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Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton

Un-Cool Desktop

For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.

It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.

Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.

Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.

Every Age Has a Spirit

Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.

They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).

I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them. 

But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.

And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.

In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:

“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”

I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Re-Generation

Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”Jesus loves you Hipster

Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.

In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.

I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:

“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.

This is at the heart of Christianity and the problem facing churches today, cool lives in the moment, the church lives through the centuries. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and linked to the generations who have gone before us, we must be faithful to the purposes of God for our generation, but we must also remember we belong to a tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God and a democracy of the dead.
On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.

Photo from Gawker.com

Photo taken from Gawker.com

This Sunday afternoon, I read along with the rest of the world about the brutal beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS. Another horrific, intentionally symbolic and strategic bloodbath by a group of terrorists who are attempting to strike fear into the heart of everyone with an internet connection and a heart.

This latest feat is incredibly tactical and shrewd and evil.

As soon as I read the tragic news, I immediately thought of my Coptic Christian friends in Egypt, and specifically I thought of Jasar.

When Leslie and I were in college we spent a couple of weeks travelling across Egypt, the Coptic Christian community was already feeling somewhat persecuted by an predominately Muslim community and so they were cautious to identify themselves publically as Christians but several times we had people whisper things to us like “I follow Jesus too” but sometimes they didn’t have to say anything, like Jasar.

The Real Christian Nation

We met Jasar when we stopped at a local kiosk to get a snack, he was sitting in his chair with a Arabic Bible open in his lap. When we saw the Bible, I asked him what his favorite Bible verse was and Jasar said “Romans”

Maybe the Arabic version doesn’t come with verses.

He told me about how all around us were Jesus followers, trying to live at peace with people who don’t believe like they do. He told me about how often people are confused by Christianity and American culture.

I soon understood what he meant. It was from one of these types ofLetter From Egypt people that I received this letter a few days later. An Egyptian Muslim man handed me this letter, and I’ve kept it for over 13 years Here it is:

Dear Americans: Please tell your film censor board not to release any pop albums which are of bad scenes. This will affect our children in bad manner. Thank you for your presence. Bye George Bush & Condalessa Rice

To be clear, I wasn’t pretending to be George Bush, he just thought that this letter was probably going to get to him. You know because all Americans know him.

This was a serious letter given to me a 21 year old college student to make sure I got it back to the “film board of America.” And the sitting President of the United States. The man who gave it to me told me that he could never be a Christian because he believed that sex was meant only for marriage and shouldn’t be degraded the way he saw on the imported television shows and songs from the West.

I’m telling this story because in the land of the free, we are often unaware of how the rest of the religious world perceives us, when we refer to America as a “Christian Nation” that actually hurts the Church’s credibility across the world. Because they see what kind of stories and music and movies that America produces.

Notice that ISIS says, “this letter is signed in blood to the nation of the Cross” Before others weigh in on the “nation” part, I’d like to speak about the Cross part. Don’t make the same mistake ISIS has assuming that the way of Jesus is embodied by American culture/politics/territory.

The People of the Cross

I’m a part of this “Nation of the Cross” and it doesn’t have a nation, it is an international, world-wide community of people who believe that this is actually not the worst thing you can do to us. Terrorism and acts that are designed as symbolic fear-driven aggressive acts of bullying only strengthen our resolve to lay down our lives. You may denounce some of our culture, and there are plenty of us that wish that the Christians in America didn’t participate as readily in consuming some of the same culture you denounce, but you have woefully misunderstood who you are talking to.

If you want to talk to America than call it by it’s proper name, if you want to talk to the Church than this is our response for over 2000 years.

You can’t kill people who have already died. That’s who you are talking about and who you are talking to when you address “the people of the Cross”

The people of God have faced worse things than this before and we actually have a bit of historical perspective on what God does with our spilled blood. “The blood of Christians is the seed of Christianity” one early Jesus follower wrote during a much scarier time than this. And he was right, you have no idea the sleeping giant that you are waking with this challenge, and it’s not the West. It’s the power of the redeemed suffering of the people of God.

It’s what Revelation calls “the power of the Lamb”

Now If you want to write in blood, write in your own blood, that seems like it would be a bit more congruent with the faith you baptize your blood lust with.

