ALEXANDER SUPERTRAMP (the myth)

“But don’t they really WANT to live that way?”

As a street minister who (in part) serves the poor and homeless, I find the above question repeated (almost verbatim) frequently when talking about homelessness in conversation with the white, middle-class, American church.  It’s not everyone’s question, but it comes up a lot.  “Don’t these people actually desire their lifestyle?”  (Perhaps I have never heard it put quite like that, but it’s the same question.)

There are two main answers to this question, and depending on who you talk to, you will get one or the other.  Either, YES, they want to live like this or No, they don’t.  Each answer tends to come with some qualification, if the one you ask is thoughtful about it, but that seems to be the main options.  By the way, I find many of the homeless themselves will answer YES to this as well, and that goes to the heart of my post.

But first, I want to say that we are not in court under cross examination here.  The prosecutor is not asking if you have stopped beating your wife, YES or NO!  and boxing you in with that loaded question.  We can think outside of this box, and I will do that presently with this question.  Yet I will do so by way of “Alexander Supertramp.”

My guess is that by talking about Alexander Supertramp, I will highlight differences in homelessness.  Some people are homeless who live in a car, others in a shelter, others in tent city, others in RV’s or storage sheds.  Some “live in a van down by the river.”  Others live under a bridge, in storefronts, or back alleys.  Some sofa-surf with family and friends.

To my way of thinking, living in a college dorm or military barracks qualifies – and if not outright qualification as homeless, those kinds of living situations blur the lines.  But at least by pointing this kind out, I open the door for wilderness-adventure seekers too.  (By the way, I have argued elsewhere that the POTUS also is homeless in a very technical sense due to the fact that his extended stay at the White House uproots him from “home” in a very real sense.*)

Alexander Supertramp was the pseudonym adopted by Chris McCandless, the wilderness adventurer made famous by the book Into The Wild (and the movie of the same name).   That book and movie tell a story BASED ON A REAL LIFE person and events, but a lot of it is conjecture, and some important parts of that story are hotly disputed by researchers.  I definitely am NOT qualified to settle those arguments at all.  But I can critique the depiction of McCandless from the movie and the popular notion(s) about the man it promotes, and that is a worthwhile endeavor since the book’s and movie’s depiction is both the most well known and so dearly beloved by readers/audiences.  Whether historical fact or fiction, Alexander Supertramp was a myth.  And he was homeless.  AND… he wanted to live that way.

This makes for an interesting case study.  

Whether McCandless actually wanted to be destitute and to “live off the land” in the most stark circumstance or whether that is puffed up poetic license, the notion is well accepted by many and even admired by some.  Thus, rather than speaking to historical fact, I speak to that popular notion regardless of it’s historical veracity.

Having recently watched the movie (again) to hold fresh in my mind the story of Alexander Supertramp as told, I find it to be quite an emotional ride.  The love of nature and the dread of “society” and societal evils makes for quite a Romantic impulse, as I understand that term.  McCandless could almost hardly be more Christian except he did not orient his rejection of “the world” around Jesus. In fact, there is very little in the movie that even hints of Christian faith.  But the choices to give up all worldly goods and to trust in nature to provide parodies religious faith so palpably that you have to be in utter denial not to feel it slap you in the face!

McCandless even gets a new identity. “Alexander Supertramp.”  He erases every bit of his former way of life and embarks on adventure in ascetic dependence on the kindness of strangers and of nature itself.  He completely rejects his home, his family, his belongings, his money – all of it.  He walks away from his education and the opportunities and potential all of that provides.  In the movie, he abandons his car and even burns his ID cards and his cash and sets out walking across the desert (almost like a wandering Jew of old).

Along the way, Supertramp makes new friends – acquaintances really… people whose company he enjoys briefly, but as those relationships begin to develop expectations of obligatory reciprocity, he pulls away.  Some of these friends, becoming endeared to him, try to argue him into putting down roots with them.  There is something mystical driving him away which they all respect, but which cuts into their hearts as he insists on his solitude and rootless adventure.  It is deeply sacrificial to live this way, but Supertramp definitely desires it!

Finally, Alexander Supertramp makes his way to the wilderness of Alaska!  Alone! Ten pounds of rice, a hunting rifle, a book on nuts and berries and such things from the local area which can be scavenged, the clothes on his back, and a few assorted odds and ends which a man can carry.  Supertramp, a novice survivalist, disappears INTO THE WILD.

We know some of his adventures after that because he left a diary and a few snapshots on his camera.  But in the fall of 1992, hunters found his body dead, likely of starvation, in an abandoned bus, thus subsequent reports linked him back to his family (who were worried sick for him) and to the writer(s) who developed his story.  And according to that story, his life ended, likely with at least some regret, in what appears to be a total self-sacrifice.

He wanted this.  But maybe, he didn’t quite know what he had bargained for.

Nobody wants to die.  Even suicidal people want to survive their own attempts (with rare exception).  There is no reason to believe Supertramp wanted to die, but every reason to believe he miscalculated his ability as a survivalist or nature’s willingness to provide.  Whatever the case, he “died doing what he loved” – “died doing what he wanted to do.”

This makes Alexander Supertramp, in my estimation, THE PREMIER HOMELESS PERSON WHO WANTED TO LIVE LIKE THAT.  If that question above and that YES answer are ever really true, then to the extent they are true, Alexander Supertramp provides the ultimate example.  Even if the popular myth of the man and his mythical pseudonym departs significantly from the real Chris McCandless of living history, there is little doubt that McCandless wanted to live something like this, and no doubt that he rejected home to have it.

And it killed him.

It is at this point that I say, there is something wrong with his wantin’.  His wanter is broken. (Yeah, I know.  Not a real word, but you get the idea.)

I am on the verge of splitting hairs here, I know that too.  Alexander Supertramp didn’t just simply go camping.  He didn’t simply go for and extended wilderness trek or hike.  Those things are quite common and do not make a person homeless.  There is a huge difference between spending a few nights in a motel and paying rent at one for months on end!  One makes you a traveler (most likely) and the other homeless!

