“Detroit”

The new film Detroit is a mostly true rendition of an incident that occurred during the July, 1967, riots of the metropolis once proudly called The Motor City.  Kathryn Bigelow is a very good director and in this film she continues a legacy established in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  It seems odd that a woman would be Hollywood’s finest director handling realistic themes involving men and violence.  But that’s the case and in this flick she again succeeds brilliantly.

The crime the movie examines took place at an annex of the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967.  A number of Detroit policemen supported by Michigan State troopers and National Guardsmen stormed the motel thinking that sniper shots had been fired from this somewhat seedy establishment known for prostitution and drugs.

Inside the motel were a dozen or so people — black men, mostly young, and two 18-year old white girls. What is known is that no guns were ever found on the premises and three youths were shot to death in what appeared to be executions. The movie pivots on the brutal interrogation conducted by a 23-y.o Detroit cop who took charge in trying to find a gun and the alleged sniper. For me, his eager beaver, brutally self-righteous approach brought back bad memories of Lt. Calley and the My Lai massacre from the same era.

Three white Detroit cops and a black security guard were eventually brought to trial; however, as is so often the case, there were no convictions.

This movie is gripping but painful to watch. The young Brit actor Will Poulter is chilling as the racist cop leading the interrogation. John Boyega, another Brit, plays a conflicted black security guard who was also present at the annex.  John Krasinski, the film’s best known actor, plays the defense attorney who effectively casts doubt on the witnesses recollection of the night’s events. The action is underscored by vintage Motown sound tracks. In fact, two of the young men present at the Algiers were in a Motown band “The Dramatics” that later achieved some fame.

Beyond just the trial, the movie raises some troubling questions. Like why the state troupers and National Guardsmen didn’t intervene when it was apparent that the Detroit cops were over the top. Apparently the movie is supposed to convey some sort of message about bigotry.  However, for my money it might as well be a primer on how far we’ve come. Yes, the USA still has racial issues but nothing like 50 years ago.

At one time Detroit was the fifth largest city in this country and the world’s prime  industrial colossus. Today, it has less than half the population that it had in ’67 and many of its finest neighborhoods resemble a war zone with dilapidated burned out buildings and rubble strewn vacant lots. The movie points out that in ’67 Detroit was 40% black and the police force 95% white. Fifty years later Detroit is 82% black — a victim of white flight and an industrial complex that won the World War only to lose the peace to Japan.

The city of Detroit holds some cherished memories for me. I grew up 90-miles south of there in Ohio and my mother’s family had a boatload of relatives in the city.  In the 1950s we would go there once or twice a year and stay a week at a time with one of my great-uncles. It was a lovely, prosperous city back then. My maternal grandmother had three brothers and a sister who lived there.  Frank, Hub and John were all foremen at Ford’s River Rouge plant, at that time the largest industrial complex in the world. Her sister Margaret sold shoes in an upscale store and would note that hockey great Gordie Howe and author Ann Morrow Lindberg were her regular customers.

The 1950s and early-60s was an era of working class prosperity so grand that it is almost mythical today.  A Joe-average hard-working guy with a 10th grade education and some mechanical ability could work his way up from the assembly line to tool and die maker or foreman.  On an hourly wage he could provide a comfortable lifestyle for a stay at home wife and several kids — a new car every three years and every summer a vacation out west or to a lake cottage. That scenario pretty much fit my great-uncle’s families.

Back in the mid-50s Detroit was more than just prosperous — it was also safe.  When I was about 12, and my cousin Larry Murphy 14, we took several buses downtown and then got on the ferry boat to Belle Isle amusement park in the Detroit River. At the end of the day we rode the buses back to uncle Hub’s house on Stopel just blocks over from the neighborhood main drag of Frankel. Today, that same trek would be thru streets resembling a third world city and a parent would be charged with neglect if they allowed their kids to make that journey without adult supervision.

There’s an iconic meme I’ve seen several times on Facebook. It’s four pics: Detroit in 1945 vs. Nagasaki in 1945, and Detroit today contrasted with the vibrant city that Nagasaki is today — so stunning one would never guess who won WW2.  The movie Detroit captures the era when that city’s past was becoming its present.

 

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“The Glass Castle”

The Glass Castle is a heart-wrenching film about family — the tidal pull of an extremely dysfunctional family on its adult children.  It is a true story written by the eldest of four survivors of neglect and abuse by a drunken, likely bipolar father.  Jeannette Walls published the memoir of her childhood in 2006.  She was a columnist for New York Magazine for many years.

Rex Walls was a strong and angry man running from both the tiny hamlet of Welch, West Virginia, and his own inner demons. He was the victim not only of poverty but also maternal sexual abuse. When he was right he was a charming dreamer — and in a way, brilliant. The “glass castle” were drawings on graph paper that he worked on for many years. It was a sort of solar powered glass mansion that was his someday dream home. Apparently an auto-didact, he imparted to his children lessons on nature, physics, astronomy and politics.

