Born to be wild: the power of serving

We have an award culture.  I don’t know if I go so far as to agree with Jerry Seinfeld that “all awards are stupid” but it is remarkable how communities cultivate the hunger for extrinsic motivation in children by handing out awards for almost everything, including participation. The hunger for recognition seems to translate into competition in almost every industry, and the media becomes a platform for heroes and anti-heroes alike.

Jesus’s disciples were not immune to the competition for recognition and power. James and John asked Jesus if they could secure a spot on either side of him in his glory. Jesus had been alluding to his impending glorification and rising, and they imagined Jesus rising to power like a wealthy king and saving them from their political oppressors. They wanted to share some of that power and recognition and rule the world with Jesus, from either side of his throne.

The fly in the ointment was that Jesus’s concept of glory was in dying.  His entire purpose and mission — the very nature of God — is revealed in this description: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God was coming to serve us, not to rule over us from the iron throne.  He was bearing the death of the whole world, so that we might be free to not conform to the world’s systems of hierarchy and power. He was upending the world with service.

jesus on the crossThe word ransom implies being liberated beyond ourselves.  God’s service to us frees us from bondage to our false selves, and our service to God for others expresses that wild regeneration in us. It is not like a person obligated to doing the dishes because they have low self-esteem or their roommate is a jerk.  It is more like untamed love not withheld. It is doing to the dishes to defy the rules of the world and love your roommate. It is like Jesus giving up his equality with God to become a servant.

The gift of service cannot be reduced to a role or a task or a job—it is way too wild. It is not “volunteering.” It is more like coming into your fullness as a Jesus-follower, and you can note its power.  People cry when the Pope kisses babies and handicapped children because people do not walk around doing that all the time. Mother Theresa influenced world leaders by relentlessly caring for the poor and dying. St. Francis got locked in a closet by his father for trying to give all of his money to the church.  Chris Mintz took bullets in his body to protect other students in Oregon last week, and his story went viral.  Serving is powerful.

Our own serving might not feel powerful all the time.  But in the way of Jesus it is the path to greatness, and it does make a difference.  Here are three traits of a servant to encourage your gift:

  1. Servants reject natural estimations of worth in people, time, and money. Instead they express the new pattern of relationships Jesus institutes. They invest in people that others have given up on. They share their resources instead of saving for that bigger vacation.
  2. Servants are practical, like love is. They burn to get it done. They don’t get stuck in sentimentality and they’re not worried about who else should be doing it.
  3. Servants focus on God. They don’t do it for the affirmation from other people.

Servants suffer the loneliness or whatever it takes to go where Jesus is leading.  It’s not Joel Osteen-esque where everything is promised to work out bountifully if you have enough faith or something. Everything will work out bountifully in the end with Jesus, but those who follow the suffering servant will suffer too.  They will also accomplish great things, like the redemption of the world.  And they are often bubbling over with the love and nearness of the Servant.





Empty spaces and the generous host

Jesus tells a story about a host who prepares a big banquet. As an Italian, I picture a veranda on the glowing Tuscan countryside.  The grapes have ripened on the vine, the olives have been pressed, and the bread is warm. The best cheeses and wine are coming out of the cellar to the outside table, where friends are gathering to celebrate.

When the host sends his servant out to personally invite the guests, the first people on the list give lame excuses about why they can’t come to the party….excuses that don’t even make sense. One person says they need to go look at a field that they just bought. Who buys a field without looking at it first? The excuses reveal their attachments to other interests or their lack of love for the host. Or maybe they don’t recognize the servant.

The servant in the story is Jesus, the host is Father/Mother/Creator God. Many of the people who were listening to the story at the time did not, in fact, recognize Jesus as the one they were waiting for. They wanted a god who would make their lives work in the world—someone who would rescue them from their political enemies, keep them physically safe, and make them winners. Only someone with visible power and wealth and status could ease their fears. Why would they listen to a servant who was just as poor and homegrown and seemingly powerless as they were? After all, this servant looked just like them. So the banquet remained shrouded in mystery to most people.

It’s still easy to overlook Jesus, or mistake him for the gods of our making. Our economy thrives on the sale of safety, power & possessions. For example, most Philadelphians didn’t seem bothered by the occupation of soldiers on our street corners last weekend. In fact, they seemed grateful for more “safety.” I love soldiers, but it seemed like an odd way bring the message of the suffering servant to our city. Jesus did not arrive with any weaponry or display of force.  He gave up power and was vulnerable to the world to demonstrate vulnerability and real power—the power of God that saves us. I didn’t want to burst any bubbles that they soldiers weren’t really here for our safety anyway or they’d be here all the time. They were for the advancement of a powerful political system that protects a few chosen ones. Without casting shade on Pope Francis—who seems wonderful—there are differences between the way of Jesus and systems of power and wealth that rely on coercion and threat of violence.  If we rely on safety and power (like the $600 billion, over half of our federal discretionary spending, spent on military this year) then people may have trouble recognizing the servant and getting to the banquet too.

