Category Archives: Theological Help

How to deal with natural opposition: Five proverbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress is more about being known than processing data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

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

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

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

All this over chips?

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

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

A Stance: How Jesus Acts on His

Jesus lived among people with stances on everything, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Church can become a matter of competing stances.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus stance

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

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

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

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

15 fact-based reasons to accept the resurrection of Jesus

 is a blogger for Lifeteen, which is kind of the Roman Catholic Young Life. He wrote the basis of today’s post, in hope of helping skeptical teenagers in a skeptical world consider what it means to follow Jesus. I vividly remember my own skepticism and my own journey into faith as a teenager, and lists like this were very helpful to me. They convinced me that I might not be crazy to have faith. I had faith, but I suspected it might be delusional. I still needed to meet the resurrected Christ, person to person in the Spirit, to convince me I was on the right path. But getting hold of the facts helped me too — reasoning has a part in how we come to believe, too.

Many people tell Jesus followers, young and old, that “based on human logic” the resurrection of Jesus makes no sense. They have a point. But, of course, they could make the same point about many of the things “human logic” comes up with — it is not known for making consistent sense, either. Nevertheless, it is true, that though God has used every means possible to make sense to us, the Lord still admits that “My ways are not your ways, nor are my thoughts your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). What is illogical is to think that humans are the center of the universe. But people still bet their lives on that premise. The resurrection re-centers logic where it belongs: on God’s thoughts, not ours. But there is a lot of human reasoning that can help us get to faith in that.

Any conversation about God is a lot more involved than mere logic. Any talk about Jesus and his resurrection will need to include an assumption that humans are also spiritual beings and having faith is what we do. Considering the resurrection won’t get too far If we are not humble enough to admit that we don’t already know everything we might need to know.  One will at least need to  assume that “it is possible that God exists” and that “we are not God.”

Resurrection icon
Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Icon) by Ryszard Sleczka ca 2014

When it comes to resurrection of Jesus, to say that there is no logical reason to believe it happened and it meant something is short on facts and somewhat absurd. Like I said, deciding whether the resurrection is logical or not will not be enough to move someone into faith — at least it was not enough for me. I had an entire spiritual territory that was unexplored and Jesus became my personal guide. But reasoning helped get me started. So maybe this post will reinforce some of the basic facts of faith in Jesus for you, too. To get started, here are 15 quick facts that validate the reality and meaning of the resurrection. These are not exhaustive or highly detailed; they are quick points that further strengthen what humble-hearted believers receive in faith:

1. There was an empty tomb

The founders of other “faiths” are buried in tombs or had their ashes sprinkled over foreign lands. Not Jesus. Modern scholars and CNN can claim what they want . . .  the truth is that the tomb was empty.

2. The tomb had a Roman seal

Clay was affixed to a rope (stretched across a rock) and to the tomb, itself. The Roman seal was pressed into the clay. Break the seal, you break the law; break the law –- you die.

3. The tomb had a Roman guard stationed there

The “guard” was at least four men, possibly more, of highly trained soldiers. These soldiers were experts in torture and in combat, not easily frightened off by a band of fishermen and tax collectors. Had they fallen asleep or left their post they would have violated the law, resulting in their own execution.

4. The tomb had a stone in front of it

Most scholars put the weight of the stone at about 2 tons (4000 pounds), probably at least seven or eight feet high. This was definitely a “team lift” or “team roll,” not movable by just one or two men.

5. There were post-resurrection appearances, to hundreds

Over a span of six weeks after he rose, Jesus appeared to a variety of groups of various sizes in different locations. He appeared to over 500 at one point –- a huge number to be an outright fabrication. Not to mention, the people to whom he appeared didn’t just see Him, but ate with Him, walked with Him, touched Him. Jesus even made breakfast (John 21:9) at one point.

6. The martyrdom of witnesses offers proof

Would people leave their businesses, careers, homes and families, go to the ends of the earth, die horribly gruesome and painful deaths and forsake their previous religious beliefs about salvation all to protect a lie? Not one of them, while being beheaded, fed to lions, boiled in oil, crucified upside down or burned alive changed their story. Instead, they sang hymns of trust and praise, knowing that the Lord who defeated death would raise them up, too. People do weird stuff for religious reasons, of course, but their faith is compelling.

7. There is still a Church

If the resurrection were a lie it would have died off centuries ago, wouldn’t it? The Christian Church is the largest movement of any kind in the history of humanity. It began with the apostles being commissioned by the risen Lord, then filled with resurrection life on Pentecost. That life keeps undermining empires, withstanding attacks (from inside and out) and growing in spite of the sinfulness of its members. It is a testimony to the presence of the risen Lord, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, a living body both human and divine, like Jesus.

8. Jesus prophesied that it was going to happen

Jesus told people he would rise from the dead. It didn’t take Him by surprise. And He didn’t just say “I’m going to be killed” (which others might have seen coming) but also that “I’m going to rise on the third day.” Those details aren’t ironic, coincidental or fortune-telling — they’re prophecy and prophets speak from God. We are called to test whether what they claim is true.

9. It was prophesied in the Old Testament

The resurrection was foretold centuries before Jesus was born. Hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah: what He would say, do, how he would live and how He would die, were offered centuries by a variety of prophets over centuries. David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Hosea, and Micah all pointed to the Christ’s death and resurrection hundreds of years before they occurred.