Alexander Supertramp wanted something that doesn’t fit in creation the way God makes it.  That is too much solitude and not enough Jesus.  And THAT, I say, creates something of a different category of thought.  We are outside the box now where the homeless are concerned.

If I ask homeless people from the streets if they WANT to live like this, some (more than a mere few) will say YES.  There are ulterior motives for answering that way on the one hand, but for those who actually desire it, there is something wrong with even wanting to live that way.

There is a whole OTHER side to all of this too, though.  There is something of a counterweight as well.  And that is this: there is also something wrong with WANTING to live in giant mansions all alone.  There is greed about having and using private jets (especially a fleet of them) for your own personal use in a world where children starve to death. There is something very selfish about grand houses with “guest rooms” which go empty night after night while bums tough it out in the rain and cold.

Yes, we Christian types have known for a long time that our desires can, and often are, ungodly and when they go unchecked bring pain upon ourselves and our world.  The part that I think we have a hard time seeing is where we love our neighbor as ourselves.  At least Alexander Supertramp’s “friends” along the way tried to talk him out of his desire.  They sense something wrong with it.  They wrongfully respect it and send him off with a blessing.

Oh, how sad to be one of them reading the book or watching the movie!

When my affluent church friends, though, ask whether the homeless WANT to live like that, they believe they have stumbled upon some respectable desire in the homeless and treat it as though they should back off and let that be.  But even THAT, I think, is a cover for contempt.  I think the contempt for the poor, in that instance, masquerades as respect, and allows the church to write off the poor with no further concern.  Wanting to live in shame and lack on the streets isn’t what anyone ultimately WANTS.  Even to the extent they do, something is wrong with wanting that.

That, I challenge.

Deep down, we all want love.  It appears that love might have been so far removed from McCandless’s ideals (due to family disfunction growing up) that he just had no understanding of what he should have desired instead.

That, I challenge the church to consider.

*I made this argument after reading Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s book Beyond Homeless.

Deny Yourself – Take up your Cross Day 9

Look at this happy little post I just found! Turns out God’s Word does matter to some people, and that is refreshing to find for a poor person!

Women of the Word

Doing good to the “undeserved”

I have been told, by well-meaning Christians, that some people (especially referring to beggars) just are not worth the effort and time. That you should sow into good soil and not be bothered by the “bad soil” that will never deliver good fruits. Their words deeply disturbed me, because where is our love and mercy?

Proverbs 14:31 “He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth Him hath mercy on the poor.”


View original post 407 more words

WHAT IF…? WHAT IF I UPDATE YOU ON WHAT IF?

It’s been a little over two weeks now since I posted on this situation, and so as a refresher, I am putting a link in here at the start:

https://fatbeggars.wordpress.com/2021/02/22/what-if-can-i-just-dream-a-little-maybe-you-dream-with-me-for-once/

I am pleased to report that this post has NOT gone ignored, that at least SOME attention, encouragement, and help has characterized a response.  I need to give credit where credit is due (anonymously, on this blog, of course).  Two shepherds from my church have responded now to this woman and are giving guidance to this need.  TWO!  And the help, the encouragement has substance.

One of the shepherds contacted me with questions and reports to me that she is on the shepherd’s prayer list!  This is huge! Important shepherds at a major congregation of Christians in Lubbock are now praying for this woman specifically.  She was nobody to anybody just a few weeks ago.  But now God is hearing from us!  We are hearing from God!

The woman featured in this post has received admissions counseling application papers complete with waved fees in the mail for one of our local Christian colleges.  There is expressed interest in meeting with her.  I presume for more prayer and encouragement, perhaps some life-coaching type guidance and so forth.

I am hopeful for more.  MORE.  We have a nice START here, and I want to encourage the encouragers to ENCOURAGE MORE!  And I want to ask shepherds and readers of this blog to IMAGINE MORE.

How far will this needy person go with college (or otherwise professional) education?  I don’t know.  The decision to go to college is risky for everyone who ever makes it.  Just showing up is a success in this case, though, and a game changer too.

This is a LOOOOOOOOOONG way from giving a bum a dollar and risking them spending it on booze!

It’s also a huge investment of time, energy, and money.   That will complicate things, I am sure.  I expect that.  Not what I desire, but I ain’t stupid.  I get it.  But I certainly HOPE that every ounce of encouragement ever expended on a child, a grandchild, or recent high school graduates will be offered here too – not less.

WHAT IF…?

What if this is just the tip of the iceberg?  What if this woman is a college success? What if she makes good grades, starts learning and becomes an influence on her family and friends? What if her kids start thinking they should go to college?  What if her neighbors watch her get all this attention and accrue so much success and start thinking that maybe, just maybe, they could do it too?

WHAT IF?

We really COULD be on the cusp of something very special here.

A long shot, I know, but we could be.  And with all that PRAYER we have bathing this woman and her need and stated desires, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE! (I might have read that somewhere.)

I invite you random readers to join this prayer.

Thanx

HOSPICE MINDSET AND MINISTRY

My very first ministry-related job, work I did before I went to Bible school, was Hospice care.  Hospice is a curious form of medical care and requires a change in mindset to be fully appreciated.  At the time I became involved, Hospice administrators actively set out to “retrain” doctors and nurses for the work.  In some respects, Hospice care is almost the opposite of emergency room care, one of the most dramatic forms of medical care.  Also, the ER is often the tip of the medical care spear.  If you get sick or hurt and go to the ER, there is a good chance it is your first stop in many different services – every last one of them devoted to saving your life, extending it, and improving your health.

Hospice is not exactly a give-up form of care, but you will not find any measures there to save your life.  Hospice care is entirely geared toward helping you die gently and with dignity.  It is such a radical change of gears compared to all the other medical services based on just that single point.

Much of the day-to-day duties of Hospice caregivers remains the same as duties for other medical services.  Doctors still make rounds, still counsel patients, still order medications and other procedures.  Nurses still administer meds, provide all levels of personal care, and social workers still provide system care.  But none of this care is geared toward saving life or even extending it (at least not much).  Instead, it is all geared toward helping a patient make the most of the little life that is left.  This is the only department in the medical community that does that.