If you want war, you will probably get it, that’s the same tired story that has been going on for thousands of years, nations will fight and evil will be restrained, and your movement is making no pains to hide its evil.

But you have no idea how foolish what you have done is.

In the Bible, murder doesn’t silence the voices of the slain. In the Bible, the blood cries out to God, in the Bible murder only amplifies to God  the sound, and I’ll bet that God’s ears are ringing.

Your attempt as symbolically killing people can not frighten disciples of a man who died by the very kind of propaganda you are trying to create.

So back to Jasar, my Coptic Christian friend in Egypt, after visiting with him for a few minutes, I asked him to read me John 16:33 from his translation.

The verse I asked him to read is translated in English versions like this:

“In this world you will have troubles, but take heart I have overcome the world.”

But Jasar’s rough translation was this:

“This life and the world you live in will be hard, but don’t be anxious. I win.”

I feel great sorrow and solidarity with these Christians and would like to join with my Egyptian brothers and sisters as they have declared the next 7 days of mourning. May we join in the voices of the saints in Heaven looking on asking, “How long O Lord?”

May their families receive the comfort of God and may these martyrs rest in peace and rise in glory.

Come soon LORD Jesus.

On February 3, 2015

Uncool: Embarrased to Say

“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” -The Westminster Confession

Un-Cool Desktop

Alex was pretty well off in life, he probably came from a family with a modest income, and now he was on a fast track to having a pretty good life. He was lucky enough to be put in an imperial boarding school, and in 1st century Rome that meant that he was going to get to serve in the palace of the Emperor. If Alex played his cards right he might even get to serve the emperor himself.

But that probably never happened.Alex graffiti

Because it turns out that the boarding school that Alex went to was really cruel. Today the ruins of this 1900 year old school are famous not for the education, but for it’s graffiti. The students drew all over the walls of this school, and one of them carved this picture, and along with it all we know about the student “Alex”

Alex’s peers carved a picture of a man worshipping a donkey on a cross. Then they added in crude language “Alexamenos worships [his] God”

And you thought Junior High was tough for you.

The Courage to be Different

One of the best books I read in years was a book by Francis Spufford, a British author writing on why he was still a Christian. In the U.S. Edition of his book, he wrote a preface to explain to people reading in America about what it was like to live as a Jesus follower in the U.K.

 In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous—or respectable, or serious, or community-minded—is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment

These days the word persecution is thrown around a lot, generally centering around politics. But I live in a city where people often buy my meal, I get my haircut and eye exams and dental work for free just because I’m a preacher.  I’m not persecuted I’m privileged.

But with that said, I get it, things aren’t like they used to be for American Christians. The privilege is slipping a bit, however when I hear Christians talking in the media today about being persecuted I think the word they are really reaching for is embarrassed. 

And I get embarrassment. I’ve grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve always lived in the South, I’m a preacher at a church in Texas, and when I get on a plane somewhere and someone asks me what I do, I often feel like a stereotype. I feel as if they assume I also get on television wearing tacky suits to ask for money, or maybe they think of the Religious Right or the Crusades, or the different atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.

I feel in a word: uncool.

There’s lots of things to be embarrassed about, in the words of Bono “Christians are unbearable, I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

But In light of the very real and violent persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are currently facing, I’d like to recommend a passage of Scripture for all of us who live in a world that is growing more post-Christian.

The Smile of God

There is this one time in the New Testament, where Peter the disciple who followed Jesus, is writing to a church that’s facing real persecution. Slowly the Roman empire is becoming aware that they aren’t worshipping their gods, and the Roman Emperor is learning that they don’t worship him.

Rome doesn’t do nuance very well, What Rome understands is that the Cross works…Peter is trying to get the Christians to understand the same thing.

So Peter writes to these men and women and says,

It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

This is commendable before God?!!

In context, Peter is writing about people who are at the bottom of society, namely slaves, and Peter isn’t saying slavery is good and that slaves need to be passive toward gaining their freedom. Peter is writing at an entirely different level here, he’s assuming that certain options aren’t on the table, and he’s teaching people how to be Christian in whatever circumstances they find find themselves in.