10. The day of worship changed

Following the resurrection, tens of thousands of Jews (almost overnight) abandoned the centuries-old tradition of celebrating the Sabbath on the last day of the week and began worshiping on the first day of the week, the day on which the Lord, the Christ, beat death sealing the new and final covenant with God. That was a huge thing for them and marks their belief in the event that changed everything.

11. The practices of sacrifice changed

Jews were always taught (and taught their children… Deuteronomy 6) that they needed to offer an animal sacrifice once a year, to atone for their sins. After the resurrection, the Jewish converts of the time, throngs of them, stopped offering animal sacrifices to God. Not only had the ultimate sacrifice been offered, the resurrection sealed their forgiveness and their own hope of resurrection.

12. It is unique among other world religions

Most of the religions of the world have elements of them that point toward Jesus; they represent the same deep desire we all have to be saved from death and freed from sin. But no other religious leader of any consequence ever actually claimed to be God, except Jesus. No other religious leader ever did the things Christ did. No other religious leader ever backed up their “religious voice” with resurrection. Confucius died. Lao-tse died. Buddha died. Mohammed died. Joseph Smith died. Christ rose from the dead. That “scandalous” thought continues to trip people up and continues to guide their steps into eternity.

13. The message is self-authenticating

This proof goes back to the original point, namely, that a humble heart is enlightened and illuminated by far more than logic or reason. A true believer doesn’t need all the facts to believe in the resurrection, because the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us, intimately and powerfully. St. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 4. Blind and hardened hearts will never see God, not until they acknowledge that they are not God. Obviously, people can use this argument to believe in anything about which they feel deeply. But without this experience of confirmation in relationship to God, mere logic is usually less than convincing.

14. The miraculous ending fits a miraculous life

You want logic? Christ healed the blind, the deaf and the dumb. He fed the masses, cured the lepers, and forgave the sinners. He made the lame walk and brought others back to life. He multiplied food, walked on water, and calmed storms with His mere voice. The miracle that happened during the crucifixion is that He did not preform a miracle. He died. The miracle followed: Jesus rose from the dead. it was a miraculous completion of a miraculous life, exactly what one would expect.

15. Maybe the only reason we need: Jesus is still rising

The world suffers and we all experience it and do something about it. We ignore it, lament it, debate it, bomb it, and medicate it . . .  but we can’t find the cure for it or the point of it as long as we are separated from Jesus Christ. In Christ, our suffering has a point and it has worth just as his did. Apart from Christ, suffering is relatively pointless and fruitless. There is no fountain of youth. There is no miracle drug. There is no cure for death except Jesus Christ. What is illogical is to think that the God of life would not want us to live eternally.

If you are convinced this life is your only one, then the resurrection will not fit into your logic. This little blog probably won’t convince you to change your mind, either. But hopefully, this quick reminder the day after Easter gives a few believers some encouragement that  the resurrection is not illogical. That being said, I hope it also encourages you to know that it is far from merely logical, as well.  It is the work of God, which is far more that we could imagine. But since we are the work of God, too, it resonates in places in us that are longing for life.

”How can some among you say there is no resurrection? If Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith; if Christ has not been raised than your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-18)

Brothers and sisters, because of what happened in that Upper Room, on that cross, and in that tomb nearly 2000 years ago, we know God the Father intimately, we walk with Christ daily, and we are guided by the Holy Spirit eternally. That’s the truth, and it is beautiful (John 8:32). When I was first becoming a Jesus follower, I just barely believed  it. But my mind led me to my feelings, and then both led me to my spiritual capacity which enlivened the heart of me so I could walk by faith. I am risen with Christ myself! That’s a beautiful truth, too.

For the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.

Last week about thirty of us slaves of Christ were doing some theology about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament and how it could inform how we think about our “social action.” The two-tiered idea we explored has proven helpful to many people so far. See it for yourself at the Way of Jesus blog.

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

The world in its present form is passing away

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day to day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

How do we take action?

So what do we do in the face of the oppressive masters beating down on us and the world? Pray harder, safe in our salvation? Absolutely. But that is not all. We are already taking action in many more ways. I think we summarize what we do well in our statement of our mission.

Loving the thirsty people of our fractured region,
we keep generating a new expression of the church
to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.

We resist. I am Christ’s slave. That is a defiant statement of resistance. My existence is resistance. I will never be a slave to a human, no matter what one does to me: buy me, imprison me, or take away my livelihood. I will always belong to the Lord, forever. And, as Jesus demonstrates, in a very real sense, Jesus will belong to me forever. He has made Himself our slave.

We restore. I am an obedient slave. My work is well-ordered. Jesus is the Lord of all and we are making that known and effective, day by day. We restore by reorienting people’s identities to align with their salvation. We restore by relentlessly loving in the face of hate and indifference. We restore by telling the truth in the face of lies. We restore by sharing our resources and making peace. And, I think most important, we restore by practicing the kind of mutuality that creates an alternative community that is not allied with the powers that dig up the world and destroy connections between God and people like hurricanes blasting through our village.

Our existence is the fount of our resistance. We can only hope that the country will be put to right soon. But even if it isn’t, we know who we are and we know what to do.  Being knit together in the love of Jesus is more important than ever, isn’t it!

The Whitelash and This Year’s Thoughts about the Election

Van Jones said it was a whitelashVan Jones became my favorite CNN commentator during the election. I agree with his summation of what happened yesterday: “This was a rebellion against the elites, true. It was a complete reinvention of politics and polls, it’s true. But it was also something else. This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes. And Donald Trump has a responsibility tonight to come out and reassure people that he is going to be the president of all the people who he insulted and offended and brushed aside.”

