Humility makes humus

We live in a society that views death as a failure. So we try to avoid it…and all the hard stuff that feels like death. If you look around at our culture, we’re into all kinds of escapes through entertainment, substances, fantasy, virtual reality.


So the season of Lent gives us a unique and important opportunity to do something different and crucial and connective for our souls and bodies and minds and relationships: to approach death with acceptance and humility, recognizing that our days are numbered, like the Psalmist says, like we were doing on Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Learning to embrace our limitations again, our humanity, our vulnerability, and to work with ourselves as we really are. Lent is all about becoming more fully human. When we accept our finitude and frailty, we can allow the Spirit to reveal the divine in our humanness. Just like Jesus!


Our ultimate inspiration is seeing Jesus move toward death with acceptance, and move through it. That’s why the cross is up here front and center. Jesus takes the fear out of it. He shows us that death is not the end, and that it can be, in fact, a creative process that we can engage in now — learning to embrace our own little “deaths” and sacrifices – letting go – in order to realize the abundance of life. 


Nature is a great teacher of this process, too. The poet George Herbert describes, “Thou (death) art a gard’ner now. We look upon the cross because it declares that death has been disarmed; it is no longer an executioner, ending our stories, but rather a gardener, tilling the fertile soil from which resurrection life rises.”


I think it’s no coincidence that the same root word for humility is contained in the word humus – the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of plant and animal matter. Humus is the product of death and decay that is essential for new life to grow! It’s powerful – full of so many nutrients because the mycelium – the bacterial network that we’re painting around the cross – has done its good work to refine and transform what is over into fodder for something new.


This is such a word of hope, friends, because I am so tempted to think when stuff is over, like relationship connections, or projects, that it’s just a failure and a loss. And I think so many of us have felt that way about different aspects of our lives over the past two years, right? Even in our church. We’ve felt terrible about whatever hasn’t worked. We’ve lamented not being to do things like we did them before. We’ve grieved losing connection with people we loved. We’ve questioned systems changing. It’s been so easy to look at all of this as failure and loss.


Yet here is the Spirit of God, even in nature, inviting us to see the opportunity in ourselves for something new. Even the wreckage and all of our terrible feelings and judgements around it are invited to be part of the transformation process. I’m trained in counseling and I learned from my teachers: “it’s all grist for the mill.” We learned to “trust the process” before the Sixers stole it, LOL. Everything in our lives: the good, the bad, the hidden, the obvious, is apparently all useful to the process of healing and new life. Because that’s where this is going!! Through Christ, the Risen King, the God of rebirth and spring-time miracles. The One in whom nothing is impossible, like the angel said to Mary.


But none of the good stuff happens – the really good stuff – the internal transformation that lasts – without the humility to enter this process of decomposition. Now, you might be thoroughly resisting this process of decomposition because it seems like it’s been forced upon you in some ways for the past two years. And really, we are instinctually taught to resist this process by way of survival as a species. We are designed for self-preservation, so we have all kinds of inherent defenses against change, and letting go, and giving things up, and getting vulnerable. If this was easy and inevitable, I wouldn’t be up here preaching about it.


But no, it’s really hard. It’s counter-intuitive, the way of Jesus. It is counter-cultural. It feels like dying, because it kind of is: dying to our ego, confessing our compulsion to try to manage what people think about us, giving up our illusion of control and manipulating outcomes, relinquishing being in charge of getting our own needs met, getting real about our motives and opening to the possibility that God could change us and God could actually take care of us because God loves us…all of this is like dying to an isolated sense of ourselves, and being reborn to our inherent connectedness to God and each other. 


Let’s look at how God embraced that humility in his own humanity — in order to inspire us that it’s possible and to help us get practical with ourselves for how it can be done.


Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. – Philippians 2:1-13


The first thing I’d like to point out here is that it is God who does this good work in us. Dying to an isolated sense of ourselves in life is pretty impossible without the Spirit. That’s why we’re painting all this mycelium around the cross – to remind us that it’s a supernatural power – a higher power that gives us life.


I was stressing out a little bit this weekend trying to communicate to all of our friends, far and wide about the time change in our meeting, to try to call us back together as a congregation after two years in the pandemic, and one of our leaders, Jimmy Weitzel called me out. He told me that Jesus was chillin’ out, smoking a cigarette, while I was running around asking, “What you do need Jesus, what can I do for you?” Jimmy said that Jesus was smiling at me and enjoying his cigarette, saying “I got this.” 


I don’t think Jesus is smoking a cigarette and I do think we work in partnership together. But Jimmy’s point is solid. God does the real work. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in our lives. And Jesus promised that if he was lifted up from the earth, like he was in death on the cross, that he would draw all people to him. He is doing that drawing work right now through the Spirit! And the apostle Paul wants the Philippians church to know and rely on this fact, because following him in “death” – imitating the humility of Christ – is not easy. It’s not Christianity Light. It’s the process that transforms us and enables us to endure the worst of times and circumstances with faith and love that spreads like wildfire. That’s what I want for all of us.


