Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Why Bother Being One Church in Four Locations?

One of the most ambitious things Circle of Hope does is stick together across our wide region. We are one church in four locations. From Suburban New Jersey, all over Philadelphia, and into the Pennsylvania suburbs. We are not multi-site in the way that many churches have been trending. No pastors get beamed from one site to another. We aren’t expanding a brand. We are curiously not uniform, but we are doggedly united. It’s ambitious because our region is very diverse and our congregations reflect that diversity. However, we believe that we are better together, especially because we are different.

The limits of orthodoxy

Establishing a unique orthodoxy is a common way to be a cohesive people. Most church websites feature their “Statements of Beliefs” as their defining characteristics. “Orthodoxy” etymology: from Greek orthos “right, true, straight” + doxa “opinion, praise,” from Greek dokein “to seem,” from Proto-Indo-European root *dek- “to take, accept.” Uniformity of thought creates definite boundaries around who is in and who is out. Christianity has often been reduced to a series of yes or no questions about the nature of the universe and God. What you believe makes you a Christian or not. Since the Reformation (and even before) very specific thoughts about God have divided the church into ever sharper and smaller splinters of “correct thoughts” about God, Jesus and the Bible.

I am interested in orthodoxy. I’ve studied and continue to study theology and the Bible, but it is not the tool we choose to use to bind us together most. We choose a dialogue of love and a common mission for that. Instead of a “Statement of Beliefs” on our website we have “proverbs”, the communally gathered convictions that drive us. Our proverbs are dialogical. They do not spell out everything you have to believe, they are more focused on how we express our beliefs in our context than what those beliefs are, and they themselves are subject to change as we continue the dialogue.

We must love each other for real

Learning how to be included in communal decision making seems elemental to being a Christian (or maybe better, doing Christianity). Paul’s appeal to the Philippians to be of one mind is a brilliant mechanism for actually loving one another. Agreement about what we think does not necessarily yield love, and nothing matters more than faith working itself out in love. Participating in a dialogue of love requires setting aside personal opinion to a degree. Listening to understand is better than speaking to be understood. That simple distinction takes all kinds of real faith to enact. How can we learn not only to defend our position as a means of identity formation? This question is at the center of Jesus’ call for us to die to ourselves. Luke 9:23 “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

The covenant at the center of Circle of Hope is the place where this dialogue of love occurs. Each person who makes a covenant commits to this unity, even if they’re not sure how they will achieve it or if they are sure of everything. They want to move with the body our communal mission and we don’t demand they sign a belief statement on some dotted line. They commit to love us, be loved by us and love the next person. They commit to Jesus as Lord, because nothing works without Jesus at the head of it (a very orthodox statement), and we want to do Jesus’ work together. That has a lot of different expressions even within our church.

Covenant Party 2018

Julie honors the new covenant members

Last Friday the Coordinators and Pastors invited all the new covenant members from 2018 to a party to more firmly establish that love between us. The unity we aspire to requires us to be face to face often because that’s how love works. It is not an abstraction. We spread out across the region into dozens of cells gathered into four unique congregations, but return often to the dialogue of love to keep us from diffusing into nothingness. We do not have the concrete creed to abstractly unite us, but we do have a common mission emanating from a common love. That love needs to be tended as often as possible. As we grow, we will continue to need creative ways to be together. It might seem easier to splinter off, but we are too committed to the fruit of our ambitious togetherness. Each of gets the chance to love across real and perceived boundaries (rivers, municipalities, states, political affiliation, theology, and sensibility). We think that people are looking for a people like us in all of the nooks and crannies of the region, and we think that the gospel is expressed in our together. We are the content, right down to the way we hang in there together despite our diversity.

 

Why Showing Up is Even More Important in Advent

Ordinary Pilgrims

One of the simplest and best reasons to have a Sunday meeting is that we need to show up. We need to do something with our bodies to give substance to the faith we profess or it will shrink. Getting up, dressing the children and piling them into the car on Sunday morning, or missing the evening football game, or scheduling to get off from shift work during the commercial high-gear season are all great acts of faith. The importance of just making it to the meeting should not be underestimated. It does something to us to do something. Getting in your car and driving to the meeting (I live in South Jersey so for many of us that’s the only way to get there) is a pilgrimage worthy of appreciation.

Jesus’ Specifics and Ours

We especially need to do something in Advent, the season of expectation before Jesus finally comes on December 25th. Advent is all about the Incarnation — God made flesh. Jesus is moving into our actual neighborhood — Pennsauken, Collingswood, Oaklyn, Moorestown, Gloucester City, Buena, Haddon Township, Mullica Hill … the list goes on in our wide South Jersey region. Jesus first came to a specific place and time — a little Palestinian town called Bethlehem (where Christ followers have a hard time following Jesus these days).

All the practicalities of his birth were no small feat. His parents were pushed around by a powerful empire even during the very physically delicate moment of pregnancy. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not his home town of Nazareth to fulfill two prophecies about where the Messiah (God’s anointed one) was from (Micah 5 and Matthew 2:23). We know all about the people who were there and the family into which he was born, and even the stars that were in the sky. It’s an incredible amount of detail that Luke discovers in his careful account of Jesus’ birth. From the names of the rulers, to the impromptu crib, it all matters.

