We love what evangelicals were: Let’s be who we are becoming.

When the seminarians cohort met last week to do some theology, Corinne quoted a speech by Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton (from our mutual alma mater!), as an example of an Evangelical who is struggling with us:

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

He went on to talk about race, nationalism and economics as other notable places where the Evangelical movement has long been off the rails in the United States, noting that someone told him when one Googles “Evangelical” one gets “Trump.”(I tried it. Sure enough, the last three entries on the first page concerned Trump). A Christian is in big trouble when Trump is associated with their spiritual convictions.Image result for evangelical millennials

That kind of “evangelical” is why people leave the church

One of the generators of the post-WW2 Evangelical explosion was Fuller Seminary. Now Fuller is facing decline as the white church causes an exodus of millennials. As a church founded by an evangelical-influenced Anabaptist and twentysomethings, Circle of Hope regularly hears and feels the abhorrence associated with the label “evangelical.”

Carolyn Custis James asks the church what they are going to do about their reputation in the Huffington Post:

What would inspire [millennials]  to return [to the church] if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “come!” or “stay away”?

To begin with, if you want people to stay or return, how about not labeling them? —  like calling them “millennial?”

We’ve been creatively answering Custis’ questions and many others for many years. At our meeting to do some theology we pondered the question “What’s up with Evangelicals?”

  • We considered how to affirm Evangelicals who keep the faith while jettisoning the label that has been hijacked by powerful racists seeking to control the domination system.
  • We considered how we are not an exclusively Evangelical church, by any stretch of the imagination, but how we care about all the traditional emphases that mark the movement.
  • We noted that while we share some convictions with historic Evangelicals, at the same time we care about the contemplative prayer movement from the Catholic church, the spiritual immediacy of the Pentecostals, the social action of the Mennonites, as well as all sorts of art, thinking and influences from movements that most people have never heard about from all over the world. We aspire to transcend labels.

Jeff Sessions is a good reason to wear the label “Evangelical” lightly

The big “for instance” about Evangelicals came up during our “Ask Me Anything” session on South Broad last Sunday. One of our friends asked Rachel what we are supposed to do about Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children after they enter the U.S. illegally. Sessions said,

“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (whose dad is a notable Evangelical pastor) summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” – USA Today

What are we supposed to do with that? Let’s be kind of Evangelical about it right now and actually care about what the Bible says. I think it is obvious that Paul is not writing the Romans as if he were Jeff Sessions! Jesus was killed by evil-doing authorities and the Apostle would soon be killed likewise. Neither of them were notably obedient to the established order out of principle. If anything, Paul is recommending in Romans 13 that the church obey the authorities so they don’t all get killed before the church takes root in Rome! Nero will shortly try to get rid of all of them after the big fire (Trump is like Nero). Even a cursory reading of Romans 12-15 reveals a vision that far transcends something as measly as obeying worldly powers as a goal for Christian behavior:

  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
  • Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8).
  • You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (14:10).
  • We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up (15:1-2).

As our dialogue developed among the cohort, I was happy to see us shrug off the label “Evangelical” as well as others plastered on us by the world while affirming the goodness that can be found in most containers (like “Brethren in Christ”). We ended up wanting to help people who  think Jeff Sessions might be a member of Circle of Hope find their way out of the thicket of lies growing up around them. Really, I don’t think any of us even know Jeff Sessions; much less is he one of us. Besides,  the trap he is in makes him about as real as reality TV and he probably knows he is just playing a role — he might not like it either. Regardless, our debt to him is love. And though he deserves contempt, we are not going to treat anyone with contempt. If we are convicted to be more faithful than others, we will bear with the weak and build them up. We are going to overcome evil with good.

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

I have been in many discussions lately in which the convictions I just described have been labeled as “not enough.” From what I understand of the persistent arguments thrown at me, I am supposed to wear a label from the most recent political fight and defend it. I am supposed to get power and use it rightly. I am supposed to be with the Evangelicals or against them, as if our endless strife were Lord and not Jesus. It is tiring.

So I was glad to find some actual edification as I was zoning out in front of the TV on my day off. I tuned into Gone With The Wind again after flipping through other possibilities —  I love to watch finely-done movies, even if they are philosophical travesties. I only got to the part in the movie where the disreputable but moral Rhett Butler convinces the daring but disreputable Scarlett O’Hara to violate all standards of public mourning by dancing with him at the charity ball. She mildly laments that her reputation is going to be shot after all their unseemly waltzing. He tells her, “With enough courage you can do without a reputation.”

I may have gotten as much from that line as I have from Paul’s letters on today’s subject. I’m not sure why he didn’t write it himself; he surely thought it! As people who take our faith, the Bible, the Church, and its mission seriously, we need a lot of courage these days, because, as one of the cohort noted, “Evangelical” might as well be an “F word;” and Jeff Sessions represents the church on the news! Our reputation is shot with the so-labeled millennials. We live among Americans and they like to fight, not love. They love power, not pleasing their neighbors – even the weak ones seem to wake up every day wondering who stole their power! We need courage! Because I can’t help thinking we were made for this very moment, good reputation or not.

There are a lot of loving Evangelicals (I hope you said, “Of course!”). Their movement has roots in all the serious-Christian movements in the history of the Church. I can be one of them, or not, because I am serious about following Jesus, too. Wherever the Lord is followed, I’m fine. We all have the future in Christ to receive and build; we need to avoid  fighting to do it right now. We are meant to end strife, not conform to it.

That’s not to say I don’t think a good argument can be usefuI! — but I would hardly let one label me. As Paul said (in Romans 13, Jeff!), “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” There are great labels yet to be born, like “There goes that effin’ armor of light guy!”

Wildness and worry: How Paul puts them together

The probable site of the “bema,” or the steps/platform where the magistrates sat, in Philippi.

A boring picture of rocks, then two pieces of the New Testament letters of Paul is not the most exciting way to begin this blog post. I hope it gets better for you.

I am trying to describe how wildness and worry go together in us.  And I mean both words in their best sense, since some of you may think both or either are not that attractive.

  • Wildness, when we are thinking of the Holy Spirit, is alluring — at least it is attractive in people who are free enough to experience and express God’s presence.
  • Worry, on the other hand, is usually seen as unattractive — and it should be when it is all about our fear. I am thinking of it as an inevitable feature of caring for others and for the redemption project, as you will see.

Here are the two Bible portions on my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:21-29

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Galatians 4:19-20…5:7-13

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! …The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

When I was on my pilgrimage recently, following the Apostle Paul through Greece, I had a recurring fear: “If I tell anyone how much I identify with this man, will they label me a grandiose fool?” But last week I had to admit to my spiritual director that Paul has been my spiritual guide from day one of my faith. As I have the vantage point now to look back on many years, I can see how much that is true. I think the parts in bold, above, are key elements of his teaching, and I have tried to make them key to my life.

My new Paul icon from Berea

I identify with both Paul’s wildness and worry

You can decide if the Spirit speaks through Paul, or not, as he would heartily agree you should. So I offered two little portions of his letters today that demonstrate something I recently put together for myself, as well: There is a connection between his wildness and his worry.

My director was parsing out meaning in my deluge of storytelling the other day and he noted how I spoke with delight about how I stood before the “bema” in the ruins of Philippi, undoubtedly near where Paul stood himself, and loved the wildness of the whole scene. Then I was talking about my worries about the future of Circle of Hope and he noticed such a change in my demeanor that it was striking, “What are these two things? Do they go together?” I think he wanted me to stop worrying and move with my bliss.

I eventually told him, “It is all part of the same story.” I had been talking a lot about Paul so I said, “I think I can connect these two things to Paul, want to see me try?” He did. And I remembered today’s verses.

In our dialogue, I had been alluding to our Church Planting Summits last year, when we had all sorts of scenarios for the future of our movement. My director was surprised at how wild we are, since he has been a Presbyterian for a while. For instance, when Presbyterian pastors end their service in a local congregation (like I did in 2016), they are generally sent packing and have a strict no-contact clause in the ending agreement. Circle of Hope did not do that with me. So there I was last summer leading a discussion as Development Pastor about how we should connect as congregations (association, aggregation or composition?) and helping us consider combining congregations if they would be better together than struggling as small groups apart. He marveled at the flexibility! He could see the benefit of being one church in many locations. He said, “Most churches just try to survive and most of their energy goes toward protection, not freedom.” You are rather wild.