It was also a whitelash against the thought of woman president. And, unfortunately for any hope I have of evangelism, it was a whitelash against the “godless people who have taken over the government and the Supreme Court that aids and abets them.”

This was my Facebook summation last night: “OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”

Friends, let’s get back to the reality that Jesus does not need the American government to do His work.  Let’s have confidence in the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let’s remember how Jesus told us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Let’s return to the mentality Paul taught us: “The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;  those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;  those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

I wrote a lot about the campaign, beginning back in May when Circle of Hope did some theology together about what elections mean to God. In retrospect, some of the basic teaching might be useful today as so many of us are trying to make sense of where we are now and what Jesus calls us to do.

Here are excerpts from seven blog posts. Hit the titles to take the link to each piece.

Oct 18 — The alternative to politics: take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of me

On the other hand, I am appalled that we are paying so much attention to two bonafide members of the one percent duking it out to be king or queen of the elite. Hillary Clinton is so cozy with the world’s domination system it would be surprising if she manages to see outside the bubble. The people at the top really think they own the world and need to take care of it. At least Donald Trump is generally despised among the elite as a brash idiot who can’t help opening the curtain and exposing all the secrets. We all tune in and suck up the illusion that we are not their slaves. Many people believe that one of them is somehow going to represent their interests.

debate vs hillary donald
Still my favorite GIF of the election.

Sep 27 — If someone puts the Geiger counter on you, stand in grace

I admit that Donald Trump made me pull my hair out last night — interrupting, bullying, talking about 400 pound people and other tabloid interests. It was kind of embarrassing.

But I also learned a bit about what people like about him. Here’s what I think: Everyone is becoming a bit sick of what I call “Geiger counter” accountability. What I mean is the feeling that some kind of powerful person or entity is holding a tester over you to pick up some tiny particle of being out of line. We’re always setting off the no-go alarm. We’re always getting the red notice that we have not filled out the inexplicable form properly (like I just experienced with a City of Philadelphia form). The Donald is just so splendidly incorrect, he gives us hope that a real person might be acceptable in reality. Hillary Clinton has somehow mastered so much material that she can actually function well in political unreality.

Sep 20 — I am sick of the campaign…but still alternative.

I get discouraged. But then the Holy Spirit revives my hope again. Sin happens every day – and will keep happening inside us and out. We’re sick. But our work in the Lord is not in vain. My wounds are not permanent. Our sins could not keep Jesus in the grave. I still know we are the alternative, and we need to be: a circle of hope wherever God takes us.

Jul 29 — About Hillary — we can do better

It is tempting to spend another four years hoping things will get better – and the government can and does makes things better, as it should. But we still don’t put our hope “in chariots and horses,” that is, in the capacity to threaten ISIS, the wealth to promise free education, or the exceptionalism of our supposed democracy. So let’s not fall into temptation. Someplace, Jesus needs a platform to speak the truth. Someplace, normal people need to struggle face to face in faith and do what they can do, not dependent on their corporate overlords to allow it. Someplace, the alternative to two years of vying to be the top dog has to be available. The church is the Lord’s people and we are, like it or not, the best hope of giving people real hope in a 46%-43% society. I think our witness has been drowned out by big money, big systems and our own complicity (in general). But Jesus is still making connections and is still using us. I’m with Him.

July 22 — About Trump — we can do better

I live among people who are not happy with Trump. But sometimes I think they are posturing, since they probably have a relative from the South or Middle Pennsylvania (or keeping quiet in Philly, at least) who thinks Trump is great. So they must have some sense of affinity with the guy. Don’t worry if you do or you don’t — It is crazy politics, people, but it is still just politics. And even if the election turns out to be a life and death matter for some people, we are still Jesus followers. Every election serves to remind us why we are glad to have a savior who triumphs over death. I don’t say that in a fatalistic way, just a realistic one. I know Americans think they can control everything so nothing bad will happen or happen again, but how many times does our control system need to be proven faulty until we give up on it?

May 9 — We have no king but Bernie?

I sent in my absentee ballot, but, I have to admit, I did not even pray about it.

That’s mainly because I remember the crowd Pilate drew to his rally during the Passover feast in Jerusalem when the powers that be infiltrated an audience that would normally have gone for Jesus (and had just a week before) and got people to use the system to get Barabbas off and Jesus crucified. When Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to crucify your king?” they shouted, “We have no other king but Caesar.” Sometimes crowds get it right; but I am not trusting the vote to fulfill my hopes. They might not recognize the Son of God if he were standing right in front of them!

We are going to do some theology about elections on May 2 because even radical Christians react to U.S. elections like they are crucial to justice and world peace. Many feel, even if they don’t act, like the president (and whoever those other elected officials are) is even important to their faith. There are a lot of good historical reasons for that attitude, which has almost no relation to anything happening in the Bible, certainly not in the life of Jesus. The feeling of importance is hard to shake off when you live in the most recent preeminent empire, which loves to call itself the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth (see Bernie’s website, linked above). Living in it makes you think, that even if the 1% effectively own the government, your vote is going to start a revolution, you are just that special.

May 5 — Elections: Constantine, Trump, etc.

The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.

John Howard Yoder said: “The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused.” That is one reason Americans can spend two years electing the president. People think it is VERY important.

