Rachel Sensenig

How do I accept loss and start a new journey?

This week someone asked: How do I accept loss and start a new journey? The pandemic changed some of his life plans and expectations and seemed to steal some precious opportunities. My friend didn’t want to be sentimental and stuck in the past, angry or bitter about missed opportunities, but he wasn’t really sure how to imagine the future and move forward in this new reality, either. In many ways, the losses keep coming with covid and the future is uncertain! He was wondering if he should just move to a new place to launch himself into some newness. I think he was facing the difficult challenge we all face: how do I start a new journey in my real life, as the person I am right now, with my same old problems and relationships and surroundings? Is it possible for me to do something new and exciting in my life right now?

We all know that changing our circumstances can be helpful sometimes, but wherever we go, there we are. I love the SNL clip with Adam Sandler playing this Italian tour guide trying to temper people’s expectations: “If you’re sad here, you’re going to be sad in Italy!” Lasting change and transformation comes from a deeper place than moving to another neighborhood or state, or starting over with a new partner, or getting the new dream job. We are not defined by where we are or who we’re with as much as what we’re going after with God. 

There’s a guy in the Bible who shows a path through loss to real transformation and abundance. It’s not a pretty story, it’s super real, but it ends so wonderfully that it might give you hope as it gives me. And it might be the oldest story in the Bible, too, beyond the creation story, so I wonder if it’s meant to be a compass and a roadmap for our journeys through great loss and change.

Job is very successful with all the things we could want: great wealth, family reputation, and a loving relationship with God. The Bible names him as the greatest man in all the East. Three thousand camels, a thousand oxen…you get the picture. He has a bunch of kids that love to get together and celebrate the goodness of all of their lives. 

The enemy goes to God and suggests that Job only loves God because of how great his life is going. So God permits the enemy to take it all away, but not lay a finger on Job’s own body. Job’s children are killed; all of his property and possessions are destroyed. He is devastated and he grieves. He shaves his head but he falls to the ground in worship in his grief. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed by the name of the Lord” as he sits in ashes.

The first answer to the question “how do I accept loss and start a new journey?” seems to point to grief. It’s not fun to grieve, but it is the only honest response to loss. Emotions are meant to move through us; even the root of the word suggests movement. When we don’t grieve consciously, the sorrow and anger can get stuck in us in the form of bitterness and other disease. And it ends up “coming out” on those around us in damaging and unconscious ways.

Grieve with God

This is a daily spiritual discipline for me because I don’t want to feel any negative feelings. I’d rather deny them, repress them, numb them, avoid them, spiritualize them, anything to just feel good. But that always comes back to haunt me. So I’ve learned that I must reckon with what’s really going on in me and in the world. What am I sad about? What am I disappointed or angry about? What or who has hurt me? I’ve got to look at that with God so I can move through it eventually. I need to sit with it and cry and be in for a moment. I need to acknowledge it in order for it to lose its power over me. 

Covid has given us many reasons to grieve on top of the reasons we already had. Kids doing over a year of online school, missing proms and sports and other milestones, all of us missing connection and direct communication with others has taken a toll. Some marriages are really on the edge. Some parents are really on the edge after not having enough help or breaks from the caretaking, because it really does take a village to raise a child and we haven’t had the ability to be the village in our regular ways. Some misunderstandings in the church have spun out into big conflicts now. What are we going to do? We need to grieve with God. We need to acknowledge our heartbreak and let God be with us in our grief.

But hat doesn’t mean that things will get better immediately. What happens next to Job is even worse, but God begins to speak out of Job’s lament, and that begins a turnaround.

What happens next is that Job gets physically afflicted, and he’s still not cursing God but he takes the sorrow in on himself. He curses and blames himself. That’s not good because this gives his so-called friends an invitation to do the same. And they pile it on for like 30 chapters in the Bible. Surely Job must have done something terrible to be in such a terrible situation. That’s not true, but when we underestimate God’s presence and activity in the world, we go there. We see human beings as completely responsible for their own problems, and we conclude with shame and blame and condemnation.

Thankfully God finally jumps into the conversation with a bigger truth (in some beautiful, sarcastic poetry)

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it…

while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels shouted for joy?

Who shut up the sea behind doors

    when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment

    and wrapped it in thick darkness…

Have you ever given orders to the morning,

    or shown the dawn its place?”

Listen for revelation

God takes Job on a little tour of the expanding universe, so vast and complex that Job sees that who God is and what God does is ALOT bigger than he knows or can know. And Job is humbled to trust God. If God can do all this, if he can hold all this together, then surely there is some good end in sight for Job. And even if not, he’s part of a wonderful, bigger story with a Creator he can trust. 

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;

    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,

    things too wonderful for me to know…

My ears had heard of you

    but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I repent…”

He repents of needing to know and understand. He is satisfied with trust in God. That is the beginning of the new journey.

How has God spoken to you in your lament this past year? Can you identify some moments of truth and hope, that God revealed to you in the midst of your sorrow and confusion? The revelation from God that we need for the new journey often comes out of our lament. It might not be a direct answer to our questions, but we glimpse ourselves held in a bigger picture by God.

Trust and forgive

Job’s story has a very surprising ending that speaks to our question. His new journey moves from trust to forgiveness. And I wonder if it is forgiveness that thrusts him forward into new abundance.

God asks Job to pray for his friends who had been so condemning to him. God is angry at those friends on Job’s behalf, and says that if Job will pray for them and love them, God will show mercy to them.

Well, WOW. That’s a big ask: “pray for your friends who are so unloving and I’ll forgive them.” But Job does, and that opens up rivers of abundance in Job’s life. All of his stuff is restored. And he builds a new beautiful family, incidentally where only the daughters are named, and they have an inheritance along with the sons, which seems like a beautiful prophetic detail of the kingdom of Jesus to come. And Job has twice as much as he had before, as an outpouring of his willingness to keep trusting God first and forgiving those who misjudged him.

