Category Archives: Life as the Church

Four suggestions for making leaders in 2019 (maybe yourself)

Good leaders are in short supply. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but they can tell you that. Our church has great leaders; I hope yours does, too. But to keep up with Jesus, we need to work with him to make more leaders in 2019. How do you think we are going to do with that?

Let’s dispel one misconception right at the start. When people talk about creating more leaders, a natural response is, “If everyone becomes a leader, who is left to follow?”  [Dean Martin asked a similar question]. It’s true, if everyone is fighting their way into the top position, the endless power struggle will create a terrible organization (and those exist). That would definitely be “too many leaders, not enough followers.” But in the church, I think we usually have the opposite problem. A lot of people give their ambition at the office and would rather someone else lead the church, even if they are the best one to do it! Plus, I think people really care about what Jesus says, and they would just rather quietly serve than deal with the issues that come with works of power at all.Related image

Anyway you look at it, Jesus was making leaders and He still is. He is the epitome of the great leader we would like to be. He is not against power; he exercises a miraculous amount of it! If you clicked the two links in the last paragraph, I think you’ll see, with me, that we are taught that leaders are always followers, but followers should be ready to lead when they are needed. Everyone has the power of the Spirit and we are responsible to use it humbly.

The best leaders are elevated followers who have learned by serving their master, Jesus. So let’s not worry about creating too many leaders. Jesus followers are not climbing over one another to be the leader of the church; they gave up such pursuits when they responded to the call to follow Jesus and live a new life. Let’s call out the leadership in one another in 2019 and find the faithful, available and teachable servants who can lead our cells, teams and further congregations and, as a result, lead the world out of the mess it is in.

Here are four suggestions for how to think about leading and how to apply what we know.

Leadership is a role, not right

Eurocentric people have been debating the “divine right” of the leader to rule for centuries. The revolutions in the 1700’s put an end to that for kings. But humanity just gave the “divine” part to “the people” who gave the elected parties the “right” to rule. Recent presidents take that right rather absolutely, don’t they? And if you work for a boss, you may feel their absolute authority acutely. Some corporations have a “god” upstairs somewhere who can deliver prosperity or poverty with a word. This situation is one we are used to so we think it is normal. So when people enter the alternative society of the church, they often assume the same thing is going to happen: there is some king or some secret cabal running things and not them. And plenty of church leaders see an opportunity to get their divine rule on and get carried away trying to be powerful. We could talk about this for a long time, and should.

For 2019, however, why don’t you help someone take the role of leader and help them with the weird power dynamics it creates? It will be challenging for them if people think the church leader is exercising a right or an identity. They will suddenly become this strange person — like one day Rachel was your buddy, now she’s the pastor and you need to treat her like some “thing” that is not like you anymore. Let’s keep our heads on straight; all our leaders are still like us. We give them a role to exercise in the church because they can do it and we need them. They are elevated in our structure and given power to act, but they still have the same kind of issues we do. Imagine yourself being a leader! Ouch! It is a joy to serve, but there are a lot of things people need to figure out on their way to being a good one.

Leadership is a duty not just a delight

Some leaders honestly feel about leading like Freddie Mercury felt about singing. When they can lead, they are in their sweet spot. Good for them! But I still think the most effective leaders in the church feel like they are answering a call, not considering whether they are following their bliss. The see the necessity, or the opportunity, or the emergency and they decide to act on behalf of the mission of Jesus to transform the world. They were not sitting by their Christmas tree one day scrolling through their Ipad and said, “I think I will lead the church. That would make me feel good.” Maybe someone has done that, but I have never met them yet. Most of the time, like when a cell multiplies, the most obvious person becomes the next leader. They may have never thought about leading a cell until it becomes obvious to everyone that they should be deployed.

I know I was pretty shocked when it became obvious that I was a pastor, way back when. That was NOT what I had in mind. But, to be honest, I had a lot of trash in mind that would certainly have been a lot worse, so I am delighted. It has been a lot of fun to follow Jesus in my role. So, in 2019, why don’t you be delighted in someone who is doing their duty? We can make it hard on someone or we can make it delightful to have such followers. Yes, they will do their duty wrong, but you will probably do your following wrong, too, won’t you? So we will need to work it out — and it is given to us to do that.

Leadership is a gift to you and from you

I am glad we are still talking about spiritual gifts in our church. Leadership is one of them, in several forms, when you look through the lists in the New Testament. The lists make it obvious that we don’t need as many leaders as we need other gifted people to make a whole church. There will always be many more followers than leaders at any given moment, even though any of us might be gifted to lead when it is necessary. The idea of spiritual gifts implies, however, that a few people are usually gifted to lead and we should honor the work of the Spirit in their lives. We also need to honor their difficulties, since each one of us has our own difficulties discerning and exercising our gifts. We have a hard enough time having confidence that the Spirit of God even cares enough about us to lead us! Most leaders feel like that, too.

So the leader gives the gifts of leading and we give them back the gift of following. It is all gift with us and God, just so Christians worked gift-giving into the Christmas celebration of God’s self-giving love in Jesus. So in 2019, why don’t we give our leaders, new and next, the gift of their leadership? Help them do their work; don’t make them beg, as if they were just dying to see if you would follow them. It is our responsibility to make good leaders. They have no more innate value than the rest of us Spirit-bearers. But they are crucial for our life together to work well. If they have the gifts, we want to receive them!

Contrition Set No. 8 (2008) — Anthony Smith Jr. (NYC/Bethlehem, PA)

It is your church, not theirs

Some members of our Leadership Team have been frustrated when our church did not work like their business or agency (or their ideal of how they work). They regularly experience hierarchical modes of leading where a boss (or HR policy) has the power to take away someone’s money and give them a bad resume. As a result, people show up on time and do what they are supposed to do. They wish they could fire some church people!

I tell them, quite often, since I had to learn it too, that the church is more on the family side of life, not the corporate — thank God! But that means people are more likely to act like they do in their families and the leaders are more like parents than bosses. This can be lovely, since we all could use some re-parenting and we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But it also means that people refuse to pick up their blocks, are rival siblings, and feel intense symbolic feelings about things the leader thought were minor. It is terribly easy to act like an infant instead of being elevated to parent! Like Paul had to convince people: we used to be children, but now we are heirs of the kingdom of God [Paul’s great Advent passage].

So, in 2019, why don’t we refuse to exercise the luxury of reacting like we are children while the only adults in the room are our overworked leaders? And, by the way, how about helping our own relatives with the holiday celebrations rather than showing up late with a six pack? If your mom doesn’t want you to do the dishes for her because you do them so poorly, how about doing them with her and finally learning what you missed while you were avoiding things? We’re the church. It is not the leader’s church, as if she is supposed to get you to clean your room as her vocation! We are all “heirs according to the promise.” If we don’t act like that, no leader can save us. They’ll probably burn out or move on and our community will deteriorate into something that barely looks like Jesus lives there at all.

The subject of making a leader is a bit more than this blog post can chew, I think. But I was looking into 2019, when the leadership of the United States is going to show more of its true colors. Who would want to be a leader in such a mess? Not me. But I was also looking at our resilient, intense church, and was downright excited about what we might become. I think we are uniquely gifted and well–situated to offering the alternative the region needs, as the church always is, especially now. If you are a leader in some way among us or wherever God has placed you, thanks and don’t give up! If you are making a leader and can be inspired to keep at it in 2019, thanks and don’t give up!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando — video version

Hey everyone. Here is a video version of this week’s blog. For links and such, consult the written format. Thanks for reading and listening!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando

I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away.  One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!

I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw).  This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.

The economy did not send people to Disney

My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”

The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!

But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding.  A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.

Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”

A solitary worker at an e-commerce company’s distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania. — Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.

“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games  ready for purchase by eager teenagers.

The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis

Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.

Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.

