Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (page 1 of 15)

Nobody Wants to Deny the Flesh: Audre Lorde and Jesus on the Erotic

Learning new things at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books

I went to a book reading at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown, Philadelphia last month. Adrienne Maree Brown was reading from her new book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.  It was a fascinating time with a very diverse crowd of people. I kind of stumbled into the crowd, having not planned on going to the event, but I’m very glad I went because I have been stimulated by it ever since. Brown attributed the thesis of her book to Audre Lorde’s paper presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978 that was later published as a chapter in Sister Outsider, 1984 Audre Lorde and The Crossing Press. Brown got permission to reprint the entirety of the essay as the prologue to her book. Her book is essentially a creative elaboration on Lorde’s thesis in a series of essays.

In many ways (though not exclusively), Lorde and Brown  work to deconstruct the religious hold on sexual expression in American society. This deconstruction is what culture warriors who dominate Evangelical Christian discourse have been defending against since the sexual revolution began in the sixties (and maybe before). Today, the established sexual norms and mores of one hundred years ago and earlier have almost completely lost their potency. Many Evangelicals and other traditionalists (often labeled “Conservative” by themselves or others) lament this loss. I can see why they might lament, but I am not interested in the power they had or perceived to have, which allows me to consider this shift with a little less subjectivity.

Audre Lorde and the erotic

I have a different subject. I am looking for the Holy Spirit’s movement in all things and can see it in this loss of power. Getting the Christian  Church of the hook of morality policing is a potential opportunity for us who would share the Good News with a post Christian world. Audre Lorde is helping me see a better way to continue our conversation about human sexuality that departs from much of how the conversation has been framed. Her words resonate deeply with my experience of my self, my life, my art and my relationship with God (something I wish I could talk to her about because I have a feeling she might have objections. Alas, she died in 1992.) Her observation that the slanderous conflation of the “erotic” and the “pornographic” was a ploy of the domination system designed to relegate an inherently feminine power to the realm of the obscene was like a lightbulb in a dark room for me. Lorde defines pornography as “a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Yes! Uncovering the good that has been subsumed by bad is resurrection. There is life in these words even if I don’t follow Lorde to all of her conclusions.

Lorde further defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various source of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. ” This is true. She doesn’t need my affirmation, but I give it. She was speaking to a group of women but I believe this is true for men as well. I may not be able to access the same female plane she describes, but it makes sense to me that the overlapping space of the sensual and the spiritual is at the heart of all human flourishing. And, yes, that space she calls the erotic, has been erroneously buried under another source of knowing and power that is much more male, intellectual and sterile (as in not fruitful, not fecund, not capable of creating life or speaking to the deepest parts of life).

Again, Lorde writes “we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self discipline but of self-abnegation.” This distinction between self discipline and self abnegation is what shines brightest for me in Lorde’s paper and brings me to Jesus. who had some things to say about self discipline and self abnegation.

What should we cut off? What should we grow back?

“If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”?  I think it has something to do with what Lorde describes as the proper use of erotic power. “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. ..[And it underlines] my capacity for joy.” She later adds, “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. ” Jesus might say that it is that type of using that needs to be denied. The self that cannot be shared because it belongs too much to its owner is only capable of using and thus incapable of the real joy God made us for. Listening to Audre Lorde or Adrienne Maree Brown I felt like they had accessed some of that joy.  And that joy is very attractive.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”  (Matthew 5:29-30) This is not as attractive to modern readers. Jesus was serious about mastering our sin. And we who follow him cannot just  embrace all of our desires as if they are good by nature of them being our desires (I think this might be Brown’s perspective and the new orthodoxy of American society). The tension between satisfaction and denial of our desires needs to be more active than it is. It seems their are two poles of action: deny the flesh and all the joy it might bring or embrace it as the best source of meaning in a Godless world. Neither option is satisfactory but the seeming dichotomy comes from this denial of the erotic which Lorde so well defines. But we have poorly defined sin and cut off a part of our humanity in the imposition of the bad definition.

