Tag Archives: Brethren in Christ

If we build it, is God obligated to come?

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

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

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

The kingdom is not enshrined anywhere

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

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

Related image

We live to build

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

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

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

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

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Don’t just worship Jesus, follow Him.

At the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ we were led, part of the time, by a talented team of young people fronted by Bishop Aner’s family. I think they are great. But I finally stopped singing with them. I just could not sing another rendition of the same skewed song. While it was a bit painful to come to this realization, I think I am pretty much over songs based on what I would call a triumphalistic mentality. Christian worship needs to be larger than the nation-focused worship of many psalms, and it needs to be smaller than the power-based assumptions of an empire. The King of kings is a suffering servant. Worship includes following him, not just worshiping him.

Worship the king

Their music was all about being granted the favors of a king. The songs kept repeating this, so they helped me focus on a tendency I had been noticing elsewhere. I decided to do some research, so I entered “worship the king” on Google. The first entry was for a worship team. They published a video. They had a cool backdrop, a drum screen, a word screen in the back, a lead singer in skinny pants, and even a white-haired woman doing the Pentecostal “jump” in the crowd. Corey Voss was trying to sell his new generic song on iTunes. It was the kind of music used at the conference. And yes, we were encouraged to jump there, too.

I think Voss’s song is nice. He could be alluding to Matthew 21:1-17 where Jesus presents himself as king. He could be thinking of Jesus as the kind of king he appears there, and on the cross, and not fast forwarding to the kind of king he will appear as when he comes a second time. There is a difference. Because the nature of Jesus’ kingship now is creating a season of salvation in world history during which people can still switch sides. There is still time for everyone to accept the amnesty that King Jesus holds out, and renounce allegiance to self, or country, or prosperity or whatever else rules more than Jesus. Or the emphasis on Jesus as king might be skewed from an empire viewpoint and it is all about getting power, defeating enemies, staying safe, and staying out of trouble with an overlord.

I love to worship and can generously use all sorts of music. But I have this terrible feeling that with a lot of songs Christians are using these days, Jesus has been transmuted back into the Psalms rather than the Psalms looking ahead to Him. All this king and kingdom worship makes Jesus an all-powerful emperor, in the image of Constantine (d. 337) or the latest strongman, rather than the suffering servant riding into town in a very humble, human way. You recall that his goal was not to be king of the world, even though people wanted him to be. Jesus is still washing feet through his people.

Jesus comparison

The Post-Constantine shift

I fear that we are still committed to the shift Christianity took very early on. A book I am reading (and recommending) talks about an inappropriate and unbiblical shift in the way Christians see Jesus. Here is a small summary quote: “The Christendom era has bequeathed a form of Christianity that has marginalized, spiritualized, domesticated and [diminished] Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is watered down, privatized, and explained away. Jesus is worshiped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior. In many churches (especially those emerging from the Reformation), Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. And in many Christian traditions, ethical guidelines derived from the Old Testament or pagan philosophy trump Jesus’ call to discipleship.” – The Naked Anabaptist, p. 55

I think I can can see this shift hanging on in the worship of millennials like Corey Voss. Maybe we can see the shift represented in the fact that four out of five Evangelicals say they will vote for Donald Trump, despite Hillary Clinton’s much more developed and demonstrated faith. That is not an endorsement of Hillary, since I can find a lot to doubt about her, but it is an interesting reaction. I think they may want Jesus the ruler rather than Jesus the servant. I think they may want to worship Jesus, not follow him. Perhaps they have come to like God, but they cannot tolerate the suffering, morally demanding, take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me Jesus. It seems to me that their cross is a sign of triumph, empty of Jesus and empty of themselves, a sign of victory over sin, but also over opponents, a cross jauntily held over their shoulder as a weapon like the imperial Jesus on the right above.

The life and teaching of Jesus is central to our faith. Circle of Hope has twenty years of experience in following Jesus as well as worshiping Him. Right now Daily Prayer :: WIND is exploring Jesus in the New Testament. I recommend it as a means to stay conscious in this mind-and-heart-numbing context in which we live.

 

 

Prayer breaks the habit of always making the best deal.

