Rachel Sensenig

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

Broken and Shared

I’m writing to respond to some of my friends who are legitimately asking: How can anyone talk about God when the world is so f’d up right now? Let us have our feelings!!!

Well, I think everyone should go ahead and have their feelings today and every day. That is part of how I came to faith: realizing that God cares so much he came to meet me in a real person with real feelings. I don’t have to stuff or ignore mine anymore.

So when I woke up to the presidential news this morning, I wept. Even though I don’t put my hope in the government, the slap of the misogynist, elitist whitelash was painful. My 13-year old son asked, This guy molested women and bragged about it and now he is our president, Mom?  Yes. This guy has also labeled and demonstrated hate toward people based on the color of their skin, their sexual desire, their paperwork and their socioeconomic status. My daughter curled up in a fetal position on my bed and asked in all seriousness if we could move to Canada. Apparently they’re not too young to sense the real leadership chasm here.

What keeps going through my mind are the words of Jesus that we repeated last night as we broke bread: this is my body broken for you. Broken. I do not follow a God who has not experienced the pain and injustice of the world. I follow a God who is experiencing it right now with me and billions of others. I am going to die and rise with him today and tomorrow and the next day. My pain is known and touched. How can I not know and touch others, and see what we can build together to transform this mess? That’s what Jesus is doing, as far as I can see.

The government of the United States, or any government for that matter, has never been a transformative system. I hoped and fought for that in graduate school when I was just angry about all the injustice in the world. I still get angry now, but I have received the grace and mercy of God, and I need to keep receiving it. The brokenness of Jesus guides me to use and release my anger now through love and service.

We will really have to take care of each other now. Not just in a polite way, but in an open your heart and your home and your wallet kind of way. That has always been the purpose of Jesus and the church — love one another as I have loved you.  But now perhaps with the illusion of the US-government-care falling down we will see our importance in the process a little more clearly.  A few hours before my friend Karen died last year, she whispered to me that we should “Strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone…” I knew that she was quoting the writer of Hebrews, who was talking about taking courage and having spiritual discipline in difficult times. As a black woman who gave up a lucrative career in private law to be a public defender for the city, she knew what she was talking about.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heartHebrews 12

It would be easy to grow weary and lose heart right now. But we are called to take heart. We might do that by considering him who is with us in all disappointment and fear, bearing it with us with great love. If you can’t muster up any faith today, maybe you can let yourself be carried by the faith of others who love you. That’s part of the process of transformation.

 

Radical means root

I was glad when we talked about this last week during our Doing Theology time. The modern meaning of “radical” has come to suggest something extremist or beyond the intensity of its predecessor. But the word actually comes from the Latin radix “root,” and even means root in math and linguistics and botany.  The radicle is the the embryonic root inside the seed that breaks out first and grows downward into the soil to establish the plant. It becomes its primary source of sustenance. So a radical is basic, expressing the heart of the matter, vitally connected to the source.

I have this tattooed on my arm because I think this organic meaning of radical says a lot more about who we are a Circle of Hope than the extremist one. Our root is Jesus who establishes us in love. There’s no need to complicate this too much. He breaks through the wall of death to call out the new life in us…to allow us to be planted, fed and nurtured toward spiritual reproduction.

This week in my cell meeting we got to the root again. Hannah brought the story of the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned by the mob of religious leaders.  Jesus gets down in the dirt with her. He breaks through the wall of judgement and challenges them to only throw a stone if they haven’t ever sinned. One by one, they leave and he poses the obvious question to the woman, “Does no one condemn you?” There’s no one left with rocks in their hands, and he affirms, “Then neither do I. Now go and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus breaks through the law to create the safe place for new life to emerge and get planted. He sees the opportunity for this woman to get established and cared for instead of blown around by bad choices and judgement. He embodied the grace she would need to get into something new. It was a rather mysterious, simple, calming scene. Jesus quietly de-escalated a violent crowd by his presence and identification with the transgressors.

If you want to be a radical, stay close to the root of love. Receive it from God for you. If the radicle decays, the plant never gets to maturity. It is easy to identify all the people who seem to be making bad choices or picking up rocks against others — especially in an election year — and it’s tempting to throw rocks back. Instead, let God protect the safe place for you to be seen and accepted in order that the best in you can grow. God knows it’s there, even if others don’t see it.

 

Our healing is gradual, too

Last night in our cell meeting we considered a moment when Jesus healed a blind man. The guy’s friends brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him. Jesus responded to their request. He led the man out of the village by the hand and touched his eyes. At first his vision was fuzzy. So Jesus touched his eyes again and he could see clearly.

