Saturday, August 14, 2021

Striking Malchus : On the Perils of Prayerless Militancy

"Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.)  Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" John 18:10-11

 The arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his betrayal by Judas, is for me, one of the most tragic scenes in Scripture. It's interrupted by a curious little scuffle between Peter and Malchus, the high priests servant, which brings some brief comic relief to the tragedy. 

Either Peter was a poor swordsman or Malchus was good at ducking, but I doubt Peter was aiming for his ear. Jesus rebukes Peter, tells him to put his sword away and promptly heals the servants' ear. I have some questions about this scene. Was there a brief search for the missing ear? Did Jesus clean off the blood and  mud before sticking it back on? Did it fit on properly or a bit skew? I'm curious. 

Whatever the case, while Peter's intentions may have been noble in protecting Jesus, his approach was as poor as his aim. He was tone deaf as to what Jesus actually needed him to do. Jesus did not need a militant bodyguard at this time. He needed Peter to be a resilient disciple who would support him in his resolve to drink the cup the Father had given Him, and follow him in the way of the cross. Instead, Jesus had to clean up Peter's militant mess. 

Until recently I had never made the connection between Peter's inappropriate militancy and his sleepiness just hours before in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus had warned his disciples to, "Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation." He had not asked them to pray for Him. He had asked them to pray for themselves. Three times he had returned from his own prayer to find them sleeping, Peter included.  Isn't there such a stark contrast between Peter's spiritual passivity and his inappropriate militancy in the Garden of Gethsemane? He has done exactly what Jesus had warned him about. He has fallen into temptation and acted rashly in the flesh because of his prayerlessness. Peter must have been so disappointed at the healed ear and the rebuke. After all, he was just trying to serve Jesus! 

Now I want to draw a parallel between Peter's inappropriate militancy and what I have seen in the Church these past two years of social and political upheaval. I am going to make a statement that is clearly a generalization. I want to qualify it by saying that there are some notable exceptions, but by qualifying I do not want you to lose the force of my conviction in the statement. Here it is. 

I have found, that by and large, the most causally militant Christians tend to be the most spiritually passive.  They tend to be immature, lacking in spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Bible and fellowship. They are generally poor at receiving counsel from leaders or mature disciples in the church. They are hard to mobilize to service and mission. Yet suddenly, from this place of spiritual passivity, they are awakened to swashbuckling militancy in the Name of Christ. They think they are serving Jesus, but it actually results in a bloody mess that Jesus then has to clean up!

The cause differs. Some get militant about masks. Others about no masks. Some get militant about their chosen political party. Others get militant about their chosen conspiracy theory. Some get militant about getting the vaccine. Others get militant about not getting the vaccine. But almost without fail, the most militant people I know around these causes are some of the most spiritually passive. Their militancy is not a calling birthed out of prayer. It is a temptation birthed out of prayerlessness. It is a militancy marked by outrage and unreasonableness.  Like Peter, their militancy may mean they are just steps away from a complete denial of Jesus. 

Please note, I am not suggesting that we should not have strong convictions. All of us need to wrestle our way to conscience and conviction around masks, vaccines, race, politics and a whole slew of other disputable matters. I am also not saying that there are not just causes to fight for. However, unless our just causes are birthed out of prayer with other disciples we will get into the flesh and strike Malchus again.

The historic connection between justice and prayer in the Church is intriguing. William Wilburforce and his fight to abolish slavery, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fight against Nazi Germany, Martin Luther King and his fight to end racial discrimination;  all had different and just causes. However,  all their movements had one thing in common. They were birthed and sustained in prayer amidst authentic Christian community. 

Let's beware of striking Malchus out of prayerless militancy.  

And let's not be tone deaf to what Jesus requires of us which is to follow Him in the way of the cross.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Trigger Warning : exploring the popular use of a loaded saying

  "I feel so triggered right now."

This has become an all-too-common saying in our time and place, one that describes a visceral reaction to something or someone. 

