Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: February 2015

A New Cell is Born

cell1Out of nowhere, we were sharing our struggles and gathering around Jesus!  A couple of weeks ago I met up with my friend Pat and convinced him we should have a cell in his house.  Last night we met for the first time–seven of us in his comfy living room, eating and not eating cookies (Lent!) and forming a cell.

A cell is the basic building block of Circle of Hope’s body, just like a human cell is the basic building block of our bodies.  For many of you that’s old hat.  But for quite a few people at the meeting last night it was news.  It was wonderful to try to express the beauty of what some of us had experienced and present this way of being the church to a new audience.

We believe that in relationships that form in cell groups we actually get to be Christians.  Anonymity is impossible in a circle so small and people get known.  People’s loveliness gets known and their not so loveliness.  We get the opportunity to speak the truth in love and not just wait for someone to change on their own, or go away if they’re bothering us or if they’re damaging themselves.

One woman told a recent horror story of a family member’s experience with a church.  When she was in a very delicate state the leader blasted her and talked badly about her behind her back.  I blurted out in response, “This is why people aren’t Christians!”  Again and again I hear stories of people being side by side in a church and they never get to know each other, they never have a conflict, they never love each other until some precipitating factor ignites the tinder and hearts are broken–sometimes faith is lost.

I keep coming back to Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Phil. 2:1-2)

If we are actually connected to the living Jesus then we need to do what it takes to be connected to each other.  We have to listen and feel each other out so that we can say with certainty that yes, we are of one mind and one spirit.  The equation can be turned around too.  If we are not of one mind and one spirit are we united with Christ?  I know that Jesus can reach out to us in our isolation–that’s what he has been doing since he was born–but once we become Christians we bear a hefty responsibility to work this stuff out in love.  It takes work.  The cell is a great vehicle for that–it is a weekly discipline that we can build into our lives.  It is costly to our schedules, no doubt, but worth the cost by far.

Last night we were just sharing something about our days and another woman shared what was happening with her and it was instantly recognized as “heavy”.  Her pain was acknowledged and the isolation that she might have felt (because we all feel isolated to a degree- even in a group) melted and started to drip.  God was doing something.  We gathered around Jesus and good things happened.  I’m excited for next week and who we will include in that love.

Your spiritual nerve endings may be shot

synapseAt a couple different stages in childhood, our brain pruned neurons that were underused.  It was creating clearer pathways, concentrating energy, codifying regular patterns.  It’s called synaptic pruning (How crazy wonderful is the human brain?!  I’m imagining a lumpy gardener with tiny shears.)

What’s done is done.  We can’t grow those neurons back.  New pathways can still be created with the existing neurons—detours can be made—we can probably get to a lot of the same places in our brains but it becomes definitively slower as possible pathways are limited.  The endless possibilities of a child’s brain find their ends.  Our conditioning matters for how our brain works for the rest of our lives.

I think this is the same with our spiritual nerve endings.  Our hearts are permanently changed by our conditioning.  I believe that the tightknit Christian community I lived in as a young child conditioned me for an abiding sense of safety in the faith.  If I was born with a special proclivity toward trusting God it was amplified in the security of my formative years.  I feel safe with God.  That safety allows me to risk more easily in ways that are harder for others.

Others have experienced such an intense breach of trust or such a consistent disappointment from the Church that they are forever damaged.  Their spiritual nerve endings were mangled in the difficult relationship and the poor relating of the ones who claimed Christ as Lord.  A common reaction to a conflict in the church is to cut and run, and in so doing many have cut themselves—maybe even leaving the part of themselves that was best at connecting with God behind.  And now not only are they cut off from that community, they are cut off from God.  The isolation that this scenario brings about is the predicament in which many Americans find themselves.

HBOgo.com recently released the Spike Jonez film, “Her”, for streaming.  I watched it and was delighted by the parable of modern interaction with technology.  Without too many spoilers, because I think it is worth watching, the premise is that in a not too distant future a company produces a computer/phone operating system that can relate and learn.  The main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix and named Theodore (which means Gift of God), falls in love with his operating system who names herself Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson.  His profession is writing love letters on behalf of others for beautifulhandwrittenloveletters.com.  He wonders aloud if he has lost the ability to feel or to relate to anything but a machine.  He is separated from his wife who he tried to love but from whom he kept his full self.  He is resisting the divorce proceedings in a depressed state.  On the way home from work before the OS saves him he tells his phone to play a melancholy song and when it doesn’t suit him he says “play a different melancholy song.”

