Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: evangelism (page 1 of 3)

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.

The Gospel Must Begin with Love

Where does your gospel start?

The gospel does not begin with condemnation. It begins with God’s love. Why then do I know so many people who really want me to condemn them and the people they know? I have been accused as a pastor of not enforcing the rules effectively. They tell me I let people get away with a lot of stuff. As a pastor I do want to help people see their sins but I do not believe this is my primary purpose as an evangelist. In fact, I think the over emphasis on condemnation among Christians is one of my biggest challenges as an evangelist. Ask an average American who doesn’t regularly attend church what they think of Christians and “condemnation” tops the list. I’ve heard that Christianity’s main tenets are 1) hatred of gay people, 2) hypocrisy and 3) condemnation. Christians make people feel bad way too often (and they take pride in it). Why did we decide it was our job to tell people they are wrong? I take a more, shall we say, patient approach. Like the Mississippi, start small, it’s all downhill to the Gulf of Mexico, if you’ve started flowing with the Spirit. We are going to make it. God is going to move. And that’s not up to us.

Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

There is a strong segment of the Church that spends most of their time being barely saved from their sins. The sweetness of their salvation is mostly confined to Christ’s gruesome death on the cross as their atoning sacrifice. They are unworthy of such a gift, and they are happy that God gave it to them anyway. No falsehood in that narrative — Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” But why must we sing about it ad nauseum every week? Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

I think we find perverse comfort in being incapable. I understand this personally. I really thrive when I’m given an assignment. The threat of a bad grade (now given only in my imagination) motivates me more than I would like. My internal motivation ascends as my need for external confirmation and reassurance descends. Do you feel me on this? Isn’t it comfortable not to have any agency? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again and just do what you’re told? In the Church, when it comes to spiritual matters, this often happens. We are encouraged to get in line behind someone else and think the way he (it’s usually a he) does. Some rebels resist this for their own gratification, but I say we must resist it so we can actually enjoy God.

We don’t have to to be so weak that the best we can do is not go to hell.

Some theologians codified it as “utter depravity.” Even after I have a life altering experience with Jesus and decide to follow him, I cannot help but do evil. Sticking in Romans, Paul describes his experience with sin in Chapter 7. He knows what he really wants to do, but there are other desires in him that also have pull. He is aware of the struggle and spends much of his time in all of his letters trying to help his people turn to their deepest desire to follow Jesus — to live as a new creation, to live out of your love for God.

I think Paul believes that we can do this (with God’s help of course). He does not end his argument in chapter 7. “O wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24) is not the end. Only a few verses later in Romans 8:1-2, he takes it a step further saying “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Paul notices the duality inside himself, as I am sure many of you have noticed inside yourselves, but then goes on to declare that one side of the duality has surely won. Christ has the victory inside you, over your sin and death.

It’s bigger than just that one verse

We have a problem with how we often read the Bible. We might pluck out Romans 7:24 to support our argument for feeling bad about ourselves, when in fact Romans 1-8 is one sweeping argument that culminates in the final verses (which you ought to memorize)

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:37-39

Through Him who loved us

My Gospel starts with God’s love. Yes, I am a sinner, but I am also a saint. Jesus is winning inside of me. I’m getting better. I am not stuck. When I mess up, my friends and partners forgive me and God makes something good out of the best we can muster together. My approach as a pastor is to get people into a relationship with Jesus so he can win in them too. And I trust that he will, as I have seen him do it before, many times! Get into the Body, be with God’s people, use the faith you have and Jesus will help you figure out what to do. I don’t want to be another man you get behind to escape your God given capacity. You can choose what’s best as you listen to the Holy Spirit. I do not want to control your behavior. I want to create an environment in which we have a common project of transformation, and behavior control will inevitably come with that. I give you what I’ve got, my love, and a community that I help keep together which is founded on that love.

 

 

Why the hell?

Why the hell?

