A church where everyone can thrive

Many folks have asked me recently, where are we going? What kind of church are we trying to be? We’ve gone through some difficult and confusing changes over the past year with the retirement of our founding pastors, in a pandemic with layers of upheaval. What are we becoming now?

I believe we are trying to become a church where everyone can thrive. We have been acknowledging that the table of Circle of Hope was built and maintained mostly by cisgender, white, middle-class, educated folks, and not as accessible to others as we intended to be. Our foundation was always in Christ, but the culture we developed along the way was not as open as Jesus is.

Jesus is for everyone. So we are building a new table alongside BIPOC, queer, differently-abled and other societally marginalized voices, in hopes that we might be a place where the fullness of humanity is seen and known and loved and celebrated. Jesus is helping us to make this new table together, even through loss and change, humbly listening to the Spirit in one another and our neighbors.

Soil is another metaphor that describes our goal of becoming a church in which everyone can thrive. Jesus talked about seeds of faith rooting and growing and multiplying in “good” soil, meaning soil that is healthy and ready and open to receive new seeds. We’ve realized that some of our soil has gotten hard and rocky and impenetrable over the years. Wealth, busy lifestyles, defensiveness about impact over intent, more mentalizing than embodiment, and resistance to examining our culture has kept us from fully seeing one another and others who might want to know Jesus with us. We are in the painful process of digging up our soil now to allow the oxygen and light of Christ to free us of habits and structures and assumptions that have been consciously or unconsciously oppressive. 

Here’s an example from the disability group that came together during our current listening process this year. They noted that we seem to have a “run yourself ragged” culture of church planting. Ambition is important (Jesus does say “go and make disciples of all nations!”) but we know that white supremacy culture pushes production and “results” in a way that thingifies people, as MLK described. Our differently-abled members are showing us the need for more gentleness and attention to caring for our bodies and whole selves. I agree. More patience and embodied attention will help us experience what Jesus described in the second part of that great commission above: “surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Taking time to care for ourselves and others wholelly helps and feel and know that God is, in fact, with us. Learning from members who are differently abled helps us get beyond our limited understandings about ability and strength, and into the way of Jesus.

We are trying to become anti-oppressive soil, in which everyone thrives more. Soil that is receptive and nurturing, curious and welcoming and celebrating of difference, open and humble in the acknowledgement that we don’t know where the wind of the Spirit comes from or how it blows (John 3:8, Ecclesiastes 11:5) We haven’t arrived yet. We are learning as we open our eyes and hearts to where God might want to take us. A humble posture is key. Weakness is strength in God’s eyes; our greatest power is in our vulnerability and need and willingness to follow our servant king. We are shedding the empire assumptions and habits that so easily creep into our lives in this country, especially for those of us who are given more unearned societal privilege than others. It takes ongoing intention to shed our self-sufficiency, the assumption that we need to be good and right and correct already. The gospel of Jesus is that we receive those things from God in community; we don’t have them on our own! Our egos are invited to decrease in order for the Spirit to increase in us.

The invitation doesn’t mean that anyone needs to leave the community. The invitation is to be transformed together. Soil doesn’t get remediated by taking things out! (Removing toxins from soil is nearly impossible.) You get healthier soil by adding to it (compost, fertilizer, air, water, limestone or whatever is needed to counteract the problem) and working with it over and over and over, turning it around. My point is: we need each other, more love, more listening, more humility, especially from us straight white folks. None of us can do this on our own. If anyone is willing to hold the tensions in these questions, and perhaps die to our precious memories of church, and enter into this ongoing process of conversion in the way of Jesus, we want to partner with you! Our transformation together will welcome others into the transformative power of God’s love.

On Sunday, we explored Jesus’s promise: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. We discovered that Jesus wasn’t talking about being uncontaminated when he mentions purity. He is talking about focus, desire, and child-like trust. He is talking about really going for it; really going for God. He is saying that if we want God with our whole hearts (which is another word for our whole lives in scripture), we will find God. If we really look for God, we will see God in all things, even in really difficult things. 

