Image I: Power as Spiritual Danger
On break from college, after a hot day in construction, I came home to my parents’ house, exchanged my sweat-stiff work clothes for a swimsuit, and dove into their backyard pool.
Instantly my eyes went crazy, with flickering lines scrambled against the hot-red of my eyelids. My skin fizzed like an Alka-Seltzer tablet. My limbs felt stiff. The momentum of the dive took me close to the back edge of the pool, so that I could just manage to drag myself out.
Some rewiring had gone wrong; electric current was in the water.
That’s how I feel these days about earthly power flowing in the church. It’s a misplaced electric current. One example: I know a Christian Reformed pastor who was cornered by some of the wealthy men in his congregation. They told the pastor that if he did not stand fast in support of the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report, they would withhold their financial support. That happens to pastors, and on occasion, has happened to me.
That kind of use of power does not belong in the holy place of God. It may be the way the world works, but I am repulsed by it in the church. I’m not the only one. People sense unholy power; this is the core reason underneath all the other reasons why so many are abandoning the church.
Image II: Deadly Power and Hermit Crabs
When she was a kid, our daughter thought hermit crabs were cool. Well, happy birthday, honey. We went to the pet store, where they had decided to market hermit crabs by painting their shells bright colors. We took home four and soon learned hermit crabs are boring. They burrow into loamy, moist soil and then seem forever motionless.
After a month yawning over the same dirt, we dug the crabs out and discovered why they were motionless. All but one shell was empty! Hermit crabs (the store people conveniently forgot to mention) are territorial and cannibalistic; they drool at the smell of dead hermit crab flesh. At night, these guys, despite the happy paint, had emerged to do battle, dominate, and devour.
History is the story of monster hermit crabs. After a clash, the winner writes the story. The losers are devoured. The Apostle Paul calls the spiritual forces that animate this cycle “principalities and powers.”
When the church has become infatuated with earthly power, it betrays itself. It becomes an organism painted with “Happy Jesus” in bright colors while beneath the surface it is battle-prone and carnivorous. Caligula would be impressed.
Image III: Caligula’s Horse
Caligula is not the only Roman emperor who emerged from the dirt and laid hellish power bare before us, but he was exceptional. Not only murderous, Caligula also drank liquefied pearls and sprinkled his food with gold. He also fed gold to his favorite racehorse, Incitatus. He built Incitatus a house, staffed with servants, and planned to make his horse a consul of the Senate.
Caligula’s intention was to stick it to the aristocrats, who regularly denounced each other while bowing to the emperor, even as they looked for an opportunity to betray him. Since the aristocrats had bowed and scraped their entire lives to acquire wealth and power, Caligula wanted to show that he could snap his fingers and grant that lifestyle to – and bestow that same power upon – a horse.
We are to that point in American politics: All that bowing and scraping, and name-calling; the constant sewage-stream of lies that leave people confused and divided; all that domination and degradation, and the desperate grasping after earth’s power. One recent example: The racist flesh-feed surrounding two Black state representatives in Tennessee who were expelled by white representatives. In the process, it was revealed that a representative in that chamber had not so long ago urinated in another’s chair. Once things descend to that level, I say giving a horse a chance at governance is not such a bad idea. A horse, I’ll bet, can at least be house-trained.
You can decide who is more horse-ish, the Republicans or the Democrats. Either way, Caligula’s power-methodology is the way of fallen humanity; it is the brain-wave of hell.
Gary Larson created a Far Side cartoon, set in that place of flames and pitchforks. Two large demons are surveying their toiling, sweating minions, one of whom is passing before them, pushing a wheelbarrow, and whistling. One demon says to the other, “You know, we’re just not reaching that guy.”
I wonder if this is how the Roman Empire felt about Jesus and his followers. Jesus’ people had a different mindset; their hearts and their energies were transcendently other. They didn’t truck with power like the world did, nor grasp after the glory most humans had sold their souls to possess. They did not lie, bow, or scrape. They refused to degrade anyone. They accomplished cultural transformation through humility, compassion and service. This was a river, touching all things, creating life: the hope of the soul and Jesus’ method for the transformation of the world.
When Donald Trump, campaigning in 2016, said, “Christianity will have power again,” danger was in the water. Christians latched on and church people began either to exercise hostile power or acquiesce to earthly, even violent methods. Hell’s brain wave reached us quite easily.
