Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: incarnation (Page 1 of 3)

How Jesus Says “Woman”

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Every word can mean I love you

Last night in my cell meeting we read John 2:1-11. We were reading with the intention to see what Jesus is like (That’s the best reason to read the Gospels in my opinion). After we read the passage through three times, one brilliant cellmate, who I, immediately after this eloquent, lyrical observation, strongly encouraged to pursue a life as a poet, told the group that every word can be spoken to mean I love you. He listened to us read the word Jesus says to Mary, woman, and the memory of this capacity we have to speak I love you into every word came back to him. Yes, every word can be spoken to mean I love you.

Every word: “potato”, “Nashville”, “kitty cat”, “‘sup?” All these can mean I love you.

It has to do with how the word is said — the amount of breath used in sounding it, the shape of the mouth as it is sent,  the familiar pattern of pitch and intonation — that does this lingual alchemy. It works best to actually communicate I love you in the context of love itself — in relationship (by the way, this is really the only place I love you  means I love you as well). In a love relationship, the shared meaning of potato really can mean so much more than root vegetable. For example: “The potatoes are extra crispy.” “You substituted the potatoes,” “We made potato stamps,” “French fries are made of potatoes.”

John says elsewhere that God is love. And John records Jesus saying in John 14, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Doesn’t it make sense then that, somehow, every word that Love speaks would mean I love you? If we ourselves know just how tenderly we can use these words we have received — how much they can mean — how well they can be wielded for building one another up — how much more must Jesus mean I love you with every word he has ever said? Yes to this, but yes especially to this word here in John 2, woman.

How I said woman

My cellmate heard us read it and heard some kind of rebuke in most of our readings. I know I wasn’t careful to speak love into the word, and so it is likely that anti-love leaked right through my lips. The word woman must be gentled with the utmost tenderness, because it is so often launched as an attack. The very nature of half of humans is so quickly crafted into critique. The personhood of womankind is so easily stolen away. The fact of our existence together has made this un-love meaning of the word automatic, assumed. Womanhood, which requires no apology, is always being apologized.

When Jesus says woman, he must be saying something else. He is not tired, perturbed, frustrated or inconvenienced by Mary’s request. Otherwise, why would he have answered her prayer? He was going to reveal himself soon, why not now? His plan was to make himself widely known as the Son of God who is love, and to train a group of disciples enough to carry on speaking his Father’s love language when his mouth was no longer here on earth to shape words with breath, lip, tooth and tongue. Mary helped him choose the moment. This woman participated in designing the occasion. “Woman!”

If with Jesus, why not also with me?

I am convicted to be more careful with every word belonging to Jesus. His words, every one of them, must mean I love you. Even when he rebukes people harshly, for there are many octaves and melodies that sing the same message. Love can be consuming fire and demand, but Jesus’ words will always mean the same. And if his words, why not also all of mine. You cannot depend on mine so well as his, but I am seeing in this cell-meeting-revelation that I have but barely begun to try.

Jesus, Mother, Please

Jesus, mother me, as your mother mothered you in that moment. Make my moments ready, and me ready in them, to soak every word in love. Anselm, a 12th century Benedictine Monk, makes a nice attempt in this prayer below. He is uplifting a woman-adjacent word: mother.

So many things can be said with this one word as well, mother. I won’t list the seven that fly to the surface of my mind but you might pause again to consider the infinity living inside words like this one. Anselm means Jesus with it, which I believe is one way that he said I love you to every mother ever.  He speaks from many centuries in the past to confirm the always-true nature of Jesus’ forever-gentleness and constant love. Let this prayer shape your heart and words. Send them to your mother this weekend for Mother’s Day, whether she is alive or not, or send your own words, whatever means I love you  in ways that mean for you and her.

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.
In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

Amen

Anselm (1033-1109) More about him on Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog

P.S. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Knowing the Good

South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken’s 1000th delivery celebration

When the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team gathered to celebrate their 1000th delivery last week I led them in a ritual of naming the Good. Of course we know the work we are doing is good. We organized with the wider South Jersey Mutual Aid Network at the beginning of the pandemic to offer solidarity not charity. We say that food insecurity is not a just matter of individual scarcity; it is a matter of unbalanced distribution of food abundance. And that is a community problem, not just an individual problem. I say to all the people in our network who I call back from our google voicemail box, “Somos vecinos!”(we are neighbors!)