I told someone in a coffee shop today that I don’t believe in hell and she thought I might go to hell for that. She wasn’t sure about much theology or even what she believed about God, but she was pretty sure that I was supposed to believe in hell if I was a pastor.

Why the hell? Why did we get shackled to this extra-biblical idea of eternal souls and punishment? It was Jesus who said, “Whoever believeth in me shall not perish but receive everlasting life” right? If everyone already has an everlasting soul, then what kind of promise is Jesus making to Nicodemus in John 3:16? Is everlasting life something we receive or is it something we have already by nature of our humanity? Is “the afterlife” a given for everyone and it’s up to us whether we spend eternity in the bad place or the good place? I don’t think so, but it’s remarkable how much staying power this idea has.

Rob Bell’s book was aight

I just read Rob Bell’s supposedly scandalous book from 2010, Love Wins, which precipitated his departure from his megachurch and his exit form the evangelical mainstream. In the eyes of his critics, the worst thing he did was question this old script of eternal punishment. But I agree with his argument. Without the presupposition of the eternal soul, all of the scripture references to “hell” (Sheol, the grave, Hades, the pit, the lake of fire) can be interpreted very differently. Circle of Hope pastors have considered this here, here, and here. Bell’s book was not a revelation to me. It was, however, an artful, empathetic, and pastoral invitation to an alternate view. I think many people need to hear this Good News, still.

I might join Bell’s critics when he suggests that salvation can come to people through Jesus even if Jesus is not named as their Savior explicitly. He is pegged as a Universalist now. He hints at the possibility that by other faiths and traditions individuals may arrive at a way of being that Jesus desires for everyone. Maybe that is what he is trying to say but I am not sure Rob fits perfectly in that Universalist shoe. It seems to me that Jesus is still very much his personal Savior. But his nuanced language is not definitive enough for most people. Theologians, and Christians in general, seem to want more certitude. There is comfort in certitude. They fear that “mystery” might be the means by which Jesus is depersonalized into the “Force’, or the “Source’, or the “Universe,” or something else that robs him of his proper place. People do abuse “mystery” this way, but not all do, and I don’t think Rob does.

We want some people to go to hell, tho.

Some people find a lot of comfort in the fact that the bad people are going to hell. They need justice to be done, and the only thing bad enough is eternal punishment. Other people find a perverse sort of comfort in the probability that they themselves are going to hell. At least the universe makes sense if bad people (even if that’s me) get what they deserve eventually. I think the idea of hell is comfortable, like a toxic relationship that we don’t have the energy to change or escape. But we don’t get what we deserve–not now and not after we die. Jesus offers us everlasting life as a gift, not a reward for good behavior.

Isn’t this Good News? I don’t have to earn anything. I’m getting off the scale. Measuring up is no longer my goal. My performance is now for art sake, and not for the reviews. I am free. This demand for merit is what made me not free. That cosmic calculus is what made me a slave. This Truth is taking root in me and it has changed and will continue to change my life.

Let’s get some real Good News!

Let’s keep undoing that story about hell and eternal punishment. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. You can receive that salvation and inherit eternal life, or not. If you don’t want a life with God, okay–you don’t have to have it. Why the hell would God die for you so that he could reserve the right to torture you forever? That just doesn’t make sense. And demanding that it make sense undoes all the other Good News that comes with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Judgment day is coming but the verdict has already been given and the sentence has already been served. Punishment itself died with Christ. Now that is Good News! You can have it.

 

I want answers!

“Come on! Give me a straight answer!” My friends have actually said this to me as they get involved in Circle of Hope. They are flummoxed by what they perceive to be my vague responses to direct answers. They’re trying to see if they agree with us but I  am often more interested in why they’re asking the question or what they think the answer to that question is than giving them the company line. “What does Circle of Hope think?” Circle of Hope doesn’t think anything. We are a group of people with almost 700 brains. Our mutual love is what binds us together most. My personal opinion about any number of political or theological issues is much less important than our dialogue with each other and with God.

