Is the movement finally starting? Keep praying and pushing.

When Donald Trump was elected, I hoped it was the final straw to break the power of delusion choking so many people here in the last days of the Empire. There is some evidence this week that my hope was not in vain. The Spirit of God is moving among us and in our region and people are waking up. Things are happening that remind me of the stories I have heard about Jesus appearing to Muslims in places where it is illegal to even entertain the thought of becoming a Christian. People who can’t trust and are afraid to think are meeting Jesus personally in ways that change them forever.

Movement: the Spirit poured out
Acts 2:17

The movement of the Spirit in our church never really ground to a halt, but it seemed to slow so much, we began to wonder if we were missing something or doing something wrong. Our “flywheel” was slowing down and we realized we had better get behind it and do some pushing so the engine of our mission would get back to speed. We have been doing that and things are changing.

But there is only so much pushing one can do. The movement of the Spirit in a group or society is a mystery that is more about prayer than technique. So I have been praying for us and praying for our region, country and the whole desperate world. And I am not alone. Many of us have been drawn to pray and we have even started groups to do it together.

Evidence keeps popping up that something is starting. I almost don’t want to talk about it, lest I be wrong. But it is hard not to appreciate the possibility.

Cell mates of all kinds

For instance, my pastor, Rachel, could not contain herself last week and had to share the good things happening  in our cells:

  • She visited our Spanish-speaking cell and sensed the presence of God so strongly it made her “choke back tears.” The members were opening up about their lives, sharing real struggles and then praying for each other and reading the Bible together. For some of them, it was all brand new.
  • At her own cell, her host “shared a growing sense that Someone is leading her into a future that she doesn’t know yet, and she is actually excited about that, because she’s discovering that God has better things in store for her than she had for herself. She’s being surprised by hope.”
  • Then on her walk home, she ran into three of Jimmy & Zoe’s cell mates who looked like something good had just happened to them. They had just prayed with two friends who asked to receive Christ right there in their meeting.

A deluded millennial

About the same time, I was looking around YouTube for this video when I ran into this one by Steve Bancarz. I understand about zero why anyone would listen to a YouTube personality or how they get a following. But here is this guy who apparently made a living selling “new age” philosophies through his website. Then he had this remarkable experience with Jesus, gave it all up, and started his new internet business: debunking his old one.

I almost never get through a fifteen minute video, but this one intrigued me. When it was done, I felt it might be a scam. But evangelical outlets like Christian Post and Charisma have been telling the story too. His experience is like ones reported by Muslims, in which Jesus came to him and convinced him to change. I think his fundamentalist connections are serving him well as he gets over his drug use. It should be interesting to see how he moves on. Is this how Jesus is going to penetrate the despairing, enslaved, avoidant and cynical millennials?

A burned out evangelical

Movement from outside and in
Ocean waves and brain waves

Finally, I have been reading an “earth” book I keep recommending to people who don’t have faith, or who are interested in the new atheist arguments: Finding God in the Waves. It is about a Christian who lost his faith but who also had a life changing experience with God at the beach one night. He became “Science Mike” on the podcast from the group known as the  Liturgists  who say, “We create art and experiences for the spiritually homeless and frustrated.” (I have not listened their podcast, I admit).  Gungor is also a “Liturgist;” you can click his name and get a ticket to hear him on August 1 at 1125 S. Broad.

In Finding God in the Waves, Mike describes how science convinced him faith is not only possible, but preferable. Here is a quote about what he found most convincing:

“Trying to describe God is a lot like trying to describe falling in love. And that’s a serious problem for people who doubt that God is real…The unbelieving brain has no God construct, no neurological model for processing spiritual ideas and experiences in a way that feels real. This is why Bible stories and arguments for God’s existence will always sound like nonsense to a skeptic. For the unbeliever, God is truly absent from his or her brain. …

[Unlike how Christians tend to view solutions to doubt] neurotheology treats doubt as a neurological condition and would instead encourage people to imagine any God they can accept, and then pray or meditate on that God, in order to reorient the person’s neurobiological image of God back toward the experiential parts of the brain.…This insight was the most significant turning point in my return to God. I now knew I had to stop trying to perfect my knowledge of God and instead shift toward activities that would help me cultivate a healthy neurological image of God – secure in the knowledge that this network would help me connect with God and live a peaceful, helpful life.” 

It all amazes me. The desperate immigrants and illegals, the millions who are deluded by spirituality without Jesus, the science-laden who think their disciplines exclude the possibility of God, all of them popped up in my own experience with a story about Jesus coming to them in a way they never expected. And now they are joined around our own table in an odd way, celebrating the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

Pray and push. Move with the movement. I can tell you are doing it, so all I can say is that I am with you as you pray and push. I am with you as we celebrate how Jesus transforms people who never expected to meet Him.

Fragile faith can die: Jesus will reseed us

In May I saw this Van Gogh painting of a sower in Amsterdam — great museum!  I have another version hanging on my den wall, a prized gift from someone who saw me as a sower back in the day. Sometimes I look at it and it convicts me. I remember the audacity of my youth and hope I can still access that fire. I want to keep building, not sit in the accomplishments of the past and hope they don’t rot before I die.

Hulking husks of faith

The thought of dying Christianity kind of scared me in Europe. What does a town do with a giant, empty husk of a cathedral building? They are sort of like lovely conch shells, beautiful hard things, from which the living creatures are long gone, long dead. Visiting these museums of past Christianity made me wonder if someday the seed that grew into Circle of Hope will be something like an empty cathedral or an empty sea shell sitting on the coffee table of Philadelphia, the Christian creatures and their faith long gone.

Faith is a fragile thing, it seems. If it does not keep growing, if it not reseeded, then it can die. We know people whose faith is essentially dead. And I suspect there are people reading this whose faith is essentially dead, but they don’t have the guts to open up and be reseeded.

The church is even more fragile. The builders of those beautiful Cathedrals did not expect their community of faith to become so irrelevant! Gwen and I went to Aachen Cathedral in Germany for a splendid re-enactment of Medieval and Renaissance rituals during a Sunday mass filled with tourists. But I am quite sure the builders never expected their work of art to be more of a symbol of what was than a gymnasium for worship. They built for forever. The building still stands but the seed of faith basically died out for the most part. I was speaking at 2007 Frankford Ave. and I wondered out loud if one day someone would visit that building and receive a little history tour, hear about the early 2000’s, see a picture of us in odd looking clothes, ask questions about Love Feasts and cells, take a picture of themselves with a djembe, leave a token donation as they went back to the van, and that’s it.

We’re at odds; what will happen?

I doubt that untimely death will happen. But I wonder. Because we are a little bit at odds right now. On the one hand, people are being seeded by faith every day because we have some sowers among us. There is a lot of revelation and healing happening, and in an era and a region that seems a bit hostile to Jesus.

On the other hand the burned out or beaten down among us still can’t figure out how to talk about Jesus without being embarrassed. Some of us are much more likely to talk about politics than talk about the risen Lord, as if making the world work right is how people get saved. We can be strangely subject to postmodern discourse rather than revealing what is beyond it. Many people have become in charge of saving their lives and are losing them.

reseed
Desert rose in Ethiopia

Nevertheless people get seeded with the truth and love of Jesus all the time. I have been seeded and  reseeded with the word of Jesus at many points during my life, too. Looking way back on some of it now, my faith seems rather unexpected to begin with and strangely resilient. There were Christian seeds thrown around my family but they never found a good place to grow in most of us.  But they did in me. And, somehow, the seedlings survived and grew into a plant that provided a little shade in this spiritual desert.

Somehow we get seeded and reseeded

Somehow there is a spiritual earth in us where the seed of faith can grow. We have to get seeded, and when the plant gets burned or beaten down, that fertile place in us needs reseeded. It seems that something new is always sprouting which will be the tree of tomorrow.

But those little plants of faith in us are fragile. The congregations and cells we plant, as strong as they are, still have a sense of fragility about them. Faith in Jesus is like a seed that takes root and sprouts. We need to take care of one another’s fragile faith. Never stomp on someone’s fragile beginnings. Never assume someone is completely solid. It is not that kind of world. Never take the survival of your church for granted. The community of faith can end up like an empty cathedral rather than a sower in a field.