Advent Details

Our details matter too. How we schedule our weekends could take on a heightened sense of importance during this season as well. A way to really prepare for the baby Savior would be to show up every Sunday in Advent (10:30 a.m. and/or 6:00 p.m. at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ on December 2, December 9, December 16, and December 23). You can also show up to our Advent Worship Relief events, concentrated times of worship and prayer to welcome this strange baby and embrace our own peculiar selves (7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4 at 5720 Ridge Ave, PHL; Thursday, December 13th at 2007 Frankford Ave, PHL; and Wednesday, December 19th at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ)

The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Anyone at All

When you show up, there will be ways to connect your heart, soul, mind and strength. Our theme is “Welcoming the Stranger.” Jesus is paradoxically the stranger who needs our welcome and the strange one who welcomes us into our own strangeness, ready to meet us there. We want to embrace our own strangeness because we all feel so peculiarly ourselves, which can, at times, feel incredibly lonely. Jesus felt this too and entered into the fullness of human experience (part of that being the sometimes unbearable loneliness of being anyone at all). Being somewhere specific like a Sunday meeting, for a Godward purpose, enunciates that human experience and gives it more meaning. The fact that Jesus crossed time and space to be with us as a human baby (and then man) elevates our own human experience. This strange reality we live in was embraced in all its detail by God as one of us. We need to reenact that every year, at least. It’s too wonderful and strange not to easily lose hold of.

We Need To Practice

We want  to practice overcoming our resistance to who Jesus really is (and who we really are in Christ). He was not everything the people he came to wanted. If we are honest he is not everything we want either, but we believe that deep down we crave the simplicity of his birth, right down to all the specifics of it.

The Design Teams at 3800 Marlton Pike have turned our meeting space into a nursery of sorts which the children will help us deconstruct week by week. All the gadgets and “necessities” of many modern babies need to be stripped away. This will mirror the process of stripping away the expectations, fears and resistance on our insides that we need to acknowledge. Artistically and liturgically externalizing that process is why we need to be there together. That’s hard to do alone. We want to break down the barriers between us and Jesus (and subsequently ourselves and others), so we can better welcome the strangers in our lives (Jesus, refugees, our own hidden parts and more).

So show up! You need the drama. You need the real thing. I know God will be there. Will you?

People are better than ideas

People change people, much more than ideas do. The best way to bridge divides is bringing people who are different form one another together in love. An idea is a powerful tool but it is limited, I think, to political power. Jesus was most interested in people’s allegiance to him as a person not to his ideas. He was not creating a political movement, he was creating a Jesus movement. He himself was at the center of it, and he still is.

Jesus ‘ plan was to be with us

That’s why I hate the term “biblical principles.” It is a reduction of Jesus’ personhood to ideas, and that was not his purpose in becoming a human being as far as I can tell. He wanted a relationship. He wanted us to rely on him for who we are and what we think. he wanted to renew our minds and transform our thinking. He does this as a person. He expected to be with us always, and he is.  When he was with people in a more immediate sense, walking around ancient Palestine, he was always trying to undo ideas that were too concrete. He confounded people on purpose. He refused to weigh in on the established debates. Here’s an example from Mark 12:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

And they were amazed at him

Folks have been wondering what exactly Jesus meant ever since. We are still amazed, confounded, perplexed. Jesus’ inherent answer is, “I am doing something deeper than Caesar and his Empire. I am God’s. You are mine if you are with me. And then we all belong to God.” In John 18, he says to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not of this world” and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus wanted us to know that he is it.  Jesus, himself is the solution. I believe this, but I am still wondering with Pilate, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I think that’s right where Jesus wants me to land.

This amazement points me toward another way. It leads me to reject simple answers and almost every binary. Many of the ideas we still hold dear are at least as old as the gospels, and they have always been unsatisfactory. Jesus thinks we know this, deep down, and he’s still doing everything he can to wake us up to that dissatisfaction. To his disciples in John 14 Jesus says,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The world gives you coins with emperors’ faces on them who deliver “peace” through war, “law and order” through militarized police with not enough accountability. Our money today ironically says “In God we trust” on the back of portraits of our dead emperors. Jesus does not confront these emperors the way the world does. His peace comes through another way. He offers us himself. His resurrected body that was once killed for the kind of peace the world gives.

Jesus undoes our debates

This is a hard teaching still, because we are still afraid. For the most part, conventional wisdom teaches us that to not fear is to be a fool. Paul has something to say about that in 1 Corinthians 3 but you can follow up on that later. Jesus’ peace comes in the form of question marks behind the assumptions that have define who we are. This side or that side. Up or down. Left or right. Safe or in danger. Jesus undoes our debates and asks better questions. Our worldly identities are only as real as the world makes them. Let us let Jesus define us. Let us attempt to answer his questions which will most likely end in amazement. And in our confusion — in our “I don’t know” — in the wonderful wake of another Jesus zinger, let us be content to be next to him. This will change us.

His answers didn’t satisfy many of the established sides of his day. He is the solution, himself, and that looks different for different people in different contexts. We bring that wonder and that expectation of fresh answers to our own time and place, to each of our relationships. the goal is being next to Jesus together. The truth is a person who is available here and now. Paul kept going with this single minded flexibility throughout his evangelical efforts. He would literally say one thing to one group and another thing to another group (This post on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net gets at how we imagine following his footsteps as we do theology in our context). Paul wanted people to get next to Jesus and then see what happens. The presumption is that Holy Spirit is actually alive and active convincing people. Jesus is present and he will make more of a difference if we let him than we often give him credit for.

Let’s be together next to Jesus and see what he does next

So our goal is to keep people together, especially people who are different form one another. Teaching dialogue and speaking the truth in love is the work we must do. You actually have to love the person you disagree with. You have to have a strategy for their transformation, not winning the argument. I am still learning to do this in every situation, but I have already seen it work, so I persist.