That notwithstanding we have written a lot of stuff down. We call it our “lore” because “lore” is more about knowledge and collective understanding than data. I think a prejudice toward straight answers has killed a lot of people’s faith in the last couple of hundred years. The “doctrines” we have created, and the “systematic theologies” to which we have shackled ourselves, have yielded a cold precision that has quenched the Spirit and hardened many hearts. If your thinking is rigid it is easily broken. How many times have I met someone who says they’re not a Christian anymore because they believe the science behind evolution! Much of our project as a Church over the past 150 years has painted us into corners like that. It’s all or nothing. The facts are the facts. You’re in or you’re out. When, really, life is much more fluid than that. Most people’s faith is too. And luckily Jesus encourages us in that. Our mustard seed of faith is enough. Our questions are welcome, and most of his answers leave us in awe and confusion, rather than security and certitude.

This is not to say that all that thinking, or thinking in general, is a waste of time. I spent three years studying these systems in seminary and I am enriched by that process, but I will not be bound by any data. I am bound by the living Lord. Jesus Christ is alive among us and he is not domesticated. His whole project was, as he described it, incompatible with the wisdom of the world. He’s the new wine that bursts old wine skins. He’s the new cloth that rips away from the old cloth as soon as you wear the pants a few times. He’s not meant to fit. We are meant to be fit for him.

On our weekly videocast, the pastors demonstrate this general hesitation. I may be the quickest to blurt out my opinion, but that’s more my personality than my conviction. I’m pretty quick to change my mind too. I process things out loud. I may say one thing this week and another the next week. That’s probably because I am a native of Circle of Hope. i grew up in this trust system. I take dialogue for granted and trust those with whom I am talking to correct me, challenge me and love me. We reach conclusions together that are always provisional because we are expectant to hear what the Spirit will say next.

Some things are a bit firmer. Jesus is Lord for example; also our list of proverbs, the Cell Plan and the Sunday Meeting Plan (though we regularly edit these documents in community as we learn more and find ourselves in new circumstances). Again, we have written a lot of stuff down! And maybe that’s the problem: our ongoing dialogue yields lots of content that is not very easily reduced to a few bullet points. We are not “sound-bite-able.”

And yet I continue to try to “soundbite” us. I want to translate what we’re trying to do so 5,000 people could at least know what we’re about, or maybe have a vague  impression of us that rings true before they make it into the dialogue. How can I communicate our lore to them? I must try to figure it out, because to do otherwise is probably hiding our light under a bed. A few of my recent attempts have been

  • We’ve stopped faking it. (We’re real Christians dealing with real life and a real Jesus)
  • We’re in your neighborhood. (Cells are outposts of God’s redemption project that meet all over the region)
  • Easy is boring. (Don’t reduce us to a soundbite)
  • You’re too big. (Self reliance is over rated. Be small. Be save-able.)

What would you add? How would you describe Circle of Hope to someone who knows nothing about us?

Why Curb Appeal and Everything Else Matters

So we bought a building.  I think it was 2011. Now it matters. It matters because it is ours, and we matter because we are God’s. And we are God’s not in a generic sense–because we were created by God like everyone else–but because we are God’s chosen people being built like living stones into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). It’s pretty grandiose. Being a Christian is pretty grandiose. Many Christians are just grandiose and not very christian. That’s what Christians may be best known for- saying they are something they really aren’t- being concerned with what is on the outside and not really experiencing any transformation on the inside.

Jesus had a couple of things to say about that. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean… You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.(Matthew 23:26-28)

I know for a fact that the inside of 3800 Marlton Pike is clean–not just because the cleaning team is awesome 🙂 but because our Public Meetings are a place for Jesus’ transformation. They are a place where people encounter Christians who are not whitewashed. We know what dead bones we carry around inside of us and we are free to name them and continue to let Jesus clean us out. We’ve got the no faking thing down even if we hide our true selves from time to time when our fear rises up.