Last week one of our covenant members died of an apparent overdose. My blessed foreman from 1226 S. Broad tells me that dear man was the fourth to die from among the team of recovering people who kindly and carefully built a place for healing in Circle Counseling. Life is fragile. In Christ, it is eternal. But we wake up every day challenged by our own fragility and by the fissures in society that disrupt our very souls. The faith that seeds eternity seems distressingly weak, like a sprout among weeds or a thirsty seed in the desert. But Jesus, the sower, keeps farming his beloved creation and will even reseed us when we just can’t see how to keep going. And he always seems to find allies to sow truth and love in joy with him, especially when times are tough.

What to do when that troubled person is not going away?

A step toward being reconciled?
What you might want to do and what you might not should…maybe.

Here is my prayer lately: “Oh Lord! I am connected to people who can’t stay reconciled with  others or with you, and they are not going away. What will we do?”

They are a bit like the homeless person who was disappointed when I gave him the outreach number for Project Home (215-232-1984) the other day. I did not give him what he wanted, which was not about us having a life together and was actually about feeding on what I have. I was in my local Rite Aid and this man immediately began following me through the store looking for carfare somewhere, then he was hungry, then he was mad I would not help him. I did not have time to make a deep relationship, but I did manage to give him the number and even an address [Where To Turn]. He did not really want my help. He wanted my money to support his unspoken program.

Some days I feel like people are following our community around with similar designs and some unspoken, maybe unconscious program. A trusted partner does not want to stay reconciled with our “institution” but they do want the free childcare someone gives. A person leaves their spouse in the lurch and divides up their friends. Another wants the pastor to keep their impending divorce a secret while they pretend nothing is happening. Another wants their adulteries to be none of our business while they prey upon innocent people coming into the church. Another creates a faction based on their ideology. Someone else loses their faith but they don’t want to lose their friends, so they stick around. These are all the kinds of things that have happened recently or are happening now.

Sometimes people wonder if they can handle so much stuff! They think, “Why can’t these people stay reconciled with Jesus and his people, at least with their spouse!”

Well, sometimes they can’t.

Some churches tidy up and don’t let certain people in or get rid of outliers quickly. We have always been committed to just the opposite. Let these untidy people in! — and stick with them until it is just impossible to do so. We make it hard to leave. We know there are no unmessy people for whom Jesus died, ourselves included. Loving with a self-giving love will never be easy — being loved isn’t even that easy! So we are not very tidy. Every situation is unique to the person in it; their journey toward or away from Jesus or our church is their own — we’ll just have to work it out.

Our maybe they won’t work it out. Sometimes people leave “the church” but stay in the community. Some people don’t like most of us or Jesus and still stay, picking people off to be their friends. They end up being a living example of lack of reconciliation — the reconciliation we prize so much! If you go with their self-realization, you’re in, if not, you’re out. It hurts.

What to do?

So what do we do when people just can’t do it as right as we want them to, when they are distressed and doing self-destructive things, or when their mental or physical health causes them to do what they might not otherwise do? What if they are wrecking things? What if it is like they are following you around the Rite-Aid?

The New Testament is mainly written about these kinds of situations, especially Paul’s letters. Try reading them again with the question, “What do I practically do about the people who feel too messy for me to handle?

What do I do when

  • I want to cut them off? (You might need to, but you better have a word from the Lord before you give up on reconciliation.)
  • I want to get even with them? (Don’t.)
  • I want to play according to their rules and win? (A fool’s errand.)

Here are a few of things I was advising last week when I talked to people facing these dilemmas:

  • Stick with Jesus. Jesus is in the middle of the mess and there is really no place else to go, ever, than Jesus.  I was trying to encourage one of our pastors after they were told how much they and everyone else were doing wrong. Only Jesus can help us bear that kind of criticism with grace. 
  • If an accusation doesn’t come from Jesus, pause before you react. You don’t have to receive every accusation. When people desert and betray you it hurts! Troubled people are troubling. They will get your natural defense system to kick in, for sure. Note that, don’t just be defensive. Act out of your heart connected to Jesus, not your heart in fear of its life! You have the life.  You can’t be condemned. If you have sinned you can repent without fear.  But you are not subject to someone’s self-centered or arbitrary rubric, certainly not their condemnation. 
  • Make sure you are following Jesus not someone who does not love you. Desperate people exercise a lot of power trying to get stable. Many people just want others to follow them; they want power. They are kind of like drowning people who desperately cling to their rescuer and threaten to drown both! People get themselves into situations where they did not and do not trust Jesus or anyone else. They work out of a survival instinct. You don’t need to join them in it if it does not really lead to survival.
  • Check your distress level. You may need to decompress lest you think this turmoil is real relating.  Suffer creatively don’t merely suffer with. The compassion of Jesus is leading somewhere, it is not just a tank of healing and neither are you. You know that people drink of your love and are thirsty again, and then blame you for not having enough of the “love” they crave. They need living water. Jesus has overcome the world (go back to number one).
  • Beware the urge to tidy up after messy people all day. We always have house guests and boarders who don’t keep our house like we do. It can be downright painful to listen to them when we just want to clean up the peanut butter they just left on the countertop. We don’t want to speak honestly to an out-of-control person in our cell. We don’t want to run into someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. But there will be no tidying up until the final day when the world is renewed. Attempting to control everyone before then is not our job. People don’t need to make us feel good before we love them.  

Sometimes we just have to meet someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. We will try to make things right, as far as we are able, but we will not stop following Jesus, knowing He is able to do more than we ask or imagine. We may not all be in one of these messy situations right now, but we probably will be. Let’s keep praying for one another, keep being honest, and keep following the One who will bring it all to right in the end.

 

Benedict (not Cumberbatch) the most influential Christian you never heard of

Benedict, scribeLast year about this time I went on a personal retreat (this is not just for pastors). In the course of my retreat, I heard a lot from a book by Esther de Waal and I wrote about it. I am still encouraged by it, so here is a replay.

It is a good one I picked up after one of our friends helped us explore it not long ago in Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WATER: Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Benedict of Nursia is one of those spiritual ancestors we love. He is one of the most influential Christians you may have never heard of.

I am telling you about him today because we do a lot of things he would like. And he did a lot of things that made the “dark ages” a lot less dark. And we might be entering some dark ages ourselves.

Benedict caused a revolution by considering what it meant to make a covenant and build a community around Jesus in the 600’s. Before Benedict wrote his new rule for the communities of monks he was founding, most radical Christianity was solitary; spiritual athletes were the people who entered it. Benedict was one of those athletes, but he attracted a bunch of people who were not. He realized that following Jesus is mostly for ordinary people. What’s more, a group of individuals sitting at the feet of a “sage” is not very Biblical. His breakthrough was to emphasize the love among the members of the community as elemental to authentic spiritual life; multiplications of those communities are still shining the light of faith today.

His rule says: “The monks are to bear with patience the weaknesses of others, whether of body or behavior. Let them strive with each other in obedience to each other. Let them not follow their own good, but the good of others. Let them be charitable towards their brothers with pure affection.” (72.5-8).

His communities were all men, but women applied this rule in their houses, as well (thus, his language).

DeWaal says that within a hundred years of Benedict’s death, his rule had provided a collection of communities that wrapped Europe in a cloak of faith. “Whereas in the very earliest days monks had gone out into the desert leaving behind them a comparatively sophisticated life, now that pattern was reversed. In a world in which barbarian invasion, political uncertainty, and the power of the sword seemed the most immediate realities, [sound familiar?] and in a simple agrarian world where parishes were served by priests of humble peasant birth, [sound like many of our neighborhoods?] the monasteries came to stand out as centres of light and learning” (p. 20).

cell vanessa
Who is that person sitting in the cell’s “second row?”

Radicals in covenant are important lights in deteriorating circumstances. They not only take care of one another, they provide opportunities for people to know God, learn love, and create sustainable community. Our cells are like Benedict’s little communities wrapping our region in a cloak of faith. We focus on God in prayer and worship, we study to deepen our faith and life, we work for one another and serve those we can touch. The Benedictines were known as change agents by Cruce, libro et atro—cross, book and plough. We have our surprisingly useful version of that.

It was and is all done in love by normal people. When some of those normal people make a covenant to be Circle of Hope at the end of the month they will deepen our capacity to make a difference in this upended world. I think they will reflect a story Pope Gregory I told in his biography of Benedict.