That mindset change is massive, actually.

It’s not exactly giving up on life, but the life Hospice fights for is certainly not the life the ER fights for at all.

Hospice care is always working itself out of a job, not constantly expanding care.

Hospice purposefully and carefully sends patients to the “after life” – so to speak.

I worked in Hospice a few years before I went to Bible school.  Yet even before I finished school, I was involved in prison ministry.   After a few years, my ministry ventured out to the streets.  At first with a focus more on criminals in the neighborhood surrounding our church (pimps, hookers, drug dealers and the like).  But that eventually took more focus on the homeless.

I recognize now (and I kinda knew it all along, but maybe I have deeper appreciation now) that my Hospice experience and that change of mindset has proven extremely important to me AND sets me apart from most other practitioners in the field, I think.  This notion came to a head in a blogging conversation I got into with a different blog recently.  A formerly homeless man described how that most street ministers who ever served him while he was on the streets didn’t even ask if he already knew Jesus; to them it seemed plainly obvious that he did not!

I think I understand that.

There seems to be a feeling that if you are homeless, you are therefore lost.  That is not necessarily the case at all.  But I think that makes for some disrespectful outreach.  When you go to “saving” a soul that is already “saved,” you aren’t listening.  But the benchmarks of “success” have quietly shifted, almost unnoticed.

I began to see this in prison ministry more dramatically.  In prison ministry, the outreach confronts a phenom we usually call “jail house religion.”  Jail house religion is characterized by fervent devotion from offenders while they are locked up, but which dies by the wayside shortly upon release from prison.  Frequently, a prisoner will reoffend and wind up back in prison again, and often will suddenly find that fervent devotion all over again which seems to last only while locked up.

For those from the church reaching out to prisoners, this cycle might seem futile.  You invest a lot of time, energy, even money into changing someone’s life, and they seem on fire for Jesus at first, but all that collapses once the offender’s sentence is done.  How can you tell the real faith from the jail house religion?  How can you break the cycle?

(To be frank, I think there are far more aspects to this phenom than anyone explores, and more than I will in this post.)

Well, there are a number of measures practitioners take to address this phenom.  They seek to have more “effective” ministry through all manner of gimmicks. Some of them are quite costly.  Some even show promise at breaking the cycle, but none have ever proven full-proof. In fact, most have made modest gains at best.  But the concern about this is so strong that the metric for “success” of the “effectiveness” of any prison ministry has become “the recidivism rate.”

(For an important exceptional example to all this, I ask you to google “Humaita Prison” in Brazil.)

Now that I am into street ministry especially geared toward the homeless, I find practitioners espousing “effective charity” which they hope will break the cycle of poverty.  Despite all our redefinitions of poverty and all manner of extemporaneous contortions to operate in the wrong mindset, we seem to want to make poor people financially independent.  We might call it “stable,” but we want poor people financially independent and no longer needy – no longer asking our help.

(Feed a man a fish; feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish; make him GO AWAY! (Not found in the Bible, btw).)

I find these concerns overwhelming “Christian” ministry.  “Recidivism rates” and “effective charity” or “independence” are not Bible words.  You won’t find those terms used in the Bible at all.  But even more, they are not Bible concerns either.  Certainly not biblical goals for ministry.  Jesus never says, “Go into all the world and make law abiding, financially independent disciples through “effective charity” and “sound business principles.”

To the extent that these metrics are involved in biblical ministry, they surely play a very minor part.  The Bible sends Christians to the jails and prisons to care for the prisoners there.  Those people need Christian love.  If they receive Christian love, THAT IS SUCCESS in and of itself!  If an offender winds up back in jail in six months or returns five or eight times over the course of his life, that just puts him in good company with St. Paul and a few other missionaries!

I don’t mean to belittle the idea that sin puts people in jail.  It does.  And any changed life surely will have addressed the sin that leads one to jail.  So recidivism surely can be impacted by good Christian ministry, but there is no guidance from the Bible that I find telling us how to measure success or failure with recidivism as a metric.  Likewise, with alleviating poverty.  No doubt sloth and sin lead to poverty, and a changed life surely addresses those, at least to some extent, but financial independence is not only unbiblical, it quite possibly runs counter to the Bible (especially considering Jesus’s directive to the rich man to sell all…, of the church’s pooling of resources in Acts 2 and 4, and of the directives to care for the poor in far too many passages to pack into this paragraph!).

Being locked up is not a sin!  Being poor is not a sin!  Both, in fact, can be a sign of radical devotion to Christ!  Both conditions call us as Christians to give of ourselves sacrificially with love!

What if…?

What if that Hospice mindset comes closer to the will of God?

What if…???

What if the goal here is to maximize the potential for life we have in our suffering rather than the banishment of suffering?

It is here that I would add a couple of influential cinematic dramas to the discussion.  I am thinking of 1986’s The Mission and 2005’s Beyond the Gates.  Both movies, based on true stories, feature horrific and climactic scenes where the church is called to partake the Eucharist at the table placed before their enemies.  Those at this table will die at this table in worship as the enemy armies advance on them.  They will lose their lives in order to gain them!

The Christians in these movies do not take up arms to defend themselves (like parishioners in a 21st Century church shooting), but rather lay down their lives in worship to God, and do so most dramatically at table.

These movies, like the Hospice mindset, are resigned to the fact that “this life” as we know it is over.  We will make the most of it while preparing for the next, but we no longer fight for this one.  The movies, for those particularly sensitive to it, actually point even beyond Hospice care and toward Jesus without caring about “success” as it is measured in “this life” in the slightest!  The movies put real life, historical, Christian flesh on the directive of Jesus to “take up your cross and follow.”

When I got into prison ministry, I used to tell people, “We lose far more than we save.”  You have to go get that mindset changed to stay with that work for long.  Otherwise, you feel like a failure fast and often.  But if you bring LOVE into that dark place, it is likely it will be received by at least a few!  And when that is enjoyed, when THAT matters, it is worth it.  Someone sees Jesus in you, and you see Jesus in them.  If all you care is for “effective charity,” you won’t see Jesus at all.