The saviors I did not ask to receive

On the long ride to the Poconos, the only thing on NPR was the Prairie Home Companion. Normally I can only get so far with the redundancy of Garrison Keillor, but he hooked me with his broadcast for Memorial Day. He was at the Wolftrap in Virginia, near Manassas, the site for two great Civil War battles—and he referenced Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in U.S. history (on the U.S. side, at least). The show was sprinkled with songs from the American war-song book, but Keillor was singing for peace. He was in sync with President Obama, who remembered Memorial Day by visiting Hiroshima and calling for a “moral revolution” to make a world free from nuclear weapons.

One of the songs the cast sang was a soulful rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Keillor led the crowd to join in. Everyone seemed to know it, since this very–religious song is still taught in school. It was, quite appropriately, sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, who I lately accused of misleading the public to think that the United States military power was God’s instrument of policing the world, right down to calling new missiles “peacekeepers.”

This hymn, written by a staunch abolitionist, saw the Union Army as God’s instrument of bringing about His judgment on the evil of slavery (as even Thomas Jefferson concluded was inevitable). Julia Howe’s allusions are all to Isaiah 63 and the book of Revelation, which promise that the day of the Lord will not be pretty for the disobedient. Her song assured the army that the Civil War was a foretaste of the wrath to come.

My problem is not with God’s judgment. I rely on the fact that evildoers will receive what they have been committed to achieving. My great problem is with the rest of the theology she promoted. I think if you ask a random Christian, they will, most likely (and unfortunately), still be headed in the wrong direction she was leading the troops. The problems are in every verse. For instance:

Verse 1: He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

The leaders of armies have been telling soldiers that God is on their side for as long as I can remember. Right now, Daesh is the evil. It was added on to drugs, terror etc. The Union army was told it was God’s sword.

Verse 2: I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp

Very few soldiers saw their camp fire as one before an altar I am sure. But the allusion reminds us that Christians reinstituted an altar worship when Constantine installed Jesus at the center of every town in the Roman Empire, right where the altar to the false gods once stood, often in the same building. But, in truth, Jesus made the body of Christ the temple; altar worship is obsolete – not merely the Jewish altar, but the very idea of needing a place of mediation where men make sacrifices to please God.

Verse 3: I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

I gave you the whole verse. By now, you get it. The song assumes the gospel uses violence for its ends. It teaches that violence redeems. Regardless of the Lord’s own example of nonviolence, the powers that rule the world convince noble-minded women that 13,000 men should die, be wounded or go missing in one day at the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam and those losses should be considered holy, and even the fulfillment of the spirit of prophecy.

Verse 4 — He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;

In the song, the “sifting” is about the latest war. It is not about being in God’s kingdom or another’s; it is about being on the right side of the nation’s history. As you notice from the most recent era of polarization in the U.S., people are still sifting and are still ready to condemn those who align on another side. But unlike what Howe teaches, in truth, Jesus is not presiding over the animosities which run the United States and which threaten to loop us all into an endless cycle of judgment. Jesus died and rose to end that cycle.

Verse 5 — As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

This is where most versions of the song stop (even though Howe included a last verse). It is an appropriate climax for the song, and it is the apex of its wrong theology. The “sacrifice” the soldiers are preparing around the “altar fires” of their encampment is supposedly like the sacrifice of Jesus. The thought is the 10,000 casualties at Manassas will be worth it because the cause is one with the Lord’s.

The problem is that Jesus died and rose so that we would no longer be sacrificing animals or one another to save the world. The old is gone, the new has come. The very thing she is exalting is exactly what He brought down. Yet in the name of Jesus, Howe is celebrating the sacrifice soldiers make to His “truth” that is marching on – they are to believe that this war is for that truth.

Every war song since has said the same thing—dying for country, dying to preserve freedom, dying to protect your brother soldiers, dying to protect American interests, making the world safe for democracy, protecting the homeland from communism, extremism, from people who would destroy our way of life. It is always justified with the most serious, even majestic tones. I have often been told that I could not do things like write this blog unless the sacrifice of brave men had made my freedom possible. Yet I am not free from their sacrifice. I honor their courage and devotion, and I don’t think every choice we need to make is as easy as writing a blog post. But I don’t worship at their altar. They are the saviors I never asked to receive. I don’t believe my true Savior asked them for their sacrifice on the altar of preserving His rivals who continue the way of sin and death—and put it to music.

[I found out that Garrison Keillor wrote the song that moved me most in the show. It is called Argonne. Here are the lyrics.]

“Unalienable rights” should be normal but not necessary

The Declaration of Independence must be one of the most influential things ever written. It might be the “sacred literature” that influences Americans, including the Christians, the most. I think we need to do better than that, even though the Declaration has changed the world.

You may have memorized the beginning at some point:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyHaving just returned from Zimbabwe, I have to say how much I enjoy those lines. My rights in Zimbabwe were subject to the searching gaze of a young soldier, often part of a team with machine guns, stopping our van (at least twenty times) over the 280 miles from Bulawayo to Livingstone. The people of Zimbabwe are so used to looking over their shoulders to see who is listening that they are reticent to say anything meaningful to their friends! It is nice to have rights.

Unfortunately, that rarity among the people of the world is seen as the apex of goodness among Americans. If you have the rights the government should honor, that’s it. After that it is up to you and you should be happy. Of course, as you have noticed, so-called minority people who are given rights don’t automatically enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is much more to life than the government acquiescing and allowing one to exist legally, even when that government thinks it is God’s tool for righteousness, as it seems to think in the U.S.