Peter knows that to be the people of God involves suffering, and his initial advice isn’t to try and avoid it, it is to allow God to redeem it. Reading from a modern Western perspective this sounds absurd and abusive, but then it dawns on me Peter has seen this work before.

And a cursory look at Christian history says it’s been working ever since.

Brett McCracken points out that Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign has Christian roots. From Jesuit Priests to Wesley and Wilberforce, Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and have started the largest charities from Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, to Feed the Children, and World Vision. Jesus followers were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities. They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, and substance-abuse programs.

Today it’s trendy to care about these things, but Christians cared about it before it was cool, even when it was embarrassing to care about.

Now just because it can be uncool to be a Jesus follower, that doesn’t mean that if you are uncool you are necessarily being a good Christian. You might just be obnoxious. But I suspect that there is an aspect of following Jesus that will always be embarrassing and counter-cultural.

And this is my greatest concern with progressive Christianity. I believe just about everything my other progressive Christian friends believe, but sometimes I wonder if we believe it for the wrong reasons. I think the way of Jesus leads to social justice, equality and ministries of mercy, but I think the reason Christians are called to do that is to serve and honor God.

In my more cynical moments, I think that we talk about it so much so we can be seen as cool.

Think back to Alex in Jr. High, all we know about him is found by looking at what people wrote about him on the ancient world equivalent of a bathroom stall. But what we know from the rest of that period is that being a person who believed in Jesus was not just difficult, it was embarrassing.

People were shamed by their family, the rumors were floating around that Christians were cannibals, that they had deliberately started the fire that crippled the Roman economy, and that they were the worst of all people.

And Peter’s answer wasn’t to argue with them, it was for the Christians to live like Jesus did, for the pleasure of God.

We can’t justify ourselves, or offer an explanation for everything we believe in a way that is going to satisfy everyone, all we can offer is our lives of living like Jesus.

On January 27, 2015

Uncool: Losing Your Cool

“There comes a time when we must show that we disagree…We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ…We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”-C.S. Lewis

Un-Cool Desktop

Last month all the Cardinals of the Catholic Church came together for their yearly Christmas gathering to hear an Advent message from Pope Francis. From the outside looking in, Pope Francis appears to be one of the most kind and compassionate people in the world. He’s incredibly popular in much of the world, recapturing outsiders imagination for why the way of Jesus is still so beautiful.

But from the inside it’s a different story.

Francis stood in front of a room full of men who had given their lives and made great sacrifices for Jesus and the Church, and he gave them a list of 15 things that they as leaders were doing wrong.

And you thought your office Christmas party was awkward.

Seriously, read the speech, he accused these priests of having a Messiah Complex, of making efficiency an idol, of having “funeral face” and losing the joy of the LORD in their life, of being exclusive of loving money too much, of gossiping and worshipping prestige.

Merry Christmas guys.

Love Does…Weird Stuff

I spent last weekend at a men’s conference listening to Bob Goff, the author of the tremendous book Love Does, at one point during the conference Bob told the story about meeting with the Imam in the local Mosque where he lives in San Diego. Bob had started to work in several Muslim countries and he wanted to get more acquainted with the Muslim faith, and so he befriended a local Muslim leader, At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the Imam what the scariest day of his life was and the Imam told him, “That’s easy. It was September 12th, 2011”

Turns out that two of the terrorists who flew planes into the buildings on that dreadful Tuesday morning were members of this Imam’s mosque and after America was sucker punched, we were ready to punch back and we were looking for a target. So on the 12th, the Imam drove up to his Mosque early Wednesday morning to find over 300 cars parked in his parking lot. There was a group of people who had heard that this mosque had connections to the terrorism in New York and they were ready for some mob justice. And that’s when Bob said something happened that I find close to miraculous.

A group of Jesus followers surrounded the Mosque and linked arms and began to sing worship songs while they used their bodies as human shields to protect their Muslim friends entering the Mosque.

When I heard that story I found myself swelling with the best kinds of pride for these Christians. Not just because they were brave and sacrificial, but because they were faithful when it would have been easy to not be.