His wife, Rose Mary, was a dreamy, impractical artist who believed in him and put up with his drunken rages and eccentricities.  She was almost an archetype for classic codependency.  Her life revolved around Rex and his life orbited alcohol and his grandiose dreams. They had a pathological chemistry.  As survivors tend to do, the kids bonded deeply, and with Jeanette’s guidance, to an extent reared themselves. Much of their childhood was spent roaming the country squatting in abandoned spaces and camping out of the back of a beat-up ’55 Ford wagon.

Rex taught his kids to be fearless and independent.  In one especially poignant scene he nearly drowns a terrified Jeanette teaching her to swim.  He wanted his offspring to run toward life and to fear nothing. He carried the fierce independence and unwillingness to take crap from the higher ups of the world that is in the DNA of many folks from Appalachia, and in several scenes Rex goes off on drunken rants about the anonymous bankers and captains of industry who control the world and oppress the rest of us.

When Rex and Rose Mary finally run out of money and hope they reluctantly return to Welch, West Virginia and the pathological family that Rex had spent his life escaping.  He endures terrible DTs to sober up, gets a job, and there’s an brief idyllic interlude of familial joy — of course, that just prefaces an inevitable relapse.

Eventually, the kids one by one escape West Virginia and make their way to New York City.  The parents follow them and live as squatters in an abandoned building, dumpster diving for sustenance. I found Rex and Rose Mary following their children to New York terribly poignant — clinging, not so much as leeches, but simply to be close to those they loved and who represented their life’s only good fruit.

The film has a few flaws–but really minor when weighed against its impact.  Rex’s family tread close to being hillbilly caricatures and Woody Harrelson’s performance is just a tad overacting bit shy of brilliant. But it is a career defining film for him and will likely earn him an Oscar nomination.  Naomi Watts as the mom and prior Oscar winner Brie Larson as the adult Jeanette are also very good.  The four kids who play the Wall children are terrific — redheaded cute, vulnerable and wide-eyed.

The Glass Castle is real. It’s how life really is. It’s how it is and has been for many of us reared by parents who truly loved us but were conflicted and unable to fully transcend their own pasts. It made me cry.

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Transitions: Phase Four

A few days ago Northland, A Church Distributed, announced that Dr. Joel Hunter was stepping down as Senior Pastor. He served in that role for 32 years. For 24 of those years I have been a steady congregant. About eighty percent of what I know about being a Jesus-follower I have learned at Northland and from Dr. Hunter.  His rich sermons have been incorporated into my books and blogs.  Of course, I understand that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the whole deal — me showing up there to meet my friend Nancy on May 2, 1993, and hearing a sermon meant especially for me. That’s how God works — He creates hungry people and then points them towards bread.

In resigning, Dr. Joel said, “My call to the pastoral role in a church is fulfilled.” That had an odd sound to it and I kept rolling it around in my thoughts. I’d have rather heard, “I’m old, I’m tired, I don’t want to do this anymore.”  His “fulfilled” statement was followed by church-speak boilerplate about being excited about new directions, etc. . . blah, blah, blah.  Though I’ll miss him, I’m okay with him entering a phase of semi-retirement. He’s more than earned it. He’s been God’s chosen vehicle for changing thousands of lives. And I know that in one way or another that will continue.

Pastor Joel has been a huge part of Phases Three and Four of my life.

It was 15 years ago today, Aug. 5, 2002, that my life entered its Fourth and very likely final phase. It began with an early morning flight out of Tampa bound for LAX.  No big deal save for the fact that my last prior flight had been in August, 1969 — a full 33 years earlier.

My life’s Phase One was childhood — a time of relative innocence that ended right around my 12th birthday when puberty came crashing into my body (and very unprepared psyche) with unexpected and unwelcome truculence.

Phase Two was my rather lonely, sexually preoccupied and miserable adolescence and young adulthood. The extended adolescence of my Phase Two ended around age 34 when my wife and I got together.  Phase Two’s major bright spot was the five years I worked for the Illinois Dept of Mental Health.  The five years I spent in Rockford gave me good friends and a meaningful career.  I was 29 when I left Illinois for Florida and into a season of loneliness and heavy drinking.

Phase Three was my nine year marriage and the time of painful growth that followed. As with most marriages, mine had its ups and downs. Though it ended badly, it was a time when I finally became an adult. I grew up. I sobered up, my existential anxiety abated and I found I enjoyed living in a family. My wife came complete with horses, a dog and a nine year old son. We lived in a mobile home on five acres in a high spot in the Black Hammock swamp. In some ways the first six years of my marriage is the only time I’ve felt like a truly normal person.

