I’m still reading email while Trump can’t stop tweeting

One of my New Years resolutions this year was to write a letter each week to a significant person in my life. I mean a poorly-scribbled, pen-to-paper letter. (And you may be saying, “So where’s my letter?!”) I also use Facebook messenger, texting, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, and all sorts of other innovations. But, like so many people, social media is losing its lustre in my eyes. The platform seems to dull connection rather than heighten them. So I am trying to get more basic.  I have my own farm-to-table approach to communication; I want those I love to know who grew their note in a palpable way — I sign my letters with my own hand.

More devices, less communication

The more communication devices we have, the more distance there seems to be in the world. Some days the disconnection we experience in the church is palpable. We are getting forced apart by choices to connect at minimal levels with quick, minimal devices [old Sherry Turkle Ted talk]. As a church, we keep talking about this surplus-opportunity- yet-dearth of communication all the time. Because we are fully adapted to the devices and the  social networks that dominate them, and we wonder if they will quench the Spirit, if they haven’t already. The newness contained in one cell phone (which is probably giving you cancer) is downright terrifying. Facing the overwhelming pressure of rapacious capitalism applied to communication is hard to combat. But Trump’s tweets are sending people for the doors — he’s so bad we can’t miss how the systems are set up to abuse us.

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Anza-Borrego State Park

Some people among Circle of Hope advocate severely restricting all use of machines to interact. They have a point. And I am not judging them when I note, “There are Amish in every age of the church.” Lord knows I often wish I were living off the grid in the Anza-Borrego desert somewhere collecting dew for my garden. And I am back to handwriting letters! So I relate to that application of “resist and restore.” Newness is usually suspicious and often frightening. The Amish said “enough” in about the 1880’s.  But I think we have to admit that the newest form of the same old evil is much scarier than the old evil to which we already conformed. For instance, the old school farming practices of the Amish pollute the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They might feel righteous for not adapting to new ways, but their old ways had some evil in them too.

I am usually more on the other side of the argument. I want the latest technology with which to communicate and to work. I can’t get it fast enough. I am even Google-ized now. I even downloaded (and used!) Venmo this week. I want to discern what evil the technology  carries and resist it. But I also want to seize the opportunity it gives me and use it. As a church, talking about technology is hard. We have been talking about coming up with a “theology of technology” for years. But we can’t quite get there. I suppose it is because we are like Asian carp — too busy adapting to our new environment to think about what it means to be an invasive species.

1) We’re too busy mastering the changing technology. We don’t have time to think about whether we have anything to say about it. That’s pretty scary since it means that the technology already runs us, we don’t run it. [Not over Smashing Pumpkins].
2) We are too small-minded to have a group project like coming up with our own thoughts about what new technology means to us. We are doing very individualized stuff and don’t see group thinking as possible. Our thoughts can be as small as our screens. If you wonder why we can’t connect and break up shortly after we do, don’t underestimate how technology has atomized us and how we have adapted to the illusion of togetherness the media perpetrates. We are sitting ducks for huge forces because we inept at getting together in real time.

Seven years ago, a 25-year old blogger from the East Village wrote down seven things a twentysomething can’t do. Now he’s 32, but I think things may have become even more pronounced. Six of his seven things had to do with building decent relationships, mostly about communicating. We’re all losing our capacity to connect. We want to do it. The many devices we are being sold to communicate could increase our ability to connect, and in some great ways, they have. For instance, I really like texting about where I am and when we are meeting, and about what laundry detergent to buy. But my experience is that people who fully commit to the phone screen for communicating are too small to really do it. They may be wired, but they are not always connected.

My “big” discipline: read email

The powers are determined to make us all rats in their cages. They dominate the devices and conform them to proper rat-usage. SO, I think we should sit down and read our email.

I admit, I don’t seem to know how to have this discussion yet. One time the Cell Leader Coordinators talked about it and they had what, for them, amounts to a spat. I said that I need to read my email on a big screen, which gives more honor to the writer and their art. I don’t think we should do major communicating as the body while we have ten seconds at a stoplight to scan an email or blog post.

I know, that mentality seems unrealistic, kind of Amish. Nevertheless, right now, part of my discipline of communicating is to read my properly filtered email, daily. As you know, I send quite a bit of it, as well. Circle of Hope feels like a major inbox loader for people who haven’t shut off notifications to their phone and feel like they are holding a pulsing, overstuffed screen in their hand. Some people unsubscribe from the Covenant List because they count it as clutter! Some of the cell leaders don’t even read the the info email from their pastor each week, or all the way through. Some of the Leadership Team don’t even take time to read emails they use to lead the church with some integrity and vision. It is a challenge to be that disciplined and committed, but it makes a difference as to whether we are knit together meaningfully.

These are four reasons I still read email and don’t  encourage people to use my cell phone for texting, even when I give them the number, unless it is a texting subject (like “tacos or pho?”).

1) I’m trying to communicate.

To me, communicating is about relating, not just data. I want to say something I actually thought about and receive a thoughtful reply. That seems more like love is growing in the world. I don’t want to merely pass out info and have data hogs sniff around to see if it is something they want to consume. Dialogue creates deeper community. When we can’t be face to face, heartfelt writing can be a decent replacement.

2) I want to hear more.

It is hard to keep up with my email. I would rather talk face to face or in a meeting or even over the phone (although I’m not always that great over the phone). But those ways of communicating are hard to keep up with too. Communicating is hard. But I still want to hear more and connect more with more people. To be the church, we need to listen to one another and listen to the Spirit in one another. That takes quite a bit of listening in quite a few ways.

[The opposite is also true, of course. If you are addicted to checking email because you think some life-altering message is in you inbox, that’s not so good. More is usually the enemy of something. Checking email more does not necessarily mean you are listening more. Here’s a link for the addicts.]

3) It is good to slow down and connect.

All this sounds kind of strange, I guess, coming from a person who was there when the original email was sent back in the 70’s. It was so amazingly fast then! Now, sitting down in front of a screen and composing something thoughtful and loving seems like it is kind of old fashioned. Maybe this is my nod to the “Amish” types. The new Amish-types are often people who still know how to write in a language other than textese.

Being alone, concentrating, and writing, are all good, meditative ways to be who we are in Christ and live a life of love. I am writing this with love, too. It takes time. Even as I write, I am facing the cost of acting this way — there seems to be so much to do! But the writing is helping me to be. The way you pause to read and respond is helping you to be, as well, I hope.

4) I am committed to good infrastructure that extends the kingdom.

At this point, email has been a great way to connect the disparate elements of Circle of Hope. Every year, as we grow larger and add more congregations, we have a big challenge to be one church. We are always pushed to be smaller units, if not just random individuals. Holding together by speaking the truth in love is a major counterattack on the powers that want to dominate us. Our cells and Sunday Meetings are the major ways we express our commitment to being an incarnation of Jesus. But by the time they are over they can instantly be run over my the next media avalanche. We need a daily means of togetherness. Our computers and email can help us if we think about what’s going on.

Hey, if you got this far in this blog post, I feel loved. Thanks. You honor me, like I have tried to honor you with my time and thinking. That is splendidly weird and Jesus-like, and it won’t go for nothing.

Reconciliation begins with forgiveness – primarily of you.

Conflict burns. Like that welt on your hand that takes weeks to heal after you hit the side of the oven, the reminder and pain of conflict remains long after a disagreement ends. Some of us would rather not cook up a relationship at all for fear of being scorched again! Whether we address conflict head-on or mostly absorb offenses, handling the emotional aftermath is hard. If we aren’t careful, resentment can bubble up into a new flame and consume us. Are you keeping a fire going somewhere in your relationship circle right now? In your marriage or family, maybe?

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It is good to have a strategy ready for conflict. And it is important to deepen our consciousness for what to do with the emotions that follow it, and often make us sore. Both needs require a basis of forgiveness to end in healing and not further heartache.

In Matthew 18, right after Jesus’ instruction on moving from conflict to reconciliation, Peter asked a probing question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Fortunately for Peter, the religious leaders of the day had put a numerical cap on things like this — forgive three times, and you’ve earned the patience badge on your spiritual Fitbit meter. Peter, ever the overachiever, threw in four more just to be sure.

Jesus’ response must have been a bit aggravating: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Then he tells a story to explain his daunting answer. A servant is brought before his master to settle an account. The Scriptures let us in on a secret in verse 25. This servant who promised to pay back everything can’t pay. Yet his master doesn’t hold him to his empty promise, but personally absorbs the debt.

That reminds me of someone.

Shortly after, this “forgiven” servant pursues a fellow servant who owes him far less than he had owed his master. He seizes and begins to choke him: “Pay what you owe.” The fellow servant’s reply sounds familiar: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you’’ (Matt. 18:29).

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My pain instead of yours

Is this fellow servant also making a promise he cannot keep? MaybeIt’s infuriating when we’re on the receiving end of empty promises, isn’t it? In these moments God gives us a taste of what forgiveness really feels like. God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness hard. When we radicals actually apply the Bible and pursue the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 we are doing it as forgiven people, looking for forgiveness to bind us all in grace.