As soon as Bob told that story, I thought about my life on September 12th. My friends and I were scared, my parents were terrified (confident that Searcy Arkansas was next on the Taliban hit list) and everyone I knew was confused, sad and angry. I remember the world of September 12th like it was yesterday, and I can’t imagine the bravery it took for a group of Christian men and women to to stand in a California mosque parking lot and lock arms against an angry crowd.

I don’t think they were particularly courageous in regards to violence. I doubt that anyone would hurt a group of middle-class Christians singing, I think their courage took a different stripe all together. It was the courage to be uncool.

Remember the momentum culture had during the weeks following September 11th? Every news channel, every politician, every public figure seemed to be able to put aside their differences and focus their collective voices on comforting each other and confronting and making sense of the evil we had just witnessed. Unfortunately, it was also a terrifying time to be a Muslim, it was easy to lump the terrorist in with the Muslim faith, (which would be like lumping all Christians in with the KKK).  And in the middle of all that, a group of Christians stood against their peers, friends and neighbors and did what was in the moment the most uncool thing imaginable.

The Courage to Be Different

Last week some of the Highland Church leadership met with a hospital chaplain for a time of equipping. The chaplain was a middle class white guy who had spent the last 25 years in the hospital around people in crisis. And toward the end of our time with him, the chaplain told us this story:

Many years ago, a young gang leader in our city was shot in the head. He was immediately brought to the hospital where he would eventually die. The gang leaders family was obviously in shock and grieving, and to make matters worse his entire gang was hanging around outside the ICU ward discussing plans of retaliation. They were (not too subtly) coming up with a plan of action for their righteous anger.Canonization_2014-_The_Canonization_of_Saint_John_XXIII_and_Saint_John_Paul_II_(14036966125)

And that’s when the chaplain (not a large or intimidating man) went out to the waiting room and asked the entire gang to follow him to the chapel. He stood in front of this group of young men and told them that he understood they were angry, sad and scared, but that what they were planning was wrong and would ruin and perhaps end their lives and the lives of other people.

He told a room full of boys filled with bloodlust and rage and fear that they were wrong and that there was a better way to live, and then he bowed his head and prayed for God to give them comfort and peace and the ability to forgive and turn the other cheek.

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the years have gone by, many of those boys and their families have returned to quietly say thank you to the chaplain. They thank him for telling them something that is so obvious now but which no one was saying then. They thanked him for saying the uncool things to them when they needed to hear it.

That brings me back to Pope Francis, I think the reasons he’s so popular with most people is not because he’s chasing popularity but because he’s choosing who he’s okay not being popular with wisely. He knows that the world is going to be the world, but the Church is called to be different and so he’s able to say the most gracious things to people who are different than him, and the most prophetic things to those who are called to be different but aren’t.

Pope Francis doesn’t just go around kissing puppies, he’s told mafia leaders they are going to Hell if they don’t change their ways, that they have blood on their hands. He’s courageously rebuked a variety of military leaders, presidents, dictators and especially his own priests.

We so badly want to be popular, we want so badly to be seen as cool. But just a cursory observation of the way the world works reminds us, Whoever wants to save their cool will lose it, but whoever is willing to lose it just might save it.

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

gLyt1OR

On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.

On January 13, 2015

UnCool: More Than Cool

Un-Cool Desktop

The year was 1936, and it wasn’t just another rally for German superiority that had become more and more common lately. No, this one had Adolf Hitler himself there. And everyone was almost falling over themselves to show their support for their Fuhrer, well almost everyone.

You can see him in the picture above, he certainly sticks out, because he’s the only one who’s not drinking the Kool-aid. He’s obviously uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be there, and for me, the most interesting part of the story is where he wants to be, or more precisely who he wants to be with.

Forbidden Love

His name is August, he joined the Nazi party a few years earlier for the same reason that young, ambitious young men do most things. He wanted to climb the ladder of success and since the Nazi party was gaining momentum he figured that would be the best way to make some connections, get a well-paying job and start making a life. And it was working for August. Being associated with the Nazi party during the 30’s was the only way to get somewhere in Germany. August was doing fine…until he met Irma, a woman who just happened to be a Jew.