At least that is what I think Paul teaches. There is much more – so much more that talk of rights seems kind of like spiritual baby talk. The Apostle Paul has some extensive teaching about rights and freedom in his letters. He is talking to people who are generally denied rights under Roman autocracy, and he is talking more specifically to religious people who think following the law of Moses gives them special rights. What he teaches is that we have rights granted by God that don’t depend on anyone. But even more, we have the capacity, just like Jesus, to give up our rights for love. Our right to love is the highest privilege of all.

Listen to him in 1 Corinthians 9

     Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?  Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

     This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

     Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

This is like his declaration of independence. He declares his unalienable rights, doesn’t he? (Maybe you thought Thomas Jefferson invented these things!) But he goes way beyond clinging to his rights as he continues.

     But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

     Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?  In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

     But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Perhaps we look askance at his boasting. But what he is saying is that he likes the reward he gets from not exercising his rights. He wants to be deeper than what is normal. He does not want to be tied up with begging and fighting for his rights, even though he deserves them on human and spiritual authority. Jesus did not die and rise to achieve normal. Paul likes relying on the Lord and having Jesus as the guarantor of rights that go far beyond the rights of which humans can deprive him. He explains what that means.

      Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

All the rights claimed by various tribes of people are fine with Paul. He has those too, on several counts: he is a Jew and a Roman citizen; he is under the law and a notorious lawbreaker; some see him as strong others as weak. But for Jesus’ cause and because of the love that’s been poured out on him and through him, he does not need to get stuck in any of those sub-Christian categories.

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyWhen he writes to the Galatians about similar things, he warns them about getting stuck.

 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.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

When we talk about the politics of the U.S. these days we can almost immediately get stuck in whatever someone’s “unalienable rights” means to them about “freedom.” Mostly, it appears to mean we are all free to bite and devour one another, and the leaders are the prime examples of that freedom! In the church, people often think that protecting the rights of minorities is the apex of morality when it is just the beginning. Whole denominations divide up over power struggles about individual identity and rights. Many unbelievers think it is characteristically Christian to bite and devour people — mainly because they fight for power all day! I don’t think the Bible writers taught them to do that. There is so much more than that! Paul is not waiting to get his rights straight in the eyes of others before he loves them and reveals Jesus to them. That former preoccupation has passed away.

I am glad I have, as an American, the basic political rights that all people should have. As a white male, I have privilege that gives me special, if unauthorized, “rights” that are backed up by the domination system for whom the Declaration of Independence was intended to begin with. I think that Zimbabweans and all people who are oppressed and denied their identity as free individuals should be liberated politically. But, even more, I am glad I know that none of us will be free until we quit fighting for our rights and start receiving them from Jesus. Jesus is the true liberator. There is more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available in the Kingdom of God, whether I have governmental rights or not, than any gun-toting soldier can give me or take away.

Do you agree that there is another way? It begins with seeing things with a new lens. When we look at the group in the picture at the top, do we automatically see them from the perspective of who has rights and who doesn’t? Who is up and who is down? Who is labeled this and who that? Or are we determined to serve one another in love as a people who are one in Christ?

Maybe a good way to explore another way would be to consider who you think is biting you or devouring you. Maybe it stung to hear the sexist language in the declaration. Maybe it is irritating to hear talk about rights from a so-called white man. Maybe this theology doesn’t match what you grew up with in your Pentecostal church. Maybe someone did something bad to you and now you don’t feel you can trust Circle of Hope. Maybe you will need to assert your rights. But once you win that battle, what will you do to follow Christ into what is next? Maybe you could just skip the battle and go straight to love and service (and even boasting in it), like Paul.

We have no king but Bernie?

[Originally published on Circle of Hope’s blog before the primary]

Last week the Bernie machine rolled into town and thrilled a lot of people at the Liacouras Center. Jonny and Madi were out there getting people to tell them their stories and making friends — good for them!

Bernie was making a lot of friends with his unlikely social-democrat “revolution” — which Hillary Clinton says sounds like snake oil in the present political environment, even though she’s been working for the same kind of things as Bernie since she was an undergrad. Meanwhile her husband, Bill, was arguing against Black Lives Matter spokespeople that he was not the author of our present incarceration nightmare and the hyper-poverty at the heart of Philadelphia (like next door to the Liacouras Center!). Meanwhile, pundits were crowing over the weakening of Donald Trump’s candidacy and somehow missing that Ted Cruz is probably even more dangerous to their sense of propriety. Fun week for Philly, big week for Bernie fans.

I like Bernie, but I don’t have another king but Jesus.

The way our infotainment system works, one would think that the election of the U.S. president was the most important thing happening in the universe. We even love looking at ourselves perversely being interested in looking at Trump. The newscasters make news themselves by having tiffs with the Donald! The young people who are flocking to Bernie make news because they are supposedly making history by supporting a 74-year-old man who sounds more like Lyndon Johnson than some revolutionary. I sent in my absentee ballot, but, I have to admit, I did not even pray about it.

That’s mainly because I remember the crowd Pilate drew to his rally during the Passover feast in Jerusalem when the powers that be infiltrated an audience that would normally have gone for Jesus (and had just a week before) and got people to use the system to get Barabbas off and Jesus crucified. When Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to crucify your king?” they shouted, “We have no other king but Caesar.” Sometimes crowds get it right; but I am not trusting the vote to fulfill my hopes. They might not recognize the Son of God if he were standing right in front of them!

