Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Jesus Was Really a Stand Up Comedian

I’m not the first to articulate that stand up comedians are some of the most influential people in our culture. They perform the important function of saying what is deemed inappropriate to say. Like the court jester who might be able to speak truth to the king (I’m thinking of the fool in King Lear), stand up comedians find a way to say the most horrible things without being destroyed or destroying others (well, the best ones do). Like the poet who sees the world through different lenses, the stand up comedian sees the world as it is but unencumbered by the fatalism of any notion of things being “just how they are.” He or she brings a novelty to the mundane and often the terrible that makes us laugh. And that laughter feels good. It is a cathartic response to the steamrolling pressure of the status quo — an obstinate refusal to accept things just as they are — a glimpse into another story even if the characters and events are similar to or even exactly the same as the one we usually see. And their stories are punctuated by the glory of shared laughter, breeding a generosity and mutuality that is hardly rivaled elsewhere.

I think Jesus is a stand up comedian more than a preacher. He inspires laughter, breeds generosity and makes his stories about the things we all know, especially if we were actually his contemporaries. He is oh so topical.  His task is not evaluation. It is description. He wants to awaken us to how things are, that we might see it all from a new angle. More than how things should be or even could be, Jesus invites us to see as he sees. That’s where he starts and how it will be in the end.  ” For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13 the part that comes after the wedding part.

One of Jesus’ best bits

Here’s an example from the Sermon on the Mount “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

When Jesus is talking you might be tempted to default to your evaluation. Am I healthy or unhealthy? Light or dark? Did I do it right or wrong. Religion has corralled the conversation into moralism for too long for us to do anything else. So don’t feel bad about that if that’s where you always go like the rest of us. The alternative path is to see with Jesus what he’s seeing — to be in on the joke — so to speak. What he’s saying is so true you might just have to laugh, but it’s couched in some old stuff that might be a little confounding. let’s unpack it a little.

We project what’s on the inside

Doesn’t this make sense? The eye is the lamp of the body. We project what’s inside out onto the world. Our perspective matters in how we perceive. If you’re dark on the inside, the world is going to look dark to you. Ancient thinking about how light works actually corresponded to this. Some thought that light came out in a beam from the eyes as opposed to entering it from an outside source. We know a lot more about the physics of light now, but the old thinking adds to the validity of Jesus’ description. Healthy, generous, abundant, enoughed eyes see the world differently than unhealthy, stingy, divided, never enough eyes.

You might be tempted to hear, “Get your eyes right, okay? — Don’t have bad eyes.” But, remember, Jesus is really just making an observation. These words that get translated as “healthy” and “unhealthy” also have the connotation of “generous” and “stingy.” This sense of the word is amplified by the surrounding illustrations in Matthew 6. Just before this little reflection on eyes Jesus is observing that our heart and treasure are located in the same place. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” And just after, he is observing that “you can’t serve both God and money.” It’s a whole little section on generosity and sharing in Jesus’ biggest special (😉).

Enough isn’t always enough

The fact is, our sense of security and value so easily comes from wealth. It is very easy to go to material goods for comfort and relief because they so concretely provide comfort and relief, but if we are dependent on things we can lose our basic sense of safety and self worth. We are in a very precarious position because our basic sense of enough is dependent upon external circumstances. There’s no moral lesson here at all. If you are enoughed by money you will organize around keeping it, plain and simple. If your sense of enoughness comes from material possessions they will begin to possess you, like a master. And how we choose to see the world affects our experience of it. If our eyes are enoughed, there will be enough.

Receive the invitation to see how you work without judgment. Step around the evaluative first instinct. See with Jesus, have a laugh about it and gently make the moves you need to make the changes you know will make a difference — in your seeing and sharing.

Epiphany in Not New Words

Washed by Jan L. Richardson paintedprayerbook.com

There’s this amazing moment in the gospels when Jesus comes up out of the water after John baptizes him and heaven is torn open. The veil between this world and another world is lifted. Such a glimpse beyond the ordinary is an epiphany — a strike of lightning pulsing with inspiration, clarity or God.  From the ripped seam in the sky above Jesus in the water something like a dove descends to alight upon him. And then a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

Last week when we were celebrating Epiphany I heard another translation of this voice from heaven that struck me as its own epiphany. I caught a glimmer of that shimmering dove and heard the voice afresh in my own ears . “This is my beloved son in whom I delight.”  Not too much of a difference, really, but this new language opened a sort of lock in my heart that let the water flow to a new level. I had probably heard this translation before, but something new happened this time, so I had to write it down.