We thought about our own journeys and how God relates to us like this too. Many of us were brought into the community of faith by a friend who saw that we needed God’s touch. We didn’t get to God by ourselves. Someone was praying for us, or invited us, and we came on their elbow or at their suggestion.

Like this man, many of us had an encounter with God that sparked something new in us. We were changed, but not all the way. It was just the beginning. Our vision was fuzzy and remains fuzzy. We have to keep going back to Jesus in the community for the next phase of our healing.

Sometimes in this fuzzy phase we get impatient, though. We’re tempted to latch onto the easiest answer. We think we’re seeing clearly even though we’re not. Or we forget that we’ve been touched at all, and that we could go back for more.

Going back for more is the way to be healed. It is true that our salvation is complete, but living like saved people takes a lifetime of exposure to the grace of God. Availing ourselves to a conscious process over and over again is the only way to get from here to there in faith. The miracle of God’s work in our lives is more quiet and incremental than it is an instantaneous spectacle.  That’s why we meet weekly and seek to know one another well enough to bring each other to Jesus. We’re forming a Circle of Hope that is committed to the long haul with everyone who wants a restored relationship with God. Restoration yields real, live, far-reaching results, but the results usually come slowly and quietly.

One example of the gradual nature of healing in my life: in my 20s I became aware of my desire for discipline and my struggle to have it. Specifically I wanted to wake up early in the morning to pray and meditate so that I could let God direct my path instead of reacting to everything that came down the pike. On most days, I couldn’t adjust my habits to get to bed early enough to wake up and have this time. At one point I went out west on retreat and found myself waking up early naturally to pray. I thought I’d been instantly healed, until I realized it was just the the time-zone difference:) The real healing has come much more gradually. I’m waking up to God’s desire toward me and toward all people.  And that has tuned my heart to it’s Source more steadily than anything else.

God will keep clearing up our vision as we reach out in faith and trust. It is a group project, and I’m glad to welcome more friends to the Healer among us.

Six Months In

I’ve been the pastor of our congregation for six months now, and it’s been a good beginning. I’m always learning, and here are three things I’m sure of right now:

1. I love our people. I knew this, as I’ve been part of our congregation for 14 years and leading within in it for almost as long.  But, really. We have different qualities on different days but we are a deeply faithful, generous, & welcoming people. I am thinking of the partners who’ve been around for a long time as well as the new friends I am just getting to know in our meetings — all whom God may be calling to build this movement of the Spirit. All 255 of us and beyond! I see us making room for each other on days when we are hurting, angry, doubtful, fearful, and otherwise jammed up, too.  I am committed to us, and my love keeps growing. It is an honor to lead alongside of so many others who want to do something real with Jesus.

2. Leading as a team is strengthening. That may sound obvious to you, but I was raised to be a fiercely independent citizen. (Like those patriotic posters that say “Eagles fly alone but pigeons flock together.”) While there are leadership lessons to learn from the eagle, it’s clear to me that the gospel of Jesus Christ calls people to flock together for good reason. There is power in unity and mutuality that is not possible alone, no matter how capable or passionate one is. Leading as a team with the other pastors is an iron-sharpens-iron situation. What a gift. Collaboration is not always efficient, but it grows our capacity to understand and communicate the heart of God. It is growing our capacity to get into God’s ambition and imagination for the world. It teaches us love. Leading as a team with all of our leaders and all of our teams is expanding and deepening us. I’m not afraid to fly like the eagle, but I want to be like the pigeons and the sheep who flock together.

3. We are becoming more accessible.  The way of Jesus is narrow in some ways that we are not going to change. (Giving up our lives in order to find them is not necessarily easy.) But as we relate with friends who are spiritually hungry and increasingly isolated we are understanding the universality of God’s invitation to ALL people. The mosaic on our wall of the sunrise here is a good symbol. It would behoove us to not become a boutique-y secret society. The light is shining for everyone, and the world would be better to know that there are no regional, socio-economic, educational, moral, or political requirements with Jesus. We want to demonstrate that radical acceptance and opportunity to connect and to act for redemption. That’s why our stakeholders were considering last week how we can better communicate this love—from the signage in our windows to the posts on our facebook walls.

This is just a beginning, and I am looking to keep learning, growing, studying, and connecting with many of you. Let’s see what God can do with us this year together.

