Circle of Hope

Dead animals & the theology of salvation

I’m at a camp in central PA taking a class in the Brethren in Christ pastor-credentialing process.  I opted to stay in the $15/a night cabin instead of the $45/a night hotel-style room at the conference center in order to save some money.  (I’m a back-packer who loves the outdoors, so I figured I could get my class-work and studying done wherever.)

Upon entering my cabin, I noticed a strange smell.  It was pretty bad, but I thought that maybe all the cabins smelled that way.  I opened the windows, set up my stuff, took a nap, and resolved to buy a nice scented candle to help deal with my situation.  Later on the way to the store, my friend Ben and I ran into the camp director, and Ben insisted on asking him to check out the smell, ignoring all my protests that I was fine.  Sure enough, there was large dead animal rotting under the cabin.  The camp director insisted on upgrading me to the penthouse suite of anywhere I’ve ever retreated.   Now I’m in a beautiful, cozy, modern place with more amenities than I have at home.

tomb picAllow me to draw a parallel to the spiritual life.   Some of us are so committed to toughing it out in our struggle that that we’re more likely to live with the dead animal than ask for help.  Our way of taking care of ourselves is decaying and smelly but we’re not sure it could change and we don’t want to bother anyone.  We don’t trust God to take care of us because we don’t think God cares that much or has power to change things.  Or God is busy taking care of other people who have bigger problems.

Talk about it.  I’m not saying that Jesus offers a luxurious life that is free of struggle.  But there could be some relief and beauty and rest for you that you have not imagined.  Christus Victor is calling together a people that are free by his Spirit to move beyond the seemingly insatiable desires for money, power, achievement, safety, adventure, food, clothes, drugs, sex, family, relationships, or WHATEVER, and live in the abundance of his love.  I think this is what Jesus means when he says “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened….because my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”   God does care; your particular struggle is real and Jesus might surprise you.  I invite you to find Him in our Circle of Hope.

How far will you go for a friend?

Sometimes it was hard to get next to Jesus.  He was usually surrounded by his entourage of disciples, followed by hungry crowds, or stealing away to pray.  One day, as recorded in Mark 2, a house is packed out to hear him, and some determined friends go so far as cutting a hole in the roof to get their paralyzed friend next to Jesus.  (Maybe the paralyzed guy was rich and paid some people to do this, but I like to think that they were friends who cared enough to try and make an opportunity for his healing in a seemingly impossible situation.)  They risked ruining somebody’s roof and offending a lot of people for their friend’s sake.  It was the kind of demonstrative love that is sure to yield some kind of transformation—either disaster or wholeness.   Maybe they concluded that their friend was already living with disaster, and so it was worth the risk.

through the roofOur cell group cut a big “hole” in our own roof and multiplied into two groups this week.  It tested our our relationships and our faith a bit, and we missed each other last night when we met as two separate groups.  But new friends were included and able to get next to Jesus already, and there was more than enough love to go around.

It’s still hard to get next to Jesus, in some ways.  Ever since Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, it’s been difficult for many people to find the authentic and simple heart of the gospel under the overlay of laws and traditions and human corruption.  It’s hard to know who to trust, and it’s not easy to experience grace in the U.S. culture of entitlements that also operates like a meritocracy.  But Jesus has been at work on everyone’s behalf anyway, and the Church continues to grow organically all over the world, like in our cells and public meetings, or at your backyard BBQ.

The reason to try and be a determined friend is hidden in Jesus’s first response to the paralyzed man.  Instead of healing his physical body right away, Jesus offers him the thing he is really looking for: forgiveness and peace with God.  In this moment, Jesus reveals his purpose as the One who restores us to God and to one another.

It may be tempting for us to give up on our own healed life or on our friends’ healing because it doesn’t seem to be happening quickly enough, or it’s too inconvenient or potentially offensive.  But let’s take heart from the roof-cutters.  It may be against the law to even think it, but you may actually have what your friends need because you know the Healer.  Roof-cutting (or whatever) may just be the way of love.   

Memorial day musings

I had some feelings about Memorial Day this year, even as I BBQ’d with friends and enjoyed the May weather.  

I was nine months pregnant with my first child when my Dad was deployed to the “Iraq War.”  Thankfully, he came home, but many do not, and the conflict continues.  Many soldiers come back to the U.S. forever changed, and over 500,000 Iraqi’s are dead.  

I know and love too many recovering veterans to blindly swallow the honor and sacrifice sentiment that overshadows the everyday realities of war.  I know too much about the economic motivations and underpinnings of our military industrial complex.  And I belong to Jesus too much to think that he was being metaphorical about loving our enemies.

war widowThe sacrifice of U.S. service men and women is real.  But what is it for?  Who really benefits and who gains?

