Circle of Hope

Will the corporations define us?

When we got together on Monday night to keep imagining what’s next for us as a Circle of Hope, we talked about acknowledging the fact that our congregations are four local expressions of one church and mused that more sharing and mutuality among us could increase our capacity to be the local expressions of the kingdom of God that we are called to be.  Many parts of a beautiful whole was always the vision—just like Paul’s description of the “body” of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you”… God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

At the meeting we faced some legitimate fears about being “big.”  It seemed to me that some concerns may be imposed on us from the outside and may threaten to cloud our view of ourselves.   We’re affected by big forces that use people as commodities and vie for our loyalties.  Governments haven’t exactly been trustworthy and forthcoming about the effects of policies and where our tax dollars actually go.   Corporations invade our “privacy” moment-to-moment with advertising.  These two big entities seem to work together to control just about everything they can, for profit, and people are often casualties.  Even some churches have followed suit and gone “mega” where it can be hard to be known for who you are and what you’re struggling with.   The giant meta world of the internet can further reduce human interactions to transactions.  No wonder we’re suspicious of big!  We want to be known for who we are beyond what we can produce or buy!  We know we have stuff to give and we want to give it, and we want it to matter.  We don’t want it to be a nameless drop in the bucket.

I’m grateful for our reaction to “big” in that it helps us keep forming a Circle of Hope that is about real people loving real people with the love of God.   We resist the treatment of ourselves and others as commodities and work to restore community.  Our cells protect and develop the heart of us, where we can be intimately known and discipled in the way of Jesus.


The way of Jesus, consequently, draws me into a vision for the world that is way beyond what I can control, consume, or manage.   (Thank God.  The American ideology that entitles us to seek what we can consume, control, and manage seems to promulgate the big monsters we fear.)   Jesus invites us to live in a broader spiritual zone that brings practical and personal change in the world—restoration.  He said he came to save the whole world, not condemn it.  There is nothing small about the love of God.  God calls us to actually love people on the other side of town, and the other side of the river, and the other side of Zambia—even as we invest as we can in our own homes and neighborhoods—and I think we’re enabled to do that through each other.  Our partnership bucks the natural fearful reaction to our corporate culture and extends the love of God beyond the limits of our individual lives.  

I have a young friend who is small for his age and calls himself “fun size.”  I like fun-size.  Putting our fun-size-ness together reflects the re-generative and creative and fearless nature of our Lord.  So I’m glad we’re talking about our unity. We are a movement of life in the Spirit.  No doubt we have more capacity in our togetherness to partner with God in transforming our corners of the world than we even realize. The corporations do not define us unless we define ourselves by our reactions to the corporations.  


We make our own luck in this world?

Driving with my kids last week I heard 15-year old Bea’s Miller’s hit, Youngblood.   Have you heard it?  She’s got a feisty spirit and a great voice, and her chorus rings out:BeaMillerYoungBlood

We’ve got young blood / Can’t destroy us / We make our own luck in this world / We’ve got young blood / No one chose us/ We make our own life in this world

I’m pondering her sentiments.  I think they reflect some of her generation’s response to the uncertainty they encounter in a post 9/11, post-economic downturn of 2008, postmodern world.  She sings:

But in dark times when we close our eyes / It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare / When the sun don’t shine we lose our mind / But I swear, we can get there

For her and her friends, some systems have crumbled.  There’s violence in places that didn’t used to be so violent—-schools, for example.  It’s confusing to try and cobble meaning together from millions of disconnected sound-bytes and images and hashtags a day.  It’s hard to know who to trust.

I think she’s also channeling a popular philosophy that I think puts a great deal of pressure on modern people:  the social construction of reality that forms identity.  If we swallow this, in an individualistic and capitalistic culture such as ours, it means that we all must work to invent and define and present ourselves in a way that “sells.”  