If you actually achieve success according to the recidivism rate metric, then this offender will not ever come back.  You “effectively” get rid of a brother.  Who knows if in all his “success” whether he continues to lean on Jesus?  You won’t.  You won’t know because you won’t be there to share in it.

If you actually achieve success according to “effective charity” as a metric, then this bum will disappear into financial independence, and you “effectively” get rid of a brother.  Who knows if in all his “success” whether he continues to lean on Jesus (or become a workaholic, a greedy person, or dead)?  You won’t.  You won’t because you won’t be there to share Jesus with him.

I come to THESE thoughts thanx, I think, largely to the Hospice mindset I learned a long time ago.

By the way, there is more work for chaplaincy in Hospice than anywhere else in the hospital.  What if THAT were a metric we consider?

VAMPIRES AND BUMS

Beware of vampires.

You think?

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of vampire movies.  One thing I learned for sure, “Never invite a vampire into your house; it renders you powerless against him.”

Hmmm… Words to live by.

But then I grew up, got an education, a job, and a home.  Being the churchman that I am and taking Jesus seriously and all, I “felt led” to invite a bum into my home.  A needy person.  Someone “down on their luck.”  (You know the type.)

Now… MOST of the Christian brothers and sisters I know “care” about the needy alright.  They might write a check, go on a mission trip, maybe even serve in the local soup kitchen during the holidays, but precious few even consider the possibility of inviting a bum to stay in that guest room in their home (which normally goes empty night after night for years on end).  But I took Jesus seriously.  I took him at his word when he said, “I was a stranger and you took Me in….”  So, I took in a bum…

A YEAR AND A HALF AGO!

Let this be a cautionary tale for any of you bleeding heart liberal types who think you are going to do something really special for Jesus when you open your home and your life like that.  Take my example as a warning.  This bum is totally lost without me.  I mean, he doesn’t even know enough to beg!  You can mention the idea of getting a job, but he will seriously just blink and look away!  This cat is so needy that even after all this time, I practically have to spoon feed him!

And he is messy.

I used to pride myself on keeping a nice house, but in the last year and a half, I have had to deal with incontinence (BOTH KINDS!!!), and I don’t mean my own!  I don’t mean my grandma!  I mean this needy bum made no mention of his little issue when he arrived, and now THAT is MY problem too.  (That guest room will never be the same again.  My God, THE SMELL!)

It’s like there is just no getting better.  He seems to never get the hint, and when you are past hinting?  Well, he doesn’t catch the drift when you get direct either.

I sure hope Jesus is true to his word!  Cuz, kinda like vampires, inviting a bum into your house renders you powerless!  I need Jesus now more than I ever bargained for!

“ON YOUR OWN ADMISSION, YOU RAISED UP THE KNIFE…

…and you brought it down ending another man’s life.”

I strongly doubt any of my readers know this quote.  Despite the fact that David Gilmour was one of, if not the main one of, musical geniuses behind Pink Floyd, his solo projects pale in comparison.  Yet his song Murder was a dramatic piece of music that intrigued me, at least.

There is nothing biblical about the song.  Nothing at all.  But that line from that song is so dramatic and coupled with the crescendo of the melody has a way of taking me to that point of murder – a point I have never been to in real life, and never want to be either.  But, ever since I heard it, I have associated it with Abraham and Isaac.

Speaking of pop music songs and Abraham and Isaac, it would be dereliction if I didn’t mention Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the version I am most familiar with being the cover done by Johnny Winter.  (I have mentioned that song a time or two before.)

But I am not really writing about pop songs.  I am more interested in the Bible.  But these songs always echo in my mind’s ear when I think of certain passages.

I took very little in the way of homiletics when I was in school.  Two courses, one as an undergrad and the other in grad school.  I had a particularly spicy preacher-teacher who delivered a sermon to us once, supposedly about Abraham and Isaac.  He started off with the Genesis 22 text, analyzed various points of interest and context in that passage… all the things you must do to make a sermon “biblical and expository.”  But when he got to the most dramatic moment where Abraham has his promised son bound and laid out for human sacrifice, when Abe raises the blade, then with all the skill of a storytelling orator, my instructor reached his dramatic, pregnant pause and let all of us Christian types there to listen to him, people who already know this story all too well, soak for a moment in our expectation that God would stay his hand.

Yeah. You’ve read the story before… right?  You know how it turns out.  So did all of us there to hear this preacher that day.  So he let that moment just hang there in the air a moment for dramatic impact, I am sure.

Then when the pregnant pause gave birth, he said:

And Abraham drove the knife into the heart of his son, instantly killing him and breaking his own heart!

Oh my!

That’s a twist, Ethel!  Open up your Bible and turn to that passage.  What book, chapter, and verse is that?  Come on, open up and look. That’s not how that story goes!

Yeah.  That’s was my reaction at first.  (And my wife’s name isn’t even Ethel, but otherwise, you get the idea!) I was discombobulated, and so was everyone else.

Our preacher gave us another pregnant pause letting us stew in the uncertainty of our fresh confrontation with the Gospel, and then he picked up (as Paul Harvey would say) “The rest of the story.”

Our preacher seamlessly wove, stitched, and tied the story of Jesus on the cross to that story of Abraham and Isaac, and we suddenly saw afresh right into the heart of God.  All that stuff about God leading Abe along with this terrible burden and clouds looming over their path, Isaac wondering about the sacrificial animal while preparing the for fire and his father telling him that God will provide… all of that suddenly became God’s burden and not Abe’s. As much as that story is about Abe and his heart and his testing – and it is all of that – it is ever more about God, God’s heart and your testing of him!

Wow!

I should have taken better notes in homiletics.  I didn’t want to be a preacher, and so I only took the basic requirements which were mere introductory courses.  But if I was a preacher with that kind of preaching skill, I would probably really be somebody. I would probably be on a payroll at a big church.  And I would lull you to sleep with dreams of God.

It was a fantastic sermon!  (The pop songs I mention above are fantastic songs too.)  And I am amazed at the power of good preaching.  I enjoy being moved by skilled homiletics.