But I am also rather worried – quite often. I sometimes think I would rather buy a beach view and practice my well-earned inner peace apart from worries. But then I realize that I hooked my wagon to Jesus and God is very concerned about the earth. It is not so much that the Lord is just worrying over us like something shameful or terrible is going to happen to his creation – he knows the end. But he is worrying like a mother hen might brood over her eggs until they are hatched; and the Lord is fussing like a human mother whose children are just getting mature enough to drive a car.

The wildness of creation is at work. Re-creation has been set loose by Jesus. The sentient, loving beings who carry the heart of it all are yet to be fully revealed. Will they all make it to the good end? I am worried with that kind of worry.

Paul demonstrated both his wildness and worry when he wrote

You can see the complementary nature of wildness and worry in the Spirit in the verses I shared. The passages are often consigned to the “worry” category: “You dear Corinthians with whom I spent so much time. Are you really going to divide up and think you are more special than your teacher?” And “You dear Galatians who responded so favorably to the gospel, are you now going to listen to people who teach you need to be Jews first so you can be Christians?”

I can relate to the worry side. I often think it is wrong to worry — and mistrust in the end is probably wrong. But I might say, “Circle of Hope are you going to squander your community and alternativity now that it is so sorely needed? Will you really think about yourselves first and not imagine a future of mutual trust in Jesus?” Maybe we all relate more to anxiety, so when we see it in Paul we remember it.

But the wildness is also in these passages. I mean that very attractive Spirit-driven wildness that makes Paul such a notable and world-changing guy. I suppose if he walked into the Sunday meeting we’d either adore him or be scared to death by him. The way he makes his point to the Corinthians is to list all the wild things that have happened to him because of his calling in Jesus. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, bandits, hunger, it goes on. When I was following his journey, just the amount of walking he did seemed daunting to me. The prospect of entering a new town in a car provoked enough anxiety in me! — when I was in Philippi, I was complaining that it was too hot and I was glad to get back to my air-conditioned vehicle! Paul was entering a new continent with a brand new message expecting God to work a wonder – and repeatedly that is just what the Spirit did.

To the Galatians he appeals to their highest, wildest selves in contradiction to teachers who had come in and appealed to their lowest and enslaved selves. He speaks so boldly people have been criticizing him for being too aggressive ever since. But Paul feels free and he speaks freely. And he thinks the Galatians can handle their freedom in the Spirit without being reduced to the Jewish law, which was just a tutor for their adulthood in the Spirit as the children of God. When I thought of Paul being hauled up in front of the magistrates, I was reminded of how much faith he had in the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus unleashed!

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A “celebration of what can be” by David M. Kessler

I can’t seem to have wildness without worry, either

I am not sure I convinced my director, but I began to convince myself that my wildness and worry went together. There is no way to take risks unless I hope they will make a difference. There is no way to exercise my freedom without hoping others experience the joy of it. There is no way to be part of a cell or team and not long for the fullness they represent or despair over the trials they face. There is no way to build the wild thing called the church and not worry over its future and brood over the fragile new birth springing up in it all the time. Paul was not just traveling around Greece for the sheer exhilaration of exercising his thrilling new freedom to do so! He was nurturing a people who would be set upon, almost immediately, by their own unprocessed sin and by people ready to redirect their movement into channels that suited themselves more than Jesus!

The movement of the good news in Jesus keeps on rolling in about the same way it did in Paul’s time. As I look back on how Jesus has led me, it makes me happy to think my mentor from the past was so influential. I wish I could be more like him, even now. But I am delighted the same Spirit who moved him made me like him at all! — intrinsically wild and often worried for good reasons.

Resistance — Was it your fault or their struggle when they left the church?

This post started because I sensed my own resistance to the changes happening in my life. In the middle of prayer, I said right out loud, “You really don’t want to do anything today, do you?” I picked up a good book I want to finish and the first page was about the resistance a man felt to accepting a call he felt from God. I immediately put down the book and said, “I just can’t do this.”

I was becoming more aware of my innate resistance to my journey deeper with Jesus. To be honest, it seems like the deeper I go, the more resistance I face! So I got up to do some more research on the concept and experience of resistance in people who are going deeper into themselves and, more important, deeper with God – which always includes going deeper into oneself. After I wrote the first line of this paragraph, I impulsively flipped open a news aggregator website I like. I really didn’t want to concentrate on this issue! So if you are feeling similar things, I suppose this blog post might be hard to finish. You might be about ready to click the Facebook icon right now.

The resistance people feel might not be your fault

As a church, we often feel ashamed of ourselves when people leave one of our many expressions of our tight community. There are many good reasons people leave, no doubt — we do things wrong and their lives just change. But one factor we often overlook is that they leave because of their resistance. They don’t want to go deeper: with God, with others or in their own sense of self and mission. You can often see resistance brewing before they hit the road. Here are some symptoms: perfectionism, criticism, contempt, being self-critical, preoccupation with appearances, social withdrawal, need to be seen as independent and invulnerable, or an inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.

This resistance and its symptoms is a phenomenon psychotherapists have been talking about for a century. They kept experiencing the paradoxical experience in which a client who came for relief and help would resist their own treatment.  A main reason is they were ashamed to need treatment! They wanted to change and grow, but the uncomfortable journey into health was hard to bear.   This probably sounds familiar to you. The resistance your therapist is noting in your session is also happening in all our health-giving, loving relationships, — we even experience it in our families. Toddlers who love french fries inexplicably won’t eat them! Did you somehow taint french fries? I doubt it. Why did that person drift out of the cell, dismissing it as inadequate or annoying? Were you really that inadequate and annoying (perhaps!) or could they be facing the need to change and they are resisting it?

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Motivation is not really enough

When people are facing resistance to their life of faith (sometimes displaying those annoying symptoms I just listed), they are often condemned (usually by themselves!) for their lack of motivation. Just tweet the picture above to one of them! They could easily read it as: “Why are you so uncommitted to Jesus and his people? Why aren’t you super?”  But, for most of us I think, we are rarely consciously resisting anything. It is automatic. Want to hear Freud talk about it?

“The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain, and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it…If you succeed in persuading [them] to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, [they have] rejected, you will then have accomplished something towards [their] education…Psychoanalytic treatment may in general be conceived of as such a re-education in overcoming internal resistances”

Want to hear it from the Bible?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. — Hebrews 12:1-4

Hebrews 12 is often trucked out as a motivational jolt. “Come on, get over yourself! Get into the game! Look at all these great people who have already done it! You can endure your suffering and tirelessly move ahead. You’ve still got blood in you, don’t you? Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” The verses can can be made to sound like the Oprah channel, and it does have some overtones of good self-talk. [This Oprah moment is not the worst thing ever said, it just needs Jesus]

But it can also be read as very sympathetic to the resistance the readers are facing. I think it says, “The most dreaded thing in us is suffering and pain. Face the entanglements and sin you are discovering and move beyond them. Fix your eyes on Jesus, who so vividly faced the dreaded shame of dying on a cross! He certainly understands what it is like to face opposition, inside and out. It won’t kill you to do it, even though it feels like it, at times. Don’t let your resistance steal your rightful place by God’s side.”

Motivation or positive thinking are good to have, but they are not enough when we need to go deeper to go farther.

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We need to look at our resistance from many angles

As I began to let my own resistance be noticed, I had a whole array of ways to resist noticing my resistance.

  • I could repress it — suppress my thought and my desire to move with the change and leave the whole subject unconscious.
  • I could redirect the feelings to a substitute – I’m just feeling blue because Gwen is gone, the cat died and so-and-so disappointed me.
  • I could have called some therapeutic friend and got them to feel sorry for me so my resistance could actually get me something even though I did not really address it.
  • I could get up and clean the basement or watch TV and basically get myself deeper into my resistance by repeating all the behaviors that always cause the distress I have come to think of a “just being me.”
  • Or I could assuage the innate guilt I feel by punishing myself for my resistance or avoiding the shame I feel with inebriates, procrastination, comfort eating or worse.

It is no wonder Paul said in Romans 7

I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25

We have a lot of ways to defend our injured, tender selves against feelings of discomfort. We find it very difficult to attend to perceptions and ideas which we have disciplined our mind to avoid, or to  acknowledge impulses we don’t want to admit we feel. It would be great if we could hear a motivational speech, change our minds and so change all our ways. But being deep takes a lifetime. Being saved takes a moment, but transformation is a slow process of working things through with the Holy Spirit by our side and God’s people watching our backs.

One of the primary reasons that motivation, of itself, does not automatically lead to change is that we fear that the demands involved may be too costly. We may have to see our own role in the problems we are having and do something about it. In addition, we worry about how other people will react when our behavior patterns change; the move toward health can be surprisingly upsetting to those who are used to “the devil they know” (a person’s usual defensive style). Their partner’s change challenges them to change and they might be uncomfortable with that. Finally, seeing our own role in our problems does cause some negative reflection about the past and how much time we have wasted in behaving as we have.