Pastor Joel and Northland Church were major players in the growth part of Phases Three and Four.  Of course, the Holy Spirit led me to Northland, and He directed me to various other teachers, books and mentors. The most life changing was Ruthless Trust a book by Brennan Manning that mysteriously caught my eye in a bookstore a few days before my 2002 flight to California. I had committed to a flight to visit my son and was struggling with that decision.  Christian counselor/hypocrite that I am, I gave advice about trusting God but didn’t trust Him enough myself to get out of my comfort zone and on to a plane.

That Aug 5, 2002, leap-of-trust flight to California was the catalyst for Phase Four of my life. It gave me the confidence to teach classes at Northland and to publish The Unwelcome Blessing and several subsequent books. The Unwelcome Blessing was about Christians struggling with depression.  It’s clinical, it’s biblical — and it is my story.  Also, coming to enjoy flying again led me on mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Barcelona, and Scotland, as well as Red Cross duty in Texas after hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. Now I look forward to flying, and if I don’t have a trip planned I’m restless and even more grumpy than usual.

Well, I was certainly blindsided into Phase Four, and who knows, maybe there’s yet another phase or two for me on this planet. God is full of surprises.  He leads us on journeys both frightening and wonderful — and per the teacher of Ecclesiastes, there’s a purpose for each and every one of us under heaven. And every life we touch is in some way a holy introduction. That is one of the major lessons I’ve learned from Pastor Joel.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  (Ecc. 3:11)

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JFK

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country.”

 May 29, 2017, on this long Memorial Day weekend, comes the centenary of our 35th president’s birth. JFK 100? It seems impossible. For many of us he will perpetually be a youthful 46.

Nevertheless, pretty much everyone over the age of 60 knows exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard of his assassination. I was standing in the hall outside of the Psych Dept offices at NMSU talking to another psych major about the football game the previous Saturday when someone shouted, “The president’s been shot in Dallas.”

An hour later I was home and glued to the TV with the rest of the nation when a somber Walter Cronkite announced that he had died. I was not interested in politics at that stage of my life and I was not particularly a fan of Kennedy or all the White House Camelot nonsense — but I remember being quite upset and teary-eyed. It prompted me to swear at my mother who disliked him immensely.  I said something to the effect that, “Your blankety-blank Texas reactionaries shot him.”

My mother worked for the Navy as a clerk-typist at White Sands Missile Range. Several weeks earlier Kennedy had toured the Range and made a speech there. Sitting in temporary bleachers she was within a few feet of him as he went to the podium. Her comment was that he was not all that handsome.

I’m not sure why my mother leaned to the right in her politics or why she so disliked JFK.  Perhaps, she was skeptical of his privileged silver spoon background.  Or perhaps she sensed that he was a sexual predator. As an attractive single divorcee who’d spent many years as a waitress in fancy country clubs she’d been hit on plenty by men like him. Nevertheless, I could see that she was shaken by his murder and by my cursing at her.

 Myself and others of us mark time by that fateful date: 11-22-63.  It was the day everything changed forever.  If our country ever had an age of innocence 11-22-63 was the end of it. Not much more than a month later I turned 21. About a year later the Beatles invaded, Bob Dylan showed up and announced “that the times they were a’changin”– and indeed they were. About two years later the Watts section of LA and then inner city Detroit erupted in urban warfare. LBJ went to war on poverty and North Viet Nam. There has been no turning back. We have more poverty now than when we went to war on it, and 58,000 young men never came back from ‘Nam.

“Incomplete” is probably the best adjective to describe JFK’s life and presidency. We will never know what kind of chief executive he would have been over a full eight years, but the promise of greatness was there. Though none were perfect, we were fortunate to have two decades of the inspirational leadership of giants — FDR, Truman, Ike and then Kennedy. I may be painting with the broad brush of nostalgia but it seems like what we have had since is a succession of dwarfs, scoundrels and incompetents.

Over the years we have learned very unflattering things about JFK and some of our other leaders deemed great. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s the press tended to be kind when it came to protecting the office of the president.  In that more genteel era we had TV censors that forbade a married couple from being depicted in bed together. Likewise, the press was silent about the dozens of trysts that JFK had while in the White House. He had been a serial philanderer with hundreds of conquests throughout his marriage with Jackie, but he was dead nearly a decade before his infidelities became common knowledge. Today, the president cannot utter an off hand word or gesture without it being subjected to microscopic scrutiny — and within minutes becoming part of a screaming headline on the internet and the 24/7 news channels.

I know how I feel about his philandering, but I’m not sure how much it affects my opinion of him. A part of me is very turned off but another part of me says, “Does it really matter in the big picture? And did I really need to know?” And another voice in my thoughts says we would be better off as a nation if some respect were shown to the office of the presidency.