That little sign-off, “Somos vecinos!”, is the same sort of naming the good that I was leading the team to do at our Zoom celebration. Our relationship needs a name. It is good that we are together in this. We must do what little we can to reshape the narrative about the common good. The more mutuality, the better, but it is hard to move against the current of other stories about what is good like “self-reliance”, “individual responsibility”, “the private pursuit of happiness.” I’m not saying those things are not good in and of themselves, but that they are too loud in my context; they are drowning out alternatives — alternatives which are badly needed in our delivery area, Pennsauken and Camden, NJ.

What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

I’m tying myself in knots trying to describe what is good. There are competing claims, many stories. All have merits but none matter as much as actually doing good. We know what is best by doing, not by saying. This, I think, is an obvious human characteristic; but it’s so obvious it is easily forgotten. We are attracted to the complexity of expertise, the power of a well crafted argument, the boldness of a brilliant speaker. We are bombarded by too many champions of too many causes. Many of us have become adept at ignoring each other — simply for self protection, not apathy. The habit bleeds over into actual relationships until we never answer the phone and rarely read our emails or even texts. Isolation was a pandemic before Covid-19. What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

That’s why the ritual with the Compassion Team was so important. We needed to feel the basic wisdom. We are doing! And there is valuable information in that experience of doing which needs to rise to the top of our experience. We don’t want it to be buried under the noise. The knowledge of doing breeds more peace of mind and longer endurance when it is necessary. The work we do on the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team does, indeed, require endurance. It is constant. Week by week we field phone calls, gather donations, pack boxes and deliver enough food to feed families as big as 11 or 14 for four days.  if we don’t feel the intuitive knowledge of doing we won’t last long.

Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration.

There is a difference between knowing what we are doing IS good and knowing the good as we do it. Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration. Otherwise we get stuck in the argument, or we forget to make the connections between our ideas and our experience. If we don’t savor those moments of knowing the good is good, of participation in the Good, we will burn out.

So name the good, yes, and do the good, and then notice the feeling of the doing. This is a way to BE good in a way that does not require proof. You’ll know and that will fuel more than any claim ABOUT you or what you do.

We’re learning something old.

Jesus put it this way in Matthew 21:28-32 (The Parable of the Two Sons)

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

I am very grateful for a group of passionate people, some of them Jesus followers from Circle of Hope but many of them not. I think we are learning this basic human wisdom alongside each other. You know something when you do it, not when you say it. The sons figured this out. The tax collectors and prostitutes figured this out. It was the religious people whom Jesus was talking to that forgot it. I’m motivated to keep going in what I’ve been given to do because, at least to a degree, I am finding the joy of this wisdom, too, and it is giving me LIFE. I am looking forward to more good, and I am confident because I trust the Source of Goodness, Jesus him-living-self.

We Know More Than We Comprehend

I was on retreat trying not to question my instincts too much, because retreats are basically practice for listening to the Spirit and your instincts and the Spirit often sound the same. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” came to mind. I’m a big Gerard Manley Hopkins fan and there are kingfishers on the lake near the place I was retreating. I pulled up the poem and decided to memorize it. I sat in front of a window and watched the sun set into complete darkness as I read and repeated my way through the poem.  By the time I went to sleep that night I had it in my heart.

In the morning I made some coffee and went down to the deck on the lake where the kingfishers live and I recited the poem to the waking day.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This guy describes it so well on Youtube

There was an exhileration to preaching this sermon to the lake, trees, stones and birds who stirred in the early morning. I felt like I was really selfing, as the poem proclaims all mortal things are made to do. I might have even been justicing as the just man, or dare I say Christing as the one in whose face Christ plays. It felt true what John said in the beginning of his gospel; that without Christ, nothing was made that has been made. There is a completion of purpose in enjoying the world as it is — with it’s beautiful sounds resounding in wells, and love resounding in faces. Christ plays through it all. I was feeling that as I recited Gerard Manley Hopkins words and it inspired me to fill my heart up with more.

So I decided to memorize the prologue to John. Only the first 14 verses would fit on the piece of paper on which I neatly wrote it out so I stopped at “Full of grace and truth”

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning;
Through him everything was made.
Without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life,
And that life was the light of humankind.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John
Who came as a witness to testify about the light,
So that through him all might believe.
He himself was not the light;
He came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone
Was coming into the world,
And though the world was made through him
The world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own,
And his own did not receive him.