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So be careful with people facing their resistance in the church

We might need to be careful with people who seem unmotivated, irritable, or wishy washy. They are undoubtedly dealing with their resistance to their own spiritual health. Surely you can’t be bad enough to deserve all the criticism or rejection such people redirect on you. Sometimes you even repent, don’t you? — and they still are not satisfied. It is probably more about their own struggle than you. Stick with them. You might even help them see what is going on by allowing them to explore it with you. But more likely, the Holy Spirit will be incrementally transforming them as long as they can stay close and not wander too far from the environments that help them.

There is something like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring Jesus-followers  and the true self they desperately want to put on. When Paul talks about it, it could sound like a pep talk.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. — Ephesians 4:22-4

It could even sound like a scolding, “Why are you walking around in that old self?!”  There is a place for that question.

But Paul’s letter is to people who are working with this new life they have and it is not that easy. When they get a glimpse of the wall they face, they can see how they have been corrupted and how deceitful their desires are. People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure over and over. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage. They know they have already been made new by Jesus, but living like it is a surprisingly difficult matter. We, like Paul, need to keep bringing it up and facing the resistance. It is crucial for our personal development. I need to admit that I have places yet to go. I am still developing “after all this time.” I think we should be careful with others too.

We are all facing the same kind of irrational fear. We prop up our resistance with a stubborn, largely unconscious determination to avoid the anxious or fearful feelings of being confronted with truth and reality. Our sense of self can be quite tiny. We may not want to feel disoriented by new self-knowledge. We might fear being overwhelmed by everything we’ve been holding back. We may have come to believe our own illusions and think we already know everything that could possibly be relevant or important. We probably think holding on to our conflicted self is normal and blame others if they don’t accept it as normal too.

The basic idea of going deeper with Jesus, even needing to be saved, asks people to  acknowledge their ignorance and neediness. Resistance combines with furious non-acceptance to debunk this humiliating new idea that I don’t know enough and am not OK. We might even falsify reality in order to accommodate our defenses, as the President demonstrates almost every day.

All liberating growth takes time. So don’t be surprised if our deep-directed community frustrates people who aren’t willing to endure the long journey. The “old self” pops up here and there in all of us. Eventually, our perverse defense system will probably collapse. But the process takes time. We have to keep “fixing our eye on Jesus” and listen, really listen, to others when they tell us to “consider him” so that we “do not grow weary and lose heart.” Our transformation is not taking “too much time.” We are eternal, after all. Time is just living, not some kind of  burden or obstacle. Once a person is pointed in the right direction, time is on her side.

Right now, I still feel the seeds of my resistance ready to direct my day. Writing a blog post did not automatically cure me. But it did redirect me. A small decision to fix my eyes on Jesus and dare to look at myself made a difference. It wasn’t that easy for me, even though I am kind of an “old salt” when it comes to spiritual discipline. It is not that easy for you or for all those people bumping up against stuff in your relationship with them or in the church, or even with Jesus. Let’s be understanding and gentle with each other. The suffering often feels intolerable.

Trump is a lot like Nero, which brings me back to Paul.

I certainly enjoyed my relatively Trumpless trip to Greece following around the Apostle Paul! It was refreshing and clarifying. The Greeks have a corrupt government, too, they say. So it is no surprise to them that a Donald Trump is taking hold of the U.S. Treasury. But the people who live in the home of democracy, whose ancestors invented all the temple architecture in which Lincoln  and Jefferson are enshrined, were kind of hoping the United States would hold out and not end up that way.

The U.S. ended up that way. I don’t say “we” ended up that way, since I am not elected by the people, or stealing from them, or planning to enslave them in new ways as I undo the fabric of their society, be it ever so  humble. I live here, but I would hardly let myself be governed by Trump in any sense that really mattered.

Like I texted my brother, I consider our branch of the Christian family to be a permanent and long-standing example of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty he was texting about (1 Cor. 7).  I admit I had to go to Google to see who they were — they were the secret society devoted to overthrowing the rule of King George III in the American colonies.  He thinks we should be ready to overthrow Trump — and knowing him, he is only half joking.  He is a rather conservative guy with a daughter in the FBI, but he hates being embarrassed. And Trump, along with his Bible-misinterpreting Attorney General are very embarrassing. I know they embarrassed me in Europe. I literally called myself Canadian a few times.

It was good timing to be following around the Apostle Paul on a long-held dream of a trip. Walter Wangerin’s fictionalized narrative of his life helped, too. Paul had the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero to deal with, we have Trump.  Wangerin’s biography reminded me that after Nero killed his mother five years into his reign to solidify his power at age 21, he was welcomed into Rome as a hero. People in the Eastern Empire thought of him as a god and longed for his return after he committed suicide. That’s the same emperor who executed Paul and Peter. We can’t really tell what people will swallow or even worship. Humankind is messed up. But isn’t it amazing how important Paul ended up being and how comical, if morbid,  Nero seems now!

I was surprised at how moved I was when i arrived in Veria (Berea) and found the small memorial park devoted to Paul’s work there. I was struck by how the simple message of the work of Jesus on our behalf is a powerful antidote to what ails the world and carries a restorative power that no strange ruler can ultimately undermine. As soon as as our wheels struck runway back in the U.S., Jeff Sessions reminded me that I live in crazy land in need of the gospel. Justifying the separation of parents and their children (in honor of Father’s Day, I guess) with Romans 13 (missing Romans 12, obviously), isn’t the craziest thing offered by the latest administration, but it is high on the list. I was happy to be carrying a revitalized antidote with me from Greece.

I had already heard a small voice in me get louder while I was away, telling me not to rest while Trump fills the earth with lies and people believe he is a god. I’m not going to react to Trump every day, that’s for sure; he does not deserve it. Jesus is Lord and Trump probably won’t even live but a few more years.  What I am going to do every day is nurture the alternative to Trump: the church — even if parts of it are walking with the liar in search of the power and safety of American wealth and whites-only power.

I was emboldened to listen to the promptings of the Spirit when I kept remembering that Paul walked into Greece with nothing but the message of Jesus and upended the Roman Empire, eventually. Of course the Romans cleverly co-opted the church, but the truth has been upending Romanizing stuff ever since. I hope our church gets better and better at upending. We don’t have a lot of power, but we certainly have Jesus.

One last picture. Archimedes (287-212 BC) was a genius inventor from the Greek colony at Syracuse. When we were in the Archimedes Museum in Olympia (another ancient extravaganza) we were so intrigued we went up to the second floor. In the farthest corner was a replica of a weapon designed by an Archimedes disciple.  It is an automatic bow and arrow machine, ancestor of the AR-15. If all of humankind’s inspiration is used for better killing, doesn’t the world need a Savior? If people think vague assurances by a couple of liars in Singapore makes us safer, don’t we need a Savior? My answer has always been, “YES!”

We have one. I am glad Paul did so well at introducing him to people. Eventually the word got to me, too. In a world where somehow we ended up with a Nero-like president, getting back to the basics of being the alternative makes an awful lot of sense again.

What has happened to our friendships?

I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
John 15:15

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A millennial marketer tries to reassure everyone that the latest generation is still interested in human connection. She says, “Marketers can be confident that a desire for authentic face-to-face connection does not magically skip this digitally driven generation. While Millennials find and foster friendships online, they still want people they can invite to chat live over their cold-brew coffee (and they appreciate the ability of digital technology to help them do this). They see online personas as being largely honest and the catalyst for wanting to discover deeper aspects of individuals in-person.” Then she tells the marketers how they can wheedle themselves into the data stream. Another man from Philly suspects all this “relating” is really about being used to pump up your supposed friends’ name recognition, since friendship is mainly about business in the gig economy.

If my Memorial Day weekend and my last cell meeting are accurate indicators, it is not just the marketers and bloggers who are interested in where friendship is going these days. A lot of people are wondering where their friends are, and they are afraid they are not going to make any more, now that they are out of college.

Our cell thought it might be a good use of our map if we named the problem we all feel and do something about it. How about a year of friendship building? How odd that would seem so countercultural!

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As I talked about friendship here and there, a picture began to form about why people either have no real friends or at least think they don’t. I wonder what you think about these four reasons I ended up with, so far:

They don’t take the friendship they get.