But I can’t understand why good sermons aren’t impacting the world for Christ and his redemption more than they do.

I blog here most days with a general message of care for the poor.  I spend a LOT of my energy debunking the When Helping Hurts nonsense, like as if once I expose it for the trash it is, you will feel free to give your alms freely like Jesus says (Matt. 10:8; Luke 6:30 for instance).  But people aren’t heeding me.  My comments are NOT filled with people saying, Wow! X.  You really cleared that up for me.  And thanx too.  Now let me tell you my testimony of all the wonderful blessings that come from your blog!

Nope.

What really kicks me in the jimmy is how that where I go to church we have one of these fantastic preachers who really moves us, who expounds the text, AND to top it all off, does a fantastic job of demonstrating Christ’s love for the poor!  Yet that same church holds classes they charge $25 to sit in where they regurgitate the When Helping Hurts nonsense!  The contradiction in one church between that teaching and the sermon, and I seem to be the only person who notices.

But really, this bit about charity for the poor is only one small part of the breakdown.  Our churches, even the ones with good preaching, are failing in numerous ways, are ineffective spiritually on many fronts.  We are not holy, and barely strive for it.  We are greedy and barely challenge it.  And we are watching our numbers dwindle over time.

It’s enough to make me wonder if that body isn’t bound and spread out on the sacrificial altar once more.

On your own admission, you raised up the knife… and you brought it down ending another man’s life.

When it was done, your just threw down the blade, while the red blood spread wider like the anger you made.

I don’t want this anger, burning in me.  It’s something from which it’s so hard to be free.

None of the tears that we cry in sorrow or rage can make any difference or turn back the page.

(David Gilmour)

The only explanation I can find, if I am really honest, is that neither the words of these sermons nor my own are actually spirit-filled or spirit-empowered.  Maybe I just don’t see something, but that is the one explanation that I find which fits the data.

OR…

Maybe the spirit is still waiting until we are all dead before raising us up.

If that is the case, we are bound on the altar watching our Father holding a knife.

I will leave you with THAT pregnant pause…

FAT BEGGAR IN NOMADLAND

I watched the new Frances McDormand movie a few days ago.  Like so many movie reviewers (I am not one), I liked it.  I think it is well done.  I recommend it.  However, I didn’t think there was much of a plot to the drama.  None of that usual stuff where the protagonist must resolve some conflict, where the protagonist gets frustrated trying to resolve it, and then finally at the climax resolution is achieved. Instead, the protagonist, Fern, pretty much just circles the societal drain and we watch her slowly disappear from being a working/middle-class, proud American to becoming homeless in a van.

It’s a shame.

I will not say more about the movie.  Yes, I recommend it, but it’s not a fun flick.  I expect it is eye opening, though.  I recognize in it a reality I have l seen a little, and heard about some, and sensed mostly.  In fact, I have relatives who seem to be slipping off into Nomadland too, and I found the movie to be heartbreaking as I could see my loved ones trying to make the most of homelessness and hold on to their pride at the same time.

No.  Instead of talking more about the movie per se, I want to use it as a starting point, since I think it highlights a societal trend which for many has, up until now, gone unseen.  A lot of Americans worked decent jobs, worked hard, raised families, not only got educated themselves, but put kids through school, drove fine cars, lived in decent houses in nice neighborhoods, and now find the social security isn’t helping, the pension isn’t enough, or worse, retirement just never was quite well thought out.

What do you do then?

Well, obviously trimming down your life is going to happen.  Moving into a van or a camper/RV is an option for many.  Spending your “golden years” drifting the American highways, rootless, and rambling.  Some in high style, some in low.  But all cut loose from “the American Dream” they worked so hard for.

That is a story few want to tell.

Okay… I will say this about the movie: Fern, at one point, is confronted by friends as being “homeless.”  She insists she is not “homeless” but “houseless.”  (I know, I know… I said I wouldn’t talk about the movie anymore.  Sue me!)

I remember when Hurricane Katrina ran people out of Louisiana in droves, and many of them came to Lubbock for extended stay.  They didn’t want to be called “refugees,” but I had thought that was pretty much a textbook definition of the word.  “Victims” want to be “survivors” and on and on it goes.  There is some stigma that goes with shame and humility that we Americans resist, and I think all that resistance is covering for a lie we tell ourselves.

I am not against dignity, and I figure there are points where choosing terms and labels very accurately is important, but if all we are doing is resisting humility, we are advancing a lie.  I will embrace the term “bum.”  The only term I resist is “the N-word,” and that is because of the hate and hostility wrapped up in it.  But like many black people who embrace and use it as a subversion, I will embrace the shame of the terms used for me – especially if they can be deemed accurate.

Here’s why (and let me expose the lie): We are all, for the most part, homeless.

The American Dream (which is not strictly well defined, but I take in a general sense typically involves owning a house (one we call “home” in particular)) has justified greed and misshaped human relations despite itself in subtle but enormously powerful ways for generations.  I don’t mean to suggest that the American Dream is just rotten to the core or that it alone is a dastardly lie that single-handedly destroys civilization.  Not at all.  But it is full of cancer and plays a major part among other social ills.

Before I lose you outright with that statement, please hear me out.  I don’t believe for a moment that a life of hard work oriented toward owning a home is bad – in and of itself.  On the contrary, that is the good part, insofar as I just put it.  So, I reckon I need to disentangle some parts of the overall phenom.

Where to start?

Well, let’s go back a moment and look at the movie again.  (Hmmm… just can’t let it go…)  Well, not the movie exactly, except to note that all these people in Nomadland are cruising the highways and byways of America on wheels.  The lifestyle has its perks!  It certainly is adventurous!  You get to see a lot of fine country and meet a long of interesting people, and a lot of other things too.  But, the movie explores how dark and overwhelming the dark side of all that is.  But it also looks at people who have pretty much reached retirement age and find their options severely limited.

What about the young and middle-aged, career, long-haul truck drivers?  These people drive trucks for a living, most of them with “sleeper cabs,” and use truck stop facilities like a lifestyle.  Even have their own country music sub-genre.  These folx “leave home” for extended periods over the course of a lifetime.  Kids growing up practically in single parent homes.  Absentee fathers (and mothers sometimes too).