“A certain hermit named Martin had chained himself to the side of his solitary cave near Monte Cassino. When he heard of it St. Benedict sent him a message: ‘If you are indeed a servant of God, do not chain yourself with chains of iron. But rather, let Christ be the chain that binds you.’”

Like Benedict, we point to Christ. It is as simple as that: in the cell where Jesus is the agenda and in our covenant to live as the Body of Christ. That is where the transformation starts and where it continues to astound me.

Avoidance: Six ways to find comfort in your suffering

One of my enduring impressions of last Saturday’s Comfort Retreat actually came after it was over. Ellen told me of an article she read about going to a party and texting to tell the host goodbye. I admit I have done this a few times, but I did not know it was a topic (as if every social thing a millennial does would not be a topic – it is a big blogosphere!). So, of course, I Googled it and found out that lots of people have been talking about  ghosting like this for the last five years. Here is one random sample:

[I ghost the exit] because people should only remember you as the life of the party, never the death. We live in 2015, where the text messages travel faster than comets through space and communication isn’t a choice, it is a function of existence. So you text, or call, or Kik, or whatever after the fact and say sorry, but when push comes to ghost, what’s so bad about leaving when you want to leave without the annoying bells and whistles?

All day at the retreat, some of us came to grips with the fact that it is very difficult to show up. We can ghost our life! The best defense mechanism of this generation might be avoidance, even stonewalling. A few of us could describe how hard it was to even feel when we had the chance. The other night when I was watching Nashville (Yes, it is still on, and yes, Chloe still can’t get with Gunner effectively), Deacon asked Chloe if she wanted a hug and she said, “I don’t want anyone to touch me or I will start crying and not stop.”She eventually folded into her uncle, but she was as conscious as a soap opera person can be about her avoidance habits.

avoidance
Is this Portland ghost party the perfect solution to ghosting? — wearing your avoidance!

Avoidance wrecks things: self-awareness and growth, relationships, and the big one, knowing God.

God promises comfort. But it is hard to receive comfort when we are used to avoiding the potential suffering of not receiving the comfort we crave. We have reasons to ghost the Holy Ghost. Maybe God is seen as the great corporation in the sky who is perpetually beaming religious advertising at you which you masterfully avoid. Maybe God is seen as your helicopter parents who did so much for you, you have no idea how to do anything and you can’t stand more helicoptering. Maybe God is seen as just another obligation, like soccer practice, and you are just too tired of all that to lift a finger of attention. I got all these ideas from eavesdropping on blogs about ghosting parties.

The key to following Jesus might be summed up in one line from our theme scripture for the Comfort Retreat, 1 Corinthians 1:5: For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. (NASV). That verse is very not-avoidant. So you might have checked out as soon as you started reading it. It has a point that is hard to hear if you can’t even tolerate awkward good-byes:

We suffer. Jesus suffers with us, even bearing our sins, and we suffer with Jesus, even receiving his victory. Suffering is either deadly or transforming for us.

Likewise, we are comforted. Jesus comforts us in our present situation, and we are having a foretaste of his present situation. We  can try to get comfortable in this world, but it is hard to settle for that when eternity is opened up to us.

But what if you are really good at avoidance?

Yes, you might have perfected avoidance. Chances are, however, that if you are reading this, you are more irritated by the stonewallers you love rather than irritating yourself. But if you are good at avoidance, what follows is a list of things that make you suffer and will cause you more suffering if you move through them rather than around them.  But just as the suffering threatens to overflow, the comfort promises to overflow even more. Step by step we get to the end of the journey, unless we avoid starting every day.

Here are six book-length suggestions in a few sentences each for finding a way to stop avoiding. I adapted them from a Huffington Post article:

Give up on denial as a means to stay safe.

 You might start with considering what your mind and heart are really telling you when you take the time to reflect — about you, about your relationships and about God. More important, go with your soul, where God not only challenges you to open your mind and heart, he gives you the motivation and hope to trust him instead of just aspiring to trust yourself and others. Not seeing things clearly will not keep you safe.

 Have healthy conflict

When people who are conflict-avoidant sense a possible confrontation, they become anxious and do whatever they can to avoid the situation and reduce their own discomfort. They may “walk on eggshells” to avoid discussing their needs or “protect” themselves or their partner from experiencing difficult feelings. It’s all too easy to stay in this comfort zone, maintaining the illusion that a relationship is functional when it’s not.

Admit you are needy

Since we have somehow been taught that self-reliance is the height of health, we fear being “too needy.” Some people want to please and care-take, pushing their own needs aside (often telling themselves, “I want to be there for him/her”). They fear becoming burdensome, difficult, or demanding. They have no respect for the mutuality Jesus thinks is normative, at least they don’t respect it with their behavior. They believe that being a “good girl/boy/friend” or being a good team mate means not asking much of their partners and, as such, they often ignore their own needs. You may have tried to get out of that box and been shoved back in, so go back to the part above about suffering and being consoled by God. You can’t solve your neediness without Jesus – except to avoid it.

Let God be in charge of transforming others

You are not the “special someone” who will cure your partner’s inability to commit by being patient, accommodating, loving, and emotionally available. Acting out all those good traits should be giving love because you are loving, not loving because you think you are Jesus. We comfort because we are comforted by God, not merely because we think someone will follow our example or should reciprocate. Perpetuating the drama of feeling good when you are loving but destroyed when you are judged for not being loving enough or good enough to love is like being addicted to something.

Suffer the fact that people will let you down

We will do just about anything to not be left alone. Many of us end up in a series of relationships that all end up with abandonment. So we avoid relationships, even with God. Instead, we should stop avoiding the self-awareness that could tell us why we keep replicating unhealthy relationships. Avoiding abandonment makes us focus on how bad or flawed we must be — even before someone leaves us, we are acting as if they will, which often causes them to do so. No one knows better than Jesus what it is like to be abandoned by those who loved him and by those who should love him and don’t. Those sufferings are flowing back and forth between us and the Lord. But so is the comfort.

Stop playing your part in the “drama”

Healthy relationships seem boring to a lot of us. If something is godly, we might sabotage it to get a thrill or just to perpetuate the illusion that we are “true to ourselves.” We might long for the passion and excitement of our youth and keep trying to get the drama back. But as the troubled thirtysomething marriages around us demonstrate (some of which are dissolving as we speak), long loves are not built on emotional drama. If you were a child raised by parents who could not suffer together and be consoled by God, you really need the replacement parenting Jesus is opening up to you.

I may have just caught up with “ghosting” (I heard the word but did not adopt it). But I have certainly experienced the behavior. An author in Elle even did a survey to validate her experience, which is similar to mine, so my experience has empirical data behind it! People ghost my cell, the church, our appointment all the time and sometimes they even get out of my party before I can make them say good-bye to me. (Best solution to that awkwardness: avoid the party, which has surely been done). I guess Jesus is the only Holy Ghost who doesn’t ghost us. It is a good thing he doesn’t need an invitation to our parties, and it is especially wonderful that he even stays to help clean up.

There is going to be risk: You’ll worry, but don’t fret

Boomer fret
“High Dive” (1947) from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post is in the collection of Steven Spielberg and on exhibit at. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Our church is going off the high dive in any number of ways. But don’t fret, OK? There is probably no way not to worry; but we can at least avoid fretting.

Do they still make graduates of swim lessons go off the high dive as part of the final test of their capabilities? Have insurance companies banned high dives for regular folks altogether? (I don’t go to the pool like I used to).

The big plunge was my final exam when I was done with my third year of lessons. I did not crawl out onto the edge of the diving board when my turn came to leap. But I felt almost exactly like Norman Rockwell’s painting. I was scared of heights then, too. My friend Jeff, pushed off from the back rails and leapt out into the center of the pool, which added to how ashamed I felt for being such a “scaredy cat.” I’m glad I did not die from my flood of emotions before I hit the water! I have to tell you that I eventually made a wonderfully awkward dive off the board before the summer was over, but I would not do it again.

I hope none of us feel like we, the church, are that boy, our present situation is that diving board, and the pool is the mess that is about to drown us. But it would not be surprising if we did. Our church has been pushing us all off the edge for some time, now. I won’t even go back over the “second act” we launched into a couple of years ago; we are still swallowing that change (and benefiting every day!). But just last year we penned a daring map and proceeded to do most of it.  We are way on down the road. We are off the edge and into the deep end.

