Learning from the Master Teacher

In our Sunday meetings we are exploring the gifts of the Spirit, and I can’t help but notice how Jesus demonstrates all of them.

We considered the spiritual gift of teaching this week, and one of the qualities that makes Jesus the Master Teacher was that he used whatever was around him to impart the way of life.  His motive was to be understood by the common people, not to look smart or obtain power.  So his metaphors are of everyday images to first-century agrarian Palestinians.

Last night my cell tried to understand his teaching about the vine and the branches.  I think we understood A LOT, even though we are not first-century agrarian Palestinians, and that says a lot about the Holy Spirit in us. Here are some particular reflections:

unpruned vineJesus got pruned. I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  We figured that if the Son of God got pruned, we might need it too.  An un-pruned grape vine is a scraggly mess, as pictured.  Its energy is wasted on branches that go all over the place but hardly produce.  Our desires work the same way in relation to the Gardener.  Most of us are familiar with going all over the place and struggling to produce. Some of us have been led around by unchecked desire, and it didn’t work out so well. We could imagine the natural consequence of being like a branch that is thrown away by the world when it withered.  Jesus is teaching us how to live into our destiny instead.  We want to bear fruit that will last, and this involves looking beyond ourselves.  It involves surrender to the Gardener.

well-prunedThe whole process happens in community.  When Jesus says, Remain in me he is not talking about a cosmic intellectual assent to a higher power.  The “me” is the transhistorical body of Christ, the Church—us—together.  Remaining with each other we bear fruit together in the vine, which is Christ. If we cut ourselves off from each other, we can be cut off from life.  The church is the antidote to the wasting of individualism. We actually matter. When we covenant with each other in real time and place, we are getting into our fullness, like these mature vines.  They are bound to the same wire, growing together, submitted to the same kind of pruning, and therefore highly fruitful in season.  We want to create that kind of opportunity as a Circle of Hope, as we submit to one another in love.

early pruningLove takes time. A grape vine does not bear fruit automatically.  If it is going to be fruitful it is stripped down to one main branch early on (draw your own spiritual conclusions).  If it is bound tightly to a frame and generously cut then it may bear fruit around its third year. That’s a lot of rain, sun, soil, attention, cutting, and time until the sweetness of grapes are enjoyed.  When Jesus commands us to remain in his love so we can love one another he is not talking about an instant or easy process.  He is sharing his love that allows us to suffer the ways of love, to bear one another’s burdens and be healed.  He is inviting us to be forgiven and to forgive, over and over again.  We come into our fullness as we are patient with one another in this process, and in time, our lives reveal the miraculous sweetness of this harvest that gives food to the world.





The glory of God is the human being fully alive

If you’ve been enjoying hipster Barbie’s Instagram account that mocks superficiality, then you might appreciate the simplicity of Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers.  He studied under Polycarp, who had been taught by the apostle John, and said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of humanity is the vision of God.

There’s something special about being human, even when we don’t feel fully alive. At times we are more of aware of being fully overwhelmed, dissatisfied, anxious, lonely or tired, and I think that is part of Irenaeus’s point too. We are not human beings having an occasional #authentic spiritual experience, like Socality Barbie highlights. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, because the seemingly unseen, unknowable God became the human Jesus and shared our fragile, contradictory nature, inviting us into communion with God, just as we are.  In his tender identification with us, “the Word became flesh.” Or as Irenaeus puts it: “The only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.”

