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.

Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus — video version

Anxiety is an epidemic. Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God.

Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus

Why does it seem like so many people are anxious? Some researchers say an increase in reporting issues with anxiety is due to greater access to treatment. So an actual increase in anxiety may not be proven yet. But there certainly  has been a lot of talk about anxiety in the past few years. And one researcher, among many, says there are common reasons people report more anxiety now than in the past.

The United States is breeding anxious people:

  • Society has shifted. Kids are set for “extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation. Motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual.”
  • More people are living alone. Some people like to live alone. But many more are forced to live alone — and loneliness increases anxiety. In 1960 under 7 percent of U.S. adults lived alone; by 2017, that figure had soared to well over 33%.
  • We live in a chemical bath. Nobody knows just what is going to happen to us as a result of constant exposure to chemicals. Studies suggest that the cocktail of plastics and other pollutants children drink daily may contribute to their future anxiety.
  • The introduction of social media platforms changed things. The onslaught of social media has changed relationship structures. Studies show, all over the world, that the more one uses it, the more likely they are to be depressed and anxious.
  • Life, in general, seems more stressful. Are jobs more stressful? Is commuting to blame? When we tell kids that they can “achieve anything if they try hard enough,” are we setting them up to fail? Is our self image being driven into the floor by the constant bombardment on our senses of perfectly filtered, digitally altered models? Has capitalism shifted our attention to vastly unobtainable personal desires, leaving us with a gaping chasm we know we can never fill? Climate change, nuclear apocalypse, Ebola, flesh-eating viruses, antibiotic resistance, ever-growing economic inequality, dictators, fake news…the list is endless.

Then we start talking about all these things on all our media, and the reverberations amplify our anxiety!

Last Saturday at the thirtysomething retreat, we boldly talked about the anxiety-decade.  If you are thirtysomething, a naturally challenging time of life is happening when the world itself provokes anxiety

So I offered a prayer that might help us find some peace. This outline is commonly used and I adapted it for our purposes.

O.P.E.N. to your Newness — the true you in Jesus

The next time you find yourself over-thinking past situations or feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses, try this prayer that leads you to cooperate with God’s compassion and restore your attention to the present moment.

Observe

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice how your body feels—tension in the stomach or heaviness in the shoulders, for example. Then notice the thoughts you’re thinking in the moment or are dwelling on from the past, and name them, such as, worrying, fearing, replaying, or planning.

When we notice where our bodies are carrying stress, we can focus our attention and relax our body parts. When we observe our thoughts, we’re able to choose which to believe and which to let pass, which are condemnation and which are freedom, which come from anxiety and which come from love. What are knee jerk reactions of your old self, what are death-defying traits of the new you in Christ?

We’re going to try it in a minute, so this is just an overview to get ready.

Peace

Now that you have identified the stress or seen the battlefield from a helpful perspective, let’s find peace. When you are ready, invite peace to your body and mind by saying things like, I am deeply hurt and it is okay to feel the way I do. (Receive comforting words to ease your distress about a specific situation or feeling).

Some other sentences that may deepen you peace: Even if other people judge me, I don’t have to judge myself. What other people say and do is about them, not me. I am angry but angry is not me. Jesus, guard my heart.

Cooperate with the peace of God.

Enjoy

Take a deep breath and take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness. If you are using the Bible as part of this process (as I suggest below), enjoy the words or enjoy the pictures the words bring to mind.

Newness

Say to yourself: The moment has passed and now I am at peace. I am new in Christ. The God of peace is with me.

Let the goodness rise in you. More times than not, returning to the present moment — in which you can attend to yourself and to God, is an anchor, a solace in the midst of chaos. You can always come back to the place where you meet Jesus in the here and now.

At the retreat, we used a familiar portion of Philippians 4 which is a comfort of millions of people around the world. It could be read in an anxiety-provoking way: If I am worrying, I should not be. My heart is unguarded, so something terrible is going to happen to me. I can’t think straight, my mind races too much to dwell on something good. I am so inconsistent, God must not be with me. I can’t do it right, so I should give up.