For me, his flaws do not take away from his achievements. He was an inspirational leader. The quote that prefaces this blog would sound like insincere pandering from any of the leaders we have had recently.

He was an authentic war hero. However, there are those who will point out that if he’d been more competent as a skipper PT-109 would not have been cut in half by the Jap destroyer.

His administration championed care for the mentally ill and handicapped like none prior. He founded the Peace Corps.

He proposed tax cuts and the economy grew.

He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis masterfully.  After an early misstep on the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was the cold-warrior par excellence.

He was tough. He was a Truman Democrat — which is to say he would be quite out of step with the Clinton and Obama agendas.

RIP JFK 100

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Blah Blah O’Reilly. . .

or Who’s next

He was rude. He was crude and he cut people off that often had more substantive things to say than he did  — like Dr. Krauthammer.  But frankly, I will miss him. I haven’t watched Fox News in over four months. I gave up the cable in mid-Dec, but prior to then I would watch Fox a couple evenings per week.

I began watching the cable news channels about 8 or 9 years ago. I quickly wearied of the snowflakes on CNN and MSNBC, and I started watching Fox almost as an afterthought. They seemed to have a more colorful bunch of talking heads. Initially, I was turned off by Bill-O’s arrogance. I much preferred Greta van Susteren. She was bright, balanced and overall a class act. However, once I got used to him, Bill-O kind of grew on me — as he apparently did with many other people. His show was far and away the most popular on the telly.

One of the things I looked forward to was his “Talking Points” segment at the beginning of his show. It was generally succinct editorializing of current topics, and more often than not I agreed with him. He was not an ideologue. He was not a strict conservative. He was more like “old school”– a product of his Irish Catholic, working class, Long Island roots. And actually he was more “fair and balanced” than most of the other talking heads on the 24-7 news networks.

Very likely the allegations of sexual harassment against him are true. It kind of goes along with his persona. If they were not true then he and the network should have gone to court. Win one suit and the accusers would all go away.

Even if they are true, I don’t much care. I don’t care in much the same vein as liberals and Democrats don’t care about the sexuality of Bill Clinton or the Kennedy boys. I’m not condoning his behavior, but I’ll give him the same pass. We live in a hopelessly fallen world. O’Reilly claims to be a man of faith. Ironically, the same day Fox cut him loose he was in Rome and had a few seconds with the Pope. Is he any worse than the biblical David? As far as I’m concerned his confession and repentance are strictly between him and God.

I suspect he will lay low for a few months and then he’ll resurface. He will probably be working on some writing projects. Maybe this time it will be: Killing O’Reilly.  I have to admit that I was more than a bit skeptical of his “history” killing series.  But I picked up a copy of his Killing Patton and started reading it in a bookstore. The few pages I read caused me to order it from the library. It was a compelling read. I don’t know how much credit should go to him or his co-author Martin Dugard–but it was definitely well done.

Several months back Fox got rid of Greta and in my estimation hurt themselves tremendously.  Then several of the leggy blonde news babes left — some claiming sexual harassment. And now they’ve sanctimoniously cut the goose that laid the golden egg.  In my humble opinion Fox is cooked — no more number one.

O’Reilly’s fans will miss him on the tube. Maybe, he’ll just have a radio show. Maybe, like Oprah or Glenn Beck, he will start his own cable network. I kind of hope so. Maybe he will have time to introspect and learn something about sexual harassment. The world has moved on. Fox’s corporate culture, like Bill-O, seemed stuck in the 1950s. Hopefully, something positive will be birthed from his comeuppance.

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Lonely But Never Really Alone

“Alone prevents a sole pretense…”

The above was a line from a poem in the student literary magazine of New Mexico State University circa 1963.  It was written by a student a year or two older than I and it struck me as profound–and it stuck in my mind.

Around the same era there was a critically acclaimed Brit movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I saw it when it first came out. It popped into my mind during my 38-minute Sunday morning walk.  Well, I’m not a long distance runner and any more barely a long distance walker, but I guess it popped into my thoughts because per most holiday weekends I feel alone. Today is Easter, Resurrection Sunday.

My official Celebrate Recovery (CR) testimony begins: “I am an only child and I think because of that I’ve felt lonely most of my life. Both of my parents were seriously bipolar. They were married and divorced to each other twice before I was seven. In between marriages to each other my mother had a brief marriage to a small town eccentric named Paul.”  And so it goes. My point is that much of what has shaped me has to do with being an only child in a very dysfunctional family.

Well, when I was a kid I thought I came from a pretty big family and of course I didn’t realize that it was “dysfunctional” — as a kid you just accept what is and think it’s like every other family.  My maternal grandmother was my biggest source of emotional support. She came from a family of ten siblings, and so when I was little I attended several massive Murphy family reunions. They were Irish, French and Chippewa — exuberant, and heavy drinkers. They were always coming to visit from Toledo and Detroit and we were always dropping in on them. On my father’s side there were also family reunions, tho smaller and less loud due to their somewhat dour Scottish/German character.

