Grief: What to Expect (the unexpected).

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One of the beautifully mysterious, confounding, and yet comforting things about life is that everyone is different. And yet, how often we forget this. We marvel at snowflakes and ignore other people as though they weren’t walking miracles themselves. We inspect and catalog plant species, marveling at their differences while flattening out humanity into cardboard caricatures.

Though “Grief is the natural response to loss or change” and “the price we pay for love,” and everyone grieves, not everyone grieves the same. And grief is more than a simple emotional response to loss. It is a physiological reaction that may differ from person to person. Some people may want to sleep all the time while others won’t be able to sleep. Some will lose their appetites while others will find comfort in food. Some people will need silence and time alone to process while others will find it more helpful to be in crowds and around people. Some people will have guilt or anger while others have only sorrow. None of these is “right” or “wrong,” they are just the different ways people move through grief.

We need to stop trying to prescribe how everyone will do everything. For a religion that claims to be for people who don’t have it all together, Christians often try to pretend that we have it all together. And that we can tell everyone else how to do things. We hold financial seminars telling people how to deal with their money, we have conferences about parenting and marriage. But the truth of the matter is that cultural statistics, bankruptcies, divorces, etc. are not all that different for those who claim to be Christian and those who do not. I’m not saying God’s Word does not have helpful things to say about all of these topics, including grieving, but I am saying that we need to stop telling people how long or how they should grieve.

One of the questions I am most often asked is: How long will my grief last?

I don’t know. How long did you love that person? You will never forget them, so in a sense, grief never ends. I know most people don’t want to hear that; that grief never ends. But it does change. It will not always feel like we’re gasping for air in the belly of the best. But grieving is the process of admitting and accepting our loss and finding the “new normal.” Things go on. Even without the ones we love. There are still bills to pay, mouths to feed, yards, to mow, dishes to do. Only now, we must face them alone.

If grief truly is the price we pay for love, then grief is also the process of discovering life after loss. There will be tears, there will be sorrow, there will be loneliness, anger but there is also the simple process of being changed by our loss. Grief is the redefinition of who we are in relation to what we’ve lost.

If I’m saying anything at all (and believe me, there is much more that I want to say beyond this post), it’s that I would love to see the Church make more space for lament. I would love to see Christians move beyond prescribed 1,2,3 step programs for everything and I would love to see Christians move beyond trite-isms and embrace the grieving process as an essential part of life.

As with yesterday’s post, I very much would like discussion. What has your experience with grief been? How has it shaped you? What was helpful? What was not? What would you like others to know?



NotMyKid Launch Win This Year Podcast

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This is Suicide Prevention Week and yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day. We’ve already highlighted Suicide Prevention Week in our highlight of the Last Call screening. But, with the recent news of pastor and mental health activist Jarrid Wilson, it seems like we should continue talking about this topic.

My friend Shane works for NotMyKid, an organization that exists to “empower and educate youth, families, and communities with the knowledge and courage to identify and prevent negative youth behavior.” They recently launched a podcast and coordinated the launch with World Suicide Prevention Day.

The podcast is called Win This Year and they describe it this way:

“Win This Year is the official podcast of notMYkid, a national 501(c)3 prevention nonprofit dedicated to inspiring positive life choices by educating parents, preteens, teens, families, and educators on the mental health and behavioral health challenges facing our youth today. Win This Year shares information, inspiration, and strategies for parents and educators on the topics of substance use, suicide, bullying, internet safety, social media, body image, relationships, anxiety, self-injury, depression, and more.”

Listen to the podcast here and read more below.

Segment One:
Following the loss of her son Adrio Romine in May 2019, Paolla Jordan is determined to use her experience to prevent teen suicides and to help other families not have to go through the same thing. In this episode, she shares her experience, knowledge, and hope as well as suggestions and strategies for parents and those who work with youth. Paolla and Win This Year host Shane Watson also discuss the role that the internet played in Adrio's suicide.

Segment Two:
Longtime prevention professional, coach, parent, and ASIST master trainer Joronda Montaño talks with host Shane Watson about signs and symptoms of someone who is considering suicide, how to begin a conversation with someone who is suicidal, and how to help someone who is having thoughts of suicide.

Segment Three:
Host Shane Watson discusses suicide prevention and intervention resources and crisis lines, and shares a personal anecdote regarding an unusual suicide intervention he once took part in.