It was interesting to talk about not having any friends while we were sharing intimately about friendship in our cell. I asked, “Are we not friends, here?” Is friendship the idealized relationship you hope you will have some day, or is it loving the people in your present circle? Jesus calls his disciples friends because he has given them his life, not because they qualify or they benefit him in some extraordinary way.

They don’t appreciate the friendships they have.

When I was doing my bit of research about friendships online, I was surprised to see how much advice there was about how to end a friendship [like from Oprah]. There is reason for this advice, of course. But I got the impression from my conversations that there was a lot of Tinder-like relationship making more than there was any great need to end connections. A lot of people have such limited trust for anyone, people get disposed of long before they are known or appreciated for who they are! One of my friends told me she was “firing” all her friends. She was moved to reconsider when I asked, “Can they reapply?” Her problem was more that she had never been honest or forthcoming about her discomforts and had done more managing than relating. The idea of expressing her appreciation and lack of it seemed like a better strategy for friend-making, rather than cutting someone off when a problem arose.

They don’t want friendships that need to be built.

When we were children we could make a lasting connection because someone decided to unfreeze us during tag. In college we could show up for breakfast at the same time. Now that we’re married, or engaged with work mates, or have children, our relating time could be a lot of necessity and not a lot of the serendipity that feels so good. Getting over the hump and creating something good seems like a stretch for a lot of us and just too much work. Recently I went on a walk with a relatively unbuilt friend and frankly said, “Let’s be friends.” He said, “Sure.” Naturally, we both calculated in the back of our minds how we would actually fit this in and do the work. But it certainly seemed like a good idea.

They don’t fight authentically.

This is probably the reason there is so little love in the world, in general. Healthy conflict is the key to lasting intimacy and people come to the end of their capacity for it long before the fruit of it is born. I think most of us think being part of a cell is “friendship lite” and we probably would not survive a fight in one of them (or ever dare to have a conflict of any kind). Feeling something deeply enough to fight about it, or to react unguardedly about it, is extremely risky for most of us and we would rather die than do it. We’d rather not have friends than risk losing them. We’d rather not connect than be known or risk finding out someone else does care to know us (as we fear they feel already).

Jesus has his work cut out for him, doesn’t he? We might prefer to be called servants than to be called friends. Friendship requires a depth of humanity we aspire to, but the rocky road toward it is so daunting, we may only try it a couple of times. And if the road gets too rough, we just might give up. Maybe we need to name our issues with friendship and even put a goal about it in our common map of the future. We might get somewhere and love might grow.

Why does being part of Circle of Hope seem so demanding?

Aren’t most churches afraid of being too demanding? If we ask too much, people might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether!

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There is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding.

For instance, some Sunday Meeting Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople.

I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

We are ambitious — that is demanding

Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is also demanding. We make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. What’s more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation once, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

We we assume you have “the stuff” to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. 

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had emulate Abraham’s faith and hope, not just rely on their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem confrontational. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is this: live as your true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Our era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. 

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. She got demanding and changed thousands of lives. But her situation was different. Almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and what she was complaining about was a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a screenwriter put a Maria Von Trapp character in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — they think everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start 17-year war in Afghanistan or design a rocket that can hit the U.S. from North Korea. It is surprisingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

What do YOU think?

When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive ambition. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

Why are you so responsible?

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You probably already believe this, you’ve been taught it so often.

I am listening to a troubled friend. They pause for a breath, and sometimes I can’t help it. I blurt things out.  These days, it seems like I am often blurting: “You are responsible for so much!” I feel so sorry for them – so much to control when they feel so out of control, so many wrongs to right when they feel so wrong (and wronged!), so many needs to get filled when they are surrounded by people who are not giving them enough.

Being over responsible may be why some of us do so little for Jesus.

Dutiful Christians can see what needs to be done; they are smart enough to see what would be required of them to get it done, and they resist getting started. They can’t see how they could do all that. What’s more, they resent being asked to do all that. Even more, they have a secret they rarely reveal: “I am not able to do what I think I ought to be doing and I don’t want you to think poorly of me when you find out. So I am going to keep looking like I am just fine, and tell you that every time you ask, even though we both know I am lying.”

A few parents reading this might think I do not know what I am talking about, since their children seem to be anything but responsible. They won’t even turn out a light or cook an egg for themselves. But they might be wrong about what is going on. Just because a husband withdraws because he is upset, does not mean he does not care deeply for the relationship. He probably feels scared to mess it up by presenting his unholy feelings. Likewise, if your child can’t succeed at cooking the perfect egg, they might rather starve. Likewise, if you are responsible for improving all the weaknesses of your mate and children, they are likely to be just like you, searching around for weaknesses in others and themselves and demanding something of others and themselves which is beyond their present capabilities. And on we go.

It is understandable how the world, in general, might get to this way of life. After all, most people believe they are alone. And many philosophies and a couple of religions, specialize in making the “reality” of being alone palatable. If one is the center of reality, they feel an overwhelming responsibility for themselves; they are responsible for the well-being of the planet, and the good or bad experience of each fleeting, precious day is squarely on their shoulders. The TV commercials last night included one about a young man advertising himself on a dating site – I wanted to cry. Even on a commercial he looked awkward and hopelessly hopeful that his grand gesture would result in love. He was being sold as one of the brave ones who take love into their own hands and get it.

I think many of us Jesus followers have a problem. We aren’t righteously responsible.

We are prone to carrying God’s responsibility in the name of God instead of accepting our actual responsibility. And it is killing us. We are often miserable failures who make everyone else feel like they have to be more than they are to be acceptable. We want to do great things, but since it mainly depends on us to do them, alone for the most part, we don’t even get started.

Why is it so hard to build a church? Most of the people in it love Jesus. Could it be because they are preserving their limited resources, since they know they will be responsible to make their small lives work out perfectly and they instinctively know that the call of God in the church would overwhelm their limited resources? They can’t be responsible for that; they are responsible for everything.

I have several friends I often need to stop in the middle of a paragraph to say, “I don’t need you to react to my feelings before I have them. Please stop taking care of me by not telling me the truth about what you think and feel. If I can’t handle what you are saying, God will help me.” I think they think it is kind to be responsible for my feelings. In some sense I guess that’s true, but I already have a Savior. They could be kind without being messianic.

That’s what I am getting at. We can only be responsible for anything because God is responsible for everything. God decided to need us, we are not responsible for making ourselves useful. We are accepted as who we are and as who we will become at the same time. I think I can say that it is a sin to be an aspiration who is responsible to become someone worthy rather than a beloved child who is deemed worthy right now. Children grow naturally in the light of love. Grandiose aspirations take what is good and wreck it out of their overwrought sense that they need to make something better out of it and so prove their value as a person worthy of their lives.

Jesus followers have plenty of responsibility, of course. We are entrusted with the Holy Spirit, after all. But, like Paul so clearly teaches, we carry our glory in “clay jars.” Our main responsibility is to let our light shine and reveal our splendid weakness as we fully trust Jesus to brings things to right. Isn’t is irresponsible not to do that?

Anything might work because nothing really works.

We had a sweetly earnest cell plan intensive the other night in the basement of 2212 S. Broad. All those couches reminded me of the youth group I used to lead! I suppose that’s why I remembered a lesson I learned very early in my life of mission.

Here’s the lesson: Anything might work because nothing really works. What I mean is: God works. I am just a vehicle, an opportunity, a marginally-capable participant. In the cause of redemption, God has used a lot more surprising partners than me to get things done.

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The cell leaders were mainly talking about how to make connections with people without seeming like Verizon trying to get someone to switch. [Hate this commercial]. They were lamenting those awkward conversations when they suspected someone felt weirdly pressured to sign on the dotted line when they were only being invited into a cell group — a group that would likely feel like a precious gift after a few minutes or meetings. “The ask” is always so hard.

So I told a story about being a youth pastor and feeling compelled to make new relationships with high school students. I used to somewhat-illegally go to Arlington High and sit at one of the lunch tables hoping I would connect with someone. It was, of course, awkward enough to go to lunch when I was in high school. This was even more awkward. And more than a few kids let me know how weird it was, including the ones I already knew! But I also made some new friends, and many of them became friends just because they appreciated just how far I would go to get a chance to meet them [Love this commercial].

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I had learned a lesson from Jesus and I was just determined enough to apply it. Jesus also went to great lengths to get to know us. One time he found someone to heal in Jerusalem and the leaders were mad because he did it on the Sabbath. He told them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). Then they were mad that he said God was his father. Nothing worked with these people! He might have gone to a meeting in a basement and lamented that his healings resulted in too little and people responded poorly when he called on them! I would do that and have.