Anyway, today all the principle characters of those memorable events are long dead and most of their descendants have moved far, far away.  By my late-50s I had lost both parents and all three uncles. My uncles were all childless and so there is a dearth of cousins.

What I have left is a few 2nd and 3rd cousins up in Ohio and my stepson and his family out in California. Today, I wish I were up in Ohio or California. My cousin Mary Sue will likely prepare a big traditional dinner and invite all the family, and out in sunny Cali my son and the grandchildren will go over to Grammy Nancy’s for an Easter egg hunt. Both events will be fun.

My “family” moment today will likely occur after church later this afternoon.  A group of six or seven of us Sunday-niters will go out to dinner after Northland’s five p.m. service. It will be a bit bittersweet as last Sunday Pastor Joel announced that in two weeks there will be no more Sunday nite services. Going to Northland Sunday evening has been my routine for the past 24-years.

Anyway, as I was walking this morning I kept rolling around in my thoughts the big “why?” regarding my lonely life. Sometimes it’s self-pity and sometimes I’m just puzzled. The alone feeling is enhanced when you feel like you’re facing big challenges like health or finances, but likely most of my present “challenges” are in my own mind — it’s what obsessives do.

I strongly believe that God is in charge of every detail and so my loneliness must have something to do with His will. And I think, “Well, maybe I’m not worthy of having another wife or a big family.”  Or nonsense like, “God is sparing some lovely woman misery by keeping me out of her life.” Anyway, I suppose its silly to think about another relationship as I’m well past my prime. My marriage ended 30-years ago. My son lived with me a few years back in the early-90s and in 2011, I had a roommate for a few months, but other than that I’ve lived alone.

But God has kept me alone for some very good reason. Those with a strong evangelical/missionary bent might say it’s so I can be more effective in ministry.  I’ve done a few this and thats that qualify as ministry.  Maybe Paul was right– but I ain’t the Apostle. . . or anything close.

Sometimes I think it has to do with growth. That’s where the quote that prefaces this blog come in. Being alone does tend to strip away all your pretenses — of which I have many.  Sometimes I think my life has been one long painful growth experience — God winnowing away layer upon layer of crud. Sadly, oft times new layers emerge. God wants honest people. Not that being dishonest precludes a life of ministry.  I could name a few both living and dead who’ve positively touched thousands of lives more times than I could ever imagine. Some not terribly honest, but the same God who can speak thru a donkey can use the most unlikely of people.

 Anyway, I know that God is always, always present. Sometimes He lets me know that He’s there and sometimes I have to tune Him in.  At its worst loneliness has been another idol but at its best it’s like the title of my book on depression, it has been another “Unwelcome Blessing” –and I also know God roots for the home team. . . and I think I qualify.

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The Want of Power and Control: Everyone’s Temptation

 

“The Christian must bear the burden of a brother. . . It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not an object to be manipulated.”  ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s statement poses a critical question for every Christian.  Are we here to love and to help our neighbors bear their burdens–or will our usual stance toward them be one of manipulation, power and control?

Just as Satan offered Jesus the whole world with all its power and glory (Luke 4, Matt. 4), so too are we all offered a similar bargain. In essence, it is whether we will serve the devil and all the malevolent forces of world and flesh — controlling others by our power, our status, our glory, our tricks, or whatever means we have–or whether will we allow other people the freedom to choose their own way in life.

The fact is that most of us to varying degrees choose to make captives of other people. Much of this is unconscious and easily forgivable –but some choices to manipulate and control  are deliberate and willful and desperately evil. Power, and its nefarious twin, the need to control, is the essential evil because it is the essential idol. It is the idol of playing god. It is the power that Satan sought when he rebelled against God the Father in deep antiquity.

The Truth and Freedom

Scripture tells us that shortly after the wilderness temptations Jesus announced in a synagogue (quoting from Isaiah) that he’d come to set people free (Luke 4:18). One wonders what that really means. It is doubtful that He was proclaiming freedom for the many slaves who populated the Roman Empire at the time. He was not advocating rebellion and this wasn’t some Lincolnesque Emancipation Proclamation.

Later, He told people that the truth would set us free. (John 8:32)  Most Christians know that verse. Some also know “that where the Spirit of the the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)  But freedom from what one asks?

In Galatians 5:1, Paul says it is that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  Paul was proclaiming freedom from the law requiring male circumcision as a mark for believers. Also, in Ephesians 4:8 he tells us that Jesus, “led captivity captive. . .” More than just onerous legalism, I believe the captivity he is referring to is the prison of our own fallen natures. And very much of that fallen human nature is wanting to play a god in the lives of others — wanting to control others, wanting to have worldly power. It is desiring the power Satan offers — ultimately the power of no restraints or morality.