We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.

OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties.  But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.

Following the Feast Maker God: Our way to hospitality

Image result for great supper harold copping
Parable of the Great Supper by Harold Copping (1863-1932)

In Luke 14, Jesus is tells a parable about God, the feast maker, and his servant, Jesus, looking for people to attend their great banquet. It is all prepared! It is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We need to resist our lame excuses and come to the banquet! What’s more, we must forgive ourselves for not inviting people to the feast and forgive them for not coming.

But before we apply all this revelation about who God is and who we must be, we need to come to the feast ourselves. There are good reasons we are not hospitable.

There are parts of us which have reasons not to come to the feast

Last week in Daily Prayer :: WIND, David Benner pointed out when we have surrendered to the love of the Great Feast Maker, we find the “courage to face unpleasant aspects of our inner selves…to face our fears as we soak in love.” The Lord’s words about a great feast are an invitation to bring all the lame, broken, and fearful parts of ourselves into the banquet of love being prepared for us. There is a place at the table reserved for each broken part. Before we can be risk being hospitable, we must allow the neglected parts of ourselves to enjoy the warmth of God’s love as they are honored with special treatment. Maybe you should read the parable again in that light.

Most of the time, I think , we read the parable and focus on those foolish people who won’t come to the feast. Once we realize that we also have reasons we don’t always respond to God’s invitations, much less offer invitations, we can understand that Jesus is looking at everyone’s troubled, left-out hearts. Some people are so left out they dread being included because it might not feel as good as they need and they would feel even worse, which they cannot tolerate. No party is going to solve their problem; they need to come to God’s feast. Others are just gods to themselves, making their own feast, so they don’t feel the need to come unless they can tell in advance it will benefit them. When we read the parable we may shake our heads at the responses to the invitation, but we’re looking in the mirror, too.

It is a good thing the host is caring for others

What about the host in the parable? My main reason for writing is to talk about being like God, the great host. In the parable, the host is hurt. Isn’t the parable full of a sad feeling we all know about? —“I gave a party and you did not come. I invited you in and you ignored me or avoided me. I wanted to love you and you did not want my love.” The guests in the parable are so callous! I hurt for God.

And I hurt from following God’s example. I have thrown a lot of parties, plus I was in charge of weekly Sunday meetings for years. There has been an awful lot of opportunity to feel rejected. But the feast is too important to let rejection get in the way of it. We need to attend it and we need to give it. It  is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We must forgive ourselves for not coming to the feast, and, even more challenging, we must repent of not inviting people to the feast and not forgiving them for not coming.

What the Bible shows is that God is a feast giving God. God’s heart is open and making a home for us. We don’t come to the party and what does God do? — opens up eternity in response. In the parable of the prodigal son and his brother, one chapter later in Luke, God is clearly shown as a host.  When the lost son arrives, the whole household jumps into action because the father is a feast giver and everyone is prepared to have one. It is what they do. Of course they have a calf fattening! They all know the master thinks, “No one should eat with the pigs and no one should isolate themselves in the field and sulk. We are going to have joy, make a place for joy and invite people into salvation.”

I have gone to many parties that were, essentially, do-it-yourself feasts. As is so typical of our era, many hosts don’t want to compel people to be anything they are not already, or ask them to do anything they don’t want to do, so we give parties that are not hosted. I come in and no one even acknowledges me. It hurts! Surely they know that I had to repent of my aloneness and my fear to come to their party! It is so selfish of the host to protect their own fear of rejection or offense by not noticing me coming in from my personal pig trough! In contrast, Jesus is in the streets finding needy people, and God is running down the road to meet prodigals. Every time someone comes in the room, whether it is the bit of heaven of our Sunday meeting or the Thanksgiving celebration this week, they are coming from somewhere broken and they need to be welcomed in. Whether they accept the fullness of Christ in our invitation or not, they must have a place at the table.

The center of our feast is the center of our lives

If we don’t compel people to come in and run down the path to greet them, our communion table is a joke. In the bread and cup, Jesus is up on the cross dying for the sins of the world, forgiving our terrible habits of the heart, compelling us to come into his father’s house, running after us, and opening up his heart and eternity. Whenever the church gathers, the essence of the meeting, as is the essence of our lives, is the feast. If there is no feast, is there any salvation? — aren’t I still alone, on the outside? — aren’t I still trying to get what I want without connecting, without the risk of love?

Related image

Likewise, having enjoyed the bread and cup, am I actually one with Christ if I don’t turn to someone and share the forgiveness at the center of our meeting? Forgiveness is not an abstraction accomplished in some heavenly courtroom; it happens between a needy person and a forgiver. Jesus says we are forgiven when we forgive. We are at the feast when we give the feast.

It will always hurt to be hospitable. Maybe that’s why we often hesitate to take it on. The suffering love of Jesus hurts Jesus and it hurts us. I have been noting who did not attend my meetings and parties for forty years in public and in my own home; I think it is like God to be disappointed and delighted at the same time. Every party hurts and every party is the center of my deepest joy. There is nothing better than the Love Feast we just had. There is nothing better than the cell meeting Julie had last week where the women said something like, “A month ago I never wanted to go to church again and now I am going to host your cell.” Every one of them does not work and in every one of them the feast-making God is at work.

Moving the ball: The church as a team (video version)

Here  I am on my phone giving your the first part of my Monday blog on video.

The church is in a lot of contention these days. We need to break through and get down the field before  the buzzer sounds.

If you want to get into what my phone would not do, read the last post from Monday!

Moving the ball: The church as a team

Memories are like the Mouse King in Disney’s new Nutcracker. A lot of little memories often come together to form very powerful big ones. One of the advantages of being over 40, or so, is that you have enough little memories to shape big responses to the challenges of the day. At least that is what it felt like the other day when I was reminiscing about how I learned about “moving the ball.”

In high school I played football. I know I am not supposed to approve of football, since it is a concussion factory and intrinsically too violent for peacemaking types. But, looking back, I really enjoyed my youthful collaboration in body-crunching. Even more useful, I learned a lot from those days about how to be a team, not least of all because we were a terrible team – and sometimes failure is a great teacher.

The big, instructive memory I’m talking about is about a time we were actually winning, I think, and Ron Herman was especially psychopathic. Unlike Ron, I was a rather mild-mannered football player, which never pleased my ex-Marine coaches — but I was efficient, determined and could remember the plays, so I got to play first string. Ron Herman, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream — a weightlifting, maniacal ball of energy at linebacker. I am not sure what happened to me; I think I got clipped after the whistle. Regardless, I became the center of a brawl on the field and was not faring well in the fight. I was having some kind of dazed reaction to a much bigger lineman who was coming at me. Then, from out of nowhere, Ron came at the brute like a smart bomb and took the guy out – laid him flat and then ran around him with his fists up like Rocky. My memory plays the impact in slow motion and I still enjoy seeing the enemy fall. (Sorry Jesus, but that’s the truth).

That moment contains a lesson about being a team I have not forgotten. It is: Some team mates are just better. Ron was a LOT better at football than I was. He had the strength and attitude and gleeful malice to be a force on the field. We needed him. I was scared of him off the field, but I was glad to have him on my side, watching over me (for some reason) on the field. Unlike him, I had a hard time just completing my small assignment on a given play, but Ron was seeing and wandering the whole field, improvising actions that would move the ball.

We are a big team

Memories of football came up because I was discussing Circle of Hope with a partner and we needed a good metaphor. Football worked. For one thing, like in football we, as a church, feel the urge to make a lot of “touchdowns” and we are disappointed when we don’t. Even more important, we are a big “team,” made up of many smaller teams, which contain many marginally clever individuals, for the most part — though we do have our Ron Hermans, thank God!. You see how well the analogy works? Church works a lot like a football team, if it works at all. How we perfect being a team is our greatest asset. But it is always our greatest challenge, too.