It seems that part and parcel to that sort of honesty is a scrutiny which can be detrimental to our mission. We are working with what’s on the inside. We are sometimes very aware of how far we are falling short and we are okay with that.  We’re in process. And focus on that process keeps us from putting very much out there. We aren’t “there” yet so we won’t put ourselves out there either.

But Jesus is there and Jesus is here. Let’s not forget that our house that used to be akin to a Hoarders episode is now a livable space and there are just dirty dishes in the sink and the carpet needs to be vacuumed. Jesus has brought us a long way and we want to let as many people as possible get into this house, so to speak.

This requires some curb appeal. We need to put ourselves out there, be aware of our appearance and how the world receives us. Folks don’t know us or love us before they do, and before they do they will know about us or know what we look like. So trying to make ourselves look a little better on Marlton Pike this week, I got us a new sign.  It’s a small way to put ourselves out there, but I think a great improvement to what was there. What other improvements to our curb appeal could we do?  how could we make ourselves known and make room for the next person at 3800 Marlton Pike?

A brainstorm (that could be continued by you in the comments)

  1. Paint a mural along the whole front of the buiiding just below the roof line
  2. Mow the lawn regularly
  3. Park on the street at the Public Meeting so there’s room in the parking lot for guests
  4. Get a directional sign on 130
  5. ……

Jesus is Still Best Revealed Incarnationally

IMG_4867You’re the best Bible most folks are ever going to read.  That’s true if you are a follower of Jesus, even a “bad” one in your own estimation, because most people are NEVER going to read the Bible.  Even though a majority of Americans believe in God and even though there’s still a “Bible-Belt” where most people do go to church every Sunday, a Christian doing the things that are recommended, commanded or described in the Bible is still a much better for someone to meet Jesus than most other ways.

In Circle of Hope we say we must be doers of the word because we want our community to be an environment in which people get to know Jesus in the flesh- our flesh.  So we are serious about all the stuff that’s in the Bible, especially the stuff Jesus said- even the hard stuff like loving our enemies, confessing our sins to one another, forgiving 70X7.  Of course we don’t do this perfectly–we don’t even do it well sometimes, but we have created a system that consistently engenders people to try.  Jesus responds to our intention by giving us the Holy Spirit when we come up short.

There was evidence of this on Monday night when 35 people came to Pennsauken to study our Cell Plan together.  I was inspired by the amount of interest in creating little discovery zones for people in our region, and hopeful for what God might do with the group of people who gathered.  During the training, I gave a little explanation of this chart.

presentation evangelism vs incarnational mission

There is room for you before you “get it” or even “get with it.”  It’s not our job to judge you.  We are not even supposed to judge ourselves if we follow the example of Paul (1 Corinthians 4:3) and John (1 John 3:20).  I don’t know how you can follow the presentation evangelism model and not judge people before they can get in.  Some folks are trying to do something different but end up doing the same thing only now without a tie.  Coming at evangelism like the collumn on the left is like putting up a wall.  Jesus is a stumbling block for a lot of people!  Their hearts are hard and often for good reason.  Demanding allegiance before they can feel it is just a bad idea, and the proof is in the pudding as the Bible Belt cinches smaller and smaller so to speak and the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation) grow.

So yes, Jesus is still best revealed incarnationally.  Circle of Hope is proof of that.  I’m trusting he will be revealed in my cell tonight.  It’s in Barrington, NJ, want to explore?

Why I take pictures of the sky

I took this picture of the sky 2 years ago and I still remember how giddy I was as I raced up Washington Avenue under this shimmering shelf of clouds.  I had a little echo of that joy as I crossed the Grays Ferry Bridge tonight under a slightly less spectacular (in relative terms) evening wonder.  As the sun was setting the sky seemed so big on account of the tiny island clouds that stretched innumerably to the horizon, and the sky/sea was so perfectly fading from a rich blue above to a golden orange below.  As I huffed over the bridge’s crown I gasped aloud, somehow still surprised, “It’s beautiful every day!  Thank you, Lord…thank you… thank you… thank you…” and the Schuylkill shimmered below in countenance.