Healing the Blind

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)

Although Jesus and the apostles did physically heal the blind, I think the “sight” Jesus was offering was “insight” into His Father’s kingdom — a new vision–and a new intimacy with God the Father. And although we have had nearly two millennia of Christian doctrine and evangelism, most of humanity remains blind and oppressed. They remain prisoners obsessed with wanting control over others.

It is my belief that much of the oppression is the self-oppression of not trusting God. We do not trust God and we display that lack of trust in our rampant need to control every circumstance in our life, including other people. We obsess about things like the weather, earthquakes and crime so much because they are beyond our control. However, the behavior of others is usually the greatest unpredictable factor in our life, and that is something we unconsciously think we can control.  And so our unconscious fears demand that we control the “neighbors” that Jesus told us we are to love as much as one’s self. Instead of bearing their burdens, we feel we must neutralize them and control them for us to have safety and plenty. And we control them because we do not trust, and we do not trust because we really don’t accept the freedom that Jesus offers.

In The Beginning

 The need to control every facet of our life space is part of humanity’s relentless post-Eden search for safety in a chaotic, fallen creation. We know that we are not God but we try to play God. When the reality that we are imperfect and not godlike comes crashing down on us then we, like Adam, either blame God or seek a scapegoat (Eve). And when that doesn’t quell our existential angst us we try to control our environment and everyone in it. The upside is that our existential anxiety eventually leads to a quest to understand and control both the natural universe and our own conflicted psyches.

The quote from Bonhoeffer that prefaces this is the stance of far too many Christians when it comes to our fellows on our after-the-fall journey. It makes me think of the old Father Flanagan Boys Town meme: “He ain’t heavy father, He’s my brother.” Sadly, more often than not, we treat others not as our brothers, but as objects to be manipulated and controlled.

Ministry or Manipulation?

Young children need to be controlled for their own safety, and a parent that does not provide limits, boundaries and controls is derelict. However, in the case of other adults, we often think we are controlling them for their own good as well–but nevertheless, in spite of our good intentions, we are still manipulating them and making prisoners of them. The “for their own good” rationale is merely a self-justification for an all too human predilection. We are not allowing them either free will or the freedom that Jesus promised.

A decade ago a friend said something terribly profound which I’ve rolled around in my thoughts ever since. She said that for the Christian all relationships were either about “ministry or manipulation.” I do not know if that was an original insight with her but I’ve never encountered that paradigm anywhere else. However, the above quote from Bonhoeffer comes close.

As for me, the more I am aware that I have the choice of ministry or manipulation, that I have the choice of playing god or ministering, and the more I choose ministry, the better things work out. When in the love of Jesus we minister to another they maintain their freedom and their dignity–and so do we. Making a slave out of another via either power or manipulation ultimately never ends well.

Caesar v. Jesus

Caesar chose power and control, Jesus chose ministry. Jesus said to give to Caesar what was his. But Caesar is just an archetype for Stalin, Hitler, Mao and every other major or minor dictator and petty controller–and every selfish egoist boss/tyrant who’s ever lived. Those of us who’ve grown up in the USA or the UK have never lived under a dictatorship, but we’ve all felt the grasp of a petty dictator on the back of our neck at one time or another. Most likely it was a micro-managing boss, friend, parent or spouse. Unfortunately, their search for safety and predictability involved making another a serf.

An Idolatrous Freedom

Sadly, the freedom that many crave is not freedom in Christ but a freedom that is an idol. It is the “freedom” of bondage to ego, selfishness and sin: “Nobody has the right to tell me that I can’t smoke weed, drive like a maniac, beat my kids, own a machine gun, worship a demonic entity–or tell me I have to pay taxes.” Many who live in the USA, and especially those from the political right who yammer on and on about “freedom” are really just seeking permission to sin, and using the freedom promised in the Constitution as an rationalization.

Under Authority

Being “under authority” is an excuse for all sorts of egregious power and control justifications in Christianity. It is the ideological underpinning of cults and draconian denominational control. All cults, as well as many denominations, seek to dictate every aspect of their adherent’s lives — not just beliefs, but friendships, dress and diet as well.

