Sin, Horcruxes and Spiritual Wholeness

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You might remember the scene in In the Harry Potter series, when a young Tom Riddle approaches a bumbling professor to ask about the dark magic of horcruxes.

According to Harry Potter Fandom:

“A Horcrux is an object in which a Dark wizard or witch has hidden a fragment of his or her soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. Horcruxes can only be created after committing murder, the supreme act of evil. The process for the creation of a Horcrux involves a spell and a horrific act is performed soon after the murder has been committed. There are usually protective measures made to prevent a Horcrux from being stolen and destroyed, such as Counter-Charms and Jinxes. The Horcrux is considered the most terrible of all Dark magic.”

Young Tom Riddle becomes Voldemort and creates and hides several horcruxes, trying to ensure his immortality. Harry and Dumbledore set out on a refreshing, joyous scavenger hunt to uncover these horcruxes and destroy them, thus brining an end to Voldemort’s reign of terror (OK, I may have taken some liberty there, but seriously, if you haven’t read the books, go do so.).

With the idea of a “horcrux,” I can’t help but think that J.K. Rowling has given us a powerful metaphor for what happens when we pursue our sinful desires, whatever they may be. Sins are rarely, if ever, isolated and usually compound upon one another. For example, if a husband chooses to indulge in pornography, he will usually then lie to his wife about it, thus trying to hide the first sin in a second. And, if left unconfessed and unrepented of, that first sin of indulging in pornography will clothe itself in shame and guilt, all still wrapped in lies and now, where that husband used to be affectionate and talkative, begins to close down and there is now a gulf between the couple. He tries to hide that part of his life away, but in doing so, forgets that we are whole creatures. When we try to hide part of ourselves, we cannot give our whole selves to others. In other words, sin has consequences.

When we sin, we somehow believe that we can cut off that part of ourself and hide it away like a horcrux. Unrepentant sin results in the diminishing of the soul. Little parts of ourselves get skimmed away and we try to hide them. We are no longer whole people because there are parts of our lives we are not willing to expose to the light. So, that husband is not distanced from his wife because he is not willing to share his whole self with her.

We could, of course, consider other examples, but the truth remains that sin and lies hold us captive and prevent us from enjoying holistic health in God. Our fore-runners Adam and Eve demonstrated this when God came to the Garden and they hid (Genesis 3). They knew they had sinned and instead of immediately confessing and repenting, they try to hide. And there is nothing new under the sun. We continue to try to hide the sinful parts of ourselves from ourselves, God and others. But the truth will set us free (John 8:32).

The light of God’s Love not only exposes the hidden dark places of our souls but makes them lights too (Ephesians 5:13)! God’s Love begins to patch us back together, exposing those hidden sin-horcruxes, shining light upon them, transforming them and us and makes us “blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” so that we “will shine among them like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15). There is no more condemnation (Romans 8:1).

There is no longer any need to try and hide away the dark parts of our souls because “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The horcruxes have been emptied and bits our souls have ben stitched back together as God brings healing and wholeness from our self-inflicted brokenness. And now, the whole thing is kept hidden with Christ in God. It may be that our longing for the security of “hiding” is not in and of itself a bad thing. Just that we look in the wrong places. But the light of God shines over us in Christ, illuminating and enlightening. We are now hidden with Christ!

This is indeed Good News.

What do you need to bring to the light? What are you hiding? God can heal and bring wholeness. Bring it to him.

Turn An Enemy Into A Friend? (The Power of Relationships)

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This piece originally appeared at the now disappeared The Global Elite Music Radio Podcast Supershow website, but I thought it was worth re-posting here.


The Global Elite Music Radio Podcast Supershow is dedicated to bringing people together, fighting Xenophobia and promoting empathy. We don't pursue this by pretending that we're all the same but by considering music that's not like our own. By not only accepting but celebrating our differences. 

Yes, we know that this sounds like "pie in the sky" hippy-dippy idealism. And it might very well be. But wouldn't life be better if we didn't give in to fear? Wouldn't it be nice if we not only just thought the best of each other but treated other that way? 

We're always on the hunt for people and projects that seem to share these ideals. 