While the concept of triggering has therapeutic roots, it has become so popularized in this cultural moment that we have lost the true weight of its origin. It is one of those great American colloquialisms that subtly shapes our ways of thinking and being. It is even used in a derogatory way when people seem too fragile to see or hear something of an extreme nature. You may hear something like, "Trigger warning for snowflakes!" 

While I can appreciate the term, it has become for me, a loaded saying that trivializes real trauma and rationalizes retaliation.  

Sarah Holland, a clinical psychologist with the Viva Center defines the concept of triggerring as follows.  "When we experience a traumatic event, our brains activate the more primal parts of our nervous system. This initiates our “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions, heightening our senses to help us survive; heart rate and breath quicken, the stomach clenches, and the body shakes. This animalistic, emotional part of the brain overrules other brain processes in favor of survival. We stop processing information and storing it in our brains as linear memory. Rational thought halts as the body readies for action."

Think of a veteran who suffers from PTSD hearing an explosion, triggering a reaction where they dive for cover. Consider an abuse survivor who watches a movie depicting similar abuse and experiences flashbacks or dissociation that causes them to relive their trauma. Triggering is real and in this sense the term proves helpful category that creates empathy for people's otherwise inexplicable reactions. 

Trivializing Trauma

More recently though, the common use of triggering has trivialized real trauma, taking on a meaning more akin to being upset, offended or disgusted. I've found it being used so easily by friends, colleagues, and have found myself using it myself from time time, in a way that is not actually true.  

In the situations I'm thinking of, it would have been more true to say, "I found myself reacting more angrily than I expected to your words," instead of, "Your words triggered me."

Or, "That movie scene caused a surprising fear in me," instead of "That movie triggered me." 

Am I being pedantic? In some senses I can understand its common use. The past two years have been traumatic for everyone in a sense. We all feel a bit triggered somehow. But there is a danger in the popularization of feeling triggered. Allow me to explain my caution with the term. 

Weaponized Emotions

In our culture of outrage, we can easily weaponize our emotions when we use the term triggered. By so doing, we rationalize retaliation. I mean, the very nature of the word triggered implies some kind of violent reaction. If a loaded gun is triggered, a bullet flies out of the chamber. To be triggered is not merely to feel something deeply, it is all too often to say or do something in reaction to that feeling. 

An involuntary reaction 

Moreover, because the term triggered is used in the passive form, it implies an involuntary reaction. Rather than say, "I was hurt so I retaliated," which accepts some responsibility, it implies that this reaction was something over which I had no control, much like the reflex of a nerve that has been touched. If I am triggered, I am therefore absolved of responsibility for my reaction, especially if it is retaliation.  

A hall pass from healthy discourse

Beyond retaliation, being triggered can rationalize our desire to take flight from people with ideas that make us feel uncomfortable. In his book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the mental fragility fostered by our education system that has disabled students from interacting with those who hold different ideologies from them. The concept of feeling triggered gives students a hall pass from healthy civil discourse that would otherwise build mental resilience. 

I'm afraid that until we start to take responsibility for our triggers instead of rationalizing them, there are going to be a lot of bullets flying around followed by avid claims of innocence. There may also be a lot of people retreating to hide in their ideological trenches. 

So, perhaps we need to find some practical ways in which to put our triggers on safety? 

This is not to suppress our emotions or ignore unjust treatment towards us. It is to take responsibility for our reactions even while we acknowledge what may have caused them.

 I recommend a few ways to put on our emotional triggers on safety.