Is this a word for us or what? Real transformation and change begins inside us, relating to God, growing trust in God’s power and provision, and our willingness to forgive. The new journey is not so much in the new job, the new school, the new partner, as it is in what we do with God. Will we be honest enough to grieve our losses and tell God our sorrow? Will we be patient enough to hear God speak? Will we trust God enough to forgive those who hurt us? If we do, we just might open ourselves up to a world of renewal and revival right here in us and among us. And may it spread out into the streets around us.

What is the “kingdom of God?”

The seaside is one of my favorite places to be, and I was able to go there recently with some extended family. One day we woke up early to squeeze in some paddle boarding before a tropical storm. The wind was already picking up and the water was choppy, but we discovered that if we paddled into the wind and hugged the shore, the wind would scoot us right back home when we turned around.

My 13-year-old niece thought she might just enjoy the ride and let the wind take her where it wanted to go. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, she was a tiny dot on the horizon and the wind was continuing to take her further out! My family ran up the shoreline to try to keep her in sight while I looked around for help.

Just at that moment an official-looking guy came up to me on shore to warn me to be careful because of the tornado watch—that the wind was getting stronger—and I told him that we were well aware because my niece had just disappeared into the horizon! He went for his jet ski and rescued her.

Later he told us what we really needed to know: that the water was only three feet deep, even all the way out! The sound looked endless and deep because of the seaweed on the bottom, but if my niece had simply jumped off the paddle board she could have stood up in the water to keep from getting carried away. But she didn’t know how close the bottom was, and so the distance between us grew while she felt helpless and afraid.

Closer than we think

Many of us felt that way at some point during this pandemic, but the kingdom of God might be closer than we may know as well. It’s like the solid bottom we can stand on to keep from getting carried away by the wind of separation and isolation and fear. Jesus often said that the kingdom of God was near, or “at hand,” which is even closer than the ocean bottom to my niece. Stick your arm out and picture Jesus right there where your hand is. Jesus IS the kingdom of God in person and he was describing its nearness as he stood in front of people.

This week someone asked me, “What is the kingdom of God anyway?” It’s this great mystery that Jesus described in so many different ways, so it’s a good question! We’re embracing all of our questions this season.

When people hear the kingdom of God, many of us get stuck on the word kingdom because it’s old fashioned and it implies rulership and authority. It is about God’s authority in the sense that Jesus is Lord over life and death, but that’s very different than rulership of an empire. People have suffered from oppressive empire throughout history, but Jesus embodies a totally different kind of authority: one that vulnerably shows up to love.

Jesus uses several small organic metaphors to describe the kingdom of God, normal everyday miracles like seeds. They don’t look like anything special, but they contain infinite possibilities and potential. Compare this to a small act of love and kindness that changes your day. The kingdom of God is like that! And these seeds are in us, in our mouth and in our heart, as Jesus said, and they are us. We are seeds of the kingdom.

The kingdom is a treasure

Jesus also talks about the kingdom like a joyful discovery of something really valuable, and maybe unexpected, maybe something lost and longed for like a treasure. It’s like finding a pearl in an oyster, or finding your lost pet, or coming back together for Sunday meetings after a long time apart, like we are now. Jesus is saying that finding God and being found by God is like that. It’s a discovery moment of something real and wonderful that makes you want more of it. He tells this story about a person who finds a treasure buried in a field and what they do next is get all their money together to buy that whole field, not just to secure their asset but to see if there is more treasure buried there! They’re allured by the potential. The kingdom of God is like that, an implied promise of what is MORE. That the best is yet to come. This promise is worth the investment of our whole lives, our whole selves, in order to fully experience it.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a person found it, they hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matt 13:44

This is our theme verse for this season around 2212 S Broad Street in Philly, because we’re discovering again that this communion with God and others is what we’re really looking for. It’s the realest thing. It’s almost like before the pandemic we could pass by the field of this treasure and not know how much we needed and wanted it. We didn’t buy the whole field because we didn’t know how valuable it was. “Oh, there’s that church meeting I should go to. But the Eagles are playing and I gotta rest up for work tomorrow.” Or “I don’t have anybody to go with and nobody really cares if I’m there.” Or “Christians are the worst. With all the hypocrisy and harm done in the name of religion we’d be better off without it.” And so a lot of us passed by the field, not knowing what treasure could be found.

But during the pandemic we’ve faced our pain and problems in a deeper way. We’re getting closer to our longing for what is most real. We’re glimpsing treasures in ourselves and others that may have been buried for a long time. Some of us hit our own rock bottom and found some treasure there.

A season of healing and re-creation

So we move into this moment now with new awareness and wisdom and longing. We’re entering a season of healing, and the kingdom of God is all about healing. It keeps seeking us, like the treasure we are. Each time Jesus healed someone it was like a little taste of the resurrection to come. That’s the ultimate promise of the kingdom of God: that death will never have the last word. The kingdom of God is life upon life upon life, especially when it looks like all is lost! That’s when the surprise comes again and there is a new beginning, just in time. In the kingdom of God, the field is vast and there is more space than pressure. Time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God exists in the fullness of time, just like Jesus was born “when the fullness of the time had come.” In the kingdom of God, the invitation is always, “just stay here for a little longer…breathe.”

That’s because the kingdom is here right now and not just some other place in the future. The kingdom of God got indestructibly planted into the earth through the cross, and God’s self-giving love initiated infinite possibilities of recreation and renewal, including everything and everyone on this hurting and wounded earth. The possibility of violence becoming peace, and everything lost being found keeps being revealed, or at least planted like a seed. I know these sound like impossible ideas, but Jesus actually came to do it in his body, to make all things new. And he will complete this work of recreation in the end, which is really another beginning! In fact, the kingdom of God could literally be translated in some places as “recreation.” A new beginning here! When Jesus said “my kingdom didn’t come from this world,” he was talking about origin, not location right now. The Spirit empowers us to be part of the work of recreation right here and now in our bodies, our relationships, our willingness to move toward our hurting and wounded parts with this vulnerable hope of becoming something new.

The new beginning

This is the treasure in the field, my friends. It is endless new beginnings for all of us.