We do not listen to cautionary tales about the perils of doing what God calls us to try.
  • A new building came up for sale but we did not buy it, we bought a different one down the street. We were in motion and God could steer us.
  • We wanted to get out of 1125 S. Broad because it seemed just as cheap to own a building. Then we decided we wanted both buildings. Not only did we want to preserve our store where it is at, we wanted more room for a new childcare business and events opportunities.
  • At the same time, we planted a new congregation. It’s like when you got a new job, moved, and realized you were pregnant. Not that easy.
  • What’s more, we entrusted brand new pastors to lead the newly-birthed congregation! Not that easy. They had experience with Jesus and Circle of Hope — but very few people are ready to plant a new congregation! And the way we do it has its own difficulties, since it comes complete with people, some settled in their ways, with it.

The other day, Paul Kohl told the Leadership Team:  “I want to talk about the strategy of 1125 S Broad (metrics specifically) and 2214 S Broad as per our agreements. If we were ascending Mt Everest we would be in the death zone, not enough oxygen to sustain life; we need to keep moving until we reach our objective and return to where we can breathe.”

You can always rely on Paul for an apt metaphor. He means we need to get our businesses rolling to sustain our buildings before the cost undermines our capacity, among other things. We took a risk and are at risk.

One of our proverbs says: Following the Spirit is risky business, calm seas do not make good sailors.

I often think it is important for the leaders to keep teaching us good sailing habits. Lord knows the seas of the world are not becoming calmer.

So I am writing this today hoping your basement did not flood during the downpour, your marriage does not feel like it is disintegrating,  your children are not sick, your car is running, your job is secure and you are not too upset over the latest disaster in the society — so you feel free to take a risk. If you do not feel like it, then I hope you can trust God, since we are already in the pool.

I keep quoting the King James Bible these days, where Psalm 37 starts out: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.” That verse can be extended from its immediate outlook on the constant disparity between the rich and the poor, to give us some encouragement for facing other difficulties and injustices.

We can decide not to fret and keep risking because God is with us and the Lord will bring the world to right in the end and is already at work in us and others who follow Jesus.

  • Don’t fret when you confront the inevitable risk of following something larger than your own fret.
  • Don’t fret when you confront the inevitable temptation to follow what you are afraid of (actually trying to avoid it; but running away is still being led somewhere).
  • Fret = to heat or inflame oneself. Don’t get flooded with your fiery emotions. Or when you do get flooded (which you probably will, maybe before this day is over) , take some time to settle down before you do something unworthy of you.
  • Don’t let someone steal your joy. God is trustworthy and you are not in charge of the end of things.

Paralleled with “don’t inflame yourself” in this verse is “don’t burn with jealousy.” So this verse is all about getting burned. Someone or some situation is going to try to light a match to you, don’t let them. Douse it with that fountain of living water waiting for just the moment you need to use it, or jump into the sea of grace surrounding you! (Take that metaphor, Paul!)

I think we are going to worry because things are hard and the world is pretty dark, and inexplicable things do happen to nice people. I am worried about a number of things right now. I am not a stone, nor do I want to become one to get by. I want to worry and not sin. I equate the sin with the fretting, with the unchecked burning, with the faithless flaming.

So when troubles set us off, let’s step back and trust, not become paralyzed or over-activated by our worry and end up fretting or throttled up or down by injustice. We are following someone greater than us whose plans are larger than ours. And that’s not only OK, it is salvation.

What will Wonder Woman do to the children?

Gwen and I went to see Wonder Woman — ALL of it.  I even sat through the credits at the end because they were just so beautifully done. I found it to be a lavishly and lovingly produced piece of art. I’d go see it again just to enjoy the production values. But it also contains a surprisingly compelling story. See what you think.

As you can tell from the trailer, the movie keeps getting bigger,  louder and more frenetic as is moves toward its conclusion. My lingering impression from the experience was, “This thing is HUGE!” As we watched the credits we were in awe. I said, “There must be 1000 names on this list!” There were actually over 1500, I found out, and that does not include the 5600 extras that were hired.

Wonder Woman came out on June 2 and has already grossed over $300 million dollars worldwide. That’s BIG. It may make way over $100 million dollars in profit.  Isn’t it amazing how we have gotten used to such large numbers attached to comic book movies? This one took about 12 years to write and 4 years to make. What does a ten year old do with all that hugeness that keeps beating down on him or her? What am I going to do with it? But, more important, what will Wonder Woman do to the children?

The movie is such a big idea crammed into a couple of hours. What does a child do with it all? Here are just a few of the themes: ancient myths,  being a god, problems with mom, leaving home, first love, losing your virginity, experiencing a new world, finding your power, sensing your destiny, losing your mate, confronting evil, being an alien. When a giant story beats down on you, what do you do with it?

Is this a good response to Wonder Woman?

I kind of wish we all screamed, especially the children. Instead, I think the kids are swallowed. They adapt. They conform. They become acclimated and develop traits that allow them to survive in the presence of the machine.

The experience of Wonder Woman was such an overpowering noise! — part of the anti-silence in which we live.  We saw it on a very big screen and were surrounded by sound: thundering hooves, whizzing WW1 bullets, titanic explosions — by the end, too many explosions.  Maybe we are all used to such things by now. But we should probably notice that watching these movies could be another little dose of the PTSD that soldiers get in battle that dulls their senses and makes them anxious the rest of their lives (this has been studied). Some of these movies may be like taking your kid to work — in Afghanistan.

I look over my precious collection of grandchildren and wonder what the machines will make them. We considered our plan for children as a church last Saturday. I watched Wonder Woman on Friday. It was quite a juxtaposition. I wonder if we will have enough community in Christ to counteract the 1500 people who rammed Wonder Woman into our consciousness and threatened to trample it into submission.

 

That sound is Trump tromping on the Paris Pact for Pentecost weekend.

The howls of protest from around the globe are hopefully ringing in the president’s ears. Donald Trump’s executive order to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has been generally decried:

  • CNN: Trump to Planet: Drop Dead
  • The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World
  • Foreign Policy: Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America
  • Esquire: Are You Proud to Be American Today?
  • Slate: We the Victims
  • The Guardian (UK): Trump Just Passed on the Best Deal the Planet Has Ever Seen
  • Washington Post: Trump is Abdicating All the Country’s Moral Power
  • TalkingPointsMemo: Paris Decision Was Driven By the President’s Rage and Fear
  • Arnold could not resist his regular Trump takedown

Most of the time, activist Christians just join the howl. There is room for that. But Pentecost, yesterday, promised more, didn’t it? Surely Jesus was fulfilling the beautiful, old promise of Isaiah as the Spirit was poured out during the festival of the first fruits; it was the ultimate demonstration that God’s word waters the earth and brings sustenance – all the way from the seed to the bread seeds provide.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” — Isaiah 55:10-13

Like the trees miraculously clap, it is just as amazing that we have become God-praisers who dare to hope — and dare to act on that hope in desperate times.

Trees clap their hands in the face of climate change
Isaiah 55:12 — Brenda Bogart

The climate catastrophe makes it clear that we live in desperate times. We need to repent in order to survive. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping seem to know this. The president elected by evangelical Christians seems to think the 70 jobs gained by opening a new coal mine in PA is worth ecological disaster.

I say “we” need to repent because, whether we like it or not, the United States government has drawn its boundaries around us. But I also can say that “we” of Circle of Hope, probably have a lot less to repent of when it comes to climate change. From the beginning of the church we have been aware and active. Lately, we even have a compassion team devoted to the new concept of “watershed discipleship,” which calls us to live as partners in our respective watersheds, connected to the earth and connected to others who share our bioregion. Long before that new concept, we were going with the old, Biblical teaching of being a tribe inhabiting our place, forming a new community that was not beholden to the arbitrary lines of the political map, but connected as a people filled with the Spirit. We loved trees, but even more, we loved with those hand-clapping trees Isaiah sees — enlivened, as we are, with the new energy of God’s redemptive presence.