But to those who did receive him —
To those who believed in his name,
He gave the right to become children of God,
Children born not of natural descent
Nor human decision or a man’s will
But born of God!

The word became flesh
And made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
The Glory of the one and only son,
Full of grace and truth.

I learned this poem before the thin paper was completely soaked with sweat, as I was holding it in my hand puffing up Mt. Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap as fast as I could. Maybe the heavy breathing and cardio impressed the words deeper into my heart than usual, but it has had a powerful impact on me. It was like I was full of grace and truth too. It was like the glory I was seeing on that beautiful day was the Glory of the one and only son. It was like my body bounding up the rocks was part of it all.

Getting scripture down into me feels more like communion than regular Bible Study. Choosing a passage like John 1:1-14 was probably a good idea because I’m not sure it is best to comprehend. It is designed for an understanding of a different kind. Want to join me in my memorization project. Let’s fill our heads and hearts with the grace and truth God filled Jesus with!

Here are a few other passages I recommend memorizing

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 15:1-17

Genesis 1:1-31

Psalm 23:1-6

Luke 2:46-55

1 John 3:1-24 (I’m working on this one next)

 

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 off 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.

 

 

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.

 

People are better than ideas

People change people, much more than ideas do. The best way to bridge divides is bringing people who are different form one another together in love. An idea is a powerful tool but it is limited, I think, to political power. Jesus was most interested in people’s allegiance to him as a person not to his ideas. He was not creating a political movement, he was creating a Jesus movement. He himself was at the center of it, and he still is.

Jesus ‘ plan was to be with us

That’s why I hate the term “biblical principles.” It is a reduction of Jesus’ personhood to ideas, and that was not his purpose in becoming a human being as far as I can tell. He wanted a relationship. He wanted us to rely on him for who we are and what we think. he wanted to renew our minds and transform our thinking. He does this as a person. He expected to be with us always, and he is.  When he was with people in a more immediate sense, walking around ancient Palestine, he was always trying to undo ideas that were too concrete. He confounded people on purpose. He refused to weigh in on the established debates. Here’s an example from Mark 12:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

And they were amazed at him

Folks have been wondering what exactly Jesus meant ever since. We are still amazed, confounded, perplexed. Jesus’ inherent answer is, “I am doing something deeper than Caesar and his Empire. I am God’s. You are mine if you are with me. And then we all belong to God.” In John 18, he says to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not of this world” and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus wanted us to know that he is it.  Jesus, himself is the solution. I believe this, but I am still wondering with Pilate, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I think that’s right where Jesus wants me to land.

This amazement points me toward another way. It leads me to reject simple answers and almost every binary. Many of the ideas we still hold dear are at least as old as the gospels, and they have always been unsatisfactory. Jesus thinks we know this, deep down, and he’s still doing everything he can to wake us up to that dissatisfaction. To his disciples in John 14 Jesus says,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The world gives you coins with emperors’ faces on them who deliver “peace” through war, “law and order” through militarized police with not enough accountability. Our money today ironically says “In God we trust” on the back of portraits of our dead emperors. Jesus does not confront these emperors the way the world does. His peace comes through another way. He offers us himself. His resurrected body that was once killed for the kind of peace the world gives.

Jesus undoes our debates

This is a hard teaching still, because we are still afraid. For the most part, conventional wisdom teaches us that to not fear is to be a fool. Paul has something to say about that in 1 Corinthians 3 but you can follow up on that later. Jesus’ peace comes in the form of question marks behind the assumptions that have define who we are. This side or that side. Up or down. Left or right. Safe or in danger. Jesus undoes our debates and asks better questions. Our worldly identities are only as real as the world makes them. Let us let Jesus define us. Let us attempt to answer his questions which will most likely end in amazement. And in our confusion — in our “I don’t know” — in the wonderful wake of another Jesus zinger, let us be content to be next to him. This will change us.