In my experience, the new beginning often starts with forgiveness. The grace and mercy of God reveals a new opportunity to become. Extending that to others expands the field. The kingdom isn’t a theocracy that is about God’s authority—it is a oneness with God through Jesus as friends. We share God’s power to forgive and renew, even with ourselves.

The new beginning is about the humanization of all relationships because God became human. This means that we can understand and accept our humanness, and that we don’t give up on each other in disappointment or failure. We don’t need to solidify images of each other in our worst moments, because the kingdom of God holds out hope for our transformation. We hold out hope for the possibilities in each other because of Jesus. That’s how love works: it banks on transformation even in the acceptance of our now. Sin deforms us in myriad ways: greed and patriarchy and the lie of white supremacy—damaging ways that people are taught to oppress and miss the humanity in each other—but the kingdom of God reveals our true form. Through showing up with curiosity to discover the treasure that is in each other, and going for it with our whole selves, we can be part of the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned.

Purpose

So the purpose of the church is not to maintain a status quo (of our own or of the world), but to keep seeking new beginnings. These new beginnings are real and tangible and consequential. Not just mystical or “spiritual.” In fact, everything is spiritual because the kingdom of God is here. Our Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter team just led us to raise over 30K as a step toward economic justice for our Black covenant members! We know it doesn’t make up for the ongoing wealth gap in our country, but we want to experience some justice now. It is a taste of the age to come.

You probably already know that the more you experience the kingdom of God in your world now, the more you will hurt and long for the fullness of it. That’s why the person who finds the treasure in the field gives everything they have to buy the whole field! The potential for more healing and communion with God and each other is worth everything. Our taste of communion with God and each other keeps us longing for more. And that longing hurts like a hunger sometimes; it’s a tension between the experience of holiness now and the hope of everything included in that whole. The sample taste of what’s truly good allows us to see and feel what’s not done yet. If you have experienced the kingdom of God you will feel angry and powerless sometimes in your longing for it where it’s missing, and you might find yourself saying “Maranatha,” which means “come Lord Jesus!” The more we experience the nearness of the kingdom, the more our chains begin to hurt because we know that freedom is near.

Friends, I hope that’s where we are right now as a church. Closer to the treasure, closer to recognizing Jesus in all of us and all of us in Jesus, closer to letting go of all we don’t need in order to buy the field and dig for the vastness of God’s love and mercy. Let’s pray for each other in our seeking, for perseverance and courage, and for assurance that we can jump off that paddle board when we’re floating away and stand up because we have a firm place in the kingdom of God. It’s here, and we find grace on the bottom, enabled to walk against the winds of fear and separation as we make our way home.

Welcoming Prayer

Welcoming prayer has been so helpful to me on my journey, especially over the past few years. I’m going to keep it real and tell you that I thought I had uncovered and faced most of my problems in therapy in my twenties. LOL. So when I hit my forties, I was surprised that all kinds of seemingly new problems surfaced for me internally and I needed some new resources. Welcoming prayer was one of them. When my old coping mechanisms weren’t working any more, welcoming prayer was a tool for insight from God that helped lead me toward freedom from old wounds. It’s kind of like divine therapy — although it is NOT a replacement for counseling or medication, or spiritual direction. (We need to keep working out our healing with others too.) This is a simple prayer exercise that invites us to pause at the moment of frustration, welcome our difficult emotion and invite Jesus there with us.

I want to offer you two ways to consider welcoming prayer, and the first comes from Friar Thomas Keating, whom you might know for his many contributions to contemplative prayer. His theory is that everyone has unconscious needs that come out of early wounds in our lives, either around a lack of affection, or a lack of security, or a lack of power and control. And we unconsciously organize our lives around trying to get those childhood needs met, until we become aware of the cycle. So the partners and friends we chose, the jobs we take, the way we communicate, and the things we spend money on are all part of this program we think is going to complete us. It’s very behind the scenes, but we’re naturally compelled to try and heal ourselves by getting those unmet childhood needs met. 

Well you can see by the cycle here if you go up clockwise from the bottom that this will eventually land us in some problems. Our hidden agendas to get these needs met will cause us to form attachments or aversions that create conflict in our lives. And hopefully it brings us to a moment of major frustration, which is the place where the cycle can be broken, and that’s where welcoming prayer comes in. If we can pause there in that afflictive emotion and experience it in the compassionate presence of God, we can begin to open to receive that security, and love, and awareness of our agency that we’re seeking. And we can get out of the program loop. But if we continue to repress our experience and avoid it or numb it out, we are bound to end up in the same place again, desperately seeking to get our needs met without really understanding what’s happening with us.

Learning to pause at this moment of frustration is really most of the invitation of welcoming prayer. If you can do that part, the rest will come. But it’s so hard to learn this pause because our emotional programs for happiness are so ingrained in us, and they’ve helped us to survive in life thus far! We are trained, especially by trauma, to just keep it moving. Until we learn to pay attention, most of us don’t even realize that we’re repressing or avoiding that difficult experience because we’ve had to endure it and we don’t know any other way. And that’s how we stay in this loop. But let me tell you, the Spirit doesn’t give up on us. In a life with God this cycle will get tiring if not unbearable. Jesus is so committed to our fullness of life and to our healing that he will make a way for us to be who we really are, which is fully loved and accepted.

Another inspiration for welcoming prayer for me was relating to the Internal Family Systems model in psychotherapy. This theory shows why it’s so hard to learn to pause in that moment of frustration, but it’s also given me so much hope in bringing all parts of myself to the table and into union with God.

In Internal Family Systems, we all have an exile, a manager, and a firefighter inside. This might seem silly but bear with me. These parts aren’t bad, in fact they exist to help us, to protect us from the stuff we can’t handle before we can handle it. The exile functions to take the worst of our hurt away from our consciousness so we don’t have to feel it. The rejection, the abandonment, abuse, neglect that caused emotions that are too threatening or socially unacceptable. The exile takes that shame, guilt, anger, and fear of not being enough and tries to carry it for us.