Recently we had a movie screening at the Fake Offices where we watched filmmaker Deeyah Khan's documentary White Right: Meeting The EnemyThe film's website frames the film's concept:

With a US president propagating anti-Muslim propaganda, the far-right gaining ground in German elections, hate crime rising in the UK, and divisive populist rhetoric infecting political and public discourse across western democracies, Deeyah Khan’s WHITE RIGHT: MEETING THE ENEMY asks why.

Khan travels the country to meet and talk with White Nationalists/White Supremacists face-to-face. She asks pointed questions and many of the interactions are uncomfortable but we can not applaud this film enough. Khan's courage continually displays the humble confidence of empathy and it's so encouraging to see her efforts have some impact. 

Watching the film, we couldn't help but be reminded of the 2016 film Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Daryl Davis has been a professional musician but it's his other work which prompted this documentary. Over the years, Davis, a Black man, has intentionally befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Of course we might initially think this is crazy. Who wants to befriend someone who hates you? Who wants to love their enemy? But believe it or not, Davis has shown that the power of relationship, the power of understanding can change minds. Khan's movie demonstrates the same thing. It's easy to fear (hate) what we don't know. 

Khan and Davis have shown us the power of empathy in action. Rather than distancing themselves from their (perceived) enemies, they moved in closer. They wanted to understand and they ended up being heard. And seen. And they have shown us that change can happen. 

This is exactly the type of work we can and will get behind. 

Of course all of this is easier said than done. But what might change in the world if we each sought out at least one way to live out these principles? 

If you haven't seen them, we recommend watching both of these movies. We'd love to hear your thoughts once you've done so. 

  • Visit Deeyah Khan's official website

  • Follow Deeyah Khan on Facebook

  • Visit the official website for the White Right: Meeting The Enemy

  • Visit Accidental Courtesy's official website

  • Purchase Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America on Amazon

Watch the trailer for White Right: Meeting The Enemy

Watch the trailer for Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

Nationalism is Anti-Christ

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Now, before you read in to my choice of titles, yes, I am distinguishing between Patriotism and Nationalism. Though I think Patriotism is suspect for Christians and I certainly don’t think churches (outposts of God’s Kingdom) should be flying the flag of any Empire, much pledge any allegiance. But those are thoughts for another day. For now, let’s start by defining our terms:

Let’s define Patriotism as “National pride; a feeling of love or even devotion to one’s country.

And let’s define Nationalism as: “elevating one’s own nation, even to the exclusion or detriment of other nations.”

I know that there is more nuance to this discussion than these initial definitions hint at, but I also think that they are adequate enough for us to begun a discussion of why Nationalism is antiChrist. Just to clarify, when I use the phrase “antiChrist,” I am not referring to the biblical figure known as “THE AntiChrist”. What I mean is something/someone who promotes the Spirit of AntiChrist: teachings antithetical/opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Bonus points if you can masquerade the whole thing as somehow actually being “Christian.” Pardon me, my cynicism is showing.

God exists outside of time in a never-ending circle of Community. The Father loving the Son loving the Spirit loving the Father. Needing nothing and no one. But out of the overflow of God’s love, He created and invited humanity to participate in that circle of community with Him. God invites us to commune with Him. And God is Love. This is the basis of God creating humankind; that we would find our Identity in Him and them live in such a way that we show the world who He is and what He is like.

Since true community always involves trust, God told humanity how to flourish. Don’t eat that one fruit. God held out His hand holding the question: Will you trust me? But like a child who must touch the stove to find out four ourselves, our representatives did not trust God. They believed the lies and cast themselves and everyone to follow outside of communing with God in the Garden. They thrust themselves and everything else into slavery to sin, death, decay and destruction. Mistrust overtook trust.

As the population increased, the world divided into nation states with borders. God worked within this paradigm for a while as He set apart a people for Himself in the outward form of the nation-state of Israel. These were Abraham’s descendants and recipients of God’s blessing so that they would be a blessing to others (Genesis 12). But Israel was not just an ethnic community, as anyone could become an Israelite at any time. And the New Testament later tells us that the “Nation” of Israel was not “true Israel,” at all (Romans 9:6-8). Even as they existed as a nation, God’s people were to be a “kingdom of priests,” acting as mediators between God and the nations; demonstrating Who God is and What He is like. They were to expand God’s rule to the ends of the earth.