A mother’s two-year-old wakes up at five when she was painting until midnight. How does she get out of bed and go love the little bundle of trouble instead of saying, “Why can’t he just wait until I’m rested?” Maybe, “I painted his room, why won’t he stay asleep?” Irrational, but almost automatic — I never get the deal I want, but I want it.

How do we learn to love when we’d rather make a deal?

I mean, how do we end up like Jesus — even like Jesus dying for us on the cross? Paul says Jesus was not only looking out for his own interests, but the interests of others — that was his attitude, his mindset, his way. How do I go His way instead of using my “superpowers” to get what I deserve?

What were the Lord’s “interests?” I know I will get up and care for the toddler, but what about my interests? Are they just not important until he is eighteen? In the Lord’s case, it was joy to complete his work and be his true self—that interested him. There was joy set before him as he returned to the dimension where he was free from sin and death—that’s something I can look forward to. But I am not Jesus. I don’t think we have the same interests as Jesus, specifically. But it is good to know that self-giving love does not ignore my interests. Jesus had interests, he was just “not only” looking out for them. He was not giving and always waiting for the other half of the deal to be realized — I give you give, I love you, you love me, I paint your bedroom, you are grateful and stay asleep, I do the right thing, and my life works out reciprocally.

Perhaps we are not THAT self-interested all the time. I think you realize the child is going to grow up. Don’t we all think a parent’s love is innately valuable, even if it is not valued this very moment? Even if I am not rewarded, I think it is rewarding to love my kids when they are displeasing. I can go with that.

But I really want to make a deal, not be good. I want to say, “Stay in bed until at least 7” and have that stick. I want to say, “Can’t you see I am painting your bedroom?” and have that be recognized. Can’t I ever love and be effectively loved in return?

I have experienced the kids, but I also have my own present troubles.

Lately I experienced the Brethren in Christ General Conference in Florida. I put my whole adult life into being a committed part of this denomination and worked to reflect its character and history in Circle of Hope. When I first joined up, many leaders called it a “brotherhood” and would not use the term “denomination” — even though their preferred term was sexist, it was still great. Now that it is being reformed into a new denomination without that character and free of its history, I have to decide how to love. The temptation is to dwell on: “Can’t I get what I wanted? Don’t we have an implicit deal? I put a lot into this and THIS is what I get?” You probably relate to that feeling.

The whole country is in turmoil right now because so-called black lives don’t matter as much as so-called white lives. I am sick of the bad deal enforced by the militarized police on a whole segment of society! A police officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop outside St. Paul not long ago. The deceased apparently had the “right to carry” that is so well-protected by the government. He apparently told the office that he had a gun. The officer apparently wanted ID. When he reached for his wallet for ID he was told to stop. He apparently did not stop fast enough and was shot. It is all on a Facebook livestream. Shouldn’t people expect the police to love them? They are all in uniform; can’t I expect them to uniformly serve and protect? Shouldn’t the police have a self-giving love that can do better than give orders, then enforce their bargain with a weapon? Wouldn’t a policeman rather die than kill someone? About 15% reportedly would. I’m in the street demanding a better deal — “I pay taxes, I vote, I follow the laws, now stop harassing and killing people!”

As I thought of all these things I realized I needed to pray.

For one thing, I need to pray so I can clear my mind and remember the attitude Jesus has when it comes to me. After all, I, in my own way, have often gotten up too early and screamed irrationally out of my need and I was also hard to comfort; but we got there. I was offered change and I wanted the “justice” of never needing to lose what I had “earned.” I pulled my gun and he did not kill me.

I need to pray every day so I can remember that I don’t really have the deal I want and my incessant grasping for it is not really getting me anywhere. I am legitimately needy. What I want is not wrong. I need comfort, reassurance, safety, etc. etc. It is no surprise I try to take matters into my own hands out of desperation: get angry, sulk, withdraw, shoot, disobey. People have often not wanted to make a deal with me because I don’t give what they want because I am too busy desperately getting what I want. If I don’t pray, things will just keep going as badly as they are going.