The manager part of us works hard to keep us functional and meeting the demands of life and relationships. This is the part of us that gets us out of bed when we’d rather sleep in and prompts us to do our work and follow the rules. Managers are wonderful assets to our being, but when they are running the show they can be highly critical, perfectionistic, people-pleasers. When exiled parts get triggered by prolonged lack of physical or relational safety, the managers get activated a lot. When exiles try to garner more attention for care and witness, as they do on the journey to becoming whole, managers can perceive that as a threat to the status quo so far and get more rigid in an attempt to maintain control. Of course, they eventually get overwhelmed and exhausted if they’re overfunctioning, because they’re not meant to be the leader of our internal system, and that’s when firefighters might jump in to save the day.

Firefighters respond to our internal crisis as momentary heroes. They relieve pressure but end up flooding the house. These are the parts of us that seek escape through food, alcohol, internet, games, emotional outbursts or other dissociative behavior. They are escape artists. They provide temporary relief in some ways but in a deeper way they reactivate our exiles whose needs fueled the process to begin with.

So you can see why that moment of frustration is so important to pay attention to. It’s a good sign on the journey toward wholeness! The moment of frustration is our invitation to hear from the true Self there at the center before this whole defense system gets kicked up again. 

The Self is the core sense of who we are, the core place of connection between us and God. Some might call it the soul or the spirit in us that connects with God’s Spirit, and we experience it somatically, in the body. It’s the part of us that is hidden with Christ in God, and I think it’s longing to come out, to rise up and lead freely. Internal Family Systems theory would say that this Self remains even in the midst of life’s most horrific experiences and is always available as a resource for resilient recovery and wisdom. Our parts take the hits of traumatic wounding in protection of the Self. Rather than being shattered or broken or annihilated the Self is covered over by the parts who take on increasing leadership of the person, sometimes in problematic ways. 

The goal of welcoming prayer then is to invite the parts to come to the table with Jesus and rest, so the Self can be uncovered and lead with the fruits of the Spirit. Our parts don’t need to be banished, they’re meant to be included and understood and healed with Jesus there at the center. Welcoming prayer is a tool for bringing them into the light with compassion, because Jesus totally understands why we are the way we are and how we got that way. And like Isaiah said about him: a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Rather than kick us when we’re down He came to gently tend to our bruised parts and fan the flame of life in us. Welcoming prayer has even helped me see the wisdom and beauty in those bruised parts in me and others.

In short, this is how the tool works: We pause in that moment of frustration, and welcome the negative feeling within ourselves: anger, shame, rejection, fear, whatever it is. We let ourselves feel it, as terrible as it is, instead of employing those defensive parts, and we welcome Jesus there to help us see what’s going on. In so doing, we begin to break the cycle of trying to get our needs met in places they can’t be met. And we allow our exiled parts to be found.

What happens with welcoming prayer over time is that our managers get some rest. Our fire-fighters also get an indefinite vacation because our survival is no longer in question and we don’t need to escape our reality. And what has been exiled gradually begins to come home to the love of God. Nothing is lost, and we’re no longer chasing our “program for happiness” because our needs for esteem and security and agency are finding their Source.

There’s a scene at the end of the new Mulan movie that shows this integration. Mulan comes face to face with an exile; you could even think of this character as Mulan’s own exiled parts. Shian Ling’s gifts were rejected and so she accepted evil in order to be accepted. She’s been confronting Mulan as an enemy, but instead of showing fear, Mulan welcomes her. She moves toward her and even gets vulnerable, asking for her help instead of fighting. Shian Ling responds with the gift of herself, because she recognizes the love and partnership that Mulan is extending to include her. She’s no longer an exile, she is brought into relationship, accepted and known for the goodness and humanity that was there in her all along.

Jesus knows our hurts and pain better than we know ourselves. He can help us welcome all of our parts to be healed. Nothing is wasted and nothing is unacceptable to him. Nothing is ignored or against. We don’t have to be at war with ourselves and each other any more because Love bears all things. In fact, this is what Valentine’s day is really all about; the Roman Emperor Claudius was banning marriage because it weakened the military! Love heals our impulse to fight because it is greater than hate and death. Love at our center with Jesus can help us welcome all the parts of ourselves and others that need to be included and healed. This movement toward wholeness is the movement of the Spirit that welcomes us now..

 

What is the Christian response to police violence?

Our compassion teams asked the question this week and here’s my answer.

I grew up surrounded by military ideology, and from a very young age I sensed that it did not match with the way of Jesus. Jesus raised people from the dead, and was raised himself, so I came to know God as the life-giver and sustainer. That matched with everything I knew from creation, even in my own body. The military, on the other hand, used the power to kill in order to protect national interests, which were mostly about property and other economic resources building and maintaining American supremacy. However well-sounding the interests were sold to me, like my own “freedom,” the loss of any human life did not seem comparable to those interests. Life is an irreplaceable gift from God for all people.

Policing in the United States was developed, trained, and weaponized for essentially the same purpose as the military: to protect the economic interests of those in power. Even many history texts reveal that more than crime control, a system of social control was needed to maintain an orderly work force for business and commerce. From slavery in the American south to the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution, policing was a response to protect mercantile growth and the inequality in labor it required. The construct of whiteness and patriarchy seemed to be tools of the economy in many ways, and the system was maintained under a guise of moral superiority, triumphalism, and exceptionalism. The violence of it was mostly hidden from white Americans.

Unfortunately, police with military training and weaponry to protect wealth results in a government quite literally at war with its own people, especially with those who have been closest to the means of production. This means that Black and brown communities and individuals have been disproportionately affected. The ideology of racism that literally legislated the abuse of BIPOC has been enforced by policing for centuries, and in spite of some new laws it still seems to be perpetuated by implicit bias.

So the Christian response to police violence is first an acknowledgement of this unsafe reality for our Black and brown siblings. It is not a condemnation on individual police or military personnel; it is a recognition of the purpose and function of the institutions. From recognition comes grief: we grieve the loss of life, and the fear that our siblings regularly endure. And finally, we take action together as a church community. That includes protest and lobbying toward change, as well as solidarity and advocacy for our siblings and their families in our neighborhoods. And of course, prayer! Sometimes all together in front of police headquarters.