At the same time, I heard what he was saying and went out and tried again. Because the Holy Spirit has repeatedly made it plain that God couldn’t care less about the rejections and absurdities that people throw against Love and Truth. God is at work, so I can trust that. “My Father is still working” — and if that doesn’t work, then nothing works.

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The fact is, I throw out a lot of resistance and nonsense myself! And what I come up with as a strategy is usually weak, at best. If I were basing my next move on my predicted effectiveness, I would certainly do nothing. I can demonstrate how ineffective I am (even when others think I’m successful!). Fortunately, God could not care less about my estimations of myself. He died for me when I was turned away and uses me in spite of myself, repeatedly.

That motley, beautiful crew in the basement had a shocking number of success stories to tell the other night — that is, if you consider God transforming lives to be success and you don’t restrict Jesus to making your plans for world redemption work out properly. You could tell we thought very little of our successes. The stories were told to encourage us not to give up, for the most part.

When we prayed, I silently hoped that we would see you at work, Lord. Anything we do is just for revealing you. If people don’t see you at work, what is there to do but heal them, or at least be at the table when they show up for lunch and provide the opportunity for living bread?

Nothing works. People will reject a healing done before their eyes by the Son of God! But anything can work: a prayer, a meeting, a note, a cold call, a random encounter, a song, because God is at work and Jesus is alive in his people. Why wouldn’t we just take the best shot we can according to whatever we have available at the moment? Stranger things have introduced people to eternity.

The dreaded future: How Jesus helps us get from here to there

I was in a meeting with some very thoughtful, caring people last week. We were talking about thorny questions with unclear answers. Others in the group cited long experience, cutting edge interactions and the latest scientific data. I referenced, you guessed it, Netflix. Much of what we were talking about had to do with the future, including our fear of it. So I mentioned Altered Carbon.

I told them, “I do not recommend this series because then you will blame me when you watch it.” But I found it pretty riveting — full of scientific, religious, revolutionary and artful themes. Plus, it is beautiful. It is all about a future we are beginning to experience when “consciousness” is downloaded on “cortical stacks” and inserted in various “sleeves” (bodies). I can’t begin to tell you where they go with this, but I warn you, it will be one more way to instill dread when you see it.

The future is all about dread, right? Most movies assume the future will eventually be the ultimate war, which is dreadful (Avengers Infinity War), or it will be a post war disaster, which is also dreadful (Blade Runner 2049).

Christians are notorious for taking the Bible and going off on a future which will be dreadful for everyone but them. We Jesus-followers actually have a future, so it is fascinating to think about it — and we have done that since the first disciples. But we can be as fearful and hysterical as people who have no hope. Back in the 70’s, Evangelicals started scaring the pants off people by filming the rapture. Nowadays, we just need to tune into CNN to have our pants scared off. Surely this era is the “tribulation.”

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The Hidden Face of God — Jed Malitz

Among the thousands of shrill voices screaming for our attention, there is one voice we need to hear—the voice of Jesus. But what does He have to say about the future?

Know about the future

Jesus rebuked people for not knowing about the future. They did not recognize that important prophesies were being fulfilled all around them. He once scolded a crowd: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why don’t you know how to interpret this time?” (Luke 12:56). He expected them to be able to open their eyes, look around and put two and two together — but they hadn’t even learned their numbers.

Don’t worry about the future

The future did not trouble Jesus. He was not preoccupied with what might happen. At the end John 16 He tells his disciples, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). 

Jesus revealed the future so His disciples would rest in Him, not walk around under the shadow of dread. Jesus is the anti-dread. The resurrection is how the end works out. We rest in that hope. Jesus is frank with his disciples about His imminent death, the persecution to come, and the sorrow, pain, and hardship ahead. But after predicting all these frightful events, He tells them to place their trust wholly in Him. For Jesus-followers, the story of “the end” is not frightening, it is another resurrection story about the whole creation rising to new life.

Get ready for the future

Jesus frequently spoke about future events. In Matthew 24, He laid out a vision of events to come and concluded by saying to His disciples: “Take note: I have told you in advance.” He wanted them to know facts ahead of time to help them (and us) face the coming days.

I think we can lose the wild-eyed speculations many teachers find irresistible and focus on Spirit-led discernment. That’s what Hebrews 10:24-25 means: “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). We “see the day drawing near” because we are looking for it. We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand our day and the hour in which we live. We don’t shy away from reading the signs of the times simply because thoughts about the future make us uncomfortable.

Let the future influence the present

Every time Jesus talked about the future, He connected it to what people were doing in the present. Prophecy is given for now, not for then, to help us get from here to there. In John 14 Jesus is quoted telling his disciples right before he dies: “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.” We have God’s promise. We can be at peace.

We have God’s promise so we can plan big things for next week. We are eternal, so we can dare eternal things. Right now our whole country is going through a sea change. Donald Trump s so dreadful people don’t even want to know what he is doing. It is hard to face the future. Sci-fi movies that seemed absurd might prove reasonable. The prospect makes some of us avoid everything, including our own future!

Our church (and probably yours) is going through what everyone else is, plus we have a unique transition all our own going on. Some days we wake up and wonder, what is going to happen? Old people are gone. New people are here. Plans that were small last year now have a big presence (like those buildings we keep finding, ending mass incarceration and gun proliferation, and discovering new ways to connect with God as who we are now). Challenges we did not even imagine now preoccupy us (like war with Iran and the gentrification next door). The future keeps coming and we don’t feel like we are keeping up.

Jesus will help us interpret the times. We don’t need to worry. We need to stay ready. But we also need to stay rested – not because we ghosted on the challenges, but because we gave up on controlling the dread and trusted the Anti-dread. When my pastor calls me into the mapping process in the next couple of weeks, I won’t be reading the signs of the times with scorn and dread, I will see them pointing toward a good end, and I will point myself to do my part in getting us all from here to there.

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

Becoming part of any organization, from a corporation to a little league can be very confusing for a while — a church, especially Circle of Hope,  is not that different. You can walk into all our meeting places, except Ridge Ave, when no one is there and any number of people who come in will ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me about the same time and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Most of you meetings are on Sunday night?” Once the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit. They predictably said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in five congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). People need a lot of Jesus doorways in different forms.

  • We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us.
  • We are slaves to our own understanding; we need reconnected to what is beyond us.
  • We are sinful and broken; it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored.

We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are five congregations in one church.

More directly, we have a great purpose and we are doing the best we can to live up to it. The Bible gives us a mission statement for our family business. It guides us. People call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The essence of the Lords’ plan for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. We have planned our life together to do what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are five congregations because it is an practical, radical, attractive strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way we can imagine. We’re trying “to get to” making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. It is at least possible that Jesus uses billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, charismatic talking heads on big screens and all that to call together disciples. But his main strategy is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now — and showing that in a way that can touch our hearts and minds, face to face. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. And if you look at Jesus and the twelve disciples, that’s basically what he did, too. So we had one, then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and watching them live or them die on their own spiritual strength. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

South Broad was the first congregation that formed (at 10th and Locust, then Broad and Washington). It drew from the entire region. We have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton Pike also has a very wide region — all of South Jersey. North Broad also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. Our newest congregation on Ridge Ave tries to attend to all the Northwest. We used to have congregations in G’town and Frankford, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, South Broad has about 130 adults after sending people off to the Northwest last year. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 50 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the whole church; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the constituency.

In terms of congregations, since that is theme of this post, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are also advantages of scale, being five congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two Sunday meetings, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need, the others can help. We have one mutuality fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the covenant list and share list that are fruitful places to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with Circle Thrift and other good businesses. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. Our pastors do not run the one big church all day; they are mainly local pastors. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes our leaders.

Being big and small also allows us to be old and new. At a Love Feast several years ago Gwen overheard someone saying, “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be in a neighborhood and also city/region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their addresses. We’re all identified with neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

On the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, because our region’s neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside my door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but when they think about doing that to be one church and it seems like a big deal. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, have the purpose, and do the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.

The Spirit’s Impressive Church Planting Track Record

The South Broad stakeholders had a lot of good ideas on Saturday morning! I think we were just getting warmed up when our two hour time-allotment was over. I was impressed with the work of the Holy Spirit among us. We have gifts and vision – and the Lord has transformed lives in so many ways! People told stories to illustrate what they were saying over and over — transformation is so common among us we can use the instances as just another example. We should trust that Spirit.

We don’t make the body, Jesus does. We’re just working with the Spirit of God, here.