I learned a lot about being a team by being part of a terrible football team. I have learned a lot more by being part of the miraculous Circle of Hope. Who we are and what we do is so unique, so great, that we yearn for about a 1000 more people to join in the cause — seriously, that’s the touchdown we’re shooting for. If our congregations all expanded to their optimum size and we added a 1000 more people that would make us about .03% of the metro population — not really that much to shoot for, right? It will take good team work from our pastors and leadership team at the center, and good team work clear to far reaches of our constituency to “win” that “game.” We’ll have to move the ball.

At this point, I have enough memories stored up to think I can say three big things about how to move the ball that direction. Actually I guess I have already mentioned two. Maybe they are all pretty obvious. But here goes. To be a good team that makes it to the goal:

Keep the ball moving

When the Eagles don’t convert their third down and get a new set of downs, you can hear a palpable groan ripple through the stadium (like last night!). The other day a caller into sports radio said, “I just want a couple of players who can move the ball.” I yelled back at the radio (which I sometimes do), “And what else would you want?” Momentum is obviously the key to getting somewhere.

In high school football and the church, confidence is the key. As a church, we need enough people who think working with Jesus is just the best and only thing worth doing in order to keep our team rolling. In high school, our bench was full of anxious guys who weren’t so sure they wanted the coach to put them in. They got enough stuff out of just wearing the uniform, but they weren’t sure they were quite up to playing. The guard who played next to me, on the other hand,  was well known for having the dirtiest uniform on the team after a game. Those kind of players keep their cell multiplying, the money coming in, the events excellent, the ideas coming to fruit. And if things aren’t moving, they can feel it and do something about it.

Admire the great players

Being a good team does not mean everyone is the same or what they do has the same value or weight. It means everyone is valued for what they bring right now with the hope that they will get to be better and better players. Regardless of whether you are good or not, we need whatever you have at the moment to make a good team. When Eddie Velasquez walked around school after a game, I wouldn’t even talk to him when I was a freshman. I had just watched him break through the line and run for a touchdown, moving like the wind, as far as I was concerned. I admired him so much I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me.

Now that I look back, I regret how seldom our really great “players” in the church get the admiration they deserve. They are so humble and Christians are so shockingly stingy with their praise (lest someone lose their humility under the pressure of their affirmation, I guess) that we tend to nurture the mediocre and hamstring the creative. I don’t think our church has the worst case of that disease, by any means, but sometimes we hitch thoroughbreds to plows just because they will plow, when they should fly.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got

We did not succeed much as a football team, so our task was more about making something from nothing, like feeding 5000 with a few loaves and two fish. I admit I often felt successful if I did not make a complete fool of myself while my dad trained his binoculars on me. Now that I look back, I think that hanging in there, even when you don’t feel like you are that great, is a lot more OK than I thought it was then. As it turns out, even an hour of bad football is a decent training session. It was preparing me for the long haul of following Jesus as a member of the body of Christ. Churches full of inadequate, even terrible Christians have been moving the ball for centuries, now. That’s the huge way we are NOT like a football team.

When the ex-Marines were getting our team into shape. They wanted us to run a six minute mile in our equipment. Needless to say, the tackles regularly failed to achieve that goal. Don Lancet, for one, was always last. He was just too fat and out of shape. But he was big. So when he got in the game, just falling in front of people often proved effective. Our quarterback was short and indecisive. But he was afraid to fail and managed to make plays out of his messes. Our fleet running back was sent to jail, so the coaches platooned the second, third and fourth stringers. It does not matter how we get there. It matters that we keep moving and use all the gifts we’ve  received to make the biggest difference we can make together.

Keep your eyes on the first down which leads to the goal

It is depressing when you are an ineffective team on your own 30 yard line looking way down field at the goal post. There are going to be Ron Hermans who have a vision for winning the game – admire them as they are yelling at you to play harder! (And wake up and play harder!) Thank God for the leaders, because most of us will have to rely on their vision, since we are doing well just to line up and run the next play.

Most of us will content ourselves with gaining the most yards we can on the way to a first down. A touchdown may feel like a lot to ask. I think that is OK. Because, over time, the little things count even more than the big plays for the vast majority of us. Yard by yard, we move the ball. The body of Christ is also like the Mouse King — a compilation of all our small efforts in service to our profound memories of grace and the promises they speak to us. We’re all about a long obedience in the same direction, not just memorable video clips of the best plays.

I think my varsity team won two games in two seasons. But the real value of the experience was not lost on me. I think I even have my letterman’s sweater stored someplace. I never really qualified as a jock, but I was proud that I was successful enough to letter. I was part of the team – that terrible team. At this point, the terrible is not as important as being a part. My usually critical parents were delighted to see me out there in uniform doing something. I kind of blew off their admiration when I was a teenager. But now that I look back, like in so many things, I can see why those 40somethings were happy I would have a few memories to mull over.

When we tell people they should leave behind their precious memories of church and move into the future, we don’t mean that their former churches were all bad or that they should not remember them. As  you can see, even if their churches were terrible, I think they could learn a lot from them. What our proverb means is that we need to deliberately grow from our past experiences, not sit in them the rest of our lives like my poor friend Phil, who never once got his uniform dirty the whole season. The coach knew he just wasn’t going to play.

At the end of this list, it seems like most of my ideas kind of run together; they are even a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s the nature of team sports and the nature of being a community in mission – everything kind of works together. It is not so important to define and understand how all the parts work, or even to individually excel at our part. It is more important to get up for each play, all of us doing it again with all we’ve got, and advance the ball as far as we can before the buzzer sounds. That keeps us in contention. And there is a lot with which to contend, isn’t there?

The Love Feast: A big splash of goodness in a flood of evil — video version

Hey friends. Here is a video version of Monday’s post. If you want to get into the links and other references, check out the written form.

The Love Feast: A big splash of goodness in a flood of evil

My son reported that a person making their covenant last Saturday at the Love Feast said they were taking a stand with the church as a reaction to Trump. Hearing that was one of the best moments of my weekend!

A lively Love Feast makes for an alive church. Authentic, living covenant members make for a lively Love Feast. Put it all together and the living body of Christ is, indeed, the antidote to what ails the world — and Trump’s character is an ailment.

I have written a lot about the president since he began running for office. He is terrible for Christians – for those who hate him and those who love him. For the last two years, his evil ways have only become more evident. I can still understand how he can get a rally going in Illinois. But we Jesus followers need to understand our role in providing people an escape from the aftermath of his rhetoric.

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Proud Boys beating up a protester outside their meeting.

What is happening?

On Thursday, law enforcement arrested Gregory Bush, who tried to shoot up a black church, couldn’t get in, and so moved onto a Kroger grocery store and killed two black patrons in cold blood while pointedly sparing a white one. On Friday, it was Cesar Sayoc, who was charged with sending mail bombs to a bunch of folks who just so happen to be targets of Donald Trump’s verbal attacks. And on Saturday, it was Robert Bowers, who entered a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and, amid a torrent of anti-Semitic hate speech, went on a rampage that left 11 people dead from gunshot wounds. That marks three days in a row, then, that an angry, middle-aged man committed a violent crime that certainly appears to have been encouraged, at least in part, by Donald Trump’s decision to turn the bully pulpit into a bully’s pulpit.

Not long before, the pro-Trump Proud Boys beat up opponents after their leader spoke at the Republican Club in NYC. At the same time, news outlets were reporting that Trump’s lying was actually picking up speed in advance of the elections, trying to stoke the Kavanaugh confirmation victory momentum – and yes, he lamented that last week’s events sapped the momentum. And yes, he did say the synagogue would have been protected from the Nazi if they had an armed guard.

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Evocative stock image

To stand in this evil day we need a place to stand.

