The Cosmic Clash of Jesus’ death

We know what it’s like to wait for something to happen, to feel that that familiar internal pressure and energy of a pending experience. This was the emotional atmosphere that developed around Jesus as he journeyed from Galilee toward Jerusalem for the annual Passover holiday. He had warned his disciples it would mean a deadly confrontation, and it’s these events the Christian church around the world remembers each Holy Week.

Passover celebrates the day, centuries before, when Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt by the miraculous intervention of God. It was a religious as well as political holiday that for many Jews held powerful connotations for their present day: would God ever help them rise up to cast the Romans off their backs? Provided by Rome with social and political stability but at enormous human cost, Jews were heavily taxed, forcing many into poverty. Would God one day raise up a new King, who would defeat the massive empire, just as young king David once felled Goliath?

Tensions in the city were high. The entire region was part of the Empire, and locally controlled by a governor named Pilate. Rome allowed local religious authorities some measure of influence and control, and in this city, that was the Jewish council who oversaw religious life. The strained version of peaceful power maintained in the city was easily threatened by upstart charismatic leaders like Jesus.

Jesus chose to enter the city on the back of a colt, in stark contrast to the warhorses and chariots of Roman armies. As he approached, people tore palm branches and laid them down as carpet, shouting welcome and Hosanna (Please save us!) as he rode. During the next few days, he went to the Temple and overturned the money changers in the courtyard who cheated the religious pilgrims. He taught his followers in public. He met with his core disciples for the Passover meal and asked them to remember him later with bread and wine. As the pressure built, he laid awake in prayer through the night, begging God for a different path. And then one of his central followers betrayed him to the Jewish leaders for a bag of silver.

That betrayal then cascaded to a confused arrest, beating, and questioning by Pilate, who by then anticipated rioting. Placing the beaten and silent Jesus before the mass of pilgrims gathered outside his palace, the crowds cheered for his crucifixion. That Friday before the Sabbath, he was executed by Rome, nailed to a cross through his wrists and ankles. There he rapidly bled, suffocated, and died, a warning to the nation to fear the power of empires, religious and political. His remaining friends took his body and buried him in a borrowed tomb. It seemed such a violent and senseless defeat.

For centuries since, people have pondered why Jesus was killed. The one who healed so many: couldn’t he have saved himself? With his followers present, and all the political resistance to Rome, why did he not call for a revolt, or at least shout his innocence? If he was the Messiah, why did God not intervene somehow? What was the point of his life if it led just to this?

Quite early in the Christian proclamation, his death was understood as a human sacrifice in the same way that animal sacrifices were made at the temple for generations. Trying to make sense of this loss, early confessions of the church declared that Jesus was a substitution for human sin, to satisfy God’s demand for our righteousness. You can read this confession in various parts of our New Testament and preached vigorously everywhere today.

But Jesus did not remain dead. Something so impossible happened that his disciples were completely changed and declared that this dead one was now alive again. Incredible! What in the world just happened? They called a resurrection, and that experience changed history.

What if a better way to understand this mystery is to proclaim instead that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a cosmic clash between human power and God’s kingdom? Between the brutal will to own and dominate verses the eternal, expansive power that love creates? This is how I have come to believe what is celebrated in both the cross and empty tomb. That in this failure to grasp his own power, Jesus chose to surrender himself to God’s kingdom. He allowed human power to destroy him, and God’s mysterious power to resurrect him.

This is the Christian proclamation of Easter: love is stronger than death. God’s kingdom of mercy, healing, and love, while seemingly vulnerable to human powers, is the eternal light that overcomes darkness. All the brutality that humans do to one another – betrayals, wars, genocide, all of it – is not the last word. God’s love is bigger than human hatred. This is the central confession of our faith: Jesus has died, and Jesus is alive. The power of love overcomes all death. Amazing! Thanks be to God.

Prayer : What is it, exactly?

One of my therapist friends just received frightening medical news following her first colonoscopy. I know what that kind of call from the doctor feels like, how the mind resists such unwanted information, how it changes everything in your life.

She shared her lab results, told me about the developing treatment plan, got fast tracked to surgery. While I’m too far away be any practical help, I offered one thing: Ill pray for you every day, I told her.