The one who breaks the deadly cycle is Jesus. He did it on the cross. He does it when I pray. When I pray I don’t just get a better idea about how to act, I receive the inspiration (the in-Spirit-ation) and power to love like He does; the Lord’s own Spirit becomes one with mine and we are back doing what Jesus does best, even when my mother or the memory of her is absent and I feel fundamentally in need of a better deal, even when my intimates don’t come through, even when my hard work does not pay off, even when the country is against me.

So for the joy set before me and the joy of being my true self in a living relationship with God, I also endure my crosses. The bonus is, I manage to attach a lot better too when I am loving those needy people around me. I actually am less desperate. When that baby in the picture above realizes he is in mother’s arms, he’ll probably snuggle in, rest, connect, and take that big breath one does after they have cried their lungs out. My prayer is often like that; I have learned to look forward to the trusting moment when I give up, connect with God and realize I already have the best deal I could ever get.

First thoughts from Zimbabwe

I am hesitant to think that everyone cares about my travels, much less about Zimbabwe. But we are here with the BICC church members who make up our MCC workforce in the country, so it seems like there OUGHT to be some innate interest among my friends connected to the Brethren in Christ.  Now that I have my first taste, I REALLY think we should stay interested. So I have some questions:

1) Why are U.S. BIC churches so generally disengaged with MCC? Might be because we don’t know what is going on. We own an amazing relief, development and advocacy agency. I also know that some leaders  feel concerned it has “Mennonite” in the title (they could call it “mutual Christian compassion” and get over it), but in Zimbabwe it is all BIC people running things in the Matabele homeland.

2) Can we somehow get out some more info about what Circle of Hope gave $500K towards in the last five years? Just today I learned we built new schools and teachers quarters last year so kids would have a school closer than 20 miles away. We supported a transformation project that is not public knowledge that is totally inspiring. We taught people how to do conservation farming among the neediest people in one of the poorest nations on earth.  That’s just part of the first day.

The other Africa posts:

April 13
Circle of Hope travels to southern Africa.

ZIMBABWE

April 18
First thoughts from Zimbabwe

April 19
Being poor is tough

April 20
Going around doing good

April 22
Coming up against the powers

ZAMBIA

April 25
The food chain

April 25
The work of the Lord

April 26
Showing God’s love in practical ways

April 27
Will the northern hemisphere ever grow peace clubs?

April 30
Will we concede Southern Africa to Islam?

Is Circle of Hope “soft on sin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parades at the MWC

As I acclimated to the sprawling Pennsylvania Farm Show complex in Harrisburg I ran into a parade of good memories of worldwide travel with the Mennonite Central Committee. I met Ron and Judy Zook with whom we traveled to Palestine. I saw Bonnie Klassen from Colombia who has impressed anyone who has met her since I did. A new Beachy Amish friend talked about visiting San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, like I had on my first learning tour with Ron Byler (and later I saw Steve Penner!). MCC has a big presence at the MWC /Mennonite World Conference, with which the Brethren in Christ are affiliated. I have been all over the world with our relief and advocacy mission, now I am experiencing the whole world coming to Harrisburg.

The first meeting started off with a dramatic parade. Native Americans representing those displaced by Mennonite immigrants in the 1700s came in to drums, singing and flutes. They reminded us of a recent ceremony of mutual understanding and forgiveness that took place. The ground was made clean for the meeting.

native

Then there “a parade of nations” reminiscent of the Olympics to begin the week. Brethren in Christ churches from Zambia and Zimbabwe were represented, banners and all.

Continue reading Parades at the MWC

Tagged with “cult”

Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.

“Cult” is not good

Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion cult of elvisdirected toward a particular figure or an object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect people thought he was a cult leader.

Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.

It’s all about the Kool-Aid

The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.  People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.

Mimi and Eunice on cult habits
Mimi and Eunice on the matter

A  commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:

  1. Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong” and “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
  2. Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
  3. Restrictive or coercive. A human leader or structure expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
  4. Unorthodox revelations. They distort the Bible or come up with another book as foundational.

Christians, in general, recognize that Jesus has followers in many different denominations and nondenominational congregations, large and small. We have an adaptable and variegated faith. We don’t believe that the truth is available only to a select few—instead, salvation through Jesus is open to everyone and the Lord is our leader above any human leader.