  • Use the term more sparingly. If everything is a trigger, nothing is a trigger.
  • Before you use it, ask whether your motive is to absolve yourself of responsibility for retaliation.
  • Be more aware of your levels of emotional resilience. Are you more sensitive to things at some times than others?
  • Give a few trusted friends permission to call you out if they see you becoming over-sensitive or reactionary.
  • Resolve to sleep on it before responding to a potentially volatile situation. Most things can wait a night.
  • Pray through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which he calls us to turn the other cheek and pray for our enemies. Ask him for Him grace to do be a non-anxious presence.
  • Sit with the example of Jesus' betrayal and denial by his friends, His  false accusation at his trial and mockery at his crucifixion and ask for His Spirit to strengthen you in the face of treatment that would tempt you to retaliate.
  • Let's be gracious to those who are genuinely suffering from PTSD and triggering experiences. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

God's House never comes Turnkey

We've bought and sold a few properties over our twenty-seven years of marriage as we've moved from city to city and nation to nation. A couple were smaller apartments or condos that came turnkey. The term turnkey is realtor speak for brand new or move-in ready. No restoration or repairs needed. Simply turn the key and start living. 

Two of the properties though, were serious fixer-uppers, larger homes that needed plenty of work. They both had good bones, as they say, with great potential when viewed through a restorer's lens. We never had the money to get them to move-in ready condition up front, so we just got the keys and moved in, ready or not.  

My wife and I watch Chip and Joanna Gaines shows just shaking our heads with envy, wishing we'd had some experts like them to get our fixer-uppers turn-key before we'd moved into them. What a rush it must be to have that before banner rolled back and see the immediate after result of their craftsmanship?  But our aim was always to gradually restore the homes to their former glory and even improve on the originals, in order to enhance their beauty and value. 

 Our experience has become a powerful church metaphor for us. 

In our experience, God's house never comes turnkey

It's move-in ready or not.  

It's a fixer-upper's dream with no Chip and Joanna Gaines in sight. You're living on a perpetual building site. It's messy and uncomfortable. But the progress is beautiful and the end product satisfying because God keeps restoring His house. 

The Bible describes God's people as living stones in His house. "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:5)  This infers that God is always doing renovation projects on his house and that he moves His people around as living stones in order that His Spirit may indwell His spiritual house. This requires a sacrifice on our part, because each of us has been saved and set apart as priests by Jesus' to serve in His house. Mixed metaphors by the Apostle Peter, perhaps, but suffice to say that living stones have to be flexible and priests have to be sacrificial. I think that's Peter's point here.  

When we remodeled the kitchen in our current house we had to move our fridge and microwave into our dining room for three months. It felt horribly confined but so worth it in the end. Sometimes God will close down a part of his house and have us squeeze together in a more confined space while that room is being restored. People who expect their church to be turn-key tend to get disgruntled when God decides to do some remodeling and move the walls and the furniture around. But if we co-operate with our Great Architect we get too see His house more glorious than it was before. 

Every metaphor has its limits, of course, but this is one way to understand what is happening at present in the part of God's house called Southlands. While God graciously enabled us to extend a wing during Covid through the planting Southlands Santa Ana in January, our Whittier congregation endured numerous setbacks over the Covid season. These included more stringent limits on in-person gathering, the loss of their Sunday morning venue, the obvious challenges of online church  as well as numerous key members leaving the LA area. They remain a healthy and faithful community, but we have felt that they have needed both strengthening and a viable morning venue in order to be effective in their mission.

So, last Sunday we welcomed Southlands Whittier back to Brea for a season of refreshing and what we hope will be a relaunch in the Fall or early 2022.  In the meantime, Kevin and Shannon begin a 10 week sabbatical to rest and recalibrate after 6 years of faithful leadership. The congregation will continue doing small groups and outreach in Whittier and will also gather to worship in Uptown Whittier  on the third Sunday of each month at 5pm at Disciple Church. However, on Sunday mornings they will join with us at Brea. Let's make sure they feel like we are a home away from home for them. We also want to encourage people from other Southlands congregations to come out and bolster their monthly evening gatherings with faith and presence. 

In the mean time, we stand with so many churches around the world who have felt confined, displaced and discouraged in this season. God promised that He would restore His house not just to former glory, but to  greater glory.

  "The glory of the latter house will be greater than the glory of the former house." (Haggai 2:9)

This promises is an anchor for our soul as we stand amidst the rubble of God's restoration project. 

Because God's house never comes turnkey.