Consider the Birds and the Lilies

I posted the following on Facebook last year as we approached the election:

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia. But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies.

Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Pink Rain Lily by PK743 from Wikimedia Commons

An Open Letter to Christians

“Dear Christian friends:

I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.

We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.

But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”

Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).

Catharsis and its Alternatives

“Catharsis” is the word we use for the expression and release of a strong emotion. The catharsis of confession, for example, leads Christians to experience their repressed guilt and the relief that comes with forgiveness. For many “big E” Evangelicals, the catharsis of conversion is the most important spiritual experience of their lives. They want to tell others about it so they can have the same experience.

The unfortunate thing is that this confessional catharsis becomes the benchmark experience for white evangelicalism, and if you are trying to tell someone Good News about Jesus and they aren’t carrying a load of repressed guilt, the rhetorical strategy becomes to make them feel like crap so they can accept Jesus and then feel better.

I think lots of us progressive Christians see the problem with this. Many Christian folks have written about it. This approach leads to threats of hell and harping on favorite individual sins while ignoring systemic and corporate sins. What I think progressive Christians tend to lose sight of, though, is that this catharsis is still a legitimate spiritual experience. It may be that not everyone needs to experience salvation in the same way, but confessional catharsis is still an important part of human spiritual experience of a loving God.

Evangelicals don’t see this as abusive or cruel — they see it as loving. There are other forms of catharsis — recognizing and repenting from white privilege, for example. Leaving behind shame that others have heaped on you and accepting a God who loves you as you are. Recognizing that your implicit core belief that you have to earn your worth through work or performance is a lie (that would be me).

And catharsis is not the only kind of salvific spiritual experience. Awe, wonder, irony, mystery, humor, grief, silence — all can be responses to or part of a saving encounter with God. My hope is that a “small e” evangelical Christianity that sees the good news as GOOD and recognizes all these forms of saving encounters would emerge from this 500-year theological rummage sale*.

In saying this, I want to emphasize that Evangelical Methodists do not neglect the “experience” part of the quadrilateral at all. In fact, I think they implicitly make it MUCH more important than tradition.

(*The 500-year rummage sale is a concept Phyllis Tickle borrowed and wrote in The Great Emergence.)

Yes, the Bible is Full of Contradictions

This remains my favorite contradiction, from Proverbs 26:4—”Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”

It’s great advice for arguing with people on the internet. The more you engage with their foolishness, the dumber you feel.

But the verse immediately after gives the opposite advice: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”

“play nice” by nosha, CC, found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Play_nice_-_Flickr_-_nosha.jpg

When I ask Christians to explain this apparent contradiction, most come to summarize it this way: “How or if you answer or argue with foolishness depends on the context.” But the authors didn’t write it that way, did they? They slapped two contradictory proverbs down side by side because they expected the reader to do the work of interpretation.

The authors, editors, and compilers of the Bible *deliberately* included contradictory and paradoxical truths like this one because they expected readers to understand that life is messy and the application of wisdom requires discernment. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the Israelite monarchy, and two creation stories.

This is one reason why “inerrancy” is such a silly word to describe the Bible. Wisdom isn’t about avoiding mistakes: it’s about understanding the simplicity and complexity of human life and history, about how awe is the beginning of wisdom and gratitude the beginning of spirituality.

The word “inerrant” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible, and people who wield it as a club against others harm themselves. It reminds me of this one: “Like a thornbush brandished by the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (Proverbs 26:9).

A Thanks-giving

Hi, friends — Thanks for the affirmations for the popularity of my post from 2018 (“The Unborn”). I’m glad it has gotten traction again in light of the dire news from Texas. I enjoy my 15 minutes / seconds of fame 🙂. The form of ministry I’ve chosen means I don’t often get to see the concrete results of my work, so hearing from folks who have found this piece meaningful certainly scratches an itch!

Some folks have asked if I’ve gotten hate mail; I have, but not nearly as many as affirmations.

I’m not really great at self-promotion or building a “brand,” partially because I am so suspicious of the cult of celebrity that drives so much of our capitalist versions of church. But it weighs on me that I’m probably not using the attention well, so if you’ve found my Facebook page because of this piece and you want to support my work, you can make a donation to my church here: https://onrealm.org/saintjunia/-/give/now

And if you find the idea of house churches intriguing and would like to explore the idea, or if you’d like to see more of my writing, you can do so here:

Church Comes Home: https://bookshop.org/…/church-comes-home…/9781791007331

God Shows No Partiality: https://www.amazon.com/…/B007…/ref=dp-kindle-redirect…

Sometimes the work the world needs is overwhelming, but our words of mutual encouragement make it bearable. Thanks for reaching out with your support and affirmation!