People are smart enough to deride idealized, plastic, and staged expressions of #community, and that’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the next 10 weeks of Sunday meetings at 1125 South Broad.  We’ll fill the walls with faces of real people we appreciate. We’re noting the wealth of goodness in people that reflects our creator, and the particular gifts we share. One of the best ways to get to know Jesus is through his people, his beautiful body.  Of course we’re not perfect, whatever that means — we are human. Being in Christ as a human means that we are each empowered with spiritual gifts to do what we’re given to do. I suspect that many of our gifts are yet to be discovered, especially as we grow and change and meet new partners. As we offer our gifts faithfully we are creating a movement that is changing the world.

last supperIf you want to know more about your spiritual gifts you could take this test. Another good way to explore them is on Sunday evenings at 1125 S. Broad, and here’s your invitation.  The 25 spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible are not the full extent of how God has gifted people to serve, and we won’t have time to cover them all thoroughly.  But we could grow in gratitude and wonder as we glimpse the glory of God in one another, and maybe even see our own reflection in the face of Christ.  #fully human #fully alive


God helps those who ask

It’s been said that women are less likely to ask for what they want, while men are more likely to take it or negotiate for it.  I generally dislike gender stereotypes because they tend to make the outliers feel like weirdos, but the research is compelling on this one. Top universities have been using the findings of economics professor Linda Babcock in her book Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide to address the trend of socialization and organizational dynamics that results in women being paid more than half a million dollars less than their male counterparts over the course of their working careers.

The answer is probably not for girls to be socialized exactly as boys have been, and competing in the market economy is hardly the goal of life, in my opinion. But I am interested in the difficulty of asking.  In and beyond our jobs, I doubt that asking for what we need and want is easy for most women or men.  It requires vulnerability and humility and risks rejection and disappointment—or so we’ve experienced.  Most of us have learned that relying on ourselves is generally the best bet.  God helps those who helps themselves, right?

Not really. Seems to me that God helps everyone, and particularly those who ask. All over the Bible I find encouragement to ask for what I need. There’s even a story about a woman who negotiated with Jesus for a “crumb” from his table.  She was looking for healing for her demon-possessed daughter and Jesus seemed to be ignoring her.  But she kept asking, “Lord, help me!”  Even when his response was not affirmative, she argued and claimed that she was worth getting at least a crumb from his table.  Jesus saw her faith and healed her daughter.

We will not always remember our worth or or have faith in God’s generosity, and thankfully God’s grace is not dependent on our insight or perseverance. But we may as well ask. We have wounds to be healed, and so do the people around us. Asking and trusting God for what we need unleashes the power of God in us and through us. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).

I have friends who say that they never pray for themselves because it’s too selfish. Maybe that’s noble, but I doubt it. I need help every day, as soon as I wake up.  “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5). I need to remember who am I in Christ and find myself in the flow of his great love and partnership.

So here’s my big ask for today; maybe you want to pray with me: Lord, may our Circle of Hope include the next person who is looking for you. We want to do your person-to-person loving. Heal our wounds and renew our hope. Help us to dismantle evil by the power of the Spirit. Give us your imagination for ourselves and our future, and bring all people together to be Your living body here on earth.  

Why is Jesus taking risks?

I took some dumb risks for adventure as a teenager. I worked as the Director of Ropes and Rec for a wilderness camp during college, and on the weekends the staff liked to test the limits of our skills and stamina.  One weekend we drove out into the wilderness of West Virgina with a cave map, hiked a few miles into the woods, and started digging at a particular spot off the trail.  Sure enough, the ground opened up to a dark, wet cavern.  Not knowing anything about the cave or letting anybody know where we were (these were pre-cell-phone days) we set up a top rope and belayed 100 feet or so down inside.  After a few hours of spelunking around, we were freezing in our shorts and Tshirts and ready to see the light of day again.  We had one pair of jumar ascension devices to get back up the rope, essential tools for ascending slick wet rock faces that can’t be grabbed.  My friend Crystal ascended first and got her hair stuck in the jumars.  She hung there for awhile before the best climber among us was able to climb up to her and free her by cutting her hair off.  The rest of us shivered in the river at the bottom in thin aluminum safety blankets for what seemed like hours while they figured out how to get the jumars working again.  Several of our headlamps went out in the process.  It was late into the night and we were near hypothermic before we got out of that cavern and laughed our way home with relief.