The folks who are stuck in a talking point, stirred up to follow their worst instincts by a corporate media machine need to prejudice their togetherness in Christ over their ideas. We die to those allegiances to follow Christ. The most practical way to do it is to love a real person. That media machine, which a friend of mine recently described as a means of demon possession, is designed solely for making money — not for truth or love or even solving the worlds problems. My hope is in creating a viable alternative to those lucrative lies. To do this I trust Jesus among us to do miracles in our relationships. I am banking on his living presence to move people where they need to go. I don’t think we will ever have worldly power over the machines (media, military, politics) but I think we already are an alternative to that power. The church is oriented around a deeper power that we can rest assured will triumph in the end. For now, we are faithful to it — to Him — and persevere even if it often seems to be failing. We lead people to claim the freedom Jesus gives us over those machine powers. It doesn’t always look like it is working. It’s like yeast or a seed — as Jesus said — unseen expansion, underground growth.

Our personal relationships are the foundation of our prophecy

I don’t think this means we ignore those machine powers. This is not a push toward individuality. Our love for neighbor compels us to speak. Those we will never know still matter to us and our voice may help. We address evil in the world with our prophecy in creative ways. We ally with movements that seem to be the best options for the poor and the oppressed. We mock the powers with subversive alternatives. We tell the war machine to stop killing in our name. But we create at least as much as we tear down. We must have a real alternative from which we speak. We must be already doing in micro what we call for in macro. I believe we have that place to stand together with Jesus. We are making an environment where it is safe to lay down the burden of being right all the time. We kindle a fire of bewilderment that opens us up to new possibilities. Our new vision gives us more imagination, offering us insight into better criticism of the powers, asking those better questions that Jesus loves. But our first work is being the alternative, making love and discipleship happen, building a foundation of intimacy with the living Lord that incites those open hearts that can see a different world and bring it closer to fruition with different questions. If we don’t share the best thing we have with those immediately around us, why would we share anything with those beyond?

Giving Thanks for Friends We Don’t See As Much As We Used To

Recently I got a group of people together who had been planting the church together for ten years. Our congregation in South Jersey is ten years old (What a wonder!), and we marked the occasion with a time to remember where we have been and consider where we are going.  The time reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinner — a big long table, family, good food, storytelling… bad memories, tension, irritation. The people we love have so much power over us! And we have so much power together to make light and life in the world.  I’m so grateful these folks stayed together even when everyone didn’t stay. But I’m also grateful that they let me and others in and didn’t stay together in exactly the same way–if they had, I’m not sure they could have stayed together at all.

My Brother and Me

When I was 12, my family moved to a new house and my twin brother, Joel, and I ended up in the same room again after a four year hiatus. Our new room somehow inherited my parents old record player and their old records. That summer The Mamas and the Papas’ album “Deliver” became a permanent part of my neural net. “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, but nothing’s quite as sure as change.” Joel and I share a love that is deeper than some siblings because we are twins. I may be romanticizing our 9 months together in the womb but there’s a comfort that transcends the rearranging of our lives. Joel moved out of our shared room again after a guy that had moved in with us to help plant Circle of Hope moved back to his hometown. Joel found a different friend group in high school, maybe because too many of mine were degenerates and maybe because he just liked video games more than I did. Regardless, our connection persists even if he lives in his own separate house.

I’m sure there are plenty of bad memories, tension and irritation from that moment in our shared history, but they’re not coming to mind right now. We’re brothers, and that doesn’t change.

Being together for a long time means being together in different ways

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a little more tenuous. Of course we are family with all those who call on the name of Jesus around the whole world, but we organize in bands of partners called churches to be and do specific things and  that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood can be lost. It’s better if it can change. One person said that they had been part of several church plants and none of the founding members ever stuck around at all. The fact that so many people who started Circle of Hope in South Jersey are still a part of the mission was pretty amazing to him. I have no frame of reference for this so I’m taking his word for it. I noticed at the dinner that the group was not at all the same as when they started together 10 years ago, but they were still together.

They had gotten married, had children, lived in community, bought and sold houses, and even divorced.  They had planted, multiplied, killed and resurrected dozens of cells. They had fought each other, reconciled, suffered loss and celebrated many milestones in life, mostly associated with young adulthood. But not only had they changed individually, their relationships had changed. They were not as close as they all once were. They were not all at the center of the church leadership. Many others had joined the church and they were dispersed among them in new relationships, carrying their founder fire to the whole body.

Relational Evangelism requires letting go

It was tempting to be sad. Things were not the same. Their togetherness was not the same, but they were together, nonetheless. That togetherness is enough, I think. The alternative is a dissatisfying comparison with the past and a choice for what was. A desire to go back to the way things were, or even a forced fossilization of what is, will grind the wheels of our church planting engine to a halt. It hurts some to keep moving, knowing that your brother is way over there across town rather than right below you on the bottom bunk, but we must trust the binding that God has done. We cannot demand forever intimacy with everyone or no one new will ever be able to enjoy the friendship we offer in Christ.

Relational evangelism brings with it the occupational hazard of having to let go. I don’t think this means we forget the brothers and sisters we have made. We might need to be more intentional about catching up (and I suggest you do that because I need to do it too) but we cannot cozy up in the comfort of what was. We cannot maintain every relationship equally. We cannot demand that our togetherness stay the same. It cannot withstand the weight.  We can be bound by common mission, common history, and a chosen family bond that will play like a pleasant song in your mind and heart–  and last into eternity.

When you go to Thanksgiving Dinner treasure the Togetherness

So at your actual Thanksgiving table, whether you are with blood family, friends family or family in Christ (probably a mix of that). Treasure the togetherness. Marvel that anyone is together at all. Delight in the quirky constellation of people that have gathered to thank God in feast form. It’s not the same as it ever was. Families rearrange and relationships suffer and change. There is heartache and joy all around. Tell the truth. You will be tempted to dwell in the tension, but you might marvel in the longevity of those relationships and wonder what may come next from this foundation.