The Holy Spirit is just as ready to guide us as he guided all those people in the New Testament. The Lord is the ultimate church planter. The Spirit has never reduced church planting into a reproducible model. The everfresh work of church planting must be reduced into a loving, dependent relationship! Every cell, congregation and church is planted a unique way. So if you are called to plant the church (and you are) you need to develop an ever increasing, intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit and trust the Lord’s work.

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Seeing how the Lord was working and seeing how we need to stop worrying, controlling and judging instead of trusting, made me want to remember how the Spirit is guiding us. So I have two things for us. First, I want to lay out how the Spirit planted the first churches on three continents and how that inspires us. Then I have one piece of advice for keeping up with Jesus as you plant with him.

Jerusalem

Jesus told his disciples to WAIT for the Spirit before beginning to make disciples in the city. As they obediently prayed, the Spirit showed up and empowered courageous witness that pierced the hearts of 3000 unbelievers. What a way to launch a church plant! It has never been done quite the same way since.

How did your church start? Do you even know? Or do you think it started when you showed up? It was probably impressive and it was probably so long ago that most people can’t even relate to it. It is interesting to look back and learn things. But the more important question that looking back usually begs, “How is the church starting NOW?”

Samaria

After this impressive start, what happened next? No doubt the disciples never predicted that persecution was the church planting strategy the Spirit would use. For instance, Philip was one of the Acts 6 leaders who were recognized as being “filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” It seems the Spirit helped Philip stay on task rather than panic once persecution scattered him to Samaria. The Spirit empowered his message of Jesus there until there was “much joy in that city.”

Terrible things in the world, great failures in leaders and in communities are often just the new seedbed of the next church. Aren’t we experiencing that right now? The oddly-successful church planter Robert Schuller was fond of saying, “Turn your scars into stars.” We have some failure among us; don’t you? Do you think we can trust God to turn it all to good when we trust the Spirit?

Africa and Caesarea

Next, to plant churches in Africa, the Spirit inspired an encounter between an evangelist and a seeker. The Lord said to Philip, “Go toward the South…” Philip did his part, “he arose and went.” He came upon an Ethiopian court official reading Isaiah and the Spirit said, “Go over and join this chariot.” Philip and the Ethiopian discuss Jesus; the man asks to be baptized and continues his journey home to plant the church in Africa.

Stories like this pile up in Acts just like they pile up among us. In Caesarea and Joppa, both Peter and Cornelius received visions that brought them together to move the good news of Jesus into new territories. When Peter spoke about Jesus in Caesarea, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” The believers who had traveled with him were “amazed” that Jesus poured out such grace “even on the Gentiles.” The Holy Spirit was building quite a church planting resume: Jerusalem, Samaria, Africa, and now Caesarea.

Stories almost as strange were told this month among us. God spoke in dreams, through random encounters, through random acts of kindness and deliberate plans. Boundaries were crossed. We can trust the Holy Spirit to plant the church.

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Asia Minor

Next, we see “the hand of the Lord” was also simultaneously with the believers who were scattered by the persecution in Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. During one of their meetings, “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.…” As we know from experience and from looking at the story in Acts, the Holy Spirit was not dictating rules and regulations, Jesus was leading his body to ACT. Our job is always to “keep in step with the Spirit.”

The leaders in Antioch were reshuffled, much like we have done since we began our “second act” in 2015. Three leaders stayed in Antioch and two leaders, Paul and Barnabas, were sent out by the Holy Spirit on a great adventure to plant churches throughout Asia Minor. During their second visit to each city, they appointed elders in each church, because the Spirit had been at work calling, gifting, and guiding.

The Spirit at times says “GO” and sometimes says “NO” to our plans. Paul had the noble desire to go back on the road to strengthen the churches that had been planted. However, in the middle of that noble work, he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to speak the word in Asia. Next, the Spirit of the Lord didn’t allow them to go to Bithynia. There are limits to what we can do.

The Holy Spirit is bigger than our imagination. We can only hope to appreciate our own slice of the mystery. We are always doing more than we are capable of doing; we are always given less than we think is necessary. When we look over our meager work and our troubled region we may respond with passion or despair. More deeply, we should respond with trust and gratitude. Our cup is half full. It is amazing there is living water constantly available at all!

Macedonia

When the Spirit says, “No,” we can often expect something better. In Paul’s case, the Spirit gave him a vision that sent him to a new continent. He ended up in Philippi to plant the church. The leading city of Macedonia had no synagogue, where he would expect to begin his work. He didn’t panic. He found a few God-fearing women meeting at the river. The Lord opened the hearts of Lydia and her household. The next core group members added to the church at Philippi were a freed slave girl with a spirit of divination and the jailer. The Spirit impressively planted a church in Philippi with an unlikely cast of characters and through an unpredictable series of events.

I know people are reading through Acts right now and are getting the rest of the story. It is impressive. The are anticipating new acts. It is time to move into the next territory and the Lord is leading us to do just that.

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We can trust the Holy Spirit

Each cell, each congregation, each church is special. Each challenge is unique. Each core group is unpredictable. It just takes the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the message of Jesus to successfully plant a church from its smallest form to the largest — not fabulous talent or charisma. The Holy Spirit goes before us and leads you every step of the way. Jesus is so impressive, we don’t have to be. You just have to trust Him.

Jesus has already been where we are going. When we look over the meeting room on Sunday or in the cell, Jesus is with us and in each of us. We don’t need to get people to do what they don’t want to do, we need to catalyze what the Spirit is already doing! We are cooperating. If we are creative at all, it is all about co-creating. We don’t need to feel over-responsible for what people do our don’t do; Jesus is with them. We don’t need to protect them from what they fear; Jesus will save them.

Following the Holy Spirit is about the character of our relationship with God, not the competence of our job performance. It’s about a relationship to be developed with the person of the Spirit, more than a technique to be mastered. Dallas Willard says it well: “Perhaps we don’t hear the voice of God because we don’t expect to hear it. But perhaps we don’t hear it because we know that we fully intend to run our lives on our own and never seriously considered anything else. The voice of God would be an unwelcome intrusion into our plans. By contrast, we expect the great ones in The Way of Christ to hear that voice just because we see their lives wholly given up to doing what God wants.”   

From the apostles in the upper room, to Phillip after the persecution, to the people worshiping and fasting in Antioch, they were all “wholly given up to doing what God wants.” They were done trying to run their own lives. Ray Ortlund Jr. says: If our purposes rise no higher than what we can attain by our own organizing and thinking, then we should change our churches into community centers. But if we are weary of ourselves and our own brilliance, if we are embarrassed by our own failures, then we are ready for the gift of power from on high”(The Gospel, 104-105).

When I look around us, I admit I see plenty of people who are not weary of themselves yet — and they are wearisome! But those people are far from the majority. Most of the people in our church did not get involved with our radical little group of subversives to look great. Like the stakeholders demonstrated the other day, they got involved to follow Jesus and plant the church. They got involved to give their gifts in love. And they can be trusted to give them, just as the Spirit can be trusted to use them.

The half time leader: Let’s understand and try to help

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We are fond of saying that we ARE the church, we don’t “go to it.” So why do I care whether people come to the Sunday meetings (and all the other meetings)? Why am I worried that our LEADERS are only at the Sunday meetings half the time?

The obvious answer is that it is hard to BE the church if one does not exist in real time as the church.  The meetings are an expression of our reality; we embody the Spirit; we have a location that is not just in our mind or in our belief system. Like Jesus showed his skeptical disciples: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). People doubt if there is no wounded side for their fingers.

What’s more, the Bible is pretty strong on the idea that we are what we do. So the writer of Hebrews teaches, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,” (Heb. 10:24-5). S/he reminds me of NA folks repeatedly saying, “And keep coming back.” The meeting matters because I showed up, no matter what happens in it.

Why are people half-time when it comes to meetings?

Most of our attenders probably agree with what I just wrote, certainly most of our many leaders. But most of them miss plenty of meetings. Let’s consider a stereotypical married couple. Of the 52 Sundays a year, they could easily gather for worship 31 times and still think of themselves as deeply engaged. They lost 5 Sundays to vacation and weekend getaways. They lost 9 Sundays to the kids’ sports and art activities. They lost 3 Sundays to the diseases the kids brought home. They lost 2 Sundays to visiting relatives or friends. They lost 2 Sundays to Thanksgiving and post-Christmas. You can see how attendance can make a person’s commitment seem “spotty” if that is all you are measuring.

What do we do, let each other know we are watching how many times they miss the meeting? On one hand, yes, exactly. We’ve got a team sport going and it is hard to play if no one shows up for the game. On the other hand, no, obviously. Few people need a friend who has an equation in the back of their mind to apply to their schedule.

