 20’s and 30’s?

Our church will be talking a lot about children for the next month or so. Not only do we love them, we know a lot of them. (They seem to be popping out all over like tulips). We want to stategize for raising them together.

Many people who have raised this generation of twentysomethings are second-guessing what they did. We can probably learn from them as we raise the next generation, since many of us are their children! A lot of Gen-Y/millennials (destructive labeling) seem a lot more helpless than expected, more than a few can’t work well enough or get along well enough to keep a job, and they expect a lot to be delivered into this moment they are living for. There may be reasons for this:

  • They may have been told they are special – for no reason. They didn’t display excellent character or skill, but now they demand special treatment. The problem is that kids assumed they didn’t have to do anything special in order to be special.
  • They may have been told to dream big – and now any small act seems insignificant.
  • Their parents may have made their happiness a central goal. Now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness — the by-product of living a meaningful life.
  • They may have been given every comfort – and now they can’t delay gratification. (Mickey Goodman)

Surprisingly enough, at our last Imaginarium, when we asked the question, “What is God saying to us?” we started talking about the same things. We are the “young” people who are learning new traits from God and one another that allow us to serve our cause. And yes, we think we are special and at the same time doubt anyone who says someone or something is more special than someone or anything else. We are often bumping up against the reality that we actually have to do something to live up to our ideals. A lot of what we talked about matches the quotes above. Here’s my summary of our rich dialogue:

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Practical thinking about drugs

The wisdom or rightness of whatever we are doing depends primarily upon our motivation or purpose for doing it. “Why?” and “what for?” make a difference. Jesus followers know why they are alive and what to live for.

animalsacrificeThe Apostle Paul masterfully helps us with our decision making about activities that could “go either way” in several of his letters — “Is this action wise or right?” For instance, in his day there was a debate about what to do with food that comes from the temple “store” after having been sacrificed to idols. He writes:

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:3-9)

We may not have a similar circumstance in our own time (although some people think eating genetically modified foods might be something sacrificed to a corporation). But lately we have had the debate about ingesting drugs of various kinds; there is a parallel. This is the second half [previous post] of some thoughts we explored in our last “Doing Theology” time; Paul is a good guide to questions we have to keep asking.

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