I speak her name to God. I added her name to the concerns I pray about: victims of war, violence in the world, climate change, wise leaders, domestic politics, my children and husband, our community and myself.

What are we doing when we pray? It’s such a familiar impulse to many of us that we rarely stop to wonder what prayer is. How would you define your experience of prayer? What forms does it take and how has it changed over time? Do you pray alone or with a community? Are your prayers from your books, memorized over time, or inspired by the moment?

Essentially, I think of prayer as an internal conversation we have with God. It’s a personal dialogue that shifts our emotional focus to God, a kind of discussion in which I think of God as a loving Mother, patiently attending, listening, feeling our concerns, joining that divine heart to ours.

Rarely does that infinite, loving power directly respond. Instead, that internal dialogue makes us participants in God’s sacred kingdom, a spiritual realm already at work in the world for our good.

Neuroscientists who study spiritual experiences have found within our brains observable energy patterns when we are in meditation, prayer, or spiritual reflection. Humans have evolved with an innate ability to imagine, focus, and link to an experience of power beyond ourselves, to moments of awe and wonder.

We seem to be able to connect with this spirituality through such diverse practices as dance, ritual, story, body postures, visual arts, the natural world, architecture, literature, chant, poetry, music and song, food, or silence. The way we understand this impulse is first modeled by our family of origin, then by our larger culture, as well what we choose individually to develop and practice.

Like so many inborn traits, the spiritual impulse for prayer can grow stronger, and just as easily grow weaker. It’s more likely to fade when prayer is practiced only in extremes, when all else fails and we feel desperate.

Want God to heal your cancer? A certain televangelist will sell you magical healing water to motivate God’s power. Afraid of dangerous weather? Famous preachers will assure you that specific prayers will change the course of hurricanes. Still others shout their certainty that God is only close to certain political parties, countries, religions, or genders.

Nothing in my experience tells me God responds to prayer like that. Yet religious hucksters continue to draw crowds, always preying on the vulnerable.

If prayer is the innate impulse in the human brain to connect with a life power beyond our physical selves, a pull toward experiences of timelessness, presence, awe, and wonder, what if anything, can we say about how it moves God? How might it influence the physical world?

I see prayer not as some emotional campaign to spur God to specific action, but as an experience of drawing us toward God in relationship, and in strengthening the bond between God and us, seeking the in-breaking of more healing, hope and renewal into this fragile world. In other words, I think of prayer as participating with God in the most powerful experiences of life: of hope, connection, healing, relief, and love. What many call God’s realm or kingdom.

The life of Jesus shows me that God is already close to those who suffer. I believe in a God who weeps when we weep, rages at the evil we do to one another and joins us even in our death. When we pray, I don’t think we tell God anything new at all. Prayer draws us to God’s heart and that holy practice can shape us into people who can offer our best selves to this world.

I will continue to pray for my friend, that God stays close to her in every way, that she be less afraid, find peace and renewed health, and trust in her future. I know that this healing is possible, even if a cure becomes unlikely. I have practice enough with prayer to trust these are already the desires of God’s for all our world.

(Written for the Savage Pacer, published 2/3/24)

Grief is Love with Nowhere to Go : Therapy

One of the privileges of my therapy practice, quite distinct from many of my colleagues who work in large counseling clinics, is the ability to have long-term relationships with clients. I have several clients with whom I have worked with for over a decade. That longevity is not the norm for most therapy experiences, of course. Most of us access therapy to find help for mind/body problems that can find a great deal of relief and resolution in a few months’ time. My practice is a bit different; while I do see clients for the many common psychological problems humans have, my work is centered on our experiences within our families.

Families are how human beings form loyal connections, raise children, share culture and manage change. No matter what form our nuclear family took, we are each a product of our parents’ genetic lines, and their emotional outlook on the effort of living. The decadeslong development of human children means we are subject to the personalities, resources and behaviors of those we live with. Then in adulthood, most of us form intimate partnerships, creating the next generation of our family. The continuing influence and problems that this large network of relationships creates for each of us is the focus of family systems therapy.