So why do people seem to be coming to church meetings, even ours, less these days?

  1. They are richer

Money gives people options. U.S. personal disposable income is at an all time high.

They have technology options, travel options, options for their kids. Do you think the richer people are the further away they are from a committed engagement to the mission of their congregation?

  1. If they have kids, their activities run the schedule

A growing number of kids are playing sports. And a growing number of kids are playing on teams that require travel. Many of those sports happen on weekends. Affluent parents are choose sports over church.

  1. They are travelling

Despite a wobbly economy, travel is on the rise, both for business and pleasure.

More and more families of various ages travel for leisure, even if it’s just out of town to go camping or to a friend’s place for the weekend or a weekend at the lake.

  1. Blended and single-parent families have less-reliable schedules

When custody is shared, “perfect” attendance might be 26 Sundays a year. A single parent has many challenges others don’t. Transportation can be harder, taking care of the house, balancing work and family time. If being part of the church does not help with those challenges, it is hard to get into the schedule.

  1. People can, and do, get better stuff online

Many churches have created a social media presence and many, like us, podcast their messages. Some churches with a strong online presence have seen it impact physical attendance. Anyone who attends our meetings has free access to the online resources of any church. Even my blog post on Monday was viewed by people form eight countries.

  1. They don’t feel guilty

People who grew up in church (and we have plenty of them) feel guilty when they don’t show up to the meeting because that was a major thing in their childhood. Going to church or not marked them as good or not. People don’t get that so much anymore. They don’t feel any more guilty about not being in church meetings than you do about not being at the mosque on Friday.

We tend to make it plain that we don’t really want anyone to come to a meeting involuntarily, as if coming to the meeting makes them something. People in meetings who are fulfilling an obligation wreck the spirit of the meetings. So maybe our lack of guilt-production contributes to irregular attendance which contributes to flabby faith that is susceptible to disease. I’m not sure.

  1. More people all the time have a self-directed spirituality

People are looking less to churches and leaders to help them grow spiritually, and more to other options. We live in a era in which no parent makes a visit to a doctor’s office without having first Googled the symptoms of a child’s illness and a recommended course  of treatment. I did it to my dermatologist this week, to her dismay. We research everything we buy online.

In an age where we have access to everything, more and more people are self-directing their spirituality…for better or for worse. They don’t trust institutions to do it for them and don’t feel obligated to them.

  1. They don’t sense there is something for them at the meeting

Even among people who say their love our church, their attendance might be spotty because they don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there week after week. That could be because the  meetings are held because we’re supposed to hold a meeting or because there is value that they simply don’t see. Either way, failure to see a direct benefit always results in declining engagement.

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We could help each other, not just evaluate

Assuming these things are true and we care about BEING a visible church by means of having meetings where people can stick their hands into us, what might help people experience something that make the meetings relevant? Why would the leaders make the effort to make them relevant?

We embrace people where they are.

People are not ideas and they certainly are not machines that should perform on a schedule. Like Jesus, they have wounds; we can see them.

Maybe Thomas was sulky because he thought of Jesus’ death as a rejection. If someone doesn’t come to the meeting and I do, what does that say to me? Did they reject me? If you are an insecure church leader people can feel when you feel rejected.

Before the meetings stats make us feel rejected, we need to find out what’s really happening with people. Chances are they did not make a relationship with us on the basis of coming to a meeting. The relationship is bigger than the meeting. Jesus is with us always, even as you are reading this. We need some object permanence so we can embrace people who are somewhere else for a bit.

We separate the mission from the method

Our mission is to lead people into a life-changing, life-long relationship with Jesus, not just get them to come to our cell or Sunday meeting.

Our meetings are great vehicles for mission and there will not be much community for people to share if no one spends time building it face to face. But our mission is not to fill our empty chairs, it is to lead people to Jesus and stay there with Him. We should be obsessed with our mission, not with filling seats.

Some of us are more in love with the method than the mission. Circle of Hope has wonderful methods that have been very successful, but doing them perfectly and defending them from detractors is not our job. People who move into authentic relationship with Jesus Christ show up more regularly.

We use technology to help people not corral them

Social media and even email can help deepen someone’s journey with Christ. Communication tools are not just for “selling” our latest event. We use them to help people. I don’t think we can overestimate how much help everyone needs right now. It would be nice if they thought what we put in their inbox or on their newsfeed was about them and their needs and not about their attendance. We are an opportunity to serve and grow, not an opportunity to make the church succeed.

We consider output not just input

Church leaders, like most organization leaders, are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs. We measure how many people showed up, how much money they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But we rarely measure outputs.

What if we developed ways to measure all we do? It would be interesting to know how much time people spend attending to God each day — according to a recent study, 57% of Americans read their Bible four times a year or less. What if we found out if people were better off a year after their covenant than they were before? What if we collected stats about the difference our attenders make in their workplaces and neighborhoods? Leaders tend to get passionate about what they measure. So we should watch what we measure.

You probably want to be part of a “bloody” church, like I do. It is kind of gross to think about Thomas putting his fingers in the Lord’s side. But it is kind of great to think about Jesus being that face-to-face about Thomas having trouble with showing up for the resurrection. Every time we have to BE someone who is different than our prevailing feelings or different from the ways of the culture, it is going to be hard for us. So building the church is full of hard things. Let’s help each other make a church, not assume it is already made and we’re just blowing it when it comes to participating.

Standoff: We have treasure to apply to the trouble

There was another standoff on Saturday night.

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Michelle Wolf’s performance, which included a harsh skewering of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left the media sharply divided over its level of propriety. — CNBC

White House Correspondents Dinner

President Trump did not go to the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington Saturday night (although Ivanka, Kelley and Sarah did). The headliner was comedian Michelle Wolf, and she took no prisoners. She was not really that funny, just kind of mean. For instance, with Ivanka watching this was her joke: “There’s also, of course, Ivanka. She was supposed to be an advocate for women, but it turns out she’s about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons. She’s done nothing to satisfy women. So I guess like father, like daughter.”

In a speech that lasted for more than an hour, President Trump sought to reinforce his position as a Washington outsider victimized by a system threatened by his presidency. — Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Trump rally in Washington Township, Michigan

The President was in Michigan having an oppositional event. And he did not take prisoners either, beginning with a harangue against the “dishonest people” in the media and the “phony Washington White House correspondents thing.” Following a string of tweets on Saturday morning that blasted Senator Tester, who made it plain that Ronny Jackson was unfit to head the VA, Trump told the crowd that “what Jon Tester did to this man is a disgrace,” and said that the concerns raised about Jackson were “vicious rumors” designed to “destroy a man.” The President also issued a threat: “I know things about Tester that I could say too. And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”

It was a liar standoff. Mean people being mean. We apparently like that stuff. And if we stop liking it, Laurence Fishburn’s career may be severely diminished.

Will the church completely adopt standoff relating?

I hate to say it, but I think we like stand-off relating in the church, too.

The church tends to be very adaptable to whatever culture Jesus wants to redeem. Sometimes it is TOO adaptable and ends up sponging up than sponging out, sucking up poison instead of releasing antidotes. The church has been divided up by politics for years. Us Anabaptist types try to hold on to our third way, but we often end up mimicking the fights of the world and dividing up over them as if Jesus weren’t our unity. Our church is not immune from standoffs that end in walk outs that result in cut offs. In an era in which forgiveness is finally super relevant, we’re tempted to forget about forgiveness and go ahead and try to win the stand off or at least adapt to standoff reality as if it were reality.

A new book by Bill Schneider (you may have seen him on CNN) shows just how bad it has gotten. It is called Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable. He’s been covering politics since 1976, and in the book he traces the development of a massive cultural divide that developed over that time between what he calls “Old America” and “New America.” Old America privileges tradition, religion, guns, isolationism, “street smarts,” and whiteness; New America favors progressivism, the environment, gender and racial equality, globalism, education, and diversity. Trump, observes Schneider, did not invent this divide, he merely capitalized on it.

I think I joined the New America about 1974 in many ways. Thank God that was also about the time I was signing up for radical Christianity. I think many of us in Circle of Hope are members of the New America mainly because so many of us are new and the old America is old, but also because we’re diverse in many ways, we are living into climate change, and equality seems like it should be moot, not a fight.  I can only hope that people who start new can also get radical with Jesus, who is so old he always seems new.