What I learn from Jesus is different.  We receive our life from God.  We don’t have to construct it.  It’s given to us.  Yes, we’re all making choices, but they can be a response to our belovedness and chosenness.  Then they are more than a reaction to our broken systems.  We are loved by God.  We’re worthwhile simply because we….are.  All of us are, in fact, chosen—-not chosen in the sense that others are not chosen, as our competitive world might suggest.  We are chosen in the way that Henri Nouwen describes:

” The great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming (or rejecting) of our chosenness.  Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes.  Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us.  Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.  Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in our brief chronological existence, but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

Maybe that’s hard for us cynical, intelligent, ironic modern people to swallow, according to how much we’ve been hurt or lied to.  But I know it to be true in the same way that plants come up in my garden.   Life is from God.  We are from God.  God is for us.  Living with that gift frees me to just be me—beyond my ability to make my own luck or a fabulously constructed identity.   And I think it opens up the possibility of restoring what’s broken in this world (not just reacting to it), no matter how young or old we are. 

On the limits of deconstruction

This week the Huffington Post published a nice article called “Why Jesus taught with questions instead of answers.”  The author helps us see how Jesus unraveled religious doctrine and other oppressive systems.  But it left me hanging, and I definately couldn’t go with him when he accused all groups of loving definitive answers, (because it makes their group look right and others wrong.)  If I did not know better, I might have thought that Jesus was an individualistic deconstructionist.

I want to add an addendum to the article more than arguing with the author.  My main interest is this: Jesus often started with questions but he didn’t end there.  He didn’t just deconstruct the oppressive system, he constructed the life-saving alternative.  He healed, he fed, he included, he served, he gathered followers and taught them how to love.  He died and rose and created something brand new: a community whose currency is love and forgiveness and radical generosity.  He birthed a regenerated people who are building something new with him all over the world.

Lots of people are experts at deconstruction.  It’s not that hard; we’ve been schooled in it since the ’80s.  Most of us can reason-away even our most basic human gifts.  It’s easier to be ironic than to deal with the reality of the dignity and responsibility that God imparts to each of us.   Deconstruction is useful as it leads to the construction of something life-giving, or fruitful as Jesus said.  We are known by our fruit.  It’s not hard to tear down and pick apart, but what do we want to build?construction%20career

Circle of Hope is planning for 2015 right now by asking lots of questions.  We’re relying on God more than on definitive answers to help us discern the way forward.  And I think we have a strong foundation to build on.

If the long list of comments after the Huff post article are any indication, people are interested in Jesus.  We have all kinds of reactions to him and opinions about him, but we’re all more than a reaction.  We’re invited to be a new creation.

When you’re not enough

Modern life can be demanding.  For some of us, it’s a challenge to get the dishes done and enough clean laundry in the drawers to get to work every day (if you’re lucky enough to have a job in this economy).  Add kids or other committed relationships and you might be over the edge.  Additionally, do you have the latest upgrade?  Have you switched from Facebook to Ello yet?  Is your job meaningful and fulfilling?  How about that thing you said you’d do before you turned 30?  How’s your savings account shaping up?  Do you need another college degree? How can we stop global warming, since the walruses are coming ashore in Alaska?

We live in a fast-paced world.  Americans, in particular, get sold the idealist expectation that we should have it all and do it all, which seems to translate into the impression that we must “be” it all. Less feels like not enough to many people.   Many of my friends live with an underlying chronic case of disappointment in themselves and others, or anxiety that sometimes feels debilitating.

The apostle Paul thought it was normal to not be enough.   He writes to the Corinthians, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.  Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God choose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is lowly and despised—things that are not—-to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who is our wisdom from God—our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”

That seems like enough for me.  Jesus reveals that possessing and achieving are not prerequisites for being.  There are no prerequisites.  Period.  We are the beloved of God.  And having Jesus in the midst makes us a lot more than enough, especially together.   Having Jesus in the midst gives us the opportunity to comfort and be comforted.   I saw it in the church—in my Circle of Hope cell group—this week.   A friend told me she asked God for something that sounded rather impossible to me.  Her request had a deadline too: her birthday.  I wondered if she’d be able to hang on to the faith she was struggling to keep if God didn’t answer her specific prayer.  A few days later another friend called and said he felt led to pray for this person and give her an anonymous gift.   The gift was more than enough to meet the need, and just in time for her birthday.

birthday cake

Our problems don’t always get solved like that, but go ahead and be “not enough.”  Reach out to someone in your struggle and let them in.  Pray and be prayed for. Your not-enoughness may be just the place that Jesus wants to show up in your life and lead you into something new.