This year has brought new awareness in our country and renewed grief and passion in our church. We feel the pain and the fear as well as the longing for change. At times, the differences in our experiences and knowledge and communication adds to the pain. I pray for a way to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ, which is a bond of love in action. Lord, bring an end to police violence and all violence among us. We don’t want one more life to be lost.

Rest comes through vulnerability

Labor Day is always a good time to think about rest. The founders of the holiday were looking to unify union workers in the U.S. and reduce work time. It’s often a good opportunity to squeeze out the last bits of summer with a BBQ, like we’re having at 2212 South Broad this Sunday before our meetings at 5pm! (You’re invited.) But regular good rest is more valuable than a holiday, and increasing numbers of people are having trouble getting it these days. Our economy and the opportunities of the internet can keep us going around the clock, to the detriment of our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical capacity. Leaders Bethany Stewart and Rachel Spruill were talking about rest recently in our Late Night Sunday meeting, and I thought their message was right on time. 

Good rest doesn’t just happen. Rest seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world, but it’s really not. Brain science shows us that our minds are wired for survival, meaning that they fear the future based on what happened to us in the past. They are naturally wired to try to protect us from those negative experiences again, and this is why they often have trouble shutting down. They can keep us stuck in unconscious anxiety loops. This is why so many people doze off scrolling through the FB or IG feed or using substances to wind down. But those avoidance tactics to the needs of our own minds and hearts and bodies can actually keep us from having real rest. 

Consciousness with God can interrupt the anxiety loop. Jesus said: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” This was my favorite Bible verse as a kid, and it makes even more sense to me now. Instead of doing whatever numbs or distracts us, we’re invited to be aware of God’s all powerful and loving presence as we wind down from the day. This awareness of God’s presence gives me space to know something about what I need, to notice the ways I might be hurting or burdened, and feel God’s compassion to me there. This is the invitation to prayer. As I reflect, I often find many reasons to be grateful, too. But the irony is that good rest comes through meeting God in my need, not through my efforts to control or manage or force my rest. I’m not able to consume rest as much as enter into it vulnerably.

Good rest takes practice. I used to think I was “bad” at resting, but it turns out that I’m just human. Spiritual giants work at rest over the course of a whole lifetime, and our bodies can help us realize that we’re tired. Even though our minds can be all over the place, our bodies are present. We can tune in to our breath or heartbeat to help us slow down. We are safe with God to wake up to all of our senses. I like to repeat the Jesus prayer in my mind, in between slow breaths, to let my over-working mind descend into my heart (as the ancients define all prayer.) It’s not easy to let go of our control systems, but it turns out that we can be strengthened and loved when we do. Let yourself get the good rest you need. 

Why we care about our connection to the earth

This was originally posted on Circle of Hope’s main blog here.

My friend, Alex Murray, spoke in our Sunday meeting this week about why he cares about our connection to the earth. I thought he would start with a bunch of ways to work against climate change, but instead he started at the start: how he loves and appreciates nature, what it teaches him, how it connects us to God and each other.

I can relate. I grew up on a lake in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. I retreated to the outdoors daily, no matter what season it was. It gave me a sense of peace, seeing the beauty, seeing how all things seemed to work together to support life. I got my first impressions of a loving God by climbing trees and eating their fruit and feeling surrounded by the gentle wind. What an amazing system that worked together!

I return to nature regularly to remember God’s provision. In college, when I was stressed out, I’d take my sleeping bag outside my dorm window and sleep under the stars. To this day, I sleep better outside than inside. There’s something about hearing the crickets and the birds and seeing the vast sky that makes me feel cared for. I am connected as a fellow creature. Jesus promises that if he clothes the grass of the field so richly, that has such a short life, he will surely care for me. I feel that outside. When I moved to the city, it was the sky that kept me grounded. Thank God I could get to the roof regularly to see it!

As technology threatens to reduce our time in nature, science is pointing us back to its importance. The average American child now spends over 7 hours in front of a screen, and the average American adult spends more than 4 hours on their smartphone, in addition to the hours on a screen at work. Scientists are associating this new reality to a host of psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems now, and some doctors are literally prescribing time in nature as medicine. They found that hospital patients heal faster when there is a window in their room, and children who live closer to a recreation area have lower BMI (body mass index) than children who live further away from a park. High-stress environments cause cortisol production in the body (which interferes with learning, memory, attention, and inhibitory control, weakens immune function and bone density, and increases blood pressure, heart disease, and mood disorders) but time in nature reverses the effects of high-cortisol production! Workplace employees who are exposed to greenery and sunlight on the job report significantly higher levels of well-being. We need to remember that we are creatures, not machines.

We are working for a greener world as a church. A few years ago I had the pleasure of working for a land bank in Philadelphia that would protect green space from developers. As a parent, I know first-hand the importance of green space for all children, not just the ones who can afford to live near the nice parks. Working for a greener world means working against racism and its sister poverty—big systems that promulgate injustice through policy. All over the world, it is the poor who live closest to the landfills and oil refineries and fracking zones and power plants. That’s the air and water tables that are impacted most. Environmental justice involves a greener world for everyone.

As we face the realities of climate change, we are encouraged by people like Greta Thunberg who are doing something about it. At 15 years old, she started a school strike for the climate outside the Swedish Parliament that has spread all over the world. Many Philly students participated this year, too. The young people are calling governments to a reduction in our carbon emissions for the survival of the planet. Our government turns a blind eye but over 200 species are becoming extinct on our planet now every day, a rate that is 1,000 – 10,000 times higher than normal. Greta reminds us that we have to change; we cannot carry on as before. You might enjoy her TED talk, that shows how personal it is for her and all of us.

I don’t know how it all works, but I know that Jesus is at work to care for his beautiful creation. The Son is the image of the invisible God, and in him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1). I can’t explain all of the spiritual and scientific ramifications of Paul’s insight (and neither could he!), but I sense their truth when I see a flower or sit on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We are intrinsically part of this glorious creation, and we reflect God’s glory most when we partner in his creative and regenerative work. In the midst of the threats to our environment, let’s trust his love and know that he is with us in every effort to nurture and sustain life, whether big or small.

