Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: spiritual health (Page 1 of 2)

What to say to fear

Fear is a big part of everyone’s life in normal times, but in these “quarantimes” it is an even bigger part of our lives. We are sharing our fear in a much bigger way because we are all feeling a common threat. In some ways, this is a good thing because it’s not so lonely to feel scared. But the group project of fear can also amplify and intensify our fear until it is completely debilitating. What do we say to fear? How do we speak back to these feelings?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” – Jesus in Luke 12:32

Jesus said this in the middle of a passage all about the many expectations of difficulty he had for his little flock. Worry, anxiety, fear — they were all assumed. Jesus knows us. He knows where we live. That was his mission in joining us in the struggle of human existence here on Earth — God wanted to know humanity and be known as human. Jesus knows what fear is like. It is a daily part of our lives. He sees you and loves you. Receive the tenderness of Jesus calling us his “little flock,” and the promise of something-more beyond our present suffering. Fear must be met with faith — and faith makes us hopeful. Faith makes us courageous. Jesus wants to actually en-courage us. It is from this God-sent courage that we can talk back to fear.

What not to say to fear

You’re wrong.” Fear is not really something we can talk ourselves out of. Don’t you hate it when you are sharing your heart with someone and, even if it’s obvious they are trying to be delicate, they respond by trying to explain away your feelings? It feels terrible. It’s easy to see it when someone else says it to you, so why would you talk like that to yourself? Jesus doesn’t say you’re wrong for being afraid. He sees how afraid you are and loves you. Jesus wants to be with you in you’re fear. It helps to tell him about it, and to tell a Christian friend who can listen without making you feel even more terrible.

 

You’re bad.” Fear has done a lot of good in your life. It is a powerful instinct that has plunged very important messages deep into your brain. Without fear you might take foolish risks. Without fear you might not be able to relate very well. Without fear you would not be human. Your defense mechanisms serve a valuable purpose. They have kept you safe in an unsafe world. Jesus does not condemn your fear. He sees you, he loves you, and he offers himself as an alternative. Whenever Jesus says “Fear not” you can read it like a mother saying to a child awoken by a nightmare, “I know it’s scary but it’s over now.” Jesus doesn’t say, “It was only a dream go back to bed.” You’re part of his little flock. Don’t judge your fear; there is no transformation there.

 

You’re in charge. Fear wants to drive your car (thanks Rob Bell for this metaphor). Fear wants to be in charge . Fear wants you to follow. Maybe the cost of planting those protective messages so deep in our brains is an inability to see fear clearly. Have you ever driven home from work and realized only when you got to the driveway that you have no recollection of the commute? Fear is like that unconscious driving many people have experienced. Occasionally we wake up to the steering wheel and realize, “Oh, I’m driving!” Fear is often driving while you’re unaware. It’s more common to let fear be in charge without knowing it, but happens consciously sometimes too, especially in a pandemic, or other incredible trauma. Sometimes we see fear in charge of our direction and say, “This is fine.” I think this usually comes from exhaustion or despair (which might be two sides of the same coin — one physical, the other spiritual). Jesus knows you’re tired and offers a lighter load. Jesus wants to carry the weight so you can be a dignified agent of his world transformation project. Jesus wants you to drive and he helps you do it.

What to say to fear

Oh, there you are.” Jesus anticipated the fears of his little flock. He saw their unavoidable presence and made accomodations for that. The Peace of Christ is a real thing. Sometimes it comes in a woosh. Sometimes it takes a long time to find it in a dark season like this one. The answer to fear is Jesus himself and he is ever so gentle with us in our struggle. Let’s be gentle with him even when we can’t find his peace. When fear comes up, say “Oh, there you are. I knew you must have been around here somewhere.” Assuming fear is at work in your thinking and feeling wards off the element of surprise. If we can get out from the judgment of “you’re wrong” and “you’re bad” fear could be a bit more neutral. And a couple degrees of turning when responding to fear could make a big difference in your long term trajectory.