One of our friends treated us to Wendell Berry via Daily Prayer not long ago. He also claps with the trees. More than a quarter century ago Berry was arguing, before it was fashionable, that “global thinking” was often a mere euphemism for an abstract anxiety or passion that is useless in the struggle to save real places. “The question that must be addressed,” he contended, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land.” Only love and responsibility for specific places – what native Hawaiians call aloha ‘aina – can motivate us to struggle on their behalf.

Some people are working toward Berry’s vision from the outward in by rediscovering a bioregional identity. That’s great. I come at it from a more Anabaptist approach. In a real sense, I think we are more like the Hawaiians who carry the reality of aloha ‘aina in them. They identify the watershed; they love it; they aren’t created by it. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. The earth does not make us. Like our Cell Plan teaches about being an organism:  “We aren’t waiting; we aren’t merely prospective; we aren’t laboring under the condemnation of some structure to which we need to conform. We exist as who we are. We are being built by God. We feed on the Spirit and develop.”

Local territory to tackle climate change

Even though we work from the inside out, wherever we are planted, there is little doubt that the movement of the Holy Spirit right now must include “re-place-ment.” Our Watershed Discipleship team is an outpost of an intellectual movement (mostly fronted for us by Ched Myers) that reflects Kirkpatrick Sales’ 1985 primer Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sales defined a bioregional sense of place: “Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.” Ched Myers and others are even more specific, and talk about being “intertwined within a larger system called a watershed” in which the inhabitants are linked by their common necessity and use. In a sense, we are cradled in the basin of our watershed where the organisms are interconnected and interdependent.

I find Myers’ imagery appealing. It fits us and it fits the Bible. Our approach to social action as Circle of Hope has always been to embody it. We are an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, living in our own skins in our own place. While reactive people are howling at Trump, we may join the chorus, but we do so from a place. No one can deprive us of our connection to the Creator and the creation. We are the new creation in Jesus. We have never been subject to the “political geography” of dominant cultural ideation (at least that is our conviction), so when someone calls us into the “topography of creation,” they seem to be describing our native territory.

Trump’s blatant skepticism of climate change highlights a moment when our sense of being grounded by the Spirit in a community living in a discernible place becomes an even more relevant aspect of our mission. As Myers teaches, we are in a “watershed moment of crisis.” Acknowledging a bioregional sense of place helps the unaware become part of the context they are missing. It is time for restoring humanity’s right relationship with creation, which can be clearly experienced in our watershed. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum is often paraphrased to sum it up: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

In the face of humankind’s self-destruction, Isaiah’s vision is one of joy, not despair. The Lord is the Creator. God’s renewing presence waters the earth and makes it like our mother. Everyone is an armchair evolutionist these days, so they think the earth is all we’ve got, so the earth is our mother. From that viewpoint, Trump’s poor leadership is even more horrifying. But we “go out in joy,” knowing that the hope of the world, the hope for our watershed, the hope of our church and our cell is the promise of God delivered in Jesus. Everywhere we turn, we deliberately and relentlessly plant trees and clap with them and in that become spiritual redwoods ourselves.

Memorial Day lessons in Bruges

Thank God for GPS! We managed to squeeze our rental car through the medieval gates of Brugge (Bruges if you are coming from France instead of the Netherlands) and then navigate the cobblestone streets to our bed and breakfast. Every time we walked out our charming accommodation, I turned the wrong direction, but my phone delivered us. So we found our way to the significant sites where I learned a few stories of what happened in Bruges.

I am not writing this to tell you all about my trip to Europe; you can go to Brugge yourself sometime; Lord knows everyone else does. The city is so attractive, It is like Disney made Main Street, Belgium and dragooned people onto tour buses. With a chocolate store on every corner it’s irresistible.

Memorial Day is every day in Burg Square in Brugge

I’m writing to tell you one little story that seems appropriate for Memorial Day, when we remember people who have died in war. Belgium has been a big battlefield for about 400 years, so it seems appropriate to include them in our remembrance. Today, many of us will remember the valor and convictions of lost soldiers and the nobility of their sacrifice. Even when I think they were deluded and abused, I still respect their honor. Others of us remember how awful and senseless war is on Memorial Day, how it is a cyclical outbreak of evil that proves how much we need a Savior. No matter what it causes, gratitude or tears, I think turning the holiday into an excuse to BBQ is debasing what it means; not protesting the wickedness it signifies undermines our credibility as Jesus-followers; and just ignoring it diminishes our love. So let’s have a moment of seriousness, my friends.

My little story has to do with the war memorialized in architecture on Burg Square in Brugge — a war between church and state in Europe that is one of the many memories that make the church seem like a thing of the past throughout most of the continent.

We stumbled out of the bed and breakfast, disputing which way to turn, until I led Gwen the wrong way and Siri rerouted us. We were headed for Burg Square, the center of ancient Brugge, where we found the landmark (above) which Rick Steves told us would be the best vantage point. I opened my big, blue Belgium book, which flashed a “tourist” signal to the others in the square and began to read. A nice man speaking Dutch-seasoned English came up to us and began to embellish stories we had just started reading. One was about the two towers we could see from our vantage point. One was the tower on the church in the opulent Archbishop’s compound. One was the municipal tower connected to the civic authorities. Word is that the bishop made sure his tower was taller. The guide kind of sneered at the bishop and mocked the civil authorities because their fighting was so absurd. The constant fighting about which power would have the upper hand is embedded into Europe’s idea of the church.

On the same square was Brugge’s medieval claim to fame: the Church of the Holy Blood, in which resides a relic a Crusader brought back from the Holy Land – a vial of God’s blood. Periodically, this treasure is paraded through the streets for general veneration. We soon suspected that our friendly storyteller was working on a commission for being our unasked-for tour guide. So we told him we needed to make our pilgrimage to the afore-disparaged church.

Memorial Day for Billy with Trump, Murdoch, Palin
Billy Graham’s 95th birthday.

This memory sits in my mind like an indigestible bit of foreign food. I studied the investiture conflicts in history classes, but every time I run into the after-affects memorialized in European architecture I get a sick feeling. It is the same kind of queasiness I feel when Franklin Graham calls Trump God’s choice for president, or I hear of a white supremacist in Portland channeling the political zeitgeist by threatening Muslims on the train and then killing their protectors (about which Trump is so far silent, BTW). These kinds of actions are why people desert the church and and despise its search for coercive dominance. Gaining power does not mean justice. The only justice we’ll get is the kind Jesus distributes by the means he chose and chooses. When I remember war and the wars sponsored by the church, I get sin sick.

So, like I said on Friday, i expect to have some tears on my burger along with the ketchup today. It is a sin sick world and the leaders of the church, in general, let’s admit it, have been painfully susceptible to fighting for power in the name of Jesus while Jesus is fighting the powerful in the name of love. God help us to be the alternative.

Tears on my burger for Memorial Day

Memorial Day is not just a day to find great sales at Home Depot! It is a day on which those who died in active military service are remembered, traditionally observed on May 30 but now officially observed on the last Monday in May.

I usually observe it with tears,

This year I can especially remember the people, mostly young men, who were in active military service during World War I.  I just returned from Europe where, on a beautiful spring day, after cruising the back roads through the lush landscape of Northern France, Gwen and I made a pit stop at Verdun. We did not know there was such a beautiful museum dedicated to the long battle for the strategic territory between Germany and France.

Everyone seems to agree that World War I was one of the most useless wars ever. The curators of the collection we saw made sure we got that message.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 38 million: there were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

The total number of deaths includes about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Triple Entente (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead. Disease, including the 1918 flu pandemic and deaths while held as prisoners of war, caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents.

Memorial Day in WWI
Fallen British and Australian soldiers in a mass grave, dug by German soldiers, 1916 or 1917

Let’s have some tears this weekend. Have a burger. Say you need to visit the facilities. Close the door and have a good cry.

The Verdun museum demonstrated, lest I forget, that the one-percent of the day got themselves into a ridiculous war, called upon the youth of their countries the serve the Fatherland, and let them die. As exhibit captions noted, once there, the soldiers knew it was a foolish, hopeless enterprise, but they had to defend their fellow soldiers. The war took on a life of its own, with little rationale except that it was being fought.

We have to note that our immense militaries, led by people like Trump, Putin and Duterte are bloated preparations longing for release. Trump berated NATO members this week for not spending at least 2% of their national income for military build up. No doubt millions more civilians will soon be forced to flee conflict, while their sons are convinced that blowing up others or themselves solves problems. It is happening in Syria, the Central African Republic and the the southern Philippines right now.