God’s people no longer exist in the form of a nation-state but as the universal, border-free church. But Christianity has always been radically political. As God continued to reveal Himself, the message of Redemption, the “Gospel,” the “Good News” of the Kingdom is that “Jesus is Lord.” If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. Christianity demands that our allegiance is to (as Derek Webb said once) “A king and a kingdom.” Not a nation. No matter which nation. No matter if that nation claims to be “Christian.”

Patriotism is being proud of one’s country. Nationalism promotes one’s own country even to the detriment of others. This is antithetical to Christianity. Christians are called to care for culture, being “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16), irregardless of national borders. Our allegiance is never to country but to Christ and we are never to adopt a philosophy that is willing to pursue one’s own interests to the detriment of others.

I’ll leave it to you to understand what it means in light of all of this that Trump has openly identified himself as a Nationalist and yet retains overwhelming support among those who identify as American Evangelicals.

In order to understand a bit more of what’s going on here and how we got it, I suggest reading my other posts:

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

  • Read “Americans: Stop Confusing Your Personal Cultural Values With Christianity”

Grief, Kintsugi and The Art of Precious Scars

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I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but I live in a city without a lot of historical context. When buildings get old, we tear them down and put up a Starbucks. But when we lived in Louisville, there were buildings that had been there for a hundred years and people could tell you the story. Part of that is that I live in one of the youngest states in the Union, but part of it is cultural. Some cultures preserve history better. Tradition.

Some cultures hold on to things better than others.

I won’t talk about grief all of the time. But, as a Hospice Chaplain, it is something I deal with every day. Grief can begin long before a loved one’s death and last long after. It is the price we pay for love. It shows that our hearts are alive, despite our mind’s assertions otherwise.

Grief is something we will all experience and yet we will not all grieve the same. This includes how we finally come to grips with our grief and how we view ourselves in relation to grief. Some people try to “just get over it” and try to just get back to life without really allowing themselves to pass through grief. For some people, grief is viewed as just that time of crying when someone died, and now I’m back to life. But for others, it is the result of love and it is evidence of the hole that is now left right in the middle of our lives. It is something that shapes us.

The question becomes whether we identify grief as part of our beautiful story or whether we try to hide it.

In some cultures, we try to hide our scars. Makeup. Clothing. Plastic surgery.

We try to hide our brokenness.

Some people are more comfortable with brokenness than others. Some of us want to sweep it under the rug and keep on pretending that no one trips over the big pile under the middle of the rug.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed or dusted with gold. Sometimes known as “gold joinery,” “golden seams,” or “gold repair,” this is more than just repair. This method brings new life to pieces by highlighting their brokenness. My Modern says:

Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.

The practice itself arises from several different Japanese philosophical concepts: 

Wabi-Sabi: seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect. 

Mottainai: regret when something is wasted

Mushin: the acceptance of change 

and

“As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise . . . Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated” (Wikipedia)

What if we treated grief as something not just to “get through” or to bury but understood it as part of life and as part of our beautiful stories? What if we all believed that our stories were beautiful? Kintsugi helps us see how brokenness can be beautiful. But what if we believed it about ourselves?

None of this makes grief easier or diminishes its weight. But I hope it helps give us the perspective that it is part of what makes each one of us so unique. No piece of Kintsugi are the same. No two people are the same. And it is our grief that helps shape us.

  • Read my piece “What Is Grief? And How Can I Learn To Be Thankful For It?”

  • Read my piece “Grief: What to Expect (the unexpected).”

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?



What Is Grief? And How Can I Learn To Be Thankful For It?

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It has been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes.

I think we should add grief to that list.

Live long enough and you will experience grief.

And yet, even though we will all experience grief, it is one of those things that no one likes to talk about, much less consider. As such, there is not always a consensus about what grief actually is. It’s troublesome that we don’t talk more openly about something we all face and it’s even more troublesome that many of us are unable to define such a common experience. One of the first things I do is just try to write out a couple of different perspectives. When I began counseling people through grief as a Hospice Chaplain, one of the first things I did was piece together some basic definitions and try to distill them down to as few words as possible:

Deep sorrow, sadness and a mix of other emotions, especially caused by someone’s death.

Grief is the conflicting feelings, possibly including relief resultant guilt, caused by the end of or change in something familiar.

Grief is the normal/natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change. This seems like a pretty fair and straightforward definition which also accounts for the fact that grief will not look the same for everyone.