We are going to do some theology about elections on May 2 because even radical Christians react to U.S. elections like they are crucial to justice and world peace. Many feel, even if they don’t act, like the president (and whoever those other elected officials are) is even important to their faith. There are a lot of good historical reasons for that attitude, which has almost no relation to anything happening in the Bible, certainly not in the life of Jesus. The feeling of importance is hard to shake off when you live in the most recent preeminent empire, which loves to call itself the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth (see Bernie’s website, linked above). Living in it makes you think, that even if the 1% effectively own the government, your vote is going to start a revolution, you are just that special.

I am sorry I missed the rally. But I think I get the idea. It’s not like someone doesn’t promise a revolution every four years. I thought the last one was interesting. But since we elected Obama, the worldwide cabal that hides our wealth in Panama, or wherever, increased its power dramatically. These things are interesting, but not surprising. They make me glad I follow Jesus.

It would have been even more interesting if the church of Philadelphia (that could be like a million people), had given a clear message to the Clinton and Sanders road shows: “We have no other king but Jesus. Work that into your revolution!” Like Jesus said to Pilate we might have said to them, “Any power you have is derived from God and to God you will be responsible.” It is not the Constitution, not your vague spirituality and even vaguer morality to which you must answer, not even to the people or your own conscience or the invisible hand — all the real snake oil you are trying to sell us — it’s the King.

Is Circle of Hope “soft on sin?”

I was having a very nice stuffed chicken breast out in the burbs with two of my oldest friends on Saturday night and the subject turned to sin. Specifically, it turned to the gossip my friend had heard that Circle of Hope is “soft on sin.” I think I said, “Are you serious? That is still going around? You heard that?”

One time, a long time ago I think, one of the pastors at one of the Presby plants (purportedly) warned his people that Circle of Hope was soft on sin. People have been warning others about us ever since. The word came full circle to me over a nice dinner and my dear friend knew the source.

So our church has two reputations going around. If you look us up on Google, we look like we are hard on sin, since a loosely-connected slanderer unjustly tried to take us down in the City Paper one time (before it folded under its own weight of spurious reporting) for being hard on certain sins which are popular targets for legalistic Christians. Wasn’t true. But if you run into us in the Christian gossip mill, we apparently look like we are soft on sin, since they know of many instances when we have embraced people before they believed and they know we include people before they are moral. We work things out, not cut things off; we travel with people along their way, and don’t tell them they can join us when they get on our correct path. They are right about what we do, but they are wrong about what it means.

So I want to say a few things about our reputation, particularly about being “soft on sin.”

1) For one huge thing, what does “soft on sin” even mean?

What Christian ever had a call from God to be “hard” on sin?  And what person is not already hard on themselves because of their sin, even before some Christian tells them they are bad? Donald Trump acts like he is hard on sin, even as he is sinning! — but he apparently has a personality disorder.

If there is a sin the Bible calls us to be “hard” on it is probably the sin of presuming we can judge the righteousness of others! Paul says he does not even judge himself; and Jesus says to leave judgment to God. I think we are hard on the sin of being hard on sinners, such as ourselves. So, in the minds of some, that might make us “soft.“

did sin cause the division?2) Do Christians really have to compare one another?

Christians seem to treat each other like rival fast food franchises, don’t they? — “our righteousness is better quality, unlike those other people!” I wish it were not so. Comparisons are odious. It is not always easy, but I try to stay positive about the Christians who are not in my “camp.” There is often a particular genius I can admire. Presbyterians are stuck in their cave-in to modernism, but they are often great Bible teachers. The Pope fronts some of the greatest heresies ever normalized, but Catholics have a great system to teach contemplative prayer. Even though Ted Cruz grew up in one of the scariest fringe groups ever, I hear he is a pretty great husband. Much of the time the Brethren in Christ don’t know what to do with us, but our denomination’s historical synthesis is still theologically and practically brilliant.

But do any of the growing number of unbelievers in the United States care about the boundaries between the many variations of Christians? The ones I’ve met who know about them largely cite the differences as a good reason not to get involved with us.

3) Actually, we are very adept at dealing with sin.

One of our proverbs warns us: “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.” We are not afraid we will be tainted by sin because someone is sinning; we accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. There will be problems. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all in our process, being tempted and coming to our fullness through the struggle. We are conflicted inside, and the whole church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us.

Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.But as the scripture goes on to say, the Spirit of God is also at work in us because Jesus has saved us. If some folks want to protect themselves from the “liberals” over at Circle of Hope, it will be a delusional task, since they are already infected with sin and their judgment demonstrates the fact. Likewise, if Circle of Hope people (like me) get super angry and self-righteous over the supposed attacks from people they have not met and sources they have not verified, then they will, likewise, be demonstrating how broken they really are. If any of us falls to following a new law or relying on our manuals of proper behavior, we will miss the freedom of forgiveness by which Paul goes on to say: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Some people thought Paul was “soft on sin” because he taught the truth of the gospel like that. Not so.

I hope I can get the same kind of criticism as Paul, now and then. It makes me feel like we are doing something worth noticing; so it is affirming in a back-handed way. This weekend, it was just rumors that I had heard before. I can hardly call a criticism based on hearsay an actual criticism, can I? It’s like an insult-once-removed. When I meet up with the slanderer in the age to come, we can work it all out with joy. Until then, I hope to be as “soft on sin” as the One who shared mine, died to undo it, and raised me to walk around consciously wounded by it but also transcendent.

Are we visible enough?

visible as the mike brown vigilWe are embodying something beautiful. It is sensible – one can sense us.