The U.S. is not so adept at admitting their war “mistakes,” especially in the moment.  This week my Dad told me about his recent conversation with a woman who was a mortician in NYC during the Vietnam War.  She described hundreds of bodies of U.S. soldiers snuck in to Ellis Island each night, unreported by the government.  I grieved with my Dad as he wept at this memory.  He wished that every politician would have to attend every funeral and Memorial Day service.

My goal in writing this post is not to argue or draw lines in the sand, but rather to express my grief and conviction that God is grieved by loss of life everywhere.  Jesus is fighting the battle FOR everyone, not against.  The battle is not for governments or economies; it is for hearts and minds and bodies to be restored, forever.  Our Circle of Hope exists to help complete the sufferings of Jesus and continue his work of restoration in the world, through the power of the Spirit.   We really are being restored and we are restoring, and it is wonderful.  It is an abundant life we are all destined for, and I hate when evil steals it.  May God strengthen us for the battle we are given, and comfort all those who mourn.

Julian’s great claim

Many of us are all too aware of the brokenness, insecurities, limitations, and inadequacies in us and around us. When the women of my congregation got together on Sunday to learn from Julian of Norwich’s “showings” I was reminded of the deeper truth that shines through the brokenness.

JulianAs an anchorite whose calling was to pray and provide counsel, Julian spent over 40 years in a stone cell attached to a church building, testing out the “revelations of divine love” that were shown to her. They were mostly about the passion and sufferings of Jesus.  She compared the relationship between us and Christ as a mother to child, and she described Jesus’s work on the cross as birthing us to new life.  Even in a time and place of war, disease, and deprivation (14th century Europe), Julian audaciously concluded that in Christ “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  She saw everything that God had made, and that it was good, and that God had made all things for love and keeps them in this love.  The whole universe whose cosmic horizon is at least 15 billion light years in every direction looked little to her in comparison to the presence of God.

Because of our connectedness to Christ and our identification with him, she describes sin and failing as part of the learning process of life that brings us to self-knowledge and acceptance of God’s role in our lives.  This was a radical departure from the guilt and shame culture of the church at that time.  She saw no anger in God, only forgiveness and regenerative power.  She saw suffering not as punishment but as opportunity to be closer to the Savior who is always saving us.

Jesus-followers today may still be called to make that radical departure from guilt and shame, and turn hopefully to our present rising with Christ—the consent to be risen and not just broken… even as we process and respond to the disasters of our time.  This week it is earthquakes and racist systems that claim lives.  The world needs the restorative mercy and generosity that flows from regenerated hearts.  This is what Julian claims about the Church—the worldwide body of Christ:

“He wills that we take ourselves with great strength to the faith of holy Church and find there our most precious mother in comfort and true understanding with the whole communion of blessed ones. For a person by himself can frequently be broken, as it seems to himself, but the whole body of holy Church was never broken and never shall be, without end. Therefore it is a sure thing, a good thing, and a gracious thing to will meekly and powerfully to be fastened and joined to our mother, holy Church – that is Christ Jesus.”

It’s OK if you can’t get behind the Jesus-as-mother image….what I want to emphasize to my brothers and sisters, especially within our Circle of Hope, is her claim that the Church is not broken. We are regenerated and restored.  A new creation together, made for communion with God and one another.  It’s an audacious claim that Jesus makes too.  Julian claimed her place in that unbroken transcultural, transhistorical community, and her hope for the world was in God’s willingness to do the deep transformative work in us and through us:   “For the passion of our Lord is for your comfort, the passion of our Lord is for your peace against all sin…the passion of our Lord is for tender love to you.”  

May we claim that hope today, too.




Get soft

When our leaders got together recently to plan for our public meetings, we shared personal stories.  Someone compared themselves to a seed soaking, and finally getting soft/loose enough to break open and sprout.  The rain of life had been relentless and painful, but meeting Jesus in their vulnerability and struggle was generating new and surprising life in them.

ponderosa pinesThe metaphor might apply to us in that seeds are protected by a hard outer layer that must be softened in order to realize their potential.  Ponderosa pine seeds have to be singed by the heat of forest fires before they are able to germinate.  Calvaria tree seeds must be passed through the intestinal tract of turkeys in Madagascar before they will break open!  There are different ways of softening and loosening, but it seems a necessary process on the road to transformation.

Jesus compared himself to a seed that was about to break open: “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed; but if it dies, it will produce many seeds”, and the apostle Paul expands on this mysterious path to transformation in his letters to the early church.  He talks about what it’s like to shed your protective shell (so to speak) so that your true self in Christ can emerge and grow.   In Philippians 3, he even lists all the reasons that people would think his outer shell was awesome: great social standing, great education, good family line, devoutly religious in a religious culture.  Basically he was saying that by any worldly standards, he was the man. But he was over it:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  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.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul calls his hard outer shell trash (actually he calls it a four letter word) because that’s how emphatic he is about all his other identities and particularities not holding a candle to the core of his real life in Christ.  He keeps going after it because it’s not once and done, it’s not something he’s fully into yet—-it’s a process, a journey, a race.  He wants to keep receiving and expressing this new life in him that God has generated.