We can’t just shout back or fight back. We need to build the alternative. So I am encouraged when someone wants to build the church as a response to Trump and any of his  supporters who are as deluded as he would like.

That brings me to another good moment during my weekend. I was at the conference of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies in Lancaster (CAPS — Gwen is on the board). I went to a workshop led by an expert on rumors.  He had some interesting things to say about people who flood the airwaves with lies so people give up on knowing the truth. He had some good psychological reasons why people love conspiracy theories so much. He also said that what we are facing, every day now, is blatant evil. Like the Bible recounts, people who don’t follow Jesus are in league with the father of lies, the devil. The tongue is a fire, James says.

We are not just in a political battle. Such a battle might be a distraction if it were not put into perspective. We are in a final campaign against rebellious powers for the rule of humanity.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. – Ephesians 6:11ff

The presenter reminded us that Jesus has defeated the enemy. We are mopping up with him. But just because the decisive battle has been won, does not mean the enemy is not in a frenzy of resistance, like any cornered, wild animal might be. A striking example of this reality is how the Nazis “turned up the ovens” in 1944 after it became evident that World War 2 was lost. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6000 Jews a day that year. In March, diverting much-needed resources from the war effort, Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to supervise the deportation of the country’s Jews. By July, 440,000 had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In a final act of delusion, a month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies — the “blood for goods” proposal. Again and again we see the devil’s allies acting in similar ways. They might beat people up in the street, but we must not be afraid or begin to think that trading blood for goods is an actual option.

What we are doing is more important than ever

Trump is not the first disciple of the father of lies to come into a powerful position in the world. And we are not the first or last group of Jesus followers who take our faith seriously enough to build the alternative in the face of their strategies for domination — our movement got started under the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula, after all! Trump is just a shocking inspiration for all the activities we might normally take for granted in a more peaceful world, like a lively Love Feast.

Being a cell, forming a team, meeting for worship are all taking on their truest meaning aren’t they? They aren’t just about our good feelings or personal development; they are about transforming the world and giving people an escape from the madness of the evil powers – and all those regular activities are transforming  people and offering people an escape.

Having a well-supplied Common Fund is more important than ever. Sharing our money is not like paying the rent on our spiritual house, it is about making us strong and supplying visionary leaders who can keep us together and equipped to stand in an evil day. And we are standing in significant ways — against forgotten diseases like lupus, against the unjust justice system, against the oppression of the poor who are forced out of their homeland in Central America and other places all over the world, against mental illness, joblessness, addiction, loneliness, faithlessness and fear.

As I was writing this, another person sent me a text about the Love Feast. They were excited! That meeting, like so many of the meetings we hold, was like a big rock in the societal pool of our region. We don’t know where the ripples will carry the news that Jesus is risen and alive in his people. As Paul encourages the Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” We’re part of the campaign to redeem the world. We have another Lord and we won’t bend the knee to the latest liar who tries to usurp Jesus.

To weave community: Outdo one another in showing honor

Babies are being born in my circles of the church. They are bundles of disruption who demand that their parents and those who love them abandon most self-oriented pursuits. They insist we focus on what else really matters: the weaving of community.

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Community makes regular people ambitious

I have followed my dreams and ambitions my whole adulthood, and I am sure I have been led by God to do so. But the Lord also taught me, early on, that family and friendship — the basic, personal relationships that pull us to develop community, are the home of the love that keeps my ambitions humming. It is the momentary revelations of love that remind us we are alive. Here’s an example of a moment. When I was a child I would shake my hands with glee when I was excited – my family never forgot it. (One of my grandchildren paddled their belly with similar enthusiasm  – and probably still does when no one is looking). When my younger sister was brought home from the hospital, I was about 2 ½. I was standing in the driveway jumping up and down and shaking my hands with glee — so eager to meet her! No one ever forgot my joy – or the wild way I showed it!  It was one of those moments people love to recall — a moment when love and joy ruled the family. I suppose we keep going to meetings of the church because, so often, something happens that reminds us that God is with us and love is possible — joy and love rule the family of God.

In the U.S. society, we are so overrun by philosophies of autonomy and individualism that we spend all our time mastering them at the expense of weaving the fabric of community together. It’s not that both movements aren’t important. Individuals make up the community and communities make individuals. They are always running in tandem. But it is easy to see that individual pursuits often overshadow making relationships. One obvious example is how often people wait to get married until they have settled their careers these days. “Millennial men and women are more concerned with establishing their own lives before agreeing to share them with a partner” (Cosmo). Likewise, once those thirtysomethings are having children, the pursuits of their individual families often remove them from their extended family, much more does it removed them from the life of the church or neighborhood. Very busy people often become very successful in the economy at the expense of their community; this is an old story now.

Weaving individuals into community is a Bible theme

Balancing our God-given uniqueness with the weaving of community  is one of the major themes of the Bible from start to finish. It is a basic story about love. The story about Joseph and his brothers is a great example. The fabric that makes up Joseph’s “coat of many colors” is desecrated by his brothers. But it is his understanding and leadership skills, combined with his capacity to forgive, which saves his family and supplies the strong ties that will keep God’s people together in Egypt. The next big story is about Moses and the themes are similar. Just as the social fabric of Israel is unraveling in slavery, God commissions the uniquely gifted Moses to lead the people into their own country. Over many years on their heroic journey, they learn to weave the fabric of authentic community. The unique vision of Israel and their authentic community go together, or there is no promised land.

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A good way to see God’s people weaving community is in the Ten Commandments Moses delivered from the mountain.  One way to look at these famous sayings is that they install disruptions to individual ambition and personal glory in honor of maintaining community ties. They are all about honor, which is the foundation of life in community. When we honor God and have no other gods, we love the Lord with all our heart, soul mind and strength. We devote our energy to the innate desire of all creation for communion with the Creator.  The obvious extension is to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

As the list of commands are completed, they enjoin us to honor our parents — being trained to give fundamental respect to others by giving respect to the community who formed us. We are called to honor the Sabbath — to cease our self-directed work and honor who we are and in what community. The rest of the commandments honor individual rights: to life, to marriage, to property, to honest public affairs and to individuality. The communal fabric is sustained if we have respect for the individual. The individual is sustained if they have a supportive communal fabric.

For all my life, people in the United States (and other societies) have been having quite a contest about whether they will be subject to these principles. With all our capacity to be autonomous and an acceleration in our preoccupation with individual rights and the technology to exercise them, we are all experiencing a dangerous unraveling, it is even hard for the church to hold together.

Healthy ambitions spring from extravagant honor

When I am counseling couples, especially before they are married, I often end up using an old metaphor to make a point about honor. If we want to stick together, we all need to “doff our hats” to one another, like a chevalier meeting a lady or a lady curtseying to another. These kind of behaviors used to be common and they made sense. It is easy to see the flaws in a society, of course, but most of them have something quite brilliant built in, too. In the 16 and 1700s the nobility of Europe were trying to hold on to their power in the face of the pressure of individualism and democracy, not to mention capitalism, individualism on steroids. Back then, they developed systems of rank and honored people accordingly with great expressions of courtesy, which they thought hearkened back to better days in the past. So Alexander Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844, looking back to 1625, when d’Artagnan was learning the elaborate ways of courtesy. Movies ensued and so we all know about it. Try this one you’ve never seen at ~24:45:

I often tell marrying couples to figure out how to express that great clause in the great Romans 12: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV) – “prefer” one another, “take delight” in honoring the other, “eagerly,” “excelling” at it. If you want to be ambitious, be ambitious about that. When your mate enters the room, bow before them as if they were really something. If you are wearing a hat, ceremonially, sincerely, let it sweep the floor before them. At least put down your phone for a second and look them in the eye! Honor is the foundation of community. It is the practical expression of our love for God. When the Ten Commandments says “Honor,” it does not mean “obey” and it does not merely mean “respect;” it certainly cannot be reduced to  “sending thoughts and prayers.” Honor is profound regard for the innate value of others before God. It is the life of Christ bowing before sinful humanity with forgiveness and self-sacrifice and then Jesus trusting his followers with his own Spirit. Honor is Joseph finding that his uniqueness is valuable for the preservation of his community even after they had left it unrecognized and squandered it. It is Moses taking on a job he does not want for the sake of the people.