I joined instagram almost 3 years ago and it has greatly increased my joy.  The prospect of sharing my wonder adds a liveliness to each moment of awe.  I am inherently generous in my delight.  I grew up with a twin bother who, whether he wanted it or not, was privy to every ounce of fascination I encountered or mustered; and suffice it to say there was much fascination.  I am accustomed to shared joy to the point where quiet, lonesome joys are disciplines I strive to inhabit–but they are, in my emotional geography, more clearings hacked out of the undergrowth than naturally occurring ecosystems.  And so instagram provides a way for me to share and that sharing heightens and multiplies my own joy.  I keep looking because others will see what I see–others will gain from my growing attention.  Many look to the sky for glory; I don’t presume to be essential.  I claim that in sharing my vision, I create a repeating and intensifying pattern of seeing that happens joy upon me in regular bursts of sweetness.  I keep seeing greatness in what is dangerously close to mundane.  I want more of that joy and I find it in the sharing as much as in the moment of seeing.

Multiply your joy at Circle of Hope

I do the same with the joy I find in Jesus.  My compulsion to share my experience with Jesus stems from Jesus’ command to make disciples, but it snowballs from there.  My experiences with God are intensified, multiplied and repeated in the process of living them, remembering them and sharing them.  I strive to communicate the often unnameable essence of love and hope as it has touched me in a way that actually connects with another.  (I’m trying to do it right now and it’s hard!)  What is it about the joy of life in Christ that I can tell in a relatively intelligible or relatively beautiful way?  The world can crumble as it is wont to do and my hope survives the deterioration. My friends are more whole after we form a group around Jesus and spend time trusting Him and each other.  I find a larger place in me for patience.  And the sky is still beautiful. Thank you.. thank you.. thank you.

Do what you can now, rather than what you should never

we-are-hereLast night we gathered in Germantown with some folks who were new to Circle of Hope.  We were casting the vision and inviting them into partnership in our work for God’s redemption project.  Our goal is to create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.  This is unique.  we cultivate our community to be the modus operandi.  Our effective strategy is to be a sort of people, rather than say a certain thing, or do any number of right things.  We are the message.  That inherently includes saying and doing, but it is much more than that.  We are not just teaching principles from the Bible or culling out moral lessons from Jesus.  We are resisting the temptation to reduce our life in Christ to mental ascent.  We are an environment–an environment that is transforming lives.

When we bring it all together like that it gets real quickly.  Rachel Sensenig, our host for the evening and a pastor in our network, recently described her first meeting at Circle of Hope.  “People were talking about their real problems from the front.  It was raw and a little awkward and so…human, and that seemed ok…”  She said something similar last night.  Someone was even tearing up at that meeting…from the front!  That environment existed then and it exists now.  You can get into the circle as you are and because we our primary function is not behavior management or thought policing you can be yourself.  We’re especially interested in being a safe place for those who haven’t figured it all out yet–folks who aren’t sure about their faith but know they are welcome.  I encouraged those entering our community who were at the meeting to do what you can now, rather than what you should never.

So much of institutional Christianity, especially in 20th century America, has been about getting it right.  Maybe it’s the Puritanical roots of the first European settlers, maybe it’s modernistic thinking, maybe it’s a post world war superiority complex–whatever it is it leaves us destitute.  Our culture’s spiritual poverty is apparent enough with just a passing glance around Philadelphia.  If we insist on getting it right ourselves we will be out in the cold forever.  Circle of Hope is designed to be a place where anyone can get in and being in can receive from God what they need.  Many folks who come know they need a circle- they long for a community; and they know they need hope- a universally desirous virtue; but many are poisoned to Jesus, or maybe a version of Jesus filtered beyond recognition of the real man.