We are generally trained by the world to keep our protective shells on.  Image is important.  Bad things have happened to us.  Philly can be a gritty place to live. We’re not sure we’re actually loveable.  All these reasons to fear are reasons we need to keep creating the counter-culture….where we can be vulnerable with God and one another, to keep taking hold our real life that is “hidden with Christ in God.”  Here’s three suggestions to keep letting your shell soften in order for the true self to emerge.

  1. Live in your soil.  There are ways to transcend our environments with entertainment and escape. Jesus incarnates instead of transcending, and gives us that Spirit, that ability to be present.  He demonstrated how to live in the environment by not being an isolated ruler or a consultant celebrity who traveled around all the time giving TED talks.  Instead he got invested in real relationships.  He gathered a crew of real people, not ideal people, loved them and taught them how to love, and they began to change the world.  We could hang onto our idealism by judging the church or jumping from one unsatisfying community another, but it may be better to incarnate our reality and be planted with others.
  1. Go ahead and be small.  It might be hard for God to save us if we’re already entitled to everything.  We might be better off like a child in relationship to God, a son or daughter in loving dependence.  Seeds and children need help from the outside in order to grow and flourish.  We’re wise to seek guidance, go the meeting, and pray—as a lifestyle. It only takes a tiny bit of faith, and we probably have that.
  1. Trust the growth to God.  Again, a seed can’t make itself grow.  It can’t even break down it’s hard outer layer on it’s own.  It needs to be acted upon.  All we can do in some ways, is to put ourselves in that position.  That may mean putting ourselves in a cell group, or with a good therapist, or with an honest friend.  God is at work for us on our behalf, especially if we are asking.  Even when we don’t know what to ask for, the Spirit intercedes for us, and helps us in our weakness.

cherry blossoms2Throughout Lent this year I was reminded with many of you that the softening of our tough outer layers often comes through trouble, sorrows, limitations.  It doesn’t necessarily feel good.  It’s a risk to get soft and break open to the mercy and grace of God.  In a world of machines, it’s a risk to be alive and tender and killable like Jesus.  But when we try things that are hard enough to require God, like forgiving someone who hurt us, or not getting jaded from caring about people at our job, or trusting God’s presence in our loneliness, we are rising with Christ.  Our true selves are emerging and growing. Together, I think our Circle of Hope is like a strong and blossoming tree that provides food and beauty and shade beyond ourselves.  I’m glad we keep taking the risks to be our organic selves, open to God and dependent on the source of our life.

Elastic Hearts (and other attachment problems)

Lent is a good time to get into forgiveness for ourselves and others.  Most of us need some space and encouragement to work with what needs to be forgiven in us and in others, so it’s good to have a season to be serious about it.  The point is not to feel guilty and self-loathing—the point is to be met by God in our suffering, and to meet Jesus in his suffering.

peanutsLast week we looked at our uncertainty at Broad & Washington; this week it’s our abandonment.  I think of Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football.  Time after time, Charlie Brown falls for the promise that Lucy is gonna be there holding the football, and time after time she snatches it away before he can kick it.  With abandonment there’s an expectation or a hope of connection that isn’t met.  We thought someone was gonna be there for us—we wanted them to be, maybe we even needed them to be, and then they weren’t.  It’s a loss and we feel the loss on some level.  Abandonment might be worse than aloneness because there’s a previous sense of connection before the withdrawal.  It’s that feeling of being left or given up on.

Most of us probably have little moments like this every day.  They are almost imperceptible, because we are accustomed to abandonment—it’s a normal part of the human experience and we all probably go back and forth between over-acceptance of it (like it hurts so good), to desperately reaching for connection.   We learned in our earliest experiences about what we could expect from other people.   If you were raised by an addict, you know about regular abandonment; you were left to sort through your needs alone.  But for all of us, really—if our parents were human we have some kind of attachment issues passed down to us.  We all have trouble trusting and being intimate.  It’s part of the human experience. People are ambivalent about connecting because we don’t want to be abandoned, mostly;  we’re wired for connection, and we’re afraid of losing it if we have it and it’s good.  As a new mother I remember feeling doomed by the strength of my love and attachment to my babies because it made me terrified of losing them.  We’re like that.  So many people bounce back and forth through life between that individualistic and solitary acceptance of abandonment to desperate and fearful grabs to get our needs met.  Tinder and other social media apps may make this bouncing even easier. The bouncing can leave people significantly unattached, even in marriages, rarely experiencing intimacy, perhaps getting needs met through addiction (which is a kind of self-abandonment, isn’t it?)  Fear of being abandoned can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SiaSia came out with a song (used in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) that imitates that bouncing—that ambivalence about being attached, the tension between wanting connection and losing it.   She says, “And another one bites the dust/ Oh why can I not conquer love?/ And I might have thought that we were one/ Yeah, let’s be clear, I’ll trust no one…Well, I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart/ But your blade—it might be too sharp/ I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard/ Yeah, I may snap and I move fast/ But you won’t see me fall apart/ ‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart.” In the video, two characters are animalisticly crawling toward and away from each other in a cage, until one gets out.  Most psychologists would agree that we’re not really wired to be unaffected by our attachments or unattached.  We do get hurt.  If we attach and then we’re abandoned, or given up on, we are affected, even if our reaction is to shut down.  It might be helpful to go to the edge of this reality in Lent.  We do get abandoned by other people.  We get our hopes up in relationships, and we get let down.  It’s painful that no human being can love us perfectly, or fully meet our longing for connection.