Four Brethren in Christ distinctives that I don’t want to lose

I just returned to Philly after my first General Conference of the Brethren in Christ.  It’s a bi-annual, national gathering designed to bring the church together for face-to-face dialogue.  It was good to be together.  There is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood among us.  These people are serious about loving God and others.

fingerprintSome of our distinctives, however, may be getting lost;  I want to talk about them.

1.  The Brethren in Christ are led by the Spirit, not bound by the law.   Early anabaptists sensed that their life in Christ was bigger than the norms and requirements of their national citizenship.  Jesus frees us from fearful allegiance to governments and nationalities.  We are as respectful as we can be within our anxious political context and growing police state(?) but thank goodness, we are citizens of the kingdom of God and that citizenship informs the others.  We are bound by the law of love first, and love sees outside and inside of the box.  Love recognizes the boxes of the world.  Racist history and policy is one of the boxes we recognize in U.S. context, and the Brethren in Christ decided to discern beyond background and credit checks in hiring because we do not want to be bound to a weighted system. 

2. The Brethren in Christ rely on corporate, not individual, decision-making.  Leaders do not make decisions in isolation, even if they try.  It always works out better when we talk about it.  We rely on God to speak to us through the body.  Although it sometimes seems like the economy has co-opted the word corporate, it comes from the Latin root cor which means body, and more specifically, heart.  It has a vital, human, bodily function.  The Brethren in Christ came together around a commitment to listen to one another, to have thoughts that are inspired by God and to share them and test them and make decisions together.  At the conference some of us were wondering how the leadership role of ‘moderator’ had morphed into ‘national director.’  I like the term moderator for practical reasons (as well as philosophical, historical, & theological reasons) and I hope we get back to it.   I think we need someone who’s committed to the function of listening to the body year round and culling out and communicating widely what God might be saying to us through the body.  I suppose I think highly of the body of Christ and of the power of God to speak through us.  I think that’s the kind of directing we’re designed for, and I think we have good leaders who can do this.

3.  Instead of consolidating power, the Brethren in Christ disperse it through service and mutuality.   It’s not always the most efficient way to operate, but I think that the more voices we have in the mix, the richer our life together and the more good we can do.  Circle of Hope operates in teams that have lives of their own but common agreements and vision.  The more we focus on our specific areas of service and have a vision for how we’re working together, the more we build up the body of Christ around the world.  I hope for various leadership committees within our denomination that work together and communicate regularly.  We have an opportunity to be the antidote to isolating individualism and crushing economic powers that make people skeptical of groups in the first place.  

4.  The Brethren in Christ are committed to peace.   We don’t make rules about these matters of course, but I can’t help but recognize our history.  Our forefathers and mothers in faith were so awakened by the love of God for all people that they couldn’t stomach violence toward others as a means to any end.  They were often the target of violence for this conviction.  I hope we keep working for peace.  MCC is doing it and I hope we support them generously.  We live in the world’s largest war machine and people are suffering by the violence in our own neighborhoods.  We bring the peace of Jesus that can reconcile people to one another and to God.  We are creating an alternative culture that breeds hope and justice and mercy.  I don’t see any reason to be quiet about it.

People are looking for Jesus in Philadelphia and Camden.  I hope they can learn the way of Jesus through the Brethren in Christ.  I’m grateful to be part of this unique family; let’s keep being distinct. 


Happy Interdependence Day

july4On this holiday when Americans celebrate independance from British rule, I’m thinking about how autonomy is prized in our culture and to what end we’ve taken it.  It seems to me that early on, the desire to be free of extra-governmental rule got mixed in with a desire for possession of land and people and things.  The autonomy of the settlers trumped that of others’ as they dominated the “new world,” and buying power was real power in the young democracy.  The result today is a lonely scenario in many ways;  a fractured society in which the individual is charged with healing thyself according to our supposedly unlimited choices.  Everyone is supposed to figure things out according to their own desires.  We are supposed to have the buying power to do whatever we want to do, and that is supposed to make us happy.  I don’t think it’s working out for everybody.