I’m praying for those who manage to get in with us before they know explicitly what Jesus is doing and what Jesus did.  Even those with tiny little baby faith are able to contribute to the project.  Many of those who have been at it a long time still have tiny little baby faith.  That was Jesus’ pet name for his disciples- oligopistos- tiny-faiths.  The disciples, yes, the Bible ones, were tiny-faiths, and they were in with Jesus if anyone was.  We are then “in” too because Jesus welcomes us and Circle of Hope is all about extending that welcome to the next person.

Movie Bible Explosion

God miraculously stops cars from working, a young man faces off with Hercules dressed as a philosophy professor, and one of the two african american characters in the film calls himself “G-Dog”.  These are some of the things “God’s Not Dead” had going against it.  A lot of my friends on the internet are panning it because it isn’t well made.  I went to see it on Friday night and I agree with them- it’s all plot with little character development, the characters as they exist are mostly stereotypes, the plot is 100% transparent, and yet it worked for me.

god's not deadGranted I am a fan boy, but not of the christian pop subculture that took center stage in this film- I was spared from much immersion in that by being a part of Circle of Hope since I was 12- I’m a fan boy of Jesus and he shows up in the movie.   People find faith through crazy channels, like a philosophy lecture given by an 18 year old, a Franklin Graham podcast, and a Newsboys concert.  And despite the cynicism we are all programmed with now days I was moved by the conversions stories on screen.  I actually shed a couple of tears.

I’m concerned about what one blogger described how the film “fetishizes persecution.”  For the record, Usonian Christians are not persecuted, and trying to legislate your way out of being aliens and pilgrims is against the teachings of the New Testament.  I’m concerned about the poor standards that are associated with Christian film.  One of my friends said he was offended as an artist after seeing the trailer because it looked like it was an after school special on ABC Family.  I’m also concerned that the most important debate for many Christians seems to be whether or not God exists, as if God’s existence were the Gospel.  Jesus did get professed in “God’s Not Dead” but He is rivaled by the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism– the true American Religion that masquerades as Christianity.

Despite all these concerns I was able to rejoice in the last scene with the Newsboys and all the people in the theater who were excited by people coming to know Jesus.  It seemed that everyone there was already converted (there was shouting and applause) but a group of kids that looked like they were in a youth group was in the lobby taking their picture together afterwards and I know that these sort of experiences are shaping their nascent faith as they are becoming adults.  They may have professed faith in Jesus but they are still becoming Christians- they are still deciding who they will be.  This movie got them excited about people coming to know Jesus too.  That’s good.

I was invited by some friends who are pretty into the pop Christian sub culture and I invited a friend of mine who is not always sure he believes.  He has doubts about the plausibility of the Bible and is searching for a way to be faithful and be a scientist.  We made jokes together about the impossibility of the script but in the end we were both impacted by the film. bible boom I think this is a credit to what God is doing in us.  Our hearts are so easily hardened by cynicism, preference and preconceptions.  My Christian friends who were in really “churchy” churches as kids are so bristled by something like God’s not dead.  To them I say the capacity to go with the good in something especially when the good is explicitly God and sometimes even Jesus is a gift we should develop.

So when you go see “God’s Not Dead” or “Noah” or “Son of God”, the chain reactions in this little movie Bible explosion we’re experiencing, soften your heart, take a friend, have fun and see what good may come.

How slow is too slow?

When I was in third grade my music teacher, Ms. Smedley, taught me all kinds of ridiculous songs that I for some reason remember all the words too.  One of them was this little calypso/reggae jam with two verses that had the same melody but two different rhythms that reflected their dichotomous lyrics.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry come on the run/ Hurry, hurry, hurry, no time for fun/ Hurry, hurry, hurry, here comes the sun/ When we are finished there will be time for fun.

Alright I come now, alright I come/ No need to hurry, no need to run/ It is too early where is the sun?/ I am so tired that I cannot run”

This is exactly like the one I have- they’re still selling it on amazon

She also gave me a plastic bust of Beethoven that I still have, but that’s not really what I want to talk about.  This song came to mind because I’ve been having discussions with some of my partners about evangelism and urgency.  How quickly should we move on from those who are not interested in Jesus and our church?

