Your self is hidden in Christ with God. You are not done yet. I hope you find freedom in that today—I hope you find a lightness in knowing that.
Your self is hidden in Christ with God. You are not done yet. I hope you find freedom in that today—I hope you find a lightness in knowing that.
I’m a pastor in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing”…and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out a Taco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.
I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between me and my fellow Taco Bell customers? What would it take to bring us together in one body?
There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation. These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than me; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably, that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.
Of course this was all speculation—an exercise in missionary imagination. I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”
I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.
“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them.” One said,
Well that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.
“Wow, thanks! Yes!”
Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.” He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.
What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.
There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and wham! I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!
I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”
After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism? I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”
Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?
It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos. We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are further and further apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.
But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. The generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.
A few months ago scientists were able to transfer information stored in a photon across a distance of 25 kilometers. I can’t totally understand what the science communicators are trying to tell me despite some significant head scratching. Here’s a link to one of the articles I read [link]. Just the idea that information is regularly transmitted via photon is mind blowing to me. This is the basic of quantum computing research.
The quantum computer, following the laws of quantum physics, would gain enormous processing power through the ability to be in multiple states, and to perform tasks using all possible permutations simultaneously. Current centers of research in quantum computing include MIT, IBM, Oxford University, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Source [http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/quantum-computing]
This is probably just a very over-wrought metaphor I’m spinning here, but I felt like a quantum computer on Sunday, in a good way. It was Easter and we were celebrating the Resurrection. We get up early on Resurrection Sunday in Circle of Hope to greet the Risen Lord at the break of dawn just like the women did in the gospel accounts. I rode my bike with my friends in our annual “Jesus is Risen Bike Parade.” Oliver came along.
After a feastly feast for brunch the only predictable thing to do would be to take a glorious Lord’s Day nap. Instead I went to our Public Meeting space at 3800 Marlton Pike and tore the whole place up in a flourish of creativity. I hadn’t planned to redesign our meeting space. I had wanted to do it but had done little to make it a practical reality. Nonetheless I felt crazy enough to go for it and with the help of some unsuspecting friends who just happened to be there we made a big change in our meeting space and added some much needed extra space in our meeting room for the 30 people we plan to include this year. It was tons of fun! A bit of a mad dash, but all the more exhilarating for it.
Now I am a naturally energetic person, but this was uncanny even for me. I felt the New Life of the Resurrection making me giddy with my hair-brained scheme. There was no immediate need for this change, but it was such perfect timing with our liturgical season that it felt like it had to be done- and it was done.
It’s easy to depend upon our own meager resources in this crazy hair-brained scheme called the Kingdom of God. We can be discouraged, or limit ourselves based on the evidence of our previous experience or just our tiny faith. That’s not an insult, it’s just a fact. Our faith is tiny. Our hearts are weak. Our bodies are even weaker. So be it and so it is. Jesus’ faithfulness survived death. Jesus’ love is greater than our hearts. And Jesus’ body is resurrected! He is all we need.
There were no quantum physics involved in the energy transfer I experienced on Sunday but the feeling of extra juice was more than a sugar rush. Our joy is in Jesus and he does make himself known–and across a much greater distance than a mere 25 kilometers.
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.
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.
We need to pray more. Everyone is shouting something from the rooftop and volume will not remedy the situation. If we’re going to meet the next 50-75 people we need to multiply our congregation at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington, we’re going to need to make ourselves available for a lot more whispers in our ear from Jesus. Because in the rooftop noisescape of Philadelphia their is a desperate need for something new. The next generation that we have designed Circle of Hope to include is closing its ears to rooftop communications of all kinds. They have been marketed to by so many people, for so long, in so many ways that they are experts at tuning out. If we’re going to get them to hear what we have to say we’ll need to hear from Jesus first.
Many of us are just as expert at tuning out at as the rest, and our sensibilities prejudice our actions. We’ll tune ourselves out before we even say a thing. If we can convince ourselves that our words are not just our own but they are the words of Jesus to those around us, we’ll make it a lot further toward actually communicating some piece of our hope. What is Jesus saying to me that he needs others to hear? Who needs to hear what I have heard? Am I turning down the volume on myself or is it Jesus I’m tuning out? It may be Jesus. To get a handle on Jesus’ words to us we’ll need to get good at listening.