Contact information, resources and links mentioned in this episode:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

  • Crisis Text Line: Text "Listen" to 741741

  • Teen Lifeline: (800) 248-8336

  • Paolla Jordan/LaloBoy Foundation: (480) 788-4187

  • Visit NotMyKid’s official website.

  • Visit NotMyKid at Facebook.

  • Visit NotMyKid on Instagram.

  • Follow NotMyKid on Twitter.



Makers and Mystics Live Podcast Recording Event

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You might know my friend Stephen Roach from his band Songs of Water. Or from his work with The Breath & The Clay. Or perhaps from his podcast Makers & Mystics, “the podcast for the art-driven, spiritually adventurous seekers of truth and lovers of life.”

Stephen often incorporates live events into the podcast recordings. The fine folks over at Axiom Church are hosting a live Makers & Mystics recording Saturday, September 14, 6:00pm. The theme will be “Art as Hospitality” and I hope to share a bit about how the Habañero Collective House Show Series accomplished just that, and how we tried incorporating art into the Gathered Worship time of Church of the Cross (now Missio Dei Peoria). Browse the lineup here.

  • Visit the official Makers and Mystics official website.

  • Visit Axiom Church’s website.

  • Purchase tickets at Eventbrite.

Why "Christian" Music Is Often So Bad

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If you know me at all, or even if you’ve just barely browsed this site, you know that I love music. Music of all kinds. Music from all places. Music for all faces.

And I am a Christian.

But, generally speaking, I do not love “Christian” music. I do not even like most “Christian” music. First of all, “Christian” is not a genre. Slapping a religious moniker in front of any word does not make the content any more religious, any more meaningful, or necessarily mean that it’s good.

Flip through the radio stations in just about any city in the US and you can immediately spot the “Christian” station even before the lyrics. You know it as soon as the music comes on. There’s just something about the sheen. It all seems to be produced in the same shiny music factory. But I’m already digressing and I’ve barely just begun.

But, many well-intentioned Christians just don’t seem to be too concerned with the quality of the music that bears their name. Or maybe they think it’s actually good. After all, they have their own awards shows, right? Who would give an award to something that’s not good, right?! But again I digress.

We could talk about the protectionism embedded in much of American Christianity. We are taught to fear the surrounding culture and withdraw by replacing things with their “Christian” equivalent. But, I think there are a couple of more immediate reasons why so I am disappointed by so much of what claims to be “Christian” music.

Point Of Purchase Discernment

One of the biggest reasons that so much “Christian” music is not that good is that many Christians are not good at discernment. By and large, in most American churches, we have not been trained in how to apply biblical wisdom to our own lives so that we become transformed by God’s grace. Much less do people feel comfortable examining an artist’s lyrics in detail to discern a worldview, because we’re not all that sure we can clarify ours other than believing people need to get saved. In short, many “American Christians” are simply not good at discernment.

As a result, the entire “discernment” process of supporting an art like music becomes outsourced. It becomes a “point of purchase” decision. Many people simply believe that if you buy something at a “Christian” store, that means that it’s good for your Christianity. For many, it doesn’t even matter if it is good or not, just that it’s “Christian.” That way, we know it supports our faith. And it’s a much easier approach than trying to process the worldview of a musician we don’t know. Why go through all that trouble when I can just go to the “Christian” store and buy something safe.

We just want to protect our kids from the evils of the “Secular World,” and we can’t listen to everything they do and analyze it and talk about it with them to help them develop their own discernment. It’s just safer (and easier) to buy them music approved by the “Christian” bookstore gatekeepers.

I’m not going to spend time debunking this point. If you don’t see the problem, then the rest of this post probably isn’t for you anyway.

Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art

In addition, many American Christians have inadvertently adopted a Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art in which something music is meant to serve a purpose. It’s not enough that something exist as art for art’s sake. It’s not enough that a musician wrote a moving piece of music because they themselves had been moved. What purpose does that serve? How does that accomplish the salvation of souls or the glorification of God?

Many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe that music exists for one of two primary purposes: to be evangelistic or praise and worship. Art, including music, is meant to serve one of these two purposes.

If evangelism is the primary driving consideration, then it’s the message that matters most, which is the lyrics, and then we have to find out the best way to get our message out, so let’s find out what the “other kids” are listening to, and then mimic the music, replace the lyrics and make sure they get our message?! In other words, we look to the “secular culture” to see what music is popular, we recreate it without the sincerity, replace the lyrics and then try to feed it back to the culture and can’t understand why no one likes our music. It must be persecution. And then there’s “praise and worship” music is fine since it’s already accepted our evangelism.