Andrée Seu Peterson writes: I asked a few people if they’d ever forgiven anyone and what it felt like. They gave me answers so pious I knew they’d never done it. . . . Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties. It’s my pain instead of yours. I eat the debt. I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you, and you go scot-free.

Most of us don’t want any of that when we address conflict, if we dare to address it at all! No, we want a fellow sinner to satisfy our righteous demands—for their own soul’s sake, of course. But that seventy-times-seven thing calls our bluff.

Perhaps you theoretically think you can muster up enough forgiveness to meet the criteria. At least you don’t want prisoners to rot without rehabilitation or ex-offenders to lose their voting privilege! But have a fight with someone in the cell and they could get cut off. If your mate loves porn or other men, you might never get over it. If someone besmirches yours or the church’s reputation, they’re out. Our church has gone through long seasons when personal codes of justice trump forgiveness every week, somehow, and it would be legit to question whether we pay attention to Jesus at all.

Later in the Lord’s parable, the Master punishes the servant he forgave, calling him wicked because he couldn’t forebear with another’s empty promise: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:32–33)

Our gratitude for what God gives us is revealed in how merciful we are toward those who owe usOur horizontal relationship with one another reveals the nature of our vertical one with God.

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Forgiveness is an antidote to resentment

Walking through conflict can be tricky. As we progress through telling brothers or sisters their fault, acquiring witnesses and perhaps eventually telling it to the church, our self-righteousness can flare up and engulf our insides even as we seek to maintain a pious shell. When our adversary doesn’t seem to know the script—to repent in dust and ashes—it’s easy to be a Peter, sigh, and ask, “How many times, Lord, must I go through this with this person?”

When we dwell on the person’s behavior and not the finished work of Jesus, we can get stuck in resentment. Outside communion in Christ, the Jesus way to conflict resolution, even when sincerely followed, will probably leave us empty and disillusioned. 

So what do we do when bitterness invades our souls, especially if the offense cuts deep?

  1. Admit: I can’t shake the bitterness. Pray something like this: “God, I need your help to stop feeling rage. I’m not sure I even want to let this go. Lord, please take this away.”
  2. Revisit: God promises us life. When we think of the promises of God, we often think of his unconditional love—the stuff Pinterest memes and coffee mugs are made of. But there are sobering promises, too: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Listen to God as the question implicit in the Lord’s parable: “Will you trust me with these hurts, these regrets, and these unpaid debts?”
  3. Reset: Go back to square 1. We are forgiven. It is where we are born again. It is the doorway to our eternity. The very offense that causes us to go to another sinner, looking for their redemption, is a similar offense to whatever drove Jesus to the cross on our behalf.
  4. Recalibrate: Look toward square infinity. Some people have wrecked Matthew 18’s practical road toward harmony by making it a means to purify the church from whatever might cause them to forgive. But the Lord loves the people who sin against us, even hate us – and we just might meet them in the age to come. Their tiny faith might not be enough to satisfy us, but it might be plenty to assure them of eternity. God’s goal is redemption, first of all, not merely justice. Jesus is our justice, any other justice we experience in this world is right and desirable, but it is not the hope on which we stand. Any person we saddle with the requirement to make things right is going to wither under the weight of our demand.

As we labor under the burns that take so long to heal and flinch with the fear of being burned again, try these additional actions:

  • Stop re-reading that hurtful email or text message.
  • Stop meeting with that friend who seems to enjoy hearing all about it.
  • Stop going to those place with all those memories.
  • Stop savoring a cycle of painful or vengeful thoughts but shift your mind to dwell on what is good. When you are tempted to seek revenge—if only in your mind— think on your Master who saw you trying to make things right on your own, making promises you could not keep, and forgave you anyway.

Forgiveness is the foundation of the life of Christ visibly alive in the church. It doesn’t begin with other people getting with it, repenting and being forgivable, repentant sinners. it begins with each of us




I am disappointed; what can I do?: Six ways to deal

In preparation for dinner Saturday, I turned on the Pandora “Hymns” channel. Soon we were listening to American Idol runner-up David Archuleta singing “Be Still My Soul” (complete with his Mariah Careyesque trill on various long notes). He sings it sincerely. It has been a comforting song since the 1850’s and I was comforted.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Image result for david archuleta be stillDavid is 26 now. He’s got a little more depth since he’s returned from his Mormon mission in Chile. He’s already had a long career. He started singing since at ten when he was inspired by a recording of Les Miserables (he later sang some of it for soldiers in Afghanistan). He was runner up for American Idol ten years ago — Utah was disappointed he did not win. His father was banned from the Idol backstage, then he was caught in a prostitution sting and then he was divorced. So David has faced some Utah-sized disappointment of his own. Spending most of your life in a Disneyfied atmosphere would be difficult enough.

He’s popular in the Philippines and other Asian countries. An interviewer there says “Helping and inspiring others, particularly those who are undergoing depression, has become a big part of David’s purpose in life. He admits that he himself went through a phase when he was depressed due to being bullied in school.” He told her, “Even when I was little, I’ve always had self-confidence issues. I got bullied and I was known as the quiet kid. I sat by myself during lunch and I would be made fun of. I was socially awkward. I think feeling good enough was something I always wondered.” Sometimes he gets on stage and looks like he is being bullied — most of the time, not so much.

We’re all disappointed sometimes

So even though he can sing like an angel, David Archuleta carries some disappointment with him and fears more of it, just like us. And like Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and us he’s looking forward to a time “when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.”

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Jesus followers look forward to a time when God

“will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Some of us were ten-year-olds who become entranced by Les Mis and grew up to become talented optimists — most of us didn’t. We need God to save us from disappointment. We need to find some exultation, like Peter expressed when he wrote,

“In his great mercy [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

One day, the joy we have experienced in flashes will be the light in which we live. But even now we know our hope is not in vain because Jesus has delivered the first fruit of our future by rising from the dead, as we will.

I was inspired by the great hymn, by David, by John and Peter (and a little by Les Mis). So I am reminding us to hope. We have all experienced disappointment. Some of it has been severe, lately. Divorces depress more people than just the partners divorcing. Being cut off by former friends hurts. People have resigned their covenant with the church. Some people refuse to reconcile. We have not succeeded in all our goals. No amount of Disney-like happy talk or Archuleta pop confection  will overcome what we feel for long. For the long–haul of difficult lives, we need Jesus.

Feeling better is not all up to you

When I say that we need Jesus, many Christians interpret that to mean, “I need a trust upgrade.” They have been taught that if they feel something or suffer something it denotes a lack of faith. They must want something more than Jesus. The idea is: Jesus is our treasure and if we want something else, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. It is no wonder so many church people are so controlling, they are supposed to control their behavior so they will feel good! They need to get some treasure and protect it! There is something to be said for that strategy, but not much. It is true that if we keep doing dumb stuff, things won’t work out well. If we never get mentally and spiritually healthy, life will be difficult. If we are self centered, we will get ourselves and that’s it. But we’ll never be smart enough or healthy enough to avoid our share of disappointment, failure and grief. Stuff has already happened and more is coming.

If all you want is to be the American Idol and you don’t win you’ll lose hope. (99.99% of singers beware).  You might even blame God for not giving you the desires of your heart, as supposedly promised. If you are responsible for making Utah feel better because you win the contest, you might even feel responsible for a great deal of disappointment in the world. In Circle of Hope, this can be translated: people got divorced, people left the church, people were fighting, I/we/God must suck.

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I am so taken with the Lord’s vision for the world, I face disappointment every day. I am working with Jesus for transformation and it hasn’t happened just liked I wanted, has it? I keep allowing myself to be flabbergasted by the sin and death at work in the world, even though another load of it will be delivered in the news tomorrow, fake news or not. What do we do when the sorrow hits? When friends desert us? When we are not so smart? When our plans don’t work out?

I don’t think we should get smaller until we think we can keep things under control better. I think we should be as big as we are in the Spirit and start again right now, in resurrection hope. It is an everyday thing.

Six ways to deal with disappointment

Here are some things I collected for my journey after I bumped into David Archuleta on Pandora. If you are disappointed, there are some things you can try.

  1. Sing

Singing is a perfect way to pray. It reorients body, mind, heart and soul in a common direction toward our source of hope. Try David’s hymn. Sing along, or just be still and know God is with you.

  1. Talk to someone.

That’s what David Archuleta tells depressed Malaysian teenagers to do. He’s right. If you are 35-50 and you think you should know better, have lost the friends you used to talk to, are feeling marriage strains, you must not stay alone. Take a risk and talk about how you feel. A psychotherapist could help.

  1. Visit the Bible again.

You might just be on the endless loop of yourself inside. Just meditating on the two portions of the Bible quoted above might throw a wrench in the works and put you on a different track. If your spiritual disciplines seem to have failed, they might just need some deepening. Try something else. Take a day off and ask some deeper questions than you usually have time for. When you’re done reading this, blank out the screen and turn your face towards God.

  1. Listen to your suffering.

My experience has taught me that disappointment is a great teacher. If we are going through a seasonal (not chronic) depression, resisting it or anesthetizing it with something won’t get me anywhere. If you are blaming someone (or something, like injustice or Trump) you’d better reel that in and meditate on your own development in the safe place you have with God.