“Whenever a Christian follows authority figures who don’t allow questions about themselves or their direction or teaching, get out and don’t look back. Whenever someone says he knows what’s best for your life, better than you do; whenever someone says that she speaks for God; whenever someone pretends to be other than a flawed human being who makes mistakes and sometimes gets it wrong — that person is sitting on a pedestal of his or her own making, and if you don’t destroy it, God will. So many freedom-destroying things we do are connected to an irresponsible decision to allow others to be to us what only God is supposed to be.”  ~ Rev. Steve Brown

The cult that I’m most familiar with, Bill Gothard’s IBLP, intruded into every aspect of his followers lives. He gave them advice on dress, diet, health and with whom they could associate . He spoke of an “umbrella of authority” and of course the umbrella was held in his hand. He tried to anchor his somewhat idiosyncratic teachings in biblical principles–and he maintained that his umbrella was there for protection of the vulnerable — mostly women and children –who clearly in his biblical view are not equal to men

However, Gothard was on the “pedestal” that Steve Brown warned of, and Gothard is currently being sued by young ladies formerly in his charge for unwanted advances. However, the IBLP is just one cult among thousands. The largest cults in this country are the Jehova’s Witnesses and the Mormons. What cults typically have in common is a charismatic leader or founder and top down control.

Oh, That’s God. . .

A story: A man dies and goes to heaven. He’s waiting in the antechamber along with many other souls for St Peter to come and check him in. Suddenly, a man bursts into the room wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. He barks out orders and helper-angels frantically scurry around. He leaves and silence is restored. Twenty minutes later he charges in again and the same frantic activity ensues. Then, the scene is replayed a third time. Finally, the man apprehensively awaiting St. Peter asks the receptionist about the man giving orders.  She replies, “Oh, that’s God, He’s playing doctor.”

Well, that’s a crude illustration about the folks (physicians) who generally have the most power and prestige in our society. They have the power to write magic scripts for big mojo. They have the power of life and death. For some, they have supplanted God. We allow them control in our lives to an unnatural degree. We want to be safe and healthy and so we cede them the power. And sadly, I think many go into medicine not so much to be healers as they do to be controllers.

The Law

The law, as in attorneys, are other major power people in our society. I recall reading once that per capita we have nine times as many attorneys as they do in Japan. I’m  certain that the USA leads the whole world in the sheer number of attorneys, and I’m also certain that says something not very complimentary about us. We contend. We do not decide things based on honor, tradition or consensus. We decide things based on power. Usually, we do not follow “the spirit of the law” but instead “the letter of the law.” To maintain control in a situation we seek a bigger and bad-er attorney than our opponent.

Question: What is 1500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: A good start! Pa-da bum!

That little joke illustrates our love/hate relationship with attorneys and the law. Love them or hate them — we need them, and for some things like contracts and torts they are essential. Like physicians, lawyers have their own idiosyncratic language that is more or less opaque to lay people. They like it that way. They keep it that way. It gives them power and control.

The New Power People

A century or more ago there were only three “professions” — lawyers, physicians and clergy. They were the power people. They had the power of life and death and the ear of the Almighty. Today, professionals are as likely to be an engineer, a tech guru or a government bureaucrat.

The newest gods of power and might are the techno-gods like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Ray Kurzweil. When our computer goes down we call the Geek Squad and they come out in their little yellow bug. They insert a disc, click some icons, say some mumbo jumbo and order is restored to the universe. Well, at least temporarily until the next tech crisis ensues.

Engineers and techies are the new power people, and like lawyers and physicians and government bureaucrats before them, they have their own indecipherable language. The manual that came with my new digital TV was completely opaque to reason. I read it and read it again. Presumably, these procedures were composed by a “technical writer”–but they were useless.  I sat cursing the snowy screen until a friend came over and unscrambled it. He was able to help me because some true techies, his son-in-law and brother-in-law, had showed him how to “program” his digital TV. And one wonders if the jargon of techies is deliberately opaque. It does make them necessary and lend them a certain power.

Power and Control

The compulsion to control others infects all of our human endeavors: religion, medicine, education, law and government, science and technology. It is the great corrupter of both systems and relationships. On a mega-scale it is what causes wars and in a micro-arena what is an oppressive boss or spouse except someone needing to exercise power and control over another. And murder is little more than the ultimate control of another. Far too much of human history is the story of Cain and Abel multiplied by billions.

Much of what has been written on the topic of power/control in the past couple decades has focused on dysfunctional relationships and child abuse. The men who relentlessly seek power over their partners and children are invariably insecure and fearful–but their insecurity and fear is often masked by narcissism and violence. In their world, they are the only people who matter. With the most extreme narcissists other people are only there to be controlled and used. But most users, manipulators and controllers are not extreme narcissists, they are just frightened folks who view the freedom of others as a threat to their security.

It is my contention that the desire to exercise control over others is so pervasive that it seems almost an integral part of the human condition, and it is obvious that narcissists and uber-egoists have this drive in spades. However, the most vulnerable to being extreme controllers are those with low ego strength or damaged self-worth. Folks who have been subjected to massive parental criticism, parental neglect or abuse, and those who have suffered deep betrayal are generally going to be more threatened by situations and relationships where they have tenuous control.