What toll does that nomadic life take on the people living through it?  Even if they retire to enjoy “golden years” in a nice house with a picket fence in a nice neighborhood, there is a price to be paid there which has subtly eroded the very dream it built!  It’s hard to see when you only measure the success or failure through a financial lens, but if you adjust your eyes to it, some of this comes into focus pretty quickly.

How many long-haul trucker marriages end in divorce?  Which came first? The truck stop hooker or the divorce?  Hmmm…

I don’t mean to disparage the whole profession or the people who do a fine job of working it, but there are some trends there that cannot be denied.

And that is not exclusive to truckers by any stretch.  If we ditch the wheels, we can ask about sailors, soldiers, pro ball players, district managers and the like.  I once worked with an engineer who served General Motors by doing extreme weather testing of R&D vehicles which dictated he live in Arizona all summer and Michigan all winter!  He didn’t uproot his kids out of school twice a year, but he went months without seeing them each year!  But they lived in a nice house!

At what spiritual, personal, and relational cost?  Is this the way God created his world to be live in by us?

But what about those people who don’t “leave home” professionally for more than a few hours every day?  My doctor lives in a fine house in a very nice neighborhood, and her office is only six miles away from it.  The American Dream seems to be working pretty good for her and her family.  Their name is Jones, by the way, and so you might have been trying to keep up with them.

Nice Christian people that I admire and hold in high regard, but having visited their huge house, I wonder how “healthy” my doctor and her family is in all that square footage with a four car garage, a swimming pool out back, five bedrooms AND a guest room, three of which have private bathrooms attached, not counting the toilet adjacent to the billiard room, the guest bathroom in the main hall, or the toilet/shower in the pool house out back.  Each room has at least one television, I have noted three computers, not counting tablets and laptops, three fire places (one in the master bedroom) and… and… and… on and on I could go.  Their laundry room has two washers and two dryers!  To walk from the billiard room to the dining room is no less that 100 paces!

Each child has their own room with their own computer and TV. They each have their own phone.  They go to church together on Sunday morning, but they take two cars usually, and when they come home, they split up, each to their own rooms/activities.  If Dr. Jones cooks supper on a Tuesday night and wants to call the kids to come and eat when it is ready, she finds it is easier to just call or text them on their phones than to call out to them or walk around the house to find them.  You couldn’t hear her hollering from the kitchen in the back bedroom anyway.

Now, all of that sounds like American Dream and ideal to me until I ask if it is natural. Again, did God have this lifestyle in mind?

Do you know that in other cultures and throughout history that most families lived in homes with only one or two rooms?  They usually had several kids too – none of this 2.6 kids stuff!  No.  You might have four or five, but you also might have eight or nine!  You might also live in the same house all your life!  Two or three generations of family all under one roof!  And they didn’t get up in the morning and head off to different schools and places of employment either.  No.  The women and girls tended to stay close to the laundry and the kitchen; the men and boys tended to go to the field or the mill together as a family.  Dad or Grandpa was the boss!  You didn’t earn a paycheck, your whole family earned a living together.

Yes, there were sailors and soldiers and traveling merchants in those days too, but those folx were not the norm!  By far, most peasants lived and worked in the village they were born in, and many of them barely traveled, even for leisure.  Most of this kind of lifestyle I write of here remained in tact in some form or fashion all the way through the agricultural and agrarian societies of 150 years ago.  From the beginning of time until the Industrial Revolution!

I’m starting to think that the benefits of the Industrial Revolution (and that wasn’t perfect either, btw) created a bubble of wealth that is now popping worldwide for most societies, and there seems to be a sense of evolutionary inevitability to it, I fear.

Our white, middle-class kids each going to their own room inside the fine house we call a home, closing the door and having PRIVACY with 400 channels of TV programing, the internet, and sexting and cyber bullying eroding their sense of humanity all the while receiving the Reader’s Digest, and Good Housekeeping seal of approval which makes American Evangelicals think God Blessed America seems riddled with cancer in my book.

Blessing?

Well… yeah… sorta.  A mixed bag, actually, and with some really dark crap mixed in it.  I mean, when your 14 year old daughter meets a predator on line and slips out her bedroom window in the night to go run off with him, and the first you know of it is when the detectives from the local PD tell you a day later, your American Dream has become an F-ing nightmare, but you have no idea who to blame except the creep to took off with your kid.  But how do any of the men and boys “out there” grow up in this mix and not face demons?  If you have an inclination to be creepy even a little (and we all have SOMETHING), where is the resistance to indulging such whims?

And the anonymity of us all!

And if you think my long winded exploration of this Nomadland has come close to exhausting all the possibilities, think again!

Our nation fights wars to protect this American Dream we have ill-defined before us.  We kill people so that we can keep the price of gas under $20 a gallon!

So, we have this dream.  Many of us even have these fine houses.  But I think we have been slow-lobster-cooking in homelessness a long time before we hit the streets.

When, in the movie (again), Fern is confronted with her “homeless” situation and she tries to protect her pride by redirecting her friend to call it “houseless,” I think the more honest thing she coulda/shoulda said is, “Actually, you are homeless too.”

Of course, that wouldn’t make sense to an American who hasn’t thought the kinds of thoughts I explore here in this post, but once you peel back the façade, it’s not that hard to see.

If my post here sparks any thoughts for you, I hope you will see the movie (on HULU) and maybe join the conversation here in the comments.

Let’s talk…

BEARING THE IMAGE OF GOD AT THE PLACE OF PAIN AND DESPAIR TODAY

You might read here a long time without realizing that I am Catholic.

Well, I am not a “good Catholic” to be sure.  Not a particularly bad one either, but not a good one.

I am BOTH Catholic and Protestant.  There is a LOT there worthy to note, but I am not posting about that today.  But I sense that the part of me that is Catholic is very excited today.