But are we “visible” enough? Are we a “contrast society” like we aspire to be? Perhaps the most visible we were last year was during our Mike Brown vigil outside the future police headquarters.  It made some of us feel like, “Finally! We made ourselves known in some way.” Others are still talking about the relational damage they experienced when we appeared to be anti-police and declared some extreme versions of a political stance.  Some of us are eager to be visible. Others seem opposed to it or experience being visible as being exposed, even shameful.

Visible as radicals

These are thoughts we considered when we did some theology last week around the question, “What is radical?” We had John Wesley for our example of someone who fits the criteria for being such a person. Part of what made him so radical was his willingness to be visible, and often in striking contrast to both church and society. For instance, Curtis Book quoted him saying, “Money never stays with me. It would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible, lest it should find its way to my heart.” That certainly contrasts with common sense in the U.S.!

Not visible like JustinWesley’s sincere convictions made him notorious. But there is a much more common form of being visible that we want to avoid. A contrast society is not visible in the way the world vies to be more notorious than someone else.  Take Justin Bieber and Adele for example. They  have been competing for #1 on the charts with songs about being forgiven, of all things! We are all for forgiveness to get on someone’s screen, right? But we hardly want to make the forgiveness of Jesus visible like a pop artist gets famous, do we? There are certain kinds of visible we just don’t want to practice: publicity-seeking, or political theatrics, or “show,” in general

Matt 6:3-4: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

We think seeking notoriety or fame is a temptation, not an aspiration. A contrast society built by Jesus needs to rely on its radicality becoming visible, not rely on visibility to make it seem radical.

The little way

We agreed that the “little way” is better. It is the way of not trying to be visible. If you are trying to be visible, you probably have nothing from Jesus to show. The kind of contrast that makes us visible is: our palpable authenticity — you know it, you see it, there are no deceptive frills, it is frank. Our radicality says, “Do you want to? I do!” It is sincere. We need to let that smallness become visible, something like the widow’s worship became visible to one with eyes to see it.

Mark 12 :41-44:  “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’”

We build the visible people of God. That's our lead.When we tried to figure out what, if any, balance there was in all of this, we decided that being visible is a matter of what we lead with. We could lead with techniques that make us visible. Or we could rely on the revelation to push us to make it known. Our lead is very rooted, practical and, by nature, visible. We build the people of God – that’s the lead. Other things might follow or coincide, but being “the together,” the anti-polarization – that’s contrast. This thought matches 1 Peter 4 10-11 in that it shows how the outward (people who yearn to be visible) and the inward (people who fear the attention is contaminating) connect:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks [an outwardly visible act], they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves [a small way to be called], they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

Some people will be, by nature and gifting, more “visible” (like Gandalf) and others will be, by nature and gifting, “smaller” (like Frodo).  We are all both, in that we share in one body and seek one end.

Visible and small together

Leading by building the church is always going to be radical, and so prone to temptation and danger. When it comes to building the church with new disciples, the “visible” people may be prone to wanting instant results in response to a speech, or an ad, or an action. The “small” people are more likely to be content with the more common reality that conversion is, more times than not, about “Chinese water torture” evangelism – drip by drip. We do not change quickly. We may have to drag many people along the way until they can walk. When it comes to keeping the church built, the “visible” people may want to show the sword and induce a miracle to solve problems. Sometimes they should. The  “smaller” might try to diminish our polarized environment, in which every problem becomes a me-centered social justice issue. Sometimes conflict should be avoided, too.

We did not come to every conclusion needed. But we were glad for our ability to do some theology. We are embodying something beautiful. It is sensible – one can sense us. So we were glad that we could conclude where Wesley did, even when he was content to work among the smallest and yet became so notorious. He was fond of quoting Paul in the middle of temptation and danger: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

 

Why should I make a covenant?

Last night the Pastors led us in a very interesting and engaged meeting about making a covenant. A couple of my friends asked the most important (but often unspoken) questions right out loud. There were many other good questions, too, but I woke up thinking about one, in particular. While I was praying this morning I gravitated toward a couple of answers for it from the Bible. So I thought I try to boil down a big subject in this post.

Here is the question: “Why should I make a covenant? I am doing good things, I am involved. Aren’t I already doing the covenant?”

Great question.

It is definitely true that one can keep the spirit of the covenant without the “sign” of it. That is Paul’s whole argument in several of his letters. Circumcision of males was the main distinction that visibly made one a Jew and, by heritage, part of a special relationship (a covenant) with God. In Romans he says:

[Abraham] received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:11)

In Galatians he makes the point again, twice!

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Galatians 6:13)

If an argument for making a covenant with other Jesus followers was about fulfilling an obligation or keeping a law, I think Paul would be against it.

We are into the new covenant

This doesn’t mean that God is any less a covenant-making God. Not only is God fulfilling the covenant with Abraham in Jesus, the Lord is making a new covenant with everyone who will eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation. Paul reminds the non-Jews to whom he is writing:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)

He obviously thinks this new covenant God is making has the same visible signs as in the past, only moreso – deeper and universal.

The reason we make a covenant with one another is not about law, it is about incarnation. Christ in us and Christ in all of us reveals the glory of God.

As Paul teaches:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Can Jesus be practically incarnate if we do not have a visible body in which the Spirit lives? Paul spends much of his letters telling us how to form that body based on this new covenant.

Individualism is devolutionary

In this era the philosophical movement that began in the 60’s in the United States has about convinced everyone that everything meaningful or spiritual is happening in an individual. If we connect too much to someone else, we might not be true to ourselves, which is all we have (or so it is taught). The military teaches this new outlook the best, I think. Here’s the Army from a couple of years ago.