In these times, a biblical something, a God something, enforced with hell’s attitude and methodology, is nothing more than the treasure-laden refuse spattered to the floor of Incitatus’s marble stall.
Image IV: My Son in Jail and the Flow of Sameness
My son keeps getting arrested. He is an environmental activist, and an advocate for justice. When treaties with indigenous peoples are broken yet again, when the planet is further endangered, and when lives are callously ruined, “water protectors” like him join in peaceful protest. (Please read “Seeing Red” by Tim VanDeelen)
My life, by contrast, has been one of obedient conformity. My son and his friends risk getting shot with rubber bullets. I mow and edge my lawn. My son shatters my status quo. Listening to his stories, and reading Even the River Starts Small, A Collection of Stories from the Movement to Stop Line 3, makes me wonder: Why does law enforcement in that region throw its power behind the business plans of an oil company? Why is the oil company buying machinery and equipment for those local police departments? The ancestors in my brain grumble about “Law and Order.” Yes, but who wrote the law and for whose benefit? A mega-company, governmental power, and the legal system are well-orchestrated and working in unison, as if to say, “Y’all just keep moving – nothing to see here. No racism, no people exploited, beaten, or sexually assaulted. No rights violated, no planet sucked dry and poisoned. Just keep those same old toxic fossil fuels, and their profits, flowing. No need to change anything.”
Hermit Crab Power is always drooling to get what it wants, and It will find a way. It all depends on the bulk of us acquiescing to the Almighty Flow, and Systems of Sameness. Those interlocking powers smile, slap the church on the back and say, “Yes, yes, of course you are free to worship! Preach your sermons, sing your songs!” They nudge and wink and say, “Make sure and tell Jesus how much we appreciate his support.”
When the church is burrowed into that bundle of principalities and powers, it has abandoned Christ.
My son chooses to live free of that bundle. He joins with other committed and vulnerable people, standing in the way of interlocking powers. They remind me of Tiananmen Square: Standing in front of a hermit crab tank, offering their willing and unprotected bodies against the machinery of hell on earth.
Image V: Personal Pride and Power
I was a nineteen-year-old volunteer in Texas, rebuilding houses after a tornado. Because I was long-term, I was appointed a crew leader, though I barely knew how to hit a nail with a hammer. With my new title, my head swelled like hot road-kill. Strapping on a freshly purchased tool belt, with blueprints in my hand, I proceeded to strut around and issue commands to seventy-year-old men who had been in construction all their lives. It felt good to tell other people what to do; I felt important. Even though every morning I said my prayers, with that tool belt on I became a horse’s ass. I caused a lot of pain. Especially to Richard.
Richard was a lifelong builder who had befriended me. He had even bought a brand new circular saw for me as a gift. When I became a prideful animal, Richard, with extreme gentleness, tried to talk to me. I marched away from his trailer, and then stomped back. I ripped open his door, threw the saw on the floor, and spat, “If that’s how you feel about it, you can have your damn saw back!” At the time, I considered myself a sincere, commandment-following Christian.
Long after Richard left, I came to my senses. I returned home, sought him out, and apologized. He was kind, but our relationship was over. Sometimes, not only with individuals, but with churches and denominations, a statement is made, and no matter what you do next, the damage is done. I was chastened – for life.
Observing some national church leaders today, watching hyper-religious people in national politics, reading the accounts of local religious zealots taking over school boards and county commissions, and listening to administrators and teachers in Christian educational institutions tell of vigilante surveillance by parents and students – that whole vicious vibe reminds me of my “Tyrannical Tool Belt Tantrum.” I know from experience what it is to believe you are doing something for God, when in fact you are captive to and motivated by your own pride, ego, and your personal need to boss people around.
A principality and power can hijack something as massive as a span of history, or a huge hermit crab like Caligula, or something as cold as a Tiananmen tank. It can be as small as a snarling insect, worming into your ear and taking over your mind. I know from catastrophic experience: There is no reasoning with it.
Image VI: Cockroaches for Jesus
A guy decided to eradicate the cockroaches in his rented apartment. He bought two dozen or so canisters of bug-killer – the kind where you push down the trigger, leave, and let the chemicals settle. It didn’t go too well: the pilot light on the gas stove ignited the fumes and the apartment building blew up. Remarkably, no people were hurt. No cockroaches were hurt, either. There they were, in busy abundance, crawling through the rubble.