I am excited for Pope Frances visiting Iraq.  I have mixed feelings about the crowds exposed to COVID, and I surely hope they observe caution.  But something bigger than a basketball game, a spring break, or motorcycle rally happened there today.  One of the most humble popes of all time went to the place of pain and despair and worshiped with the humble Christians there.

This humble, limping, man of God came to pray where ISIS did it’s worst, and sought peace and charity with Muslims right at the blood stained sites of modern day crucifixions.  (I saw a real crucifixion portrayed on CNN in 2014, aired before the newscasters had a chance to sanitize the images we see.)

I think this was easy for us American types to miss and underappreciate.  In fact, I am quite certain that I underappreciate it.

But I want to AT LEAST bookmark the event here now.

I hope to reflect further on this in the future.

Thank God for this powerful moment in church history!

UNDERCOVER LORD

You have heard it said, “Overlord,” but I say to you under Lord.  

You have heard it said, “Undercover Boss,” but I say to you undercover Lord.  

Overlord.”  It’s a movie, a book, a major WWII battle codename, and (lesser known to most of us today) a feudal-system designation for an authority figure who calls up troops when he wants to fight.  Jesus is known, of course, as “Lord of lords” but not “overlord” and is significantly not like any overlords.  The Gentiles lord it over others, and without that fact, there would be no overlords.

Undercover Boss.”  This is a TV show with heart that stretches the imagination.  Hmmm…  (By the way, “boss” is synonymous with “lord” or “sir,” in case you didn’t already know it.)  To be sure there are differences as well as similarities between the concept of “Undercover Boss” and Jesus, but perhaps the similarities should be contemplated.

Your Undercover Lord, unlike any overlords, comes to you in humility.  It’s not exactly a disguise, but his humility is likely to make him a challenge to recognize.

You really might not know the day of your visitation!

One thing for sure, we need consistently to keep in mind that when we talk about our Undercover Lord, we are looking through a paradox.  Jesus is the Boss of undercover bosses; Jesus, the Lord of lords, is thus the Lord of overlords. (Every knee will bend!)  But even more, he is the Underlord of overlords.  He is both over us AND beneath us, and if we are not very careful, beneath our contempt.  He is the Lion we behold as the lamb standing as though slain.  Layers upon layers of irony.  A paradox.

You have heard Morpheus say, “Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” but I tell you God will have it BOTH ways.

A Lion appearing as a lamb is whiplash enough.  Standing as though slain is like compound interest on the irony.  But as Lion and Lord, he is in charge over EVERYTHING.  It turns out there are dimensions of humility that, though easy to discount, remain stubbornly more important than anything else we value.

Look how the four canonical gospels introduce Jesus:

Mark depicts Jesus blowing in from the desert, almost like the Stranger with no name.  Where did he come from?  Where does he go?  Only the Spirit knows, but if you are willing to face the humiliation of running to Galilee on Sunday morning, rather than defending Herod’s temple, you just might find him there.

Luke’s Jesus has a real birth narrative, but my God is that ever humble!  He is contrasted with the great Augustus, born into a world where even among his own people, here is no room for him and he makes his bed where animals eat.  The Host of Heaven opens to worship him, but it’s smelly, lowly shepherds who are invited to join as the world seems too busy to notice.

Matthew’s Jesus is introduced with a very Jewish genealogy, but it highlights the sins of the people and features women with questionable pregnancies.  (Most kings have their genealogies edited to prevent that!)  Foreigners come to worship him by way of astrology, and his own people (the king of the Jews, at least) seek him only to kill him.

John’s Jesus too gets something of a birth narrative in heavenly, poetic language, and is obviously anchored to Genesis, but we are told “his own did not receive him,” and we are left to wonder if they ever do or will.

This is the Undercover Lord.  This is how he comes to us.  This is how we might not know the day of our visitation.  And that is ONE LAYER of irony.  ONE LAYER which mystifies us.

I frequently think of Joan Osborne’s 1995 radio hit song One Of Us where she asks “What if God was one of us?” in poetic, rhythmic, even apocalyptic language.  Thought provoking to say the least.  Irreverent, since she says, “just a….”  I mean, if God is a slob like one of us, that seems very near to the humiliated, biblical account.  But to say “just a slob like one of us” is irreverently reductionist.

This is where we start getting into OTHER LAYERS of irony.

Right at the point where the church, the people of God, come to contemplate, to meditate, and to celebrate the birth of Christ (most especially at Christmas, unlike I am doing today) and to stage nativity scenes, put on pageants and plays, and to even try to recreate the lowly experience in staged fashion, we come to our staged productions with warm cocoa and ear muffs, driving Cadillac and Lexus, joined by other white, middle-class Americans all well insulated from the poor, the homeless, the beggars and the “slobs like … us.”

Yes.  That’s more than just one more layer too.

What if God was one of us, just a Stranger on a bus?  What if he looked to you like nothing more than a stranger trying to make his way home?  What will Undercover Lord find you doing?  Thinking?  Saying?

Are you even on the bus?  Are you sitting there a couple seats away diverting your eyes from him?  Do you have your earphones on and your eyes looking out the window on the day of your visitation?

Are you talking on your phone, looking and sounding too important to notice him?

Are you in that Lincoln driving by?  Not even on the bus at all?

Do I make it seem like it’s a sin to drive a Lexus and not ride the bus?  (I didn’t say that.)  Let me ask this: Do you ever, EVER, ever drive your Cadillac down to the bus stop and seek out strangers and slobs?

Or do you never, EVER, ever recognize the day of your visitation?

Is it possible to miss the day of your visitation while, WHILE, while having a heartfelt touching moment right in the middle of the Christmas candlelight vigil?

How’s that for ironic?

You do know, don’t you, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God?  Yes.  He says it is very hard for the rich to enter!  VERY HARD!  Gospel truth, that is.

So, are you finding it easy?

Do you think there might be a need to reassess the day of your visitation about now?

I wonder.

In the TV show, the last segment of each episode depicts a REVELATION.  That bumbling flunky you thought was “just like one of us” is really the CEO of the company.

In the TV show, the undercover boss usually has learned some things.  He has learned the deep, deep value of at least a few of his underpaid, underappreciated, overworked employees.  He brings his reward with him for those individuals.