So, “Christian” bookstores stock themselves with bands that sound like popular bands but with a better message, or music already meant only for Christian use as praise and worship. Of course there are other factors here beyond a utilitarian understanding of art in general and music in particular. For example, many Christians believe that the “salvation of souls” trumps everything else, which only feeds the utilitarian approach. And, for some odd reason many well-intentioned Christians often believe that seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake is somehow sinful. So of course art can’t exist just for art’s sake. Tie all of this in with corporations that exploit well-intentioned Christians for profit and here we find ourselves.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when Christians were at the vanguard of the arts. It’s time to regain that perspective and practice and demand more. Demand more not just of our artists but of ourselves. The breadth and depth of human experience is sure worth more than a comparison chart. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the greatest art because we have the least to lose?

Americans: Stop Confusing Your Personal Cultural Values With Christianity

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America has often been less than clear about its relationship with Christianity. On one hand, we claim to be a “Christian” nation. Yet, on the other hand, American culture itself, with an emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the pursuit of comfort, is often antithetical to Christianity.

It seems that the two are often at battle with one another and, as Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion, it’s not always clear that Christianity wins: “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture - and American culture has triumphed.” And just in case he hasn’t been clear enough, he argues that: “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.”

While America has certainly benefitted from Christians and claims to adopt general Judeo-Christian worldviews, it is sadly the case that Christianity in American often ends up looking more like America than making America resemble Christianity. What happens with many is that American Values/Patriotism become so enmeshed with their Christianity that they cannot tell the difference. We see this in such such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion but frankly, many people can’t seem to tell the difference.

Many people have a certain set of cultural values that they confuse with Christianity. They engage in a culture war believing that they are fighting for Christianity when they are not. We’ve seen this most recently with Ted Cruz and others who argue that the Second Amendment is a “god-given right.” Ted Cruz and Alyssa Milano will soon be meeting to discuss this very idea (Shane Claiborne weighed in on Facebook). American culture is weird, man.

In 2018, “pastor” Robert Jeffress put this faulty understanding on display when he defended president Trump to NPR. Rachel Martin asks Jeffress to explain why/how Jeffress believes that Christians in America are actually persecuted. Read the exchange here:

JEFFRESS: Well, I think there are certainly ways in which they have been marginalized. And I mean, here's the question you have to ask yourself. I mean, why is it that, for the first 150 years of our nation's history, prayer in schools, reading the Bible, Nativity displays - all of those things were not only allowed but they were welcomed? But then suddenly, 70 years ago, the Supreme Court decides these things are unconstitutional. I ask liberals all the time, what changed suddenly?

MARTIN: It became more religiously diverse, the country.

JEFFRESS: What did - but did the Constitution change? No. The establishment clause of the First Amendment simply says Congress cannot establish a state religion. That's what it says. But somehow, that has been perverted and twisted into outlawing prayer and Bible-reading. That's what I'm talking about. That's the marginalization of Christianity. And I believe that's why evangelicals are rallying around this president who recognizes that marginalization.

Jeffress doesn’t specifically mention cashiers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or Starbucks cups, but he might as well. His explanation of why he believes that Christians are marginalized is that prayer and bible reading are not mandated in schools, and public Nativity scenes have been challenged. In other words, what Jeffress laments is not an attack on Christianity but on its preferred cultural position. Jeffress laments that Christianity is no longer the de facto cultural position of America. He doesn’t mention anything of substance and nothing he mentions is persecution or even marginalization. But he frames it in fear and as an attack on his beliefs.

He has confused his personal cultural preferences with Christianity. And he is not alone. Being a “Christian” country does not mean that we demand that everyone act the way we think and subscribe to what we call “traditional values.” Christians lay down their rights for the good of others. Yet, Cruz, Jeffress and their ilk do the exact opposite. They warn us that Muslims want to enforce Sharia Law while not seeing the log in their own eyes.

If these people really wanted people to think that America is a “Christian” nation, wouldn’t it be powerful if they were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

In the meantime, we are facing vital times. If anything the tie of the Religious Right to Trumpism helps us understand who is pushing for Christianity and who just wants to keep a certain cultural position.

Last Call At Flix Brewhouse For National Suicide Prevention Week

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You might know my friend Daved Wilkins from his amazing Dorito’s commercial. Oh, yeah, that guy! While that might live on to overshadow some careers, Daved is immensely talented and his latest project proves it.