A Condensed Reply to my Critics and Would-be Dialogue Partners

Because it has gone viral several times over the last few years. I’ve gotten a variety of replies to my short social media post on “The Unborn” from 2018. Some are indignant, claiming that I’m unfairly characterizing pro-life people. (Sometimes people put scare quotes around their words when they call me a “pastor” or a “Christian.”) Some are more measured and say that there are pro-life people who are advocates for other forms social justice. I appreciate these nuanced interactions.

Some of these replies are in the same style as #notallmen and #notallwhitepeople. They say that my words are unfair, and that “lots” or “most” people who are pro-life are also advocates for immigrants, the poor, etc.

I’m going to condense my replies here.

First, I do have deep respect for people who have a consistent sanctity-of-life ethic, whether they be Roman Catholic or Mennonite or Jain or atheist vegetarian. I love talking with people of integrity who live out their values, even if we disagree on abortion policy.  

Second, if you read my words carefully, you’ll see that my beef is not so much with people who are pro-life as people who co-opt the term “advocacy.” People who do real advocacy, whether it’s for disabled persons, formerly-incarcerated persons, children, immigrants, women, or black and brown people ALWAYS recognize that their advocacy is part of a much larger intersectional web. You can’t be an advocate for formerly-incarcerated persons, for example, without recognizing how many people in prison suffer from untreated mental illness, so you wind up dabbling in mental health advocacy. You can’t be an advocate for homeless teens without meeting many who have been kicked out of their homes or run away because they are LGBTQIA, so you wind up learning about the importance of Family Acceptance.

Real advocates often try to figure out how to make their lives consistent with valuing the people for whom they advocate. They try to eliminate ableist language from their vocabulary, for example. They try to center the voices of the people most affected, or to approximate as nearly as possible. Advocates for black and brown people fund organizations led by black women. Real advocates, allies, and accomplices, in other words, are always doing intersectional work. Every oppressed group has their pain magnified by other forms of injustice.

This is not the case with most self-styled advocates for the unborn. When I’ve argued with pro-life pastors that contraception and comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education are effective ways at reducing abortion, they consider these “separate issues” or “red herrings.”

See the difference?

As some pro-life folks have pointed out, the unborn do not have their own voice to be centered. This is true. All the more reason that people who want to claim the mantel of “advocate for the unborn” should be advocating for parental leave and universal health care for parents; because we shouldn’t leave newborns without the full and available care of their caregivers. Their parents are the closest voices we have to the best interests of children, a principle widely recognized in our laws. Yet it is parental voices opting for abortion that get silenced by “advocates for the unborn.”

Which brings me to my third point: we have data and five years of recent historical experience which indicate that it is certainly not the case that “most” or even a small fraction of pro-life people embrace an ethic consistent with biblical mandates to care for “the alien, the widow, and the orphan.” 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump and Roy Moore, and a majority supported the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, even though all of these men were serial harassers of women. 75% of white evangelicals continued to support Trump as he imposed severe restrictions even on *legal* immigration. They continued to support him even as his Attorney General embraced a punitive policy of tearing families apart at the border when they applied for asylum, creating a whole new generation of orphans who may never be reunited with their parents.

When people get indignant over my words, I point them back to this recent history. Appeals to “family values” or “an ethic of life” simply don’t hold up to the historical facts. We all saw who got thrown under the bus just so that pro-lifers could stack the Supreme Court.

For context, I wrote my original piece in 2018, during the US Senate campaign in Alabama, when Roy Moore was running against Doug Jones for US Senate. The dominant public discussion among pro-lifers was that Doug Jones, an attorney who prosecuted and put away the white supremacists responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, supported of the non-existent practice of “partial-birth abortion.”

When it came out that Roy Moore was a well-known creepy guy who harassed teenage girls at the Gadsden Mall, one local official even defended him because “Mary was a teenager when she had Jesus.” In spite of all that, 80% of white evangelical voters who showed up at the polls still voted for him, many because they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for someone who supported abortion.

So I still stand by the words I wrote in 2018 on historical, demographic, and logical grounds.

If you believe you are the exception or you know people who live a life consistent with and ethic of the sanctity of life, I am happy for you. We need more such people with louder voices. We need more people who seek peace who have diverse opinions and beliefs to do justice in the world.

But let’s not be dishonest with each other. Being an advocate for the unborn costs most conservative Christians nothing. And I have no desire to offer to God sacrifices that cost me nothing.