Here’s the Air Force. I saw this commercial so many times at the theater during the holidays I can about recite it.

The good point the video makes is that you can’t have an effective force without effective individuals. In Paul’s universe that translates into: there is one body but the same Spirit who is working in everyone. The bad point that I think is more relevant is that “It’s all about what is happening in me.”

Without the work of the Spirit in each of us making us one, there is no body of Christ. No amount of formalized covenant-making will make us live in love. But we need a form: our own bodies and the Body of Christ, to make that love relevant and transformational. God became empty of the prerogatives of God to become one of us and calls us to a similar love by that example. Jesus entered into our sin and suffered for his bloody love; then he left the communion symbol as the center of an ongoing community based on that same kind of love. It has formed the church ever since.

I want to be part of that church and I want people to know it, not just because I am individually an army of one but because they see me as part of the people who once were not a people but now are the people of God. I want others in the body to know I mean it and I want to know from others that they really mean it, not just because they looked inside and found some faith, but because they also looked outside and joined the team, they said it, they wore our connectedness like an honor.

I did a little word search and saw that I have said quite a bit about this subject. Here you go:

Tenderness is the heart of the covenant.

12 basics for covenant keeping in conflict

Koinonitis and the bubble diagnosis

12 basics for covenant keeping in conflict

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Radical energy at 30,000 feet

There was not a lot to do on the 11-hour flight to Alaska but look out at the big sky, big world and consider the radicals at home that so well-represent the radical in the book I am reading: the Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker.

In January we are going to emphasize the book in our Doing Theology meeting and in Circle of Hope Daily Prayer – Water (a new resource for people in it for the long haul). I was so excited about the nice summary the author, Howard a Snyder, made of radical Christian distinctives that I thought I’d pass them along to you. They reflect our proverbs and our practices as Circle of Hope – so that’s nice. But more profoundly, they clear away some confusion and reiterate just what we are trying to do in this crazy world. It is hard to remember what it is basic to faith, especially when so many despise it and when even the Christians act undermine it all the time (I won’t even get started with what Christmas has become!).

So here is a little gift of Snyder’s seven elements that make up the radical protestant model of being a missional community in Christ

Continue reading Radical energy at 30,000 feet

Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Continue reading Why we are Catholics and why we are not

Jesus the great disrupter

These are some thoughts that have been developing in me ever since I studied Matthew 13 in preparation for our training on Saturday. Jesus keeps disrupting me with them. I hope he will bless you in the same way.

Jesus is an artful, courageous-but-loving disrupter of homeostasis. His goal is to help people, like us, who are prone to resisting change to keep changing in God’s direction. We’re working on being disrupted and disruptive. He has lovingly stirred me this year. He is artfully refocusing us all. The newness feels good.

Jesus comes to us breathing the air and moving with the rhythms of the Kingdom of God. As a result He is naturally disruptive to our sin-soaked sense of reality. When we meet Him, this “Pearl” of truth and love often seems like a shocking discovery.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:14-6)

“Why did I not see that before?” we ask.  We have reasons. Even so, the ultimate disruption to the emotional and spiritual equilibrium we protect still comes to us like wind, and still moves us. We find Jesus to be of greater value than anything to which we are tied.

Sometimes we feel caught in a web, or writhing like a fish in a net, trying to move but surrounded by people who tie us up. They judge us foolish, even irresponsible for selling out for the Pearl.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50)

The kingdom of heaven is like a netWe are surrounded by people who don’t get it about Jesus and feel threatened or bored by his demands. When the church brings in its net it is a mixed catch.

I don’t think we are “ashore” yet, as the Lord ended His story. So I am sailing through time with a lot of God’s beloved creatures, mixed up with people who resist and wonder why I’m trying not to resist with them. Soon the net will be full and brought to shore. Until then I’m in a mixed bag, “fish of every kind.” The final judge of what gets thrown out is God, not me.

Our new normal in the kingdom of God always has a bit of instability to it because we are not personally complete, we are in a net with some bad fish, and our journey is not over. The promise is that everything is happening in “the kingdom of heaven” and the mysteries of our time will be sorted by God in the end. I take heart in that when I resist not knowing what is coming next.

We have the stability of knowing our end and of knowing the One who will bring everything to its end. Ultimately, we have a great equilibrium which the world cannot offer. Even so, we have a hard time hanging on to our treasure. The world nets people every day and sorts them out into its baskets. It is especially judgmental about people who judge it for doing that. If they are sorting you out, don’t stay their basket; they don’t have the right to keep you anywhere. Even if their latest law promises to make everything right, don’t let their judgments delude you.

Continue reading Jesus the great disrupter

What about justice? A few answers and one-liners.

When we met to do some theology at the end of last month, The U.S. Social Forum was still winding down. It calls itself a “convergence driven by the understanding that people’s movements are what create social change….The goal is to map out action plans for a cohesive movement and organize to be on the offense against all forms of oppression.” We felt some solidarity, since our “doing theology” time  had the feeling of convergence, too; and being on the offense against oppression sounds like Jesus.

us social forum

What’s more, we have been reignited, since last August, about the racism in the country and the ongoing injustice it causes. The Black Lives Matter movement has energized a lot of us. Several of us have been involved with the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice (racial, economic and legal) who demand justice through “policy work, direct action and community education.” It feels like a new environment these days and we want to think about it with Jesus. What about justice? What does God think about it and are we practically following the Lord’s lead?

Continue reading What about justice? A few answers and one-liners.