Touching the voidLegendary mountain climber Joe Simpson gets real about the longing for connection in his documentary Touching the Void. In 1985 he and his good friend, Simon, did something that had never been done and climbed the western face of Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They climbed Alpine style—the purest form of mountaineering where instead of setting up a route with ropes ahead of time, you pack all your supplies on your back and ice-pick your way up the mountain and back down, just attached to each other.  It takes a lot of trust; and usually if one partner goes down, they are both gone.   These guys made it to the summit, but on their way back down they ran into a storm, Joe broke his leg, (which is like a death sentence on a mountain face) and they ran out of gas to melt snow for drinking water.  Even in these conditions, Simon was able to incrementally lower Joe down a big chunk of the mountain, and then, unknowingly, right over a cliff.  Joe is left hanging in the dark in the storm, unable to even tell Simon what’s going on.  After waiting for their signal for some time, and feeling the snow give way under him, Simon makes the excruciating decision to cut the rope and try to save his own life. Joe falls 150 feet into a crevass and amazingly finds himself alive at the bottom.  There’s no way out, so he lowers himself even deeper, and finds an opening. He manages to eventually climb up out of the ice pit hauling a gruesomely broken leg, and spends the next three days without food and with almost no water, crawling and hopping five miles across a treacherous glacier back to their base camp. The terrain is scattered with giant rocks, crevasses, and moraines. He said later that the sense of abandonment and loneliness was always with him, and that he didn’t keep crawling because he thought he would survive.  He kept crawling because he wanted to be with somebody when he died.  Amazingly, he collapsed just a few yards from Simon’s tent, in the dark, just a few hours from Simon’s planned departure. When Simon found him, Joe said it was the feeling of being held that he remembers most.  Here’s an ultra-tough survivor admitting that the thing he wanted most near death was to be with someone, and be held.

Alot of my friends have gone through seasons where they feel that God has abandoned them.  I’m pretty sure God hasn’t, but I think it’s easy to project our attachment issues onto God, and think that God isn’t there because we haven’t experienced his presence in a way that is meaningful or we suffered through hard things and God didn’t save us from them.  It’s good to talk about it during Lent.

On the cross, Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22My God, my God why have you forsaken me?  In his culture, you only needed to say the first line of a Psalm to know what the person was talking about; everybody knew the Psalms.  (It’s comparable to saying that jawn here in Philly; your friend will probably know what you mean.)  Jesus was identifying with the abandonment that we might feel in times of need, and especially in sin, because here he is bearing the weight of the sins of the whole world. Maybe Jesus really felt some separation from God (himself)—like he was being torn apart, because, in fact, he was.  But I think that mainly he is quoting the Psalm to tell us the whole story.  God has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one, he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.  And beyond all this suffering, the poor will eat and be satisfied, everyone will turn to the Lord, the rich will feast and worship, those who have been laid low in the dust will kneel before God—those who cannot even keep themselves alive—they will proclaim the righteousness of Jesus to a people yet unborn, for he has done it!  It’s a Psalm of triumph, and Jesus was calling that hope and victory to reality in the midst of suffering and death.

walking deadThe Psalmist also predicted that although Jesus would die, he would not be “abandoned to the realm of the dead.”  According to HBO and the box office, our generation seems obsessed with the realm of the dead at the moment.   What happens to people after they die?  Nobody really knows how it all works out, but we have this testimony about what happened to Jesus!  It was impossible for death to keep it’s hold on him.  The scripture alludes to some birth language, implying that death can no more hold the Redeemer than a pregnant woman could permanently keep a child in her body.  It’s impossible.  The baby must be released.  One of my favorite mystics, Julian of Norwich compares the water that was released from Jesus’ dead side as amniotic fluid.  In a sense, we are birthed out of his impermanent death.  The invitation in attaching to Jesus is that you will follow in his footsteps to life that doesn’t end.