The beauty of this story is in the host’s generosity and commitment to having a full house anyway.  When the servant comes back with the report that the guests are preoccupied, the host tells him to go out to the broken down places, to find the cast-offs of society and bring them in. Like Jesus, the messenger replies that it’s already been done. The broken already recognized him and understood what the banquet was all about: the place where we are known and loved and forgiven and made whole, reconciled to God and to one another, partners with the host in setting the table for the next guest. The host commands the servant to go out further then, to the highways and hedges, and bring in all the strangers who have eyes to see and ears to hear of their dignity and belovedness through the compelling love of the servant. The table of God is a place of belonging.

The space at the table is my favorite detail in Andrei Rublev’s famous painting, The Hospitality of Abraham.  He’s depicting a scene where God (as the trinity) is not just the host but also the stranger who visits Abraham with miraculous news. The divinity and oneness of the figures are suggested by their blue cloaks and same faces.  The Father’s light and almost transparent outer cloak suggests he is the hidden Creator. His head is lifted high toward the other two, and he blesses the son for the sacrifice he will make. The Son, in the middle in red for priesthood, accepts the cup of sacrifice and bows his head in submission to the Father. The Spirit is on the right in green for life and regeneration. His hand is resting on the table next to the cup, suggesting that he will be with the Son as he carries out his mission, and his gaze is toward the open space at the table, suggesting his desire to bring others to this banquet of communion and oneness.

There’s a beautiful circular movement in this icon that reflects our Circle of Hope, especially our cells, which are like mini-banquets of communion.  The Son and the Spirit incline their heads toward the Father and he directs his gaze back at them.  The Father blesses the Son, the Son accepts the cup of sacrifice, the Spirit comforts the Son in his mission, and the Father shows he is pleased with the Son.  Love is initiated by the Father, embodied by the Son (and now in our body), and accomplished through the Spirit.  

The Spirit is at work in us now with an eye toward the empty space at the table, always helping us to create the environment for reconciliation and wholeness for all those who long to be filled but haven’t got the invitation yet. There is room for more at the banquet. And it’s in this communion that our own emptiness is brought to fullness, too.  





Your mercy instead of my battle

Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” has worked to free 115 wrongfully condemned people from death row.  He says that if you want to change a problem, you have to get up close to it, like Jesus does. “To me, the Great Commission is a call to get approximate,” Stevenson said.  Although he experiences the presumed dangerousness and guilt of being a black man in the mess of racial injustice, he stays in the struggle and responds to the call.  He asks for faith over fear.

Fear is the great distancer.  When we are afraid, we are tempted to run, to isolate, to hide.  After Jesus was arrested, one of his closest friends and most serious disciples ran away. In my reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s painting, you can see the fear in Peter’s eyes: he is coming between Jesus and the guard to protect him. He draws his weapon and fights. When Jesus is taken away, Peter is left without control and without the person who had come to mean the most to him.  Fear gets the best of him, and he denies that he ever knew the one he loves.

Peter is not there for Jesus in his most difficult, dying moments on the cross.  He is off somewhere turning his weapons inward,  jammed up with regret, confusion, and fear. I imagine that he feels lost.  He had been such a loyal, eager follower and great leader among the disciples. Now he has no idea what’s next.

Instead of distancing himself in betrayal and abandonment, the risen Jesus goes to him. He shows up at Peter’s old jobsite, and in a way that only the two of them fully understand, he lets Peter know that he is known not for his worst mistakes but for who he really is: loved, trusted, called. Jesus is not worried about what happened before; he is wondering what is next. He calls Peter to greatness with mercy.  And the greatness is in extending mercy to others, and leading the church in the way of mercy.

The mercy of God is not aloof like pity, or sentimental like sympathy, or even merely understanding like compassion. It takes action on behalf of the suffering. It covers the distance. It demonstrates love and calls out the best. It gets close and stays, beyond requirements. It is not hanging on to yesterday, it is expectant for today. It is Jesus for each of us. Like the song written by my friend Angie that we sing in our Sunday meetings:

Your mercy instead of my battle/ Your love instead of my fight/ When I’m broken and sore, Your grace gives me more/ I’ll lay down my weapons tonight.


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.