The Secret Room

Sometimes, in dreams, we discover a door in a familiar house that leads to rooms we never knew existed. “How have I lived here so long,” we wonder, “and never explored this place until now?”

I believe this dream is for those who are still open to learning more about ourselves and the world.

It is reserved for those who can admit they are wrong, who can stand outside of themselves and acknowledge their assumptions, who are willing to take a second, third, and fourth look when reality doesn’t match their expectations.

It is a dream for the curious, who know that neither God, nor the world, nor our own Self can be fully explored in one lifetime, that the only things worth keeping will never fit into our household closets or the boxes in storage, who recognize the artifice in compartmentalizing our lives. This secret room, hidden in plain sight, is in all of us.

This dream is a hint that certainty is overrated, and that faith is not really about certainty, but about the assurance that there is always more mystery to be explored.

My hope is that the people who do horrible things to the world still have this dream. That they dream it but merely forget it upon waking, and that they could be reminded of it. I hope that if they remembered it, they would start looking around the stumps of trees for fairy rings and that they would peek in closed wardrobes looking for a hint of Narnia.

I hope that they can find the door in their own Self before it is too late for the rest of us.

Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep is a form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

A Memorial Day Reflection (TW)

CN: violence and religion

The sacrifice of Abraham *oil on canvas *195 x 132.3 cm *inscribed b.r.: Rembrandt. verandert. En overgeschildert. 1636

“They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.” (Jeremiah 19:5)

We’re going to hear it again and again this weekend, as we’ve heard it so often: “Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice.”

It literally means “to make sacred.” And it’s bullshit.

I am not saying there is no honor in dying for an honorable cause. I’m saying nothing and no one is made sacred by killing. It is a religious lie.

The manufacturers of war use the rhetoric of sacrifice to create a caste of warrior-priests. They want us to genuflect to the flag and the uniform and to think of combat as holy. They recruit preachers who should know better to parrot their heretical doctrines and put flags in their sanctuaries so that the Prince of Peace polishes the boots of their generals.

How do you know the language of war sacrifice is a lie? The whole point of war is to make the OTHER people sacrifice MORE. Nobody wins wars because they “sacrifice.” You win because you kill, or you raise the cost of war so high the other side can no longer afford it. That’s what the metaphor of “sacrifice” elides.

It is also why we don’t honor the people who pay the highest cost in war: women, children, and the poor. Tell me about the sacrifice of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tell me how those children’s burnt bodies made anything holy. Tell me about the 60+ children dead in Gaza this month, or the handful in Israel. Where is their Memorial Day? When is “Collateral Damage Day?” when we remember those who wandered the ruins of napalmed villages and bombed cities and the kids who starved during sieges? There is a reason we fail to honor their sacrifice for our victories. There is a reason we don’t talk about how their sacrifice “protects our freedoms.” They are the unwilling transaction we fail to memorialize. We have no day for them, no time to spare to think of them.

Children during air raid : Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the war.(near Minsk,Belorussia) RIA Novosti archive, image #137811, http://visualrian.ru/ru/site/gallery/#137811 from Wikimedia Commons

How do you know “sacrifice” is a lie? No warrior went to war to die for their country. They went to war to KILL for their country. That they suffered, that they experienced terrible things, that they did brave things for country and comrade, and that they had honor and altruism in their hearts may all be true. They may have even fought in a just war, though those are far rarer than we admit. But they did not make “the ultimate sacrifice” because nothing was made holy by their deaths. No god, not even Ares, was appeased with their blood.

Tell me about the sacrifice of returning vets who survived but had no roof over their heads and who numbed their trauma with drugs, whose government turned its back on them, just as it does to all those who suffer. Tell me about how our suicide dead outnumber our combat dead. What is made holy by how they were changed? Are we healed by their suffering?

And their human masters only became more greedy and went to war more easily the more we spoke of nation and war with religious devotion. That is why the language of war was so often in the puckered mouth-sphincter of our 45th president, why he blustered and carved a path through his own citizens to hold a Bible and glare through the tear gas. He is the perfect picture of a priest of war, this dolt who never served.

Rinse from your mouth the unholy language of sacrifice. If this is holy in your god’s eyes, your god is trash, and your religion is a lie. I want nothing of your religion, because it has no salve for the wounds of this war-weary world.

Honor the war dead. Remember your kin who wore the uniform. Show gratitude to those who lost limbs, life, or loved ones. But may God damn to hell the language of war “sacrifice.” War never makes holy. It only profanes this good Earth.