Category Archives: The Mission

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

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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?

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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.

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.

Advertising: Our hate/maybe-not-hate-so-much relationship — video version

Perhaps I will figure out how to get a better pic on the face page of my video. But this one is pretty accurate. Someone asked me to do video versions of my blogs, so I tried it for the one I sent you on Monday. Let me know what you think.

Advertising: Our hate/maybe-not-hate-so-much relationship

In 1997, about the time Circle of Hope hired Gerry West to help with music, a couple of ethnographic filmmakers followed a theater group through Papua New Guinea who were hired to be “advertising missionaries.” We once had an IVEP person connect with Circle of Hope from Papua, so that makes the film even more interesting [about IVEP].

Screenshot of Papuan converting to Coke.

Back then in Papua New Guinea, three quarters of the population could not be reached by the regular advertising mediums of television, radio or print. “The market” had to be developed by other means. Small theater groups traveled to remote places performing soap operas devised around advertising messages for a variety of products. They were missionaries sent to bring the consumer revolution to the people of the highlands. They would unfold a set on the back of a flat-bed truck, portraying a modern Western living-room where the advantages of Coca-Cola, Colgate, clothing, canned food, and washing powder were touted. The film observes the impact of the advertising theater on a previously “untouched” village in the remote valley of Yaluba. The change is sometimes comic, but, to my Western eyes, mostly tragic as the natives are converted to the religion of consumer capitalism.

There are reasons we are a well-kept secret

From the beginning, Circle of Hope has had a bad relationship with advertising, since the whole language seems tainted by another religion. As a result, we might be one of the best kept secrets in town. People who find us are consistently relieved to have done so. But they often say, “Why have I never heard about you before now?” One of the reasons is that many of us feel if we tell someone about Jesus or about what His church is doing, it sounds like advertising and advertising is, essentially, evil. Does that make us a very holy group?

Maybe your church feels a similar ambivalence or outright resistance. I was talking to one of Dan’s friends at his wedding last weekend and he said he dabbled in a big Baptist church in Jersey. His take was that people came to it because the church had a bang-up “living nativity” every year. I imagine many in our church and maybe yours would consider that unholy, if not embarrassing, advertising.

So the evil advertisers have shut many of us up. We don’t want to seem like them so we just don’t say anything. That reaction sounds like something right out of Screwtape Letters: “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” We want to open our mouths because we love Jesus and we think our church is a miracle. But we dare not sound like we are advertising. So we get in the habit of never speaking. Then we become numb to the feeling that people really need to hear from us.

This might sound far-fetched. But I know aversion to advertising is a strong sentiment among us because I have often been in charge of the limited advertising the church does. Many people are extremely sensitive about how we look to the stranger they imagine who receives our mailings or sees our website. They are afraid those unsuspecting people are going to feel invaded by some lame thing from a church and think Jesus is lame (or themselves, of course). They have a reason to fear, since so many churches, especially the big ones with live nativities in the front yard, speak advertising like their native language and turn off as many people as they turn on by their collusion with consumer capitalism —something like this, maybe.

Can we learn the language spoken in our mission field?

Lately, some of our leaders did some thinking about this and decided we needed to take some risks to make some new relationships. We need to have “advertising” as a second or third language. While our main language will always be spoken face to face, which has been the main way we grew to nearly 700 people, we think that among the nearly 7 million people in the metro there are many more people who would like to meet us. So we want to learn to speak their language better. Right now they might speak advertising better than English, for the most part. So we at least want to dip our toes in that water. We think we can get better at representing Jesus and our vision in all sorts of ways that won’t bring shame on the Lord or embarrass the sensitive hearts among us. A key distinction between the world’s advertising and ours is that ours is a result of being constrained by God’s love. We advertise because we are already compelled. It remains to be seen if that love can get through to people in spite of the medium of marketing in the U.S.

We don’t meet too many people who have not checked out our webpage before they show up at a meeting.

This is what we think we are doing with the medium, which is quite different than the hucksters in New Guinea trying to get villagers to drink warm Coke. For us, any advertising we do…

  • is a hand of friendship to people who respond to advertising.
  • is an opportunity – for the Holy Spirit to move and for unchurched to change. Each way of connecting can be used by the Spirit beyond our strategy or control.
  • is a way to shape perception. We want people to see Jesus and the church favorably.
  • is a way to subvert the lies that flood the airwaves and infect the landscape. Ben wrote about this.