His answers didn’t satisfy many of the established sides of his day. He is the solution, himself, and that looks different for different people in different contexts. We bring that wonder and that expectation of fresh answers to our own time and place, to each of our relationships. the goal is being next to Jesus together. The truth is a person who is available here and now. Paul kept going with this single minded flexibility throughout his evangelical efforts. He would literally say one thing to one group and another thing to another group (This post on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net gets at how we imagine following his footsteps as we do theology in our context). Paul wanted people to get next to Jesus and then see what happens. The presumption is that Holy Spirit is actually alive and active convincing people. Jesus is present and he will make more of a difference if we let him than we often give him credit for.

Let’s be together next to Jesus and see what he does next

So our goal is to keep people together, especially people who are different form one another. Teaching dialogue and speaking the truth in love is the work we must do. You actually have to love the person you disagree with. You have to have a strategy for their transformation, not winning the argument. I am still learning to do this in every situation, but I have already seen it work, so I persist.

The folks who are stuck in a talking point, stirred up to follow their worst instincts by a corporate media machine need to prejudice their togetherness in Christ over their ideas. We die to those allegiances to follow Christ. The most practical way to do it is to love a real person. That media machine, which a friend of mine recently described as a means of demon possession, is designed solely for making money — not for truth or love or even solving the worlds problems. My hope is in creating a viable alternative to those lucrative lies. To do this I trust Jesus among us to do miracles in our relationships. I am banking on his living presence to move people where they need to go. I don’t think we will ever have worldly power over the machines (media, military, politics) but I think we already are an alternative to that power. The church is oriented around a deeper power that we can rest assured will triumph in the end. For now, we are faithful to it — to Him — and persevere even if it often seems to be failing. We lead people to claim the freedom Jesus gives us over those machine powers. It doesn’t always look like it is working. It’s like yeast or a seed — as Jesus said — unseen expansion, underground growth.

Our personal relationships are the foundation of our prophecy

I don’t think this means we ignore those machine powers. This is not a push toward individuality. Our love for neighbor compels us to speak. Those we will never know still matter to us and our voice may help. We address evil in the world with our prophecy in creative ways. We ally with movements that seem to be the best options for the poor and the oppressed. We mock the powers with subversive alternatives. We tell the war machine to stop killing in our name. But we create at least as much as we tear down. We must have a real alternative from which we speak. We must be already doing in micro what we call for in macro. I believe we have that place to stand together with Jesus. We are making an environment where it is safe to lay down the burden of being right all the time. We kindle a fire of bewilderment that opens us up to new possibilities. Our new vision gives us more imagination, offering us insight into better criticism of the powers, asking those better questions that Jesus loves. But our first work is being the alternative, making love and discipleship happen, building a foundation of intimacy with the living Lord that incites those open hearts that can see a different world and bring it closer to fruition with different questions. If we don’t share the best thing we have with those immediately around us, why would we share anything with those beyond?

Giving Thanks for Friends We Don’t See As Much As We Used To

Recently I got a group of people together who had been planting the church together for ten years. Our congregation in South Jersey is ten years old (What a wonder!), and we marked the occasion with a time to remember where we have been and consider where we are going.  The time reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinner — a big long table, family, good food, storytelling… bad memories, tension, irritation. The people we love have so much power over us! And we have so much power together to make light and life in the world.  I’m so grateful these folks stayed together even when everyone didn’t stay. But I’m also grateful that they let me and others in and didn’t stay together in exactly the same way–if they had, I’m not sure they could have stayed together at all.

My Brother and Me

When I was 12, my family moved to a new house and my twin brother, Joel, and I ended up in the same room again after a four year hiatus. Our new room somehow inherited my parents old record player and their old records. That summer The Mamas and the Papas’ album “Deliver” became a permanent part of my neural net. “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, but nothing’s quite as sure as change.” Joel and I share a love that is deeper than some siblings because we are twins. I may be romanticizing our 9 months together in the womb but there’s a comfort that transcends the rearranging of our lives. Joel moved out of our shared room again after a guy that had moved in with us to help plant Circle of Hope moved back to his hometown. Joel found a different friend group in high school, maybe because too many of mine were degenerates and maybe because he just liked video games more than I did. Regardless, our connection persists even if he lives in his own separate house.

I’m sure there are plenty of bad memories, tension and irritation from that moment in our shared history, but they’re not coming to mind right now. We’re brothers, and that doesn’t change.