In my 20’s I got into this reality—I attached to Jesus in a realization that he would not abandon me even when I was prone to abandoning myself.  I realized that my other attachments—my relationships, my own goodness, my education, my job, my country—were prone to abandonment too.  My elastic heart was getting smaller from repeated breaking, and I needed the expansive and outstretched arms of God.  I needed the One who was going through death to be my life.

Lent is a good time to go the edge of our abandonment, again, and decide if we want fall into the arms of God. It’s a good time to decide if we want to just relate to Jesus as a good prophet, or a legend, or a guilty pleasure, or if he is actually the Living God, Creator, and Lord.  For some of us, it might be more like we were already falling and we were graciously caught by the arms of God beyond our ability to decide.  Either way, in going toward that edge we have an opportunity to get more free to be our own, and to be God’s own, to belong to Jesus more than we belong to anyone or anything else.  It’s a spiritual differentiation process that frees us.  When Joe Simpson crawled across the glacier abandoned by his friend he was free to realize how much he wanted that connection, even though his life ambitions had been more toward adventure and accomplishment.  The longing for life and companionship has a source.  Like the Psalmist said “They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.”   It’s not that God has abandoned us, or just that he’s just grieved that we’ve abandoned ourselves or one another….it’s that he loves us, and wants us to take us by the hand and bring us into eternal living.  We may find, too, that we’re able to attach to others with less fear, and more love, held safe in the steadfast love of Christ.


Too sick to pray

Willie Nelson wrote a song called Too Sick to Pray that describes how a lot of my friends are feeling right now.  Depression, anxiety, injuries and illness, addiction, jobs and bosses, families or the lack of them, are difficult.  When you can’t even walk on the sidewalks because they are so icy and the winter storms keep coming, life can feel even harder.  My friends are wise enough to know there is a spiritual element to our struggle, too.  The living God is inviting us to make a vital connection, and sometimes we can’t get there.

solar systemMy cell group discovered a secret again last week: that the gravity of God’s love can hold us together beyond our individual abilities to stay in any particular orbit.  We imagined floating in outer space, individually feeling at times like we’re drifting off into darkness and nothingness, and then realizing that we’re actually in a path with others, gently and invisibly held in orbit around the sustaining light of Christ.  We talked openly about our struggles then, and imagined how we could even imitate God in the midst of the darkness.   Here are three ideas:

1. Acknowledge entropy.  The world is adept at entropy: the gradual decline into disorder, deterioration, degeneration, degradation, decomposition, & collapse.  I’m not going for the full thermodynamic definition here, but a lot of good relationships and ideas and projects and organizations and governments end up this way: in decline and separation.  Lent is a good time to notice the fear and laziness that makes us entropy-prone. 

2. Be carried by the faith of others when you can’t see your own.  When it’s healthy, the body of Christ works a lot like a healthy physical body. When one part is sick, the other parts carry it and help bring it to healing.  We bear one another’s burdens. We suffer together and become whole.  Just showing up to a meeting can help us sense the safety and encouragement of the body we are a part of, even when we are disconnected.  We get gently surrounded by the love of God and reminded of who we really are: beloved of God and significant to others.

3.  Keep talking.  One of our convictions as a Circle of Hope is that dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity.  Verbalizing our struggles brings them into the light.  Opening up gives us a chance to know and support one another.  This is how we grow and expand.  Communication in love creates gravity and mutuality that can overcome entropy.

In Christ, we get into an orbit that holds things together in love.  We get into something lasting, and become the presence of the future.  The power of the Spirit is greater than the powers of entropy.   Together we generate gravity that is strong enough to include our sin-sick selves, and others.   Even in our struggle we can reflect the love of God and shine.




Do you want to get well?

Lent is coming.  There is nothing particularly holy about observing Lent; it is simply another good opportunity to connect with Jesus and his mission.  Right on the cusp of his main work, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days and was tempted to give up his mission for power, wealth, and comfort.  He resisted, and came back into town filled with the Spirit and willing to be obedient unto death.   

In solidarity with Jesus, some of us will try to fast from shadowy forms of power/wealth/comfort or other distractions tomorrow in order to make more room for the Spirit to fill us.  It is not easy and we try not to worry too much about success.  We are just trying to be faithful and reach for more of God and less of what might weigh us down.  We are confessing that we are affected by sin and longing to be made whole.  We are trying to repent, or turn around, and come home to God, the Heart of our own heart.  We will take the sign of the cross in ashes and remember that we belong to God like beloved children.  Fasting doesn’t make us holy in any form (Jesus already has), but it can loosen us up and free us to get into the flow of redemption with God in a deeper and more expansive way.  By doing Lent together as a community—on whatever level we are able to engage—we open ourselves up to transformation and healing that can ripple outward beyond us. 