Much of the Christianity in the U.S. runs according to the anxiety-provoking ways of the U.S. But I don’t think Paul, much less God, calls us to anything but the basic peace of Christ, moment by moment, forever. We kept affirming this : God is for me, in this moment and the nextMemorize that line so it is ready to recall when you need it — like when the police stop you, when the baby is crying inexplicably, when your husband is late, when the doctor’s diagnosis is iffy, when there is a midterm election, when you don’t know why you feel so fearful.

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Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God. You wouldn’t have to use the Bible to do it . But Philippians 4 enriches the process. 

Observe – Note your body and thoughts. Let the tight parts of your body relax. Choose the thoughts you need to hold on to and let the others go.

The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Peace – Invite peace into your body and mind by saying the honest truth about you and God

 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Enjoy – Breathe. Take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Newness – Let the goodness rise in you. Be anchored.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:5-9

It would be great to hear about how you experienced this prayer!

[What to see it as a video? Here it is: https://youtu.be/U3e09WeLzdI]

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!

To weave community: Outdo one another in showing honor

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

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Community makes regular people ambitious

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

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

Weaving individuals into community is a Bible theme

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

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

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

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

Healthy ambitions spring from extravagant honor

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

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

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

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

Give the baby a church, for Christ’s sake.

Park FellowshipMy parents did me a great favor when I was a kid, they sent me and my sister to a pretty horrible Baptist Church across the street from Chino High School. I do not know why that was their pick. I do not remember one word from them about why we were there. But even though they never darkened the door unless I was in some kind of performance, one of them usually got up and took us to Sunday school. Usually we even “stayed for church” because we found it quite amusing.

I found out later they had been very burned by a nasty church split when they were first married and it soured them on Jesus and the whole church thing. That is a sad, often-repeated story — repeated by others of course, my parents guarded their own soul-wounds religiously.  There are a few things my parents did not give me that can still burn me if I blow on the embers. But there is one thing they gave me that was inestimably more valuable than they expected: the church.

Protecting kids from the church

Being raised in a family where mom and dad were visibly not Christians and where Jesus was only mentioned in relation to a curse, I have repeatedly felt the need for more education when it comes to what it feels like to have Christian parents. Over and over, I run into thirtysomethings who want to make sure their kids are not bored in church, who are channeling their own bad experience of being obligated to something their clueless parents perpetrated on them, or who have been wounded in many ways they are afraid their kids will experience. I keep listening because I have so little natural empathy, since my recollection of the church  at which I was dropped off is that it was about a hundred times worse than anything Circle of Hope could fall into. Yet it was in that very imperfect, even unorthodox and sometimes damaging community that I met Jesus at a very early age. I can’t imagine why they think depriving their children of the community in which they will learn faith, or even protecting them from it,  is a good strategy.

Most parents I know act like school is inviolable, since getting into better schools on the basis of your past record is supposedly going to give you your best life. If they sign up their child for a sports team it is a covenant they must keep, so no matter when the game is or where it happens, the child must be there. Dance, musical instrument, tae kwon do, all sorts of enrichment activities fill up most of the week and the activity schedules dictate what is happening in the family. It all looks very religious to me. But if the church seems demanding, that’s an obligation that feels intolerable! There are a lot of reasons for that feeling and please know that I understand plenty of people have never felt it. But I keep running into it, which leads me to my main purpose for writing.