The Dangers of Teeth-Brushing Christianity

Among many other odd and troubling things about the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week was a comparison between church attendance and brushing your teeth. On one hand, I admire the regularity of his devotion, but on the other hand the comparison is dangerously close to just going through the motions.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh, so I’m not really evaluating his faith (and even if I did know him, that’s not really anybody’s job but Jesus). Because he is a public figure now, his story has a magnitude that transcends the individual, and there are other very valuable conversations that he and Dr. Ford are bringing up for all of us. Sin is run amok, and it’s so clear to me again. I’m tempted to despair when I see in Washington what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes saw in his time,

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
    in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Maybe everyone is just brushing their teeth with religious affiliation instead of being cut to the core by the extent of the wickedness all around us.

The world needs better Christians

We need to create an alternative. We need it badly. Brett Kavanaugh, and 82 of the 100 Senators claim Christianity too. We need to do better, and I’m not talking about starting to floss. We don’t need to get better at what is–brush our teeth more often, or use the right toothpaste–get the right people in power and find the scriptural magic bullet for all of the policy debates. If Christianity is what we see in this political fiasco we need something else. If disempowering millions of women in the name of one powerful person’s reputation is brushing your teeth, then we need to grow some baleen and start straining krill from seawater. We need to do something completely different.

Circle of Hope was designed to do and be something different but I am fully aware of how easy it is to not do that. I get how Brett Kavanaugh could describe going to church like brushing his teeth. It easily can be just something you do, and if you’re like me and most of my friends, you don’t really need just another thing to do. We need to know the living God, to breathe the breath of life, to trust tomorrow to tomorrow, to make a way where there was no way before.

Here are a few ways we can avoid teeth brushing Christianity

1) Find out what moves you

Be curious about yourself. We might think we have to have it all figured out, especially ourselves. It’s very easy to quickly codify our experiences as settled law isn’t it? “That’s not my thing.” “I’m not into that.” “I’m not a church person.” “I suck at prayer.” Some of those things might be true at times, but don’t count yourself out of everything. You’re not the same person you were last time that happened. Maybe what didn’t work for you will work this time. Worship, prayer, singing, silence, scripture, dialogue. When were you moved? It doesn’t have to be in a church setting. When did something happen inside. I don’t know how to describe it too clearly without poetry; I hope you know what I mean. Follow that, drop into that gear when you meet with the church, pursue that experience. If you’re not expecting it again, or asking God for something, it is less likely to happen. Thankfully you could be moved despite yourself.

2) Say no to your resentment (out loud)

Anything we do regularly becomes routine (that’s the definition). There is a lot of potential growth in keeping at your routines even when you don’t feel like it. But if you dwell on how much you hate what you have to do the whole time you do it, of course it will be miserable. I could hate the dentist every time I brush my teeth for what s/he might say to me if I don’t–as if the dentist were responsible for my dental health. It helps me to say stuff like that out loud (or type it to you because I actually do hate brushing my teeth). Name your resentments. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They aren’t who you are; they are just thoughts. You can put them on loop or say “no.” Sometimes I just say (or yell depending on where I am) “NO!” to the thoughts I don’t want. I’m at this meeting with the church because God has done something in me that I can’t deny. Jesus is inviting the whole world into unimaginable newness. I want to keep tasting that and extend that invitation to others.

3) Aim for something new

We don’t really need the same old thing, even though that’s very comfortable and effective for some people. We need to aim for something really new, not just the old thing slightly rearranged. We are not called as a Circle of Hope to feel different by comparing ourselves to other churches (something we are prone to if we aren’t careful); no, we are called to be different from the world–a peculiar people that demonstrates the foundation of love in which God establishes us. Our existence puts a question mark behind all of our culture’s conclusions just as Jesus’ did and does. it’s hard to escape the boxes we are put in by others or the ones we build for ourselves, so we must always be aiming to do what is new, what is next. Maintaining an institution is a common motivation for slowly accommodating ourselves to wickedness. Let’s trust God beyond our institutions. if it all comes tumbling down, God will make something new in the rubble. That’s been God’s MO from jump street, hasn’t it?

And… St. Francis

It’s October 4th, so I must conclude with a shout-out to our favorite Friar from Asissi, St. Francis. He exemplified these three things and many more. When the institution of the church was full of wickedness he made something new. I doubt he ever brushed his teeth(it was the middle ages 😉). learn more about him at our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body of Christ page.

Saving our Imaginations from Fortnite

I am reading A Wrinkle in Time to my son, Oliver, who is 7 years old. One of my goals is to teach him to use and develop his imagination. I actually stop as we’re reading to encourage him to be still and actively imagine what he’s hearing. It’s hard for him to not fidget with something or even be drawn to other books and images in his room. I remind him, “We’re being still and practicing seeing the story in our minds. What does Calvin look like?” (I’m really glad he hasn’t seen the movie). On our family vacation this summer we listened to the Chronicles of Narnia in the car and he claimed to be able to read his book about dragons and listen to the story on the car speakers at the same time.

I think I’m a bit like Oliver sometimes. Paying attention is a difficult task. I spend a lot of time on my computer and always have way too many tabs open in Chrome. I am prone to popping between tasks and too often lack the stillness for the clarity of thought I desire. I want to listen to God and engage my own imagination in any number of creative tasks, but I am, as I think most people are, chronically distracted.

fortnite and coopted imaginationA big new distraction the gaming industry recently cooked up is Fortnite. It’s a shooting game where players skydive onto an island and gather resources to kill each other. Some kind of plasma storm forces them into a tighter and tighter circle and they can build platforms and ramps out of the resources they gather (that’s the “fort” part I think).

I found out about Fortnite through my nephews earlier this year but when I heard this incredible episode of On the Media about Twitch, the social media platform for gamers, I took a deep dive to find out why and how so many people are interested. If you are an elementary school kid like Oliver it is one of the top topics of conversation. Millions of people watch professional gamers play this game. There are tournaments with prizes in the millions. The most famous professional gamer in the United States is Ninja AKA Tyler Blevins. He reportedly earns a million dollars a month. He got really, really famous when, in April of this year, he played with Drake. Seven million people have watched the YouTube video of their game so far.

