Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: September 2015

The Popacalypse, Canon Law and Belonging to Jesus

The Pope is coming to town here in Philadelphia and with it he is bringing a bunch of speculation on canon law and whether the Catholic church will change to reflect our evolving cultural values. Recently he announced a year of mercy that extended the capacity to absolve women of the sin of abortion from bishops and their special designees to all priests all over the world. The media heard the word “abortion” and put it on blast. They thought maybe the Pope was going to come out in favor of Roe v. Wade. In actuality this was a technical expansion of the rights of priests to extend the absolution of God to people more conveniently. Without this measure women still marked with ritual uncleanliness would have to submit a claim of sorts to the bishop whom they didn’t even know. What the what?

As far as Popes go, Francis is a great one. But he is still head of the Catholic church which is built on a system that adjudicates the absolution of people based on 1752 canon laws. The media likes the Pope. They like the frenzy of 4 million people in Philly, but they treat his faith as an artifact. And why shouldn’t they? Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. Building and maintaining a system of laws make’s what Paul says in Romans 7 sound ridiculous. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Do we belong to Jesus, the other who was raised form the dead, or do we belong to the law? I think Francis belongs to Jesus. I think many Catholics do too, but I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law that breeds a lot of law abiding citizens who never get to belong to Jesus.

On Monday night at the cell leader training, Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors, reminded us of Circle of Hope’s proverb, “One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.” We need to say this a lot more because we all seem to be idealists who cannot live up to our own expectations. I certainly am prone to an “all or nothing” mentality that is self-defeating a lot of the time. So hear it again in a different way: We don’t need to live up to a perfect law to belong to Jesus. We need to say this a lot because the Catholics aren’t the only ones who are producing law abiding citizens. My “all or nothing” mentality is another law that often stands in opposition to belonging to Jesus.

My “all or nothing” process isn’t unique either. I don’t know how often I hear my friends say that they are uncomfortable telling someone about their belonging to Jesus because they fear that they don’t live up to Jesus’ standards. I think they don’t live up to their own vague ideas of what they think Jesus might be thinking of them. The legacy of canon law mixes in our collective understanding with all the other laws of the land- from Roe v. Wade, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. There are so many laws and rules and regulations! A result of this is what our pastor, Rod White, described in his dissertation as “The Great Other.” We all live an atmosphere dominated by huge unknown forces that seem to demand huge responses. There is a glut of information about the calamities of our age, and the shortcomings of the church and its leaders over the years. Many individual Christians take this collection of sins on the chin. Everyone knows how much you suck and the “Great Other” threatens to highlight that fact yet again. One of the patent responses to the hugeness of this problem is staying in your lane and finding very specific places in which we can claim some level of expertise. For example I might say, “I can’t deal with all that big stuff, but if you want to know about 21st century cat memes I have a blog about them and I think I’ve seen all the ones that have legitimately achieved viral status.”

The problem is that Jesus is not interested in expertise. We can’t use that method of security. Expertise is just another law that is thrown in the mix. But one does not become an expert in Jesus. One can become an expert on canon law which is why it is so comforting for so many people. It is manageable. It stands up to the vagueness that plagues us. But Jesus wants us to belong to him. Our faith is not quantifiable. It is story. It is heart song. It is relationship. It doesn’t match up to the law that many people use to protect themselves from this big threat that we have internalized and live by without really knowing it. Jesus, save us from the power of that law. I’m praying that Francis’ big show awakens the region to Jesus despite the interwoven law and that many people end up belonging to Jesus anyway, and hopefully partnering with Circle of Hope.

Why not? A cell with teenagers

There is one teenager in my current cell. It is very interesting to include him in our discussions and find out how he is working with this cell full of adults, and some adults who are a lot older than him. I started participating in cells when I was a teenager and I thought it was the coolest. I was out from under the shadow of my pastor dad’s leadership and free to experience the Circle of Hope community and my own faith for myself. I would describe my teenage discipleship as fairly ambivalent. I had mentally assented to the story of Jesus in the New Testament but I wasn’t very interested in real discipleship-walking in obedience, praying on my own, or sharing my faith as more than an intellectual artifact. However, being in cells allowed me to hang out with people who I thought were cool who were meeting regularly to express their faith. The gravity of those people’s faith and mutuality kept me in orbit long enough for me to have a real encounter with Jesus. I’m hoping that my current cell mate has a similar experience.

I met about 30 teenagers last night who are part of a Christian based service organization who are in need of some more discipleship. They’re in need of some gravity as they are in similar modes of ambivalence about their faith. The culture leads them in a lot of different directions and teenagers, as a matter of their psychological development, identify themselves most strongly by the groups they inhabit. o went to pitch them the idea of a cell as a way to be a group that identifies with Christ. Many of them  interested in forming a cell with me! They were already part of a group that helped them identify as Christians but they wanted more opportunities to get real and go deep – to have faith that was more than ambivalent. They also liked the notion that it would be whatever we wanted it to be. They would be instrumental in inventing this new cell or it wouldn’t happen.

I think, by and large, teenagers are also just bored and lonely. These particular teens live in neighborhoods where the only thing to do is run the streets with unsavory peers. These kids aren’t into that so they sit in the house all day and reach the limits of electronic communion pretty quickly. They want to connect.

So why not? Let’s make a cell of teenagers. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know. It doesn’t exist yet so you could help make it up with them if you want to act now.