Letting go of the past

This post was previously published at circleofhope.net’s main blog here.

They say that if anxiety is about the future, depression is about the past. If that’s the case, I think it’s surprisingly easy to be depressed, even on a beautiful May day like today. It’s hard to not live in our old thought patterns that usually involve fears of being hurt (as you probably were) or not being enough. My internal script often sounds something like, “You don’t have what it takes, Rachel.” I think it’s easy to fear that we don’t have what it takes to meet the demands of our lives, or to have our needs met or make a difference in this difficult political and social landscape.

Thankfully, that usually leads me to pray. I got convinced a long time ago that in fact I don’t have what it takes (to single-handedly change myself and change the world) and, in fact, that’s how it’s meant to be. I was never meant to single-handedly change myself and the world! I’m made to rely on God and others.

But this reliance is an active, not a passive thing. I can’t necessarily do today what I did yesterday. Why? Because Jesus is alive and moving. Following him requires listening for what’s next, and letting go of the past, even the good stuff that I’m tempted to get sentimental about and hold too tightly. When I put too much energy into holding, and I might miss my opportunity to move forward in trust. I thought about this as my daughter rode away on her bike to school for the first time this morning. I had to pray that she’d remember the route and traffic laws that we practiced yesterday. And that no drivers would be distracted around her. Ultimately I had to put us both in God’s hands again, trusting that he’ll take care of us no matter what.

Mary Magdalene had a moment like this with Jesus right after his resurrection. She was a devoted disciple, and so grieved after his death. When he appears again, she clings to him, of course! He had saved her, and given her a whole new life. But he says, “Mary, do not hold on to me.”

Based on everything that happens next, I think there was a great promise in Jesus’s words. He was not done saving the world, and he needed Mary to move with him. His love needed to be shared with everyone, not just the little crew who knew him so far. And he was “ascending” to the Father to enable people to do that. His Spirit would come and personally empower them to share his love. Mary herself needed to become someone that others could hang on to.

All that is true for us. At least, that is the invitation, if we are able to let go of our past ideas about ourselves, that we can’t do this or that, that we are too broken or too limited or fed up to make a difference. Jesus himself offers to fill us, to be closer to us even more than he was to Mary in that moment in the garden, and not to ever leave us. We are part of him, and he of us, so he will gently lead us.

Toasts for 2017

This post is a re-post! It first appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog here.

2017 was a rough year for many people. People said the same thing about 2016, but I think some things got worse. It might be that the uber-wealthy will get more tax breaks and the poor will lose more services. Many of my friends were not able to afford basic health care this year. Some of my friends’ children tried to commit suicide. A 16-year-old shot and killed two other 16-year-olds around the corner from where I live. Many people died of opiate drug overdoses. The earth keeps trying to adjust to years of overconsumption and abuse but the hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and wildfires keep coming. Politics divide people everywhere, and technology hasn’t seemed to actually unify people in spirit and purpose.

A painting of the Annunciation

Annunciation by Paul Woelfel

In the midst of all of the sorrow and uncertainty, Mary has me making a gratitude list today. Her exuberant praise to God is remarkable in light of her circumstances and ours. Maybe it was because she was such an “under-resourced” person that she could recognize the wildness of what God was doing: making a way through the wasteland of poverty to attend to our hearts, to lift up the lowly, and to restore all of creation. No wonder she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!” God was coming in flesh to be our peace, and God is still here through his people. Not just in our hopes and dreams and plans for the future but what has actually happened this year in spite of all we face.

So here’s the start to my gratitude list. Want to keep it going with your own toasts to 2017 in the comments?

  • Circle Thrift already passed over a million dollars in sales this year. Most of these profits go around the world to the areas of most need.
  • We bought a beautiful building on South Broad Street. Last year at this time I was joking to my extended family that what I wanted for Christmas was a building for our church to meet in. I did not imagine that we’d actually get one at the exact price I named, just 3 blocks from where I live! It’s already been a place for many to find comfort and hope through our Sunday meetings, ESL classes, 12-step groups, grilling on the street, theatre and music.
  • New babies.Theo Ethan, Abel Winston, Martin Homer, Huxley Emmanuel, and Londyn Marie became regular attenders of our South Broad congregation.
  • We started Circle Kids playschool! What a joy to see the little ones playing and learning with our wonderful director, Gail, throughout the week.
  • The Solidarity Beyond Borders team got moving. We are partnering with the New Sanctuary Movement to provide practical support to immigrants and refugees here in the city. We sent a representative to walk the Migrant Trail along our southern border in solidarity with those who have lost or are separated from family members by the wall.
  • The Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter team raised almost 5K to bail black mothers and fathers out of prison before the holidays this year.
  • We welcomed 49 partners into our covenant. this year with some joyous feasting
  • 8 cells multiplied and 5 were planted from scratch. God keeps empowering us to love and include.  
  • Our newest congregation got rolling in the Northwest. Julie and Jerome and their partners overcame some big hurdles to get established. We all survived the birth and grew up in faith a little more.

Can you add to the list? None of this is meant to put rose-colored glasses on the challenges and losses we face, either. Totalitarian leaders, greed, and violence are wrecking the planet. People are lonely, anxious, depressed, and dying. Many are discriminated against and oppressed. But in the midst of it all, I see people drawing strength from the source of life, re-birthing a new generation of givers to respond to the mess with self-giving love. So I agree with the prophets that the Light is here and coming. I understand John the Baptist that saying that Jesus makes his joy complete even in his uncertainty. And I can rejoice with Mary that God sees us and has not left us alone this Advent.

A dream that’s bigger than the American dream

This post is a re-post! It first appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog here.

Pedro Soto with Rachel SensenigMy friend Pedro came to the United States as a young man looking for regular work and the TV American dream: fast cars, success, leisure. Subsistence in rural Mexico was getting more and more difficult as US conglomerates honed in on the economy. The market for local agriculture was being strangled.