All that is erotic has been defined as sinful, probably because not enough men gouged out their eyes or cut off their members. Instead they controlled women and denied the potential erotic in themselves because it came less naturally and because it was harder to share the feeling and not just use others. St. Augustine of Hippo will go down in history as the reformed womanizer whose personal process of self abnegation became cosmological fact and defined hundreds of years of theology and subsequent societal views on the erotic. He was awesome in a lot of ways, if only he hadn’t been so influential in this regard! Disastrous!

The erotic within us can be redeemed and this is not just a matter of sexual ethics. Again, Audre Lorde: “the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone… [because] once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” This sounds a lot like picking up your cross and following Jesus to me.  We must deny the part of ourselves that is so hell bent on using others. But we do not need to deny the erotic itself. Previous generations, in their zeal, cut it off, but it can grow back.

Free to consider the erotic with Jesus

I think we need to listen to Adrienne Maree Brown and Audre Lorde because they are excavating a part of us that we need for the abundant life Jesus offers us. But I don’t want to follow them where they lead. I think Adrienne Maree Brown exercises another kind of imprudent zeal in her pendulum swing away from the erotic’s encasement in traditional sexual morality and the power structures that enforced it.  I am not cutting off sexual morality as if it were a member or an eye that caused me to stumble. I want to follow Jesus .When Paul says in Galatians 5:24 “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” I can’t believe he means all pleasure, but I can’t deny that he means some pleasure. Not all desires are good.  And not all good is always good. But the source of good, the Father of Jesus Christ gives good gifts to those who ask.

With the door to the erotic, which had been slammed shut and bolted, successfully propped open, we can consider our potential for shared feeling and joy it affords. I think we need to evaluate our desires more in line with this rubric of sharing joy that Audre Lorde describes than with legislation, religious or governmental.  This requires the Holy Spirit in community. We say in Circle of Hope, “How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.”  This is a needed addition to Lorde’s rubric, but not a negation of her beautiful reflection on what it means to be a human being. Jesus’ project is to make us become fully human as he was. And yes, Jesus was erotic, even if not sexually. We are being made perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. All parts of us are subject to that perfection if we allow them to be. So smell a flower, write a poem, make something, make love (to your spouse!) — enjoy what God is giving you and practice sharing that joy in community.

 

 

So I Started Writing Sonnets

“As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist.  Which is what the sonnet is, first and foremost: a small square poem. It presents both poet and reader with a vivid symmetry that is the perfect emblem of the meaning a sonnet seeks to embody… so a sonnet is a paradox, a little squared circle, a mandala that invites our meditation.”

— Don Patterson
via Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

The beginning of my sonnet craft will forever be inextricable with the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He is my muse and my mother, feeding me inspiration and strong food. Publishing these sonnets here is an invitation to you into my mandala, and a prayer for improvement for me. Please give me feedback if you are so inclined.

I enjoy the order of it, the game of saying something just so while striving to say something more than fun. Am I just clever or have a dug a little deeper than rhyme and rhythm? Have I said something worth saying? I’m still unsure, but it IS fun! And often it is revealing to me. The meditation of the making is more than enough to keep going. I hope you enjoy.

 

Blue Whale Buffet
(For Rod)

Blue whale, biggest ever born behemoth,
Whose bite’s much softer than all those who prey,
Whose song sends echoes far below green froth,
And whose serenity seems to us say,
“Can you have trust as one so big as I
Must have to grow so large off tiny krill?”
You, whale, so massive, look me eye-to-eye,
And share with me a portion of that which will
From remnants grow beyond the dinosaurs.
Give me heart beats for miles that thrum with hope–
Mine and ours, as we float and one day soar.
For now, receiving with more “thanks” than “nope”
All that’s given from your creator’s hand,
And not despising when we can’t or can.