When August and Irma tried to get married, the German government refused, Apparently, they frowned on Nazi’s marrying Jews (in 1951, long after their death, the German government recognized their marriage) but no government was going to stop them from making promises to each other. Eventually, August and Irma had children together and then did the one thing that just couldn’t have made sense at the time.

They started dating publicly, as in where everyone could see them together. This mixed family of a Nazi and a Jew were standing out in the open as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Despite the fact that he had been arrested before for breaking the racial purity laws of the Nazi, despite the fact that he had been warned that the next time they were caught together he would go to prison for years, despite the fact that she would be (and eventually was) killed as Jewish woman in Germany, they appeared in public in a time when the social momentum was against them.

And that’s why I love this story so much.

Captivated by Cool

I’m starting a new blog series today that’s going to run for the next few weeks based on this simple idea that’s haunted me for the past few years. I run in a group, and identify primarily with Christians of a more progressive stripe. I embrace my Christian brothers and sisters from all kinds of traditions and backgrounds, and have learned the hard way not to write any Jesus-follower off because they don’t see the world the way I do. But I enjoy talking with progressive Christians a lot, they seem more open to new ideas or ways of thinking about God and less afraid to push the envelope. I like that.

But I’m starting to have some concerns.

I’m worried that behind my pursuit of the next new way of talking about God is not just a relentless pursuit of the truth, when I get silent before God I’m starting to think what I’m really chasing after is a desire to be seen a certain way. In my more honest moments, I’m able to admit that what I really want to be seen as is cool.

After World War II was over, and people were trying to figure out how in the world a nation that was so civilized, so theologically sophisticated, become so dark?

Nazi Troops Celebrating Christmas

Nazi Troops Celebrating Christmas

Brett McCracken writes in his book “Hipster Christianity” about the way that culture around Nazi Germany developed. He cites Antonio Gramsci who studied the Nazi culture and made a very profound observation. It wasn’t that Hitler was some lone evil, it was bigger than that. Here’s McCracken:

In Nazi Germany control was exerted not simply by a fascist ruler but holistically throughout the entire culture—even the most free and democratic of cultures like America. In our most apparently benign institutions—churches, elementary schools, pop music, films, Boy Scouts—the hegemony extended its reach and reinforced dominant values. Ideology was subtle propaganda, and it thrived in mass culture.

It wasn’t just Hilter that made the Nazi’s evil. They weren’t trying to be evil, they were trying to be cool.

Which brings me back to August, this guy with his arms crossed refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler on that sunny day. This guy had no idea the way that the world history would play out, he has no way of knowing that their vision of world domination is going to fail. He has no way of knowing that for generations to come the Nazi symbol is going to become an obscene gesture.

He could’ve just raised his arm insincerely, but he doesn’t play along, he dares to stand against the crowd, and he’s not doing it to be cool later. Which by the way, he is. Turns out what’s uncool a few years ago, tends to be the very stuff that people are drawn to later, but he doesn’t do it for that.

He does it because he has seen the face of the enemy in his children and he knows they are not the enemy at all. He doesn’t need you to think he’s cool, and I think that’s the kind of guy I’d like to be. That’s the kind of community I’d like to be a part of, one that values love over ratings, and self-sacrifice over reputation.

August is going to eventually die for crossing his arms on this cool spring day, but by now everyone else in this picture is dead as well, and he’s got a better story to leave behind.

He’s not just trying to be uncool. He’s not trying to be indifferent to the popular culture, He does it for the very best reason of all. He does it because he loves his wife and his family and he doesn’t care how much others hate them, or how much they can and will hurt him because he doesn’t. So what you think about him isn’t very important to him because something else is.

There are many reasons to be uncool, but the greatest of these is love.

Christmas PictureA few weeks ago, on Black Friday, I joined the crowds getting on Amazon to see what their Christmas deals were. And I was fascinated by one thing in particular. In the Lightening Deals Amazon has three categories 1) All Available 2) Upcoming 3) Missed Deals

We have a section for missed deals!. Does it strike anyone else as particularly disturbing that we have a section of a website set aside just to shop for regret? Amazon gets to show us how great of deals they’ve had, and we get to mope about the things that we missed.