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Don’t deprive the child of their church

As a follower of Jesus and as a person with my unique experience, I say that the best thing you can do for your child is give them a church. They need to grow up in an environment where they can learn faith. Here are my reasons for saying that, for now:

1) Your family is not enough

I have acquaintances who rely on their parents in Lancaster to come in and sit with their children while they do something together (and it is rare they do something as a result). They are on their way to isolating their kids in their nuclear family instead of training them to live in the extended family of the church. They undermine the sense that the church is a family in Christ by refusing to let it happen. They can’t even work out a mutual babysitting arrangement. I think that is a very practical way they deny Jesus his demand that he be more important than the family from which they came. Their children will likely keep their distance from Jesus and the church, too.  Children need to be raised in a village and Jesus should be the leader of it. It is short-sighted parenting to think you have everything your child needs in the “relative” category. They need to be born into the body of Christ and surrounded with the grace of God, first and foremost.

2) Culture matters

What is my identity? In Western culture that has become a standard question children need to answer. Queer theorists may talk us out of this before long, but until then children must decide: male/female, gay/straight, what color, what place among the school cliques, even what political stripe. The place they get their Christian character is certainly in your family, but it is actualized in the church. If they never feel like they are part of an alternative community centered on Christ, they will probably join another community that is centered on themselves, or some identity they have adopted.

Making the community of the church is a parental top priority — at least if they want to raise children who can live life with Jesus. I am often amazed at what parents will give their children over to while they lightly visit a church, one they may not even claim as their own. What kind of child will come of that? Will they join the Fortnight community or Eagles Nation?

3) Lifetime assumptions form early on.

What is the meaning of life? That question will eventually be asked by your child. Even if they have consistent, loving Christian parents, they will still have to ask the question and get a decent answer for themselves (or get used to their despair). I thank God Mrs. Elrod often drove out to get me for Sunday school when my parents were indisposed or sick of it all (I can’t remember which caused her to appear). Sunday school was not that great, but Mrs. Elrod making me feel worthy of her effort, her undeserved service, made an indelible impression. I still remember what her front seat feels like! Her behavior spoke to me in deeper ways than her lessons. Children need a lot of opportunity to pick up grace assumptions in the church and plenty of acceptance as they mull  them over.

4) It is your duty as a parent

I have already said this, but I wanted it to have its own bullet. Building the church is the responsibility of everyone who follows Jesus. We are, by our redeemed nature, bricks in the temple of the Holy Spirit. Each of us have value and cannot be replaced. The energy we bring to the redemption project of Jesus is multiplied far beyond our personal efforts by God and by the community we tend. In these times especially, children need to learn community, since they are being trained to sit alone in front of a screen all day, among other things. It is your duty as a parent to give them a chance to be saved from whatever they presently face and what will come. That salvation will come from a deeper place than just a resilient capacity to have their own mind. They will need the strength of a loving, Spirit-filled community to help them

5) You child needs to see mom and dad follow Jesus.

It is great when a child is teachable. But I think they mostly they get what is caught, not taught. Some people think they are wrecking their family because mom goes to her cell meeting once a week and dad puts the kids to bed. I think it would be fine to tell your two year old, “Mama is going to build the church. I follow Jesus and I hope you will too, one day. I am going to make sure I build you a strong community so you can become your true self. There is nothing more important to me than following Jesus. He is the source of all the love I have for you.” I think it is good for a child to know that the family is moving according to something outside the family — namely Jesus is leading them. If Jesus is not making the family, what will the child learn about who makes family? And if they ever read the Bible, what will they make of Ephesians 3?

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Start now, even if you don’t have children yet

If the church is not good enough, reform it for the sake of your children, don’t leave it up to someone else. If you end up in a place where there is no church, make one; it is the vehicle for the work of Jesus in the world and your children need it. If you feel overwhelmed and want to hole up in your house with your shower gifts for four years until the baby releases their grip on you, have some vision, that child needs a healthy Christian parent, not merely a servant of their desires. The best time for the child to have a church is when they are 5-8 and forming some very important foundations for their later days. Make sure they have one. If your friend just had a baby and you can’t figure out what to do for them, give their baby a church, for Christ’s sake! I know people use that as a curse, so I am being cute, but it means “on account of Jesus” or “in light of the purpose of Christ.” We’re working with Jesus to prepare the way for the baby to walk into fullness of life when we build her a church.