The various translation of the verb eudokeō εὐδοκέω are the operative elements of my epiphany. Is it “with him I am well pleased” or “in whom I delight”? A beautiful thing about language, and especially Greek, is that it’s both! What we say and what we communicate are two things entirely. That which we hear travels through our hearts and histories before it comes to our comprehension. That which we say can never anticipate the circuitous route between every set of ears and the mind of their owner. Layers and layers of meaning pile up in each individual, and in the collective mind of any one people group. The process of translation brings these often unconscious trails to brighter light.

Malcolm Guite
malcolmguite.wordpress.com

It was in the words of a poet whom I love, Malcolm Guite (in him I delight), that I had this great experience with an ever so slight shift in linguistic direction. Poets spend their lives searching for new paths of meaning in ordinary words and experiences. They specialize in epiphanies. And though these new words were not his nor really new, I credit his trustworthy tongue (it was his mouth in which the newness of these words were found by me).  At least a few translations of the New Testament land on delight for eudokeō (Weymouth, Darby and Young’s) and Malcolm had found them for me!

“I am well pleased” is but two steps to the left or right of “I delight”, but the difference was significant to me.  I grew up with the New International Version translation of the Bible — not for any particular reason, but for the “Thinline” NIV edition embossed with my name in gold letters that my parents gave me when I was twelve. I had read the story so many times that “in whom I am well pleased” had worked its way into my heart track. Partly thus, “pleasing” and “being pleased” are part of the ground on which I stand whenever I cast my eyes to the sky in search of seams that might shutter with heavenly light from other worlds, and words of love from any heavenly father.

There are many reasons “pleasing” and “being pleased” are elemental to my psychological make up, and I haven’t identified all of them yet, but I have definitely observed this pattern of thought and heart when I relate to God. Are you pleased with me, father? Am I pleased with what you have given me, Dad? Have I done all that is required of me? Am I satisfied with this moment? These questions often come to mind when I try to settle into God’s presence, or whenever I am prompted to consider the state of my soul (Every time we gather, following after Wesley and his Holy Club, the pastors in Circle of Hope ask each other “What is the state of your soul?”). It seems I always aim to please and I’m always hoping to please myself and for my life to please me. My mind and heart are stuck on a hook of evaluation. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? I know some of you feel me on this.

But delight! “Delight” is different than “please.” I mean, not really too much though. “Please” and “delight” both have to do with pleasure or desire, but for the twists and turns that “please” took through the English language and the tiny part my life played in the meaning of the word, “please” has acquired an air of approbation resultant from evaluation. That gets me on that same evaluative hook. Please, no.

“Delight” is more effusive — more joyous. Jesus himself delights the Father. I, myself, delight the Father. Something about Jesus and me (and you) is so beautiful and lovely that just the sight of us brings a smile to heaven’s lips. God really likes Jesus, not for what he has done (which by the way is nothing of much import at least to the gospel writers at this point in their stories save being born and maybe learning scripture), but for who he is. I’m sure “I please God” could be trying to get at the same thing, but “God delights in me” is so much better. Plus it is something God is doing, not me, which sounds right. God’s delight is not dependent on me. That frees me up to be and do my best even more than the striving for satisfaction that often drives me.

May you have an epiphany today — in a poem, a new reading of the gospel, a pile of snowflakes, a shimmering sky, a fantastic melody, a good cry, a sincere prayer, your child’s tears, a winter landscape, a soapy dish, the perfect bite, a warm bed.  Pay attention. Look again. See. Hear. Delight.

Epiphany Means Christmas Ain’t Over Yet

My Parents Invented an Alternative Ritual

When I was in first grade my parents dropped a major bomb: No gifts on Christmas! I don’t remember it being too devastating because they made the alternative so fun. Instead of getting gifts form Mom and Dad on December 25th, stacked under the Christmas Tree in a perfect morning ritual of wrapping ripping and childhood joy, we would receive gifts on January 1st, our self-styled celebration of Epiphany. The Feast of Epiphany is actually January 6th (this Sunday in 2019) but my mom says that she did not want us to go back to school, usually on January 2, without our presents. They wanted the family to do something different but they didn’t want us to be left out. I did not keep our alternativity a secret. I told all of my first grade classmates how on January 1st, my parents hid presents all over the house for us to find, each one unwrapped with a little love note from them on it. As I write this, a weird memory of a drawing my friend Josh made flashes through my mind. He had written and illustrated a story about a family of fuzzy monsters who celebrated Christmas and Epiphany like my family. I can still see the crayon drawn blue horned monster on the roof of his house finding a present from his monster parents. I guess I’ve always been an evangelist.

My parents wanted to escape the commercialism of Christmas. They wanted to avoid the unavoidable association of Jesus’ birthday and getting stuff. They did not succeed but they did jam a wedge of separation between the actual day we celebrate the incarnation of God and my often greedy little desires.