So how do we do it? How do we enter this process again, besides trying to remember that it’s not just about us and our power, it’s about relying on the power of the Spirit?


Well I see alot in here about community. I see a real surrender to ONE ANOTHER. I see a call to share our love and be like minded and be willing to serve each other. And I do not see a lot of qualifiers about that. I do not see clauses in here that say: if these other people share your same instincts and communicate in a way that is kind and acceptable to you, then you should love them. I do not see any justification for tone policing or judging each other in here. I do not see any requirement for even liking each other or having anything in common except a desire to be with Christ. I see a very low bar: if you have ANY encouragement from CHrist, if you have ANY tenderness and compassion, even a shred, then value others above yourselves, and look to the interests of others. Help us Jesus! We have gone so far in the other direction as a culture where it’s our job and a hard one at that to just take care of ourselves and our own families! And here you are showing us that the way to LIFE is through taking care of each other. Help us, Lord.


I think we could start pursuing this communal love by simply meeting back together again, consistently, now that we can, in small groups throughout the week, and Sunday meetings, and see what God could to do. Simply showing up will put us in the environment, the soil, to change and be remade. That is a comfort.  


We are showing up to look at Jesus, after all. He is the main event that makes the imperfections of ourselves and others manageable. He is why we’re here. And if we contemplate him in community and alone, we will become more like him. 


What does it mean to contemplate? It means to take a long look and keep looking. It is a focus, and returning our gaze when we get distracted again and again. All we have to do is come back to look at him again. I keep a cross above my doorway at home, across from the spot on the couch where I think and write and pray and talk to people. As I work, I often bump up against my limitations, and that inspires me to look up at Jesus on that cross and see him there above my doorway, all stretched out in love, actively loving me and the world. And I ask for help to be like that. Sometimes I see myself in his embrace, his eyes of compassion on me, and sometimes I simply feel called to be more in that posture myself. But you get the idea. Looking at Jesus changes us and our perspective. It calls us to our truest selves.


Looking at Jesus is all God really asks of us, and I hope that’s all our church really asks of each other. Because we’re not in charge of controlling and judging the other stuff. We’re not in charge of the transformation. But if Jesus is at the center, and he is, we can look toward him for hope and clarity, even if we feel really far away.


I appreciate how some theologians have been borrowing terms from mathematicians to talk about how groups are held together in the church. A “bounded set” is a group that is held together by a clear line of expectations and rules, doctrine and beliefs. Those who do not meet the expectations are out, but the people who follow all the rules can stay in. 


Without clear expectations and rules, the group could be considered a “fuzzy set.” It’s not clear what keeps these people together and eventually the group dissipates. 


But if the group has a center, like the gravity of Christ, lifted up from the earth in humility and love, everyone has a point of orientation. Everyone who has even a side-eye on Jesus belongs. It’s not the group’s job to measure that distance that anybody is from the center; the invitation is simple to look toward the center. Our gaze and desire for God is what holds us together, even when it’s weak. God does the holding, after all.


When we see Jesus there at the center, we see One who gave up his divine advantage to dominate in order to serve. He yielded his capacity to control. He surrendered to the organic process, to God’s way, even to death, in order to connect and bring us together. He transformed to show us that we can, too. Looking to his humility helps us recognize and dissolve the lines that keep us from each other. By moving toward him, we move closer together.

The One who holds it all together

I love questions, and recently a friend asked why’d they’d need Jesus if they were already deeply spiritual. This friend IS deeply spiritual and speaks on behalf of many of my friends who wonder the same thing. What’s so special about Jesus?  Why would I need him in my life if I’m already a spiritual person? These friends already have a sense of God in their lives, in their work and friendships and 12-step communities. They experience meaning and transcendence through music, nature, art, exercise, astrology, yoga, higher education, gaming, friendship. They experience a sense of the holy at concerts and in relationships, in regular spiritual practices that have been life-saving and purposeful, like working for justice and love and recovery. So why do they need Jesus? It’s a great question. 

Doesn’t Jesus just narrow and limit the options for experiencing life in all of its fullness? Isn’t Jesus too specific and particular and exclusive by being one human life in a particular time and place? And hasn’t his legacy been part of a rule-bound system of doctrine that’s connected to so much violence and division in the world? Why would I need that when I’m trying to get healthy and balanced and less depressed, and expand my horizons, not narrow them?

These are great questions. And YET. My friend who asked it was kind of mysteriously drawn to Jesus anyway. He could not explain why, but he was curious. There’s just Something about Jesus. So he came to a meeting and asked the question.

I’m going to offer some of the answers I heard from my cellmates, with their permission. My cell often helps with life’s most important questions!