I am happy Faith Breunle, Charlie Brake and Paul Woodward were around when I was in Jr High to demonstrate to me that Christians existed in the real world. To be honest, they were not that great of teachers or examples, as I look back. But periodically, I met up with their heart – the one that motivated them to keep making this crazy little church to which my unbelieving parents attached me. They opened up my imagination for what I might become and build. By most objective observation, what they were doing was very ineffective. But that ineffective thing was very effective when it came to me. I don’t think Jesus needs a great church. The little church in Chino created and lived in an environment where Jesus was assumed and honored. I wandered into that. They probably thought I was a weird kid, coming from those heathen parents, and all. I’m still a weird kid, only I know Jesus and that has made my life possible.

Maybe your kids won’t all be uniformly faithful. Trust cannot be coerced, can it? But I wouldn’t expect them to know Jesus if they don’t hang out around him. He’s in the body of Christ. It is being built all the time in every era with every new follower. If for no other reason, build it for your kids, for Christ’s sake!

My creative relinquishment — and ours.

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The true vine and branches. San Clemente — Rome

A week of praying through times of transition at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WATER last week was very good for me. I am in one of those transitions. You might be aware of it, since Circle of Hope sent me into it when they declared a transition of the whole church into our “second act” a couple of years ago. I thought I kind of knew where I was going, but there has been more development and change than I imagined!

The well-watered schedule

As a church we bought a new building, created new businesses, multiplied a new congregation, bid good-bye to significant partners, developed a new kind of pastors team and solidified a mostly-new leadership team. I was in the middle of all those changes. As a result of them, it seems to me, we are pulsing on the edges of our two-handed outreach: compassion and disciple-making. In a societal environment in which Jesus is not too popular right now, it is amazing how many people have made a brand-new relationship with the risen Lord this year!

Personally, I found myself jumping in and out of the problems that development causes. Nobody knows what a “development pastor” really does, since nobody else is one. But I quickly found out as my assignment came into play. I had plenty to do with mentoring, developing our crucial leadership team, helping with the practicalities of businesses, buildings and staff, and working out new teaching and communication (and there is more, I realized as I was making this list). I was supposed to work less hours but that did not immediately pan out.

Now that I am entering the last year of my term, I realize I have also been learning how to get smaller and let go, as I knew was my trajectory from the beginning.

Dead wood

That learning brings me to the Daily Prayer entry that really hit me last week. It was on “creative relinquishment.” I even enjoyed the extension of the Lord’s metaphor about him being the vine and we the branches to include considering what has become dead wood and what is sprouting on our branch. “One of the challenges of living in concert with the creativity of God is how to attend to present passions while releasing those tasks that are completed. How can we honor the past that we carry with us while not letting it define the future? How can we live in a well-ordered psychological house without accumulating too much stuff in the basement?  Life in the Spirit is a flow of engagement and release, of attachment and detachment, of commitment and relinquishment…. As we listen to God’s creative beckoning, we need to ask, ‘What must I release, in order to make way for what is calling now?’”

Unlike many people, I suspect, I actually did the prayer exercises that were suggested. Don’t get me wrong, I often avoid spending my precious time on spiritual exercises and my self-importance often has the same bad effect yours does on you. But I am in a time of life when I need to figure out what is the best next step for me. So I did some exercises. The question that I’ve been pondering ever since is: What is the “dead” wood on my branch of the vine? I was glad to be reminded that, in the Lord’s ecosystem, when a seed falls into the earth and “dies” it rises to new life and bears much fruit (John 12:24). So dead wood is not “bad” wood. I may be getting old, but I am hardly dead yet. Even though people persist in asking  me, “How is retirement?”, that does not mean the Lord has retired me. “Creative relinquishment happens in the context of resurrection and eternal life, not in a realm of scarcity and decline.”