Today I look to Jesus to discern what kind of risks to take, and how to take them.  Jesus is taking risks, but for different reasons and with better results.

Self-centeredness seems to motivate much of the risk-taking in the world.  Many people who take risks for adventure—mountain climbers, explorers, stunt-people, world-record breakers—are trying to prove their personal prowess.  People who take risks for euphoria, those transcendent feelings that numb other emotions, often end up addicted and in a wake of broken relationships.  People who take risks for success—perhaps like the hard-worked employees at Amazon—are driven by the affirmation of an ideal or status or financial “security.”

Jesus is taking risks for others.  His motivation for risk-taking is always others-centered.  In teaching, healing, dying, and rising, he is risking everything to bring hope to the world, to free us from slavery to self and allow us to find ourselves fully in partnership with our creator for the redemption of all of creation.

In risking to relate to each of us, although we can ignore or reject him, he exposes the smallness and self-centeredness of risking only for our family and friends and people who love us back:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

“Perfect” according to Jesus, seems to involve a generous and radical love for the whole world.  That is exactly what the church is designed to do—to love and include those who aren’t “our own people.”  We can’t do it fully on our own as individuals, and that’s why we are organized as a Circle of Hope.  Together we risk to relate to the next person who is looking for Jesus, or the next 1000 people.  Doing it together means that not everyone has to be a super social extrovert.  Some people will clean the meeting space, pay the bills, work the technology.  But we do need to talk to each other. In taking the risk together to be a people, we expose the lie of privatized religion and get into the kind of love that Jesus is actually demonstrating.

Jesus doesn’t take risks on his own, either.  He looks to the Father for direction, identity, purpose, communion, and rest.  In a very real sense, then, there is safety in his risk-taking.  Even as he is risking everything, no power on earth or heaven can take him out of the Father’s hand.  He is truly safe in that love, the eternal reality of that basic relationship, no matter what he endures.  There is safety for us in obedience to God, too.  Being “in Christ” brings safety and risk together.

Our country seems bent on ensuring safety these days, a fearful reaction to all we can’t control. Think about the emphasis in the last 50 years on homeland security, surveillance cameras, seatbelt and helmet laws, personal injury lawsuits.  Our leaders seem to be obsessed with protecting what’s “ours” and keeping others out. We keep building prisons for a prison population that has quadrupled since 1980.  We’ve seen police-state interventions to crime that seem intended to intimidate and silence the populous back into individualized pods.  And the market economy gives us lots of toys to play with there, for those that can afford to play.

What’s interesting is that the more “safety”-dazed Americans become, the more people are drawn into high-risk behaviors of all kinds.  We’re seeing a wave of feel-good addictions, high-risk sports, gun violence, giant business upstarts. So based on the evidence, it’s clear that human beings are designed to risk; the capacity is in our nature and will be expressed. What we will risk for is the question.  Will we follow Jesus in risking for others, in obedience to God?  Will we relate with those who are unlike us or who don’t love us back yet? Or are we comfortably numb in our family and friend zones with the comforts we can afford, risking only for our own pleasures or success?

Let’s keep building a church that risks enough to be a safe place to explore and express God’s love for the whole world. Jesus didn’t protect a little piece of the pie as “his”; rather, he claims it all.  The Spirit of Jesus can touch our fear and isolation, and empower us to love and relate like that too.


What will your transition produce?

Transition. Most of us are always in it, but especially at this time of year.  Many people are getting ready to go back to school, start new jobs, move to new areas, or get that thing started that they were thinking about while on the beach or on the bus.  Sometimes unexpected things happen that force us into transition too.

Transition is not usually easy, even for thrill-seekers. Conventional personality theories hold that normal individuals do almost everything they can to avoid tension and risk.  And yet, great movements and beautiful songs and life-saving ideas are often birthed out of great tension.  Human labor and delivery may be the best example: the phase called “transition” describes the final stretch when there almost no break between contractions.  Most (unmedicated) women describe being so lost in pain during this time that they want to die.  But the experience itself is evidence that new life and relief is very near.