 

I see you.” This is incredibly powerful, and surprisingly so. There is something so transformational about naming and describing your fear. Honestly, I don’t completely understand it, but it has proven true for me and countless others. Naming your fear in a safe environment disempowers it. Telling Jesus your fears just works. Living in an environment with Jesus at the center like one of Circle of Hope’s cells makes this a lot easier, and a lot more common. Having a culture of looking fear in the eyes and saying “I see you” will change a person’s life.

 

Back seat.” “Oh, there you are, Fear. I see you. But you are not driving this car. Back seat.” Fear is along for the ride. There is no fear-less life. Fear is part of who we are. Jesus sees that and affirms that. He does not offer us a way out of our relationship with fear. Jesus invites us into a transformation of how we relate to fear. If you spend all your energy trying to eliminate fear, you’ll be fooling yourself and disregarding Jesus’ posture towards it. Why would all the Bible writers be so interested in fear if it were not a given? Here’s an exhaustive list of encouragement from Jesus, God and God’s messengers throughout the whole Bible from catholic-resources.org. Putting fear in the back seat acknowledges its presence in our lives but gives us enough space to realize that fear is not us. The more space we can get between us and our fear the better. Fear has things to teach us still, but with Jesus whispering “Don’t be afraid” in our ear every day, we will see fear for what it is and not for what it isn’t. My personal practice for creating that distance is contemplative prayer, but there are lots of ways to work on this.

 

Therapy can help, too. Check out circlecounseling.com. They are doing online sessions in the pandemic.

Jesus is with you, we are with you

This is a long process, and we never arrive. The best thing for this conversation with fear is community. Cells are working on this every week. Learn more about cells here. Our pastors teach about this regularly. Check out our YouTube channel and/or tune into our Sunday meeting at circleofhope.net/OnlineMeeting every Sunday at 5 pm. Jesus did not come just to correct you, tell you you’re bad or to disempower you. He came to do the opposite of all that and his plan did not include eliminating fear. In our community, we learn to trust him and speak back to fear, “Oh, there you are. I see you. Back seat.”

The Mental Health Benefits of Circle of Hope

It seems to me that it is common to separate the mental health benefits of participation in our church from the other things we do to gain and maintain our mental health. We go to therapy, we practice mindfulness, we exercise, we do yoga, we journal… oh! and I guess there’s church, too. I don’t think most of my incredible partners would ever say, “Circle of Hope is not a benefit to my mental health.” By no means! They would say the opposite if asked. But I don’t think we are always asking. Church is not part of the mainstream conversation about good mental health regimens. This blog post aims to make what is implicit and fairly obvious, explicit and very obvious.

by Chloe Cushman

Why don’t we think of church as part of our mental health?

  1. Church is less marketable – It’s not like people haven’t tried (and succeeded) at making a lucrative business out of the Gospel. But true discipleship doesn’t really sell that well. Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, share everything in common, discipline your appetites. These are not blockbuster sentiments. It’s hard to sell a free gift. And really, it’s things that are bought and sold that get the world’s first attention. If the church is not on the open market it must not be important. I don’t think it will be too hard for us to resist this temptation, but we must accept that ours is a quiet revolution — unlikely to be televised and trumpeted by those whose eyes are trained on the big money.
  2. Because it is not a technique – One way “Self-Help” and other beneficial practices like mindfulness and yoga have gotten onto the tips of our tongues when we think about our mental health is that they are techniques that can be mastered and practiced, and they have been marketed as such. There is great appeal to learning the moves, and conditioning our minds. These are good things to do, but they center the individual as the master of their fate. Take your life back. That sounds like winning! The messy, and often difficult, way of living and loving in Christian community doesn’t seem nearly as easy — and it’s kind of all over the place. There might be a thing or two we can learn form the clear paths that have been made by folks who teach these techniques, but maybe not. Our question is “How can the most excellent way of Love, as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13, be lifted up as the most excellent way to mental health?” I think love in Christian Coimmunity definitely leads to mental health, but it is a way of life, not a technique; and it can be somewhat unwieldy.
  3. The cure is communal and cannot be done in isolation – It’s being together that really has the biggest impact on our mental health. We are part of a community that cares about us. Our cells and congregations are sized so that you can be known face to face.  You can find acceptance for who you are right now. But, of course, that requires the risk of being with others. You could have any number of reasons why that is hard for you. I say it’s worth the effort and the risk, and the faith it takes to trust others is the same faith it takes to trust God. The community is a proving ground for our trusting and a place for healing hearts that have experienced a lot of broken trust.
  4. Mutuality is required and requirements are hard when you are hurting – In Circle of Hope we help one another process the inevitable conflict that comes with being closely related. We are taught to relate in ways that help us recover from trauma. And if you are hurting, the mutuality that can be such a source of healing can seem like an impossible demand. It’s hard. I can’t say it isn’t, but I will vouch for its efficacy.