Possible sprouts

As I am looking back on my recent history, I am happy we decided to go the route of “creative relinquishment” of our first act as we patiently and relatively consciously moved into our second. Although our risky behavior and unexpected changes have upended us a bit, lately, I think we are poised for deeper and more effective ministry than ever. I am also happy the church trusted me to be productive through a transition rather than just cutting me loose to see what happened. I expect to keep being helpful. And I have personally been inching toward clarity about where God is leading me next as part of our body.

Here is how clarity happens for me, and maybe for you. Last weekend Gwen and I were with dear friends who are a little older than us. They helped to create an atmosphere where deep thinking is welcomed. I began to see where some activities that have been very dear to me in my life are about done. I am not “dead to them” like I am sick from them or of them, but they are withering. They are decreasing so new things can sprout – sort of like the forest outside my window right now, whose floor is littered with toppled trees feeding the saplings right next to them. We watched a new movie together called  The Wife, with Glenn Close, and it aroused even more of what I had been thinking.  She has such an urge to give her gift of writing. It was interesting to see trees topple in mysterious ways to offer her a new blank page. My blank page is beginning to get a few sentences and that gives me hope for how the Lord is leading each of us, you included, as we keep listening. Let’s pray.

The beginning of Joshua

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

The old beginning

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

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

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

I suppose you are noting Martha, too.

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

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

The new beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Priest lectures a group of beguines

What is a “beguine?”

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

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

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

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

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

Part of a great movement of the Spirit

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

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

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

Lilias Trotter: And how the higher life doesn’t need to kill you

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“Lilias Trotter” c.2014 by Austin Blasingame

I have been thinking a lot about Lilias Trotter lately. She was the subject of a 2015 movie which made her a bit more notorious — it is great when Christian discover an interesting spiritual ancestor and tell their story! As a history buff who loves finding interesting characters from the past, I am happy and cautious about such stories. I think it is safe to say that one often finds what she is looking for in history — the stories that get told often end up looking strangely like the autobiography of the historian!

Nevertheless, Lilias Trotter, presented by her admirers or suspected by her detractors, has had me thinking ever since she appeared in Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body last week. I love her even as I think she might have been a bit deluded. And I respect her, even though I know remembering her has the capacity to drive certain Christians to despair.

In case you didn’t read the blog entry, Trotter was an English socialite in the Victorian era who committed herself to the “higher life” in Christ and ended up being a missionary in Algeria. She was so sickly, the missionary board would not send her. But she and her friend, having resources of their own, struck out for North Africa and spent 30 years trying to help Muslims meet the living God, risen in Jesus. That would be an inspiring reason enough to remember her, but it is even more inspiring to know she left her very promising art career behind to serve Jesus. She was so talented that no less than John Ruskin told her she might become one of the greatest English artists if she applied herself. But she left her development as an artist behind to follow her calling. Fortunately, she still did a bit of art, but she could never give her heart to the pursuit, since her heart belonged to Jesus.

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El Oued desert 1895 — Lilias Trotter

When I brought Lilias Trotter into our cell dialogue last week, I started with the quote from Jesus with which the prayer blog started: “…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jesus – Matthew 5:20). I will not attempt to unpack all we had to say about that piece of scripture; we just scratched the surface, anyway. What we started discussing is the fact that we, like the Pharisees, tend to get stuck in a “box” of our own making that we consider about as good as it gets (or as good as we can do) and we become satisfied with it, or defensive of it, or stuck within the confines of it, or unable to see beyond it. We are all prone to the frailty of mortals, even if we are trying to be as righteous as the Pharisees were trying to be. We need the Lord, in our case the risen Lord, to tell us, “Your ways will not get you into the kingdom of heaven; you must join me where I am. I will show you the way, personally.”

Lilias Trotter was at the beginning of a movement among Christians in Europe and the United States that heard the call from Jesus and immediately looked around at their boxed-in lives and boxed-in religion and made every effort to get out of the box. It has been called the “higher life” movement. Trotter learned of this higher life in the Spirit and about died seeking it, all the while thinking death would be fine, because she did not want to be in the box when Jesus returned; she would rather have died than to miss out on her highest calling. She gave her utmost for the Lord’s highest.