One of my friends was saying that there is no game but the long game with some people.  They are so burned or so antagonistic that the only way they are ever going to follow Jesus is after a long season of loving by the Christians in their lives.  There’s a hefty hunk of truth in my friend’s discernment, but I’m not ready to settle into that arrangement yet.  I’m singing the first verse of the song.  I have more urgency.

My urgency is rooted in my belief that the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night.  Jesus may come back tomorrow (and I hope he does) and I want as many people as possible to recognize and embrace Him when he does.  I have a sense of responsibility to the charge that Jesus gave us to go and make disciples of all nations, and I am acutely aware of how limited I am in time and capacity.  I want to make my efforts count.

There are hundreds of thousands of people within a couple of miles of me who know very little about who Jesus actually is.  The argument could be made that any Usonian today has heard the story of Jesus so the basic urgency we see in Acts and the rest of the New Testament is not really applicable to our situation.  Our culture is post-Christian as in “totally over Jesus”, which is quite different fro the pre-Christian culture of the 1st Century Mediterranean.

But I don’t think the facts as filtered through modernism, sarcasm and even the dead churches so many of us were exposed to as children are really the Gospel.  That story of Jesus is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is Jesus Himself and Jesus is alive in us in a way that many have not experienced before.  Taking ourselves that seriously may be the hardest step to take, but once we do our evangelism strategy is just a matter of how heavily we lean into that truth.  Peoples’ bad experiences with the Church, or even just their bad impressions of the Church can be overcome.  There is still Good News that is actually news to a lot of people.  Circle of Hope’s strategy to include folks before they make a commitment to follow Jesus allows for this news to be seen and heard.  We need to experience the power of God among us for our doubts and our wounds to be assuaged and healed.

The question “How slow is too slow?” comes down to how insistent I am in trying to include my friends in our community before they are Christians.  How many invitations is too pushy and how quickly will they write me off if I “cross the line”?  I don’t think it’s my job to worry about that.  I want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be in a life giving relationship with Jesus, and God wants that too.  Protecting friends from my deepest fulfillment is crazy.  If they are offended by my joy, so be it.  Of course this attitude could quickly slip into an off-putting arrogance that is typical of many evangelists (and I am probably more prone to that than some), but I think the invitation can be made in a way that actually protects a person’s dignity, especially when they know I’m a Christian and they know it’s really important to me.  Someone may filter me out of their life because I am too “up front” about Jesus, but I prefer that to filtering Jesus out of my life–my life which is nothing more than my relationships and conversations (i.e. If I’m not bringing Jesus into my everyday conversation does He still have a place there at all?)

The classic slow cooker

Patterns of relating around things other than Jesus are quickly established because Jesus is a taboo subject.  It’s hard to break out of those patterns once they are established because the build up to the “reveal” of Jesus brings with it more anxiety.  The more we allow Jesus to remain in the margins of our relationships and the conversations within them the harder it will be to get Him into the center of someone’s life.  All this being said, I have had several long term relationships that have eventually resulted in a person becoming a Christian.  I’m not writing anyone off, I’m just being ready for them to write me off.  I kept Jesus at the center of our relationship (and it wasn’t that hard).  I regularly invited them to Circle of Hope events.  I told them about my relationship with God.  I shared with them the work I was doing.

So I err on the side of “hurry, hurry, hurry” instead of “alright I come” because 1) Jesus is coming back tomorrow, 2) The effect of marginalizing Jesus in my everyday conversation, marginalizes Him in my heart, and 3) It’s okay if someone doesn’t want to be a Christian and doesn’t want to relate to me because I am.

P.S. Bringing it all together – Radiolab did a story on how Beethoven may have wanted his music played much faster than we ever heard it http://www.radiolab.org/story/269783-speedy-beet/

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