 

Moo-oo-oon, God
(January 21, 2019 After the Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse)

Did you realize you made this pink moon trick?
And is it blasphemy to wonder if
The God of all the universe might pick
The constants, hold their decimals from shift,
Then let the rest unwind so unimpinged?
Are you allowed to be surprised by all
You’ve made? Like this moon now shown blood tinged?
Would that offend someone who couldn’t call
Themselves a Christian, or do only those
Self-proclaimed comprehenders really know
Why you designed eclipses white or rose?
Creation made but un-enjoyed — a show
That could be pure delight but willed by most
To be dumb fact or some machine-god’s ghost.

 

Being Seen Seeing

I caught your eyes on me when my own eyes
Were curiously cast and caught on you,
There seated by whoever was that guy
In whose car you o’er the river flew.
And two lanes to your right I glanced across
To see your pretty brake light tinted face,
That’s when perhaps you knew and so you tossed
Your own inquiring look that shrank my grace.
But not before we shared a second locked
As one in two, disarmed and not unsure
Of being seen seeing and yet un-shocked.
I know because you looked again once more.
On eastward slopes of Whitman’s river span,
We knew in silence what no mind could plan.

 

Prohurus’ Pen
(Prohurus is the legendary assistant to John the Revelator)

His words came slowly from a twisted face,
Shaped not by pain but by un-quenched desire.
With all his might he fought to find the space
In which the words and visions would conspire
To full reveal the depth of what he saw
When darkness burst with shining and he went
With Him who called him by his very awe,
On up to where the veil between was rent.
But how to say it well when now was here
And then was all of it in instant blast?
The seals, the lamps, the bowls and holy fear
The beast, the fire and all the crowns off-cast.
John wrung the words from dreaming, shaped them hour
By hour, and we, the channel of this pow’r.

 

Beside Interstate 90 Outside of Sioux Falls Almost Twenty Years Ago

I’m going back to South Dakota soon,
To see the prairie’s amber waving grain,
To stand beside the road and sing a tune
Of ocean’s swirling down history’s drain
But leaving here these waves, this roar and span
For eyes to cast across and somewhere lose
Their place to find it ‘neath their feet again—
Where Earth is solid but she wants to choose
A much more liquid state – to come alive
And shake me off my feet. Do you want to dance?
Shall I fall down on my knees? Should I strive
For footing in these waves or lose my stance
To swim in wonder and Dakota soil –
To dive down deep below this standing’s toil?

 

Haddonfield is Flooded

A geyser of the sweetest joy had built
And built the pressure under their school floor
Until it burst at three oh three and spilt
Across the street and into all the stores.
The flood of smiling children gushing out
Undid whatever dams or dikes inside
Me still intact to hold it back – my spout.
So when their Friday faces were untied
My own resistance too was overcome.
Surprised by joy again with old C.S,
Surprised this could amount to such a sum,
Suburban streets could yield from me excess.
A single tear enough for evidence
That life was better than my darkened lens.

 

I Guess It Was the Spirit

“Why did you talk to me?” Ty asked my friend Tre over text later that afternoon.

Tre answered, “We prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide us and that’s what happened.”

Well, Tre, that’s not exactly what it felt like.  But why wouldn’t it be true? What does my feeling have to do with the reality? Why am I praying for that (because I definitely did pray for that) if I don’t think it will happen? Why do I wonder if it did happen the way I asked for when it happened? Tre was teaching me something about life in the Spirit.

Thanks, Tre

Tre is 25 (more than 10 years younger than me) and he is my teacher. He is on staff with Intervarsity, a parachurch college ministry that wants to help evangelize campuses across the country. He was heavily influenced by Intervarsity’s work when he was a college student (not that long ago) and now he has dedicated his life to starting new chapters in our South Jersey Region. He started one at Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC). I’m helping him start one at Rowan College at Gloucester County College (RCGC) . And he has designs to start one at Camden County College in the fall. I love this guy!

He recently wrote, “A question for us to bring to the Lord is ‘Lord, what is it you want to do at RCGC? What do you want to do through us? God, give us a authoritative vision for how to mark your campus. Give us courage to act, the power to love, and unity in purpose.” That’s a good prayer! Have you ever prayed anything like that?