Being together for a long time means being together in different ways

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a little more tenuous. Of course we are family with all those who call on the name of Jesus around the whole world, but we organize in bands of partners called churches to be and do specific things and  that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood can be lost. It’s better if it can change. One person said that they had been part of several church plants and none of the founding members ever stuck around at all. The fact that so many people who started Circle of Hope in South Jersey are still a part of the mission was pretty amazing to him. I have no frame of reference for this so I’m taking his word for it. I noticed at the dinner that the group was not at all the same as when they started together 10 years ago, but they were still together.

They had gotten married, had children, lived in community, bought and sold houses, and even divorced.  They had planted, multiplied, killed and resurrected dozens of cells. They had fought each other, reconciled, suffered loss and celebrated many milestones in life, mostly associated with young adulthood. But not only had they changed individually, their relationships had changed. They were not as close as they all once were. They were not all at the center of the church leadership. Many others had joined the church and they were dispersed among them in new relationships, carrying their founder fire to the whole body.

Relational Evangelism requires letting go

It was tempting to be sad. Things were not the same. Their togetherness was not the same, but they were together, nonetheless. That togetherness is enough, I think. The alternative is a dissatisfying comparison with the past and a choice for what was. A desire to go back to the way things were, or even a forced fossilization of what is, will grind the wheels of our church planting engine to a halt. It hurts some to keep moving, knowing that your brother is way over there across town rather than right below you on the bottom bunk, but we must trust the binding that God has done. We cannot demand forever intimacy with everyone or no one new will ever be able to enjoy the friendship we offer in Christ.

Relational evangelism brings with it the occupational hazard of having to let go. I don’t think this means we forget the brothers and sisters we have made. We might need to be more intentional about catching up (and I suggest you do that because I need to do it too) but we cannot cozy up in the comfort of what was. We cannot maintain every relationship equally. We cannot demand that our togetherness stay the same. It cannot withstand the weight.  We can be bound by common mission, common history, and a chosen family bond that will play like a pleasant song in your mind and heart–  and last into eternity.

When you go to Thanksgiving Dinner treasure the Togetherness

So at your actual Thanksgiving table, whether you are with blood family, friends family or family in Christ (probably a mix of that). Treasure the togetherness. Marvel that anyone is together at all. Delight in the quirky constellation of people that have gathered to thank God in feast form. It’s not the same as it ever was. Families rearrange and relationships suffer and change. There is heartache and joy all around. Tell the truth. You will be tempted to dwell in the tension, but you might marvel in the longevity of those relationships and wonder what may come next from this foundation.

“Keeping it on Chop” or NOT committing…ever

I may be on the cusp of a linguistic breakthrough because I was hanging out with teenagers yesterday and one said that she and this guy were “keeping it on chop.” She sad her friend had used that phrase to describe a relationship status akin to “just talking.”  I looked up the phrase on urban dictionary and there wasn’t an entry. Am I one of the cool kids?

It amazes me the creative energy we are putting into describing various statuses of romantic or potentially romantic relationships. Keeping things on chop means you could cut it off no problem at any moment. But of course there will be problems. Their relationship continues without definition or intention and “chop” might be the most appropriate word because it’s going to hurt when one of them gets chopped off. I don’t think this is the case in this relationship (thankfully I’m pretty sure) but this arrangement whether it is referred to as “on chop” or not gets a lot more complicated when the parties are having sex. The “chop” is then loaded with all the spiritual and physical attachment of sexual intimacy.

I got real with the teenagers for a minute and told them that the best way to have unprotected sex is to not have any definition or intention in their relationships. My parting words to them were “have sex on purpose.” The best way to have purpose in sex is marriage, but I was prepared for lesser goods in their lives. Am I being too realistic?

They assured me that sex was not a possibility at the moment and I assured them that it was. I’ve been a teenage boy trying not to have sex because of my commitment to obedience to Jesus and I know how hard that was. Take out the commitment to obedience and it becomes very easy. Christians dating is hard whether you are a teenager or an adult, but this slippery trend toward non commitment is making it even harder.

Christian young people could do themselves a big favor by defining and intending from the beginning of their relationships. Being honorable is a dying aspiration but I think we should keep it alive in Circle of Hope. It just so happens that we are swimming in a stream in which sexual honor has been completely deconstructed. Yes, it has a negative legacy attached to the patriarchy, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Each partner has dignity to bring to the relationship and communication about our intent is essential to achieving the honorable relating I desire for my dating couples.