I want to save my son’s imagination from Fortnite. Imagining violence is the biggest reason. I don’t want him to be desensitized to violence by repeated cartoonish head shots and rocket explosions. I don’t want him to dream about how to kill anyone, even if only in a game, but it’s more than that–I fear the overwhelming swell of enthusiasm for this game will steal his imagination. Instead of imagining anything, he can see it all. It’s loud; it’s fast; and everybody loves it. He loves it and he has never even played it. It IS indeed creative, but too complete, I guess. There’s not much room for his brain to do anything because it has all been done for him. The artist who made Fortnite are not giving an invitation into anything. They are as 20th century writer George MacDonald said in his essay, “The Fantastic Imagination“, writing “THIS IS A HORSE” on their art (and on our minds).

Don’t mess with this dude, George MacDonald

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

As admirable as the creatives responsible for Fortnite are (I love their worldwide campaign with the llamas), the main force behind Fortnite is not art but business. Companies are going to great lengths to tap the veins of a generations’ desires as they have with Fortnite. But instead of awakening something in their imaginations, they feed us back their desire like a soon to be foie gras duck. If they find something we want, they slap a “THIS IS A HORSE” label on it and shove it down our throats in every conceivable medium. They took our dreams, made them very real, and then edged out the competition by dominating our imaginations for as long as possible.

Imagination is key to being a Christian. The cooperation of mind and heart with God takes contemplation, stillness and creativity. It is not always so clear what God might do next and we who are committed to following that next thing must have unclaimed space in our heads for the project. Other things crowd it too–worries, earning a living, etc.–but Fortnite is the most recent in a string of increasingly demanding and enticing competitors for our hopes and dreams. You might have a future in professional gaming, son! Maybe Fortnite is your ticket to the big time! Lord, save us.

Lord give us space, rest and real hope. Awaken us to what is already in us and where you already are. Stoke our imaginations and make something new. 

 

 

Camden County College Hates Me

I’m sorry, I don’t follow the rules. The Public Safety Office at Camden County College clearly told me that I was not welcome on campus unless I was a student or an authorized guest. I went anyway. Again, I’m sorry, but it’s a place to meet 10,000+ young people from all the local area high schools. I have to at least put up flyers on the first day to at least let them know that Circle of Hope exists. At most, I would love it if I could hang out there and make relationships. I can’t shake the need to broadcast to them that there is an alternative to the hypocritical, judgmental church they imagine from national media or know from personal experience. At most, I want them to have a transformative experience with the living God. I can’t shake the desire to share this joy.

I wasn’t trying to go unnoticed

Jesus wants to unlock people at Camden County College for selfless love which is freedom and joy in serving others. They need to know that Jesus wants to help them let go of the lies they are fed about carefully guarded personal satisfaction and its perennial shadow, an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility to make and maintain the world as they know it. Camden County College needs, at the very least, a couple hundred pink flyers posted on every possible bulletin board that there is a community nearby that is re-centering itself around something (and someone) who can actually do something to change the world.

But Camden County College wants me to know that I am not welcome there. A security officer called to let me know that I had broken the rules. It wasn’t hard for him to get a hold of me. I had put my number on all the flyers. But the rules are the rules and he was just doing his job. There is no solicitation at Camden County Colleges. Once again, I’m sorry. I had indeed seen the notice on the bulletin boards that said that any posted flyer not approved by the campus life office would be removed, but I just thought, “OK, remove it, maybe someone will see it before they do.” I also knew that flyers I posted last semester had gone un-removed for months, cuz I’m persistent like that. They asked me not to come back (again), but I’m probably going back. I’m wondering if my flyer shouldn’t say, “They told me not to post this.”

I admit, my ire is up. I could just rebel for rebellion sake because I really am a rebel at heart. But I’d like to make a bigger point about the rules. The rules are designed to protect young people from any influence. According to the rule makers, overt influence is violence. All of our opinions, motives and desires are spontaneously generated from our deepest personhood, or so they would have us believe. When in fact the opinions, motives and desires of a whole generation have been sacrificed to the gods of industry. Our hearts have been claimed by what we consume and those who sell it to us. It is best for the rule makers that everyone believe they are self made in every respect, so that the reality of our unprocessed opinions, motives and desires be otherwise un-engaged and thus more easily shaped and manipulated by the rule makers.

The incoming class of freshman have no personal recollection of the events of September 11, 2001. They were babies or not yet born. Instead they have grown up in the culture of fear that the rule makers have built ever since. They have grown up under surveillance. They have grown up on display, submitting to voluntary surveillance on social media. They have grown up knowing that only the government will keep them safe, and just barely. This ever present, vague sense of threat has shaped them. It has shaped all of us. This threat is excellent for the rule makers. It keeps us in line, in our own lane, and unaware.

Jesus undoes the rules, not necessarily the Public Safety rules of Camden County College, but those rules that keep us locked up in self protection and in fear of what might happen if we mess up. He makes us aware of that which we can’t see without him. He lights up the dark, un-examined opinions, motives and desires that make us who we are, and mostly make us unhappy. He invites us to lose that life so we can find a new one in him. He breaks most of the rules that make our lives such drudgery. He influences us. But that influence blasphemes the other gods who reign over us, and i refuse to pretend they don’t exist.

I’ll have to deal with the consequences of returning to Camden County College when I do, but my decision will not be based in fear of what the rule makers will do to me. I’m being specific about the real threats at Camden County College, and they are not my pink flyers. I’d like to convince a few more students to break the rules with me and influence people for good rather than leaving it to those who will only take from them.

Other gods only take. Jesus gives. I’m praying to help many people at Camden County College receive from him.