5. Let the past go and start from here.

This is the exciting news Peter was so happy about when he wrote his letter. He has a famous role in the story of the last days of Jesus. He was disappointed and distraught by the Lord’s death. He was disappointing, too, because he did not have the stuff to face his fears. But he got restarted after the resurrection.

We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. The future is always foggy. But we have the risen Savior with us, and that is our security. No matter what we have done, or what has happened to us, today is a beginning with Jesus. It will always feel like things are in the way, but there is no good reason, at least, not to take a first step again.

6. Bless the people who leave you on their way.

As a church, we prize our community and we let people into our love. So we get hurt — a lot. Some people get hurt and solve the problem of feeling bad by restricting or shutting off their love. We try not to do that, even when it is tempting. We hope we can suffer with Jesus and gain a resilient heart that can keep following in his way until the end. Even though our numbers are growing, people are always leaving, and it never feels good. We get connected. It is tempting to shut our doors, so we never have to feel left.

I think Jesus is an open door/open tomb kind of person. He blesses those who curse him. I think we should always keep the back door open to anyone we have loved. They might return. Besides, getting even or cutting off is not what we do. (I’m not talking about unrepentant  people who have abused us, or people on whom we are unhealthily dependent). Slamming the door in self-protection is not what Jesus does to us, even though we aren’t the best of friends for Him.

But even more than managing our back door, we should turn toward the front door.  There are six million people in the metro, a few of them, no doubt,  would love to be invited into your life. We are never just our past, we are always looking with confidence into the future. The past is gone, the new has come, and is coming. Look for the people who are new to you with the wisdom you are carrying now,  as the person you have become, and move into the next phase of your life.

Making six points about something makes it look easy or predictable! Our future and our feelings are not going to be easy and they are seldom predictable. But the love of God in Jesus is evident and permanent.  And the promise in the old song, sung by a young man, and often heard in our meetings is consistent:

Be quiet and listen for the assurance.
It won’t be long until we receive in full what we know in part.
One day disappointment, grief, and fear will be gone;
the tears will be wiped away and our living hope will be kissed by joy.
Be quiet and listen for the assurance.
Change and sorrow will be part of the journey
but we will arrive home safe and blessed.

We are called to develop a trust system.

Relationships in the community, whether it is the church community or the city community take trust if they are to flourish. The proverb says:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother — Proverbs 18:24 NIV

The proverbs are so honest about life! This one is drawing a contrast we all experience. On the one hand, there is wickedness and superficial gunk that messes up the togetherness we’d like to experience. There are friends who pretend to be friends; they fill up your time with a lie. There are companions who do nothing but chatter; they fill up conversation space but not your heart. There are acquaintances who remain superficial; they fill up on your affection and generosity but never attempt mutuality or sacrificially give. There are a lot of people who might share a drink with you in a noisy bar, but they don’t bind themselves.

On the other hand, there is a friend who is worthy of the title — it is possible! We are all looking for them, or despairing that we can’t seem to find one. There are people who will go deep, who will connect, who are real, who can be relied upon. Those are the kindred souls with whom we feel bound our whole lives. We want that.

Jesus is that kind of friend who sticks “closer than a brother” — the “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34), the one who comes with the ancient promise of God: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). People who have Jesus for a friend are blessed (see John 15:14). We can trust him. If we follow Jesus, we’ll see he is moving into the world to make friends and make more friends who can be a friend like him. He is restoring a trust system. We’re moving with him when we  dare to look at what the world is really like (and ourselves!) and try to figure out how to be like trustworthy brothers and sisters in the world.

Trust is shot down on the streets

The recent outbreak of consciousness about the proliferation and protection of automatic weapons has highlighted the level of mistrust in the United States. While hundreds of thousands rallied during the March for Our Lives, NRA allies in Congress pushed the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. “Congress is currently considering bills that would force every state to recognize every other state’s concealed carry permits,” said Sen. Stanley Chang, D- Hawaii.  Ideological warfare and mutually assured destruction playing out on every block destroys friendship; Christian intellectuals lament the death of trust.

Violence from your neighbor: a teenager or mentally unglued person with a gun no one will regulate, a drug dealer with an automatic weapon, a soldier or insurgent with bombs and weapons in your neighborhood, a super-rich country flying drones overhead, none of it makes for trusting relationships. The proverb notes this.

A violent person entices their neighbor
and leads them down a path that is not good. — Proverbs 16:29

Philly.com keeps track of homicides and puts them on a map.  Periodically they dip into Camden. They try to tell the truth. The president has 75% of the population suspecting that news outlets broadcast “fake news.”  But they try. They also point out the valiant people who try to undo the violence.

Trust is the alternativity we crave

Many people have been “lead down a path that is not good.” We, the people of God, the Jesus-followers, the Church are called to be the alternative, the antidote to the poison, along with good people who would painstakingly make a murder map so we can see what is going on. The proverbs invite us to trust those who can be seen to deserve it, because they are the cement of society. Jesus invites us to develop a trust system so we can rebuild what is being torn down.

We can start by being trustworthy and daring to trust another. We can build cells, teams, congregations, and a network that is devoted to building a trust system. The Circle of Hope proverb in the title says we are convicted to do just that. What might that practically mean today? A few general ideas:

  1. Trust first. Life is too short to wait until someone proves trustworthy (as if you had that right, anyway). Let them prove untrustworthy and make it hard for them to do it. Treat them like Jesus treats you, who entrusts you with the Spirit of God.
  2. Tell the truth. The world is too messed up to hide (as if you could succeed in that). Let people know who you are. Speak the truth in love to them like Jesus speaks to you, who affirms your value and hopes for your best.
  3. Risk relying on people. The world is too dangerous to be alone (as if you ever are). Let people hurt you and recover. Submit to others out of reverence to Christ, who will save you, who lives with you in an eternal now.

One more proverb:

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil,
but those who promote peace have joy. — Proverbs 12:20

There is no little deceit woven into our hearts and seeping into us from the troubled world around us. A few people reading this probably think that proverb is “fake.” But most of us know, since the Holy Spirit brings the conviction to life in us, that promoting peace is the way to joy, even if it is hard, disappointing or unaffirmed. We are called to develop a trust system. Just living in the alternativity of its promise is joy enough. When we taste more of its reality, it is that much better.

Jesus is risen, now what?: Listen to Colossians 3

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It was a wonderful day yesterday. Tons of people ascended to Lemon Hill at sunrise, many biking over in the frigid air – including Peter, above, who purportedly is the youngest ever to accomplish the feat. Crosses burst into bloom at several of our sites, people told resurrection stories, we worshiped with joy, we feasted together – it was a day to remember.

Now what?

It is so great that anyone even gets to resurrection, why spoil it by asking what happens next? — because it spoils the resurrection to turn it into a mere holiday! We celebrate the resurrection because it is a beginning point for us, too, not just a memory. For the first disciples, what happened next after the Lord’s resurrection was totally transforming! Before long they were missionaries, martyrs and leaders of expanding networks of Jesus-followers. Unfortunately, for many of us, unlike them, after Easter there is a glutted sigh of relief that another holiday season is over and we can get back to concentrating on work, baseball season, school, and the addictions we gave up for Lent. In other words, we get to resurrection but never get on with resurrection life. What’s worse for many of us, we’ve heard of this tendency many times before and are adept at ignoring the problem!

But today is another beginning. We are not our past. The promise of resurrection is that we are our future. It can all start from right here: our lives, our church, even our society.

Paul teaches us this in Colossians 3 and collects one of the best lists in the Bible about what resurrection life means. It is so brief, and yet so profound! I was so moved by it, I can’t resist offering it to everyone as a great starting point for our response to the new life we have received, right now.

Here is how he starts:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Then he lists five big responses:

1. Meditate on God, not yourself

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you managed to exercise spiritual disciplines during Lent, great. Hopefully, they tipped you over into everyday habits for the rest of your life. But maybe you need to keep trying. If you just keep thinking about yourself: your ambitions, relationships, problems and failures, that will be deadly. I estimate that 60% of us don’t even pray in an deliberate fashion every day. It is why our spiritual lives get anemic and why many people fell away from Christ last year.

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2. Put to death your fallen self, not others

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 

“Put to death” sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But Paul is talking about a response to the resurrection of Jesus which begins the recreation of the world! It deserves a large response, not a begrudging addition to our lifestyle! He is pointing out the common things that quench the new light that just got lit in our lives. Leaving the ways we used to follow before we were raised with Jesus takes lifelong devotion, especially these days. Even feeling a tinge of guilt about fornication or greed in the United States is practically illegal now! People express their anger as if it were liberating and can’t stop abusing people on Twitter, just like the president. We’re in a difficult environment for what Paul is talking about. It is hard to hear what he thinks is an obvious response to new life. He’s not talking about mere morality, he’s talking about supernatural goodness flooding into our lives!

3. Clothe yourselves with resurrection life, not lies

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices  and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

It would be so sad if we woke up today into the promise of new life and put on the same old lies: I am alone. I have to make it on my own. Nobody will care for me. I have to be the best. If I don’t succeed I will die. I need to stay safe from others. Add you own — which lies torment you? There are so many self-destructive scripts from our pre-Jesus lives running in our brains that it is hard to shut down the liars – and now we have a massive media machine in our hands all day to reinforce them!