We cannot “clever” people into the kingdom of God. Our best advertising is the love we have for one another, the open confession and forgiveness of our sins and the compassion we show to those in need – the fruit of the Spirit. If any of our demonstrations can do it, these everyday miracles can awaken the desire in unchurched people to know Jesus and become part of the Christian community. Advertising in itself doesn’t make the body of Christ happen. It is a way to be found by people who are looking. Our goal is not, “Let’s have really good marketing.” Our goal is, “Let’s show people Jesus and what he is doing in our church.” Advertising simply reveals what is already happening. If nothing is happening, there is nothing advertising can do to fix that!

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.

Dear Google: Why do Americans show such disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies?

The other day I was so tired after sweating through some lawn work I sat down in front of TCM with a big glass of water. And there she was: young Katherine Hepburn acting strangely, as usual, in a movie I had somehow never seen, The Little MinisterSince I have been tagged a “little minister” a few times, I got interested and witnessed a strange view of Christianity — I’m still digesting it. As is sadly common in the movies (and this was 1934!), the plot is about how love must rescue little ministers (and whoever else has their head on straight) from the mean old hypocrites who are “bound by God” to enforce the rules that keep everyone from true love! If elders like those of the Scottish Presbyterian Church portrayed actually exist in great numbers, as the movies lead us to believe (as in, they are in every church of every kind!) then it is no wonder so many people finally give up on the church even though they like Jesus — a lot!

It turns out this little piece of anti-church-elders art started out in 1891 as a J.M. Barrie novel (he wrote Peter Pan) and was turned into a play for the famous Maude Adams in 1897 (who was famous for being the first woman to play Peter Pan, which became a tradition). Then it became a silent movie in 1921 with Betty Compson. Then Katherine Hepburn gave it a star turn in 1934 as a talkie when she was 24 years old.

I suppose I should have been interested in the little minister himself, trying to be all stern and proper in his new parish but falling in love with a “gypsy” (who turns out to be the ward and heir of the Lord of the manor). But the actresses were more interesting, as was their character, who carries all the anti-establishment sentiments of the piece. She’s like St. Francis emerging from the forest — the truth-seeking rebel who always seems to show up to reignite the Spirit, even though the law-keepers and power-mongers are trying to take over the church.

But what interested me even more is how awful the elders of the church were portrayed.  It is not that the church does not deserve to be stereotyped; Pence is the Vice President, after all!  [I’ve complained about him myself.] And his agenda definitely resembles the mean-spirited, loveless stereotype the movies keep undermining. [A stereotype this year’s movie: Paul the Apostle of Christ, undermines quite well]. The stereotype is terrible, but all too true, and it got me thinking.

I decided to do some research, which, as you can tell, is like a hobby for me. I typed into Google: “Americans disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies.” I was hoping that someone had already cataloged all the criticism the church gets onscreen. I did not get a straight answer to my question, but I did get some revelation about how the world sees Christians these days. Take a look at the first four articles that came up.

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#1. The Guardian: “White” Christians are now a minority of the U.S. population

First off, so what? What is “white?” What do you mean by “Christian?” And why do you keep labeling people and making them majorities or minorities? So many problems! But the 2017 article is interesting:

But change is afoot, and US demographics are morphing with potentially far-reaching consequences. Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population.

Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.

The survey is no ordinary one. It was based on a huge sample of 101,000 Americans from all 50 states, and concluded that just 43% of the population were white Christians. To put that in perspective, in 1976, eight in 10 Americans were identified as such, and a full 55% were white Protestants. Even as recently as 1996, white Christians were two-thirds of the population.

I suspect The Guardian thinks these “white Christians” are the same people J.M. Barrie thought were idiots. I’m pretty much OK if their majority disappears too, even though I guess The Guardian would label me one.

#2. Time: Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture

First off, who are “regular” Christians and what is “American culture” (Katherine Hepburn movies? Facebook? Walmart? Childish Gambino?). I think there are plenty of people, like me, who don’t lose a minute of sleep wondering about whether they are welcome in American culture. As a matter of fact, being alternative to American culture might be the same as being saved.

But Mary Eberstadt, as usual, has a point and Time gave her an op-ed in 2016 to voice it;

This new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before.