Several people in our cell grew up in environments where word of this higher life was the constant message of their parents and elders. They constantly heard, “You need to get out of wherever you are and go further. You need to make sure you are not missing your highest calling. Ordinary people filled with the Holy Spirit do extraordinary things.” So they were always quite sure that there was a further place to go and they had not made it yet.

Even when they tried to be as good as they should be they secretly felt guilty for not being  good enough.  In the name of spiritual freedom they felt completely condemned! This may not have happened to you, but a couple of people experienced such anxiety and depression they felt even more faulty, since an extraordinary day for them might be getting out of bed and actually going to work! Having the devotion of a Pharisee in a righteous box might seem like success! So when Jesus appears to say such limited righteousness is not enough to get them into heaven, it is devastating. They’d never even gotten into a religious box yet, much less would they have the wherewithal to get out of it!

They were glad our church was so gracious to accept them where they are, even though it is filled with “higher life” types (like me) who are rearin’ to go most of the time. Our church is, essentially, a radical kind of place that, by nature, might not seem like the best place for someone who feels successful if they make it to the Sunday meetings a couple of times a month. We are often blasted with messages from people who would have loved to follow in Lilias Trotter’s footsteps to Algeria. And yes, she and her type will be celebrated as admirable ancestors in “our transhistorical body” while we appear to overlook the millions who no one remembered much after they died.

I ended the dialogue in our cell like I am going to end this blog post, with this question. Why can’t Lilias Trotter be celebrated for who she is and each of us be celebrated for who we are? If she is greater, why not love her for it? If you aren’t, why not love you for it? Isn’t that the gospel, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and we are all saved by the redeeming work of Jesus? As soon as the Lord made us all equal in his love as he died for us on the cross, do we immediately need to turn around and create a hierarchy among us according to how much glory someone is reflecting, or not?

I know being loved as we are and feeling hope for a higher life is hard to accept when we are depressed and anxious, or when our parents and associates have made us feel like we are not worth much, or sin at work in us has warped our view of self and God so much we can’t see straight. I freely admit that many Christians have been a menace, acting all holy and doing terrible things in the name of their righteousness. In spite of their sin, we need to receive our new self in Christ whether it lives in a messy, yet-to-be-perfected box or not! It is the crucial act of putting on the new self of God’s beloved that leads us out of every restrictive box and onto the unusual ways of faith in Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

Skepticism about leaders

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

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

Virtual extremism

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

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

Endless entertainment

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

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

Accepted polarization

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

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

Distortion as strategy

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

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

No love of enemies

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

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

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

Say a little prayer with Aretha Franklin

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Last week I was sitting on my porch at 1pm on a Thursday eating an ice cream sandwich, all of which are rare. A car rolled by with the windows down, playing I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin, one of my favorites. It was still playing in my mind when I went inside to my computer. As soon as I sat down, a chat screen popped up and Jonny told me Aretha had died — he knows I am a fan. So I will probably always remember the day Aretha Franklin died because of that serendipity. And because she has been a companion along my way since I was fourteen. I suspect I have played her album of Atlantic hits 500 times and said a little prayer with her a few times, too.

I was fourteen in 1968 when Respect won two Grammys and Aretha Franklin became a feature on the Hi-Fi stationed in my family’s living room. There were no personal music players or earphones back then so music was a communal experience. My parents did not like Aretha  in their communal experience (just like they hadn’t liked one of her mentors, Mahalia Jackson). For one thing, she was black and they were vocal racists, especially my father, who had competed for sharecropping jobs with black men and jealously guarded whatever shred of white privilege he could muster. What’s more, she sounded aggressive and loud. Even if they didn’t listen to the words and didn’t get it when she spelled it out: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, they could feel her demand when she sang. She threatened the living room. Her blackness invaded my parents’ sanctuary.