Make us peacemakers, Lord. Extract some tears from our hardened, apathetic hearts this weekend.

A Stance: How Jesus Acts on His

Jesus lived among people with stances on everything, too.

Here is Jesus taking a stand. He has a “stance.”

And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” — Mark 7:9-13

The Pharisees had their stance and Jesus had his. They each saw the world in a certain way.

The Pharisees had a point of view that had been refined over a few hundred years. They had an intellectual and emotional attitude. Their stances were so important to them that quite a few conspired to get Jesus killed when he threatened their validity and power.

Jesus had some stances, too. Most of them were pretty basic, when it came to behavior. To the law-abiding Pharisees who wouldn’t even follow one of the ten commandments he said, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.” When he was talking to people who sin he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43).

Church can become a matter of competing stances.

But what did Jesus do as a result of his stances? Did he try to get someone punished? Did he want to enforce them? Did he want to get someone killed? Not at all. He did not treat us according to his stances, he died for us. He treats according to his love.

We need to “go and do likewise.” Do so will be tough, because postmodern “democracy” is a constant collision of stances. Supposedly, the world is ordered by people expressing their individual consciences within the safety of laws that protect their identities. In reality, as we all know, it is ordered by people who can buy enough influence to guarantee that their stance seems very important. Regular people get lined up behind a particular stance and are defined by massive definitions of “identity” and argue all day like congress. Since the institutions are God-free there is no center to bring any substance to the dialogue, so the process is a constant competition to see who will define the center today.

A few years ago Gwen and I were in court because she was subpoenaed to appear in the district attorney’s case against the young man who threatened her on our stairs with a letter opener taken from my office on floor below. She talked him down the stairs and was fine (thank God!). But she then had to go through the torturous “justice” system while the young man languished in jail for months. What the lawyers did epitomizes what we all do these days. It is even worse, maybe, than what the Pharisees were doing with their law, certainly similar. The lawyers compete, case after case. They try to get witnesses confused (“You said the knife was six inches long, and now you say eight. What was it?”). They try to find a way out of following the law. They accuse the other side of procedural mistakes. There is no real interest in the truth. They often make sure their clients don’t tell their story at all, because they can’t compete in the game very well. It seems to me that we are all being trained to defend our self-interested stances with the same kind of dialogue.

What you do about your stance is more important than having one.

When “what is your stance on?…” is the big question in the church, which it sometimes is, it is trouble. The church definitely takes a stand in the world, but it does not act on it stances like the world. For one thing, the church is a kingdom, not a democracy, essentially. That doesn’t make democracy a bad way to run governments; it just means governments are different from the church. But the main reason the question can mean trouble is this: if we argue our stances all day we’ll end up with a competition to dominate a godless center, just like the world does.

Jesus stance

We have stances, just like Jesus has some very radical stances. And just like Jesus doesn’t mind talking about his stances, we talk about ours. More important, Jesus has an even more radical way of acting on his stances. It is how we act in relation to our stances that makes the church like Jesus.

The big example, like I began, is Jesus’ stance on sin. He has a strong “point of view” (from the center of creation): “Sin is killing you. Don’t mess around with pretending you aren’t doing it. You Pharisees don’t even follow the Ten Commandments and act like you are so holy!” His stance does divide up the world between people who are for him and against him. But here is the big difference: he does not treat people according to his stance on sin. He wrestles the sin for them and then with them. He acts for everyone, whether they follow him or not, by acting out of his dying love.

Our church and all the churches are in danger every day of getting divided up into competing stances. I think it is safe to say that most people think the validation of their rights/opinions/political identities/power is crucial these days. They judge the church according to whether it agrees with their stances. We even get judged for not having stances!

I think our only hope in such a day is to discern whatever we can call Jesus’ stances and then act on them the same way he did. He is the center and we listen for truth from the center, but then we treat people in love, not according to their stances or ours. The love may not be based on how great they are, or on their right to be loved. At its best, our love for them will be a dying love animated by Jesus himself.

How to nurture dialogue: Discern, don’t soak up what’s unsaid

Over and over we have met as a congregation’s stakeholders or as the Council of the whole church and shown the world how Jesus lives in his body. We are a good example of an authentic church. It can be difficult to be in a large group and listen (much more to talk!), but we keep succeeding at it. And it is good that we succeed because such listening and inspired replying is one of the crucial skills for being a real Christian. Circle of Hope is blessed with hundreds of people who will engage in the deep love of dialogue. The world will be even more blessed when we can engage even more.

discern

Don’t just soak up emotions

I think the main difficulty for a lot of people in these large, community dialogues comes down to this question: How can I hear the Holy Spirit rather than merely soak up emotions? So many of us grew up in places where there was little direct communication! We had to pick up the emotions and underlying content by squeezing them out of what was unsaid, what was nuanced, what was withheld. So many of us are such experts at reading vibes, we almost never listen to actual content; we listen for what is in between the lines – especially for the emotions we crave or fear will not be there. So put us in a Council meeting and we are overwhelmed with all the vibes that are assaulting our emotional Geiger counters. The most wicked, hurting, selfish or mistreated person can end up coloring our sense of what happened rather than the Holy Spirit.

We know that the Holy Spirit is resident in the followers of Jesus, in one way or another, at some level of consciousness for the follower. When we listen to content or emotions, we are listening for the Lord, too – especially when we are in a meeting designed for that. We want to give our brothers and sisters the grace of listening for Jesus in them all the time, but we especially want to do that when we say we are doing that.

Question your discernment

Here are three sets of questions distilled from a good book on decision-making called The Discerning Heart by Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au that might help us listen. I offer them to you to help sort out what you are doing when you are listening for Jesus and trying not to merely soak up emotions and call it listening. When we are in a group dialogue ask yourself these questions and ask them of others, too.

  • Are you speaking from the Bible? Are you speaking from our common lore?
  • Does the common sense we seem to be speaking from still make sense? Do the circumstances, opportunities and new revelations confirm it?
  • What are my feelings, intuitions, gut instincts, aspirations, and that sense of being spiritually confirmed tell me about what is being said?

What are we doing when we dialogue about what the Lord is saying to us? We can listen for things we know to be true. We can chew on things that might be reasonable or become more so. We can react heart-to-heart to revelations that could be from the Spirit. All these are better than falling into the group and feeling emotions that probably have more to do with what we ate, or who is angry with us, or who helped to install our defense mechanisms as a child. The process of discernment in the body is an art form that every contributing believer will want to master as deeply as they are able.

How many times have we received a great confirmation for our direction during our Council meeting, or immediately felt someone’s inspiration needed to be incorporated into our plans, or felt convicted that we needed to resist some direction or temptation? I can’t count the times. Our dialogue has made us who we are in Christ, as a people. One time we came to a conclusion that we needed to ban comparing the congregations.  We realized that the way we were talking was, for many of us, more about our desire to fit in and to have a place that looked like each of us instead of all of us. Comparisons are odious. When we (inevitably inaccurately) stereotyped another congregation as a certain type of people, we were actually contributing to evil’s strategy to divide and conquer us. Not only were we factually wrong about each other, we were very spiritually wrong. That was good discernment.

I am sure that someone left the meeting and did not even know we decided all that. They were probably too occupied with wondering what that “dirty look” meant when someone entered the room and glanced at them, or they were wondering what happened when a couple of people got into a little argument during the middle of a discussion, or they felt slighted when their comment did not seem relevant and people did not notice they were hurt. We’e are all good at soaking things up, and some of us think it means love to do so, but such an instinct rarely helps us dialogue in love and hear Jesus in the midst.

In Honor of White Corpuscles

A few weeks ago a thoughtful friend told me about a revelation he had. He had unwittingly translated certain cultural instincts from his childhood into the church, and he was getting some wit about that. (Gimme a church wit’ wit). Whenever there was a person who was doing something “wrong,” his first instinct was to “shun” them. He avoided them. He certainly did not talk to them about what they were doing wrong! He kept them on the outside of his life. They became somewhat invisible.