It is true, the media is a powerful tool for mockery. These days, mockery is like an industry, not a literary device used to get to the truth, as in all the variations of The Little Minister. Trump makes a mockery of truth every day. People mock Trump for making truth a mockery. Christians are right in there and rightly getting it right back at them. Personally, I think we little ministers can do better than mocking or trying to unmock a Hillary or Donald.

#3. The American Conservative: The Problem of Contempt in Christianity

I don’t have any “first offs” for this third entry, since I think she is absolutely right. Contempt kills love and we are swimming in a cesspool of it. The Little Minister was a sweet little stab of contempt in the heart of the church: its leaders, and it deepened a suspicion that infects probably 75% of the people trying to work out the body of Christ together.

Grace Olmstead said this in 2014 and look where we are four years later!

This reminded me of another article on kindness and the “other,” written by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic last week. She writes that the greatest destroyer of marriages is contempt, whereas the greatest builder of marriage is kindness:

Contempt, [researchers] have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.

In contrast, she writes, “If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.” Smith lists several ways to be more consciously kind, but one of the primary ways it to be “generous about your partner’s intentions … The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”

This simple advice should be applied to more than just a marital relationship. What if we treated church, and Christianity as a whole, in this way? Instead of responding to denominational and traditional differences with contempt, what if we tried to assume the best of the other, looked for shared truths, united on core doctrine, and spoke with combined honesty and generosity about the things we see as misguided or wrong? What if we spent more time in shared service, “showing interest and support” for those actions we see as laudable and important, rather than merely looking for things to critique in the denominational “others” around us?

It is good that she started with a critique of how Jesus-followers act, since she went on to describe how Protestants are beginning to feel the backlash from people who have been under their political thumb since the country’s inception. The movies often take the point of view of oppressed “gypsies” (like Katherine Hepburn :)) who are interesting because they contemptuously point out the misplaced and unChristian contempt of church leaders for huge segments of the population.

#4. Wall Street Journal: One Hundred Years of Freud in America

First off: How did this article get into the WSJ? And how did it end up number four in my search? The internet is a strange thing. Did Google know that I am a psychotherapist and this would wind my clock? Did it know that I was analyzing the motives of moviemakers and the reactions of their prey?

This article from 2009 may not interest you much. But it serves to point out what is happening to us. The movies don’t always create the philosophies, they reflect them. Freud was a determined outsider, too, who doggedly unlaced strait-laced people. And Christians, for good and ill, have been loosened from their traditional moorings ever since. I think psychotherapy can unleash the work of the Spirit in us. But it can also become another philosophical overlord if Jesus doesn’t direct it.

A Harris poll last year found that nearly one in three American adults had “received treatment or therapy from a psychologist or other mental health professional.” Orthodox Freudians are relatively rare nowadays, and drugs are replacing psychotherapy as a treatment for many mental ills. (A study out this week from Columbia University says that one in 10 Americans is now on antidepressants.) Yet some version of Freud’s talking cure—with or without the dogma—is an accepted feature of American middle-class life.

Before his visit [1909] , Freud predicted to his circle of followers that presumably strait-laced Americans would never embrace his ideas “once they discover the sexual core of our psychological theories.” But of course in America sex sells; indeed, it is probably one of the biggest reasons that Freud’s theories gained such currency here. As with so much else, he was wrong about that, too.

The Little Minister brought it all down to “true love.” The minister’s head is warmed by a gypsy heart and the whole town is enlivened. Natural goodness is set loose, the minister personally stands between the murderous oppressed and their clueless overlords, takes the knife meant for someone who deserved it, and Jesus is revealed (it is quite a plot!).

Americans show so much disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies because there is a lot of true Christianity laced into America. They have some discernment and hope. The government has often been held in check by the faith of Americans, but not that often (although we don’t know how bad it would have been without the Jesus-followers doggedly following). From my little experience, I think most people can spot a real Christian when they see one. That’s what The Little Minister was all about — spotting the true Christians; one was dressed like a minister, the other like a gypsy. Others were scattered here and there.

There are so many Christ figures in this little movie it deserves an altar call! The heir of the fortune gives it all up after she falls for a true Christian and God answers her prayer for healing. I suppose nowadays, if people don’t see such folks on screen it will be hard to see them at all, since they look at screens so much! But when they look up and see you, I hope you will not feel so much shame at being associated with with the idiot Christians so often depicted in the movies that you forget that you are actually associated with Jesus, who doesn’t need the affirmation of Americans to be the Lord of all.

[Sorry for publishing this twice subscribers!]