It’s difficult to be whole-hearted, when we want many things, and can see things from many different perspectives, and we face lots of temptations and distractions all the time. So the prophet Ezekiel gives us some good news, that God can give us new hearts. God can remove our hard and fearful hearts that are crusted over with rejections and doubts and defenses like armor from all the hurts we’ve endured…and give us hearts of flesh (just like the ones we have!) that can open to others and stretch and suffer and trust in new ways again. It’s painful to stretch, but it can bring a joy of mutuality and partnership that we might not have experienced yet! The Spirit will help us in our weakness. God can help us become a church in which everyone can thrive. God can make us soft, fertile soil for patient growth and healing. God can help us build a new table together, where everyone gets fed abundantly, not just with one kind of food but with many! Jesus is a gate that is open, where everyone is invited to come in and out and find spiritual safety and provision (John 10:9). Jesus, make us like You.

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.  


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.

How far will you go for a friend?

Sometimes it was hard to get next to Jesus.  He was usually surrounded by his entourage of disciples, followed by hungry crowds, or stealing away to pray.  One day, as recorded in Mark 2, a house is packed out to hear him, and some determined friends go so far as cutting a hole in the roof to get their paralyzed friend next to Jesus.  (Maybe the paralyzed guy was rich and paid some people to do this, but I like to think that they were friends who cared enough to try and make an opportunity for his healing in a seemingly impossible situation.)  They risked ruining somebody’s roof and offending a lot of people for their friend’s sake.  It was the kind of demonstrative love that is sure to yield some kind of transformation—either disaster or wholeness.   Maybe they concluded that their friend was already living with disaster, and so it was worth the risk.

through the roofOur cell group cut a big “hole” in our own roof and multiplied into two groups this week.  It tested our our relationships and our faith a bit, and we missed each other last night when we met as two separate groups.  But new friends were included and able to get next to Jesus already, and there was more than enough love to go around.

It’s still hard to get next to Jesus, in some ways.  Ever since Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, it’s been difficult for many people to find the authentic and simple heart of the gospel under the overlay of laws and traditions and human corruption.  It’s hard to know who to trust, and it’s not easy to experience grace in the U.S. culture of entitlements that also operates like a meritocracy.  But Jesus has been at work on everyone’s behalf anyway, and the Church continues to grow organically all over the world, like in our cells and public meetings, or at your backyard BBQ.

The reason to try and be a determined friend is hidden in Jesus’s first response to the paralyzed man.  Instead of healing his physical body right away, Jesus offers him the thing he is really looking for: forgiveness and peace with God.  In this moment, Jesus reveals his purpose as the One who restores us to God and to one another.

It may be tempting for us to give up on our own healed life or on our friends’ healing because it doesn’t seem to be happening quickly enough, or it’s too inconvenient or potentially offensive.  But let’s take heart from the roof-cutters.  It may be against the law to even think it, but you may actually have what your friends need because you know the Healer.  Roof-cutting (or whatever) may just be the way of love.   

Do you want to get well?

Lent is coming.  There is nothing particularly holy about observing Lent; it is simply another good opportunity to connect with Jesus and his mission.  Right on the cusp of his main work, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days and was tempted to give up his mission for power, wealth, and comfort.  He resisted, and came back into town filled with the Spirit and willing to be obedient unto death.   

In solidarity with Jesus, some of us will try to fast from shadowy forms of power/wealth/comfort or other distractions tomorrow in order to make more room for the Spirit to fill us.  It is not easy and we try not to worry too much about success.  We are just trying to be faithful and reach for more of God and less of what might weigh us down.  We are confessing that we are affected by sin and longing to be made whole.  We are trying to repent, or turn around, and come home to God, the Heart of our own heart.  We will take the sign of the cross in ashes and remember that we belong to God like beloved children.  Fasting doesn’t make us holy in any form (Jesus already has), but it can loosen us up and free us to get into the flow of redemption with God in a deeper and more expansive way.  By doing Lent together as a community—on whatever level we are able to engage—we open ourselves up to transformation and healing that can ripple outward beyond us. 