Turning away does not work for good

This did not work for much good, of course, since he still felt bad/mad/sad about the problem and the person he shunned did not get whatever benefit he might bring to their struggle. This was his revelation: Jesus is God getting right into the middle of the human mess and dying for people while they were still sinners. It dawned on him: This passive-aggressive thing we do where we never say anything directly and surround offending people (essentially everyone) with unspoken (constant) disapproval is not particularly Christian. It is not.

white corpuscle

The way the body of Christ works is exactly the opposite of avoidance (some people call it “tolerance” or “live and let live”). The body of Christ works like a human body. When there is an infection the white corpuscles in the blood stream multiply and rush to the area of disease or wound. They don’t shun it. You can see their spent residue in the white ooze that surrounds the boo boo on your finger. In the church, people who become aware of some sin, or disaster of judgment, or lack of reconciliation, or of anything that might weaken or, if left unattended, kill the body, turn toward the person and the infection and surround it with love, truth and attention until it gets better. Shunning the infectious person or relationship only makes them more powerfully infectious and might be as good as telling them to go to hell. The church is in the healing business.

White corpuscles

In the physical blood stream there are a lot more red blood cells than white corpuscles. The life delivered by the red cells far outweighs the need for infection control by the white. This reality is exactly replicated in the Body of Christ. The life of Christ in the Body, spiritually surging through us like blood in our spiritual bloodstream of Christ is the best antidote to the death that threatens it every day.

Just like our physical bodies, we have built-in defense systems that leap into action when disaster strikes. Like white corpuscles in the blood, the infection fighters in the body of Christ increase in the day of trouble. On a normal day, there are relatively fewer people with the awareness of what could kill us moving through our body. They are gifted with discernment. They keep watch over us. If they are wise, they only worry us with their worries when it is necessary. Most of the time, they trust the life of Christ to overcome its opponents. Pray for them. They are an important minority. Watch them instinctively go about their business. When you see them caring, join them. They lead us to turn toward the trouble and heal.

It is a life and death matter

I’ve been watching this life-giving process happen in healthy bodies over the years and watching it not happen in dying bodies. It isn’t that easy to kill a church, but it can be done. When a simple cut is left to gangrene, poison can take over one’s whole body. The same kind of thing can happen in a church. It is rare, but it happens if you are arrogant enough to think you are impervious.

More often, like a physical body, the church works to naturally cleanse itself. I have warned people from time to time that they should stop being infectious, since the body will eventually, without even thinking about it too much, treat them like a sliver until they pop out. As a pastor, I feel responsible to be among the white corpuscles.  But my goal is rarely just to pop someone out. Jesus redeems “slivers” all the time. I usually feel even more responsible to those who are unwittingly in danger of losing the connections they cherish or missing the experience of growth they long for because they have become an infection. It often pains me to bring it up, since I have some avoidance mechanisms that encourage me to shun people…but then I remember Jesus turning toward me.

I think my friend was learning one of the most important lessons of love. He could of learned it from observing his body recover from a wound. He learned it from seeing his relationships not recover from their wounds. By extension he learned how the love of God is the great antidote to what ails us all — a love that turns into trouble rather than away. Seems simple until one tries it. Then it seems like getting a new life.

15 habits of success the rich stole from poor Jesus

Kevin Kruse of Forbes recently interviewed over 200 ultra-productive people including seven billionaires, 13 Olympians, 20 straight-A students and over 200 successful entrepreneurs. He asked a simple, open-ended question, “What is your number one secret to productivity?” After analyzing all of their responses, he coded their answers into the 15 unique ideas I’ve adapted for Jesus-followers who want to make a difference.

You might not be an entrepreneur, Olympian, or millionaire—or even want to be—but their secrets might help you to get more done in less time, and help you to stop feeling so overworked and overwhelmed. We church planters bite off more than we can chew as a matter of habit. In order to keep up with Jesus, we need to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

successful at being anxious

Make the most of your time

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. – Ephesians 5:15-16

Most of us are still working on organizing our days into hour and half-hour blocks on our calendar (if we can find the calendar!). Super successful people know there are 1,440 minutes in every day and there is nothing more valuable than time. Money can be lost and made again, but time spent can never be reclaimed. Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller says, “To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute by minute.” The idea is “You must master your minutes to master your life.” This is especially important if you want to be a super gymnast or millionaire. And it is especially relevant if you are your own master. But any human, locked in time for a while, knows that disciplining our time makes us more effective in accomplishing what we have been given to do.

Focus on one main thing.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14

Our handhelds get us to multitask all day and soon the day has been like running ahead of a zillion demanding tasks. Productive people know their Most Important Task (MIT) and work on it for one to two hours each morning, without interruptions. (Those of us with children at home are fondly remembering such a time). Tom Ziglar, CEO of Ziglar Inc., shared, “Invest the first part of your day working on your number one priority that will help build your business.” What task will have the biggest impact on reaching your goal? We are interested in being whole people who reach the whole world with the whole gospel.  What needs to happen?

Get over to-do lists.

For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, — Romans 16:7-9

Super effective capitalists schedule everything on their calendars. Maybe you don’t care about making money, but you would like to get something done. A study found that only 41% of items on to-do lists are ever actually done (if you make a to-do list, verify that).  And all those undone items lead to stress and insomnia because of the Zeigarnik effect. Highly productive people put everything on their calendar and then work and live from that calendar. “Use a calendar and schedule your entire day into 15-minute blocks. It sounds like a pain, but this will set you up,” advises Jordan Harbinger.

Imagine yourself overcoming procrastination

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.—Romans 1:13

Your future self can’t be trusted. That’s because we are “time inconsistent” (this used to be called, “fickle,” I think).  We buy veggies today because we think we’ll eat healthy salads all week; then we throw out green, rotting mush in the future. We buy a P90x because we want start exercising and the box sits unopened a year later. What can you do now to make sure your future self does the right thing? Anticipate how you will self-sabotage in the future, and come up with a solution to defeat your future self. Mentalizing about what you do to undermine yourself can turn those stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

Make it home for dinner.

I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. – Philippians 2:25-26

There is always more to be done, more that should be done, always more than can be done. If you can’t stop, you can never start. Successful people value more than work. Jesus followers value truth, community, worship along with family time, exercise, giving back. We must consciously allocate our 1,440 minutes a day to what we care about (i.e., put it on your calendar) and then stick to the schedule. If you don’t have a home, a dinner partner or a job, you have that many more disposable minutes; you don’t need to wait.

 Use a notebook.

 Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. – Jeremiah 36:2

Richard Branson has said on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t have been able to build Virgin without a simple notebook, which he takes with him wherever he goes. In one interview, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis said, “Always carry a notebook. Write everything down…That is a million dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!” Ultra-productive people free their mind by writing everything down.

Process email only a few times a day.

Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. – Psalm 55:17

Some of us don’t process email at all, even if we are important to a task or a loved one. So that’s another issue. If you check it all day, just note that productive people don’t do that. They don’t respond to each vibration or ding to see who has parachuted into their inbox. Instead, like everything else, they schedule time to process their email quickly and efficiently. For some that’s only once a day. For others it is morning, noon and evening. As far as Facebook and other social media, they might delegate that.

They keep meetings short.

For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is. – Colossians 2:5

Ideally, Jesus followers live in a perpetual “meeting” in the Spirit and are working in community, even when they are not in the same room. Our lives do not occur in our meetings, even though we love to meet. Love and truth is harder to achieve than profits, so sometimes a meeting will last all night. Mark Cuban says, “Never take meetings unless someone is writing a check” (but he also does Shark Tank). Meetings are notorious time eaters. They start late, have the wrong people in them, meander in their topics and run long. Many productive people avoid them whenever they can. Maybe you should hold fewer yourself, and if you do run a meeting, keep it short and pointed.

They say “no” – a lot.

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. – Matthew 5:37

Billionaire Warren Buffet once said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” Another successful entrepreneur gives this tip: “If something is not a “hell, YEAH! Then it’s a “no!” There are only 1,440 minutes in every day. We make sure they count. Buffet is not that stingy about things, so feel free to disperse your minutes to the poor or however you are moved, just be sure to be moved.

Things are often 80/20, not “fair.”

‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” – Mathew 20:13-16

The Pareto Principle teaches that in most cases 80% of outcomes come from only 20% of activities. Ultra-productive people know which activities drive the greatest results, and focus on those and ignore the rest.  All tasks are not created equal. All people do not deserve the same honor for being effective; they have to show they are effective. We may love everyone, but we are wise about who we entrust with what counts.