It’s not nice to compare a Christian to a cockroach, but for me it’s an illustration of the lasting power of the people of Christ, standing with humanity in our common misery. All of earth’s empires crumble. Caligula’s did. I pray not, but possibly, someday, even the United States will crumble. The Apostle Paul taught that any religious system which humans have constructed with merely physical elements will disintegrate. Jesus told us that any religious power which has attached itself to the building blocks of an earthly nation will be left with not one stone standing an another.
All that endures are the compassionate, self-emptying deeds of the followers of Jesus. We fix our eyes not on earthly things, but eternal things. We crawl around between the jagged rocks, twisted metal, and smoking ruins of earth’s powers, and humbly tend to the weakest in the world – like Wendy. This is the true power of Jesus. Hell cannot reach it, and is defenseless against it.
Image VII: Wendy, Weakness, and True Power
Wendy (name changed), in her bed, was the very picture of what the world does not rush to see. One noticeable feature was the jagged, vertical scar on her forehead; she told me, “That’s from when I was a kid, when my dad hit me with an axe.” Now in her last days, cancer was only one health issue on Wendy’s list of comorbidities. In addition, Wendy was mostly deaf.
I knelt by her bed. She held out her hands; I took them. After I had bellowed a prayer, and bawled out, “AMEN,” she kept her hands open, and was silent. Then she said that during the prayer she had seen things – blue sky and sunshine. She said she missed human touch.
The next week, the head nurse, Lana, told me through tears that Wendy had died. Lana told me that she had been in a hurry to leave work one day, but she felt she should see Wendy. Wendy asked Lana for help with her hair, and then with her nails. “There!” Wendy said, settling her body. “Now I’m ready to meet Jesus.” She died that night.
While in Wendy’s room, I had noticed her church directory on her nightstand. It had her name in it, and a pastor’s name on it. There was church mail on the table, also – a newsletter, and an envelope with a fundraising request. The pastor, however, never visited Wendy. Nor did anyone else from the congregation. The same is true of almost all my patients, with rare exceptions.
As a hospice chaplain, I travel as much as two hundred miles a day to attend to outwardly-wasting-away people like Wendy. I pass all sorts of Christian enterprises, with their electric signs. They list their appealing attributes, and say, “Come Worship with Us!” I see their slogans, and their promises of transformative worship experiences. Yet, for all that neon-power and righteous energy, I think they’re overlooking someone. I think it’s Jesus.
Occasionally, a person from my former denomination becomes my patient and I see them neglected in the same way Wendy was. I see their church directories and I often know the pastor’s name. In one case, it is a pastor who has no time to spare for souls like Wendy because he is in meetings, planning how his cause can conquer. He is playing power games and counting synodical delegates like precious pearls. He is on a crusade, his donors are sated, he has the power and will to dominate, and he will win.
It all has the sensation of power in the wrong place. It looks like tool belt pride. These pastors and churches are like hermit crabs with a painted-on message, trying to make their way in the world like tanks. In fact, they are nothing more than Caligula’s horse.
A visit with Wendy pours contempt on all that pride. She was just one exhibit of a planet full of beautiful human weakness. Joining Christ there we may discover the true power of God. Only operating from within the rubble of such spaces, in the humble manner of Jesus, will the church transform the world.
Image VIII: Two Ships, Two Power Sources
I don’t remember the product, but I do remember the ad: A cloud-covered ocean, and a ship. Muscled, bearded, warrior-men are rowing, seated on wooden benches worn smooth and grooved by the butts of their forebears. There is a big drum and a drummer at the back of the ship, pounding out one low note, one sonorous rhythm. Always the same.
Then, the sound of marimbas! The musclemen turn to see another ship, dancing on the waves. The people on that boat are wearing brightly colored clothing. They are standing around with drinks in their hands, talking and laughing. The sun comes out. The second ship passes the rowers. The blasted thing has sails.
I have cited that ad in sermons over the years as an illustration of grace over law, or of faith versus “trying hard,” or of the power of the Holy Spirit surpassing human power. It is a picture of the realm of God. I want the ship with sails to be the church, making its way with a transcendently other source of power. It blesses me to think of Wendy, and everyone like her, who cannot row, still welcomed aboard.
I am rejecting the muscle men, their ship, their earthly weapons, their mammon, and their drummers. I am using what momentum I have to get out and away from any religion with hell-power in the water.
Jesus calls, “Come sail away!” My heart rises, and hopes to ride.