My cell is about to multiply and we’re making the new teams that will lead the two cells that come out of the old one. We’re so into the organic metaphor that we call the leadership team of the cell the nucleus. There’s a leader, an apprentice leader and a host. Each person has an important role to play but the relationships within the team are probably even more important than the functions of each player. The love at the center of the cell is what holds it together.
But it’s not like me and my new team have known each other forever. This love did not grow completely organically for the normal reasons that human relationships grow and develop. We are choosing to love each other. It’s fairly artificial and could pretty easily be phony if Jesus weren’t at the center too.
The nucleus of the universe, so to speak is God and even within God’s self there is a loving community. Theologians call it the immanent trinity–that which is happening within God’s self. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit express God’s relational nature. It’s an incredible presumption but it seems like a good way to understand the way God reveals God’s self to us in scripture. Not only do we relate to God in these three ways but the persons of the Trinity relate to one another. It’s the Divine Community. God doesn’t only relate; God is relating. God doesn’t only love; God is love (And John backs me up on that!)
A fancy word for how these paradox works is perichoresis. It’s a theological term that describe the mutual indwelling of each of the persons in the Trinity. They are separate persons but not in our modern individualistic sense. Their common eternal love binds them in such a way that they are one. Thus Jesus can be God and not God the Father.
They are separate but not separate. And they aren’t static. There is no space within God that is owned by one person autonomously. Jurgen Moltmann describes perichoresis as an eternal dance of love. Perichoresis is a compound word. Peri means “around” (think of the word perimeter). Choreia shares the a root with “choreography.” It means “to dance.” Taken together, the word literally means “to dance around.” The Divine Community is a dance. It’s not a thing or a group of things or people. It’s an action.
And for it to be any fun you have to get on the floor and dance. Our flash mob choreography in Circle of Hope is the Cell Multiplication plan. We form a nucleus that has our dancing God at the center of it. We can depend on the power of our ordinary human relating to bind a larger group together because God is in our relating. Often we start relating for the sole purpose of our common mission. It’s almost mechanical, like we’re just doing the practiced steps that we said we would do in our cell multiplication plan–like it’s a waltz and this is ballroom dance lessons, but soon we feel the music and really dance–God really happens–now we’re really dancing.
I’m already sorely missing my cell as it is now for a couple more weeks, especially my nucleus, Pat and Jenny. I really do love them, and we’ve only been leading a cell together for 5 months. But that’s how it is with God. I’m grateful for partners like them and the rest of my cell. I’m excited to start the dance all over again with my new teammates, Nicole and Lauren, and confident that God will expand our community as a never ending source of love between us.
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the super computer, Deep Thought, takes 7.5 million years to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and the answer is 42. Those who receive the answer aren’t pleased.
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
So when we asked “What does this mean” with the disciples of Jesus in the book of Acts last week as we celebrated Pentecost we were wrestling with what the right question might be. The story goes that the disciples of Jesus were waiting in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. A wind came through and there were tongues of fire descending on their heads and they were enabled to speak in languages they didn’t understand. After this experience there were two responses:
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13
The scientists who created Deep Thought didn’t know what question to ask. 42 is the answer to a question that people like those who accused the disciples of drunkenness would ask. They are looking for an explanation that computes within their understanding of the world. They are closing themselves off from the possibility of a meaning beyond their experience or understanding.
The best question to ask–and I’m talking about life, the universe and everything– is “what does this mean?” The meaning of life, the universe and everything is being open to asking this question and its precursor being open to amazement and perplexity.
In Circle of Hope we create think tanks, so to speak, for amazement and perplexity–for asking the questions that bubble up and for seeking the answer. They are cells. We live our lives together enough to have a sense of each other’s lives. Consequently, the question “what does this [experience, feeling, situation, absurdity, fear, doubt, joy, love] mean?” actually has a shared meaning. Plus, we live in community not only with each other, but with the Holy Spirit, who stokes the amazement, perplexity, questions and then even answers.
But if you’re not open to the question– if meaning is calculation and the universe needs to equal out– the minutia of each human life is inconsequential. The oppressive demands for a balanced equation weigh us down and squash our spiritual imaginations before they can even emerge. I don’t think it all has to work out. Not even the stories in the Bible demand some reasoned exactitude provided by a consistent system of thought. Many Christians have been demanding that of their faith and understanding for a long time and I think that way of being Christian is collapsing under it’s own weight. That way of living with God gets you answers like “42” and “they’re drunk.” The living God is unpredictable but reliable to answer when we ask “What does this mean?” when he amazes us again and again.
One of the most exciting things I did this week was create this map of our cells in South Jersey. I circled the area we want to impact in a brave flourish of hope and probably a bit of foolishness. There are 571,192 people living in the towns inside my circle. I’m praying for every single one of them, but especially those who are lonely or searching for meaning (which could be the majority of them at this point). I know that our cells would be a great place for them. I have seen the power of even casual connection to a micro-community gathered around Jesus. We call our micro-communities cells because we want to be an organically growing movement of Jesus followers.
We are inviting people to be a part of something small and real. God grows us into relationship with each other and with Jesus. I tell my cell every week that Jesus has shown up. He is here and we can actually experience his presence in our relating. And that relating is contagious.
Here are four examples from the cell I just started in Barrington NJ.
I’m super encouraged by these tiny transformations I get to witness in the cell, and I am confident that many of those 571,192 people inside the circle on the map want to do that too. Our cells will include them, because that’s what cells do and then they will multiply and we’ll get to put new little blue arrows on the map. I can’t wait!
Out 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.