Joy Beyond The Walls of the World

A few years ago, I read Mark Sayers terrific little book The Trouble With Paris, where he observed the disconnect between our materialism and our the way we use things to try and medicate our pain:

“I recently watched a reality makeover show. The woman who had been selected for a makeover had being trying to have a baby for several years, only to suffer a number of miscarriages. The woman had finally successfully given birth to a healthy child, only for that child to tragically die in its first year of life. The show lavished the woman with various makeovers. They remodeled her house and her garden, taught her how to cook gourmet dishes, helped her lose weight, and gave her a new wardrobe of the latest fashions, along with a European vacation. The show ended in an almost awkward fashion as it become apparent that the world of makeovers could never heal this woman’s grief. He problems were internal, not external, and our culture had no solution for her pain.”

There’s not enough makeovers that can heal the ache.

In his great memoir, Surprised by Joy, writes about his conversion from Atheism to Theism and then to Christianity, and what ultimately convinced him that Jesus was the Son of God.

One of the most surprising things about C.S. Lewis life was what he meant when he said Joy.

Joy, for Lewis, isn’t extreme happiness or even a very positive emotion. Joy for Lewis, is The Longing.

It was what haunted him as a child when he read the folk stories and myths of the Celtic and Greeks, it was what he felt when he looked out over the England countryside and imagined Kingdoms and Castles and Kings and Queens.

Joy for Lewis was the stabbing pain of desire, it was a wish for things that were not attainable.

This would lead Lewis to say things like

“[Humans] remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a need that they satisfy–or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.”

Joy is Waiting

So it’s Christmas, and by now most of the people reading this have already done quite a bit of shopping. The Tree is up, the lights are on, and the Visa bill is growing. And, on Christmas morning, if you’re lucky for a few brief moments the ache in your soul will be covered over with laughter and smiles as you watch the people you love tear through wrapping paper and try out or try on their shiny new things.Time Hourglass

All of this is fine, and I don’t mean to diminish it.

But that ache comes back.

And that is a very good thing.

It is what C.S. Lewis called Joy, and it’s what the Christian Calendar calls Advent

Advent is just the Latin word for longing, or waiting, and it actually the way Christians for well over a thousand years have prepared for Christmas, and one that I think we need today more than ever.

Ancient Christian wisdom demands that we remember that there is a desire that we have that points us North. It’s a desire that can only be experienced, and never fully satisfied on this side of Eternity.

And if you aren’t aware of this reality, no matter if you are religious or spiritual or not, it will be used by advertisers and marketing firms to make subtle, yet over-reaching promises that will only break your heart.

Because no doorbuster or gadget or Lexus can give you joy. Indulge yourself enough and you can even find a way to lower the signal on the true joy that is offered.

The only Joy that is really offered is the joy of waiting.

Which I think makes this whole season make more sense, but not the way we are celebrating it.

That emptiness that comes after the wrapping paper settles on Christmas morning. The dull ache that comes back after all the gifts have been opened, is a gift.

It’s a gift that reminds us the best is still to come.

The empty chair on Christmas Eve, the stocking you haven’t been able to hang up for years since the accident took him away, those are ways that…if we let it, can actually increase our joy.

All the longing that is welling up inside of us actually has a end desire, and Christian hope says that it’s not only true, it’s exactly what this time of year was made for.

Advent means Longing, Christmas Advent means longing for the Joy that once did enter the world, and one day will come again.

So we wait.

And this is joy.

So What are you waiting for?

Christmas Picture

I had a dream.

Seriously, that’s the only way I would’ve considered writing this post about Ferguson.

I read this story in the NY Times and then I had a dream. I went to bed on Monday not planning on writing anything about Ferguson, but I woke up Tuesday morning with this haunting me.

It’s a blog about Ferguson and Christmas and a story of how a good police officer in Ferguson is embodying the Christmas story whether he means to or not.

But first.

The Polite Policeman

Officer Jerry Lohr, wasn’t setting out to be the most popular policeman in a city where policeman are anything but. He wasn’t trying to make the New York Times, he’s got a reputation for getting easily annoyed with the media and the circus they’ve turned his hometown into, but despite his best efforts Lt. Lohr is becoming famous in the country the way he has been in his city.