My teenage friends’ Christian parents stop the conversation at “Don’t!” I’m continuing the conversation because I think it requires a lot of communication. Dialogue protects the gravity of a couples’ intentions. That conversation needs to start from the get-go. But it’s so hard to speak your heart or even have a conviction these days. This is why I love the show “Jane the Virgin” because the title character is figuring out how to be chaste (notably for nothing-to-do-with-Jesus-reasons). She wrestles with it in her relationship and demonstrates that it is a constant struggle.

Much love to my friends in the struggle. I pray you get married soon. My teenagers, wait until you finish college if you can. 🙂

Jesus, My Twin

I was so moved by the documentary “Twinsters” I needed to tell you about it. “Twinsters” is the story of two identical twins who were born together in South Korea but quickly separated and adopted by parents in different countries, and how they find each other through the internet. Samantha Futerman, the twin protaganista and director of the documentary is an actress who lives in L.A. Anaïs Brodier, her twin sister who was raised in France but moved to London to study fashion, heard from a friend about a woman on YouTube who looked exactly like her.

Anaïs reached out to Samantha on Facebook and the love story was off to the races. They meet and make a connection that is beautiful. I was watching this documentary on my weekend away. It was the second movie Of the day. I was certain I would fall asleep, but the story was so engaging and the connection between these two women was so real, not only did I stay awake for the whole movie, shedding a few tears of joy, but I stayed up afterward to read more about what the two sisters were up to since the end of the film’s timeline.

It might be that I am a twin and I am very soft to the premise of the story–my heart was pre-warmed so to speak–but I also saw a great parable of God’s redemption project in their reunion and subsequent relating. I’ll tell it Jesus style:

How shall I describe the Kingdom of God? A certain woman was adopted by parents who loved her well and provided for her in a way that her birth mother couldn’t. The woman, though she was successful, had a longing in her that she could not explain, a dislocation deep inside of her. This feeling is common among adopted children, so I’m told. They often have what feels like a built in longing for connection to their roots, to the blood from which they were brought into being and fed in utero. That unresolved dislocation must often be appropriated when birth parents cannot be found or do not want for whatever reason to connect with their birth children. This certain woman had all of those feelings, which influenced her personhood in good and bad ways. And then she found her Twin on YouTube and they got to meet and even craft a life together. The pain of separation from their mother was still real but they had each other. Their thirst for blood family was satisfied. Such is the one who finds the Kingdom of God. Even if that longing for connection with some unknown parent was untouched or unseen it is born in every heart because you are born of God.

I have always loved the playful and at the same time sorrowful deconstruction of God as Father in Rainer Maria Rilke’s  poem “Unde meine seele ein wieb vor dir” from “The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Rilke looking intense (he was)

His tenderness burdens us like an incubus,
his voice weighs on us like a stone–we mean
to wait for his words to come and wish to listen
but hear only half, and fail to understand them,
for all that background drama from the past
makes such a shrill clamour in our ears;
we notice his lips, their shape, dropping
syllables that fall by the wayside. So
we are estranged, further than far apart,
even if love still loosely knots our lives;
only when death takes him do we grasp
that here, on our own star, he had thrived.

So do we see a father. And–am I
to call you father?
Though it would sever us irretrievably?
Rather my son. I shall acknowledge you
just as one does an only beloved son
when he is a man, even an old man.

Rilke projects his relationship with his father, and what he imagines is a common relationship between children and their fathers, onto his relationship with God. I don’t know if I let as many of my own father’s syllables fall by the wayside as did Rilke, but I do understand the inadequacy of our language about God and a longing to express the deep way God quenches our thirst for mutuality.

When I watched “Twinsters” I found a variation on that theme. God is like a long lost twin. Not that I am identical with God, but my innate sense of dislocation is satisfied so completely in Him. And in Jesus we are being made like him. Perhaps Jesus will be my twin. John said in 1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” and Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Jesus came to fully identify with us–from our dislocation to our satisfaction–from our alienation to our finding a connection like a home deeper than the home we’ve known. We will see Jesus like Samantha saw Anaïs. If you watch the movie I hope you can see Jesus in it.

My prayer is:

Jesus, my brother,
my twin brother,
you have found me,
and I am found by you.

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