A couple of weeks ago, I came close to another aspect of life families manage, death. One of my wonderful clients — a person of faith, so passionate for her spouse and children, a devoted professional, loving neighbor, co-worker, and friend — lost her life to an aggressive cancer, smack in mid-life. We had talked together about her personal challenges for over 10 years, and when the cancer that had been quiet for a while rose back up with force this spring, I knew that our remaining time would be precious and short.

I know how to walk with those at the end of life as a pastor. I know how to provide spiritual care at this mysterious, liminal passage. But I had yet to grieve a client who had been in current therapy with me. As her last difficult weeks passed, even our brief conversations had to give way to more critical ones with physical medicine providers. One of my client’s final acts of grace toward me was to put her pastor in touch with me, who could share her experience and keep me informed of funeral plans. Then my client died as she had hoped, quietly in her own home. Her pastor as well as her husband lovingly reached out to me later with the funeral plan.

On a hot Friday morning, I drove to her church. Hundreds of us came together to grieve and remember. I was an anonymous mourner, known by sight to only two people in that large sanctuary. And yet, I belonged. It was perhaps one of the best funerals I have ever attended. Gorgeous music she chose; loving, true words spoken about her; and God’s gracious love for us spoken and shared in word and sacrament filled the sanctuary with quiet hope. It was a wrenching, heartachingly joyful service for someone gone too soon from those who needed her and need her still. Need her still.

We live in an increasing isolated culture, each stuck in our pockets of neighborhood, home life, children’s activities, workplace, political concerns and a thousand small but essential obligations. While there may be so many times in your life when you feel unseen, forgotten or left out, I want to remind you of the power of your most essential relationships. Human beings hold one another together, and while it may go unspoken so much of the time, we are the world for one another.

And yet, we don’t often say it. Or believe it could be true that we are that important to others. We have so many hundreds of thoughts and concerns we manage just to get through each day. We have deep cultural belief in the myths of individualism and independence; we may live quiet, solitary lives. But, as this experience of loss has reminded me again, our lives are so unique and irretrievably short. We don’t know the length of our lives, and yet we barrel on as if we can live forever.

Nothing matters more than love. Loving ourselves for our own mental and spiritual health, loving our neighbor for the sake of our shared world, loving our friends for the deep and varied connections they make and loving those who share our daily life in family. What is that beautiful and true saying about grief? Grief is just love with nowhere to go. May you love with breadth and abandon and may you know that deep love in return.

Written for / published in the Savage PACER 9/30/2023

AI : Would God save us from our technology?

“An all-powerful, infinite, unchanging, masculine God who could but won’t stop holocaust, cancer, mental illness, mass shootings, nuclear war or climate disaster is of no earthly use to me.”

Technology: what a wondrous thing. Generations of human-designed machines and systems have taken away so much of the repetitive, exhausting labor of life. Washing our clothes, heating our homes, transporting us over water, land, and sky, and now connecting us to every possible source of information we have ever wanted, a whole universal library at our fingertips.

But our technologies, like human beings, are not entirely benevolent. They contain the potential for destruction, whether we mean mechanical failure, political disinformation, or nuclear war. This week, I have been distressed by the warnings shared by information engineers that Artificial Intelligence (AI), the growing capacity of our complex machines to understand and recreate human thought, images, and speech, is developing in ways that parallel and potentially surpass human reasoning.

Science fiction’s imaginings are no longer just fiction. During recent congressional hearings on AI, senior computer scientists testified that their systems have now collected so much human information they no longer simply play chess or fly planes better than we do, they could potentially become a form of independent life that threatens humanity. The inventors of AI are worried that we may have created technology that overtakes us. They call for increased self and governmental regulation of their companies as they forever race to be best/first/biggest in the marketplace.

These dire warnings have been the background hum of my thinking lately. Exactly what kind of world will our children and grandchildren inherit? How do we, how can we, mitigate the worst of human behaviors? Can AI be controlled by those who created it? And what will stop Putin and his devastating lust for Russian empire? Or the chaotic violence of Central American countries that force tens of thousands to rush our southern border? Or the extremist rhetoric that has made even necessary Congressional compromise impossible?