The transition you’re in right now is probably taking longer than a labor and delivery. What will it produce? Many women are helped during transition to be reminded of the goal (to have the baby) when they can’t see straight from the pain. Identifying goals with God is helpful if we want to birth something new and good in the world.  Otherwise we are prone to transition into whateverness or despair, to become brittle and callous from resentments and disappointments. Our Sunday meeting coordinator, Katie, reminded our leaders this week of our goals in leading the Sunday meeting:  we need to connect with God, we need to connect with one another, we need to connect with those who are looking for God.  Being led by our goals instead of our transitory impulses and reactions helps us become the life-giving organism we are designed to be.

Maybe the word goal sparks the internal eye-roll from you.  Especially if you are a recovering over-achiever or under-achiever.  Thankfully the spiritual life does not rely on our achievement.  It is more about being part of God’s dream for the world, and becoming like him in our willingness to fulfill it.

Moses is a leader in the Bible that inspires me on this level.  God planted a goal in him in the midst of his identity crisis and depression and avoidance. He was insecure about his abilities and reluctant to even try.  The task of leading his people out of slavery was impossible, in fact. But he decided to trust the I AM, who was and is faithful to do the heavy lifting.

Hearing and trusting the I AM to help form goals is not about “best practices” or applying formulas.  It is more about showing up in a relationship with Jesus.  We will have to pray, in the midst of our distractions.  Some of my friends who just bought a house are turning one of the closets into a prayer room.  What a brilliant way to claim territory for Jesus in their everyday life.  It’s the everyday reaching out that helps us get from here to there. The song from Brother Son, Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, says it well:

If you want your dream to be, build it slow and surely. Small beginnings, greater ends, heartfelt work grows purely.

If you want to live life free, take your time, go slowly. Do few things but do them well, simple joys are holy.

Day by day, stone by stone, build your secret slowly. Day by day, you’ll grow too, you’ll know heaven’s glory.


Church planting and fantasy football

fantasy footballThirty-two million people worldwide are putting together fantasy football teams, and from what I understand about it, it’s not necessarily about getting the most talented all-stars or the best QB.  The all-stars can be a risky lot, prone to injury.  Building a fantasy team is more about consistent carries and receptions that result in yardage.  One needs some reliable players—a decent running back and wide receiver, in particular—to incrementally move the ball as a team throughout the season.  A couple of all-stars can’t do it on their own.

The church functions similarly.  We are a body, each of us a valuable part of the whole.  One or two charismatic individuals cannot fulfill our dreams.  In being a team we realize the vision: to be a Circle of Hope in Jesus Christ, a network of cells forming congregations, a people called to reconciliation, a safe place to explore and express God’s love.  And by working together we do what we are called to do: create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.  

Two of our convictions seem especially vital to being the team we want to be here in our Second Act:

Jesus is best revealed incarnationally.

Webster says that an “incarnation” is a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, and this is actually what God is doing through us.  We are an embodiment, personification, exemplification, type, epitome, of the Savior we follow. As he cares for his flock like a shepherd, he is always looking for the one who is next.  So we, the church, exist for those yet to join too.  We are building the church for the next generation.  In an individualistic age, it is a countercultural statement.  It is also a much-needed safe place to land and grow and develop as part of an eternal family.

Our cells are places where Jesus is revealed in accessible, human ways.  It’s real, like slow food. We need to keep growing in accessibility and humanness, so I hope we keep gathering as cells and letting the movement grow.  The cells I’ve been a part of don’t have “all-star” leaders or participants who sound like Joel Osteen or the Dahlai Lama.  They are normal people with real questions and real problems who are opening up to God in real ways.  This week when we read the words of Jesus, “Do not judge others” my cell-mate said, “How can we do this?  I judge people all the time.”  That’s real.  Being real can be messy and awkward and inconvenient.  It’s also what we need; it requires love and makes love grow. If you want to grow in love and be a lover, join a cell. The Holy Spirit is leading us in a movement that is changing the world through the real love of Christ in us.

Dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity.

This is a problem in our techno age.  One might think that dialogue is easier with more modes of communication (instagram, text, snapchat, etc) but it’s not a given unless we make it so.  Dialogue is not necessarily accomplished by venting about a politicized concept on our facebook wall or sending pictures of our lives out into cyberspace.  Dialogue is a relational exchange that builds trust, even in conflict. It often takes intention.  It involves listening and speaking, and listening to God while listening and speaking.  No one is particularly great at it; no one is an all-star.  We just have to keep trying and trust in our team-ness with God.  Face-to-face is always best, so we gather that way regularly.  But our other ways of communicating, like on our listserves, can grow love and share imagination in encouraging ways too.  I hope we keep talking and checking in with one another even if we think we are already communicating all the time. We may need to ask each other what’s being received on the other end.  Even fantasy football team builders look for good partnerships between players, because partnerships are powerful.  Our connections with one another are the antidote to the isolation that is pervasive in the world.

Paul’s team-building inspiration to the Ephesian church seems good for our Circle of Hope too.  I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  


Getting out of the weeds

golf weedsSummer can be a weedy time, and not just for the garden.  Many of us feel like we’re “supposed” to be vacationing and having beautiful Instagram moments, but the bills are still coming, our questions and struggles are still present, our relationships and our souls need care.  We may feel buried by demand, whether real or imagined.  It may be hard to bear spiritual fruit if the weeds of anxiety or distraction are choking out our energy and capacity to have a conscious life with God.

My friend Joey, who is a serious golfer, told me that the challenge of being buried out in the high grass or “fesk” as he calls it (short for fescue grass) is not just about getting your ball out or taking the penalty stroke.  The hardest part is the acceptance of where you’re at (temporarily lost or set back) and the mental resolve to stay in the game after your confidence has taken a hit.

pigsJesus told a story about a son who was in the weeds for awhile.  He asked for his inheritance early and went out to establish himself in a distant land.  He wanted to get out from under the influence of his father, it seems, and ended up enslaved to the influence of his own desires.  When the money was gone and the party friends disappeared, he found himself in the humiliating circumstance of not even being able to care for himself.  He took a humiliating job (feeding pigs) and realized that the servants in his father’s house were better off than he was.  They had more belonging and more purpose, as well as a better shot at survival.  He decided to go home and confess his foolishness to his father and ask for mercy.  Maybe he could just get a job on the family farm like the other servants.

prodigalHis father’s heart must have been on the horizon the whole time, because when he saw his son stumbling toward home in the distance, he ran out to embrace him.  I can imagine the depth of knowing and understanding in that embrace. There was no way the father would allow him to work as a servant; they were family.  Owners of the estate together. There was no need for shaming or punishing lectures.  The son had suffered at his own hands to discover who he is really is: beloved child, an heir, a partner.  The father surrounds him with honor and throws a big party to express his love.

This story could be everyone’s truest story, and for most of us it’s on repeat.  Because unlike Jordan Spieth, most of us do spend time in the weeds.  Confession and repentance is better as a daily practice than a one-time salvific experience.  As we find ourselves trying to muscle it out in the distant land of independence, it is important to be aware of when we feel depleted, because we are important. The moment with the pigs is a good one if we can see what’s going on and remember that we have a Savior who parents us into partnership.  We are not the losers we we think we are, even if we have been squandering our inheritance.  We are beloved offspring of an eternal God who want to give us the kingdom, even in our most needy moments.