This month, all sorts of things have happened to me and those I love that reveal how important community is. As a result, the fabric of our community has been strengthened. When the baby is born, when the wedding happens, when people change, when we find ourselves in a funeral, we are reminded that our individual pursuits happen within a community. When people die alone (and they increasingly do) it shows how unraveled we have become. As usual, God, in Christ, has made us the alternative to dying in general and dying alone in particular. To be that alternative, start with the easy stuff and recalibrate your schedule, if it needs it, to honor our community. Weave the fabric. Your unique contribution is crucial.

If you let yourself do this, be sure you have spent time being prepared by God before you leave the house, because that kind of love can take over your life. You might be drawn to honor each person you meet, not just your mate or friend, with at least a doff of your hat. You might even smile at people who think their headphones make them invisible, untouchable and safe from alarming contact with other humans. You might risk talking to the needy. You might ignore the resentments you think have made a boundary between you and someone. We need to keep weaving, since we all know how fast things can unravel, often just in time for the baby to be born to remind us just how much those relationships mean to us and to the world.

The beginning of Joshua

A lot of us among the Circle of Hope are listing all the ways Joshua Grace has been a great servant to us as our pastor. His resignation marks a brand new day, in many ways, since he has been a fixture for twenty years and our pastor for nearly fifteen years. No one could replace him. We’re glad we won’t have to do that, since we expect him back after four months of personal reconstruction starting in October.

The old beginning

I have a lot to say about Joshua’s gifts and contributions: musician, maverick, imagineer, innovator, justice-seeker and jock. I have been there for the whole journey and am glad for the honor.

But I don’t want to seem like I’m summing up a subject many are working on. So let me start with the beginning and stay there.

I don’t have a great memory, but I do remember some of my first days relating to Joshua. He resembled this picture above much of the time. A bike messenger, and musician ready to give worship the Nine Digit Number influence, and a man who was very young to have the amount of insight he had about how to plant a church. By the time we were doing our second attempt at congregation multiplication, the leaders passed over a number of good candidates to appoint Joshua as one of the youngest pastors ever. Here he is being launched one time:

I suppose you are noting Martha, too.

Why this responsibility did not kill him remains to be seen (one of his fans will probably write an article). But instead of killing him, it motivated him to pick up a sledge and make a meeting spot for Circle of Hope “East.”  I had fun being something of an odd couple with him at times and had loads of relating as the pastor team for years as we lost and added mates. I think he had fun too.

Facebook was started the same month Frankford Ave started in 2004. One of the reasons I still look at it is happy pictures of loved ones like this.

The new beginning

I won’t go through the whole history and prove to you how I admire Joshua Grace. Let me stick with the beginning, namely: the beginning that he is experiencing now.

Cell leaders lead and then they don’t for a while. Same with the other leaders of our movement. We’re flexible like that and really try to understand that our leaders are part of an organic/spiritual process, not merely on a career path. So in the last few years, we have been strangely flexible with our pastors. We transferred Nate to Director of Operations and Ben stepped in for Marlton Pike. I soon followed with a transitional role as Development Pastor and Rachel stepped up for South Broad. Julie was called out of an apprentice pastor process and became the pastor for Ridge Ave. Now we have consolidated North Broad and Frankford Ave. to form a healthier congregation we can afford, led by Jonny. We’re flexible.

We’re flexible enough to let Joshua change and grow and remain our loved one in covenant for as long as the Lord desires. Joshua is brave to decide to do this, since no one knows how such a shift might work for him. We’re brave to allow it, because we all have to change because he is changing. But we’re connected and we have the strength to work these things out.

At the bon voyage party there will probably be more stories and pictures. I hope he can take in all the good will. It is not easy to change. I plan to be around to do what I can for my good friend, my long-term partner in alternativity, and one of God’s favorite Drexel students ever, no doubt. I think good things are about to begin. God bless you in them, brother.

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Re-begin the Beguines: True alternativity we’ve just barely tried

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For 300 years, from the 1200’s to 1500’s the Rhine River Valley in Europe experienced an astonishing revival of Christian experience among regular people. One of the great expressions of it was the founding of many communities of “beguines” and their male counterparts “beghards.” These communities were part of a huge spiritual movement that stressed the imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. {Check out the best seller of the time]

I am praying for a  new flowering of similar discovery and passion in our own time. If you read this blog, you probably stoke my hope. Many younger Jesus-followers, in particular, are trying on the basic Christianity their recent ancestors in faith have abandoned for political fights and empire thinking. Circle of Hope is a good opportunity to try on some beguine-like radicality. So can we re-begin the beguines? We are in the process of refining our church in many ways, these days, could the beguines lead us?

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Priest lectures a group of beguines

What is a “beguine?”

No one knows for sure where the word “beguine” came from. It could be a derivation of “beige,” since many of these people were heavily involved in the flourishing new cloth manufacturing trade in Europe and wore simple tan clothes. Maybe they’d be called “denims” today. But “beguine” could also be a pejorative nickname that stuck, like “Christian” — no one really knows.

I admit, when I remembered these inspiring people the other day, I passed over the great mystics among them and went straight to Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter (who may be as obscure to some of you as the 13th century!). In the Creole language of Martinique and Guadeloupe a beguine is not a Christian lay woman living in a religious community without formal vows. The term came to mean “white woman” in general, and then it came to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples’ dance. Cole Porter popularized this dance wherever people were cool in the 30’s and 40’s. There is not much connection between Cole Porter and my spiritual heroes, which goes to show how spiritual movements flourish, get co-opted or corrupted and are lost on some dance floor. But I persist.

According to the famous mystic, John of Ruusbroec, the beguines’ religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them (Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310). The Beghards were even more public about their reforms; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Pope, the German bishops and the Inquisition. Before the close of the Middle Ages, the communities were in decline, diminished by institutionalization, persecution and the waning of the textile trade. But some beguinages kept going for 800 years until the last beguine died in 2013.

They weren’t trying to build a legacy, anyway, much the opposite; they were just trying to have a life in Christ. When radicals like the Franciscans started speaking the gospel outside the church and its power structure, in the vernacular and not just in Latin, it led to thousands of people acquiring a genuine relationship with Jesus, which ultimately led to an intimate oneness with God. This spiritual progression was ultimately known as “mysticism” [link to posts on “mystical hope“].

The last intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium
An intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

Part of a great movement of the Spirit

Responding to itinerant preachers before the year 1200, women by the thousands flocked to various convents. The communities did not have room for all of them. So they joined together in their own communities for spiritual growth and pooled their resources to buy  large houses to live in (above), or whole sections of a city. Initially, the beguines were widows and single women, but soon married women found ways to connect. They were devoted to the poor. Some of the first houses formed around infirmaries where many volunteered. They bought the new Bibles being translated into local languages and studied together. They wrote their own devotional books, music and philosophy. Some of the earliest books in Dutch and German were written by Beguines, such as Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechthild of Magdeburg. Radically in love with Jesus, these women saw themselves as brides of Christ and gave their lives to the pursuit of knowing Jesus and serving his cause.

How far can we go with similar intent? It would be great if some of our good businesses became means for people to pray together, then go work on their common business. It would be amazing if people saw our cells and congregations as distinct parts of the city where people protected one another’s relationship with God. It would be wonderful if we managed to care for the poor in new ways that did not rely so much on corporations and government.  It would be wonderful to incorporate more of the feminine and fluid theology of the era of the beguines. It would be great if we unleashed our creativity even more to give voice to the movement of Jesus among us. It would be miraculous if our sense of alternativity blossomed into another movement of the Spirit in our time.