There is a strong current in Christian theology that has always answered these difficult questions with rigid certainty, the unblinking belief in God’s infinite sovereignty. This declaration that God is over and above the things of creation – unchanging, all powerful, all knowing – rings out from pulpits everywhere. And in being so powerful, can save us from ourselves. This old, intuitive theology has been repeated so long that it supersedes other common talk about God. No wonder so many reject belief in that theology. An all-powerful, infinite, unchanging, masculine God who could but won’t stop holocaust, cancer, mental illness, mass shootings, nuclear war or climate disaster is of no earthly use to me.

There is another way to think about God. Instead of infinite power, I agree with those who believe the central characteristic of God and God’s sovereignty is creative love. I call myself a Christian because I see God demonstrating through Jesus what embodied love can do. Jesus taught, prayed with, healed, encouraged, fed, freed, and raised up the dead. He sought out the people without power to include them. He railed against human arrogance, exclusion, and empire, responding to hate with love.

Jesus had such a short public life. When power began to push back at him, this creator God didn’t stop the disciples’ doubts, fears, and betrayals. Didn’t stop the political and religious wheels from spinning. Didn’t intervene to prevent Jesus’ arrest, his beating or public crucifixion and death. God let that death hang over the world until that Easter morning when renewed life enlivened cold flesh.

This is the God I trust, long for, complain to, and exhaust myself trying to describe in words. God as an in-fleshed God. Creating human life along with us, a God whose spirit is close as breath and skin to us. Whose earthly power is revealed when we challenge our own lust for control, for certainty, and for all those death-dealing empires we create. God is known when we risk our comfort for the sake of the other, the powerless, the hungry, and the complex creation in which all life exists. God is visible when love defeats hate. That’s the kingdom Christians pray for.

If this along-side us God is real, and the all-powerful, yet indifferent god is not, I must conclude that God is creating divine relationship with us as we go along, and will be known in love, renewal, and wonder, and when assisting us to intervene on ourselves. That description of God is one I can believe in. As we pray for our nation and for the world, let us pray for God’s spirit of wisdom to infuse all those who work at the edges of technology and invention. Heaven knows we need that kind of power.

(Written for / published in The Savage Pacer newspaper, May 27, 2023)

Praying for the Death of our Enemies

When an evil leader destroys countless innocent people, does Christian ethics allow me to pray for their death?

If I strive to love my neighbor as I love myself, is it ever right to pray for the death of an enemy?

As we bear distant witness to the continuing outrageous war that Vladimir Putin wages against the people of Ukraine, I’ve been thinking about the power of destruction and death that one person can control. The unprovoked war is approaching its first-year anniversary, and Putin’s military continues to ruin the nation, leveling so much to rubble. Schools, apartment buildings, power stations, airports, markets, train tracks, hospitals: all have been targets of Russian guns, bombs, missiles, and drone attacks aimed at killing civilians and demolishing infrastructure. Putin is hell-bent on destroying the very land he covets, and that seems like certain insanity.

He is the Destroyer. I keep praying that his own people would grow sick of him draining their resources to build weapons, rage against him conscripting their own young men to kill mothers, grandparents, and children in their name, and topple him from power. I seethe at the way the Russian Orthodox Church continually blesses the Putin regime and its leaders. He is a terror to the world, saying he is willing to launch nuclear weapons, and yet is afraid of his own inner circle.  Putin has become a singular threat to millions of exhausted, traumatized Ukrainian children who may not live to have a normal life. And still the Ukrainian people battle on, fighting the giant to their north who wants to destroy them. We send them money, weapons, food, as do European allies. And we watch.

I struggle with my hatred of a man I don’t know, whose behavior is so deadly to so many. He is just one man on a long list of megalomaniacal leaders throughout human history, consumed with their own importance, legacy, and dominance over others. But unlike the others, Putin controls a vast country historically tolerant of such power and he has innumerable weapons of mass destruction at his command. It’s a frightening combination.

I notice that each time this war comes to my mind, I pray for an end, and increasingly, I believe that end means Putin must die. No one seems able to end his ruinous rule, and while I pray for his victims, I pray for his death. I fool myself thinking that Jesus would understand. As a Jew under first century Roman occupation, Jesus grew up under an empire much like Russia’s. It was that same Roman empire that considered him a local threat. But my savior was willing to be killed by empire rather than meet force with force. His power was unfailingly one of love, the very model of the heart of God. It’s that power, the power of love, that I believe is what creates, enlivens, and enlightens the world.