  5. Somewhere along the lines church and psychology got in a fight – I don’t know enough about it to expound upon it, but somehow a significant number of Christians decided that psychology was against God. I still meet people who have been told that to seek the help of a professional therapist is a faithless act. Ugh. We are doing our best to de-stigmatize professional counseling and we dedicate a significant portion of our budget to subsidize counseling at the counseling center founded by one of our pastors. Circle Counseling is amazing!

So if you are working on gaining or maintaining your mental health (especially in quarantine)…

Invest in the church! Invest in your relationship with God! Of course Jesus can heal you in supernatural ways, but the simplicity of life together ought not to be overlooked. The Church is  a great source of mental health resources. I am particularly glad that Circle of Hope is trying to be a psychologically healthy church. And to that end we have compiled a list of resources for you and our community wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/wind/mentalhealth.  May we find our way together through this mess and beyond.

A Vocabulary of Blessing

It’s the end of Spiritual gifts month in Circle of Hope; what did we learn?

Many of us learned what spiritual gifts were for the first time. There are 23-25 spiritual gifts described explicitly as gifts  in the New Testament (depending on how you slice it). Circle of Hope Daily Prayer gave us plenty of insight into the nature of each gift. You can read them again at circleofhope.net/dailyprayer by searching “spiritual gifts” in the search bar or you can see them on this google doc.

Personality or Gifting?

This paragraph from the July 30th entry was especially revealing to me:

Many people think considering our personalities is the same as considering our spiritual gifts. But the sorting does not come from the same source. Psychology can be practiced in the Spirit and spirituality can be psychologically informed. But, in general, “personality” is thought of as something coming from the inside out and spiritual gifts come from the outside in. Our personalities are the receptacles and vehicles for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us “clay jars”—very humble, everyday dwellings for the glory of God. Be in awe of that miracle.

My personality has historically driven me into much of what I do. I run on high octane conviction about my sense of self and my purpose in the world. Who I am is very important to me. I have submitted my personality in many ways to Jesus over the years. I made Jesus a feature of who I am by becoming a Christian and taking radical discipleship seriously. But this paragraph from the daily prayer hit me at the beginning of the month in that special way. You know what I’m talking about? When you read something and you notice it — maybe you highlight it in a book, read it out loud to your spouse or friend, or post it on your Facebook wall (that’s what I did). I realize, now at the end of the month, how the meaning of this is working itself out for me.

Mariko the Theremin

My lesson is this: Making Jesus a feature of my personality is not the same as receiving Jesus’ Spirit in my heart. I think the latter has happened in my life and the former is not inherently bad, but they are definitely not the same. During spiritual gifts month, that distinction became apparent to me. It happened at 2007 Frankford Ave when Mariko Snook, one of our brilliant Art Directors, was reading our questions.

She had asked us to write down whatever question was resonating with us. My question jumped out of me and felt true when I wrote it down, but when she read it in sequence with the questions of others I was strangely disconnected from what I had asked. This was due in part to the theremin-like vibration of Mariko. She was tremulous in her feeling — in OUR feeling really. It was a communal exercise. The questions of others spoke directly to my own. Our frequencies bounced into harmony. She channeled each person’s heart, reverberating with the vulnerability. Her eyes sparkled with welling tears lit with the great spotlights they have in that space. She brought us with her on that journey, and in the synchronization, I learned that what jumps out of me is not always who I am, even if it feels good coming out.