Shot in two true single takes, filmed simultaneously in two different parts of a city, Last Call, is a real time feature presented in split screen showcasing both ends of a wrong number phone call that has the potential to save a life. The film's music was also conducted and recorded live to picture.

Phoenix area friends: the movie is screening at Flix Brewhouse in Chandler September 13 and 14 to help bring awareness and action to National Suicide Prevention Week. Daved will be there both nights for a Q&A after the showing.

Watch the official trailer:

Watch a short movie about how everything was done.

The Religious "Nones" Learned It From Somewhere

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Much has been made regarding the increase of the “Religious Nones” in recent cultural surveys. Houses of worship are being repurposed as congregations shrink, Religion News reports: “‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” and the Los Angeles Times wonders in an Op-Ed about how: “Religiously unaffiliated ‘nones’ are pursuing spirituality, but not community.”

As Jack Jenkins summarizes for Religion News:

“In a shift that stands to impact both religion and politics, survey data suggests that the percentage of Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.”

Though there are theories about what has caused this shift, one constant is that many people are placing a sharper distinction between spirituality and religion. We explored this idea as it applies to prayer, but just to summarize again:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

What interests me here is that most of the focus of consideration has been young people. In 2017, Vox considered a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, saying:

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

All of this may be true. The shift of focus from religion to spirituality resulting in outwardly declaring “No religious affiliation” might be centered in younger people, but they learned it somewhere. As a Hospice Chaplain, I deal daily with these people’s parents and grandparents as they near end of life.

I have been continually surprised by how many older people welcome Chaplain visits “as long as we don’t talk about religion.” I’ve only served in this role for three years and my evidence is only my subjective experience but, at least here in the Phoenix area, it is more common for my visits to be limited to visits, life reviews, communication techniques and things like that. The older people I meet decline religious services at a rate that would surprise many people. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, all these young “Religious Nones” learned it from somewhere.

I have come to think that there is a significant portion of the Boomer generation that has driven the cultural move from religion to spirituality. My thoughts on why we should focus not only on the younger “Nones” by the older ones are based on what I have heard from my patients and their families about why they are not interested in religion even at end of life. Here’s what I’m hearing and it begins with two different threads that seem to wind their way together:

First: After the horrors of World War II, the country set itself on providing a better life for the next generation. But in doing so, the “American Dream” was further fused with consumerism. Suburbia exploded and flourished and comfort became the goal of life. Advertisers bred discontent and our Supermarkets overwhelm us with choices. And church became a commodity that was so interested in just getting you in the doors that it required very little, so after a while, what’s the point of going to church when religion just seems aimed at making me happy? There are lots of other ways to be happy. Yes, I care about my soul and “spirituality,” but

Second: I was raised in a strict religious upbringing that emphasized my behaviors and didn’t seem to care about the resentment building up in my heart.

Couple each of these paths with the inordinate cultural influence of groups like The Family (which I discuss here) that emphasizes an approach to Christianity that seems more interested in cultural influence than actual changed lives: just get a confession: get someone to say they believe in Jesus. Get them into heaven and what matters here and now is cultural power. Therefore we have people living in fear of losing their particular sense of privileged cultural identity and claiming that their struggle to force culture into their mold is “Christianity.” It is not. And people know it is not.

The constant that I do hear; whether from shallow, meaningless consumeristic churches or rigid, grace-less religion is a failure of discipleship and the removal of repentance and faith from Christianity. What’s the point of following a system that just seems to want to make me happy or one that just seems to want to beat me up all of the time? Of course, neither is actual Christianity, but many people have been told otherwise for so long that they’d just assume stay away from the talk altogether.

Most of these people have plenty of religious experience but very little spiritual experience. They certainly have not encountered the Grace of the Crucified and Risen Savior or been wrapped in the love of a community that wants to be more like Jesus. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote from Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

We have sowed years being careless with God’s Bride, the Church and we are now reaping people who don’t want anything to do with it. And, can we blame them? A church that doesn’t require any change in your life isn’t worth attending. Nor is one that wants to beat everyone’s external behaviors into submission to some preferred cultural identity.

We’ve created a culture in which many claim to be “Christian” because of the radio station they listen to, the movies they don’t see, the lifestyles they oppose, the flag they pledge, and the political party they support. We’ve robbed Christianity of its defining characteristics and replaced them with a weirdly patriotic sense of morality and cultural norms. If this is religion, if this is Christianity, no wonder people aren’t interested.

