Rachel Sensenig

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 (because I remember that I don’t actually don’t have to be in charge of the universe — who knew??) I’m free 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 vulnerability, not through my efforts to control or manage or force my rest. I think for Christians, good rest can’t be consumed; it must be entered. And this is a deeply restful invitation.

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 be a big help. 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 much strengthened and loved when we do. God is with you as you rest. 

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.

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 in nature. When I moved to the city, it was the sky that kept me grounded. Thank God we had a house with a roof deck where I could look up and remember.

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. It is our 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). We can’t explain all of the spiritual and scientific ramifications of Paul’s words (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 destruction we lament, 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 our desires or expectations. Or that we can’t 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. Why? Because I’m likely to put too much of my energy into holding, and 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, 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 pray for people to be able 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. He will keep showing us how to be the church the world needs right now.

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 horror 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 and unity. 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.

So let’s hold on to some hope this Advent, that God can do more than we ask or imagine.

-Rachel Sensenig, writing

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