Later reflecting on the dissonance of that moment, it was the desperation of my question that couldn’t resonate with the deepest part of me. Taking time to pray about it later, I was aware of what had been poured into me. Jesus is firmly seated in my heart. His love did not resonate with the blurted despair of my question, “When is this going to work?!” Which was to say, “When will I get what I want, which i have equated with what You want?” There was no answer to this question, but a clarity about who I really am. Jesus is not a feature of my personality. He is present in my heart in a special way through the gift of faith that the Spirit has poured over me.

Keep asking the right questions

At the Spiritual Gifts Intensive, the Leadership Team formed the core of our mutual discernment. The main agenda at the Saturday morning part of our two day event was group time. We got in a group and they told us what they felt our Spiritual Gifts were, based on their long time understanding of us, or their vague impressions depending on the various pairings of people. Then we did it again with a new group. We were all flexing our discernment and building a common vocabulary of blessing. I hope we keep asking and suggesting, “What has God given you?” and saying “Maybe you have the gift of…” That we might be as pulsing amplifiers of the Spirit for each other.

You can start by answering the 125 questions that make up the sorter we used. Find it here on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Thanks to my friend, Joshua, for turning it into an online format. Which spiritual gift corresponds to HTML?

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

The Dangers of Teeth-Brushing Christianity

Among many other odd and troubling things about the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week was a comparison between church attendance and brushing your teeth. On one hand, I admire the regularity of his devotion, but on the other hand the comparison is dangerously close to just going through the motions.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh, so I’m not really evaluating his faith (and even if I did know him, that’s not really anybody’s job but Jesus). Because he is a public figure now, his story has a magnitude that transcends the individual, and there are other very valuable conversations that he and Dr. Ford are bringing up for all of us. Sin is run amok, and it’s so clear to me again. I’m tempted to despair when I see in Washington what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes saw in his time,

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
    in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Maybe everyone is just brushing their teeth with religious affiliation instead of being cut to the core by the extent of the wickedness all around us.

The world needs better Christians

We need to create an alternative. We need it badly. Brett Kavanaugh, and 82 of the 100 Senators claim Christianity too. We need to do better, and I’m not talking about starting to floss. We don’t need to get better at what is–brush our teeth more often, or use the right toothpaste–get the right people in power and find the scriptural magic bullet for all of the policy debates. If Christianity is what we see in this political fiasco we need something else. If disempowering millions of women in the name of one powerful person’s reputation is brushing your teeth, then we need to grow some baleen and start straining krill from seawater. We need to do something completely different.

Circle of Hope was designed to do and be something different but I am fully aware of how easy it is to not do that. I get how Brett Kavanaugh could describe going to church like brushing his teeth. It easily can be just something you do, and if you’re like me and most of my friends, you don’t really need just another thing to do. We need to know the living God, to breathe the breath of life, to trust tomorrow to tomorrow, to make a way where there was no way before.

Here are a few ways we can avoid teeth brushing Christianity

1) Find out what moves you

Be curious about yourself. We might think we have to have it all figured out, especially ourselves. It’s very easy to quickly codify our experiences as settled law isn’t it? “That’s not my thing.” “I’m not into that.” “I’m not a church person.” “I suck at prayer.” Some of those things might be true at times, but don’t count yourself out of everything. You’re not the same person you were last time that happened. Maybe what didn’t work for you will work this time. Worship, prayer, singing, silence, scripture, dialogue. When were you moved? It doesn’t have to be in a church setting. When did something happen inside? I don’t know how to describe it too clearly without poetry; I hope you know what I mean. Follow that — drop into that gear when you meet with the church — pursue that experience. If you’re not expecting it again, or asking God for something every day, it is less likely to happen. Thankfully you could be moved despite yourself.

2) Say no to your resentment (out loud)

Anything we do regularly becomes routine (that’s the definition). There is a lot of potential growth in keeping at your routines even when you don’t feel like it. But if you dwell on how much you hate what you have to do the whole time you do it, of course it will be miserable. I could hate the dentist every time I brush my teeth for what s/he might say to me if I don’t–as if the dentist were responsible for my dental health. It helps me to say stuff like that out loud (or type it to you because I actually do hate brushing my teeth). Name your resentments. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They aren’t who you are; they are just thoughts. You can put them on loop and let them control you, or you can say “no.” Sometimes I just say (or yell depending on where I am) “NO!” to the thoughts I don’t want. I’m at this meeting with the church because God has done something in me that I can’t deny. Jesus is inviting the whole world into unimaginable newness. I want to keep tasting that and extend that invitation to others.