The way of Jesus is another way.  It’s a human way, based on the understanding that I’m a created being, invited into loving partnership with God and others.  I don’t have to be a slave to autonomous desires that might run me off a cliff, or keep me isolated in my own zone.  I’m part of a bigger, hopeful story, and today I’m grateful for how anabaptist Christians, in particular, have been living this story for a few centuries.  Here’s three reasons I appreciate them:

1They resisted religious law.   At the beginning of the anabaptist movement, the European church had aligned itself with governmental power and was enforcing religious rule.  (This is antithesis to the way of Jesus.)  The reformers to the church-state loosened things up but interpreted scripture in ways that seemed to come up with some new laws,  one of which implied that people were either in or out with God from jump-street, because people are predestined (to either be restored to God or not).  Anabaptists said no:  Christ died for all, leaving each person free to accept or reject his salvation.  They were named “rebaptizers” by their enemies because they maintained that baptism required responsible adult confession of faith, so infants can’t actually be “baptized.”   They formed a new society composed of regenerated persons who gather into a free covenant relationship with one another.  This is why in Circle of Hope, we make agreements with one another, not rules.  The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life.  Love is the only rule, because Jesus is the rule.  Americans are notoriously religious, but if Jesus is not known at the center, then the religion may be based on law—which is old news and anti-freedom.

2.  They practiced love.  The application of love, according to their understanding of discipleship, was nonresistance to all human relationships.   Within their own circles, early anabaptists practiced brotherhood and sisterhood that went beyond the sentimental into the practical.  They shared possessions, property, and households with those in need.   This kind of love is still the antidote to our “autonomous” state that hoards most of the resources in the hands of the 1%.  Taking caring of one another and holding our possessions lightly frees us up, truly.   Circle of Hope has a common fund for this reason.  From the outpouring of the love of God through Christ and his sacrifice, we’re enabled to share on whatever level we can. We’re part of a growing family that is held together by more than our DNA.

3. They promoted peace.  Although they often paid with their lives, early anabaptists renounced the sword.  They mourned the loss of human life by capital punishment and warfare based on their understanding of Jesus and his purpose—saving love.  The communities they formed valued peace within, based on peace with God and trust in God.  Early anabaptist Conrad Grebel wrote, ” Moreover the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves…they must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing bodily but by mortifying their spiritual enemies.  Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them…”

sparklerOn this July 4th, I celebrate the many gifts of my life and hope for freedom beyond autonomy.  While our tax dollars supply heavy weaponry around the world and ISIS is on the prowl and Boko Haram burns churches in Nigeria and 12-year-olds possess guns in my neighborhood, we need a different kind of independence.   Real freedom is characterized by interdependence with God and one another.  I am grateful to be building an interdependent community in Christ that practices love and resists injustice.  I’ll light some sparklers tonight in the joy of being that light.

The hard edge of Jesus

I hang out with a diverse group of friends and sometimes strangers (who don’t stay strangers for very long) on Wednesday nights.  We’ve been taking turns picking Jesus stories to uncover and apply, among other things, and last night my friend brought this one:

 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

kn“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?  For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,  saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.  In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

It’s a hard edge that can sound daunting, unappealing, and even impossible.  Why then, we remarked out loud, do we keep feeling drawn to this guy?  Why is our experience with God—even in suffering and “giving things up”—characterized by a growing sense of welcome and freedom?  We pondered this mystery and came up with a few observations together (theology practiced in community is my favorite way to “study”):

1.  Jesus is expanding our family.  It’s not that he is calling us away from those we love already, it’s that he is calling us toward those we don’t know yet.  He is multiplying love and our capacity to live in it and express it.  Sometimes we do experience loss in this stretching, and maybe that’s part of the cross Jesus is talking about.  We are dying to our contentment with small, controlled, protected lives.  We are called into a transcultural, transhistorical world-wide family that moves to love and include everyone in the redemption plan. 