Our confidence does not come from our confidence. Our courage does not come from our courage. The places we inhabit are not our places. It’s all God’s.

When I walked up to Ty in the cafeteria I didn’t think about it too much. He was sitting by himself and did not have earbuds in or even a phone out. He seemed available and approachable so I gravitated toward him. We kind of freaked him out because it seemed so timely. He had been thinking (even dreaming) about his relationship with God a lot recently and he wasn’t sure what all that meant. Ty (whose name I changed for this story) didn’t really connect to the Bible Study that Tre and I  started, but his response to our invitation has me thinking about the stories I tell and the possibilities of the Spirit that I might be missing.

How The Bible Tells Me So

Here’s a favorite story about evangelism in the Bible:

Acts 8:26-38 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

These fantastic things get told in such a matter of fact way. There isn’t much editorializing. Luke (the writer of Acts) doesn’t say, “And Philip was freaking out” or “He wasn’t sure what to make of this strange urge to go stand by a chariot on the side of the road.” It is simply “The Spirit told.” That’s how Tre tells stories, too!

How I Tell Me So

I want to believe that Philip’s experience with the Spirit is very similar to mine. My experience is fairly ordinary — I prayed with Tre, then I walked up to the first person who seemed approachable and talked to them about this Bible study I wanted to start and we got into a pretty cool spiritual conversation that the person really needed to have. If I were in Philip’s place I might of told the story like this:

Best version of Philip yet from “AD Kingdom and Empire” #bringbackAD

Ok, so the Angel thing was undeniable. I can’t describe him to you, but he was like a man, but obviously not. When he spoke his lips didn’t move but it felt like the words spoke me. So I knew what I had to do.  I went where I was sent. (Having a sense of our sent-ness is really important, right?). When I got to the Gaza Road I had barely been walking for 20 minutes when this whole entourage of important people came rolling out of the city. I figured this is what I had been sent for so I walked beside the chariot as close as I could and when he started reading Isaiah out loud I was like, “Of course!” And then bing, bang, boom — first non-Jewish follower of Jesus. Whaaat?!

That’s how it feels for me. When two of the eight or so people who came to our Bible Study this semester decided to follow Jesus for the first time, I’m like “Whaaat?!” It shouldn’t have “worked.” It wasn’t that good. I didn’t have this dynamite sense of God’s power rushing through me the whole time. (BTW Have I ever felt that?) It doesn’t all make sense, so it must be the Spirit.

Be Sent

I got sent to RCGC. Tre really just pulled me all the way in before I could really talk myself out of it. And I’m so glad he did because I got to participate in some real Spirit stuff. RCGC is God’s. People there are looking to make a relationship with God. I don’t know what is going to happen next. This is fun! Pray for what happens there next semester.

And pray that you might feel sent somewhere yourself. Not just to start Bible Studies or one of Circle of Hope’s Cells but to bring whatever you’ve been given to where you find yourself. It is your sense of sent-ness that I desire most. Your home with your kids all day, your lunch break at the falafel truck, your early morning weeding at the community garden Wherever you are, be sent.

Hope for the Darkness in Story Form

Here’s a short story I wrote.

John the Baptist Died in Hope

a story by Ben White imagined from Luke 7:18-25 and  Mark 6:14-29

Tonight there was a torch in the hall. So, as had become his custom, he lay his cheek against the cold stone floor of the cell to watch under the door. It was like his eyes needed the light that danced on the other side. Some nights there was no torch and he stayed in the dark. He slept and woke as if the two were the same.

There were no contours to the dim light of day. The grayness that penetrated this deep into this giant stone building came and went with no edge. He had carefully watched the smooth passage several times through his threshold crack, but as much as he tried, the growth and fade of day did not occur strongly enough to be conceived as action. The long interval did little more than remind him that he was still there in this prison.