I admit I still can’t puzzle this riddle out: what would Jesus say people of faith should do when faced with the unchecked evil of a dangerous dictator? This is the same question that Christians asked themselves during World War II when confronted with the reality of genocide by the Nazi German government. I have come to settle alongside the arguments, theology and ethics of a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He spent years working within his German Lutheran church to raise the alarm about the genocide, teaching, writing, traveling through Europe and finally to the United States, to gather support for the Allied resistance from our churches and our government. So many wanted him to remain in the US, safe from the war. But he returned.

And this young theologian returned to join a plot to assassinate Hitler. Yes, he wanted Hitler dead so many others could live. The plot failed, and in 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to prison, and then Flossenburg concentration camp. It was there where he was hanged on April 9th, 1945, just 3 weeks before the collapse of the Nazi regime and Hitler’s suicide.

Perhaps it is too broad a stroke to say that love compels the death of evil, but I think it does. It is love for the stranger, the vulnerable, the powerless, the innocent that compels us to forcefully resist evil human beings. History teaches repeatedly that evil is not some abstract force outside of us, some weird spiritual animated devil competing with God, tempting us to step outside God’s path. Evil is human power turned inward, consumed by the self, feeding on hatred, aggression, and power to destroy other living things. We see it in American school shootings, car jackings, domestic violence, child abuse, murders, domestic terrorism. We see it in Putin’s violence.

I think of these things when I pray in Jesus’ name. For the end of Putin’s power, one way or another. For evil to be cast down. For war and violence everywhere to end, for love to win, for justice to be for all living things. For God’s kingdom to come. God help me.

(Published in MN SW Media / Savage Pacer 1/28/23)

Good and Evil : God and Us

I have always thought that suffering makes theologians of us all. In times of crisis or despair, we turn to religious traditions or an intuitive sense of meaning to understand our experience.

The last few years of our social history — including the election of an unfit president, whose term culminated in an attempted insurrection at our nation’s capital, repeated police killings of Black men in the streets of our cities, an increasingly visible global climate emergency, and a two-plus year COVID-19 pandemic — has so disturbed our sense of human progress, justice, and order, that we have few words with which we can describe our current discomfort.

Look around you. There is no shortage of meaning making going on. Some feel a growing loss of personal power and blame Black and brown people for it all. They hoard guns and show up at street protests and state capitals armed with assault weapons. For others, anxious times call for self-protection and isolation, so they move their families ever farther away from people, stocking their bank accounts and pantry shelves so that they might turn away from the world’s chaos. Still others have chosen to frame the simple public health concept of wearing face masks in public as an assault on their personal freedom, joining vehicle convoys that clog the highways and city streets.

And then there are the rest of us. We are exhausted and worried, but still showing up for our jobs, checking in with parents in Florida, getting to the grocery store, and trying to help our kids through another unusual school year. We are just trying to figure it out.

Now the despot leader of Russia has launched an invasion of Ukraine. This country was once part of the former Soviet Union, but since that change 30 years ago has been proudly independent. Death, displacement, and destruction are the consequences of this war, begun by the maniacal greed of one man and his government. As the world responds to assist Ukraine, he threatens to use Russian nuclear weapons.

While we may be half a world away, media bring views of this suffering and chaos right into our homes. Many of us, already exhausted by the demands of the pandemic have felt an increased sense of helplessness in the face of such evil. The age-old question of evil looms large again. Where is God in this terribly broken human world? Can we expect God to be of any real help? If not, what’s the use of belief? Looking up from our televisions and laptops at one another, we wonder how all this makes any kind of sense. And then we try.

Here’s my try.

Invasions during peacetime are acts of evil. While such chaos can seem like a supernatural force, it’s not: evil is us, an embodied human event. It’s not some personified being or invisible spirit, at loose in the world, stalking the vulnerable, harassing the faithful. Evil is humans raging and running others over seeking power, seeking to hurt, get revenge, control, land, influence or prestige. Embodied evil kills lives, families, buildings, bridges, economies, history and fragile trust.