In many ways, what will happen this year is up to us.  One time before Jesus healed a paralyzed man, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”  It seems like a rather obvious question with an obvious answer, especially to someone who has been suffering for a long time—38 years, in this case.  Jesus isn’t one to waste words, so why does he ask such an obvious question?  Maybe because it is not that obvious, particularly in the spiritual realm.  We cling to our sin-sickness at times for various reasons.  Here’s three ideas from this story.

healing at the pool1.  We do not regard Jesus as a possible healer.  Instead of saying Yes! to Jesus’s question, the man in the story dives into an explanation about the curative properties of the pool he’s laying next to.  He thinks his problem is that he doesn’t have the help he needs to get into the pool at the right time.  He has a formula for his healing that’s just not working, yet.  If only he can get it right, he thinks!  He has no idea that he is talking to the healer himself.

2.  We are “comfortable” in our mess.  I like this painting because Jesus is peeking under the tent the man is hiding in.  We might be prone to creating isolating fortresses around ourselves in our sicknesses too.  It may be dark in there but at least we know what to expect.  We’d like to maintain some illusion of control and reduce anxiety-inducing surprises or shame-inducing exposure.  Lent is a good time to discover that Jesus in our Circle of Hope is a great initiator of the Light that reveals that no mess is too messy.

3.  We think we have to have incredible faith to do anything different.  I love this story because there is no mention of great faith in the man who is healed.  He doesn’t even know Jesus’s name.  He just needs some help and he’s willing to have a conversation.  When Jesus tells him to get up, pick up his mat (a sign that his healing is complete) and walk, he listens.  The story suggests that our healing is more about God’s love and power than about our spiritual capacity to initiate it or drum it up.  Maybe we are invited into a conversation with God that will lead us to new places of freedom.  

My prayer this Lent is simply for our showing up in that conversation, in that core relationship.  I don’t know what will happen or not happen.  But I do know that the Holy Spirit does the heaving lifting in our transformation, with just our tiny bits of willingness.  Our hunger and thirst and longing helps, if we are wise enough to notice it.  It is not our wellness and independence that will help us get into our resurrection this Easter; it is our confession of need and desire for more.  We can follow the example of Jesus to be emptied of all but love.  Like CS Lewis said, ““Our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  If you are displeased at all, you may be in a good position to meet God and get into something new.  

Shutting up The Mouth

the mouthI’m not a major Lord of the Rings fan like some of my smart friends, but I was moved by the scene in Return of the King when the Fellowship arrives at the gates of evil to confront the darkness and command it to disperse.  It’s an audacious mission—the Fellowship is a small motley crew up against a foreboding wall, and forces beyond their imagination. The emissary of the darkness, The Mouth, comes out to negotiate.  He tells the Fellowship that their boy Frodo, their hope for the salvation of the earth, has been tortured and killed.  Discouragement and fear ripple through the Fellowship.  The Mouth recoils a little when called by his true but forgotten name, “Faithless & accursed,” but keeps spewing out the discouraging lie.  Finally, the leader of the Fellowship gets fed up with the despair of his people and advances toward the gruesome Mouth.  He draws his sword and decapitates Faithless, explaining, “I do not believe him; I will not believe him.”   (The clip is better than my description.)

I suppose it sounds like a fantasy drama, but I think that our cell movement is actually confronting the darkness by creating safe places where Jesus can be revealed and known.  It’s an audacious mission in a big mouthy empire, and the mouth is talking.  For one thing, many people associate “Christian” with senator-types or manipulative TV evangelists.  The deceptive mouth can whisper to faithful and seeking people, “Who do you think you are?  You don’t wanna be identified with these crazies.  No one will understand.”  For another thing, it takes some guts to be the light.  The feared-up mouth says, “You don’t got what it takes. You can barely keep up with your life as it is. Leave the leadership to the gifted people.

I seriously doubt that we are called to put up with the mouth.  If we do, we can become like big mouths ourselves, just consuming and enjoying bits of goodness instead of creating anything for the next person who is hungry.  Maybe we could shut up the faithless mouth by exposing the truth that our Liberator is indeed alive and well, and present to help us do what we’re called to do.  I’m glad to be part of a fellowship that is listening and moving and alive in that hope. 

Blessed are those who mourn

My friend Tim asked me to speak at his church yesterday about mourning, and how it can be a pathway to God.