4. Clothe yourself with reconciliation, not judgment

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 

Life is too short to blame someone else or ourselves. Criticism is easy, forgiveness and reconciliation is revolutionary. During Lent our congregations were awash in new revelation and love. It was beautiful. But they were also attacked with divorce, division and the disease of scorn. The clothing Paul is talking about is like the armor Jesus wore to the cross to overcome the world in his upside-down way.

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix, 1890 - Vincent van Gogh
The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix — Van Gogh, 1890

5. Clothe yourself with love, not division

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 

Paul’s new love released him from his roots in Tarsus and moved him all over the Roman Empire planting churches as he spread the news about the resurrection of Jesus and all it means. He’s not just talking about fulfilling our dreams of having a nice family and friendship circle. God wants us to live in harmony just like we want, but what God really wants is comrades who will bind things back together with Jesus. Paul closes up with a few things such rebinding means:

It means proactive peacemaking

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.

It means being persistently thankful

And be thankful. 

It means speaking the truth from Jesus in love

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;

It means a life of public worship

and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Jesus is risen, now what? You can see that I am afraid we will have a personal response to Jesus that is just personal and next Easter we will have to decide again if we even believe this stuff. If our faith doesn’t transform our everyday lives, is it really following Jesus? I don’t think Paul was telling us to spend all our time thinking about what we think about Christianity! Like he responded to the resurrection, I think he hopes we will feel life in a new way and find joy in letting resurrection make us new — and the world with us.

Resisting word wars: Incarnation means winning the right to be heard

People are getting less interested in the rantings of our politicians all the time because the thin veil of their manipulative mendacity is worn so thin.  The expensive ads by campaigns and superpacs do not move most of us anymore. It makes me wonder whether anything can move us. Since I am in the being moved “business” that’s an important question.

Unfortunately for Jesus, politicians practice the same kind of speechifying that churches have practiced for generations. The politicians get up in a pulpit and relate ideas in hope of convincing people to share their point of view and vote them into power. Their point of view does not necessarily need to have any relation to who they are or even what they actually do — they are making a point, not a relationship. A politician might hound Al Franken out of the Senate while protecting the serial groper-in-chief. Obama talked like a populist while being funded by the banks he bailed out. In like manner, professional ministers are regularly exposed as not much different. They don’t win the right to be heard by actually relating as humans; they win the battle for power by appearing solidly, consistently beyond normal discourse.

Winning the right to be heard

By now, I think we are all accustomed to demanding our right to be heard and have forgotten the prerequisites for getting heard. We rely on our protected free speech even though people can’t rely on our moral behavior, that’s in our protected privacy. It is a recipe for miscommunication. The new rules seem to be: “I can be as mean as I want and others should not take that personally, since we’re just talking.” I hope you have not witnessed a Twitter war or had some Facebook opponent try to take you out. But it happens. They exercise their right to divide people up in honor of their quest for a moment of empowering assertion; but it isn’t personal.

Everything is personal. We’re all related at some level. I still think I need to win the right to be heard.” No one trusts what we say before they trust who we are. We often talk about “incarnational mission” around Circle of Hope. “Incarnational” has become a a buzz word among Christians these days, but incarnation has been God’s missional methodology from the moment Jesus was born of a woman. A purposeful life that is, by nature, incarnational is not difficult to imagine, if one is looking at what Jesus does and not just what he says. God got a hearing by becoming one of us, and continues to guide us as one who “comes alongside” in the Holy Spirit.

I learned about winning the right to be heard as a freshman in college. I kind of bumped in to Jesus humbly trying to get me to listen to him as I was discovering  the need to win the right to be heard by my new friends. I had basically deserted my pulpit-centered Baptist church as a senior in high school as I wandered around in the wilderness of depression and doubt. I came out on the other side having met God in significant ways. I was so motivated that I decided to introduce myself to my dorm hall as a Christian. I did this in ways that make me cringe a bit now, but they turned out to be strangely effective methods. People became Christians. I was not a good missionary, but the fact that I existed was weird enough to get some attention. I had no method but to be who I was; that was all I really knew how to do.

I had no pulpit, and what I did say was not particularly impressive. But I did exist. I did not hide who I was. I was an incarnation, which is the essence of evangelism. This experience at an impressionable age solidified a truth in me that has stuck with me my whole life: God can use anyone. It also helped me understand that being relatively normal is the best way to deliver the extraordinary. God became a regular human in Jesus, born of a wonderful, but relatively typical woman and the impact was extraordinary.

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We don’t need word power

Tony Morrison is famous for saying in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”

Some Christians may have practiced such oppressive speech in the name of their sovereign God, but we are trying to outlive their bad influence and convince people, person by person, that the Lord Jesus is still the dying and rising God beside us in our dying and rising.

The politicians and other power hungry people foist incessant word-warfare on us, and many of us are willing to learn their craft. We also try to demand or buy the right to be heard. I think Jesus followers should resist that temptation and, instead, win the right to be heard by being regular people who come up alongside others and persistently exist. We enter human dialogue as ourselves in Christ, not as bodiless proponents of some ideology beyond us. We have the relationship with God we have as who we are and we reveal that connection in the same way we tell any other story that allows someone who cares to understand us. If we ever gain a sympathetic ear for who we are and for Whom we have come to know, it will probably be less about how powerfully we communicate or manipulate than it will be because we are real.

Our faith does not need millions dollars behind it to make it real. Jesus’ life, and Martin Luther King’s for that matter, were powerful because of who they were and what they did, not merely because of what they said. In an era in which most public language can be justly suspected as lies, we need a renewed devotion for incarnational mission. It is a new era full of a new variation of people who seem to be turning off the powerful manipulators beaming down on them.  According to Ad Age, “in the last quarter of 2017, time spent on Facebook every day declined by 5 percent, or 50 million hours, a drop the company attributed to its intentional efforts to prioritize more meaningful content. But it also saw the number of North Americans on the platform fall for the first time, to 184 million from 185 million in the third quarter.” I hope for more people to wake up and live real lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of people think Jesus is beaming down on them in a similar coercive way. They don’t want Christians to follow them around with notifications, either. Jesus has, for so long, been associated with the establishment in Eurocentric countries, that is is hard to get Him separated. But he isn’t one and the same with Trump and Zuckerberg, manipulating huge communication platforms to dominate us or profit from us. Jesus is still like the baby, now crucified and risen. Like Jesus, I want to win the right to be heard, so people can see that I am not some ideological parrot and so they can better see Jesus alive and alive in me. Whether I am effective at that mission or not is important to me. But I think Jesus will manage to be real, regardless of my ability, as I have always experienced him to be.

March for Our Lives: Enough is coming. Thoughts and prayers are welcome.

We were marching around Stroudsburg with a surprising number of people who wanted to be in solidarity with the March for Our Lives movement last Saturday. (We can even be glimpsed and heard in the video!). We were chanting:

  • Thoughts and prayers are not enough!

When we got to the corner of Main and the I-80 onramp, a lady in a big black SUV rolled down her window and shouted

  • Jesus is the answer!

The crowd shouted louder.

  • Thoughts and prayers are not enough!

She had a big voice and kept on shouting,

  • Jesus is the answer!

The crowd shouted even louder and then the light changed.

Well, she was right, I guess, depending on the question. If we ask Senator Toomey if he is going to desert the NRA and advocate common-sense gun reform — AT LEAST the ban on assault weapons of all kinds, I doubt that I just want him to answer “Jesus.” If the lady who told us about being caught in a shooting and experiencing the loss of her dear friend and her husband, who died protecting her, asked me what I wanted to do about the flood of weapons that directly caused her emotional and physical disability, I doubt I would say, “Jesus is the answer.” Jesus is the answer, but we are the questioners and answerers who are his hands and feet in the world. He can get specific.

I think the crowd was right, too, depending on what they meant by “enough.” Thoughts and prayers can sound like an insult, if they are meant to be “enough” of a response. The young man from Parkland directly asked Senator Rubio at the CNN Town Hall if he would stop accepting NRA money and the senator would not answer the question. The teens at the DC rally continually pointed out that he and the rest of the government have mostly offered “thoughts and prayers” for the thirty-eight days since the Parkland assault. Tiny fixes that seem like something in relation to nothing have been enacted, but nothing that would save children from dying or save the lady at our rally from having an assault weapon turn her leg, as she said, into ground beef. But if thoughts and prayers are useless, what is enough? Would you like an inquisition about everything? Guns, sex, drugs, consumption of fossil fuels, etc. with you in charge of it? Are you so mad you are not going to stop until you get the power of which you have been so far deprived? Sending thoughts is still kind, unless it is a substitute for action. Prayer is crucial, unless it is just a mask for venality. Don’t throw the heart out with the heartless.

Our march was a bit too strung out to effectively shout the slogans together:

  • What do we want? Gun reform!
  • Protect children, not guns!
  • Hey, hey NRA, how many people died today? (About 96 we were told).
  • No more AR-15s! (outside the gun store shown in the video).

The crowd favorite was

  • Enough is enough!

But my favorite was simple:

  • Vote them out!

It will apparently be uncool not to vote on a lot of campuses this fall.

