February 28

John Winthrop, American Prophet


“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity..

John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote these prophetic words in 1630. We may not know who he is, but we feel his influence in our culture every day. He’s the one who wrote (in the same document):

“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

It was Winthrop who instilled in us the idea that we are God’s chosen people.

But as his words above indicate, he also recognized that we faced the same dangers as the Israelites. Just because we were (in his view) chosen did not mean we were automatically good. He warned of worshiping and serving other gods, namely pleasure and profits.

Here we are in the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Winthrop wrote. Our national religion is capitalism. We rank ourselves by our income and our wealth. We shame the poor for not working hard enough. Our heroes are not martyrs or saints, but wealthy people: politicians, businesspeople, movie stars, and sports figures. Yet, at the same time, real economic advancement is more difficult than ever, and the percentage of people living in poverty is greater than at any time since 1965. Some 32% of those living in poverty have jobs. Yet we continue to cut taxes and complain about the burden of the poor, while the tax revenue we do collect goes overwhelmingly to the military.

I don’t think that’s what Winthrop had in mind. Take, for example, this except:

Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?

Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.

In other words, in ordinary times, we are to share our abundance freely with others, but not to the extent that he jeopardizes his family’s “comfortable subsistence.” In extraordinary times, we must do more, ruled by the need of others and not by our own needs. “A man cannot likely do too much.”

Winthrop’s position was based in the Bible, but his emphasis on charity stemmed from very pragmatic concerns: he saw that extreme divisions in wealth caused a destructive division in society. Those who were wealthy tended to look down on the poor, and the poor tended to resent the rich.

Fast forward to today: That’s pretty much what has happened.

In Winthrop’s day, and for the next 200 years, towns gave fuel, food, and money to their poor. It wasn’t until the 1850s that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland overwhelmed this system, and states became more involved. And yes, the Irish were hated just as much then as Muslims are today. Yet few would look back now and argue that we shouldn’t have helped them.

Now we live in a world in which half the population lives on $8 a day or less. Compare that to the median income of $75 per day per person for Americans. (Yes, this is adjusted to reflect pricing differences between countries, giving an “apples-to-apples” comparison.) No longer do the poor in America look like the poor everywhere else, in eorther numbers of quality of life, as they did in Winthrop’s day. We are the wealthy. What are we going to do about it?

If Winthrop was right, we have a covenant that calls for charity. Otherwise, we will lose this land.

February 26

Measuring the Church

I do model railroading as a hobby. My favorite part is building things: structures, bridges, and so forth. I love building a smaller (1:160) version of an actual building. But how do I know if it’s the same as the original? I have to measure it.

We use measurement almost everywhere. We measure our time, our income, and our weight. We measure the economy using GDP and unemployment. But something happens when we decide to measure something:

What we measure, we emphasize.

GDP, for example, measures total economic activity. It doesn’t take into account what is actually productive and what is wasted. So we maximize activity without looking at the quality of that activity. Unemployment measures the number of people looking for work, but not whether the rest have jobs, or how good those jobs are. Even our weight fails to tell us how healthy we really are.

What do we measure in our churches? Membership. Attendance. The size of the collection. We have three Scripture readings and five hymns. We know how long the sermon is supposed to be.

What did Jesus measure? We have no idea how many followers he had, nor does it appear that he used a collection plate. The Gospels put their emphasis elsewhere.

They measure faith. “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” (Matthew 17:20)

They measure the nearness of the Kingdom. “The Kingdom of God is near!” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:2)

They measure the number of people fed. (Mark 6, Mark 8)

The recount, and imply to be countless, healings, deliverances, and miracles.

They recount, and imply to be countless, moments of prayer and contemplation.

They measure the number of people who went out and did as Jesus was doing. (Matthew 10, Luke 10)

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) tells us to go forth, baptize, teach, and do what Jesus taught us to do. But how much does our ministry resemble his?

What we measure, we emphasize, and we don’t measure the same things.

February 25

Oh Proud Nation!

The Word came to me again:

Look at the proud nation! How they go here and there without a thought for those they trample underfoot. “I did this,” they say. “I made these riches.” Oh, you wicked, arrogant people, have you no shame? What you have, you were given by your Lord, or else you took from someone else. You have made nothing! You are but the image of the One that is, and even that you have forgotten! My son gave his life for you to save you from sin and even death. What do you give in return? You shield your eyes from the poor, call them criminals, and blame them for their poverty.

Hear this, oh proud nation: I do not know you! For you have strayed far from my teachings, and look only upon yourselves. You cry “Lord, Lord,” but you say it as if into a mirror. Save yourselves, then, if you think you can! Send forth your mighty armies, your riches, your bankers, and your politicians. See how they fare! Beat your brows upon the cliffs of the sea until you return to your senses, or until you drown.

Rebellious children, you do not hear the language of love. Listen then to the language of consequence. You will reap as you have sown. Your fields shall burst forth with weeds and thistles—eat them! Your cup will be of poisoned water—drink it. And your mattress shall be hard with the bones of those you have trodden in your quest for riches. See then how you sleep.

When you have had enough, when you are ready to hear, turn then back to me, for I have not yet given up my love for you. But know this: it is not I who punish you, but you who punish yourselves. No longer will I shield you, for you have become spoiled children who do not learn.

February 20

Enter Autism

I’ve posted in the past (here and here) about my struggles with mental health. During my adult life, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar, and psychotic episodes. All of these conditions “required” medication, which in every case made the problem worse. (Not to mention ten years of self-medication with alcohol, cocaine, and opiates, which nearly killed me.)