Black residents, despite the fact that Lt. Lohr is a white man, regularly ask for him by name when they have a grievance to file. They trust him, and seem to have no problem obeying even the orders he gives. One black teenager, Joshua Williams said, “He’s the only one I feel comfortable being around “

This past week when one of the protestors was leading a group of people in the street to block traffic, Lt. Lohr walked up to her. She looked at her watch and asked him to “Give me three more minutes.” And he did.

He’s got this hunch that by actually listening to people’s complaints, even when they disagree with one another, he can help the community he serves come together. So he listens to each person…like they are a person, and he helps them if he can, but he always tries to let them see that he is human too.

I read that article in the Times, and found myself thinking, I know lots of police officers who do that too, why is this working so well for him?

Why in the world has Lt. Lohr garnered the respect of the “other side” in what is quickly becoming a racial war that could break out in any city of these United State? And what does this have to do with the Christmas story?

Great question, glad I asked it.

When I was in college, one of my professors, a guy named Monte Cox, told me a story about a friend of his who was a father of a brand new baby. They also were registered with the state of Illinois as foster parents, which meant that a child in need of some temporary parents could show up at their doorstep anytime.

And one did. A little girl came to their house who had been traumatized by events in her recent past. I don’t know the details but I know that she was almost catatonic from fear of adults and what they had done to her in the past. So coming to a new strangers house and being told to trust them was not something that was on her agenda.

And so immediately this girl began to freak out. She was terrified of the new hell she had just been introduced to, so she began to run through the house trying to find a place to hide. And she ultimately hid under the bed…for hours.

Monte’s friend tried everything to get her to come out, they talked in soft voices to her, trying to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, that they weren’t going to treat her like the adults who had gone before them. They tried just sitting patiently by the bed, but nothing was working.

Until one of them had an idea.

They took their newborn baby and gently slid him under the bed toward the frightened girl, and moments later she came out holding him.

I have a six week old baby at home right now, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to take such a risk, but it was the risk that opened this girl up to the possibility that maybe these adults aren’t like the ones I’ve met before.

It was the vulnerability of the baby that made the girl realize that she was around people who weren’t just looking to protect themselves but who were willing to open themselves up to being hurt, which is really the only true first step in love.

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

The Power of Vulnerability

So back to Ferguson…a few months ago I was talking with my African American brother Jerry Taylor. Bro. Jerry preaches all over the country and helps churches work toward racial reconciliation. He’s someone who loves God and loves His Church enough to help us have the hard conversations we need to have so that we can be a community of reconciliation, the very kind that Jesus’ birth initiated.

A few months ago, Jerry told me that the greatest challenge facing racial reconciliation among churches right now is black anger and white fear.

And immediately I knew he was right. We live in a world of great fear and great anger, two ingredients for a vicious cycle that has no end.

Unless Jesus story is true, and Christians decide to follow him into it.

I think this time of year has a lot to say about the events in Ferguson because the Christmas story is about a God who lays down his priviledge and makes himself vulnerable. I love the way Frederick Buechner says this:

For those who believe in God  this birth means that God is never safe from us. Maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we could turn him down, as we could crack a baby’s skull like an eggshell, or nail him up when he gets too big for that.

This is not just theological abstract ideas, the Gospel actually is good news and a good strategy. It’s at the heart of what has made Lt. Lohr so trusted and respected.

The secret that Lt. Lohr has is that he actually goes into the riots, he’s the only police officer to wade through the protestors, and he never wears riot gear.

His secret is the power of vulnerability, what Jesus would call “Laying down one’s life.”

This is what started at Bethlehem. It’s a God who became a baby, who showed us the power of vulnerability, which is of course the power of love.

On November 20, 2014

The Cult of Contentment

But godliness with contentment is great gain. –St. Paul

Contentment makes poor men rich, but discontentment makes rich men poor. – Ben Franklin

Ecards

I’m tired of the “War on Christmas” It’s my least favorite holiday tradition, and frankly I think it has become one of the more polarizing parts of our culture.

So I have a modest proposal, instead of fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” what if we fought to keep the Friday in Black Friday?