What seemed like miles of stone above his head bore down on him. He was oppressed by the solidity of the structure over him. He longed for the desert sky, the swirls and shouts of all those starry friends, all together telling infinite stories. Their lights seemed loud in his eyes somehow. This torch was a whisper, but a welcome one. He would listen to what she danced to say. He pressed his forehead against the thick wood of the door and opened wide his left eye — enough to feel the draft of the hall on the sensitive wet skin inside his eyelid. Trying not to blink too much he watched every moment of the torch’s burning. The crack did not give him an angle to see her directly so it was her echo only that he watched. In his mind’s eye, he saw her gripped maybe by a bolt in the wall, but free to sway and shutter in her fireyness, fixed but moving, circumscribed but still not safe, she bounced off the stones of the wall and floor, cutting jagged shadows now toward him then away.

He could not figure out why the passage was lit only some nights and not all. Perhaps the servant boy was negligent most of the time? The presence of light seemed to mean nothing consistently. Nothing always happened in the light. A lit hall could yield a jingling tromp of soldiers, or not. A visitor or not. A new prisoner in the cell next to him, or not. The last neighbor had left days ago and despite his best efforts, he had not gotten him to answer, not even to his loudest whisper. He sang to him anyway, as he had sung to the stars and snakes in the desert those many nights alone.

He laughed now at how he used to curse the sun for being too hot at noon, or being too absent at midnight. When you live alone that long, you need someone with whom you can squabble. He loved to hate the sun, but now, he would do anything to feel the familiar sting of sweat in his eyes. Not enough water or food to sweat down here. He knew he wouldn’t last. He had begun to hope that Herod would kill him, but he wouldn’t admit that to himself.

As the light approached and retreated from his single eye, he remembered the big comings and goings of his life. There were the angels, of course. They came to his family when he was a baby, but went so long ago. He had no memory of them really, but for his parents’ stories. His father still had the writing tablet on which he had written, “His name is John.” In his father’s old age, it was the only story he told. God bless him. He was still alive, somehow, at least he had heard news not long before he had been put in this place that, yes, Zachariah of Bethzaith was among the living. His mother was gone, she had never really recovered from his own leaving, but Elizabeth lived a good many years after he left home.

He was her baby boy, her truest joy, the one God had given her. There was no bitterness in her grief, but he felt it nonetheless, stretching through the valleys and over the hills, to the roofless home God had called him to there by the Jordan. She knew he had to go; she did not protest. Her promise was true, but how could she let him go, the baby who leapt for joy in her belly? He felt the pain of her goodbye, smiling tears and too many blessings. He was young. Too young, but just young enough to go to the wilderness with nothing but longing.  He didn’t know it at fifteen, but someone had to become the one they now called the Baptizer. And then all the people who began coming to him in the Jordan! They needed the fire he had kindled inside him over years of cold desert nights. He knew the words of the prophets of old like they were his, and some of them became his as much as theirs. The people listened. They heard God in his voice.

He hadn’t been alone for all those years. People came to him in the desert. Most came and went, but some stayed. Young men, 18, 16, 15. Men just like him, who felt the longing stronger than those who came just to be baptized. They built huts, but John refused to sleep in them. He needed to sing to the stars, quieter now, because in their presence, privacy had begun to matter. Community was the reward of his success as a prophet, but it cost him the naked joy of unbridled midnight songs. He kept his singing to himself, until desperate, there in the cell, he coaxed his silent neighbor with as many hymns as he could remember to no avail.

His light continued to lunge and lean away. He could tell by her sputtering that she would not last long. In preparation for the darkness, he turned his mind to Jesus. The One who had come to take away the sins of the world, the One for whom John was born, and for whom Baby John had leapt. Of course he couldn’t remember it, but he had done more conscious leaping since. His own insides leapt when God told him, that it was him, Jesus, Mary’s son, for whom he had been longing all those years. John chuckled, He wasn’t even wearing sandals when he showed up that day to be baptized–when he came “to fulfill all righteousness,” he said. His objection was mostly for show. It was clear to him that God’s lamb would humble himself like this, and then God made it clear to everyone who was there. Heaven opened up, brighter than any star, and they heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Nonetheless, he felt his mother’s pain when he told his disciples to go and follow Jesus. “He must increase but I must decrease.” That’s what he told the Pharisees when they came to him at Aenon near Salim, and he still knew it was the right thing to say, but the loss was real. How long had those men stayed with him? Jonathan, Gideon and Samson; the judges; Simeon, John, the younger, Seth and Eliel. They were all following Jesus now. He didn’t even want them to stay when they first came, but they had broken his resistance. They had penetrated his solitude. How many times must I be made and unmade, Lord?