It got me thinking that we Americans don’t make a lot of room for mourning.   Unlike some other cultures, we don’t have embedded traditions that make space for grief and loss, besides the brief funeral.  We are generally entitled to happiness (is that entitlement related to our high rates of depression?) and we generally expect ourselves to keep moving.  Stoicism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is part of the fabric of our national history.  I recently watched an old movie with my kids called Seven Alone—a true story about a family on the Oregon trail.  When both parents died on the way, the caravan stopped briefly to bury them and unsuccessfully tried to send the children back home with relatives.  The self-determined children set off on their own, (with their infant baby sister, of course) and miraculously made it to Oregon in the dead of winter, barely alive.  The message about loss was: just keep movingeven if you’re 5 years old.  Now that’s American!

Somewhere along the way, I internalized the expectation of stoicism too.  But being a follower of Jesus is freeing me to be fully human, as Jesus was, able to grieve and connect with God’s longing.  Most of us are inclined to try to fix ourselves or distract ourselves from pain, and try to get on with it.  But the call to a follower of Christ is different: it is a call to a softened heart, a heart that is pliable for God to shape.

It’s like the story of the student who complained to his Rabbi that he was just tirelessly memorizing words and concepts, and not being transformed.  The Rabbi assured him that one day his heart would break, and then the words would fall in.

MLKDr. Martin Luther King tended to his broken heart, and put it to work.  He let it bleed for others.  He quoted the prophet Jeremiah in his journal:  Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous; but I said, ‘Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it.’  He stressed that the most important resolution to disappointment is to refrain from rationalization.  Like the Psalmist cried, deep calls to deep.  God’s longing for the restoration of the world is reflected in our own longing.  Jesus demonstrated it when he grieved the rejection he was experiencing in his own country: “O Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

GazaAlive with God’s longing, Dr. King was motivated to press on in hope for a world that could reflect the love and mercy of God.  He grieved not just individual prejudice, but the national sin of greed that created systems of racism, militarism, and materialism that lead to economic and soul poverty.  He urged people in power to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  Unfortunately, it seems that our commitment to materialism is stronger today than it was in Dr. King’s time, with dire implications worldwide.  The over 125 armed conflicts we’re involved in around the world (mainly to protect our economic interests) reveals our ongoing commitment to militarism.  Racial tensions smolder across the country in reaction to entrenched systems.  We long for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness.

I think that all of our longings—for love, security, honor, peace, sex, intimacy, adventure, rest, success, wholeness—are at our core a longing for the fullness of God.  God is present now to us, but we walk by faith and not by sight through the death, decay, and separation we experience.  That’s why Paul says things like as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  While we are in this tent (this body), we groan and are burdened because we wish to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.   We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed.  Even in suffering and loss,  we are being made alive in Christ and embodied with the good news of redemption and resurrection.

If you want to grieve with Dr. King today, go ahead and don’t rationalize it. You’ll be gathering yourself under the wings of a God who lifts up the needy, and doesn’t hold back from expressing the fullness of love.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.




Be loved to be lover: the wonder of God-with-us

My friend and fellow pastor Ben White re-wrote this carol to explore the mystery of the incarnation.  I love the honesty in his version that highlights the wonder of a Creator who would endure the trauma of human birth in order to be with us and for us.

Right here in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his bruised head;

No longer in safety, his body is bare; the birthing is over, he breathes his own air.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but this little baby, he isn’t a fake;

He cries from the cold and the sound of the cows; He cried on his birthday, he cries with me now.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay. But you’re just a baby; it’s not yet your day;

Rest now with your mother for soon you’ll be scarred. Be loved to be lover, be now who you are.

I have experienced the incarnation of God this Advent in some usual and unusual ways.  My husband lost his job right as Advent began, and so our family has enjoyed the gift of a lot more time together. We’ve felt the peace and joy of that togetherness in the midst of uncertainty.   Circle of Hope has been growing and exploring some new openings in our discernment process for 2015.  We’re experiencing the emotions of change and the love for the church and its mission among our people.  Some of our people have been activated for justice here in Philly by the events in Ferguson; they’ve been demonstrating forgiveness, speaking, writing, and protesting to let our prophetic voices be heard.  My cell group has been helping to keep a beloved family in Camden off the street, and this weekend we collected money from ourselves and others to completely furnish their new apartment.  We’re praying that their two boys, who have been missing, can now come home.  Many of us parents watched our own sweet kids sing in various holiday pageants as Pakistani parents buried their children this past week.  I see God in the outpouring of prayer and resources among our community—not just to Pakistan but to Iraq and Syria and Palestine as well, where the refugee crisis is insurmountable.  “He cried on his birthday, he cries with me now.”

The mystery of God-with-us is big and wild.  In many ways, it’s an unpredictable, R-rated, unsafe, and undomesticated story of revolution over sin and death, and it began that way too.  An unwed, minority woman in occupied territory gives birth without a man’s intervention.  The God-child is placed in something akin to a trash bin as the heavens open to announce the triumph of his coming.  The local ruler is threatened by strange signs of this birth and the penniless family becomes refugees.  But the child survives to heal, illuminate, befriend, and demonstrate the most powerful spiritual movement the world has ever known.