If we want people to identify with Christianity as a religion, if the rise in “Nones” plagues our hearts, then the solution is right in front of us: wouldn’t it be powerful if Christians were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

It breaks my heart to encounter so many people tell me that they don’t want to identify with Christianity when I’m fairly certainly they’ve never actually encountered Christianity.

There is much more to be said here but I just wanted to start getting some of these thoughts in order. I would love to hear your perspective. Are you hearing what I’m hearing? What is the solution // Does there need to be a solution?

Good Omens, Everyday Life, and Romans 7

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I just finished watching the Amazon Prime original Good Omens. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pritchard, the miniseries (can we still call them that?) tells the tale of Mankind. Angels. Demons. The antichrist. Choice. Nature. Nurture. Identity.

Like the best of all tales, no one seems quite sure who they’re supposed to be.

In Gaiman and Pratchad’s tale of humanity, no one is quite sure they want to play the prescribed role. No one seems quite sure who they’re supposed to be. No one seems quite sure who they want to be. And that’s the beauty. The good and the bad wrestle. Sometimes it seems like the good is winning. But not always. It’s reminiscent of Paul’s lament in Romans 7 when he groans:

“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

In Good Omens, Angels are willing to bend the rules. Demons are willing to help. And the AntiChrist decides he doesn’t want to usher in total annihilation.

It’s a tale for the ages. And it’s a tale about all of us. It’s like Lemony Snicket says in The Grim Grotto:

“People aren't either wicked or noble. They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”

We may not have the ability to perform miracles. Or usher in Armageddon. But we can help determine what kind of world we want to live in. We can decide what kind of person we want to be. How will we treat those around us? What story will those left behind tell of us? What happens when we question the side we’ve chosen? To what are we predestined and of what is free will and does it really matter where the difference might be?

Good Omens forces us to consider that human nature is more complicated that many well-intentioned theologians would have us believe. People aren’t all bad or good and sometimes it takes quite a sorting-through. That’s the process of sanctification. That’s the process of discovering what it means to be truly human; made in the image of God.

Watch the trailer here:

They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

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In honor of Songhoy Blues’ Tiny Desk Concert, let’s take a look at a movie profile originally posted at the Global Elite Music Radio Podcast Supershow’s site on July 11, 2018.

Islamic Extremist/Jihadists seized control of Northern Mali in 2012. The imposed a brutal regime of extremist Sharia Law. All forms of music were banned. Instruments were burned, radio stations were demolished and musicians faced torture and even death. 

But Mali has a deep musical heritage. 

Though many musicians became part of a Malian diaspora, fearing for their lives, they continue to shine a light on injustice through their music. This film chromicles the continued struggle for and power of music. Director Johanna Schwartz says: "I remember very clearly reading about what was happening. I couldn’t imagine a world without music, especially in a place where music was so vital to everyday life. I began to plan my trip to Mali almost immediately."

The Guardian says:

“Director Johanna Schwartz’s documentary, clearly made with devotion over several years, unpacks how several different Malian musicians struggle to survive the privations and strains of civil war, and especially their grief and horror over the way jihadist rebels banned all music-making the north of the country.”

  • Visit the film's official website

  • Purchase or rent the movie at Amazon

Zerzura Trailer

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From the Sahel Sounds Facebook page:

“Zerzura, the feature length Saharan acid Western is now available for streaming on Vimeo. Starring Madassane Ahmoudou (Mdou Moctar / Les Filles de Illighadad) Zerzura follows a young man from a small village in Niger on a surreal journey across the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants, in search of an enchanted oasis. A collaborative project, featuring all original guitar score.”

The website says:

“After a year of work, we’ve finally wrapped up our feature film Zerzura. A collaboration between Sahel Sounds and the nascent Imouhar Studio(an all purpose film/music studio in Agadez, Niger), the film is a magical journey through the Sahara, following protagonist and guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane in search for a lost city of riches. Along the way he encounters nomads, djinn, bandits, and gold seekers – a nod to our docu-realist approach to the film. While the concept of a lost desert city film has been kicking around for years, Zerzura was written, produced, and filmed entirely on location. Scenes were done in single takes, sometimes completely improvised.”’

Watch the trailer:

  • Watch the movie at Vimeo for $5.00.