Prayer is a lot of listening you know? Somehow it got the rep that it was all about asking God for stuff, but it’s much more than that. Prayer is communion with God. When I spend time with God in the morning I can tell the difference later in the day. I don’t go up on the roof very often, but how I am myself feels more purposeful, more directed. I have never heard an audible whisper myself, but ideas come easier, intentional acts of love seem more natural-it’s like I’m aligned as I should be. Time spent soaking in God’s presence becomes a keel that keeps me straight in God’s waters.
But being attuned to God’s whisper is not just a solitary practice. I can feel God’s presence in community- in my cell meeting on Thursday nights and in our big meetings on Sunday nights too. Jesus has communicated pretty clearly to me that he is present in our community, and in our embrace many will come to a real encounter with him. The whisper we need is not always a new revelation; it is more often a renewal of the same deep truths. “God loves you. God loves the people you will meet today. God wants to bring us all together in Christ. God is with you.” It’s easy to forget and sometimes hard to believe in our hearts even when we know in our heads that it’s true. Jesus whispers to us everyday to encourage our rooftop declarations.
So let’s pray more, let’s incline our ears and respond to when they are perked. If you hear something, say something, at least to your cell if not from some 21st century version of the rooftop. Censoring yourself may be censoring the very words of Jesus. Can we have that much seriousness about what we have to say and how Jesus is using us in the world?
Summer’s not really over yet, but the season changed at Circle of Hope’s Public Meeting last night and I’m ready to move into the fall. Sorry to those of you who haven’t gone on vacation yet. I feel a bit like the guy who asks “How was your weekend?” on Sunday afternoon. Forgive me.
I spent the Pentecost season off of Facebook (and this blog, instagram, tumblr, twitter etc.). It was a communal experiment among the pastors and a few other leaders at Circle of Hope. We wanted to unplug to see if our disconnection hurt us at all. Does facebook as a medium actually help our cause, or do we spend a lot of time shouting into the void when we could be making real-er connections? We want to be the media which for me means I want to know people and I want people to know me. I believe that in a relationship with me or someone like me people have the best chance of meeting Jesus. This summer I wanted to see how the virtual relating of facbookland worked by letting it not work for a while.
The most notable changes occurred within me and my habits. Without the distraction of facebook I was more productive. I read more books. I started a new cell and hung out with those new people in my life. I got out into Philadelphia on the Circle of Hope Summer Tour and I didn’t worry about the storytelling of the experience before the experience was over. I was in the moment, relating to the people around me as I was with them. I did not triangulate a thousand people into our interactions. I have to admit that I am an image conscious person. I worry about what people will think. Facebook plays into this character trait by encouraging me to manage a virtual image of myself; and because I am a leader of a community, I manage an image of Circle of Hope too.
Image management isn’t all bad. I want to be received well by all sorts of people so that I might speak into their life after earning a place of trust. I want to be a conspicuous force for good in the world so people will see my good deeds and glorify my father in heaven. I know for certain I can do these things without facebook, but I’ve decided to do it with facebook again because it’s a way that people relate and it’s the only way I relate to some of the people I barely know or knew well before they or I moved away.
Facebook is a very dangerous tool. It can suck me in and begin to make me who I am. I can begin to be an image of myself rather than the me I really am now. This is the easiest way for the enemy to undermine me. If I can’t do it to a perfect standard; if I can’t be the person I wish I was, then I might as well wallow in my sin, or my ineffective strategy, or whatever else is currently unhealthy in my life. That’s enough reason for me not to go back. Put that on top of the image that the marketers are making of me–the detailed niche market of Benjamin White that has extended from ads to the actual news feeds of my friends. I now only see what they want me to see from private users too. Everything filtered, manicured, marketed and algorhythm-ed for my viewing pleasure and for facebook’s maximized profit. A dangerous tool indeed. But I’ve read the instruction manual, I’ve got my safety goggles on, a bit clearer now after a season away and I’m ready to relate again there too. I’ll probably see you there but let’s not keep it there. okay?