I know we are in the process of trying all these things right now. So miracles could occur! Some of us just have a toe in the water, some of us are kind of over “radicality,” some of us are on the other side of Christ-centered faith, many of us are just beginning to walk with Jesus. As the beguines demonstrated, it doesn’t really matter who one is or where you are on the faith journey; renewal and inspiration are all about the Spirit of God — and the Lord’s Spirit is not bound by who we are right now. Where could we go? And who might we become? We have courageous examples from the past who suggest exciting ways to develop.

Six soul-killing political pathologies demanding the church’s conformity

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Damon Linker of This Week, Penn, and suburban Philly, says “The lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it’s easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.”

I was in a house full of grandchildren as I read that. That made it an even more alarming prediction. Are the children destined to navigate some terrible pathology? I hope not. But if they are so troubled, it will give Jesus an opportunity to prove, once again, that he is greater than our hearts.

Trump may catalyze the worst in us for his own benefit, but he couldn’t do it without the rest of the country providing him opportunity and giving in when he takes it. We of Circle of Hope mildly talk about our “alternativity,” but how far have you been driven, in truth, into some individual bunker from which you plot your safest route to your personal desires? Our recent dialogue about consolidating two of our congregations, although amazing and encouraging (and alternative!), also highlighted what we are up against these days. We are tempted to conform to the pathology around us either by adopting it or endlessly rebelling against it – either way it dominates us.

Linker lists six features of the United States society that often threaten to become features of our church, as well. I hope commenting on his list contributes to finding a way to avoid the pitfalls of our time.

Skepticism about leaders

  • There’s the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims.

If we desert our families and can’t listen to our leaders, can we learn to follow Jesus? Aren’t we tempted to perfect autonomy, thinking that is a good thing? I think our pastors talk about our skepticism all the time — but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks it is right to listen to them, or that they actually do listen. People tend to wake up to “who’s in charge” or “what’s the process” when they discover some change actually impacts their “personal lives.” Otherwise, they assume that everyone in charge is self-interested or corrupt and try to steer clear of any process that might require their responsibility or sacrifice. Skeptics need to be questioned: Are all the region’s police self-interested and corrupt? Is everyone in government out for profit? Are the Cell Leader Coordinators unaware of your reality? Are protesters wasting their time?  What kind of person is your skepticism making you?

Virtual extremism

  • There’s the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space.

The Russians would not be able to corrupt the U.S. system if the echo chambers in which citizens are trapped intersected and if they were not all atomized into individual interpreters of the day’s news. Our church, designed as it is to span usually-distinct territories and people groups often has a terrible time getting people to follow Jesus together if their ideological underpinnings are not satisfied. I have convictions that I consider elemental to my faith in Jesus and which bind me to prophesy to society, but should they exclude others who don’t know what I’m talking about yet?

Endless entertainment

  • There’s the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Last week one of my grandchildren so skillfully lobbied for watching the The Two Towers we spent hours of a cloudy vacation day doing it. Afterwords, we had a long talk (long for elementary attention spans, that is) about what the movie means. One of them questioned my authority to begin such a discussion, of course (back to point one), but we talked anyway. I pointed out that the movies corrupt Tolkien’s story, since the filmmakers use extraordinary, powerful technology to tell the story of the meek inheriting the earth. This thought came to mind after I was informed that the spectacle of Helm’s Deep is much more interesting than the Hobbit scenes, and it is time to hit the bathroom when Gollum is dithering about his soul. They might be children of their age, in danger of spiritual lobotomy by the powerful scenes from the entertainment industry. The news is infotainment and the presidency a reality TV show. It is no wonder people have a tough time taking their faith and their church seriously.

Accepted polarization

  • There’s ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country’s multiple counter-majoritarian institutions.

We passed around an article a few weeks back about the interesting divides in the country. We could see the cultural stereotypes played out in some of our own dialogue as the church. We don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the country’s division among us. One might say many of us are obsessed with what divides us — condemned by their “identities” to perpetual otherness instead of welcomed into the community we crave. Lately, our email list of covenant members has been the scene of some brilliant practical theology after our leaders called us to a course of practical necessity and creative adaptation – a change. I am glad to see we gravitated toward unity in Christ instead of mere diversity of choice.

Distortion as strategy

  • And there’s the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.

The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual BiographyI was in Barnes and Noble with five 7-11 year olds, enough said. While we were buying books I spotted a surprising title: The Faith of Donald J. Trump. I pondered it the day after the news of Cohen’s and Manafort’s legal issues came to a head, both which point to the corruption and brazen immorality of the leader, who the books calls, “the one guiding figure who can return us to the traditional values-hard work, discipline, duty, respect, and faith-that have long been the foundation of American life.” It is small wonder there will be a whole generation of people who assume any leader, including a church leader, is lying. After all, we don’t need Trump, just a few bishops in Pennsylvania will make us wonder.

No love of enemies

  • Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.

Are people, in general, really losing all capacity to have conflicts that result in mutually beneficial outcomes? In our church, people often solve difficult relationships by refusing to ever have the conflict they feel. They kill love to avoid conflict. They neuter their faith in the name of some “acceptance” that masks their fear. They don’t want to be a loser and they have reduced love down to not making anyone else lose. This is politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts. Such a “politics” could kill a church, of course.

I felt a lot of these influences tempting us during our dialogue last week; so I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I could trust our trust system. We purposely designed our church so people could wreck it by being unloving or irresponsible (since Christians love and care and share or they should not be called Christians). I was not sure we would be Christians when we felt hurt or threatened or needed to fail and change. I went to prayer. Jesus came through and we came through. We’ll all be fine. But we will still be living in a world that is clearly not fine, these days. It will try to drag us down with it, so we’d better keep praying.

Build a trust system: Whether trials or Trump it starts with safety

It is a tough era for building a trust system. When that idea first got going with us, maybe it was not really much of “a thing” because people wanted it and thought it was possible. Now trust has almost disappeared and building a trust system might be “THE thing” because it seems so impossible. Many people are wondering if we can believe in trust again, much less build it. But trust is the basis of Christian relationships, with God and others. How can we do without it?

trust artwork
Bruno Mangyoku

David Odom executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, wrote a blog post about trust a week or so ago that is still making us think.

Maybe it makes me think because Gwen and I started watching The Honorable Woman from the BBC on Netflix, upon the advice of someone we trust. It is a series whose stated premise is, “It’s no wonder we don’t trust anyone.” I DO NOT recommend this series — we can turn on the news for lies, unfortunately. But it did make me wonder if we can build the trust system we desire if most people have a traumatized trust center in their soul.

The entire United States is having trust issues, and experience what troubles everyone. Donald Trump is a big tip, but he is not the whole iceberg of mistrust waiting to sink our love. The president’s lies are just so well documented (by what he deftly labels “fake news” outlets), they are hard to avoid. People are no longer mincing words about them. Journalists regularly point out the authoritarian tactic labeled the  “Big Lie.” Telling the big lie is a technique dictators use to gain power. After WW2 the agency that preceded the CIA warned the U.S. population against dictator tactics. They actually issued a report that outlined the primary rules evil people follow for lying big:

Never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

This sounds familiar, right? It is now well established that the President is an inveterate liar, a lesson first learned during his decades as a businessman and reality star, then re-affirmed during his presidential campaign, and then reiterated once again with his inauguration, starting with his Big Lie about the size of the crowd on that day. At the moment, Trump’s favorite lie is that the whole Russia situation is a hoax. For instance, last Thursday, just hours after high-ranking members of his administration confirmed that Russia is meddling (and has meddled) in U.S. elections, Trump made this declaration before a rally crowd in right here in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania:

In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything…We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax — it’s a hoax, OK?