2.  “Giving up everything” could be responsive partnership with God.  My friend Mike said that he often feels directed to lay aside his own plans and responsibilities throughout the day or night in order to respond to someone who needs help.  The “giving up” what he wants done in the moment is hard, but he thinks this might be what Jesus is talking about.  God calls us into a partnering relationship.  Our awareness of that relationship and willingness to respond to God—often in normal moment-by-moment practical ways—is characteristic of a disciple.

3.  We need God in order to be disciples at all.  What Jesus is describing is rather impossible on our own cognition, which is why he doesn’t say anything about needing to do it on our own.   His whole life, death, & resurrection indicates that we can trust God in us and us in God, and not waste time assessing our own worthiness based on our piles of perceived limitations.   Of course we have lots of limitations, but they need not keep us from becoming our truest selves.  We talk a lot around Circle of Hope about “doing things that are hard enough to require God.”   How else could we attempt to love everyone, understand the Bible, meet regularly, share money and other resources, serve creatively and compassionately, and make peace here in Philly and Camden?   Jesus is calling us to discipleship that welcomes, frees, expands, and enables us to make a difference, even in trying times.  Being part of a cell group reminds me of that every week.  I can’t help but experience that the cost of discipleship is also an “easy yoke” in how we share it.

On being human

Last night I saw Divergent and it underscored a big, profound message I’m receiving from Jesus this Lent:  it’s really good to be human. 

The main character in the movie has that big problem: she’s too human.  She has diverse gifts (as we all do) that make her unable to be categorized and thus controlled by the government.  She can’t be easily turned into a machine, which makes her a threat to the domination system that fears the complexities and unpredictability of human nature.


It’s a dystopian scenario that we seem to love these days, and probably for good reason.  Our advances in technology, though wonderful, can take us into dangerous territory. We can kill people remotely.  Those with enough money and power can watch people on cameras anywhere, and collect a lot of data without relationship, and make a lot of judgments that are applied to large groups of human beings.  Governments and big businesses market to increasingly “smart” categorical divisions based on preferences, skin color, education, what you looked at last on the internet, and so on.  Dr. Martin Luther King warned us about this—about the cultural temptation to “thingify” people—to treat people like a commodity that can be bought and sold.  “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things.”  The global economy seems to be going this route and I fear that it gets into our psyche’s and allows us to think less of ourselves than we are.   It also encourages us to think of ourselves in the same categorical divisions that the market prescribes.

Yet the essence of being human just can’t be pinned down, right?  We are marvelous creations.  We are flesh and blood, spirit, emotion, intellect, with enormous unique capacity for love. I learn and receive this from Jesus more than anyone, who was in all ways tempted like we are.  Being fully human, he had choices to make, all along the way.  His way is not a formula to apply.  It’s not a button I can push or a commercial tag line I can mimic.  It requires my humanity—yes, as inefficient as that is, it is exactly the place where God meets me and transforms me.   All of who I am is known and met  and indwelt by the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.  What a mystery, and it’s meant to be.  Let’s not thingify what we can’t control.  Our divergent humanity is God’s home. 

Frozen, and the Invitation of the Cross

I finally watched Frozen with my kids this week.  It seemed fitting since Philly’s still a little frozen. 

As in most Disney films, an act of “true love” saves the day.  This act was interesting to me, since it wasn’t something that was done to the heroines, like a kiss from prince charming.  It was something they demonstrated to one another:  the self-sacrificing, fearless love of the younger sister melted the isolation and inhibition of the elder.   The scene that brings everything to life again shows the older sister embracing her dead younger sister—hanging on her and grieving without inhibition—because her worst fear has been realized.  Only in the death of her fear and self-reliance and self-importance is she finally free to love. 


Yes, it’s Disney, but something about that embrace reminded me of Jesus’s invitation to follow him to the cross this Lent.  In the days before his death, we see Jesus, the Fully Human One (as my hero Gordon Cosby calls him) facing down his impulses to self-preservation, self-determination, and self-defense.  Instead of isolating, he lets himself be known.  Instead of worrying about appearances, he receives an inordinate display of love. Instead of keeping his mouth shut, he speaks truth.  Instead of fighting, he surrenders himself into God’s hands.  