3) Aim for something new

We don’t really need the same old thing, even though that’s very comfortable and effective for some people. We need to aim for something really new, not just the old thing slightly rearranged. We are not called as a Circle of Hope to feel different by comparing ourselves to other churches (something we are prone to if we aren’t careful); no, we are called to be different from the world–a peculiar people that demonstrates the foundation of love in which God establishes us. Our existence puts a question mark behind all of our culture’s conclusions just as Jesus’ did and does. It’s hard to escape the boxes we are put in by others or the ones we build for ourselves, so we must always be aiming to do what is new, what is next. Maintaining an institution is a common motivation for slowly accommodating ourselves to wickedness. Let’s trust God beyond our institutions. If it all comes tumbling down, God will make something new in the rubble. That’s been God’s MO from jump street, hasn’t it?

And… St. Francis

It’s October 4th, so I must conclude with a shout-out to our favorite Friar from Asissi, St. Francis. He exemplified these three things and many more. When the institution of the church was full of wickedness he made something new. I doubt he ever brushed his teeth (it was the middle ages 😉). Learn more about him today if you can.

I think I might be putting God to the test

Remember when Jesus was out in the desert chilling with Satan? There’s this epic showdown in Matthew 4 when Jesus get’s tempted by Satan to do these three things that would betray his relationship with God and Jesus stands firm. In his second temptation Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the top of a high building to prove that he is the Son of God. Jesus says “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus knows who he is. He doesn’t need to prove it to his naysayer.

I’m not sure what to do with this but I think I am putting the Lord my God to the test. I’m not jumping off of buildings expecting God to catch me but I do often find myself looking for some more confirmation for my faith. I think a lot of people are in the same spot. Either we don’t feel confident enough in the faith we profess to refuse an alleged opportunity to “know for sure”, or we can’t profess any faith at all until we think we “know for sure.” We’re looking for some more faith and it seems like it would just be a lot easier if some kind of crazy miracle happened that was undeniable.

But undeniable crazy miracles happen occasionally and they prove to be, no matter the facts, super-deniable! We are really good at denying. If Jesus jumped off a building right in front of us and a bunch of angels appeared out of nowhere to catch him, some would never be the same and others would find a way to think it never happened, doubt their own sensory inputs even, or just forget. Jesus rose from the dead and it was immediately denied and covered up by the authorities. The disciple Thomas denied his friends’ assurances that Jesus was resurrected and Thomas refused to believe them until he saw Jesus himself. Jesus later told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What does he mean by that? I think it’s related to his refusal to put God to the test when he was on top of that building with Satan. Jesus wasn’t just having a Bible verse quiz off with Satan. He wasn’t just following the rules. He was demonstrating a different kind of relationship with God and exposing the inadequacy of Satan’s demand for a sign. Jesus tells Thomas that those of us who believe in Jesus’ resurrection without “undeniable” proof are more blessed. I think this is because the way we confirm our faith in God today is similar to the way Jesus did in the desert. He relates to God. He loves God. He connects to God person to person and spirit to spirit. This deeper connection is preferable to the sensory connection of “well that happened.”

Events and facts have a pretty high cache in our construction of reality. Some would say that the only things that can be described as believable are events and facts that are independently verifiable. Whether we would say that or not, this perspective sways us to some degree because it has won the day in our collective cultural mindset. You have to be an expert to say anything about anything and experts are quickly deconstructed as soon as enough people look at them. We live in a world of scrutiny. So much information, so much expectation, so much power. It easy to think that we have to figure it all out, or just say nothing, maybe believe nothing.