At the same time, God-with-us is a tender and intimate encounter. We could miss it here in these next few days if we fill up with other things, but I think this intimacy  is what we really want.  We could miss it because God comes like a baby, small and vulnerable.  According to the text, the “power of the Most High” that overshadowed Mary was not like a cosmic ZAP.  The overshadowing was more like a charged presence, like the presence of God in the pillar of cloud that guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness to the promised land.  It is also akin to the nurturing and protective presence of a mother hen gathering her chicks under wings, as Jesus described.

rembrandt nativityIt wasn’t that Mary was full of special favor, like Beyonce’s Flawless (#I woke up like this).  The text illustrates that she was given favor by God.  Uncaused grace was bestowed upon her.  Our culture teaches that we usually have to earn, achieve, purchase, and invent our own favor, but faith teaches that we receive it from God, who gives it generously. Seeking regular connections with God through prayer and worship helps us to know this favor.  Withdrawal, of course, keeps us from knowing and growing.  The problem, of course, is that our fears and disappointments and distractions can lead us to withdraw from the tiny baby.  The invitation in Advent is to see our longing for God in our fears and disappointments and distractions, and to go with that longing instead of being falsely satiated by substitutes or kept away by fear.  The invitation  in Advent is to pause in our dissatisfaction, and to look for the baby. Chances are that our unsatisfied situation is much like the baby’s: not fully grown, needing care and attention. We are in a good position to receive from God and to be cared for, if we are not too-cool to go there.

This week, my 9-year-old combined words to try to describe the mystery of the incarnation—“GOU: you-in-God and God-in-you”—-and we laughed.  Nice theological musing on a mystery that is probably too marvelous to describe in a word. May we keep reaching in our longing this Christmas.   The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we behold his glory!  We may need to be present to those around us and love them (beyond the cute thing we got them from Target) in order to experience the baby.  Maybe harder yet, we may need to receive whatever love is given or not given to us in turn.  

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay. But you’re just a baby, it’s not yet your day.  Rest now with your mother, for soon you’ll be scarred.  Be loved to be lover, be now who you are.”

Does ancient Isaiah speak to Ferguson?

There’s been a lot of commentary about the conflict in Ferguson that is not just in Ferguson—maybe so much noise that it’s easier to tune it out. Suffice it to say that the recent verdict has put salt in a giant wound that was not healing very well in the first place. 

I knew it again on Monday at City Hall when one of my partners in the Coalition to Take Back Vacant Land wept as she testified to City Council.  (We were there to advocate for equitable distribution in the Land Bank planning process).  As she described the trash dump that has developed right next to the home she’s owned for 30 years, she wept softly about the dangers her grandchildren face there. She feels powerless. She is looking for help to reverse the blight in her neighborhood without displacing people like herself who want to stay and contribute to the common good.

I looked around at our audience—mostly white men in nice suits—and then back at our multi-racial coalition in matching T-shirts, some in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.  I wondered how silly we looked and sounded to the white-men-in-expensive-suits crowd who came to barter with their multi-million dollar property investments.  They had ownership of the system and here we were weeping for children, asking for affordable housing and advocating for space to farm—of all the podunk things—talking about the peace-making value of bringing neighbors together around urban land restoration and sharing healthy food.  The monetary value of a parcel of land that is farmed vs. developed into luxury condos is laughable.  I felt the rule of the almighty dollar bearing down on me, and the racist systems it perpetuates.  I was glad that Jesus—the refugee baby, the weeping friend, the suffering servant—was there with all of us.

And I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah as he described the future with Jesus:

Isaiah.the.prophet“There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…They rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest…You have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, it will be fuel for the fire.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

I know that Peace!  And I long for it to be demonstrated in the world, where some of our systems are maintained by violence. CNN told me that officer Wilson was not indicted because he was following his training.  I think that is absolutely true.  Why do our police receive military training? Is it necessary to take a kill shot in order to restrain someone from harming themselves or others? Part of the horror of murder is the way that a human suffers after killing another human. Psychologists know this; we have neuroscientific and behavioral evidence of the harm done to the killer, and yet we continue to send soldiers into battle, and to train local police to go there too.  Right now we maintain 130+ active military operations around the world, while my neighbors struggle with basic needs.

I sense the suffering and compassion of our Lord in our suffering, for those on all sides.  We live in the midst of great economic and political power imbalances that affect black people as a group more than others.  But this story is not over.  As people follow in the footsteps of Christ and come together to demonstrate love, there is life in unexpected places.  Allow us to burn our battle-wear, Jesus, and let it be fuel for the fire which is your Peace.  Take our gloom and help us to face oppression with light, and even rejoicing, at the justice You bring. Give us a harvest of mercy and restoration this Advent.