So then, where is God? We can look for God in the same embodied way. God is spirit until God embodies love in us. God is made visible, discernable, when human beings act with care, compassion, and justice. Halfway around the world, we can embody God for our Ukrainian neighbors: we can contribute money to relief efforts, we can pray, uniting our spiritual and mental energies toward peace. We can open our minds to the necessary political support of human refugees and migrants everywhere, waves of people just like us, fleeing their own land for basic safety.

As a Christian, this is my theodicy, my understanding of a divine, omniscient God in a chaotic and sometimes evil world: God can only be really known in our world when embodied: in words, relationships, and actions of human love, mercy, and justice.

This is how we see God, and how I understand who Jesus was: the unique embodiment of God’s being. In the daily struggle to be human, may love guide your decisions. That’s where you will find the divine.

(Published originally for the Savage Pacer March 14, 2022)

Serious Hope : it’s for Adults

Hope is a powerful mental perspective, best experienced by adults.

During one of the longer dark nights this winter while watching television, I came across an interview with a well-known criminal defense attorney. It caught my attention, as I recognized her name from one or two famous trials that made news over the years. I listened as familiar questions got familiar answers until one question sparked a pointed response I won’t soon forget.

“What gives you hope for the justice system,” the reporter asked the seasoned, serious attorney. Nothing, said the lawyer. Hope is for children.

I have thought often of that comment as we have been struggling with this continuing pandemic. So much of our common focus has been on the future: what to expect with this virus next, how to plan for changing work expectations, what to make of an interrupted school year, whether to schedule a surgery or vacation. We have things that must be done today to best manage tomorrow. Many of these plans have had to be scrapped as the virus spreads beyond our control, even with helpful vaccines, killing 5.6 million people worldwide since 2020.

Is it a childish thing to be optimistic about the future in a natural world like this?

Even before experiencing this pandemic, some found it helpful to expect regular trouble in life. Bad things happen and continue to happen, despite our best efforts of avoidance or preparation, they say. The best way to get through this life is to expect less so that when the rare positive outcome arrives, we are pleasantly surprised.

While this mental frame may seem like a reasonable concession to experience, it’s a short path to emotional stress and depression. Few really live this way; human minds are not patterned to expect suffering with every breath. When all that ahead is darkness, we experience it as a slow death.

Another way that human beings can move through the world is to assign meaning to suffering and resign themselves to its power. In the face of disaster, they seek peace through submitting themselves to the unknowable will of an unseen God. This submission can relieve the mind of the pressure to understand and respond to suffering. The emotional work is to bend the will to some greater plan. It’s a way to respond to suffering with passive acceptance, to embrace mystery and move on.

What is your natural frame of mind when it comes to considering suffering and expectations of the future? Are you naturally pessimistic, viewing the world as a place of struggle, pain and the occasional sunny day? Or are you more apt to put such ideas aside, trusting that some unreachable power determines our every move anyway?

Serious hope is for adults. I believe that a hopeful view of the future is a mature perspective, adopted by those who observe that within the randomness and chaos of the material world, there is also an observable return to center, to balance, to growth and healing that occurs in daily human life. While we may be swept away by sudden illness, or political turmoil, or personal violence, even these terrors aren’t a permanent state of being.

Everything changes, and as it changes, life has a global orientation that returns it to a new developing state.

As a Christian, I see this life orientation toward renewal a mark of God’s grace and presence in the living world. It’s because I have seen that both joy and suffering are not permanent experiences in this life, that the natural world, us included, is always working to restore and heal itself. I trust that within and underneath this life is an energy far larger than we, the life force that birthed the universe and is still creating it.

Perhaps this time of worldwide suffering has birthed a new life perspective for you. Along with fear, exhaustion and distrust, may you find an optimism that moves you toward hope and renewal. Without it, we are unprepared to embrace the life that awaits us, whatever it looks like, in communities worth living in.

(First published in the Savage Pacer newspaper, 2/5/22)

Getting back to community

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed?