If you’re trying to come home from the demands of independence, it may help to do something different: make the meeting, join the cell, call a friend who has faith, gather a compassion team or other project that requires God to even get off the ground.  You could also start with something as simple as a “help me Jesus” prayer.  If you’re looking for a regular, heart-to-heart way to connect with God, the old Ignatian prayer practice below might be useful in the turning toward home—the reality of God’s recreative work in all things, and especially in you, his beloved daughter or son. Like in golf, we often need help accepting that we’re in the weeds along with encouragement to stay in the game and turn in the direction that God is leading.

The Daily Examen

1. Quiet yourself and recall that you are in the presence of God.

2. Ask God to assist you in making the examination. (Yes, it’s hard to pray but God will meet our capacity.)

3. Think about your day with attention to your emotion.  Ask where God might have been present in the sights, sounds, sensations and events of your day (moments of consolation.)  Hold them for a moment with gratitude.  You may want to choose one that seems worth exploring further.

4. Consider where you may have turned away from God’s desires for you in your choices or actions (moments of desolation.)

5. Confess to God and pray to use this insight as you move forward.

Consider it pure joy…really?

When our cell met last night, we read from James 1: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

We are facing trials of many kinds.  Financial worries, moral temptations, uncertain career futures, babies on the way, challenging relationships, recovery from addiction, difficult bosses, unfair laws, unmet emotional needs, and impossible goals like becoming the people God calls us to be.  And we are seriously supposed to be joyful about this?

We decided that the “testing of our faith” generally involves a choice to either rely on ourselves alone and try to meet our own needs, or to seek Jesus in hope and trust.  We told stories of moments when we were able to wait and pray, and were surprised to find that God does “give generously to all without finding fault.”  There is a stream of deeper grace and imagination for ourselves and for our region that we are glimpsing.

cell laughIt is not always possible to feel joyful about our struggles and I think that is OK.  But I do see joy in becoming a people together that God is forming. There is joy in sharing our burdens, as we are able. (Like Annie cracking us up with a story here.) Carrying them together lightens the load and draws us into the redemptive movement of God. We are forming that movement, right in the middle of our struggles. Becoming “complete, not lacking anything” is not something we can do alone; we develop through love in action.  As we exercise our faith by turning to God and coming together, we are gaining strength. God is giving us wisdom that leads to maturity, and the capacity to persevere.  I look forward to sharing the communion table this weekend with such a trial-facing (vs. trial-avoidant) body of faithful people.  I think we are powerful demonstration of hope in the world, even in moments when we don’t “feel” the joy.


What’s the point of the church? Can’t I be spiritual on my own?

At our block party this week, a new friend and I were laughing about how coming out as a Jesus-follower might be one of the weirder things to do these days.  In her spiritual awakening, she was realizing that it might be more “normal” for her to choose from a variety of self-centered or even self-destructive hobbies than to become part of the church.

Our culture is selling a very privatized and individualistic religion these days.  It might be OK to like Jesus privately—after all, he was a good teacher and philosopher, and you’re entitled to your own “spiritual path”—but to talk about it and become part of a group that lives it seems extreme.  What’s the point of the church?  Can’t I just be spiritual on my own?

(RNS1-JULY 1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. For use with RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFER transmitted July 1, 2014. RNS photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman, Random House

I like how the German pastor & theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the church and lived it’s purpose.  As a citizen during the Nazi take-over, he could not reconcile complicity and silence and fear based on individualism with the call of Christ.  He was executed by Hitler’s regime, but not before starting a truth-telling, corporate (as in “body”) movement.  He described the church as the visible expression of Christ in the world.  We make Jesus known not by our personal holiness, necessarily, but by having a life together in love that people can see and enter.  Just as God came to us in Christ, demonstrating self-giving love, so we give ourselves to each other.  We have an actual life together.  To be a “spiritual free agent” is an oxymoron, because true spirituality binds people together in love.  The evidence of being spiritual is actual, active, practical, tangible love—not just a feeling or a cosmic, mystical “other” reality that can stay in our minds or “hearts”.   Love calls people together in real time and place. Love makes us an organic whole that is bigger than our individual selves.