Along the way, in the TV show, the undercover boss usually has learned where some logistics and processes need to be improved and will save money AND trouble for his underlings.

He has also had a very candid interaction with one or two employees who disrespect him, cheat him, or need some discipline to straighten up and fly right.

In all of these cases, the underlings did not recognize the day of their visitation, but integrity meets integrity, and some deep things which had been broken get repaired.  It leaves the viewers with a good feeling.  Something is morally right now which wasn’t quite right before.

And that TV show, on its best day, is a dim parody of the love of the Undercover Lord.

Meanwhile, we have an American church (not exclusively American, but especially American, I think) which in some truly ironic ways is spiritually lording it over the others – something about which Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you.”

When the apocalypse is unveiled at the last segment of Redemption, I expect that the church is coming up for some hard, disciplinary review before the Undercover Lord.

Take heed.

Repent.

The Kingdom of God is at hand!

(I might have read that somewhere.)

DR. SEUSSGATE

Funny… (and I don’t mean “funny ha ha” or “funny queer” either one*, but otherwise a good word for it) … but just the effort to deal with racism uncovers double standards.  I mean, the very effort to correct a double standard highlights (maybe even creates or legitimates) double standards.  How to extract this stuff?  I don’t exactly know.  But I have a guide to take me through it, I believe.

I want to try.  I want to try to work through this stuff.

Does Dr. Seuss harm anyone? REALLY???

Well, yeah.

Does Dr. Seuss harm YOU?

Depends on who YOU are.

But, yeah…  He harms everyone at least a little and at least indirectly.

Hmmm…

Should we burn our Dr. Seuss books?

I don’t think so.

Should we pull down Confederate monuments?

I do think so.

Hmmm…

Do I seem confused?

I think so.  But I am not confused YET. There are layers to this where I run out of clear answers, but I haven’t got that far YET.

Are you confused?

By my words on this?

Well… let’s take care here…  Let’s step lightly and be ready to amend and modify our thinking here.

Hey.  I have FEELINGS.  Sometimes my feelings get hurt.  Sometimes that is by design and sometimes it’s unintentional.  Sometimes even unnoticed by others, both bystanders and perpetrators.  Sometimes the hurt is a big deal, sometimes not.  Sometimes the hurt feelings aren’t too much an issue except at the accumulative effect.  How do I sort all that out?

Hmmm…

Sometimes those hurting my feelings need to be confronted.  Sometimes the confrontation should lead to conviction and repentance.  Sometimes, I am hypersensitive.

What about Huckleberry Finn?

Why does Mark Twain get a pass with his use of offensive language, but Shania Twain does not?

Do we need to burn Mark Twain books?  Do we need to pull down Confederate monuments?

Where is the redeeming value and how should we handle it, assuming we find it?

Lotsa questions!

But here is the little slice of the whole thing I see in the conversational pie, but which I don’t find anyone else chewing on:  Dr. Seuss’s people (I don’t know the people in charge of his publications, but they seem to be soul-searching types) have decided to repent and discontinue a FEW of his books.  This, of course, complicates things at yet another level since the decisions made on this are not made by Dr. Seuss himself, but others acting on his behalf.

For my purpose here, I will treat this instance as if we were hearing from Dr. Seuss, the man, himself.

Dr. Seuss is getting blow back for his decision to discontinue his use of offensive language.  His original use of language in at least some instances appears to have operated on a double standard.  Now, the remedy is to stop using that language.  He is FREE to stop using such language, and I believe should be applauded for the effort.  So, why would ANY FREEDOM-loving person blow back on this FREEDOM to stop offending?

Does FREEDOM require I offend others in order to be FREE?

That seems like a level of the problem going missed here.

Are there differences between books and monuments?

Uh… yeah.

Do those differences warrant different standards?

Hmmm…

I think so, but they still need to face the same sensitivity.

My thought is that moving monuments to museums and off the boulevards and avenues makes for an interesting compromise.  IF there is any value – any redeeming value – in the monuments, a museum surely protects that while addressing the hostile offense.

I have children of color growing up in my home that certainly add a sense of urgency to the sensitivities I was already supporting.  I don’t want my child of color to be one of the few kids (or the only one) in the third grade to be called upon to read aloud a passage from Huck Finn or Dr. Seuss.  I think THAT parades the problem like a monument, but does so in a classroom.  Yet, I don’t want to burn all the copies of Huck Finn or Dr. Seuss either.  My kids, by the way, love to Hop On Pop!

Hmmm… so maybe there is value in our “heritage” despite its problems. (But it certainly has problems!)

If burning the books were the right answer, I would need to burn my grandparents at the stake for their offensive language, but I happen to find quite a lot of redeeming value in them.  (RIP, grandparents!)  Even I have uttered offensive language on occasions which I am ashamed of, and don’t want to suffer any more than the shame I already suffer over that.  I hope there is redeeming value in me too.

I don’t know how to handle Huck, not really.  But I suspect that he has a future in a college classroom for sure.  I figure he belongs in a museum.  And I figure, ironically, Huck has done a lot, actually, to help create the sensitivity he currently offends.  I think Huck is a stepping stone on a path we largely have passed by now.

But that is just my humble thought on it.  I am not an educator.  I am not too deeply invested in THINKING about Huck or Seuss.  It is not my profession.  I am not an expert.

But, I think the way forward is with LOVE.  And I do give a LOT of thought to that.  I love Dr. Seuss.  I think Seuss has a place in my life and in my family.  If a few of his books and words drift to the edge of history, I am okay with that.  I certainly appreciate the concern he shows in repenting.  I think THAT has value for all of us.  And I don’t feel threatened by his sensitivity; I feel hopeful for it!

I hope that people of color will be forgiving.  I need their grace.  But I think my culture should be confronted.  We need to LOVE, and our insensitivity is not loving.  Conviction and repentance is in order along with forgiveness.  There will be missteps even with THIS, but they will be corrected too as LOVE is our guide.

I am pretty firm on that.

*  I take this line from Sling Blade.  A movie which explores offense in that fine-line walk I think needs to be considered in this post.