 

The ridiculous hope of Christmas

In many ways the struggle is real right now in Philly. More murder, racial tension, and hate crimes happened in our neighborhoods this week. Terrorism is no longer an overseas problem: there’s been a mass shooting in the United States for every day in 2015. The economy has not recovered from the 2008/9 wage recession; the jobs that have been recreated are paying on average $14,000 less than the ones we lost a few years ago. Philly’s “deep poverty” rate (people with incomes below half of the poverty line) is almost twice the national average, making us the poorest big city in America.  (Our sister Camden’s rate is 3 times the national mark.) Sixty thousand of our children live in deep poverty.  The Philadelphia School District at one time had 176 professionally staffed school libraries; now there are 11 left.  If that’s not enough, many types of cancer are being found in younger people, and scientists are predicting that we’ll experience dire consequences to global warming in the next fifty years or less. It’s no wonder that political candidates can find a lot of anxious and angry people to incite.

Fear is real, as might be expected.  People are into self-protection and self-medication. Many of us know someone who overdosed recently or is caught in the addictive cycle. Families are fragmented, and loneliness is not alleviated by social media or hook-up encounters.  Smith & Wesson’s profits have tripled in the past 4 months. Many of our friends with mental health issues are having a tough time right now.  Heck, many people are having a tough time right now, period.

What IS totally unexpected is Christmas. The more I understand it, the more surprised I am. The prophet Isaiah who predicted Christmas was part of the tiniest nation surrounded by the largest and most brutal military power the world had ever known. It was an terrifying situation, but he foretold the birth of a baby (of all the seemingly powerless and insignificant things) who would rule with mercy and change the world. Poor young Mary was totally surprised by God’s favor and the announcement of the impossibility inside her. The no-name shepherds were not expecting the sky to light up on their lonely hillside, and to be gifted with the news of the incarnation before anyone else more reputable and religious would know and have a chance to meet him. John the Baptizer was shocked when Jesus asked to be baptized by him, and his theology of judgement and law was upended by love and identification and mutuality. The whole story is full of ridiculous reversals, impossibilities, and unexpected grace in the midst of tension and conflict.

I see these miracles among us too, regularly, in our Circle of Hope. Sometimes it’s a cool “coincidence” like someone telling me they have a bunch of handmade blankets to give away right before a refugee comes to our cell meeting with that exact need. Or two young mothers looking to donate breastmilk on the same day that my new 4-week old foster niece arrives underfed. More often, though, it’s an everyday thing: leaders rising up with faith, compelled through their own struggle to share hope with others. People not withholding themselves from God and others, even though relationships can be scary. People learning to pray because they are hungry for change. People freed up by forgiveness. People making space in their already busy lives to serve because they are compelled by something greater than their limitations.  People sharing their limited money and resources to build something amazingly generative together. People trusting God in the church and forming it together even though “religious” groups are suspect.

In our uncertain times, fear makes sense. It’s the default norm, for obvious reasons. But the surprising message of Christmas comes to us again… quiet, small, out of left field, but spot-on. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born for you.”  It’s still as surprisingly personal and indwelling as Mary experienced it, too: God has been mindful of me. He lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. May God surprise you in midst of your struggle this season too. May we be humble and quiet and open enough to receive the word, even if all our fear impulses seem louder or even more sensible than Jesus. 

 

 

Wanting what is given

I am on retreat in the Clare hermitage, and so I am taking inspiration from one of my favorite sisters in faith.

Clare of Assisi is a contradiction.  She gave up feminine assets (beauty, wealth, family connections, eligibility) as eagerly as most women longed for them. She fought for the ‘privilege of poverty’ like others protect stability and success.  She upended accepted values by choosing a life that looked like restriction and enclosure and daily hardship.

She had enjoyed a refined and privileged childhood. Her father was a knight and her mother was a charitable religious matron. Little Chiara and her sisters were raised in castle in Italy where they learned needlework and music, reading, and writing. She was turning out to be a very lovely young noblewoman until she began the secret, chaperoned meetings with Francis that watered the seeds of her faith at 16 years old.

Francis was 28 and had already founded the Friars Minor and astounded Assisi with his radical conversion and joy and preaching of repentance. Their admiration for each other was consumed in their mutual love for Jesus Christ. Clare was compelled to start an order for other women who were seeking to commit themselves to Christ. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare took a vow of poverty with Francis and never looked back:  “I want only Jesus Christ, and to live by the gospel, owning nothing and in chastity.”