We have treasure we should not squander

What I want to suggest is simple. In 1976 a lot of things seemed new in the United States, too, to us 20 somethings and the old stuff sucked. Latching on to Jesus made more sense then and it makes more sense now. After many years of sticking with faith, I can tell you it offers a lot more than the interchangeable solutions of the world. The alternativity of the church is the best hope for the world that keeps inventing new ways not to fix itself while totally believing the opposite is happening. Like Jesus says, “Every[one] who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:51-53). We’ve got treasure that winning a standoff will not supply. From that treasure, we might even win a few standoffs. But even better, we would win if we lost them.

Our faith is more precious than the drama or despair of the present moment. Though we suffer great torment, we dare not give in to the temptation to pick up the fights and weapons of the world and squander the treasure we have to offer to the pains of our passing-away era. The healing alternativity of our faith supplies what is needed for the constant trouble of loving our mates, loving unfinished people in the church, and caring for coworkers and neighbors. It is certainly a better direction than creating and dying from a standoff. And the treasure of our faith applies generally. We care about every troubled person and the systemic issues that trouble them. But we care from a deeper place than any standoff demonstrates. If we can’t care from a heart that knows the love of God, I wonder if our “caring” is not more empty promises leading to more standoffs, just more lies from mean people.

Long obedience: Encouragement for not giving up

I have been thinking about how wonderful it is that Circle of Hope has a few hundred people at the core who have been committed for a long time. Many of them will be at the Love Feast again recommitting their hearts to the long haul. Whatever success we have in meeting our goals is based, to a large degree, on their capacity to stick with it! In gratitude for them, I offer you a paraphrase of some parts of a good book on the subject of sticking with it: Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

One aspect of the world I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired instantly. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by same-day delivery, instant messages and last-minute texts. Our sense of reality has been flattened by fifteen-second commercials and thirty-page abridgments.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in Jesus; it is terrifically difficult to sustain their interest, much more difficult to build the church, live as a missional community and gain the prize of maturity in Christ! It is hard to achieve our goal of nurturing fifty-year-old radical Christians.

Millions of people in our culture still make decisions to follow Jesus, but there is a huge attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture, anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly [2018 retailer news]; but when something loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap [2015 novelty foods]. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Orlando’s Holyland Experience — click for website (it’s a real place)

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site — a visit made when we have adequate leisure. For some, religion is a weekly jaunt to church, for others, occasional visits to special events. Some people, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences [Joyce Meyer is still my favorite (Wiki page is not so nice to her)]. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives [KLOVE fan awards]. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen or anything Eastern [9% of U.S. practices yoga], faith healing, Kabbalah, human potential, parapsychology, prosperity, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything–until something else comes along.

The aspect of the world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.”1 Everyone is in a hurry. They want shortcuts. They want church leaders to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But the church is not a tour bus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity, wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”2 It is this “long obedience in the same direction” which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.

For recognizing and resisting the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim.

  • Disciples are people who spend their lives apprenticed to their master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.
  • Pilgrims are people who spend their lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for “the Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’s question “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” gives us directions: “I am the Way, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me” (John 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program: “Do you see what this means–all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running–and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
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The final climb in Jersusalem

We are disciples on pilgrimage. The pilgrim songs from Pslams 120-134 are helpful encouragements along our way. These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Topographically Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity–what Paul described as “the goal, where God is beckoning us onward–to Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

This picture of the Hebrews singing these fifteen psalms as they left their routines of discipleship and made their way from towns and villages, farms and cities, as pilgrims up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for understanding life as a faith-journey.

Meanwhile the world whispers, “Why bother? There is plenty to enjoy without involving yourself in all that. The past is a graveyard–ignore it; the future is a holocaust–avoid it. There is no payoff for discipleship, there is no destination for pilgrimage. Get God the quick way; buy instant charisma.” But other voices speak–if not more attractively, at least more truly. Thomas Szasz, in his therapy and writing, has attempted to revive respect for what he calls the “simplest and most ancient of human truths: namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that what we call ‘sanity,’ what we mean by ‘not being schizophrenic,’ has a great deal to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through silence and suffering.”3 His testimony validates the decision of disciples who commit themselves to make the climb as pilgrims and look for their true selves on the journey home.

1 Gore Vidal, Matters of Fact and Fiction (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 86.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (London: 1907), sec. 188.
3 Thomas Szasz, Schizophrenia, the Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1978), p. 72.

Martyrs have a vision worth dying for: Power is not enough

Being a “martyr” is not like when your mom has to drive you to band practice and she makes everyone notice what a wonderful sacrifice she is making. At least that is not what being a martyr meant to the Bible writers and the early Christians. It is not the same as a martyr complex.

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The word martyr derives from the Greek word for witness. When Jesus says to his disciples – “You will be my witnesses,” he could have been translated, “You will be my martyrs.” When governments and mobs started killing Jesus-followers for witnessing to what they had seen, heard and were experiencing, the dying part of being a martyr got attached to the word. Now all we think about martyrs is that they are dying for a cause.

Dying for a cause appeals to many people, like Islamic radicals driving a truck load of explosives into something or a band of marines saving their brothers. Dying for the cause can seem pretty exciting. When Paul was teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts he confronted a group of people he had to correct about such enthusiasm. They were similar to the anti-disciples, here:

The church at Corinth had a faction in it which tended to care more about the gifts they received from God than they did about the intended recipients. They liked being radical for the sake of it. They were sort of like teenagers who are so thrilled to drive the car fast they don’t mind who dies in the process.

Some of the Christians in Corinth cared more about receiving the powerful gifts of the Spirit than they cared for the Giver of the gifts. It was like you might have reacted last Christmas when you had opened your sixth present and forgot to look at the tag that said who gave it to you. When it came to the exciting new possibilities of exercising the power of the Holy Spirit, some in the Corinthian church loved the expression of power. And some of them didn’t mind bearing witness to how great they were – even greater than Paul who brought them the news of God’s great gift in Jesus!

Paul’s corrective to those seeking power

In between chapters 12 and 14 of the first letter to the Corinthian church, right in the middle of his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, Paul inserts a beautiful chapter about love. At the beginning he writes: If I…surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Surrendering one’s body to the flames might be considered another spiritual gift: the gift of martyrdom [link to Bible studies about them all]. Since Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, that’s always sounded right to me – and I know of people with that gift. Some of the Corinthians probably liked that idea of facing danger for their faith. They liked to be the ones to look like powerful witnesses of God’s work in the world. They wouldn’t mind going out in a firefight.

But those bold members of the church would most likely have expected to win a firefight. That kind of lust for power, competition to be the best, to be the most spiritual, to be the best looking Christian is still a problem in the church as a whole. At least I think it is a problem to see the church in competition with the Muslims for market share, or something, as if life were a mall and we want to be Nordstroms not the Dollar Store. In some famous cases, like the notorious Buddhist Thich Quang Duc, one might leap into the flames to burn away the dross and to etherialize one’s spirit, making a powerful point in the process. People do such things.

This lust for surrendering one’s body to the flames, for being a spectacular witness, is probably less a problem in Circle of Hope than it was in the Corinthian Church. In Circle of Hope most of us love love, and we are good at it. I think we are more likely to read the love chapter and de-emphasize chapters 12 and 14 as being “a bit much.” We will sacrifice almost anything to get love and we feel terrible if anyone says we are not giving enough. We’ll even sacrifice the truth to be seen as loving; we might even sacrifice Jesus if he got too scary looking.

We don’t fight, we don’t even want to have strong opinions, because we know that people won’t think we love them, worse yet, they won’t like us. So Paul would probably change chapter 13 for us: “Wait a minute, God may give it to you to surrender yourself to the flames some day as a witness for the truth. You may need to get into trouble with people who don’t like Jesus.” He might re-write the line for us:  If I say I have love but never surrender my body to the flames, what kind of love is it?”

Our transhistorical body blog often pinches this general spirit among us. I hope we never forget how to say “Ouch!” We try to honor the martyrs who showed us how to keep faith in confusing, oppressive times so we can remember how to do it. To name three recent examples: March 24 — Oscar Romero, April 4 – Martin Luther King Jr., April 9 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

These disciples were loving and well loved. But they certainly got themselves into trouble, didn’t they? They were martyrs for witnessing to the inconvenient truths of the gospel. Just like Jesus did, they got into trouble when they crossed the boundaries class, ethnicity, tradition, politics and power. They insisted that Christ is all and there is no life unless he is in all and powerful people felt threatened and responded as powerful people often do. I am pondering whether we have a such a vision worth dying for or at least worth dying trying for, like our great ancestors in the faith.  Will we share our revelation with love or will we let it be corrupted as we succumb to the constant drumbeat to support the powermongers or at least maintain as much personal power as we can?