Collaborate as much as possible, accept half a loaf.

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. — 1 Corinthians 12:6

Ultra-productive people don’t ask, “How can I do this task?” Instead they ask, “How can this task get done?” They take the “I” out of it as much as possible. Ultra-productive people don’t have control issues and they are not micro-managers. In many cases good enough is, well, good enough. They take half a loaf if it feeds their next steps.

successful at oppressing

Theme days of the week.

But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts;
they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say to themselves,
‘Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives autumn and spring rains in season,
who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’
Your wrongdoings have kept these away;
your sins have deprived you of good.

“Among my people are the wicked
who lie in wait like men who snare birds
and like those who set traps to catch people.
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor. — Jeremiah 5:23-8

Jeremiah needs to get in here near the end, because some people may be deluded by the ultra-effective people Forbes set up as examples. There are many more people who are ultra-effective at loving God and others, caring for the poor and evangelism. Forbes does not care about them, but they would be better examples. Nevertheless, I don’t mind appreciating brilliance wherever I see it — even among the damned and the destructive. Why should we bow before their rapacity and not have their wisdom serve our ends? So let’s finish this up and see if any of it applies to our ambitious goals.

Forbes’ highly successful people often theme days of the week to focus on major areas. Kruse uses “Mondays for Meetings” and makes sure he’s doing one-on-one check-ins. His Fridays themed around facts and figures and getting things today for the next week. Maybe you’d like to hear about Jack Dorsey’s themes; he is so effective he can be the CEO of Twitter and Square at the same time.

 Touch things only once.

In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,  which God will bring about in his own time — 1 Timothy 6:13-15

How many times have you opened a piece of regular mail—a bill perhaps—and then put it down only to deal with it again later? How often do you read an email, and then close it and leave it in your inbox to deal with later? Highly successful people try to “touch it once.” If it takes less than five or ten minutes—whatever it is—they’ll deal with it right then and there. It reduces stress since it won’t be in the back of their mind, and is more efficient since they won’t have to re-read or evaluate the item again in the future.

Practice a consistent morning routine.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly. – Psalm 5:3

It might surprise people that many of the highly successful people interviewed were eager to share their morning ritual. It is America in 2017, so someone figured out how to monetize what Psalm 5 has been giving away for free for about 2800 years and treat it as their own idea: Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, told Forbes, “While most people focus on ‘doing’ more to achieve more, The Miracle Morning is about focusing on ‘becoming’ more so that you can start doing less, to achieve more.”  Many of the successful agree. They start their day by nurturing their body with water, a healthy breakfast and light exercise. They nurture their minds with meditation or prayer, inspirational reading, and journaling. They are Jesus followers — most of them without Jesus, however.

Nurture your energy.

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—Ephesians 5:29

You can’t make more minutes in the day, but you can increase your energy which will increase your attention, focus, decision making, and overall productivity. Highly successful people don’t skip meals, sleep or breaks in the pursuit of more, more, more. Instead, they view food as fuel, sleep as recovery, and pulse and pause with “work sprints.”

You have probably noticed the giant flaw in this thinking. Most of these highly successful people think they made all their wealth and power happen. The writer thinks following these common sense, biblical rules will make a person more successful like the super wealthy. It won’t hurt, of course. But millions of people are just as disciplined and wise, but are still poor and “unsuccessful” in the eyes of Forbes and the 1%. Some are just failures and will die trying to get into the club of capitalist proficiency experts. Others, like you, probably, just have different goals and your relationship to the world is different. We have an unhinged president who, by all accounts, is successful. You probably want to be less like him every day! But I can’t help thinking that we need to get better at doing the God-given things with which we are charged since people who are proficiently wicked rule us more efficiently all the time.

How to listen deeper: What is behind what people say?

We usually need to listen deeper. Bryce and I were talking one day and he said this little piece of wisdom might make for a good leadership team training: I told him I generally give people a “bye” on the first thing that comes out of their mouth. I don’t ignore them, I just reserve judgment. I assume I don’t know what they are talking about. The crazier it seems to me, the more likely I am to say, “I need to listen deeper. I must not know what is going on here, because what is on the surface can’t be all there is.”

My goal is to trust their heart, not their words, trust God at work in them, not parse their words in order to judge them. I certainly don’t want to get in a power struggle! I want to live in a condemnation-free zone, so I need to guard my feelings and  bridle my tongue. This gets harder the more intimate one is with someone, of course, since we often think we know what they are saying better than they do, and we are often poised to be offended, because what they say matters to us.

need to listen

When I told the leadership team this little bit of wisdom, an astute member immediately noted that brain chemistry backs me up. They noted Daniel Kahneman’ book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). He shows how our minds react to stimuli with two intertwined systems: the automatic and effortful systems. My bit of wisdom is about slowing down and letting the effortful system get deeper than the snap judgments and illusions that can undermine loving responses from the automatic system. So here’s to brain research!

Slow down and listen again

When we have a large reaction to what someone is saying or feel suspicious about it, it is kind to slow down and see whether there is something else going on we can’t see yet.

There are a lot of different things that could be happening that we (and they) might not immediately see. For instance:

  • They are upset and I am feeling the upset behind what they are saying, even if they are not talking about it directly.
  • They are working something out verbally and they don’t really care what they are saying. They are not holding on to the thoughts I think are important.
  • They trust me and I am getting some very deep things that may or may not fit with the subject. They are putting a lot on the table that may not be sorted out yet.
  • They don’t know what they are talking about yet, but they want to appear like they do because they are afraid I might think they appear stupid or weak. They are speaking from their image, not their feelings.

We are often in challenging conversations in the church because we prize dialogue and are organized to make it happen.  But we are not all the same and we don’t always understand each other. So we need some effortful listening to avoid being tangled up all day or stirring up needless conflict. More love will happen if we demonstrate grace that really listens for anything good behind what people are doing and saying — especially when it seems like what we have heard so far is not so good! We want to find something good to trust. It is exactly like Paul telling the Philippians to dwell on whatever is good in Philippians 4.

This is not always easy. After the sunrise celebration on Easter, some women who like to evoke the dances of indigenous people groups made a circle and started dancing to the drums. My first reaction to what they communicated was, “There is that branding that makes quite a few people uncomfortable.” And “There is a circle that is excluding others — and they look like accessories to the worship team!”  I could have gone home and complained to Gwen in the car about it.

But, rather unconsciously I must admit, I went over and put myself in the circle for a little while. I did not dance like an indigenous person dancing, I danced like me, but I did connect with the dancers, one who is in my cell. I picked up on the deeper message in their dance and it feels good to remember the moment as I write. I understand why someone would dance on Easter Sunday — why wouldn’t everyone?! It felt good to connect with people expressing joy with their bodies and not just stuck in their head. They were not doing something wrong; they were happy!

Maybe everything that is happy seems like it is wrong to someone. And maybe we should be so free that we can express our happiness in ways that don’t run over people. My automatic thoughts were not wrong. But my effortful thoughts were better — and more connective. I tried to listen beyond my reactions, and sure enough it was possible – especially since these dancers were people I knew and loved.

Remember how you would like to be heard

Listen to someone as you would like them to listen to you. (Sounds like Jesus, right?). Think about it. How would you like someone to listen to you? Don’t we all long to express what we are thinking and feeling? How do you want someone to hear you? Do you always know what you are talking about? Aren’t you regularly wrong about what you assumed to be true about someone or some circumstance? Do you even know what you are feeling at a given moment? Chances are, we all have a lot to work through and some effortful listening from a loving person would be great. Too often we need to work something through and we end up dealing with someone’s first reactions more than what we are working through! Too much of that kind of dialogue and we stop trusting anyone enough to say much of anything!

We will make a safe place for faith, hope and love if we go for building trust. Find something good in what people are saying before you stick with your first reaction or make your point. They may say something you think is dumb, inaccurate, ill-considered, or flat out dangerous. Let that go by and look for the best thing about what they are saying. Find something you can affirm. If you can’t find it in their words, find it in them.  After all, if they are a Jesus follower, they have the Spirit of God in them! If they aren’t a follower yet, they are still made in God’s image! Affirming that goodness is the glue of love that keeps us together and makes us all healthier and happier.