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer explains more about the significance and preciousness of the church.  God came to us in Christ in a physical body, vulnerable to death and brokenness and disconnection. In dying and rising, he overcomes what the Bible writers describe as “the old man”/old person/old body—a.k.a our nature bent toward disconnection from God—and gives everyone an opportunity to receive a “new body.”  What is this new body?  Bonhoeffer describes how our new body is the church! The “new body” Jesus rises in is all those who trust him.  Faith in God is not just a chance for new life as an individual—it is an opportunity to live in oneness with others.

blockpartyshotCircle of Hope is about exercising that oneness in real time and place, and I think that our block party at 1125 S. Broad this week was a glimpse of its goodness.  The team had fun hanging out with neighbors and new friends all day, and we had trouble convincing some that the burgers, hotdogs, and water ice were indeed FREE.  Listening to conversations and laughter over water games and face-painting and balloon popping, I felt joy in being a safe place to connect.  In spite of our struggles, I hope we keep believing Jesus when he says: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5)

Being light doesn’t make us better than anyone else; it makes us who we were created to be: ordinary people who have peace with God and love to share.  Together we are a “new body”—-the body of Christ.  The trap of individualism comes from a materialist philosophy that holds that the physical world is all there is, so we’d all just better look out for ourselves.  But love enables us to enter directly into the world’s suffering with the restorative power of God, and we become whole together.

How to hang on when life gets too fast

I’m thinking about change a lot these days because we are in the midst of a big transition in our congregation.  Our pastor, Rod White, is moving into a different role—a development pastor for the whole church—and I’ll be the pastor stationed at 1125 S. Broad.  Even though we have been leading together for years, it’s a shift for Rod and I personally, and it’s a shift for the church.  There’s no way to predict exactly what’s going to happen but we are moving forward in trust, communicating and preparing and imagining and equipping as best we can.  And we are excited to move in the direction that God has been leading.

Life is full of changes.  Relationships are always changing, even if you are lucky enough to have some stable ones. Many of my friends are moving, switching jobs, working through illness or death in their families, or watching their kids grow up.  Our schedules often change in the summertime.  Laws change, and change comes to us secondarily through media, and we absorb these systemic changes in different ways.  We ourselves change when we reach our thresholds—many times unconsciously. Just trying to survive life’s changes can leave us feeling weary or small.  We want to create change that brings peace and restoration in the world (and we ARE), but sometimes it feels hard to just hang on at the pace that modern life rolls.

inside outI keep learning that the key to navigating changes we can’t control and initiating the change we want is a conscious life with God.  Our Circle of Hope has been expressing an increased desire and need to pray amidst the distractions in our lives.  Our Sunday meeting leaders are responding by designing a series for us called “Praying in the weeds.” We are bombarded by stimuli and it seems counter-intuitive to STOP our mental loops when there is so much to worry about and be entertained by. But we sense that interrupting the mental loop is exactly what we need. Consciously reaching out to God increases our connection to the source of power and love and insight that enables us to do more than just hang on.  It allows God to touch us, to bring us “home,” to guide us in the flow of his redemptive work.  In the movie Inside Out, when Joy allows Sadness to touch the core memories I thought of something we often say on Ash Wednesday: go in a sadness that has been known and touched.  We need to let Jesus touch our sadness (and everything else) if we want to heal and spread healing.  Of course there’s a lot we won’t know or understand even about ourselves, but we want to be open.  God may have a hard time reaching us if we are committed to the hamster wheel of unconscious distraction.

Last night my cell talked about the story of the demon-possessed boy that only Jesus could heal.  Lots of people had tried different remedies, but nothing worked until Jesus said, “bring him to me.”  It may be good to “go” to Jesus daily, too, and we don’t have to be saintly meditation experts to do it.  A simple breath prayer like the ancient Jesus prayer can help us slow down enough to let God guide us through the changes and into the glorious change He is bringing. It may be surprising, too, to see what we can be and do together as the Holy Spirit leads and fills us.