We all have our own process.  If we have ears to hear, we will hear the invitation to become like Jesus in his death.    What are we going to do with that?  Jesus compares himself to a seed that falls to ground and dies, in order to produce many seeds.  Because I am student of creation, I know that a seed has to be broken open (sometimes in frozen ground) in order to germinate.  The willingness to be broken open and to give up our old defenses is an unavoidable part of the process to become something new.

Lots of self-proclaimed spiritual experts say we should just “let go” of our brokenness and fear or whatever stands in the way of our self-actualization.   But even in the Disney movie, the older sister’s mantra to “let it go” doesn’t really seem to work for her, and I can’t say that it worked for me either.  There are lots of great things I can do, but I can’t just “let go” of my hurts, my fears, my bad experiences, my mental blocks, my mortality, and my limitations on my own, even with good therapy.  Our self-reliance has probably take us too far if we think we can!  We can’t just “let go”—something needs to die—and Jesus really goes that far for to make us new creations.  We need Someone beyond ourselves who knows, loves, and indwells us, to get us through death to resurrection.  We need Jesus.  

This is the embrace I am called to, as we move toward Easter.  To embrace the cross, and to embrace Jesus there:  broken, bleeding, beaten, faltering, on the street, and in my home.  To break open and give up my old defenses.  I don’t know what will happen, but it will be better than a Disney ending, because true Love is at work and victorious.  



Why the church isn’t a settlement

I have been enjoying Brennan Manning’s book, Lion and Lamb: the Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.  In it, Manning re-visits a metaphor for the church that has inspired me and other Circle of Hope leaders for awhile:  pioneering vs. settling.  It’s not because I like climbing around in canyons and riding horses without saddles that I relate to this metaphor (though I do like those adventures);  it is because I have experienced risk-taking, limitless, long-suffering love to be very the nature of God.

The metaphor is like this:  settlers see life as a possession to be carefully guarded.  They attempt to answer all the questions, define and housebreak the Supreme Being, and establish the status quo.  Their church is like the town courthouse.  It’s the symbol of law, order, stability, and security.  Every Sunday the settlers have an ice-cream party there.  God is like the mayor of the town.  He is remote, feared, and keeps things quiet.  Jesus is the sheriff, the guy sent by the mayor to enforce the rules and expose the bad guys.   The Holy Spirit is like the saloon girl, whose job is to comfort the settlers when they feel lonely.  The pastor is the banker.  He works with the sheriff to protect what the town values; he has a gun but keeps it hidden in his desk.  The Christian is the settler: “safety first” is his motto.  He fears the open, unknown frontier, so he stays out of the sheriff’s way, keeps his money in the bank, and never misses an ice-cream party.  For the settler, faith is trusting in the safety of the town and obeying it’s laws.  Sin is breaking one of the town’s laws.  Salvation is living close to home and hanging around the courthouse.

dysenteryFor the pioneer, the church is the covered wagon.  It’s a house on wheels, always on the move.  It’s where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die.  The wagon bears the marks of struggle, but it moves on toward the future and doesn’t bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn’t comfortable, but the pioneers don’t mind because they are more into adventure than comfort.

In pioneer theology, God is the trail boss.  He/she is rough and rugged and full of life.  He/she eats, sleeps, lives, and fights with his people, often getting down in the mud with the pioneers to help push the wagon, which often gets stuck.  He/she keeps the pioneers keep moving when they get soft and want to turn back.

Jesus is the scout—forging a path for the pioneers by riding out ahead to face the danger first.  He suffers every hardship of the trail and is often attacked, but he makes the way for the pioneers.  By looking at the scout, the pioneers can learn what it means to be a pioneer.

The Holy Spirit is the buffalo hunter.  He’s a strange character, and the pioneers can’t track him scientifically, but he keeps them fed and alive.  Without him, they would die.  The cook (who is the pastor) dishes up whatever the buffalo hunter provides.

The Christian is the pioneer.  She is hungry for new life and will do whatever’s necessary to pursue it.  She dies with her boots on.  Her faith is obedience to the restless voice of the trail boss, the readiness to move out and risk everything on the trail.  Salvation is being more afraid of sterile life in the town than of death on the trail.  It is trusting the trail boss, following his scout and living on the meat provided by the buffalo hunter.  Sin is turning back.