Pedro says he didn’t really find the American dream. He found hard work, for sure, alongside the many immigrants who labor in the shadows of our society: washing dishes and preparing restaurant food, slaving on the dangerous and uninsured construction projects that make gentrification possible. An 18-hour day is a regular day. He found his people oppressed by the dissipation caused by drugs and alcohol and material possessions, too. The struggle to acquire and live the dream was pretty despairing.

He thought that the answer might involve reclaiming and celebrating his identity as an indigenous person, to help restore health to his spirit and hope for his people. So he helped to gather a beautiful Aztec dance group that rekindled ancient rituals and performed for festivals and local events. But there were struggles within the group that he didn’t know how to solve. He was still searching for answers.

Someone gave him a Thomas Merton book that offered him hope. Jesus was a central character, but this Jesus—who brings mind, body, and spirit together in love—did not sound like the God of the conquistadors. He prayed for more answers and had a dream that he should go upstairs above Circle Thrift Broad, where he occasionally shopped, and see what was going on up there.

It was the night of one of our Love Feasts when Pedro walked up the stairs and into the hallway at 1125 S. Broad St. We were singing together and worshiping God. One of our pastors, Joshua Grace, was running to the bathroom in between switching the lyric slides and saw Pedro in the hallway. Joshua took some time to explain who we are and what we are doing. Pedro said he’d be back.

Almost two years later, Pedro leads a Spanish-speaking cell as we translate our cell plan into Spanish. He has hopes for a Spanish-speaking Circle of Hope someday! He continues to have dreams about what God wants to do with us in spite of where our culture is headed. When he comes to my house he brings the best tamales, but more than that he brings a vision for the future that is deeply just and merciful, not dependent on changing laws but changing hearts. His vision is based on personal repentance (keeping your clothes clean, he calls it) and hope in the person of Jesus. This is what fuels his production of the annual Organic and Green Fest, which gathers small businesses to support small local and Mexican agriculture, and gives the Aztec dance group a platform to celebrate the beauty of their culture. He says that healthier lifestyles help develop our consciousness of God and our deeper purpose together.

Pedro is always aware of the crisis that he and his people face. Men, in particular, have been disappearing regularly these days—hunted by ICE, detained, and deported. He has considered going back voluntarily to prevent this from happening to him, but he feels called to stay and work to help others. Part of that help involves our Solidarity Beyond Borders compassion team. He teaches us not to fear—don’t be afraid of pain, he says. He reminds me that:

Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)

And that is what we are doing together. Forming a glorious body to love the world and to care for one another. Keep leading us, Pedro.

-Rachel Sensenig, writing

This is Annie

This post is a re-post! It first appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog here.

We decided in our map that we would enjoy a year long celebration of the compassionate work our people do professionally. Circle of Hope is the people who make it, not an institution. We are all over the Philly Region doing good and showing the world what Jesus looks like.

My friend Annie works at a hospital in Camden, NJ repairing the broken bodies of women who have been trafficked, abused, or impregnated by men who usually do not accompany them to the hospital. Last week over brunch she tried to describe the process of surgically repairing the vaginas of women after sexual assault. Unfortunately, misogyny is still a very real thing.

Annie is an obstetrics and gynecology resident physician. She’s 10 years into her training and has two more to go. She spends her time delivering babies, taking care of sick pregnant women in the hospital, offering contraception counseling and prenatal care, cataloging injuries from sexual violence, and performing surgeries. She says that the best part of her job is getting to be a part of life-changing moments, offering support and connection in crucial times. The hardest part is that she can’t fix a lifetime of poverty, violence, and lack of education. The opioid epidemic, in particular, is wreaking havoc on mother and infant health in our area.It’s hard to not always be able to make things better, but Annie is fighting for women and thus fighting for all of humanity.

I am inspired by Annie’s perseverance and compassion. It’s obvious that she is called to her work by love. I think it just like Jesus to care for women in such practical, holistic ways—to grieve with us, to value us, to heal and empower us.

Annie’s faith runs deep. I’ve had the honor of watching her lead in our church for years as she studies, takes exams, and works overnights in the hospital. She feels as called to our mission as she does to medicine and doesn’t seem to see much distinction between them. She leads a cell and is part of our church planting core team that provides vision for our whole body. She even lives in community in her house! It takes some spiritual depth to stay present and real in relationships after long hours of giving care. I see her demonstrating that God is present to us in our struggles and good enough to renew our strength. She allows God to care for her and leads our women to do that, too.

Annie is as feisty as people stereotype redheads to be. She is also full of grace and humor, and I’m honored to call her my friend. I hope you get a chance to know her, too.

Transforming a Funeral Home: Three Spiritual Truths Learned

This post is a re-post! It first appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog here.

Maybe the point of every spiritual life is like transforming a funeral home into a place of worship. My adventurous congregation has had an eventful month. We bought an infamous funeral home on Broad Street, and it’s been more challenging and also more amazing than I imagined. Here’s what happened, and some spiritual truths that might apply to all of us:

1. Only let hope define you

When we closed on the building, we discovered that the previous owners left it full of trash for us: two giant truckloads of waste. It was mess-with-your-head kind of trash: human remains in the embalming room, coffin boxes, rifles, dog feces, liquor, a tombstone. It smelled like death. There was a freshly drawn pentagram with satanic messages and symbols on the front wall of the meeting room. It seemed like a message meant to scare us.

We cleared it out that same day. I stayed up late with my church-planting partner Jimmy Weitzel until it was done. Our next site team leader, Ian Holland, and I took a crowbar to the graffiti since we want to put a big window there anyway. Nothing need define us but hope. This building may have seen a lot of violence and betrayal and abuse, but the love of God is even greater. The love of God as revealed in Jesus is greater than all the sadness and rebellion in the world. Just as Jesus rose from death, his Spirit breathes life and hope into every threat we face, now and forevermore. We can claim our rightful place with the Life-giver. Like Jesus, we have come from God and are returning to God. That’s where we really belong.