I prefer democracy to other forms of government, I think. Someday the country may try it. But no form of government will succeed at bringing the world to right unless Jesus holds the answers to its questions. And no one, no matter how passionate or articulate, will do much for democracy unless they think well and they have kind thoughts for others, and unless they pray well and rely on the prayers of others.

As Miley Cyrus sang in DC (wearing clothes this time), the kids all singing along:

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

The anthem says, “Enough is not enough for most of us humans. There is always going to be another mountain and I am going to climb them!” Even when we say “enough is enough” I’m not sure we know what we are talking about. What do we really know about what is “enough?” And what do we really mean when we say things like “It’s the climb?” Yes, it is about the climb when we know we have value with every step we take — unprocessed, unfinished and unknowing as we are. But Miley is totally wrong (as she often is – back off people, she is 25) when she says it is not about what is waiting on the other side.

I am not enough; this moment is not enough; we are connected to eternity past and present and we know there is another side. Enough is coming. Jesus is the answer. Thoughts and prayers are welcome, since it is an uphill battle. Every step we take has value because Jesus is walking with us and making love possible.

Even when someone is shouting at you from an SUV and even when a crowd is making you look like a jerk, even when someone sings a misleading song and all the kids know it, and even when someone doesn’t seem to care how hard you try to share your love in your song — enough is coming. Jesus is the answer — and often quite specifically. When Jesus moves through our Jerusalems this week, he will face the same turmoil we usually face. If he dies from an AR-15 provided by Senator Toomey, it won’t be pretty, but the resurrection will be spectacular. Let’s turn our faces into that.

Builders or spenders?: Five ways to keep building

I read a book about the Byzantine Empire a few years ago. I’m not over it. Periodically, I waft off into a little lesson on Greek emperors. That behavior does not make me popular.  But I just instinctively do it sometimes because I am ruminating  on the lessons their lives are teaching me. Every leader can learn great cautionary tales from history. Don’t you wish the present leaders of the U.S. would would seriously listen to a few tales? One lesson they could learn from the Byzantine emperors is this: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.

I saw this remnant of Byzantine glory in Istanbul.

Builders and spenders

As I read the intriguing, pared-down history of the Byzantine Empire, focused on the emperors, I was interested to see that one way I could categorize them was as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade. Their successors regularly lived off or squandered all they had built up. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.

Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich, rich, rich. People are lamenting the lack of jobs when the unemployment rate is 4.1% (Spain ~ 16%, Congo ~ 46%). Everyone thinks they deserve to be rich as their birthright! The 1% recently harvested the profitability reflected in the low unemployment rate with their “tax reform.” They are spenders. Maybe the whole U.S. Empire is dying. Maybe a new emperor will save it. But right now we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.

I think it might be hard to imagine building something in the United States (like Circle of Hope in all its manifestations) because it has become customary to train everyone to manage the wealth of others or the wealth they expected to receive [Here are some options for you!] [Here you go in case you are in elementary school.] I know many people consider managing and increasing wealth as a productive enterprise. I think that is lying to oneself. Wendell Berry starts off one of my favorite poems by revealing that lie again.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. — Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,  Wendell Berry, excerpt

He goes on to say that we should get in touch with God and the earth so we can be and can do something real — like grow something, like build a church. Churches seem to have a lot of people trained to perform Christian musicals and create weekly variety shows on Sunday, but do we train each other to build practical things?  (I have to say this, even though I love a good musical from almost any source!). I run into people living like what is built is there for them to manage or perform rather than living like they were meant to build something useful or beautiful or new — like they are creating with the Creator. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. I think the church trains them to do it.  Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And, ultimately, the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.

We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate through us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us — we’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.

Five practical ways to build something

The following are simple things that might help us shake off the empire mentality that stalks us and help us find some fresh new ways to see ourselves in the world as it is now. As Berry suggests:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.

I doubt that my suggestions will seem like we are losing our minds altogether. But they might start something fresh building.

1)     Be a friend. The foremost and everyday discipline of a builder is: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the Kingdom of God. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the Kingdom are crumbling.

2)     Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.

Right now, God help us, we are considering buying the biggest mess we have ever bought in the neediest neighborhood at the highest price we’ve ever paid.  It is the building in the picture above at 115 W. Chelten. We may not decide to do it, but just thinking about it has already started to reshape us and inspire us. I talked about it all through snow day and I am pretty refreshed right now, and impressed with the leaders who are daring to dig into the idea.

3)     Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us should pitch in, not just the leaders. Please don’t say “that’s not my job” too often. It is not the leaders’ church. Everyone has the job of being a builder; Jesus resides in each of us and all of us.

I am certainly not saying, “Get busy you slackers!” Our church is a beehive of activity.  LOTS of us love to pitch in. The newest congregation we just hived off is the one with the audacity to consider a huge building!  All the congregations can tell stories about what they have been building, lately, this week! (Maybe they will tell them in the comments).

As far as attitudes that ground being a builder and not just a spender go:

4)     Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.

5)     Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow? That’s a Christian question.

Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just “get ours” and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the empire and it certainly does not work in the church.

Trump tempts Jesus-followers with the worst: revenge, lies, division

Last week I found myself saying (at least in my head), “Really? You are going to act in the church according to Trump’s playbook? You are going to remake our dialogue and maybe even our values into replica’s of Trump’s?” I’m not talking about “those people” out in some imagined countrified place; I’m talking about people in my own church going for revenge, participating in lies and creating division in the pursuit of power, justice for grievances and so-called “freedom.”

The postmodern/hypermodern era has been hard on us Jesus-followers. The state overwhelmed us, the corporations outwitted us and the local authorities decided it was best to marginalize us. When you listen to us, we often sound just like the masters we feel forced to serve. Our arguments sound like them. Our outrages mirror them. Our actions support them, or at least give them credence.

According to Peter Beinhart in The Atlantic, “over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans…were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.”

Some people applaud abandoning the dying church for a better rendition (Circle of Hope could certainly be tagged with this!). Others applaud the exodus because they think it will kill off the culture war that has been plaguing politics for decades. But after many have left the church, the warfare has not diminished one bit. It has become worse. A more “secular” population is more tolerant of gay marriage and pot legalization;  but, as Beinhart describes, “it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.”

People often blame Evangelicals for supporting Trump. But not everyone who claims to follow Jesus actually does it (as Jesus made plain before he rose from the dead).  When the pollsters go looking for Evangelicals they find many who just claim the name. One last quote from The Atlantic: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”

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I hope we are the church, not just going to one so the state can label us and pundits can argue about who is to blame for what. But I am writing this because I can’t be too sure. Sometimes we look remarkably like whoever made a convincing argument about what we care about instead of like discerning people eager to express the very word of God.

So I want to note three things today that Trump and his fellow-travelers on all routes of the road to destruction the U.S. is on seem to think is normal — three things things that are trying to creep into our church (and probably yours, too!).

Revenge is never good even if it works

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. —Jesus, Matthew 5:38-9

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. — Romans 12:17

Giving up revenge is at the core of Christianity, isn’t it? Our whole mission is reconciliation!

For Trump, revenge is religion. In 2011, he addressed the National Achievers Congress in Sydney, Australia. He told them the most important lesson they never teach in business school is this: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He tweeted his faith as a proverb in 2013: “Always get even. When you are in business, you need to get even with people who screw you. – Think Big.”  He thought big this week when he pressured Attorney General Sessions to fire acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe days before his pension kicked in.

Sometimes we have discussions that can get rough like Trump. If someone does not agree with you, what do you do? Listen? Or do you make sure they understand the full, moral impact of not agreeing with you? We’ve had people gossip some retaliation in honor of one of the partners in a divorce. Some people have left the church over a comment they never even checked out with the perpetrator — they showed them! One man even told the newspaper about our sins. They were all getting even, and it did not lead to reconciliation.

Lying is for liars

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — Jesus to people without eyes to see, John 8:44

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. – Paul about people who undermine the truth in Jesus, 1 Timothy 4:1-2

Jesus, the truth, sets us free from the constant fighting with people who will say anything to get their way and achieve their self-interest.

Andrew McCabe’s firing caused John Brennan, former CIA Director and advisor to Bush and Obama,  to reply to Trump’s tweets like this: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.” Brennan gives us our vocabulary word for the day: “venality” — the quality of being open to do anything for money or whatever reward you seek.

Trump will say anything. He floods the airwaves with lies. The Washington Post keeps a lie-o-meter that reached the 2000 mark in January. James Lamond in Newsweek says that his lie addiction is also a page from Putin’s playbook. When normal lies don’t do the trick, Putin resorts to extreme ”whataboutism” and broadcasts full-scale conspiracy theories not based in any form of reality. Lamond references the invasion of Ukraine (where MCC began with its first relief effort in 1920). He claims that “after Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Kremlin and its supporters in the Russian press advanced multiple alternative explanations for how the flight could have been shot down, including the possibility that it was an attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, that it was at the direction of the Obama administration, and even that the actual target of the strike was President Putin as part of a NATO-led assassination attempt. These were all, of course, lies.”