A year ago, our toddler (then 18 months old) was diagnosed with autism. It was too early then to assign a severity; he’s now been diagnosed Level 2 & 3– pretty severe. At the time, neither my wife nor I knew anything about autism.

My wife is quite the researcher, so she went to work. She would come back with these “revelations.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often can’t see faces?”

Me: “Wait, I can’t see faces.”

Her: “No, I mean they can’t read nonverbal cues, like even body language.”

Me: “Yeah, I can’t read body language.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often see the world in patterns or pictures?”

Me: “Um, that’s not normal?”

The more she learned the more I realized that there was something going on with me that I had never realized. In fact, I have most of the symptoms of autism (though some of them I’ve learned to manage fairly well).

For example, I’m face-blind. I recognize people by their voices, shapes, contexts, and hairstyles. I don’t read nonverbal cues. I have trouble identifying and expressing my emotions. I don’t read emotions well in others. I’m extremely sensitive to audio and visual chaos. (My wife says that what I call “chaos,” most people call normal sensory input.) I struggle with being aware of social appropriateness– I have a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and have no idea why it’s inappropriate. I tend to understand verbal expressions literally. (“Look at my face!” “OK, I did.”) I have no idea how to navigate a conversation with more than one person at a time.

It’s better now than it was when I was a child. I’ve learned to compensate in basic social situations. Still, when I read the DSM-V description of communications difficulties, I felt like they were writing about me:

A.      Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

1.       Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

2.       Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

3.       Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

I remember, when I was in elementary school, planning out conversations before I approached someone. I would think, “I’ll say this, and they’ll say that, and I’ll respond like this…” and so forth. I could never understand why conversations went off the rails or what to do about it. And I couldn’t understand why, in the middle of a softball game, the other kids didn’t want to hear about dinosaurs or math.

And yes, I do have repetitive behaviors, but they’re subtle. I didn’t even realize I was doing them until I learned what “stimming” was. I fidget with my fingers, play computer solitaire, and pace.

My mind sees the world in processes, so I strive to understand why something is true. That makes it difficult for me to learn disconnected facts, like vocabulary or names, but easy to learn grammar and dates. If I can fit it into a “system,” I can learn it. Abstract ideas tend to make my head hurt.

I often look at a situation and see patterns that are not obvious to other people. The most obvious example of this was my response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was the most written-abut war since World War II, and yet no one ever seemed to ask what made it tick. To me, that was the obvious question. I spent a year studying, interviewing, and analyzing, and came up with a paradigm that explained the political relationships that drove the war. This became the basis for the Peace Initiative that started in 1999, and eventually led to a Cease Fire Agreement in 2002 that lasted for six years.

I think this helps me be a good writer. I “see” the story that I’m writing before I begin. I may not have all the pieces yet, but I know where it needs to go. And I can see how the plot elements contribute to the whole (and what’s missing).

As I’m learning, autism offers challenges that have greatly affected my life. My adolescence was an extremely painful experience of isolation and feeling different from everyone else.

But it also offers some unusual benefits. I see the world differently than most other people, and that means I have something unique to offer.

February 19

Behold a Pale Horse: A Vision

I had planned to write a different blog post today. But I had this vision while at church this morning, and it seemed appropriate to change direction.

Behold a pale horse, and on it a black rider, and he came down from between the hills into the valley wielding a sword of fire.

(I had seen this once before, clearly echoing Revelation 6:8, about two months ago. It’s the first time a vision has repeated itself. But this time it continued.)

And there we were, our homes built on stone foundations, but they were made of wood and they could not withstand him. Our locks were of no value, nor were our fences. And all our weapons failed us, for there was only one weapon that could be used against him. That was the Sword of Righteousness, which is the tongue of Jesus. But who can wield it? For it feels strange in your hand. Would that, knowing this day would come, you had taken up that sword and made it your own! For the day is come, and what is not done will remain undone.

This I have revealed to you that you may do what must be done before the time is ended. For can you build a house by thinking about a hammer, or by showing it off to your friends and family? No, you must swing that hammer until it becomes part of your arm, your body, and your heart.

It is just so with the Word. Begin now, before that day comes, that you may be ready.

Until now, my visions have suggested a cyclical event (See the cycle of Judges, for example: “Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… and they abandoned the Lord…” Judges 2:11-12, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1 and so forth, after which the Israelites are first punished and then restored.) My previous visions suggest that we have strayed from the ways of the Lord, and we will be disciplined until we return to his ways.

This vision uses the term, “that day.” Does it refer to a final, eschatological event? Or is it the day on which our discipline comes? I’m not sure. In the context of my previous visions, I tend to think it’s the latter, but I could be wrong.

However, the message remains true to my previous visions, especially the one which assured that “Those who dwell in the Kingdom will not be harmed.” It seems obvious to me that to “dwell in the Kingdom” and to live out the Word “until it becomes part of… your heart” are one and the same command.

For those who may be reassured because they profess that Jesus is Lord, let me say that it seems clear to me that God is demanding more than lip service. To “dwell in the Kingdom” or to use the Word as a tool and way of life demands an outward expression of the Holy Spirit that is obviously lacking, else I wouldn’t be getting these visions. And I would add that personally I am not reassured. My outward expression is perhaps more than some, surely less than others, and I am not convinced it represents evidence of the radical change of heart God wants.

As I’ve written before, the existence of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 22:20, Hebrews 8:6-13) insists on a relationship in which both parties have responsibilities. We haven’t yet lived up to our part, and God is getting impatient.