Her-insideHe is crafting an emotional experience with the technology.  His job is manufacturing emotional connection for others.  His life’s love is an operating system.  His emotional and spiritual nerve endings are shot.  His heart is pruned like a 6 year old’s brain.

Do you feel this way sometimes?  Does your heart get hard at the sight of the other with whom you have unresolved conflict?  Are you waiting for it to get hard and flake off?  We’re probably not aware of all the things which fry our capacity to love and trust, but I bet we’re aware of some.  Let’s look at them full in the face, feel the pain they cause us, and awaken to the remaining working parts of ourselves.

Lent is a time for this sort of waking up.  We flex our spiritual muscles and give our spiritual nerve endings a few laps around the track.  We find out what’s dead and we put it to death. We find out what’s still alive and we nurse it back to health.  Of course this is the life of a Christian all year, except when it isn’t.  I always seem to need something to train for to keep at my disciplines, to keep my eyes open, to keep my heart soft.  What better event to train for than resurrection and Easter sunrise?

Yes and yes and yes: Partners old and new are to be found

I asked God, “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?”

diego rivera

Note her hands

I breathed deep and felt the room beyond my closed eyelids expand with my diaphragm.  The people seated in a circle with me withdrew.  In my mind’s eye, the distance grew between me and Kim who sat cross legged on the couch across the rug from me.  Like a balloon filling with air, like an eternally exploding universe, like rising dough—the space between us got bigger—not in an isolating way, not in an outstretched hand and slow motion “noooo”, but in a long sigh of contentment as we became supple clay in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I got bigger too as I breathed deep again.  My closed eyes saw my hands had inflated too.  They were Diego Rivera paintings- comically thick and stubby.  It was as if my cells were making room for God.  I breathed again, spread wide and open to hear the “yes.”

Bryce led us to ask God our question again.  “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?  Does anyone want to plant and multiply cell groups that include new people in circles like this one where God stretches us out and pours himself in with sweet soul honey that makes your lips curl as you breathe love deep, drink love down and melt into it a little more each time?”

The answer was still yes.

A third time, Brother Bryce, instructed us to ask God our question.  A third time I asked, “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?” … and I hesitantly, meekly added a quiet “with me?”  A third time, “Yes.”

It was a deep down in between my cells affirmative.  A beautiful exercise from Bryce led me down into a sorely needed confidence as I teeter on the rim of a new canyon adventure, crossing borders and finding fresh places for the Spirit to move.  The movement started its freshening in me, splashing through the narrows of my heart in that tiny moment of perception in a circle with the partners I already have.  Their yes readied the next.  Their dedicated leadership is a foundational yes for our cell movement, which stands to expand this year as we as a Circle of Hope are entering our Second Act as a church.  Bryce, Kim, Nate, Joel, Sara and Donna.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Many of them joined in the raucous chorus of yes we celebrated at the Love Feast a few weeks ago.  Again I was asking the questions, this time after the words of Brother Paul in Philippians 2.

The Love Feast

The Love Feast

“Do we have any encouragement from being united with Christ?” I asked.

“Yes, we are encouraged” the reply was a boom that shook my heart.

“Any comfort from his love?” I asked them

“Yes, we are comforted” even more joined in with emphatic enthusiasm.

“Any common sharing in the Spirit, any tenderness and compassion?” third ask.

“Yes, and yes, and yes” 200 or more sang three yeses back.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been getting a lot of yeses from partners new and old.  I’m running around the camp finding out for sure who is with me and I am encouraged.  The answer is yes!  People aren’t just saying yes to me, though it does feel good on a personal level to receive that yes.  They are saying yes to Jesus and his mission here.  There are people we don’t even know yet who will say yes if we ask them.

“Do you want to do this?  Do you want to create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.? Do you want to be an opportunity to explore and express God’s love?  Do you want to be a circle of Hope?”

“Yes”

And God says to their yes, “But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”  (2 Corinthians 1:18-22)