Distilling Prayer

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Part of my role as a Hospice Chaplain is to help people distinguish between spirituality and religion. I know there is lots of debate about the topic and the point of this post is not really to mine that can of worms, but in order to proceed, here’s my working understanding of the terms:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

I say all of this to give you a little understanding as to what I deal with in my role helping patients and their loved ones face end of life. I don’t know that it’s like where you live culturally, but here in Arizona, a lot of my hospice patients and their families will accept Chaplain visits only if I agree to not proselytize. I know younger people often get the blame for the whole “spirituality vs. religion” conversation, but in my experience, this issue began with the Boomer Generation. I can’t tell you how many older people I talk with who are jaded by growing up in the Midwest or the South and want nothing to do with “religion.”

Enter the Chaplain.

Hospice care neither hastens nor hinders death and we strive to provide people with the best possible quality of life for whatever time remains. Part of this means finding spiritual balance, whatever your existing belief structure. One of the most common conversations I have is when I encourage people to pray, or assure them that I will be praying for them. The most common response is something like: Thank you, but I’m not a religious person.

This is where the distinction between spirituality and religion becomes important. If spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and religion is the form that pursuit takes, then it is possible for even people who do not consider themselves to be religious to pray. I am a Christian. That is my religion. But when I encourage my patients and their families to pray, I’m not necessarily saying that they must adopt my understanding of religion or prayer.

Prayer is one of those spiritual exercises that transcends religious boundaries. Nearly every religion advocates some form of prayer. Prayer transcends religion. What then, is prayer? Before we can answer that question, let’s back up a minute and consider the idea that, as Indian philospher Krishnamurti says: Attention is the most basic form of love.

The deliberate act of paying attention on something/someone means that we are narrowing our thoughts to them/that alone. It shows that we care. It is an act of love.

At its fundamental nature, prayer is taking that act of love (focusing our attention) and throwing it out into the universe, often accompanied by the cryptic note in the bottle HELP ME! Prayer is simply the recognition that we need help and that there is something beyond ourselves. Because I love, I focus my attention and admit that I am not ultimately in control and that there must be meaning to whatever is happening. Understood from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to say that everyone prays. After all, isn’t this just the summary of the first two steps of the famous 12 Steps?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This sounds like prayer to me. We need help and somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there is Someone or Something that can help me. This helps us place ourselves in the care of humility and guards us from arrogance. This also helps us pursue meaning in suffering and comfort in distress.

Prayer transcends religion but finds its fullness within it. I believe that Prayer is strongest when the Someone or Something are defined, but that that is not necessary to pray. When explained this way, many people who initially rejected my offers of prayer have suddenly found themselves on their knees. If “prayer” seems intimidating or off-putting to you, I want to encourage you to free the practice from the bonds of religion and to get on your knees.

Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Is The Family the Most Powerful (And Dangerous) Group You've Never Heard Of?

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I am a Christian.

I am probably what you consider an Evangelical.

But I am not part of the “Evangelicals” that remain Donald Trump and the GOP’s most ardent supporters.

In fact, I deeply oppose the Trump Administration and just about everything it stands for. Which has not only left me heartbroken but flummoxed. When I read the Bible, I cannot, for the life of me understand how some people come away supporting an administration that claims to be a “Christian” nation who has caged the refugees and outlawed the Good Samaritan. An administration that, in my mind embodies the spirit of antiChrist. I keep wondering: If the recent ICE raids are really about forcing people to obey the law at extreme penalty; why aren't we arresting the corporate leaders who recruited and hired the people now being punished?

Otherwise, what is this really about?

I can't think of a humane reason. Can you?

I certainly can’t think of a Christian reason. But many people I know and love and care about seem to believe that supporting this administration can be in line with following the Prince of Peace and the God who is Love and commands compassion and outright love of enemies.

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Enter the Netflix documentary The Family. While there are layers of reasons why so many well-intentioned Christians have found themselves supporting a president who has made a life of trouncing our values, understanding the unique “Evangelical” worldview of the Family helps us understand how people can claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting an abusive administration.

Based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, the 5-part series chronicles the rise to power and secretive tentacles of a Christian conservative group known as “The Family,” or “The Fellowship.” Founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide. The stated purpose of the Fellowship is to provide a fellowship forum for decision makers to share in Bible studies, prayer meetings, worship experiences, and to experience spiritual affirmation and support. Ever wonder who puts on the National Prayer Breakfast? The Family.