 

 

I won’t agree to disagree with you

I won’t agree to disagree with you. I will not codify our division. I am not my thoughts and opinions and neither are you. So though we are currently disagreeing about any number of things, I will not agree to it. I will not content myself with that separation, especially if you are a part of Circle of Hope. Sorry, that’s impossible. I already agreed to agree, so we’re going to have to keep working toward that.

Greg Boyd describes our problem so well

I think we, culturally Americans at least, are much better at disagreeing these days. I don’t think this is a new insight. In fact, Greg Boyd just said it super clearly last week on his blog:

MRI tests have demonstrated that when people confront alleged facts that challenged their deeply held beliefs, their amygdala, which is in charge of their “fight-or-flight” reflex, kicks into gear, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex, which is in charge of reasoning, tends to shut down. On the other hand, when people encounter alleged facts that confirm their deeply held beliefs, the pleasure centers of their brain gets activated, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex again tends to shut down (see: here). This is why it is very difficult to think objectively, or talk rationally, about beliefs we are passionate about.

Well, “back in the day” we had three television Networks, and it was in the interest of all of them to report the News with as little bias as possible to attract the widest possible audience. With the advent of Cable News, however, people are able to watch the filtered version of the News that they agree with and that therefore activates the pleasure centers of their brain. And when liberal and conservative minded people no longer have to try to see the world through each other’s eyes, they get hardened in their perspectives. In time, they lose the willingness, and then the ability, to understand the perspectives of those who fundamentally disagree with their deeply held beliefs. Those who oppose them, therefore, can’t possibly be doing so on rational or moral grounds, which means they must either be stupid or immoral. They therefore cannot be reasoned with. They must simply be defeated.

Greg Boyd describes our problem so well. More and more opinions are potentially deeply held beliefs. And deeply held beliefs are becoming more and more atomized identities. We’re pushing the limits of what can be existentialized–that which is essential to our being. More and more our thoughts and opinions are who we are. My identity is that I think this about that. Dialogue cannot happen if we don’t undo this problem.

They sold us our false selves

As far as I can tell, this is mostly a clever trick of people who sell stuff. They have successfully turned niche markets into identities. “Niche” comes form the Latin word for “nest”, after all. Why not have our children born into a nest of security in a completely seamless environment? Maybe there is a future in which no one ever shops, only buys. I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos hasn’t dreamed that. Opinions are just the newest product large corporations have taught us to buy. It was a brilliant move because the alchemy required to transform opinions into identities is even easier.

“I am an android person and not an apple person.” This is how we are taught to talk. This is what our grandchildren might read about the Great Smart Phone War on whichever kind of device wins said war. “I cheer for the red team in the quadrennial sporting event called Presidential Elections.” My personhood is defined by the thoughts and opinions that make me feel comfortable. Light up those pleasure centers, please! Make me feel like who I am!

We agree, that’s who we are

I have been having conversations recently in which there are disagreements. (Note the passive voice). I am taking a wide circle around actively disagreeing with anyone because I’m trying to live into this conviction to agree to agree. Transcending the encampments is a freedom song I sing with Jesus. YES! I can love you. I can love you even as we are disagreeing, but disagreeing is not who we are. We agree, that’s who we are.

I admit this sounds ridiculous. It is. But I need something foolish to counter the wisdom of the world. The world is teaching me that I must succeed in all I do, and make all the right decision or something terrible will happen. Now my consumer choice has the future of humanity riding on it, too. In Circle of Hope, we call this “empire” thinking. “Either we think we have the power to get everything right and deserve it to be that way. Or we think we have to get it right or something terrible will happen or we will be severely punished by ‘the way things are.'” Ok, I’ll disagree with THAT! Jesus saved me from that. I’m not going back.

Love will bind everything together

I’m trying to get creative about doing what Paul says in Colossians 3:14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. I believe this. Love WILL bind everything together in perfect harmony… eventually. We have forever to figure this out. This allows me to creatively disagree with you for a really long time but not forever. Because eventually we will get set straight. I’m sure we will both need a course correction when we see Jesus face to face. In the mean time, I feel responsible to you and to the gospel to never end the dialogue with a codification of disagreement–an encampment in our lovely, pleasure-center-sparking nests.

We’ll need love to be real, active, vital. We’ll need Love to live among us, convict us to forgive regularly and push us in new directions. We’ll get to where we need to go more often if we agree to agree. The stories we tell ourselves about who we really are really matter. Because they are telling us something else. If we actually say what they want us to say, like out loud, it doesn’t ring true. If we put that lie in the light as I’ve tried to do in this post, it does look like darkness. Let’s be scouts for reconciliation, together. that’s who we are. We are ministers of reconciliation. We’ll need love to cast out our automatic fear. So let’s put love on every day and trust Jesus to make something better than we think is possible.

A Paean to “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix

They Cancelled This Show in 2015
…but I Just Found Out

When NBC cancelled A.D. The Bible Continues, I had no idea it was a thing, but now, three years later, I’m heartbroken. Now I have watched all 12 episodes of A.D. Kingdom and Empire (it got renamed for it’s Netflix Release) and I am very sad that the Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produced adaptation of the book of Acts is not continuing.

So this is my eulogy for “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” AKA “A.D. The Bible Continues” and my contribution to the googleverse in hopes of a reboot some day soon, and a motivational essay to read the book of Acts again this week.