For the next 42 years, Clare slept on a straw mattress, fasted three days a week, wore a coarse brown habit, often did penance, and woke up throughout the night to pray with her sisters as they cared for the poor and changed the world. She and Francis rarely saw each other because he would not allow himself the pleasure of her company. He felt that the lovely Chiara belonged totally to his Lord. She was, in fact, sustained so well by the love of Christ that her reputation as a compassionate healer and wise spiritual counselor made her famous even in her time. Popes sought her wisdom and partnership and urged her to accept a more comfortable life, but she would not compromise her vow. She was content “in God, and for God” and she wrote:

“His affection holds one fast…His kindness fills one to the brim; his sweetness is in overflowing measure. Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory and the mirror without spot, look steadfastly into this mirror every day, and see in it every time you look—your own face.”  She discovered the truth of Jesus’s promise: Abide in me and I will abide in you.

I am encouraged by her story again today because I talk with friends who want what they don’t have, and don’t want what they do have. I get this, too—the longing, the ache, the striving for that elusive thing or person or job or substance or future season of life that looks like it will scratch the itch.  The itch never goes away, and the illusions can be instructive in our development. But when they eclipse our view of what we do have right now, we are like cared-for whiny toddlers throwing temper tantrums, or gourmet Christians turning up our noses at the food before us. Clare reminds us that our deepest longing is for the eternal God who is here. We will not be satisfied by anyone or anything else. And that’s OK because the Giver himself has been given. People who want God get what they want! She was able to connect her wanting to its source.

Clare’s enclosure was liberating, too — another contradiction in her story. She stayed in the cloister at San Damiano (the church building that Francis restored) in service and prayer throughout her whole life. She took no pilgrimages or vacations. Instead she fixed the anchor of her soul in the house of God and God made his dwelling in her. She was his tiny house, and she grew in wisdom and grace. Through her and others, the cloister at San Damiano became a source of spiritual energy that radiated throughout the Church, even beyond the borders of her country.

In a way, all of us are cloistered within the boundaries of our lives—even if they are self-imposed—whether by geography, finances, relationship, jobs, recovery, children, illness, or aging. If we take wisdom from Clare, we could look as these “restrictions” as a holy container for God to fill. My first enclosure were the trees because no one would drive me to my friend’s houses—they were too far away. This was not a bad cloister!  Some of our enclosures may be toxic, though, and may need to change. But I imagine that many can be embraced like the enclosure of Mary’s womb, the narrow manger, the home of a carpenter, the nails to a cross. Meeting God in the limitations of what has not been given may be part of the journey to our own resurrection, the place where God saves us and reveals the expansive gifts of love.

3 Steps to Build Your Spiritual Fire

I learned how to build a fire before I could read—not with lighter fluid or paper or starter logs either! I learned that it’s more about process than explosion.

We usually want our lives to yield instant amazing results. We want to make a difference. This is good, because we can. The secret is in building your spiritual fire. Here are three steps in the process to apply:

  1. Gather your kindling.  Fires start small. In the woods, you need to find small, dry twigs to start your fire. The really tiny dry stuff called tinder is most important for getting started. The basis for your spiritual fire might seem small and hidden too. You might have to look for it underneath your responsibilities and fears and other distractions, but it’s there: the basic instinct to know God and to be known. Curiosity is good enough too. Gather it up and find some others who have it too, like in a cell or Sunday meeting. It’s ready for flame when it takes shape (like a teepee or log cabin formation) with other kindling.
  2. Feed your fire incrementally. If you put a big log on your little flame, the air can’t get to it. Oxygen is necessary for fire and we need to breathe  like that too.  We need to have our questions and bounce them off of one another. We need space to ponder ideas, try them out and see what happens. This is how we learn to hear God’s voice, and are led by the Spirit. Instead of trying to tackle the whole Bible, start reading the Daily Prayer or a book your cell leader recommends because they know you.  Little by little, you’ll put thicker logs on your fire. But don’t snuff it out with giant expectations.
  3. Tend your mature fire. When you start to notice some hot coals glowing at the base of your fire, you’ve got a reliable source of heat and light on your hands. But even hot coals will eventually go out if they are not fed. The way to feed your hot coals is by lighting someone else’s spiritual log. This can look a lot of different ways depending on how God is forming you, but serving others and sharing the light and heat that we’ve got is what fans our own flame. We are fed by feeding.

God bless you in your process—may we grow into a holy flame that warms up our corner of the world all winter long, and beyond.