A couple I’ve worked with provide a good example. It is the second marriage for both and both suffered infidelity in their previous marriage. However, the husband has better than average ego-strength and he survived the infidelity fairly well. He realized that the cheating was not about him but about his ex’s issues. The new wife, on the other hand, came from a very large, unaffectionate family. She grew up feeling neglected and unloveable. Though, as a survivor she’s in some sense a strong woman, she grew up feeling very insecure, and the betrayal in her first marriage heightened that insecurity. Though a self professed seriously Christian woman, she resents her husband’s involvement in their church and his close relationship with its pastor.

Why?  Because his relationship with God, the church and the pastor are areas of his life beyond her sphere of influence and control. She can criticize the church and say she dislikes the pastor but it doesn’t change her husband’s mind one bit. His relationship with his pastor and his involvement with the church go back a decade, whereas his relationship with her is less than two years. When pressed about her criticisms she can offer no reasonable explanation because her dislike is all based on unconscious feelings.

Hypnodynamic Control

“Hypnodynamic” is what I term the paradigm for acquiring control of others. It is a three step process: (1) Create anxiety, cognitive dissonance or heightened anticipation. (2) Suggest a resolution that relaxes the victim, (3) Attention, trust and control is gained.

I call it hypnodynamic because it is how a skilled hypnotist, or manipulator, gains the attention and control of an unsuspecting and often unwilling person (or public). On a mass scale its what politicians from Hitler on down to the present have employed. Create anxiety by creating a monstrous threat — Communism, Capitalist Bankers, The Elders of Zion (Jews), famine, overpopulation or climate change (global warming), etc.  But the master hypnotist, the master manipulator/controller, will suggest a solution that will put the individual or the masses at ease–and thus fear and dissonance abates and harmony is restored.

On a smaller scale, say a cult, the leader spells out a threat like the the outside world or unbelievers. The solution that leads to harmony is for one to cede control to the cult.  Similarly, in many relationships the dynamic is the fear of abandonment. The controlling partner strikes an unconscious deal with the dependent partner. The deal is: “I will never abandon you but you must cede total control to me.”  When that’s broken you sometimes hear about it in the headlines the next day. It’s usually about a man offing his wife–and sometimes his kids and himself.

Docs, Health and Big Pharma

Physicians and Big Pharma scare the bjeebers out of us with a focus on disease (not health) and of course they have the solutions, they have the power. They have practically invented obscure diseases and then bombarded us with advertisements for the pills to “cure” the maladies. They have an impressive array of technology and tests that a few years ago were only imagined in science fiction.

We confess our transgressions to the nurse and then the doctor. Sometimes they counsel us on nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, but more often than not they write magic words on paper which we take to the pharmacy. We gobble down the pills like a sacrament. We may briefly repent by a change in lifestyle but the statistics on self-generated diseases due to obesity, stress and addictions are such that its obvious that any repentance in our contemporary First World society is quite transitory. And in their heart of hearts I think many physicians like it that way. It keeps them needed–and it gives them the power.

The Great Physician

Jesus has been referred to as the Great Physician. So how did he treat His patients? We know of His many miraculous healings — the Gospels are chock full–but beyond the many anonymous He ministers to He provides us with a powerful and lasting example.

    “Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love.” ~ John 13:1

At the Last Supper, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of how we should minister to our brothers and sisters. It is an act of humility. He becomes a humble servant. He washes his disciples feet and tells them to do likewise, and he says that they will be “blessed” if they follow his example and serve others.

Also, in Matthew 20 the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her sons could be seated at his right and left in His kingdom. Jesus replies, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Chapters 13 thru 17 of the Gospel of John is referred to as the “final discourse.”  In these chapters Jesus gives the disciples and us a glimpse into His Father’s kingdom and He also gives us our marching orders. It’s a life of serving our neighbors, and in a sense, a life of healing others.

And does how we are to live our lives relate back to the “freedom” that Jesus declares at the beginning of His story?  Are we indeed made free by a life of ministry and servanthood?  I know that as for myself when I choose ministry instead of manipulation and control things always seem to work out better. I know that I’m happier when I try to follow the example Jesus provides.

In the Garden of Trees

In the beginning there are two trees in Eden that loom over man and creation. There is the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge is the forbidden knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15-17). We all know the tale of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace by tasting its proscribed fruit. My contention is that via tasting the fruit of “knowledge” they sought the same route to a “power” that strictly belongs to their Creator. Seeking power, and the power found in knowledge, doomed mankind to millennia of restless seeking and misery. That pretty much encompasses the history of civilization– one tyrant or nation seeking control over another.

At the end of the story in Revelation 22:2 there is the Tree of Life. And between the two trees that frame Scripture there is another –the tree that is lifted up — the tree of our Savior’s crucifixion. The love of knowledge and power is transformed by the Love that begets love.

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