At last, some good news: we seem to be slowly crawling our way out of the pandemic. Even with new variant strains, our community rates are low, hospitalizations have decreased and fewer Americans are critically sick and dying. More of us are vaccinated every day as supply increases. Schools, gyms, airlines, restaurants, museums and churches are starting to welcome people back.

But after a full year (and more) of limitations on our social gatherings, many wonder how our cultural institutions will look when we finally emerge through this crisis. We can’t just snap back after half a million people have died, countless numbers of businesses have closed, more millions have lost their jobs and our nation’s children, parents and teachers are exhausted by the loss of classroom learning.

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed? Will you embrace your earlier habits of frequent restaurant dining, attending crowded basketball games, or elbow to elbow live music concerts? Will masks become part of our normal attire at a doctor’s appointment or plane flight? And for people of faith, what will become of in-person worship when we can all get back together?

Church statistics have shown that even before the pandemic restrictions, Americans were changing their habits of worship attendance and affiliation to Christian communities. A sharp decline in participation has been measured in the last 20 years, and the loss of in-person participation in this last year has increased that loss.

The Barna Research group ( has discovered that while half (53%) of active church members report that they have streamed their church’s worship service in the last month, a full third (32%) of active members have never participated online in the last year. Even more disconnection is reported among members in the millennial generation (18-29 years old) as a full 50% have stopped any church participation since the start of the pandemic. While some churches report a number of new online participants this year, the number is too small to be statistically significant.

These numbers simply prove to me the obvious: that full human life, including religious activity, is meant to be lived with and among each other, not separate, isolated and apart. Video conferencing, while a wonderful technology and alternative mode of communication across distances, can never replace the experience of being together.

When we are in proximity to another human body, we share essential emotional information with one another about who we are and who we see the other to be. We communicate with more than our words: our bodies have a social language expressed in our posture, gestures, tone of voice, tilt of the head, the gaze of our eyes. We stand close, we hug, we step apart. We laugh, cry, roll our eyes, make a face, drop into silence, listen or shout together. The energy of these emotional expressions is felt in our nervous system, and we have the power to co-regulate one another as we connect with close relationships.

This is what I hope many more of us have learned in this last, very hard year together. That to be fully ourselves is to be seen and felt and known as we are when we are physically together. That to save our lives, we had to stay apart. But to be fully alive, to create human community together, we need to be physically present in one another’s space.

It has been a terrible year in so many ways. Staying connected to spiritual practice and people has been challenging, even as I have loved being together on Zoom on Sundays or talking books and culture on Tuesday nights. I will be forever grateful for our pastor and musicians’ optimism, consistency and focus as they pivoted from in-person to online in a flash. But when we can, churches will be gathering body to body, heart to heart, to sing, to pray, to listen for the word spoken. Because that is how our God has made us: spiritual people in physical bodies.

I pray you can find your way back to your faith community to regroup with others and be restored into the body Jesus called us to be. May it be so, and may it be soon.

(Originally written for / published in / the Savage Pacer, Feb 20, 2021

We Need an Emotional Revolution

How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

Oh, 2020. The problems that we all face during this terrible, remarkable year continue.

It’s completely normal for us all to be dealing with very strong emotions; mounting isolation, anger, frustrations and fear can overrun even our favorite coping skills. How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

It seems to me that learning to manage ourselves is the work of a lifetime and our earliest teachers are parents, siblings, grandparents and other close relationships who model how to deal with life’s challenges.

As we move toward the expanding social network of school and neighborhood, we inevitably take one of two emotional directions: we either gain the skills of self-management of distress tolerance and cognitive emotional understanding (sometimes chronically soothing our pain with less-helpful substances like alcohol) or, we seek relief by pushing our pain onto others. That displacement looks like blame, denial, verbal or physical intimidation, bullying, or violence.

No doubt you’ve noticed as I have a recent cultural shift toward externalizing fear and frustration that fuels the rhetoric of division, cynicism, judgment and hate. Whether it is the dangerous rise in hate groups, shootings and public violence against others or the distrust and bitterness of partisan politics in governing, none of us have been spared the real results of people who don’t deal well with frustration and pain.