I don’t know how you begin to think about such topics, but once I narrow down a definition into my own fewest words as possible, I like to look at other people’s words. I like to look at quotes. They’re like different sides of a prism. Since everyone is different and, no one grieves the same (though there will be similarities), understanding how other people process grief can help us process grief ourselves.

“Grief is never something you get over. You don't wake up one morning and say, 'I've conquered that; now I'm moving on.' It's something that walks beside you every day. And if you can learn how to manage it and honour the person that you miss, you can take something that is incredibly sad and have some form of positivity.” (Terry Irwin)

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” (Anne Lamott)

“the way I think about grief is that it is the great tug-of-war, and sometimes the flag is on the side you don’t want it to be on. And sometimes the game has exhausted all of its joy, and all that’s left is you on your knees. But, today, even though I am sad, my hands are still on the rope.” (Hanif Abdurraqib)

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.” - (William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” (Anne Roiphe)

“Grief is the price we pay for love.” (Queen Elizabeth II)

Every once in a while, you come across a quote that just stops you in your tracks. Grief is the price we pay for love.

Everyone wants love but no one wants to grieve. Grief is the price we pay for love. No one wants to think of love as a trade-off; and it’s not really, not in the strictest sense. But grief reminds us that we care. Grief reminds us that our feelings are alive and that, we are still in touch with life; with relationships; with thankfulness. Grief is proof that we are human.

Grief is the result of losing something that was important to us; a job, a spouse, a position in life, a loved one; whatever it is. Grief is the act of trying to adjust to the “new normal” after a loss. Grief is the process of moving on with life when we don’t want to.

It does not mean forgetting what we’ve lost.

It is far too common to hear people say things like: “You’ve just got to move on.” This is not helpful or true and I may explore why in future posts, but for now, let me just say that grief is one of those things that must not simply be faced but embraced in order to move forward. It must be passed through.

Of course it changes us, and that’s part of the point.

I hope to write more about the idea of grief and the process of recovery, but for now, I’d love your thoughts. Have you experienced grief? How would you define grief? How did you move through it (or did you?)? Did it change you? What did you learn?

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.

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:

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.”

For Such A Time As This: East of Eden and Steinbeck's America

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John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was originally published in September, 1952. The sprawling story centers on two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, and their cultivation of California and the human soul, but it also chronicles America’s tentative steps in to World War I. It asks fundamental questions about who we are as people and as a country.

Steinbeck uses the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and the idea that we are all descendants of Cain to probe the human condition. Are we destined to be good or evil or can we choose? What makes some choose good and others evil and what will/can we do about it other than choose for ourselves?

The question centers around what God says to Cain before he murders his brother. The NIV translates Genesis 4:7 as: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” But, as Samuel in the book urges us to consider: the Hebrew word Timshel (as with most languages) has a range of meanings, among which is “Thou Mayest.” In other words: “sin is crouching at your door; it’s desire is to have you but you may (might?) rule over it.”

Steinbeck’s story hangs on the question of what his characters will do in their own fights against sin. Timshel: “Thou mayest rule over sin.” But then again, “Thou mayest not.” Lee explains in one of the book’s central passages (Pardon me for quoting such a long section.):

“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”

“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.

Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”

Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”

“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”

“Yes. I can talk better with it.”

“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”

“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”

Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”

Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”

“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”

“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”

“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.

“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”

Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”

“And you?” said Samuel.

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

The book closes with Adams dying breath Timshel! and leaves us to wonder what we will do with the challenge. Steinbeck’s characters were wrestling with questions of greed, motivation, hatred, industry, war and morality. As Solomon once said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Though the names and characters have changed, the questions about the human condition and what kind of country we want to be remain thunder-clouded overhead.

We claim to be a “Christian” nation that has caged the refugees and outlawed the Good Samaritan. Current immigration officials have suggested that we edit Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” to read "give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge."

Timshel!

What we will do with the choices before us? What kind of country to we want to be?

Timshel!

“His eyes closed and he slept.”

  • Read the study notes for East of Eden.

  • Browse Oprah’s “Interesting Facts About Steinbeck's East of Eden.”

  • Purchase the book at Amazon.

  • Read as Todd Smidt argues: “Timshel: The most important word in the world.”