Peter praying to stay the Holy Spirit’s hand

The Holy Spirit is No Joke

In Acts 5 we find the troubling story of Ananias (Peter De Jersey) and Sapphira (Indra Ové) who held back some of the money they got from selling their house but said that they gave it all to the newly born church. In A.D. Kingdom and Empire blood comes out of their eyes and they die for lying to the Holy Spirit in a very scary scene. How could any TV producer skip such a gruesome moment in history? Acts 5:11 says “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

Um… yeah! Great fear seized me when I first heard this story, too. If I’m honest, there’s still a tinge of fear in me as I reflect on it now. The Holy Spirit is no joke. God was trying to do something that required the utmost seriousness. The new movement was not for spiritual tourists who could move on to what’s next after the high wore off. This movement could not peter out (poor Peter!). If the Church of Jesus’ first followers didn’t survive, thrive and bust out of the confines of Jerusalem, God’s plan would not have happened. Desperate times call for desperate measures, it seems — even the confounding sudden death of two would-be-followers. The way this story is portrayed in the show brings the immediacy and the meagerness of the movement to light in a compelling way. Peter (Adam Levy) gets why they are dying but he is freaked out, too. I love the confusion that streaks through the faces of the main characters. They are not yet saints, wise in their remote spaces in history. They are living, failing, God-trusting people just like us. In a later episode of the show, the Holy Spirit almost kills Simon Magus (Stephen Walterswho tries to pay Peter for the Holy Spirit but Peter begs God in the thundercloud to spare the foolish new disciple. It didn’t happen just like that in Acts, but it made for good TV, and it communicated the live-wire wildness of the moment.

Procla, Pilate’s wife (as the story goes), is a Saint in the Greek Orthodox Church

The Resurrection Had Political Consequences

Four of the main characters of the show are Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan), his wife Claudia (Joanne Whalley), Caiaphas (Richard Coyle), the high priest, and his wife, Leah (Jodhi May). They are not just the evil ones, they are real people with real pressures of their own. Each are tempted to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, especially Claudia and Caiaphas. The political intrigue is not historically accurate, but it could have been! How would the Jesus movement know that Pilate’s wife had dreams about Jesus (as in Matthew 27:19) if she did not one day become a Christian and tell them her story?

From Wikipedia: “In the 3rd century, Origen suggested in his Homilies on Matthew that the wife of Pilate had become a Christian,or at least that God sent her the dream mentioned by Matthew so that she would convert. This interpretation was shared by several theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The apocryphal Letter of Pilate to Herod, dating from around the 3rd–4th century, names Pilate’s wife as Procla and connects to the story of Matthew 27:19.”

The show writers had a lot of opportunities to incorporate other legends and speculations from the early church but didn’t do so, however, they did take the opportunity to highlight the political consequences of the resurrection. Jesus disrupted the political potentates of his day, and he continues to do so. The power to kill is the source of all political power. When you boil it down, that’s it. the state’s ability to kill and the permission the people give it to kill is the only real ultimatum. Violence is the source of state power. Read the first two chapters of William Cavanaugh’s book “Migrations of the Holy” if you need to be convinced of this. there are other places to find this argument too. But, for now, it suffices to say that the foundation of any governmental power is death. And if Jesus rose form the dead then he is not subject to any power. Pilate and Caiaphas, and Claudia and Leah, as portrayed in the show, are obviously threatened by this. How we respond to Jesus anarchic resurrection will dictate how we relate to government. Are we subjects of the Kingdom or the empire(s)?

Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene

They Don’t Know What They’re Doing Either (But the Women Knew Better)

After Jesus’ death, the disciples have no idea what to do. Only Mary, Jesus mother (Greta Scacchi), remembers what Jesus said. She is stone-faced and sad after watching her son die but she refuses to give up as many of the men are doing. She is waiting for the third day. Mary Magdalene (played by Chipo Chung), who is the first apostle of the resurrection in the Bible, also gets her proper place in the show. She sees Jesus, and we get to see her as one of the most important characters in the show (because she IS one of the most important people in history). The men defer to her, she makes converts, and she’s always part of the dialogue about what they need to do. Twelve disciples would be too many characters for drama so only a few disciples are dramatized. It’s unclear what happened to the rest of the twelve in the show, but Mary Magdalene takes one of their places.

They muddle through the amazing things that happen. From the resurrection, to Pentecost, to persecution, to new believers who aren’t Jewish, they are stumbling through an incredibly disorienting ordeal. Can you imagine what it would be like? I can, but not so well as they creators of this show have done for us!

It is helpful to read through scripture with our imaginations. What was it like? What were the smells? What did you see? How did you feel? Art like this show, all the many, many paintings, and the other films that were made about these stories from the Bible help us feel our way into the story even more. John, the Beloved disciple, may always be a slow to speak, dark skinned African man (Babou Ceesay) in my imagination. And I am forever grateful for that. 

I need to feel my way through these stories and find myself in them because reading the Bible at a distance just doesn’t work. The point of reading the Bible is to relate to Jesus and find myself in his story. Art helps me do that. It will help you, too, especially when the artists assume that these people in the Bible were a lot like us. We don’t know what we’re doing a lot of the time either.

“The Road To Damascus” Episode 108 — Pictured: Joe Dixon as Phillip

Those Baptisms Though

The formula for baptism in the show is backwards into the water for like a three second count — in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is a good ritual! I love that they stay underwater for as long as they do because it is really symbolic of the death they are dying with Christ. When we baptize people in Circle of Hope we do it three times, bowing forward in submission to Christ. Some folks I have baptized are pretty scared about going under, and I assure them that is the point. We are going through death with Christ and coming out on the other side with him. Staying under, though? Holding your breath for a moment until you get pulled up? That is pretty cool.

Paul wrote in Romans 6:3-5

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This show gets that. These early Christians were serious about what Paul said even before he wrote it. Paul codified the ritual in Romans but it meant something before he said that. It meant death and resurrection, and you can SEE that in the show, even if it isn’t said. That is what ritual is all about. It is an enacted truth that often goes deeper and truer than words ever can.

Saul was initially devastated by Jesus’ appearance to him.