This is not just “political talk.” Trump greatly contributes to the cloud of mistrust in which we wander every day. When the Leadership Team of Circle of Hope started talking about some momentous  next steps for the church last month, a few people automatically assumed they were going to receive poor treatment from faceless leaders somewhere (even though they were sharing their fears with members of our Leadership Team face to face!). Even though we say we are building a trust system, there are a lot of people who are finding that dubious prospect in this disappointing era of U.S. history.

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Elicia Edijanto

So the article from David Odom was timely, if irritating. We need to think about building trust, right now! It is irritating to have to do it, since we have already been doing it. But as soon as we build some trust, some emissary from the world comes along and plants a bomb in it. So we are always REbuilding shattered trust. And for increasing numbers people, we are not rebuilding, we are building from scratch, since they never had much trust to begin with.

Trust begins with safety

Odom says, “To cultivate trust, leaders must contribute to a sense of safety, commit themselves to listening, empower others to act, learn from their mistakes, and promise only what they can deliver.” The leaders of our church definitely think they are doing these things until someone hints they are not — which someone usually does.

What Odom discovered in his consultations with churches is that the low trust among congregants exhibited before hiring him as a consultant transformed into remarkably high trust in him as soon they shared stories of pain and loss. Once people had a chance to tell their stories, even to a stranger, they began to discover what was really important to them.

His work was to figure out how to get people to listen to each other, across their dividing lines. For all the therapists listening, this probably sounds just like marriage counseling. And in the church, building trust is like marriage counseling because we share a love covenant as members of the body of  Christ. That covenant comes complete with all the passions we bring to relationships with our lovers.

Odom laments that today many people in the United States don’t remember a time when they were heard. Some feel that the American economy and society have left them far behind. Others have been silenced for generations, their stories missing from history books and media coverage. As a result, many increasingly believe that they can be understood only by people like themselves. So, by extension, people not like themselves feel dangerous. For protection, some people hide, while others lash out.

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The Honorable Woman in her safe room.

Building trust is a crucial task

In this moment, engendering trust is one of the Jesus follower’s most important and difficult tasks. This task is not only about one’s personal truthfulness and reliability but also about one’s leaders and entire community. We can start with a foundation of credibility and transparency. But before some people can even consider those things, they need a sense of safety.

We call ourselves a Circle of Hope, but we know that before people can get over how hopeless they feel, they need to feel safe.  We can do something about what they feel interpersonally, but factors (like Donald Trump) outside our influence can make everything feel dangerous. In the TV show I referenced above, the main character sleeps in a “safe room,” she has been so traumatized. After watching such a show (and they are legion), then listening to some news, we all feel the need for a safe room! The impact of systemic oppression that has kept people at the margins of organizations, communities and society is now being named more clearly for those in power. Marginalized people have always known they are not safe; now, more privileged people feel unsafe as well.

One would hope that if we provide opportunities for relationships, trust will be an inevitable product. But many people can’t get into relationship because they do not trust themselves, others or the system to allow love. The vulnerability is just too much for them. That’s why many people avoid cell groups, can’t stand a Sunday meeting of less than 50 people, and often feel the whole church is too demanding to be tolerated.

Odom gave an example how he discovered this preliminary step into safety on the way to trust when he was a “freshly minted” church consultant. After a long meeting, a church leader pulled him aside and said, “If you were assisting my company, I would fire you. We trust you more than we trust ourselves. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. We need you to be dependable.”

He was trying to design a good process to help the congregation after it had been betrayed by its pastor. But he learned that before the people could buy into the process, they needed to feel safe with the leader of the process. They had to place their confidence in that person and experience the leader’s confidence in them. They did not trust themselves to have difficult conversations alone and needed the leader to bridge this gap of trust. In conflict situations all over the world, where trust is broken, Christians often make themselves the bridge. One mediator in South Africa taught me a long time ago that being a Christian is often allowing yourself to be the bridge on which both sides walk toward reconciliation.

There are some basic behaviors that can build trust

Even among our church, where we specialize in letting love rule, we face mistrust. Any action is subject to scrutiny. Any situation can become primarily about trust. We must admit how challenging this is. (I am trying to do that with this post). Plus we need to admit the emotional consequences of needing to build trust. At best, it feels irritating.

How can we all build trust – especially our leaders? Odom has important ideas (here elaborated for us):

  • Let safety-building be a priority, even if you think it should be a given. Analyze every situation through the lens of how its resolution will increase or decrease the sense of safety the weakest are longing to experience.
  • Listen, listen, listen. What is everyone saying? – not just the people with whom you feel safe. What feelings are underneath the words? What is the history behind the concern? Listen for systemic injustice that often goes unnamed. We are not necessarily agreeing with people by listening to them, but we are offering a key ingredient of safety: acceptance.
  • Empower people to solve their own problems. There is not some systemic tinkering that can be done to make every problem go away. We can’t have a meeting or pass a resolution and assume everything will be better — sometimes yes, often no. Given the multiple and deep causes of the challenges people face every day, the leader is not the only person who can or should act. We are all in the trust-building project together.
  • Name mistakes and lessons learned. This is one reason we often talk about our failures. People are deciding right now how to talk about our present situation – is it a time of failure? adjustment? growth? transition? All the above? There are many things to learn. We will keep collecting stories of our mistakes as well as our successes. We will apologize and we will celebrate.
  • Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. This is one reason we are serious about our covenant and determined to live according to our agreements, not according to whim of the leaders or the tyranny of the most recent majority. We want to keep naming our intentions and understand our limits. We’ll keep pushing on the limits, but we will know they are there. People often walk into one of our meetings looking for a safe place and run into the fact that we are new, we are surprising or disappointing, and they don’t fit in yet. Rather than fretting about that inevitable reaction, we will keep loving those strangers who also feel we are strange.

Cultivating trust requires consistent work over time. Maybe that’s why it often feels irritating. Trust often ebbs and flows and is influenced by personal, organizational and societal experiences. To keep building trust, we need to admit our daily responsibility to cultivate it – most of the time, cultivating trust would be a good first step when you greet your mate in the morning, when you enter your next cell meeting, or when you see who is at the Sunday meeting.

Helping each other recognize how important trust is may be critical to any claim we make to be authentic followers of Jesus — who has trusted us with His own Spirit!  Our future can take many good roads if there is trust. Many processes can work and and varying plans can come to fruit if there is trust in God and trust in others. But most processes will go nowhere and most plans will never get off runway if they are overloaded with the terrible cargo of mistrust. So as we navigate the stormy seas of Trump and our own turmoil, let’s keep steering toward safety in our Savior and cooperate as He creates a safe place for people to explore trust. Those are steps we can all take in building a trust system — thank God we can trust Jesus for what comes next!

The relationship cutoff: 10 reasons it is so common these days

In my 40+ years of counseling and pastoring I’ve heard about many kinds of emotionally distressing situations triggered in all sorts of ways. But one of the greatest sources of pain I hear about is feeling cut off. The cutoff hurts most in a family or an intimate relationship. But it is also probably the main pain people experience and fear in the church – which is like a family and often full of intimacy or the desire for it. Regardless of the reasons, people who are cut off when people leave them or the church (and sometimes when they stay) feel much the same: shame, confusion, stress, and sometimes even depression and a feeling of being disempowered. [Remember Gotye?] They particularly feel these things when no explanation for the cutoff is provided. People may cut each other off for months, years, and sometimes even a lifetime with little or no explanation.

I am experiencing variations on this theme right now. A couple of very significant people in my life have cut me off. So I have felt some of the feelings just mentioned!