Paul’s disasters: And those looming for us

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The apostle Paul’s church planting project was definitely prone to disasters! When I was in Greece following him around, that fact I knew from the history in Acts became more and more evident.

  • In Philippi, the first main stop, he is attacked, flogged and thrown into prison!
  • In Thessalonica, jealous opponents round up ne’re-do-wells and start a riot. He escapes after dark.
  • In Berea, he is successful until agitators from Thessalonica show up. He escapes by sea
  • In Athens, he makes a great speech, but he is not too successful — not quite a disaster, but disappointing.
  • In Corinth, where he stays quite a while, he is thrown out of the synagogue and moves next door. The Jews eventually make a united attack and bring him before the authorities.

When you read Paul’s letters back to these church plants with a disaster lens, you realize that he was trying to prevent what was about to kill them! In Galatia, they are changing the gospel back to Judaism. In Corinth, there are factions which are each  reinventing the good news to support their power struggle. In Philippi, pillars of the church are unreconciled. In Thessalonica, people are freeloading off the community waiting for Jesus to return.

Before we get too discouraged about humanity, Luke makes sure you understand that miracles ensue. [We need those.] I think he makes sure we see how difficult it was to plant the church so no one gets the idea it was not miraculous. His book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, so we more human-centered types will not forget the Apostles were just like us. The big miracle is that the church not only survives, it appears to thrive on disaster, from the first martyrs and persecutions to the present day attacks on Indian believers associated with the Brethren in Christ.

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We are prone to disasters

Last week I reminded our Leadership Team Core of these historical facts as we started our meeting for a couple of important reasons.

First, we Americans think we are so powerful (rich, smart, better, etc.) that everything will and should work out. A traditional song of some American Christians is “Victory is mine!” Others go right along with “God bless USA!” as the camera pans the soldiers. That just goes to say, as the president says, that we think we are supposed to win. So we are easily disappointed. If something doesn’t work (like marriage or most of our electronics) we throw it out. People leave relationships (and so the church) at the drop of the hat, following their bliss. We almost never take the good given, because that offends our sense of what we deserve. We have a Christianity that looks almost nothing like Paul’s and so we cannot do disaster. We hardly ever take uncalculated risks, which he apparently did all day until Nero killed him.

Second, we are headed for any number of disasters

  • Trump may do us in [He’s like Nero].
  • We have bid farewell to a significant number of people in the past year and we might end up on a roll as people think we are less successful than we have been for the past 22 years. [Admit church planting failures]
  • We may buy another building in the Northwest that causes all sorts of trouble. [Do we need buildings?]
  • We are not sharing the amount of money people promised and we might need to make some radical adjustments to adapt. [Sharing is radical]
  • People keep sinning and you never know when the system gets too weak to endure it until it gets too weak.
  • We are transitioning from my former role to a whole new, better, structure. But it takes radicals to do it and we might not even be paying much attention  as (back to point one) we live in the Trump fog.

I must tell you, I think my dire warning about us met with the same reaction I had to Paul’s disasters in Greece and elsewhere. I was excited. I think our LTC was generally excited too. The fact is, we Jesus followers feel like we are really alive when we are on the edge of death in some way. How better to identify with Jesus? Paul said, “I want to share in the Lord’s suffering and so share in his resurrection!” Me too. I’m not going to be foolish in order to tease out a miracle — but I am foolish enough to require one.

I have often had some great solutions to problems, led by the Spirit. But I have to admit, I have persistently relied on miracles when it came to church planting. It is the only authentic and realistic thing to do. I may think I know a lot and think I should exercise a lot of power. But when it comes to church planting, it is an act of the Holy Spirit and we follow in the Lord’s wake to get anywhere at all. When we talk about being on the apostolic edge of what is next all the time (at least I hope you talk about that) it means being on the edge of disaster a lot, since we are also on the edge of the amazing next thing God is making us and making with us.

Wildness and worry: How Paul puts them together

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

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

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

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

Here are the two Bible portions on my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:21-29

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

Galatians 4:19-20…5:7-13

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

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

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

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

My new Paul icon from Berea

I identify with both Paul’s wildness and worry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul demonstrated both his wildness and worry when he wrote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything might work because nothing really works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how we do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit’s Impressive Church Planting Track Record

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem

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

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

Samaria

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

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

Africa and Caesarea

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

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

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

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Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

Macedonia

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

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

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We can trust the Holy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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