Forgiveness for Dylann Roof?

Like most of you, I have been grieving the violent loss of life in Charleston this week.  Black lives.  I cried again when I looked into the young face of the murderer and wondered how he got to this moment.

The social activist in me blames the racist systems our country promulgated early on, and the ongoing ideology and subjugation that continues.  My therapy training suspects mental illness, maybe related to childhood deprivations. My experience in the recovery community points to his obvious substance abuse.  My pacifist convictions question the wisdom in our gun laws and our society’s commitment to these “rights.”  And my heart as a Jesus-follower sees a kid who gave himself over to evil and I hear the words of the Bible: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6). 

I suppose that boiling the problem down to a drama between good and evil seems simplistic in a post-modern world. But if our stories and songs reveal anything about us (go to the movies or listen to the radio), we do sense this mysterious spiritual element to life as a society.  No level of scientific rationalism can explain away our questions.

nicodemusThis week my cell group talked about a man who came to Jesus with his spiritual questions at night, because he was too embarrassed to have them in public.  He was an educated man who was supposed to know the answers.  He was afraid to be seen with Jesus, but Jesus made time for him anyway.  As they whispered on a rooftop in the dark, as I imagine, Jesus described the mystery of the Spirit.  He revealed himself as the One who opens the way to a heart-to-heart connection with God that is available to all people. Flesh gives birth to flesh, he said, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit.  Spiritual regeneration is on the table, even for those who come at night—embarrassed and unsure—because God didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it.

Several of the families of the victims in Charleston are expressing the Spirit of Jesus in their forgiveness for Dylann Roof.  I hope their deep faith inspires people to get in the spiritual battle and to pray.  We need the power of the Spirit to face the evils of our time.  More laws are not going to save us.  The wounds of racism are deep.  The systems are entrenched and they need to change.  But I am not going to wait around for the system to save us.  It is the power of the Spirit of God that enables us love one another, to forgive and to be forgiven.

Dead animals & the theology of salvation

I’m at a camp in central PA taking a class in the Brethren in Christ pastor-credentialing process.  I opted to stay in the $15/a night cabin instead of the $45/a night hotel-style room at the conference center in order to save some money.  (I’m a back-packer who loves the outdoors, so I figured I could get my class-work and studying done wherever.)

Upon entering my cabin, I noticed a strange smell.  It was pretty bad, but I thought that maybe all the cabins smelled that way.  I opened the windows, set up my stuff, took a nap, and resolved to buy a nice scented candle to help deal with my situation.  Later on the way to the store, my friend Ben and I ran into the camp director, and Ben insisted on asking him to check out the smell, ignoring all my protests that I was fine.  Sure enough, there was large dead animal rotting under the cabin.  The camp director insisted on upgrading me to the penthouse suite of anywhere I’ve ever retreated.   Now I’m in a beautiful, cozy, modern place with more amenities than I have at home.

tomb picAllow me to draw a parallel to the spiritual life.   Some of us are so committed to toughing it out in our struggle that that we’re more likely to live with the dead animal than ask for help.  Our way of taking care of ourselves is decaying and smelly but we’re not sure it could change and we don’t want to bother anyone.  We don’t trust God to take care of us because we don’t think God cares that much or has power to change things.  Or God is busy taking care of other people who have bigger problems.

Talk about it.  I’m not saying that Jesus offers a luxurious life that is free of struggle.  But there could be some relief and beauty and rest for you that you have not imagined.  Christus Victor is calling together a people that are free by his Spirit to move beyond the seemingly insatiable desires for money, power, achievement, safety, adventure, food, clothes, drugs, sex, family, relationships, or WHATEVER, and live in the abundance of his love.  I think this is what Jesus means when he says “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened….because my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”   God does care; your particular struggle is real and Jesus might surprise you.  I invite you to find Him in our Circle of Hope.