He sees Putin’s tactic in Trump: “The White House and its allies are using these same methods in their attacks on the Mueller investigation. There’s whataboutism around the funding of the Fusion GPS dossier. There’s muddying of waters by continually re-raising the Uranium One deal, a manufactured controversy that has been repeatedly and consistently debunked, as well as the fantastical claims of liberal bias at the FBI. And now we are seeing full-fledged conspiracy theories entering the mainstream, throwing around words like ‘coup’ and ‘assassination.’”

Image result for surely you will not dieThis kind of logic is creeping in to how we do theology. I know plenty of people who can deny any conclusion in a discussion by clever “whataboutism” (like “What if Jesus were really an alien?” or “Aren’t Oreos potentially offensive to diabetics?”).  Sometimes, especially when we dialogue about difficult or controversial subjects (which we do!), we have trouble even agreeing on what words mean. There is a power struggle for the dictionary — who owns the lexical rules and whose definitions, “ours” or “theirs” will empower the agenda?

It is a real struggle to “truth” together. People often assume some unknown, untrustworthy thing is happening behind the scenes. The more people whose secret lives get exposed, the more we suspect everyone. Paul calls us to stop lying, since we have put off our old selves and we are now members of one body. We are to stop negotiating with the snakes in our personal gardens — that lying voice that assures us that we are god enough to never die or condemns us enough to convince us it doesn’t matter what we do. It is hard to perpetually sort out lies on the way with the Truth, but we need to do it together.

Protecting our autonomy and rights while dividing up the church is deadly

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. — Romans 16:17-18

These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.  But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. — Jude 1:16-19

Jesus is bringing people together; he is holding everything together. Our instinct, as Jesus followers, is to do the same.

In a completely contrary fashion, relentlessly, Trump sows the seeds of division. Often we get caught up in the same mentality and presume division. Meanwhile, Jesus looks out over the world of beloved people and hopes for them to live together as beloved children.

Again, in the Washington Post, (owned by the richest man in the world) Jennifer Rubin talks about how most Americans agree that Trump is divisive. “From the beginning of his term, President Trump has pitched both his rhetoric and his policies to his base, not to the country as a whole. He has continued his baseless slurs on immigrants (coupled with a Muslim travel ban and crusade against so-called sanctuary cities) and pushed a tax plan that very obviously penalized Americans in blue states. He began his presidency with the most divisive agenda item — repealing Obamacare — rather than one that could have united Democrats and Republicans (e.g. infrastructure). He nominated extreme and unqualified Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials who promptly went to war with their own departments.  He’s done more to accentuate tribalism (from backing failed Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore to accusing former President Barack Obama of sundry crimes and misdeeds) than any president in memory. He’s gone to war with the executive branch (the intelligence community in particular) and any independent source of truth or check on his power. You are either with him or a criminal, a traitor and a purveyor of “fake news.” He’s managed to deepen the country’s divide along ethnic, racial, political, philosophical, educational and geographic (rural vs. urban) lines.” This week he has everyone waiting with abated breath to see whether firing Andrew McCabe is the first step toward firing Robert Mueller and plunging the country into some darkness we can only imagine.

Many people who have been schooled by the cutthroat politics of the last decade or more are much more prone to finding a reason to pull apart than get together. Look at the divorces among us this past year. They are often characterized by the incapacity of the partners to work through real problems and come to a better future together. When the pastors ask everyone to learn unity, some people feel overwhelmed and retreat to some small version of their relationship circle. Try to make a Circle of Hope that can unite South Jersey with Philadelphia on the basis of a common covenant and mission when people are  tempted every day to divide – it is tough!

We will overcome temptation

Are we so unaware that we might unwittingly conform to Donald Trump’s playbook after just a year of his horrible leadership and immoral example? I have to say “Maybe” – I think he is influencing us. And, unlike John Brennan, I am not sure America will defeat him, since America is like him. Will we end up losing our faith over the most godless president ever? I seriously doubt it. But when we live out our faith we are tempted to react to the circumstances in new ways. We are getting barraged every day with the temptation to take revenge, live a lie, and divide up. Some of us are learning to hate, overstate and vacate — and we might even call it self-preservation!

Each of us matters; every action counts; and every drop of those poisons we ingest as the Body of Christ has to work its way out of the system. We get weak and preoccupied trying not to die instead of giving people life. We need to slap the Trump kool-aid out of whatever hand offers it to us. We are a strong body, but we live in a toxic environment — let’s be careful. The church in the United States has great resources — let’s be careful everyone.


The ask: The background music of multiplication

Garden at the end of a tunnel of decay

One time a striking circle of ten got together for a late-night brainstorm about the future development of Circle of Hope Broad and Washington. It was stimulating. While we were discussing great things, there was a little emotional tune playing in the background. It was almost like a minor-keyed theme in a mystery movie that lets you know something scary is going to happen, a note of fear [or 30 minutes of it!]. Growing a church to hiving size means making new relationships, which most of us like, but making new relationships includes something most of us don’t like: the ask. The tune kept building to the point when all the ideas would come down to the ask. Then it got loud.

The tragedy of NO

My mother liked taking me shopping for groceries as child. For one thing, my mother was so extroverted she didn’t like to do anything alone and I was available. But I think the main reason I got to go was that I was rather entertaining as I interacted with the various people we would meet in the aisles. I would ask people about themselves, ask about their clothes, ask about their groceries. And if they wouldn’t talk to me, I would ask my mother about them. My mother found this boundary-breaking amusing. The downside for her was that I would also ask for every single thing on the shelves that looked mildly interesting or tasty. So very early on, I had a lot of experience with the word NO. I could see my self not long after when I was buying snacks for the Sunday Meeting. A young boy was lying in the candy aisle screaming under the watch of his bemused dad because Skittles were not on their list —  the tragedy of being told NO is still very real for the under-six set.

I was relatively oblivious to being told NO as a child. I just kept on expressing my hope for Skittles until I got a YES. If I got one YES out of a hundred NOs, that kept me going. But as I got older and understood that NO often has more meaning than whether I am going to get a piece of candy, I got a LOT more reticent. I began to feel rejected by NO. One hundred NOs of rejection were not balanced with a single YES. I began to feel generally rejected and didn’t want to ask at all, lest I get rejected some more. The scary tune of the ask became background music in my brain.

Having intimates who lived a general YES to me did not necessarily make up for the times they dared to say NO to me. Even having a God who Paul could say this about didn’t solve all my problems:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.”  For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20

Even God did not consistently convince me that being rejected, being an “imposition,” or being “unwanted” was less important than being free to be myself, being confident that I am safe no matter what, and living in a state of grace that is “YES” to me. I still was nervous about asking.

Image result for fear of the ask

Fear of the ask throttles church planting

This nervousness about asking makes church planting hard (I know this personally!).  Some of us are loathe to ask someone to come to an event (like our cell or the Sunday Meeting) because it seems so aggressive and could easily incite rejection. But our fear can be even more fundamental. Even when some people get a turn to tell their story, they are still reticent to ask someone to listen. If Jesus is included in their story, then they often feel like they are being too aggressive!

Meanwhile, church planting is all about the asking. It never really gets that easy for most of us. Because we usually experience many forms of NO before we get to a YES. Should we therefor learn to avoid asking so we avoid suffering? Should we just pass by the Skittles without a peep of desire? Should we just pass by people who might like to know Jesus because we have learned never to risk loving someone who might reject us?

I told the circle of hive-interested people that night about when I was an evangelistic wildman in college. I had days when I vowed to ask everyone I met to come to our new Bible study in our side-by-side apartments. That meant I would be asking all sorts of people I was sure would say NO, unless a miracle happened. Many did say NO. But a surprising number didn’t and an even more surprising number became new disciples of Jesus.

Its been more than a few years since I was in college. Since then advertisers have become so oppressive (i.e., AT&T Station is still travesty!) that anyone with love in their heart feels like they should not add to the asking. That’s just a general, devilish thing that has happened to us to make us keep quiet. No one even gets to hear the YES we have for them because we are all too busy telling AT&T NO for the millionth time, like some five-year-old in the store who never learns. It is tiring. We don’t want to add to the asking, even if we are asking in the name of Jesus! Someone might think we are merely marketing!

Authentic Google Jr. Highers

NO is even harder to bear in the love zone

Even more so, it is hard to ask because we don’t like getting rejected. Asking in the name of Jesus is more like asking, “Do you want to make love?” than it is asking, “Do you want to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?” (Samoas are still the best. A man came up to me in Fresh Grocer a few weeks ago and asked me to buy some from his daughter. I did). Works of faith are intrinsically intimate. They are in the love zone.  If we ever hive off another congregation, it will be because a substantial number of people trust the YES in Jesus enough to bear the NOs of people who aren’t ready yet or, for whatever reason, don’t want them and Jesus right now.

Nevertheless, like perpetual askers at a middle school dance, we’ll get up and cross over to a person who has a lot of power over our emotions and ask them to dance. There’s no hiding it; we’re asking because we like them. In Christ we love the about-to-be-asked, already, even before we find out what their response will be. We aren’t selling a mere product; we can get hurt if they reject us! Our love for Jesus and them is built in to the  “product” if we are “selling” at all. And it is a hurtable love, just like Jesus is a hurtable God. So asking is no small thing. The music of the fear of NO could drown out the dance music!