He feared this was the last time. Herod would let him rot in this cell, and it wouldn’t take forever for his body to do so. He tried to accept that, but regret crept into his confidence. When he had shouted those words at Herod about his brother’s wife he felt nothing but confidence. That charlatan! King of the Jews?  Leave your Mediterranean morality across the sea. “It is not lawful for you to have her,” he said. And he was right, but did he have to say it? Was this how God wanted it all to end?

But “the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” John said that himself. Did he believe it? Did he believe in the Son? Is this the life he was meant to see? In the darkness, it was hard to see anything clearly. Jesus had not done what John had expected. He went back to Galilee. He said little of Herod. He spoke almost nothing of the Romans. It seemed like he didn’t care. When would Israel be delivered, and how in the world would this deliverer ever deliver them?

But tonight, with the torch dancing in his eyes, he was swinging away from his questions. He was even a little embarrassed that he had sent that message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Not long after he was arrested he got the chance to send word. The torch was lit one night and it happened to mean visitors–for him. Jonathan and Simeon, his old friends, had come to see him.  Simeon’s father was not Jewish, a Roman Guard Commander in Joppa, but his Father’s brother, a man named Atilius, was a guard in the prison. It was Atilius who had arranged for his nephew, Simeon, to come with Jonathan.

They couldn’t stay long. Atilius stood guard at the door and preferred not to be seen. Their chance of discovery was low, but not impossible. At that point in his captivity, John’s light-longing desperation had not yet grown to the point where he watched under the door when the torch was lit, but he did hear the shuffle of their feet when they came. He was frightened when the bar of light beneath his door didn’t flicker with shadows of passing feet, but was steadily eclipsed by people standing on the other side.

And then the click of the lock.

When Jonathan and Simeon came into the cell the fear subsided only when they spoke. They were faceless silhouettes and his eyes hadn’t focused on anything for too long. “Master!” They said in unison, and they hugged him in a clump in his corner. What had he mastered, though? They told him of all the things Jesus was doing. The healings, the signs and wonders, but also the things he had said. John had heard tell of some of these things too, when he was free.

Forgiveness of sins? Breaking the Sabbath? “Could such a man really be the One?” Jonathan asked. There was an urgency in his voice. John wondered too, even worried. Atilius rapped the door three times. Their conversation was over.

“You will ask him,” John said. He stood feebly on his weakened knees, “Send this message to Jesus the Nazarene, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” And they were gone.

That could have been months ago. How could he tell? However long it had been, that question had eaten a hollowness in him that only the thought of Jesus could fill. Only the warmth of that light from heaven by the Jordan could satisfy this hunger, this need, this lack… The joy that was completed in that task was overwhelming in the moment, but had faded to a glimmer in the dark.

“Of course, he is the one,” he whispered aloud to the light in the hall. At that very moment she went out. Her dance was done and with her went some of his hope. “Of course he is the one,” he repeated to the darkness, and immediately it felt less true.

Several hours later, maybe, he awoke to footsteps in the hall. He had slept with his face still pressed against the wood of the door. He rubbed his forehead and felt the wood’s ridges printed in his skin. He smiled about that, eyes closed as he greeted whoever it was that was opening his door. “John the Baptizer, your time has come.” It was Atilius. He walked John by the arm down the hall and up a flight of shallow stairs. John stumbled, but Atilius’ strong arm held him up, almost gently. Sensing compassion, John looked the soldier in the face, and there were tears in his eyes. As he led him around a corner and into a larger room where other soldiers were waiting, he whispered in John’s ear. This message from Simeon your disciple, from Jesus the Nazarene.