One of my cellmates was raised Hindu. She described being raised to worship idols when she was little, and noticing that none of them spoke back to her. But Jesus did. Jesus answered her prayer, not in an audible voice, but something big and deep in her spirit that she knew was God. Now as an adult, she is amazed at how sometimes she can literally feel God’s presence, as if he is alive. 

Another cellmate said that she felt like she was always running away from God for most of her life, wanting to NOT “need” Jesus. She was trying to resist the love and truth she sensed there, but what she couldn’t deny after awhile was this sense that Jesus kept gently pursuing her no matter how much she kept trying to get away. At one point she decided to read other religious texts like the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and she decided she would just note when she read something that reminded her of the God she knew. Well. She ended up making a LOT of notecards and concluding that Jesus was present all over the place in ways she didn’t even understand and couldn’t contain. She couldn’t even keep him in the “Christianity” box. 

Both of these friends were surprised by the simultaneous limitlessness (big, cosmic, inclusive, generous) nature of God along with a personal and pursuing revelation of love. I like how the apostle Paul describes the fullness of Jesus’s being and purpose in his letter to the Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might be Lord. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I think my friends were on to something big in their discoveries of Jesus: that he wasn’t just a great human teacher and prophet, founder of another religious program. Apparently he was present before time began, in order to do something new and connective right now, and forevermore!

It’s difficult to even wrap our minds around it or put into words. It is beyond words, and we need more than words right now, as my friend Mable said yesterday. It is grammatically impossible to describe the invisible force of love that created the energy of the expanding universe and organized it into the beauty we can barely glimpse, let alone understand, through our microscopes and telescopes and relationships. That this love would reveal itself in the most vulnerable human form is rather unspeakable. Sometimes I can only close my eyes and feel it. And that is what some of my spiritual-but-not-religious friends do, too. Many of us “know” even in our unknowing. On some level we can sense this magnitude of love that mysteriously and miraculously holds all things together even, and maybe especially, when it seems like everything is falling apart. We know because we are human, and God shared in our humanity through Jesus. 

I love how my friend described Jesus pursuing her, because it shines a new ray of light on this question. Maybe it’s not so much a question of “needing” Jesus as much as God wanting us! Maybe it’s primarily about God’s love and desire to be with us. The Bible says “we love him because he first loved us.” God initiates this relationship. Other programs may need to be striven for, or achieved, but in the Bible we see a God, even in the Old Testament, who calls people into belonging even when they’re wandering around complaining and not paying any attention. Jesus offers an image of standing at a door and knocking, and if anyone hears him they can open the door and feast with him. He also offers an image of a shepherd who goes out looking for sheep who get lost from the rest of the crew, even when it’s just one.

Did you ever see that old picture of Jesus hanging off the side of a cliff to rescue that one sheep who is ready to go off the edge? I keep that picture in my office to remind myself that God is like that, looking out for me even when I consciously forget his love and go wandering off toward danger. I appreciate that painting partly because I did fall off a 60-ft  literal cliff when I was 19. It was a rock climbing accident that I probably shouldn’t have survived, but by some mystery, I did. 

So the painting reminds me that this Good Shepherd can’t really be underestimated or fully understood or explained. All I know is that when I wander off blindly, thinking there are no options left and everything is doomed and I should pull the proverbial covers over my head because people keep hurting each other and the earth continues to warm up, the Great Shepherd comes looking for me again on the cliffside. Jesus is the soul friend who finds me there. He reaches down and brings me back to into the fold of fellowship with the other ones to who love him, too. He takes me to quiet waters where I can be refreshed. He shows me what I can do to share that refreshment with others who are looking.

To me, the most mind-blowing part of that description of Jesus in Colossians is the part where “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus.” That word fullness in Greek, pleroma, tries to describe the totality of aeons — all atoms, matter, energy, and essence of being from the beginning of time into eternity. And it’s hard to distinguish between whether the word fullness or God is the more probable subject of the sentence! It suggests that everything good and beautiful and “spiritual” and EVERYTHING?! is revealed and disclosed in Jesus. It is distributed through him personally in a way that holds all things together. 

I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it. But it does give me great comfort in this time where it often feels like many things are breaking up and breaking down. What if Jesus is holding everything together beyond what we can see, designing and creating something new from the pieces that seem to be flying in opposite directions? That is the God of the impossible that we are promised through the Spirit. The Comforter who advocates for us without words. The seed of hope that is planted in people in the worst of times and situations. The One who feeds us in the desert of our despair, whispering that we’ll rise again. 

In sum, I believe that all of my spiritual friends already know something about Jesus, being the essence of spirituality that he is. I believe he’s already in the recovery group, the work, the advocacy, the art, the exercise, the books, the music, the wonder of creation and friendship, all the ways and times we experience transcendence and meaning and holiness. He is there, holding it all together, especially in our seeking and questions. And we can know him personally, just as we are known. 

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 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.

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.