University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “The pain of losing a meaningful relationship [that one still wants or needs] can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact. With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”

In The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson writes, “When a loved one dies, the loss is absolutely final…[but] abandonment survivors may remain in denial and postpone closure, sometimes indefinitely.” Some people never accept the need to grieve and come to acceptance when their pain comes from the loss of romantic attachment or intimate friendship, especially when the loss is extended over time (as in they keep meeting up with the person who has cut them off or they are connected via other relationships).

When there are emotional loose ends — unanswered questions, mistrust, betrayal, disbelief, bewilderment  — it can be very difficult to heal. What makes it worse is that our culture is somewhat hostile to people in this situation. People often judge those who don’t move on right away. Being the one struggling without answers is a difficult experience.

People with abuse and trauma in their backgrounds are especially vulnerable. The breaking of attachments can trigger anxiety, depression and evoke unhealed psychic wounds. Anderson goes on the say: “Emotional experience is more painful when it echoes an episode from the past; that’s especially true when it comes to rejection and loss. The relationship that ended today may be the fulfillment of your worst nightmares from childhood. Grieving over that lost love opens a primal wound.”

The following are some of the most frequent reasons why someone is likely to cut someone off, or to freeze them out of the fold. Before I get there, let me say a couple of things. This is not an exhaustive list. I am NOT suggesting that cutoffs are healthy or even reasonable. I can’t imagine something less like Jesus than cutting someone off. On the other hand, I am also NOT suggesting that people need to put up with abusive, demanding, overwhelming people. We’re not as able as Jesus, for the most part. When boundaries are set and someone refuses to consider them, something’s got to give. So there is another side to what I am about to list and we can talk about that some other time. This time I am honoring people who have been cut off. It can be tough on them. As I enter this confusing set of dynamics that go so dreadfully awry, keep in mind that love is as hard as it is crucial.

So why is the cutoff so common these days?

Modeling

Some people grew up in families that have a history of cutting off members when they are disappointed, angry, or experiencing other less-than-pleasant emotions toward them. Perhaps you witnessed your mother do this to her mother-in-law while you were growing up. You then learned that cutting off relatives is an option. You may follow the pattern when you feel similarly disenchanted with someone. We all learn from what we see modeled at home.

Trauma specialist Hala Khouri says, “If it’s hysterical, it’s often historical.” People who have experienced trauma often don’t differentiate between the person triggering them and the original source of trauma. When difficult emotions arise, they may feel real feelings of threat and anxiety. Their brain may shift toward fight-or-flight mode. A cutoff can be a flight response that helps keep difficult emotions at bay.

Power and Control

In all systems, there are dominant and less-than-dominant members. The dominant may lead the whole group to cut someone off simply to exert their high level of power and control (or for any of the other reasons on this list). Where do children learn the playground dynamics of bullying? At home, a bully may be exerting the same kind of power and control. Not long ago our pastors warned covenant members about a “wolf” (who is still threatening people!). This was a necessary use of their power. But cutting someone off from the church is so rare it seems like it never happens among us.

Exhaustion

Sometimes people simply get exhausted and depleted by a person who seems difficult to them. They may feel that they have put up with certain behaviors for too long, and they may feel hopeless about things ever changing. They may start by phasing out a person and then handily place them on the “do not interact with” list. Everyone has their own pain tolerance level and can only handle so much. People who are addicted or mentally/chronically ill often end up over the tolerance level, which our church often notably ignores – but it can happen. If you are truly exhausted, maybe you shouldn’t ignore it. Thank God we live in community and someone else may not be exhausted at all.

New life stories

There are all kinds of church members who know a lot about your history and younger self. Perhaps you don’t want to be reminded of your past. How do you go about rewriting your history and changing your narrative? One way is to shut out the people who know all about your past. Eliminate them from your life, and you can rewrite your story without anyone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag. Avoid those people, and your past is more likely to be left right where you feel it belongs — in the past. Maybe you moved to Philadelphia to make that happen! When we had our “divorce dialogues” this year, a few of the divorced felt shamed because people talked about their history; but we were just trying not to participate in their cutoff narrative. We were not avoiding. Instead, we were acknowledging that a new story was being written.

Loyalty

Some of us have felt forced into situations where we had to choose between people who were cut off from each other (like in a divorce). Or maybe you feel coerced into choosing between pastors, or even a former pastor. These are dreadful situations, but we all know someone who has been in this position. Is the situation common? Yes. Is it easy? Not at all. In our church, where we have formed a nice, often tight community, people who cut off sometimes hover around the edges and ask for collusion, even ask for a pledge to cut off the same people they have.

Avoiding slighting and being slighted

Sometimes a set of misunderstandings occur between people in the church. If the misunderstandings don’t get discussed, understood, and forgiven they can build up, and eventually break down relationships. It is tragic that such build-ups lead to breakdowns.

I often feel like avoiding things, but I also feel like it is an obligation to God not to do so. But for many people, “discussion” is synonymous with “confrontation,” and so avoidance is their go-to choice. When a new person wanders into a set of relationships in which people are covering up their distress with avoidance, it all feels rather inauthentic.

Why cut someone off without saying why? For one thing, explaining opens a conversation, implying you want to work things out, which you don’t. But there’s another reason, too. Many of us find it hard to say anything “negative” outright, so we swallow our hurt—until it chokes us. Ghosting means still not saying anything negative.

For those who are pondering what they did to cause them to be ghosted, it may help to know the answer may be: nothing. For instance, a woman was relieved when–-decades later— a friend who had disappeared reconnected and explained that she’d been going through a tough time and had cut everyone off. Another woman recalled her own habit, when she was younger, of cutting friends off: she’d pursue a friendship, then feel overwhelmed by the closeness she’d created — and flee. It might be you, but it might not be.

A person doing the cutoff may benefit from taking a deep breath and asking, “What am I trying to avoid here?”

Money

Financial issues are often the source of relationship difficulties. Money may not always be able to buy love, but it sure can lead to lots of bad feelings. Consider the dynamics of the church dividing up a diminishing income, or imagine the bad things that often happen when a family system is also a business (like Circle of Hope!). People sometimes flee the pressures. In the church people can cut themselves off by not paying their share or get cut off because others feel like they are freeloading.

The demands of the needy

Do you want to see a church disintegrate? Watch what happens when people try to share the responsibilities involved in caring for people who can’t care for themselves – sort of like the need to bring grandma into the home of one of her kids. There are certainly family systems that come together and handle these sorts of situations beautifully, but putting a needy person in the middle of the system is also high on the list of reasons that relatives get disenchanted with one another — and sometimes cut off. In the church, people sometimes get cut off because they are not functioning up to standards; they are too needy. Sometimes people cut off because they are overwhelmed with people who can’t contribute and they feel they don’t have enough to give what is required.

Abuse

Unfortunately, many people have been emotionally and/or physically abused in their past – even by relatives, as I already mentioned. This damage cannot always be completely repaired. In many cases, people cut off because they have painful interactions with people that are reminiscent of the abuse in their past. The repeat feels intolerable and often the system (like your cell) does not acknowledge it, so it again feels like the secret trauma they experienced before.

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Lack of Elasticity

Some communities simply lack elasticity. They lack the ability to recover from difficulties and, like a rubber band, snap when stretched too far. Flexibility takes confidence that we are not cut off from God and that, no matter what trials we face, Jesus has and will overcome them with us. Even when someone cuts us off, Jesus is with us as we recover and find our way into what is next. If a group does not have the character to bend and grow, people cut off or get cut off.

Every day we wake up ready to effect reconciliation in the world. We are all about helping each other mend relationships. Sometimes there is so much history and damage that there is little desire and energy to do the mending. Yet Jesus continues to highlight the need to plant and grow love in the world. And he promises to not leave us orphans in the process – he will never cut us off; we’ll have to do that ourselves. We’ve been cut off enough times to have trouble believing that. So we will need to meditate on what we have been given. We will need to leave what we DON’T have to God and move with what we have been GIVEN.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

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

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

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

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

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