This cultural and personal failure to manage our struggles has dangerous, real life consequences. Minimizing public health science has meant we have continuing, dangerous exposure to pandemic. Not acknowledging our national bias toward white, European history and our legacy of slavery means people of color are still judged as less worthy, less human and experience bias and bigotry every day. Not being willing to look at the mythology of capitalism and the American Dream means the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer — the poorest ending up homeless on our streets, in our neighborhood parks and our prisons.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Coddling of the American Mind) study moral reasoning and ethical leadership. They research and study the way we behave together. They have helped me better understand just what has been stoking our country’s increasing violent speech and actions in recent years. And it is no one person or political party’s fault.

One of the most shocking findings of their research is the way social media has impacted our shift toward emotional acting out and political extremism. Social media platforms are designed to keep us spending time on the site as a way to generate income (in the way of paid advertising) for the media companies.

How have sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest been engineering our attention? By creating easy ways to form interest groups and ways for us to react to one another with comments, like buttons, emojis and post sharing, all rapid emotional reactions that tend to fuel more responses.

The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, describes this strategy with candid interviews with the engineers who designed these sites. For the last 10 years, millions of us have spent untold hours reading, reacting and sharing information online, and now bad actors, including foreign governments, are exploiting these sites to stoke anger, despair and distrust during this bitter election and pandemic.

So, what can you do about it? Take a look at how you communicate. How do you manage your interactions in real life as well as online? If there is ever a time in our lives when we all need to hold ourselves accountable for our emotions, for the way we think, comment and react to other people and their ideas, it is now.

Assess how you show up in public spaces. You are in charge of your emotional responses, in person and virtually. Bring your best self to your Facebook page, your news article comments, the internet memes you share.

It’s time for an emotional revolution. One that values honestly, humility, toleration and facts. We can turn our national mood around, but it will take every one of us to grow up and manage hard emotions better.

Originally written for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in the Savage Pacer newspaper.

ANOTHER death by police

On this past Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, George Floyd was thrown to the ground during an arrest on Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, two dozen miles from my home. He had gone into Cup Foods on the corner to buy some things, using what the store clerk believed was a counterfeit $20 bill. Did George even know it was a bogus bill? We can’t know because instead of conversation, the lead officer on that team of 4 police officers subdued him with his knee on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

Passers by shouted, screamed, and begged the officers to get off his neck as George cried out “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother. A 17 year old on her way back home down the street had the presence of mind and the courage to video the entire scene. And then the strength to put that video onto the internet and it flew around the world.

George died under that restraint while the officer looked unmoved and even amused by the outcry the bystanders were creating around him. He knelt there while George died with his hand in his pants pocket, as if this was just a walk in the park. He has been charged with 2nd degree murder, and his fellow officers arrested and charged with aiding and abetting murder and other lesser crimes. The investigation and trial preparations continue by our state Attorney General.

George was a black man in a city and state that has always prided itself on being Nice and Progressive and Diverse. At least, for the white citizens of Minnesota. I am among those white citizens who, until now, may have known things were occasionally hard for our fellow citizens of color, but had little personal experience with the way police treat BIPOC people as if they are criminals and dangers to our way of life.

As our city and state exploded in peaceful protests and bitter and violent burning and looting, the world erupted in shock, shame, and revolt. Wave after wave of pent up despair caught the energies of many who filled the streets, airwaves and internet with stories, anger and hope for a finally awoken white populace to SEE the white skin supremacy that undergirds nearly everything and every institution in America.

People have been shaken and thrust into a new image of our state and country. White people are racing to catch up to the witness of black and brown persons who have lived this fear and racism all their lives. Not every white citizen, of course. But many, many more who have stood passively alongside before and who are now engaging, reading, marching, talking, writing, giving, and listening to try to understand and change.

I have been and remain committed to better understanding the white supremacy of our culture and how it has shaped me, my decisions and assumptions, and future vision of the world. May millions of us use the brutal lynching of George Floyd on a corner of Minneapolis one holiday evening during a pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump to listen, to repent, and to work to change the world.

May George be the very last in the innumerable line of lynchings of black Americans. May his name be the last on the list of black men and women killed by our peace officers. May this nation pull itself toward equity and peace. And may all our leaders, including our highest office, once again reflect justice for all.

#lynching #GeorgeFloyd #blacklivesmatter #vote2020