In many ways, what will happen this year is up to us.  One time before Jesus healed a paralyzed man, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”  It seems like a rather obvious question with an obvious answer, especially to someone who has been suffering for a long time—38 years, in this case.  Jesus isn’t one to waste words, so why does he ask such an obvious question?  Maybe because it is not that obvious, particularly in the spiritual realm.  We cling to our sin-sickness at times for various reasons.  Here’s three ideas from this story.

healing at the pool1.  We do not regard Jesus as a possible healer.  Instead of saying Yes! to Jesus’s question, the man in the story dives into an explanation about the curative properties of the pool he’s laying next to.  He thinks his problem is that he doesn’t have the help he needs to get into the pool at the right time.  He has a formula for his healing that’s just not working, yet.  If only he can get it right, he thinks!  He has no idea that he is talking to the healer himself.

2.  We are “comfortable” in our mess.  I like this painting because Jesus is peeking under the tent the man is hiding in.  We might be prone to creating isolating fortresses around ourselves in our sicknesses too.  It may be dark in there but at least we know what to expect.  We’d like to maintain some illusion of control and reduce anxiety-inducing surprises or shame-inducing exposure.  Lent is a good time to discover that Jesus in our Circle of Hope is a great initiator of the Light that reveals that no mess is too messy.

3.  We think we have to have incredible faith to do anything different.  I love this story because there is no mention of great faith in the man who is healed.  He doesn’t even know Jesus’s name.  He just needs some help and he’s willing to have a conversation.  When Jesus tells him to get up, pick up his mat (a sign that his healing is complete) and walk, he listens.  The story suggests that our healing is more about God’s love and power than about our spiritual capacity to initiate it or drum it up.  Maybe we are invited into a conversation with God that will lead us to new places of freedom.  

My prayer this Lent is simply for our showing up in that conversation, in that core relationship.  I don’t know what will happen or not happen.  But I do know that the Holy Spirit does the heaving lifting in our transformation, with just our tiny bits of willingness.  Our hunger and thirst and longing helps, if we are wise enough to notice it.  It is not our wellness and independence that will help us get into our resurrection this Easter; it is our confession of need and desire for more.  We can follow the example of Jesus to be emptied of all but love.  Like CS Lewis said, ““Our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  If you are displeased at all, you may be in a good position to meet God and get into something new.  

On the limits of deconstruction

This week the Huffington Post published a nice article called “Why Jesus taught with questions instead of answers.”  The author helps us see how Jesus unraveled religious doctrine and other oppressive systems.  But it left me hanging, and I definately couldn’t go with him when he accused all groups of loving definitive answers, (because it makes their group look right and others wrong.)  If I did not know better, I might have thought that Jesus was an individualistic deconstructionist.

I want to add an addendum to the article more than arguing with the author.  My main interest is this: Jesus often started with questions but he didn’t end there.  He didn’t just deconstruct the oppressive system, he constructed the life-saving alternative.  He healed, he fed, he included, he served, he gathered followers and taught them how to love.  He died and rose and created something brand new: a community whose currency is love and forgiveness and radical generosity.  He birthed a regenerated people who are building something new with him all over the world.

Lots of people are experts at deconstruction.  It’s not that hard; we’ve been schooled in it since the ’80s.  Most of us can reason-away even our most basic human gifts.  It’s easier to be ironic than to deal with the reality of the dignity and responsibility that God imparts to each of us.   Deconstruction is useful as it leads to the construction of something life-giving, or fruitful as Jesus said.  We are known by our fruit.  It’s not hard to tear down and pick apart, but what do we want to build?construction%20career

Circle of Hope is planning for 2015 right now by asking lots of questions.  We’re relying on God more than on definitive answers to help us discern the way forward.  And I think we have a strong foundation to build on.

If the long list of comments after the Huff post article are any indication, people are interested in Jesus.  We have all kinds of reactions to him and opinions about him, but we’re all more than a reaction.  We’re invited to be a new creation.