2. Don’t move into a new place alone—you’re part of a living body.

The next two days were full of cleaning and moving in. A friend came all the way from North Philly to do the bathrooms, even though she was sick. The men of the church slept over in the building. They filled the place with prayer and laughter. My husband washed away the blood in the embalming room. Ian slept in my office to reclaim it. Five people were able to remove the tombstone that the two trash guys couldn’t lift. So many others lifted boxes, prayed, brought flowers, and began to unpack. Together we started inhabiting this place and then it started to feel like home.

When we approach the interior rooms of our hearts and try to “move” into to a new place spiritually, we need each other too. The “dirtiest” jobs are best done together; otherwise we get scared off from finishing them. We are part of a worldwide community of faith that Jesus calls a “body.” We need the help and strength of the other parts of our local body. Otherwise, we’re like an eyelash or a fingernail trying to make sense of our purpose alone. It doesn’t make sense. People of faith are intrinsically connected to each other.

We are so force-fed the religions of individualism and scientific rationalism that it’s easy to miss the necessity of being part of a church body these days. For your healing and wholeness and for the healing of the whole world, don’t miss it! Find a Jesus-centered faith community to work out your transformation before rigormortis sets in.

3. Share your home before it’s finished

Two days after we moved in we had a Sunday meeting. Our projector screen was a bed sheet, some stuff didn’t work, some things were still in boxes, the lighting was still bad, the carpet is still… interesting. The perfectionist home-maker/artist in me wants to transform all of that yesterday. But the spiritual truth is that none of that is as important as the people we are meeting and befriending and inviting to be partners in the work of transformation. My time is better spent with them than at lamps.com. We’re making progress on the building, and really, it’s already beautiful. Believers are worshiping all around the world in caves, on roads, in buildings without walls and roofs, under threat of death and the elements. The important stuff with us is already done.

There’s a similar thing happening in the spiritual building of your heart, mind, and soul. You might be tempted to keep your emotional doors closed until you have all your stuff worked out. I recommend opening them anyway. Be part of a cell, go to the Sunday meeting, call up a faithful friend, drop in on a neighbor. You have a lot to offer even though you’re not finished yet. None of us are, but God is doing beautiful things through us anyway.  

SPicture of Circle of Hope church moving to their new space in South Phillyometimes I think we are getting back to a better version of the funeral home concept. In modern times, birth and death have been farmed out to the “professionals.” People used to have babies at home and lay out their dead loved ones in the parlor, for neighbors and friends to come hold their hand one last time. Now we give up this sacred work to strangers, and while it has its benefits, I’m afraid it creates a weird disconnect too. We are removed from the mess of it, the highs and lows that help us move to a newly empowered place. The truth is that we need to grieve and rejoice and accept the beautiful mess that we are! I pray that 2214 South Broad continues to be that kind of place. A place where you can be on the edge of sanity and be restored. A place where you don’t have to put on a certain kind of face or have a certain kind of experience. A place where God meets us as we are, not as some sanitized version of some idealized future self. The truth is that we are loved beyond belief, RIGHT NOW. Come hang out with us sometime soon.

-Rachel Sensenig

Don’t tell us to “Settle Down”

This post is a re-post! It first appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog here.

A cat meme that says "Did you just tell me to relax?"Did someone ever tell you to relax when you were amped up? I bet it worked like a charm.

God keeps stirring us up this season: questioning our tired resignations, breathing fresh air into our cramped and fearful corners, shining the light on some spacious new ground. It’s been a surprising journey through Lent, and the movement keeps happening! People have been noting that it smells like a new level of hope and forgiveness and vision for what our world could be. I’m writing about it right now because I’m just so thankful for our irrepressible spirit.

For one thing, we found a building on Broad Street and bought it. Only in my dreams did I think Circle of Hope could afford such a piece of prime real estate, and here we are about to move into a fully-rehabbed and accessible place in a lively new area at the end of the month. Never mind that the building is a funeral home with mob history. It’s just like God to give us another opportunity to call life out of death. We’re even imagining that the embalming room could turn into a recording studio or a place for nursing mothers to feed their babies as we worship. I love that we are “at home” with such change and transformation.

We’re also moving on some ideas for transformation in the neighborhood. Our new basement is a perfect spot for a playschool, to respond to the need for quality and communal childcare in South Philly. We realized, too, that if we stretched to keep our current space for event rentals, we could create more jobs and continue to be a hub of hope and light for the many community groups that share our space. We’ve got dreams for the new place to be a venue for young people to create and share their art and music. We’ve got dreams for a community garden across the street around South Philly High. We need our wise elders to guide the whole process.

The reason we keep expanding our horizons in practical ways is that the love of Christ compels us. It is a sacrificial love that is not easily deterred by the limitations of the world, or even our own. We are called to keep scanning the horizon to be inclusive like Jesus. We are called to embrace the cracks in each other and wait to see what God will do. It changes us to love like that. The changes don’t always come instantly or easily or perfectly, but they do come. One person who just visited our Sunday meeting for the first time told me after, “There is grace here.” Indeed there is! That is the whole foundation of our life together! We stand in grace. (Romans 5:2) Our cracks are filled by the self-giving love of Jesus that keeps coming after us when we’re stuck and afraid, and knitting us together to make a difference in the world.

IScene from Moana. finally watched Moana last week and I like the scene where she discovers that her people used to be voyagers. Her father, the chief, is a typical settler whose fear of the open sea is killing the island and starving the people. She sees that her compulsion for the riskiness of an ocean voyage is not to be repressed anymore. Finding new ground will bring restoration and renewal to her people.

Our new neighborhood is filled with people who are looking for hope and forgiveness and a brighter vision for what the world could be. We want to meet them; in many ways we already love them. So yeah, don’t tell us to settle down, especially under this presidential administration. We are among the generations of voyagers and pilgrims and wanderers and refugees who are not content with the way things are. We are patiently impatient for the new world that God is bringing into being. We are uncomfortable with racism and poverty and violence having the last word. Don’t tell us to settle down and stay put because we can’t. We grow and groan like creation. We long for justice and peace to reign. So come check out our new digs on April 30th and let’s see what we can do together.

-Rachel Sensenig