I remember when the day before Black Friday was the only day that our culture had set aside to actually be aware of what we already have instead of focusing what we don’t. I remember when they used to call the day before Black Friday, “Thanksgiving.” But each year it seems like the monster of materialism is inching closer and closer, enveloping our gratitude by increasing our greed.

But there is another way.

A Better Way to Live

A few months ago, I heard a preacher talking about the life of the apostle Paul. Specifically his sermon was on all the jail time Paul served…and what he did with his jail time. During his prison time, Paul wrote letters to the churches that he started. Now Paul had no idea that these letters would be the defining moment of his life. He had no idea that by doing this he would shape Western civilization more than anything else until the printing press. He had no idea that the words he was writing would shape what we think of about marriage, about human rights and equality, and about the need for self-less self-sacrifice. He was just in prison and so he did the only thing he could do, he wrote some letters.

In one of the letters Paul writes to a church he planted in Philippi, he writes thanking him for a care package that they sent him, and he lets them know how much they encouraged him, but he doesn’t passively-aggressively guilt them into sending him more stuff. It will take hundreds of years before preachers learned that trick. Instead, Paul does the opposite. He actually tells them, I’m thanking you not because I was in need, I’m thanking you because it did my heart good to know you were thinking about me.

And then Paul tells them words that would shape Christian Theology for thousands of years:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want

Paul’s talking to them about how he learned contentment.

There is actually a kind of life that allows us internal peace no matter what is happening around you. There is a way to live life that isn’t frantic and envious and filled with fear and anxiety.

And the word for secret here is actually a word that doesn’t come from Christian Theology, it’s nowhere else in the New Testament, it’s actually a word that Paul grabbed from the culture, specifically from the cults.

It’s a word that was only used for people who were being initiated into one of the many secret mystery cults.

Back in the day that Paul lived, there were all kinds of mystery cults that existed. They basically thrived on being elite and exclusive, they each had some mysterious secret that separated them from the insiders/outsiders. Each cult promoted that they knew the secret to the afterlife or the good life or how to become like the gods. For some it was a secret word, or story, or handshake (ok, I’m not sure if that one’s true), but the thing that all the cults had in common was that it was secret.

And that’s the word Paul reaches for.

The Mega Mystery

There is a secret that can allow us to be content no matter what is going on outside of us. No matter what our circumstances or lot in life. We can be content.

He knows the secret, and then he shares it:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

I grew up with this verse on my wall, with a picture of a High School football player scoring a touchdown, but before this was was reduced to being a cliché on a teenage boy posters it was a secret to a better way of life.

The secret of Paul, the Mega Mystery is that the Spirit of God can actually be enough for you.

Remember this isn’t written from some academic desk, or a couch in luxury. It was written in a jail cell to real live people. And Paul says to them, the secret is to know that the One who lives inside of you can give you strength to be content.

Black Friday

Maybe the reason we rush to Best Buy on Thursday is because we don’t ask God for this one thing on Sunday. and there’s nothing we buy can wash away the dull ache in our soul for it, But it’s possible…I’ve seen it time and time again in surprising ways and surprising people.

Last week, I was spending time with a young woman at our church named Nichole. Nichole is 28 years old, and has spent her entire life in a wheelchair, unable to move much of her body. She has Cerebral Palsy, and basic things like getting out of the house require a team of people to help, but every Wednesday night Nichole is at church, and in fact serves on a team of people who pray for Highland and me.

And at one point I was asking Nichole about her life, and she was describing the difficulty she has in being so dependent on others, and not being understood, she often asks questions like, “Why?” and “How long?”

But then she started pointing out that she was aware that her very life was in many ways a gift to people around her. She had a different relationship to time, she wasn’t constantly stressed, she wasn’t able to hide her need for community the way most Americans have learned to, she hears from the LORD often, and He tells her that she was made and loved by God.

I asked her what her favorite Bible story was, and she said it wasn’t a story it was a verse. One that Paul had written thousands of years ago in a prison cell, that had changed the way that Nichole experience life today.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

I started crying and knew that she knew the secret. She had been initiated in a way that I hope to be one day.

She is in the cult of contentment.

May we all be.