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” –Philippians 3
It’s not exactly good advertising: COME DIE WITH JESUS! That’s one reason people aren’t flocking into the Church these days. We’re currently interested as a culture in mastering death; have you seen the trailer for Johnny Depp’s new movie? It comes out April 17–just in time for Easter. Who needs resurrection when you have Transcendence [link]? My biggest fear about this movie is that it doesn’t seem too far fetched that we could some day map the electronic patterns of the brain, digitize it and have a consciousnesses that could live forever. I pray that it is impossible, but I am not confident it is.
But this coming week at Circle of Hope and at many churches around the world is all about death, more specifically, Jesus’ death. Let’s not reduce it to storytelling though. Holy Week, the week we remember Jesus’ last days before his death, is not just about Jesus’ death, it’s about ours too.
At the beginning of Lent many of us marked ourselves with ashes under the evocation “Remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return.” We’ve spent weeks remembering our frailty, recognizing our need, and longing for the Resurrection. Lent is about finding the parts of us that need to die. It’s a quarantine from business as usual designed to give us some perspective on ourselves and our condition. We fast to create some artificial suffering that could help us “participate in his sufferings” as Paul writes in Philippians. The fasting also reminds us of what we are doing. It gives us small opportunities to turn to God in our need.
The practical “lynchpin” of Christian theology is that we are freed from caring if we die. Eternity is an everyday necessity for those who follow Jesus. Hopefully (and probably) we won’t all become martyrs but it is the fear of death, the most basic human fear, that leads to any number of theological and practical concessions. When Paul says in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” he does not mean that God will eliminate all who come against us, he means that our ultimate safety is secure. We are called to lean into this ultimate security in order to avoid making personal and familial security paramount. This conviction is the only way we can obey Jesus’ teachings on enemy love and peace making, but it is also pretty important in following Jesus in his special concern for the poor and not worrying about tomorrow, clothes and food.
We are saved from fear by Jesus’ promise of abundant and eternal life. Personally, I have further uncovered the truth that my basic human fear of death is integrally linked with my understanding of my own limitations and frailty. To trust Jesus unto death allows me to trust him unto moments where I need to die to myself and the myths I make for myself about my own capacity. This is taking up my cross and dying daily. This is dying with Jesus.
In battle, retreat is not defeat. It is a recognition that the enemy has an advantage in that moment that is too costly to overcome. In our mission it is important to recognize that the enemy often has an advantage in our battle, in our own weakness and little faith. So a tactical retreat needs to be a rhythmic part of our “battle plan” so to speak.
Last weekend I charged up the hill at Neumann University on my bike to get the keys to my peace hermitage. (I like these dichotomous metaphors I’ve got going here) I was feeling a great need to retreat from the front lines and be encouraged by some concentrated time alone with God. I needed more stuff from God to do the big things that I am feeling called to do. I didn’t have much of an agenda but a fall back to quiet, nature and bible reading. I didn’t have any great revelations but I did rest greatly and I did sense God’s presence and love.
I read the book of Romans and God rescued it from the corner of my mind consumed in debate and rebellion against popular modernist doctrines prevalent in much of the mainline protestantism in which I was schooled. So many points of doctrine have been pulled from this letter! I didn’t want to dwell on the points (though they are good to think through). I found the relentless love of God setting us free from the law of sin and death, including the laws that the Christian point makers have been making since the era of modern biblical scholarship. I memorized some verses and put them on repeat in my mind.
Romans 8:38-39 “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 any other thing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I needed a retreat because the things we face seem capable at times of separating me from that love. Be it in my own psychology–my fear of rejection and my need to be liked, or in my relationships with others–conflicts that are hard to navigate and partners who are, like me, recovering from the sin addiction, or in the overwhelming power of our cultural gods–consumerism, scientific rationalism, egocentrism and racism to name a few. None of these things, nor any other thing that I am not mentioning or have even encountered yet will separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Retreat is a tactic in being the indefatigable missionary I need to be to break through to a resistant culture. There are many things that stand against us. The enemy is indeed strong but our base of operations, our stronghold is a person whose promise is true. I was really grateful to my wife especially that she let me make this time so that I could be deployed anew with fresh legs and stronger heart.
This past week I’ve been working this post out. Giving words of encouragement and caution to Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors; having a creative dialogue with my coordinating group; and getting in some real conflict with a friend and working to reconcile. This post from Circle of Hope Daily Prayer deserves a repost.