Unhitch Christmas from Getting Stuff

I’m probably painting myself and all children a little too  darkly. The ritual of Christmas morning is beautiful. We give and receive gifts to celebrate the love of God expressed to us so perfectly in Jesus. And the simple joy a child so easily expresses is something worth instigating and treasuring whenever we find ourselves in its presence.  But it’s hard for any story, even Jesus’ nativity, to outshine getting stuff. My parents’ invention of a new ritual succeeded in unhitching the demand for stuff and the potential joy the extravaganza might create from the celebration of Christmas. Gift giving is not the center of my Christmas celebration. I don’t have any sense of demand about creating a perfect memory for my kids by what I buy them. I want them to receive the story more than anything else. I’m glad my parents helped me feel this way. i think their alternative ritual had something to do with it.

I have not kept up the family tradition with my own children. My wife, Gwyneth, and I give our kids gifts on Christmas Day, but with a nod to the origins of Epiphany — three gifts for each of our sons a la the three gifts the Magi brought for Jesus.

Wait, What is Epiphany?

Friend: “What did you get for Christmas?”
First Grade Me: “Nothing, I got presents for Epiphany.”
Friend: “Wait, what is Epiphany?”

Matthew 2:9-11 “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

These strange characters from far away enter Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew 2. They are led by stars and dreams and they are wealthy, so wealthy they might have been kings. Matthew calls them Magi — wise men (or wizards?). This episode is called Epiphany because it was the revelation of the Christ child to the whole world in these strange foreigners. They recognized him for who he was and worshiped him.  Epiphany comes directly from Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia). More on our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog this Sunday (or search for Epiphany there later).

Christmas Ain’t Over

The Christmas Tree in my living room is still up (On January 3rd when I’m writing this) and the lights on my house are still shining (including our very apropos star) because Christmas ain’t over yet. Even if it’s already past my family’s January 1st  Epiphany celebration, I’m holding out for January 6th to take it all down. Remember that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”? Epiphany is the 12th Day!

I already started my New Year’s diet but the feast of Christmas is still going. Our culture spreads the celebration forward through all of December and most of November, too. We love the most wonderful time of the year so we spread it all out as much as possible. You may have heard me say a million times already, but this is mostly because the marketers and manufacturers love the most wonderful time of the year for money making, and that is the main reason for the Christmas Creep. But we also love feasting and we need a good reason to celebrate. I think we moved the celebration in the wrong direction. I’m trying to hold on to the 12 Days of Christmas as another alternative. There was too much drama in Advent leading up to this celebration for it to be over in one day.

In the Catholic church, the observation of Advent was at one point a fast. Some churches still prohibit any “alleluias” being spoken in the liturgy during the season before Christmas (I love the intensity of that drama!). Our alternative of Advent leaves us with different needs. If you really take Advent seriously you need at least 12 days of Christmas. If you spent December waiting and watching and laboring with new spiritual birth instead of “jolly-christmas-time-november-december”, you need an extended Christmas.

I’m Going For All Twelve Days of Christmas

I did “jolly-christmas-time-november-december” in a lot of ways. We can take what is good from the culture without being spoiled by it. But I also did some real spiritual laboring in Advent. I withheld some of the celebration. I leaned hard into my longing and tried not to ignore the darkness into which the light of the world was coming. I’m not the last one in my neighborhood with lights still up, but I was struck by how quickly so many of my neighbors stripped it all down on the third or fourth day of Christmas. I’m going all the way to twelve! And Epiphany is a Sunday this year so I’m looking forward to a couple more Christmas parties with Circle of Hope at our meetings.

I’m overjoyed I have an alternative community to keep living the story with. Join us if you’re close by.

 

Top 5 Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

I love Christmas Music! I say bring it on Thanksgiving Day, and keep the best ones in your playlist all year long. Jesus is with us! We need the soundtrack of our lives and hearts to celebrate this as much as possible.

In honor of Christmas Music that Doesn’t Suck Part II (this Sunday, December 23rd, 2018, at 6:00 pm at Circle of Hope, 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ) I decided to compile a list of my top five favorite Christmas songs. This list is definitive of course (and subject to change as my heart demands😜).  Some made the list for their novelty, some for their theological brilliance, some because they have a special place in my experience and some just because they are my jam.