It is no wonder that we sometimes hate to ask. But if we don’t ask, it could hurt even more. It will certainly hurt our chances of multiplying if we won’t do it. I am going to keep meditating on that YES I can count on from God so I don’t pass by too many more seekers fearing they might reject Jesus in me.

The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation

Sanchi leaking all over Creation

This picture is the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi engulfed in fire in the East China Sea. On January 6 it collided with a Hong Kong-based tanker carrying grain and eventually sank eight days later. It was carrying 122,000 tons of condensate, a highly toxic and flammable mix of gas and oil products that is nearly impossible to clean up after a spill. The collision caused an explosion that sent thousands of tons of oil spilling into the ocean — at one point the spill was larger than the footprint of the Paris metro. The explosion killed all 32 crew members. It is still unclear what the impact on marine life will be. Globules of oil are washing up on the shores of Japan already. The substance can last in water for months and cause cancer and other complications at low concentrations. This spill is the world’s largest since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. [See Reuters great graphics].

The day the Sanchi sank, the Trump administration was finding out that only one percent of the millions of acres newly opened up for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve were finding interested lessees. It was the first day Trump’s porn star affair became public. It was the day he attacked Democrats over DACA. And it was the day when it was revealed that Russian hackers were attacking the Senate. The U.S. newscasters were almost uniformly uninterested in the Sanchi, distracted by Trump’s skillful manipulation of the media for his ongoing reality TV show. This might be one of those huge disasters you never heard about because you live in the United States.

Creation is changing

Meanwhile, last month evidence came in about the thin Arctic icecap and never-before-recorded high temperatures there. The extended warmth staggered scientists. In February, Arctic sea ice covered 5.4 million square miles, about 62,000 square miles less than last year’s record low — the difference is an area about the size of the state of Georgia. Sea ice coverage in February also was 521,000 square miles below the 30-year normal — an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Sea ice is still growing, but whatever grows now is going to be thin and easily melted in the summer. The new heat released by the open, warming water impacts the jet stream which researchers think accounts for the weird winter storms in the U.S. and Europe.

Despite the alarming evidence, last year Trump backed out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, looking for a better deal. Mr Trump has called climate change a “hoax” in the past – one perpetrated by the Chinese. The President said in his June 2016 withdrawal announcement that the agreement put American workers,  particularly in the coal industry, at an “economic disadvantage.” The Paris Accord “as drawn and as we signed was very unfair to the US,” he said. But on January 10 he said the U.S. might get back in if he could correct the bad deal. He dithers while we needed to get serious twenty years ago.

It is all very bad news for the world, as I am sure you already think.

97% of publishing climate scientists agree that human activity, mainly greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, only 28%-51% of evangelicals (depending on the survey) agree.  We might want to excuse their skepticism to some degree. It is true that some in the  environmentalist movement are so religious about “Mother Earth” that they scare away traditional people. And it is also true that some people promote climate change arguments because they want to make a buck on “green” technologies — they also promote skepticism. And then there is the Trump affect.

Artists call us to care for creation
The Caring Hand — Glarus, Switzerland

Christians don’t uniformly know whether they should care for the creation, for some reason. I think we, of all people, need to be at the front line. If you need help with your conviction, here are some Bible verses that reinforce the point.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

As the creation story goes, God gave humankind a command to tend, or keep the Garden. The Hebrew word for “tend” or “keep” means more than just keep it neat and tidy; it means “to guard” or “to watch and protect.” The other word in this verse that’s very important is “work” or as some translations more accurately say “to cultivate.” It is from a Hebrew word meaning “to serve.” So this verse could read: “The Lord God put them in the garden to serve it and to protect it.” Even if we did not have that verse, anyone feeling the earth with their toes instinctively knows its truth. Even if you don’t love the Creator, you know bad things will happen if you don’t take care of creation.

The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18)

God cares about the creation. Some say he is going to destroy it all and give a new heavens and new earth to his followers. Since it is all going to burn up, why worry what happens to it? Others (like me) say that God intends to restore the earth and reconcile all creation to its rightful place in relationship with its Creator. We are either part of the restoration or the destruction.

Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored. (Proverbs 27:18)

This is a double proverb. If you tend the tree you’ll receive fruit. Are you tending a tree or just pillaging fruit? What’s more, the one who tends a fig tree will probably tend after other things as well. A master is looking out for people who can tend their own business well. That kind of person could oversee a master’s business. We might not be able to tend the world but we can tend our own little corner of it and do what we can where we live. We have a master looking for partners in redemption and our reputations begin in our own backyards.

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

God clearly commanded Israel to not pollute the land. The command here is to never pollute it with the blood of vengeance — sanctuary cities are being established! But even if this is not a direct word about never polluting the earth with carbon emissions and plastics, the principle can’t be ignored. The land must be stewarded and protected from what pollutes it.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. (Psalm 24:1)

In capitalist parlance, God holds the title on Earth and will hold us responsible for how we care for it. We are here by invitation. As we previously read in Revelation 11:18, those who abuse and destroy the earth will get justice. Knowing that the earth is not really ours, we should treat the earth with the respect of knowing it is God’s. The Lord is more than willing to share it with his beloved children.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:49)

Jesus sums it all up with love. We are not excused from caring about what happens to our neighbor because of principle, profit or preference. If you suspect Jesus is just talking about caring for members of the Body of Christ, remember they are severely endangered all across the world due to everything from sinking cities to disappearing polar bears. Not caring is not an option.

One final verse: Psalm 46:2-3, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Bad things are happening, but our salvation is not secured by undoing climate change. Undoing climate change springs from our love and our connection to our Creator in Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made. Redeemed people redeem the earth — or die trying, their destiny secure.

How to deal with natural opposition: Five proverbs

Every Cell Leader, when they get to know the typical cell member, is going to run up against opposition. I’m not talking about Trump-like antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him.

Don’t we naturally resist the supernatural? Don’t we naturally avoid the unaccustomed? When a person seems oppositional in a cell they should not automatically be tagged “bad;” they just have baggage like the rest of us. They are loaded with large societal pressures and they have the habits formed by their life experience.  They have assumptions about how life works and they instinctively desire the cell to conform to them. They are not likely to automatically change their mind and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  They feel understandable opposition. Who would not be a little bit reticent? Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

Good cells do not require good chips. But it helps.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue quite often (and often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the middle of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. I love the dialogue, since revelations are best received face-to-face.

Christians often assume that because their beliefs or teachings are true for everyone they must be intelligible to everyone. But as Christians, we’re part of a story that has its own language (the language of the people of God). As Stanley Hauerwas has argued, we can only really understand ourselves and our place in that story if we are trained in the language of the Church. Our mates don’t seem intelligible half the time,  a diverse church is that much harder. So we must patiently share the language of the Church, particularly Circle of Hope,  if we want to have a fruitful dialogue with other Jesus followers — much more if we hope to include people who don’t follow Jesus yet! Our common language reinforces our awareness that we are part of a common story and teaches others how to become part of it, too.

In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells and face opposition. As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nurturing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. You might see them as basic building blocks of our our language — the language people are learning as they learn faith in Jesus these days. Here goes:

Progress is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all. So there might be opposition.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. One night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable, even downright avant garde. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this once,” as if they were visiting Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. That was kind of scary! I like to be on the edge of what is next, but I don’t want to befuddle Ohioans!

Other times, it might be better to befuddle people. Because in my search to share a common language, I am tempted to fit in with what everyone thinks is fitting at the moment. I am so sympathetic to the discomfort of someone who is not aligned with me, I solve their problem by not being a problem. If Jesus is a problem, I leave him out too! If people are committed to things that are killing them, I might not risk being opposed and let them die!

Rather than fitting in and waiting to be discovered, I might want to be honest about the revelation I carry and help someone fit into it. The loving negotiation we have in a cell when a new person arrives should be a highpoint of our week, not some awkward moment we fear, just because will might face natural opposition. For Jesus sake, we face opposition carefully and don’t just adapt to what’s coming at us because we want to appear nice.

What everyone has come to think is normal is not always our new normal. I am thinking of all the things scientists and pseudo-scientists have invented in the last 100-500 years, especially the last 50 years– what the latest thinking popularizes as “best practices.” As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” (that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure).  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt. We have a better vehicle and just because it was not invented yesterday doesn’t mean it isn’t the best vehicle.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good [just saw this] and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) More and more, people believe we are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it. It is natural opposition.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life. But that doesn’t mean people won’t think their idealizations are exactly what the church should provide and promote. Plenty of people thought Jesus would miraculously wipe out Rome and solve all their problems; He didn’t do it the way they wanted and we still don’t.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, it’s trying to be clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  For instance, how did Evangelicals in the United States adapt so completely to the language of capitalism and nationalism that they consider certain conservative economic principles and gun rights as tantamount to the Gospel? How did the Roman Catholic Church become a kingdom? I think they adapted to what was “now” and got stuck there. They answered the wrong questions, which were more about power than grace — in the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!); in the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

Our basic question should be, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But God does speak the language of love to the beloved, and so should we.

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one person fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated. Our cells are an antidote to what is dividing the world and making us anxiously alone. The better we get at teaching people the language of love, the better off we all are — especially those people who seem like opponents until they aren’t.