I did not get all this completely when I was fourteen. I’m a product of racism just like we all are. So it merely felt like a like a guilty pleasure to rebelliously listen to Aretha, and to allow someone but Perry Como to define music for me. Aretha liked Perry Como, too (I read the interview),  just like she enjoyed all kinds of good music. But my parents did not know that, mostly because she was black and it betrayed their worldview to listen to her. Nevertheless, my relationship with the Queen of Soul grew and my appreciation of her talent and passion deepened.

As it turns out, the famously private Aretha Franklin was hiding all the trauma that would have appalled my parents and supercharged the disrespect they were eager to pour on her. Her parents were separated. She was a teen mother at 12 and 14. Her first husband purportedly abused her. She had two divorces. She was often overweight. She was known for idealizing her life, not even publicly admitting to the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed her as late as last year.

At the same time she was using the gift God gave her to make a huge difference. Had she just given us the pleasure of listening to her great musical talent, however she used it, that would have been enough. But her music became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement for African Americans and women both. And her insistence on doing things that were beyond the labels under which she labored and the track on which her previous success directed her is an example for all of us who feel underestimated or pigeonholed.

Her soulful talent helped me move out of my racist bubble. Thank God. I remember another moment of transition related to the song that came to me through the car window on her death day. I got started with I Say a Little Prayer with Dionne Warwick in 1967 before Aretha recorded it in 1968

I loved Dionne Warwick’s version. But when I heard Aretha’s, I realized that Warwick’s was something of a sanitized version which was more about the cool, cerebral music of Burt Bacharach than about Dionne Warwick. She was just a vehicle for the notes. When Aretha got a hold of it, it was full of passion that transcended the notes and most of the words. At the end of the song, she turns it into an actual prayer and we are all invited into a place that is a lot bigger than pop. So-called white people used so-called black people to carry their assignments long before I learned as a child to think of that as normal. Aretha broke me out of that normality when she led me someplace bigger. She was a leader. And even wounded, she was just bigger than most of us.

I suppose that is why I was particularly moved when she died. Like many other people I eventually tuned into the news channels to see what people were saying about her and to invite her into my living room again, this time to celebrate her with freedom. I found myself shedding a tear with President Obama as her Kennedy Center Performance was repeatedly replayed.

As I listened, I had another revelation that led to this blog post. I loved A Natural Woman when I heard it on Carol King’s Tapestry (which I had on vinyl and basically wore out with many plays). But when Aretha got a hold of it, she added a spiritual dimension that took it beyond the great feeling of a man seeing his partner as the woman she is and calling out the best in her (which I hope we all get to experience many, many times). I honestly think she took the song where we can all sing it to God.

Maybe this seems strange, but when I sing “You make me feel like a natural woman” along with Aretha, I feel God making me feel like my true self, even when I sing “natural woman!” Again, she brought someone larger to the music. It seems like Aretha did not have too many people in her life to make her feel as safe and real as the song sings it. So I think she must have gotten her power in the secret place she kept beyond fame, pain, addiction and racism where Jesus reminded her she was his beloved. May she rest in God’s arms.

Spiritual life on the edge and in the center: Joseph and my mentors

I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”

"the Servant Of Joseph Finds The Cup In The Bag Of Benjamin" French School 19th, Oil/paper
Not exactly how the 5th grade boys staged it

But I learned quite a few things. One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).

Edge and center spirituality

Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer called it “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer’s idea sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.

Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) — like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritualities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way. You can see how this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.

Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”

How the two spiritualities go together

As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.

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Francis on the edge

Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:

[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.

[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.

[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.

[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.

Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.

The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.

Being conscious helps with the balancing

I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.

I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). But if you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.

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

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

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Bruno Mangyoku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elicia Edijanto

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

Trust begins with safety

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

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

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

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

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The Honorable Woman in her safe room.

Building trust is a crucial task

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

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

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

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

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

There are some basic behaviors that can build trust

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

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

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

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

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