I’ve been a Christian for a while now and I’ve dedicated my life to extending to others the opportunity to know and be known by a God who loves them and to be saved by the connection to Jesus I have found. I say a lot. But, believe it or not, I still find this desire for a sign bouncing around inside me. I’m like a duckling quacking my head off because I need to hear that reassuring quack of my mother reminding me she’s there. I’ve never heard the voice of God like a few people did in the Bible. That would be believing because I have seen (or because I’ve heard, I guess). Instead, I believe because I am known. I believe because I know myself and I know how I have changed. I believe because my desires are shaped toward building God’s kingdom. I believe because I feel it inside. I find that faith in the quiet moments alone with God that I carve out of the morning hours before my children wake. I feel the absence when I don’t. It’s not very undeniable.

So I’m excited for the Love Feast this weekend, where we in Circle of Hope express our covenant love in Jesus and hear the stories of those led by God to partner with us in our local expression of the Body of Christ. The Love Feast is the place where I get to be a baby duckling in a sense. It’s not a booming quack from heaven, but it is a lot of words from my human brothers and sisters confirming the good news I have also received–confirming from the outside what I have known on the inside. And I guess if people stopped doing that I would indeed be in trouble, because this communal expression of our connection to Jesus and to each other is vital to my faith. I am not Jesus and my doubts are there whether I like it or not, so I’ll take the both and of my quiet interior journey and the shared stories of my community as enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Let Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark: How to keep caring when bad stuff keeps happening

The attack that killed 14 people, injured 17 and resulted in the death of 2 suspects, began yesterday morning, at an office holiday party in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The center is called “Inland Regional” because it is located in the “Inland Empire” of Southern California where I was born and spent my early childhood. My home town, Riverside is 15 miles south of San Bernardino. This attack literally hit close to home, and I feel it that way too.

The big statistic rolling around the internet today is that there have been more mass shootings in the US than days so far in 2015. 355! NPR.org reports that  “Gun sales are going up. There were more gun background checks on this year’s Black Friday than any other single day on record: 185,345, according to the FBI. That’s up five percent from Black Friday last year, when there were 175,754 background checks.” Are we going insane? Do we really think that fire will fight this fire? It’s very easy to despair. It’s very easy to close your eyes. It’s very easy to accept this scary reality and try to cope.

The Circle of Hope Pastors were talking yesterday on their videocast, Someone Asked, about climate change and whether we can actually make a difference when corporations, the main polluters, have effectively bought the US political system. Obama was in Paris encouraging us to believe we can change the world. I was admitting my cynicism and Joshua was encouraging me to apply my faith in Jesus to the hope for the world. If I am certain that God cares for the earth, I must act as if what I do and say to preserve it matters.

And how much important are we than the birds! Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds and the lilies but cares for humans even more, even by becoming one of us in Jesus. So when 14 people die in San Bernardino and 355 die across the country to gun violence God grieves. It comforts me that God is with us in our sorrow. It even encourages me to engage my own grief. The alternative would be to let my eyes adjust to the dark. To accept the wickedness of the world–to drink and be merry for tomorrow we die (Isaiah 22:13).

We were talking about this in my cell meeting last night. There is such big, scary stuff happening in the world. Our default is to distract ourselves. To avoid the small feeling that comes with paying attention to the glut of bad news we can so easily access. Isn’t their enough bad news in my own life? It’s a good question. I’m with you in it if you are asking it.

But the results of being as small as the fear makes us is slavery. We cannot control our future no matter how much money we save, how many guns we have, or how much we read up on what to do in an active shooter situation. Being human in an uncertain universe is a fact. We must be saved. We cannot save ourselves. If we live into the promise of Jesus’ future coming, when he will come and fully bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and a new humanity with it, we will have the hope we need to confront the fear of this dark world. Because Jesus saved us by coming as a tiny baby and living a fully human life and died the death of an oppressed person, and was raised form the dead because he was the Son of God–because of all this–we can believe that our tiny lives make a difference in the darkness. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9) and one day “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light” (Isaiah 60). We are those people. This has begun.

So we can pray. We can trust that God is bringing about his promises even though the world is against him, and the forces of evil with it. So we can offer the comfort we have–a church that is an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption. So we can have an active relationship with Jesus that transforms us and the people around us.

I’m not sure that the world will get much better, but I think that God will preserve us as a people until Jesus comes again- the Second Advent. And in the mean time we will be a sign pointing to the realest Reality that is breaking through the darkness–God is with us.

 

 

 

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