In No Particular Order: My Top Five Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

1. “If You Were Born Today” by Low LISTEN HERE

The song starts “If you were born today/ We’d kill you by age eight/Never get a chance to say… ” And then it lists a whole bunch of incendiary and beautiful things Jesus said.  The haunting harmonies characteristic of Low are perfect for this haunting song about the war torn reality of Jesus’ homeland in the present day. Jesus was dangerous, he lived in a dangerous world, as dangerous as the world we live in, and his words are still dangerous. “Peace on Earth” is an assault on the money making war makers who make our world go ’round. The whole Low Christmas album hits the right notes about who Jesus was and is and how much we need a savior. Waiting for Jesus is dark and definitely stormy. the song is jarring and somehow nostalgic at the same time. It strikes the necessary longing in me for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to be made complete.  Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

2. “Light From Light” by Andrew Yang LISTEN HERE

Andrew Yang is a Circle of Hope member who writes astoundingly beautiful songs. They are clever and catchy and they capture the heart and nuance of Biblical theology in fresh language. He is the Charles Wesley of our century (!), teaching the gospel in song so it can be sung into our hearts. I remember vividly the moment I first heard “Light from Light” on the newest album release form Circle of Hope Audio Art.  I was standing  in the parking lot of our building in Pennsauken looking at the sky, earbuds in my ears, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Wrapped tight in cloth a babe fresh from the womb/One day be bloodied and wrapped for the tomb.” That line broke my heart with gratitude for the reality of Jesus’ love for us — to live that fully human life — birth through death — all for us. I was also overjoyed that my friends could make something so well and so beautifully. The heart breaking gratitude was for them, too — all the musicians, technicians and producers who made us that album just for love.

3. “A Christmas Song (You Are Here)” by Angie Backeus LISTEN HERE

Angie Backeus and Rod White debuted this song at a Christmas Eve Vigil (come to this year’s Christmas Eve Vigil at 1125 S. Broad Street, 2nd Floor, at 10:45 on December 24th) as a duet many years ago. They sang us the first verse and chorus, then the second verse and chorus, then the last verse, and then finally invited us to sing along in the final chorus. Each chorus changes person. The first time they sang it Jesus sang his reassurance “I am here, my love, I am here/I’m the child for the child who lives in fear/and I am here, I am here.” The second time they sang it the angels sang it to us with delight, “He is here, my love, He is here/He’s the child for the child who lives in fear/and he is here, he is here.” By the time we got to the final chorus I was bursting with feelings and choked out through my tears, “You are here, my love, you are here/You’re the child for the child who lives in fear/and you are here, you are here.” I felt him there with me in a special way that night and ever since this song has the power for me to access that sense of connection and comfort with Jesus, who is with me, a big man who is often a scared little child. An added layer of beauty came this year when at the Advent Worship Relief at 2007 Frankford Ave in Philadelphia, the leaders invited us to sing the second chorus to each other. I sang “My love” right into the eyes of another covenant member with whom I do not spend a lot of time, but I meant it. She is my love because we are united in the love of Jesus. In that moment it was not just an idea or a conviction, I felt love for her in a special way then, too. Beautiful. Thanks, Angie!

4. “White Horse” by Over the Rhine LISTEN HERE

Advent is not just about remembering Jesus’ first Advent (“Advent” means “arrival”) but this wonderful season leading up to Christmas is also about waiting for Jesus’ second Advent — when he comes again. Revelation says that Christ will come on a white horse and set everything right. Everything that is still so painfully wrong in this world will be made right. Creation will be restored, wars will cease to the ends of the earth, every tear and every sigh — all of it will be addressed. “(Hush now, baby) Someday we’re gonna ride (Hush now, baby) Your white horse through the sky.” Yes, baby Jesus, the world into which you are born, the world in which you are God-with-us, Emmanuel, now — the one we all live in and too many die in — is splattered with woe, but you’re coming back. Yes, he’s coming back. Not many Christmas songs get at this hope the way this one does.

5. “Hark the Herald” Angels Sing by Carrie Underwood LISTEN HERE

Of course there are other and probably better versions of this song, but Carrie Underwood stole my heart (or gave me a bigger one) on B101 as I was driving home from the hospital the day after my first son, Oliver was born. It surprised me like an actual host of herald angels were singing to me — Jesus had come for Oliver too. God sent his son for my son. I think it was that moment I actually became a father because it was suddenly true that I was not my own. I felt the weight of my responsibility to Oliver in a way that changed me forever. I had given myself to Jesus in baptism. I had given myself to my wife, Gwyneth, in marriage. I had an idea what it meant to belong to someone, but I didn’t really know what it meant until Oliver was born and Carrie Underwood was singing this song on the radio. Oliver had made no choice as I had when I dedicated myself to Jesus’ Way or a life with Gwyneth. I belonged to him, and Gwyneth and I were responsible for that, not him. I was his in a way I had never been anybody’s, really. The terror of that never fully registered in me because the reality of it struck me in this overwhelming moment of gratitude that Jesus was Oliver’s too. I understood what it meant in another beautiful song found in Philippians “by taking the very nature of a servant,/being made in human likeness./And being found in appearance as a man,/he [Jesus] humbled himself.” Oliver humbled me, and at the same time helped me to take a step closer toward having  “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

 

Well, that’s my list! Thanks for reading (and hopefully listening). Add your favorites in the comments!

 

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. 

 

 

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