Paul Really Was a Badass from the Start

When Saul has his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus in the show I was unimpressed. Unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of how they portray Jesus in the show at all. But the aftermath of the encounter was awesome. Saul’s agony and redemption mediated by someone who isn’t sure of what they saw (it was an Angel — who is also totally badass). Then Saul comes back to the disciples in Jerusalem and demands forgiveness.

Peter and Saul have a one-on-one conversation. Saul is under tons of suspicion. He is trying to make Peter and the disciples trust him but Peter is slow to do so. Saul says to Peter,

“This is all a bit ridiculous, surely. I know what I’ve done, Peter, but listening to you all downstairs it’s like you had forgot that Jesus taught you forgiveness. I mean you lived with him — you know his message — so, so, sorry but I’m confused.” Saul of Tarsus got swagger! And that is why God chose him! I love how Emmett J Scanlan gets that across in his Irish brogue. Saul’s confidence, his arrogance even, was what God needed! You might have something in you that doesn’t seem like a gift. You might have done things that are hard to forgive. You too are chosen by God for a purpose. And a lot of what you see as useless, God can use. You might not receive such a direct address from Jesus as Saul did, but if you listen you will know.

In Conclusion, Bring it Back For Season Two!

I could go on and on about this show (and I already have), but please, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey of Lightworkers Entertainment, please bring back this show! I hear you’re working on an end times story instead. No thanks. I want more of these characters and the imaginative plot twists that your writers have supplied already. What if the stories of all these unsung heroes really did weave together in this way? Some of my Christian counterpoints are up in arms that you did not “stick to the Bible.” To them I say “p’sha.” You got it. No, it was not exact, but you got it. If they demand some fastidious recreation of only what is in the text 1) it’s bad TV, bad drama, bad art and 2) they are just way too uptight. Jesus likes this show, mkay? Well, I guess he’ll tell us whether or not he does some day, but I really, really like this show, mkay? So can we get a Season Two of A.D Kingdom and Empire? Lord, hear our prayer.

And if you made it this far, you must like to read. So keep reading. Read the book of Acts. Imagine, pray and listen right through the whole epic story. We’re living the 29th Chapter.

How to stay married (at least how John and Sherry did)

333 years of marriageOn Sunday, July 15th, John and Sherry Londres were interviewed at our evening meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike. The title of the interview was “How to stay married for 33 years” but John objected to the title, wisely. “This is what worked for us but I don’t know if it will work for anyone else. In fact I know that if they do exactly what we did they will certainly fail, because every couple is different.” John is exactly right but we have to give some authority to those among us who have made it so far in marriage. John and Sherry are rare birds, so we watch them, holding our breath at their beauty as we peer through the jungle of divorce and disillusionment to behold them. To honor them and learn form them I distilled three lessons they taught us.

Use your whole brain

In 1994, John learned about the concept of right brain and left brain. The right brain is more thinking and reasoning and the left brain is more emoting and intuiting. (This is an oversimplification but John had a simple point). Sherry had put his ring on his left hand when they got married 10 years before. The only reason he had heard for the left hand placement was the left hand’s proximity to the heart. John realized that his left brain love for Sherry would ebb and flow but he could trust it. He didn’t really need a left brain reminder to love her. He needed a right brain reminder. He needed a reminder to be intentional about loving her. He couldn’t forget to feel for her, but he could forget to love her well. He wanted a reminder for all the intentions he had for relating to her. So after 10 years of learning what he needed to remember, John switched his ring to his right hand and has worn it there ever since.

I think this is a great example of how to use our rituals. To stay married for 33 years and longer you will have to reappropriate the symbols you have inherited. You must make them your own and even if the first time you weren’t just going through the motions, you must make new meaning of them as you go along. I love the left to right hand switch that John did. I can imagine many places in my life that need a switch to intention. I can depend too much on passion and conviction for motivation to do a lot of the things I do. Making a plan and reminding myself to stick with it will be good for my marriage and many other parts of my life (including planting the church).

Enjoy becoming

Sherry described herself as steady. I’ve only known her for a third of her marriage but I agree. She might be content to just keep it simple, stay close to home, not surprise anyone. But she surprised John a lot when a few years ago she said, “I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with you!” John is known as the wild adventurer, and Sherry has been content to see him when he gets back. But a couple of years ago they went together to Tanzania and summited the highest point in Africa. Sherry did much better with the oxygen deprivation. If Sherry hadn’t been there to strike out ahead of him when the going got tough, who knows if John would have made it. He would have made it somehow, but Sherry was the somehow this time. When you go together there’s no way of knowing what would have been. Some other how is not necessary.

“John gets me out of my box.” Sherry said. She’s done things she never thought she would do, but it’s kind of silly to make a clear distinction between who she has become with John and who she was before they were married. We become who we are because of who we’re with among other things. This is true for friendships as well as marriages. Deciding to go together and trusting to stay together fundamentally changes who we are. If we accept that becoming as a natural part of life and reject the lie of individuality and self reliance, we can enjoy it. John and Sherry have grown together without significant friction because they weren’t really organized to defend those supposedly essential selves. We are not who we are forever. Thank God, we change. You can enjoy that.

Be a fool

John ended the interview with a song. And John is NOT a good singer. He sang “I Do It for Your Love” by Paul Simon so terribly there weren’t very many dry eyes in the house. And Sherry loved it! Love requires you to make a fool of yourself, and to love the fool you’re with for their foolishness. We need to remember who we are and what better way than to make a scene, damn the consequences, scorn the shame. I love how beautiful John’s bad singing was. He loved the complexity of Paul Simon’s sentiment. “It felt like us,” he said. Sherry loved him for being a fool. No one who is there will forget the moment. People are still talking about the last time he did it!

You can listen to John and Sherry’s full interview with me at circleofhope.net/messages

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