The Family is a secretive organization with inordinate influence among world governments, which claims to just want people to know Jesus. But they do in a particular way: Go after the powerful and fight for what’s “right” (their perceived cultural version of “Christianity” most often visualized when old White people talk about how great the 1950’s used to be. Women know their place. Gays stay in the closet. And we all just pretend that Jesus wanted an Authoritarian government. Oh, and some are just predestine for power. And they often utilize sitting government officials on “missionary” trips.

Combining a weird Machismo Jesus with the notion that, to really get things done, you don’t bother with the “little people,” you go after the leaders. You meet with kings. You sit with Presidents. And because it’s “Just about Jesus,” you’ll meet with anyone. You’re not there to interfere in politics, so of course you’ll meet with dictators. But when you confuse trying to influence cultural norms with Christianity, you will soon find yourselves partnering with people who share your outward goals but most likely not your inner motive.

The problem is that fascists and the Authoritarian Right Wing are all too happy to support your “traditional family values,” so you cooperate together “for the good of the culture” (as you see fit). The result is that there is a faction of Christianity dedicated, not to loving all people but to making sure that a particular way of life is protected. They want to feel safe. They want everyone to look like them. And that is not Christianity. We may share some of the same language. But we do not share the same Love.

Another problem with this approach is that it seems to assume that Christians are called to protect certain cultural “norms,” even through legislation, and, if need, be, violence. Christians are to be Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16). We have always been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12, etc.). This does not mean forcing everyone to live by a certain set of moral principles and then calling ourselves a “Christian nation.” But the Family believes in power. This is why so many “Christians” are fine pushing for laws that privilege Christianity while trampling on other types of faith. They want to push their expression of Christianity as the cultural norm and are perfectly willing to use legislation and dishonest people (often at the same time) to accomplish their purposes.

White Christians have enjoyed immense privilege and safety in our country. There is a lot to be thankful for. But we are not called to hang on to that privilege and safety. We are called to lay it down for the sake of others. Yet there is clearly a subset of American Christianity who is clawing to that place of cultural privilege with every dying breath. Why else would you be offended if your cashier says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” That’s not an attack on Christ. It’s treating people equally. But this notion of confusing certain cultural values with Christianity is exactly why we find ourselves in the place of so many Christians supporting an antiChrist administration . . . in the name of Jesus?

The Family shows us how people can be sincere in their belief that they are following Jesus while walking in the opposite direction. You might call sitting U.S. Senators flying to foreign countries to talk to kings “off the record” about Jesus being wise as serpents. I call it collusion of church and state and as a Christian, I believe it is wrong. Using your place of power to gain entry to foreign leaders and then saying: “I’m a senator, but I’m not here as a senator, I’m just here to talk about Jesus . . .” is dishonest.

The Family has continually worked to undermine the distinction between Church and State and we see this in such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion. But it sure looks good for any candidate claiming to support “traditional values.”

If Christianity can be translated into forcing laws through that appeal to Christians at any cost, then of course it makes sense that they would continue to support Trump, regardless of . . . well, apparently, just about anything other than taking the Lord’s name in vain. Because, it’s about power. It’s about gaining the ability to enforce our agenda (which is “Jesus Plus Nothing except “traditional family values,” opposing Unionized Labor, opposing LGBT rights, etc.). If you claim to be grabbing power for the sake of Jesus and the “greater good,” you soon find yourself losing sight of Jesus.

The Family helps us understand how: If you believe that you are fighting “God’s war” and that part of that means protecting certain ways of life (equated with “being a Christian”) and you believe in a Machismo Jesus, your movement was founded on violent suppression of Unionized Labor, you care about power; then of course you can justify supporting the Trump Administration and not only see no conflict with your faith but believe you support Trump because you support Jesus. I just don’t share this vision.

If you, like me, feel politically homeless as a Christian and struggle to understand just how we got to a place where so many of our brothers and sisters would support something so out of character for Global Christianity, I recommend watching The Family.

The Netflix subtitle tells you their interpretation of all of this: “It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”. What do you think?

Watch the Netflix trailer: “The Family: It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”

  • Purchase Jeff Sharlet’s books at Amazon.

  • Read the Wikipedia entry on The Fellowship.

  • Read as Salon wonders: “How separate are church and state? "The Family" examines secretive Christian power brokers.”

  • Read Vice’s piece: “Netflix's 'The Family' Unmasks the Political Power of Christian Fundamentalists.”