Now this metaphor might not work for everyone and it certainly breaks down for me in the terms of U.S. history (namely the near-extinction First Nations and of buffalo, for starters).  The point for me is that God has called us to move with Him, not to settle down into stasis, but to be led by love—God’s suffering love that dies and rises for the whole world (not just for my family).  That’s why I am part of the movement here in Philadelphia.  The scout is making a way for us.

It is funny that in our quest for freedom from “the law” human beings tend to make other laws and systems of laws.  We are comforted by what we can predict and control.  But not really, and not forever.  I think we want more and we are made for more.  We are made for life in the Spirit.  Let’s not settle for anything less, in spite of our lust for comfort and fear of the unknown.  Let’s trust God to work that out in us.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” –Galations 5:1

How to survive the winter

This winter has been tough for a lot of Philadelphians.  Some have turned their ovens on to keep warm.  I used to be a winter sports-woman in my privileged youth: ice-fishing, snow-mobiling, downhill & cross-country skiing, ice-skating…but at times this winter I’ve been tempted to hibernate under my electric blanket from 8pm-8am.   I have become a wimp in the cold.  So here’s five practices that have kept me going this winter; you probably have other great ideas to add.

1.  Keep your prayer life hot.

Carve out a bit of space every day to be intentional about connecting with God.  God’s desires for the world will seep into our own as we open up this space in us.  I like to use our Daily Prayer blog; so many different writers contribute to this treasury.  I also started meeting with friends to pray one cold morning a week from 6-7am.  Let me know if you want to get in on that.  We are simply asking to move in us and in our neighborhood, and we’re already seeing God move.  

2.  Look for God in pop culture.  

A lot of us watch more TV, movies, and maybe even listen to more music in the winter because we’re stuck inside.  I think it’s fun to interpret how artists are channeling the philosophies of the day, expressing their goodness and their longing for God at the same time.  Sometimes it’s the same dumb stuff we’ve seen throughout history, like Bruno Mars’ misogynistic Young Girls (even my kids said, “why is he blaming the girls?”) and the prevailing ideas behind the entertainment biz seem to channel a new/old religion of ‘follow your desires/you are the sum of your experiences/love—mostly sexual love—will save us.’  But it’s sure to be entertaining.  And if you are interested in creating culture, something I think we’re all called to do, then it’s a good idea to see what’s being widely digested and compare it to what you’re hearing from God (see #1).  Loving people involves paying attention to what might be leading us around. (And if you have any doubt that lots of people are being “led around” by the entertainment biz then just stay awake this weekend around the Superbowl and it’s advertisements. One study I found indicated that some 50% of Americans search the internet for info about the Superbowl commercials before the Superbowl begins.  We’re literally entertained by advertising now.  That might be advertising success at it’s apex, and we’re buying it!) 

3.  Don’t give up meeting together.

We exercise our faith when we get together face-to-face.  A relationship with God isn’t something we can do in our heads.  A relationship with God is not a belief system.  It is happening with others.   If we know anything about the way humans are wired, I hope it’s that isolation is not healthy for us, spiritually or otherwise.  We don’t thrive in isolation, contrary to what technology and the entertainment biz affords us (see #2).  We’re made for love of God and others.  So I recommend:  if you’re not part of a faith community, find one.  Don’t let your preferences get in your way.  Show up to a public meeting, be part of a cell.  Of course it won’t solve all your problems—in fact it might give you more— but you might meet God and impact the world in deeper and bigger ways that you could do alone.  Even if the weather doesn’t cooperate with us this winter, lets keep trying. 

4.  Be like a tree & let your roots go down deep into Christ.

I learn a lot about God through creation.  When trees go into their dormant phase in wintertime, their roots do not stop growing.  Everything else generally shuts down to conserve energy, but the roots keep right on doing what they do, even in a frozen environment.  They keep growing—sucking up nutrients and moisture where they can get it—stabilizing the tree and preparing it for another season of growth.  I like to think that’s what we can do in the wintertime, electric blanket and all:  “Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.  For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” Colossians 2:7-9

winter5.  Wear Under Armour & drink virgin hot toddies.