Help me to pay attention, Jesus: The questions of Lent

I’m not sure anyone cares about a “lent.” I wish everyone did for a variety of reasons I have mentioned elsewhere [here] [here] and [here]. So let’s not talk about Lent. Let’s just talk about how hard it is to have a live relationship with God as our true selves.

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It is dawn. You’ll get there. Help us, Jesus.

One way to get over our usual blockades to deeper faith and spiritual transformation is to ask the questions we often ignore. Or maybe to listen to God’s questions, since we can strangely ignore Jesus.

Last night Katie gave us a nice litany spread out over the evening at South Broad. Each movement begged an important question. Asking the question, living with it, even living into it, can help us keep moving along our own way, along our group’s way into something really good.

What do you lean on? Can it support you?

We often lean on our family and friends, our income, and our accomplishments to remind us that we are safe and lovable. When those anchors fail us — we feel unmoored and that we are beyond help. We confess this to you, Help of the Helpless, You who do not change.

Help us to pay attention, Jesus

What is the script of your inner dialogue? Can it be disrupted?

Oh God, sometimes our doubt feels nearer to us than you do. Sometimes our guilt feels nearer to us than you do. We want to know you closer than our doubts, closer than our guilt. You stay with us, Lord, even in our darkest places.

Help us to pay attention, Jesus

What do you fear? Is there any way to redirect your anxiety?

Our hearts are near to breaking over the state of our world and how powerless we feel to change it. We’re at capacity already with the demands made of us at home and at work. Even now, we’d rather be distracted than sit in a cave considering the way we feel overwhelmed by our pilgrim journey.

Help us to pay attention, Jesus

Are you just surviving? Isn’t there somewhere to turn instead of you?

I’m recalling all those times this past week when I felt needy or lonely and despaired. We confess that most of the time we go into survival mode instead of turning to you in those moments. Both joy and sorrow belong to you, Lord, and we bring them to you.

Help us to pay attention, Jesus

Do you see the dawn coming? Isn’t every day a new opportunity?

 We have a deep feeling, even in the middle of this darkness, that we were made for the light. That we are moving towards it with you Jesus, as you moved through death to your resurrection.

Help us to pay attention, Jesus

Help me to pay attention, Lord.

I am paying attention right now, Savior.

[The basics of paying attention from Leighton Ford]

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If we build it, is God obligated to come?

At a BIC General conference, one of the speakers shared a memory. The church used to build a building where they wanted to have a congregation, then install a pastor and challenge him to fill it. “Building first” seemed like common sense to a lot of people — it still does. For instance, even before the Coordinators commissioned Jonny Rashid to lead Hive 2010, members of the formation team were already looking for prospective buildings — they still are.

Maybe it is in the American psyche to think, “If you build it, they will come” – that often makes sense to USonians; look at how Las Vegas gets people to trek out into a wasteland! Before people wanted to build a wall around it, people thought the whole country was built so freedom-loving capitalists from all over the world could come. We built it; they came! Maybe we all experience a little trickle-down empire building. Maybe we’re so materialistic, we end up thinking of ourselves as a destination. We don’t wait for someone to objectify us, we do it ourselves, “If I am fabulous some will love me,” or “If I am built, someone is sure to roll up my driveway.”

There are two huge problems with this mentality, one for mission and one for personal spiritual development.

The kingdom is not enshrined anywhere

On the mission side, Jesus followers need flexibility to do what needs to be done in the guerrilla war we are in against the domination system. The enslaving forces of the world never give up. Some Christians thought building fortress America for white Christians would spare them. But it has not been a great solution, since now so many Christians are in thrall to it! The kingdom of God is among us, not lodged in some building, or enshrined in some method.

Even Circle of Hope, which has some inbred incapacity that keeps us flexible, is having a difficult time, right now, turning itself into the stream of what God is doing next. We are doing it, but it is all too easy to live in what we built last decade.

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We live to build

Same goes for the personal side. For many of us, once we get some faith established, we find our place in the community and we don’t have regular emotional breakdowns, we want to keep things stable. We’re built. We just try not to get unbuilt again. But the enslaving forces don’t give up. Sometimes we can be in denial so completely that we are like the last unremodeled house in a gentrified neighborhood – the world changed around us and we can’t figure out why it is so taxing to live in it.

I think we usually want to build it once, if we build anything at all, and see what comes. It can feel a little daunting to have worked so hard and then need to work hard some more. If one’s illusion is that “I am supposed to build my dream and then live in it,” it is very daunting to discover that is not all there is to it.  But if one dreams about following Jesus, then there is the possibility of a lot more joy in store than just enjoying what you have built for yourself.

In Jesus, the work itself is about living, not about achieving a life. One doesn’t work in order to retire from working, one lives! One doesn’t build in order to get a life, one lives in order to build! Always being on a journey, and often being in something like a military campaign, can be tiring, but it is a pleasant fatigue. And the opposite of fighting alongside Jesus is a killer. Following after Jesus is a lot better than looking at everything you worked so hard to build and realizing that God doesn’t come to it anymore.

I have been thinking a lot about Jesus telling his detractors that “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8). I long for all of us to have that sense of solidity as a people and as individuals — so that whether we have a place or build a place, we are, in Christ. When we are built firmly into Christ, we won’t be lost in building something to compete with the world and we won’t be unbuilt by the domination system coveting our personal property. We don’t need to build it so He will come; He came so we build.

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A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends

Tim Geoffrion (a spiritual director/coach) interviewed Buddhist monks a decade ago while he was teaching Christian theology in Thailand and briefly in Myanmar. As a result, he became aware of helpful contributions Buddhist philosophy and practices offer, not only to Buddhists but also to Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) 

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Dalai Lama lays a wreath where MLK was assassinated.

Many of us are in regular contact with adherents of both Buddhism and its cousin, Hinduism, primarily through yoga. We see Buddhist monks on the street all the time, and many of us are fond of Richard Gere.  In the U.S., .07% of the people are Buddhist, 1% in Philly. 1% in the U.S. are Hindus, 7% in Philly. I mention Hinduism because  Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was a Hindu, and though the religions are clearly distinct, they have similarities. Many Catholics and Evangelicals find Buddhism attractive, as a philosophy, because of it’s demanding, principle based, self-denying, personally-responsible practice. Without looking to closely, apart from its god-less center, Buddhist-like Christianity is common. So many of us have many connections.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. As we often teach among the Circle of Hope, Christians need to know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body, reduce anxiety and open up to spiritual experience. Buddhists specialize in this. Buddhists develop capacity to  comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom. They develop their ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering. They value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships. Of course, it is true that many Buddhists do not regularly practice such things or possess such qualities. They may keep incense burning before a statue of Buddha just like other people might keep a candle burning in front of Mary, and that’s about it. But as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are still mysteries to many Christians.

Tim Geoffrion being schooled by a Thai friend.

Looking to the East is nothing new for Western thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

A first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I’m not trying to write about what specific benefits you should seek from Buddhism. Many of you are probably doing just fine without thinking about that subject at all, as am I, for the most part.  I am being more general. How should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues? How do we keep faith with a spirit of generosity?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different kinds of reactions.

The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.

The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without much theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it. So they may have that thinking in the mix, too.

The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive view of Creation. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” someone who genuinely loves God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ. Maybe Thomas Merton would be in this category.

I think it matters which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions. What postmodernists call syncretism is probably a reality for many people: the media mashes up cultures and beliefs for us all day every day. For true seekers, I think it is possible that they are faithful to Jesus long before they know it, just like a Tibetan monk called Merton a “rangjung, a naturally arisen Buddha.” Regardless of all the connections humanity has in our spiritual searching, Jesus-followers need to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God and view of self are basic to how we live. How we know God and relate to God, and how we receive God’s work in our lives, affect all our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, we all need to integrate reason and experience in community to find our true self on the true path.

We are relating to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus said, “Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:36-8). The incarnation of God is Jesus begins our exploration.

In his book God in the DockLewis is quoted as saying, “If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Brahma?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammad and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”

From our secure base, reattached to our Parent through the work of Jesus, we can explore all sorts of beneficial goodness built into creation and imagined by humanity.  But every attempt to blend religions as a means to provide this base falls short of providing a spiritual foundation upon which to build. I think I have learned a lot from the wisdom and cultures found in “the East.” But Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorcing the Christian community’s reflection over the centuries that provides thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of the revelation in the Bible.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after exercise, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had involve being consciously inspired and led by God as I wait in the silence; involve heart-felt, honest prayer and worship; or involve hearing God speak to me through the Bible and my brother and sisters in Christ.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m inspired. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any good source, and freely and respectfully borrow insights and practices from other religions (just like I am borrowing many thoughts from Tim Geoffrion today), providing they genuinely cohere with how the Lord speaks to me through the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ and the Bible. I have a relationship with God in Christ that guides my explorations.

I value dialogue but I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my way is laid out by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers. It seems inevitable that part of my experience will be encounters with different cultures and religions; they will help me open my eyes and mind. I respect fellow seekers and I welcome the opportunities.

As you consider your own journey, here is a prayer Tim Geoffrion suggests:

“Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This post was retooled from Tim Geoffrion’s helpful series: Benefiting from Buddhism.

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