Rise up, Lord Jesus, by thy life burning

Show to us beauty, wisdom and truth.

Send away death, send away sorrow,

With resurrection, bringing new life.

Words of comfort and conviction

Most of us have complex problems and relationships. That’s why it’s good to run into people with the spiritual gifts of exhortation (encouragement), prophecy, and wisdom. There are differences between these gifts but they all work toward the same basic purpose: revelation.  They reveal Jesus. They bring hope and clarity to the messy and the mundane. They demonstrate the gist of what God is doing: reconciling all people to himself and to one another through Jesus.

Paul was doing this with two men who met Jesus through him. One man (Onesimus) was a slave to the other (Philemon). Slavery was not based on race in Roman times but it was no less evil. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was to forgive Onesimus, who had stolen money from him and run away, and receive him back as brother, no longer a slave.  Paul was appealing to the Really Real (as some people call the Holy Spirit) in them: that through faith in Jesus they were brothers already. And that this identity supercedes all history of offenses and cultural boundaries. It was possible to be reconciled and live a new life together as partners in mission. Onesimus risked his life and freedom in going back to Philemon with this letter.

People who get into the mess with others like this bring the facts of God’s presence and the facts of salvation to bear on the situation at hand. It’s not making a moral appeal to someone to “do what is right!” It is asking them to stand firm in grace because it is based on the saving power of Jesus. People who exhort stand with others and encourage their life of faith with words of comfort and conviction. Their words are based on the present and future acts of God, like God is with you in this and will lead you into what is best.  They are banking on the fact that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, and that that reality makes a difference for everything.

Some people are very artful about their words of wisdom and prophecy and exhortation, and that can be beautiful. But more than waiting to give our gifts perfectly, I think that God needs people to take the risks to step into the mess of people’s pain and isolation, stand with them, and offer the word of comfort or conviction that comes to them. (As our world leans toward the machine, we need this from real humans even more.) My cell tried it last night and it was beautiful. On the fly, we pointed out to one another how we see God working in each of our lives. It was good to see ourselves through one another’s eyes, and to hear the encouragement to keep going with Jesus together.

We’re not just animals, Rick Grimes

In our Sunday meetings, we’re talking about gifts of the Spirit—-ways that people express God’s nature. Spiritual gifts are more than personality traits or talents. They are basic ways we are empowered to do God’s work. They are signs of being regenerated through Jesus. When we exercise them we reveal God’s nature and ours. We strengthen others and expand God’s influence in the world.

The Bible mentions three gifts that embrace emptiness in order to be filled by God: poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom. The early church got a lot of juice out of these gifts.  They are given with the understanding that ALL is gift, and Jesus will satisfy us in due time. They express true spiritual freedom beyond a transactional relating with God and others.

Americans are taught to start with fullness and strive to get fuller. We are even entitled to it. The growing national deficit and perpetual war indicate the striving to fill up on more stuff and the fear around not having enough.  Entitlement breeds animalistic behavior—the desperation to do anything it takes to fill the emptiness.  We get into addictions and violence when the expectations aren’t met.  Rick Grimes starts off the first season of the Walking Dead with great moralistic intention to not kill any of the living and by the third season he’s doing whatever it takes to protect his turf.

Jesus exposes the limitations of moralistic and animalistic law by offering a way of living that is even more potent.  Instead of working harder, faster, and stronger, he goes out into the desert—a place of lack and limitation and emptiness—to be empty and receive the strength of the Spirit to fulfill his mission. After 40 days without food, he is tempted to relieve himself with physical comfort, ego recognition, and a shortcut to the suffering he will face.  He chooses hunger over satisfaction, obscurity over glory, and costly obedience over the shortcut. He chooses love for God and others. He chooses the unexpected, hidden way of trust and relationship. His victory is not just some moralistic lesson for how we can win our battles with temptation; he is literally doing it for us. He is conquering death and slavery to animalistic law so that we might live in the fullness of the Spirit. In him we are more than animal urges for sex, power, and survival.

Most of us will probably be spared the honor of dying for our faith, the married among us didn’t choose the gift of celibacy, and many of us have a lot of stuff to give away before we claim poverty. But all of us can practice the emptiness that makes fertile ground for relating to God. Louis CK alludes to the emptiness in this clip but doesn’t get to the fullness and power of meeting God in that emptiness and allowing God to fill us.  When Jesus emerged from the desert in the power of the Spirit it was enough to save the whole world. His Spirit filling our emptiness enables us to do that, too.