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Then Atilius added his own “I’m sorry.”

Those who waited for John took him from Atilius without a shred of gentleness. As they tied his hands behind his back, a man sharpened an axe. John chuckled. Fitting that they would use an axe.

Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

Many people turn to the Bible when they don’t know where else to turn. Even my friends who haven’t been to a church meeting in years, or maybe ever, often revere the power of this holy book. That’s one benefit of living in a culturally Christian country. The Bible is everywhere, and that’s not such a bad thing. I think God has done amazing things with the Bible. It’s incredible. I love it, and I would love it if all my friends loved it too. If you’re feeling down, depressed, anxious, grieved, hopeless or tired, the Bible is a great tool. But how do you use it? How does God use it? How can you find some comfort or relief in the Bible?

What are these words going to do?

It’s a fool. It’s not just the words that change you it’s what we (us and God) do with them. If you google the title of this post you will get 100’s of sites with lists like this one. I think that’s a pretty great place to start. But it’s not like just reading through 100 verses will make me feel any better. It might actually make me feel even more discouraged. I might be like “Yeah, I know that this is how it’s supposed to be. But it does not feel like that right now!” And what if it hasn’t felt like that for a long time? What if you have never read the Bible? How are these words supposed to mean anything?

We can’t just cram our head with new thoughts and expect the old ones to fade out. There’s no such thing as “believing enough.” When the darkness of our lives seems to crowd out the light we used to love, words alone are weak. It has been easier for me to do something with the Bible. I need to get it into me as a way to relate to God. I don’t need the Bible. I need God. One way God has used  the Bible to good end with me (and many others) is with a meditative prayer.

Bible mantras

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

I suggest taking just a little bite. Whether you are new to this or coming back for forty-thirds, one way to read the Bible is to breathe it. Sure, start at “100 Bible Verses About When You Feel Down and Out” on google. Or some paper Bibles have suggestions like that in the back. A lot of different passages can work, follow whatever you’re drawn to. If it strikes you it might be the right word for you. All that really matters is that it resonates with you.  Maybe whatever you remember from when you were a kid. John 3:16? “For God so loved the world” ? The Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father in Heaven”?

Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.” When I’m feeling down I need something that does not require me just to change my mind. A Bible mantra is something I can just do. When I’m not in such a tough spot, I keep at the mantra, building a foundation to stand on for when the darkness returns. There’s a recording at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net I made that might help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

You’re life is bigger than the Bible

It might seem counter intuitive that taking just a little bite of the Bible actually makes it bigger, but it does. And if you’re like many of the people I know, the Bible needs to be bigger for you. Not like more important but bigger, more expansive, more pervasive. The Bible needs to fill you up and it can’t do that if it’s just a book. It can’t even do that if it’s just better ideas than the ones you have. The Bible is usually too small.

And it’s too small because it’s just a book and you are a human being. You are in possession of a vessel that the creator of the universe chose to use to communicate infinite love to humanity. Jesus had a body a lot like yours. And Jesus’ bodily life couldn’t even fit in any book (John 21:25) let alone his resurrection life that lives to include all of humanity in it. Your bodily life is too big for a book too. It’s hard to even explain everything that happened in one dream you had to anybody else. You feel me?

The quest of the poets is to try to say one true thing about the essence of the human experience, and they’ve spent thousands of years and billions of words trying. One human life is bigger than the Bible. So the Bible needs to be brought into your life to be rightly sized. It fits you by filling you. Breathe it, live it, do it, love it. Then it will be big enough for you when you need it.

This is hard to do of course, especially when your motivation to do anything is sapped, or you’re on the edge, or you’re desperate for relief. Bring the Bible to your breath, or maybe even a song (try out our songs at Circle of Hope Audio Art). Give yourself something to do with the Bible that could be as big as you are.

Just reading, or trying to change your mind by wrestling with the cognitive dissonance doesn’t often do the trick. Try this practice and let me know how it goes. Or if you’re a regular practitioner, fill in what I missed!

 

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.

 

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