This is a matter of preference.  I discovered that Under Armour is not just for little-leaguers this winter, and that hot water with lemon and honey keeps me warm and in the reality zone with God that is most comforting of all, no matter what we’re facing.  So cheers to the rest of the winter!  Let’s suffer together.

The Not-So-Secret-Life of Walter Mitty and Ours

Last week I saw Ben Stiller’s fine portrayal of how a dutiful and timid man becomes the adventurous, brave, and creative man that he and his crush are looking for.  What he thinks is his “secret life”—the daydreams of heroism that distract him—becomes not-so-secret as he gains courage to show up in the moment and do what he wants to do.  I’d argue that his “secret life” was never really so secret in the first place: his lack of presence and attention to those around him (and to himself!) while he was locked in fantasy was hard to hide.

So it is with us.  We might be tempted to think that our thoughts and opinions are hidden from others, while most of us are probably not that slick.   Some of us may be tempted to think that the “mundane” work we do like taking out the garbage is unseen, unappreciated, and not a big deal.   We are probably tempted to think that we are less of a big deal than we really are, and less loved than we really are.

I think that we actually live in a context where everything matters and everything is known to God.  Everything is known—not just our actions (and not just because of the internet) but our longings, our thoughts, our inactions too.  And this is not a fearful thing.  In Christ we are uncondemnable; we swim in an ocean of grace. “Failure” is all part of the process—-God demonstrated that himself in weakness and in death.  It’s not the end of the story; resurrection is.

wm2I don’t just have a private life with God either—through this resurrection I am  part of the transhistorical, transnational Body of Christ.  Right now this body looks like the beautiful motley crew of all the people of faith who are the hands and feet (etc.) of Jesus in the world.  More locally it’s the Circle of Hope in Philly and Camden that I’m a part of.   So nothing I do is really private—it all affects the rest of the Body in a spiritual and physical sense, just like the inter-working parts of a human body.   We’re actually connected in a way that’s not ironic or fantastical or virtual.  We’re having a real life together.  It’s not just something I do either, it’s something I receive.  Last night my friends Keisha and Jernard and Judy cared for my kids and even fed my family so I could lead a meeting.  

The realness of the real life helps me understand why Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…”  God doesn’t want to hide; God reveals.

My cell group is in the process of multiplying and several of my friends are stepping up to lead the new groups that will shine some light in two meeting places instead of one.  I love this crew and I’ll miss our time together.   It makes their very Jesus-like openness and courage and wisdom and love all the more obvious to me:  the openness to follow a God who is always making room for the next person (God who is more than a one-man show, as our Daily Prayer blog mentions today), the courage to start something new that could “fail,”  the wisdom to recognize that they have something to give as leaders, and the love it takes to give up what’s comfortable and trust God that there’s more than enough love to go around, even for those we haven’t met yet.

This kind of understanding about oneself—that we receive our life from God and we are not just “our own”—sheds light on the trend toward the privatization of everything in our culture.  In the west we are raised on a diet of distinction between “yours” and “mine.”  We are even taught that it’s healthy to divide up and compartmentalize different aspects of our lives for things like “work-life balance.”  Yet I can’t find this idea anywhere in the Bible.  We are whole people, made to live in unity with God and one another.  The individualistic, capitalist entitlement to “my private life” is more of a spiritual illusion than anything else, probably based on fear and greed.   This is why Jesus says, ” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Love gives, love takes risks, love is willing to be uncomfortable, love lays down it’s life for others and gets restored.

My favorite scene in Walter Mitty is when he takes a mountain in Iceland by skateboard.  He needs to get to the next town, so he straps some lava to his palms with his ripped-up work tie (a last vestige of his corporate life) and jumps on the only wheels he’s got.  This seems something like Jesus-following to me.   Sometimes you’re exposed to the elements at high speeds, and you’re not sure how it’s going to work out.  But the wind carries you, and the scenery is pretty great, and you get to the next place—a place with a whole new set of challenges.   Better than “private” fantasies any day.