Even though we don’t qualify, we decided we needed to put a tagline of our own on some of our advertising to deter potential taggers: “Circle of Hope: affiliated with the Brethren in Christ – Pennsylvania natives since 1780.” Maybe that might roll back any impressions that we are any weirder than the people who think we are “one of those cults” like the Presbyterians or something (that’s just a joke, Presbyterians are Christians, too).

So what if you get accused?

An accusation is often as good as a conviction these days. People who are falsely accused seem to be filling up the jails. Tales of being falsely accused at work and becoming the subject of an investigation are not that unusual. Circle of Hope has been taken down with false accusations a few times in the newspaper. So excuse me if I seem a little hypervigilant when I hear it through the grapevine that we are being accused of being a cult. Here are some things suggested by Dr. Phil (really, and I am not too fond of Phil) that might help anyone feeling falsely accused:

  • It can be destructive to be accused. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). I need to accept that it happened and deal with it. These things don’t just go away.
  • There is guilt by accusation. People hear something negative and tend to believe it. If you accuse a person unfairly, he/she still has that twinge — just from having the finger pointed at him/her. I feel that. I need to admit it.
  • But it is not THAT big of a deal. I may feel damaged but Jesus is still my Savior. My internal dialogue might need a redirect into more truthful and hopeful territory.
  • Besides, what other people label me is not necessarily who I am. Jesus calls me by name. Am I part of a cult? The answer is no. The other person might be hurting me, but that is their problem.
  • We need to talk about this (thus, this post). Sharing the problem is one thing that could help someone who is weighed down by an accusation or is scared about having a poor reputation with a few people we’d rather did not notice us (mainly because they tell lies about us).
  • Maybe I should try to find the people who actually think we’re a cult and have a face-to-face dialogue. I’ve only heard a rumor; I’ve never talked to anyone who thinks I’m weird in a bad way. But conversation might dispel some questions.
  • I’m mainly going to let it go and let God deal with it. If people say things behind my back, I can wait to react until they say it when I turn around. Until then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is possible that people are dive bombing us with their own stuff. Maybe they would like to intimidate because that is their thing. Since I don’t know, I’m not locking myself in the prison of some perverse possibility.

Has something like this ever happened to you, or have you been aware of it happening to us? If it it is just one bit of slander it can spread like poison until the whole body is tainted by it. So chances are, you may have heard this word applied to us, too. It feels bad. Try to be someone and there is likely to be at least one person who will try to get you back into the world as they know it. Try to follow Jesus in the way he is going and the takedown factor doubles.

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2014 #9 — That "other" person is someone I love!

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #9 most read post. In November, I objected to evangelicals unwittingly “otherizing” people while trying to be compassionate about their convictions.

That “other” person is someone I love!

I have traveled in the same circles with Ron Sider since I was in my twenties – actually ran into him on my son’s street a few weeks ago. I was profoundly influenced by Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I am a fan.

I say all that so my small criticism of what he recently said in Christianity Today is not taken as a slam. His article: Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate: We need a better approach to the traditional biblical ethic on sexuality in the November 18 CT was passed around by some of my acquaintances and friends in the BIC, which made me wonder what it was all about. So I read it.

A progressive evangelical “gay” policy

Here’s the gist: 1) He wants evangelicals to admit their track record on relating to: “gays” is tragic. 2) He makes a more-generous-than-usual argument about Biblical tradition that ends with the conclusion that everyone who is not in a lifelong heterosexual marriage should be celibate. 3) He ends with seeing the present argument as an opportunity: a) to do what it takes to nurture marriage, b) to listen to “gay people” c) To be nice: “Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without ignoring, marginalizing, and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.”

His thoughts seem revolutionary to some people. For instance, someone wrote in to voice their struggle with Ron’s assumption that gay people could be saved (!). Ron knows CT’s audience, so I appreciate his boldness. I saw that the moderator of our denomination and a bishop posted the article on Facebook. So he got some affirmation. One commenter said that he appreciated how a person of authority stated something that he had thought for a long time.

I’m only cousins with Evangelicals

LGBTQ debate?
Is there an epidemic of early debate training?

This is the one thing I offered on FB: “I don’t think I have ever been part of the ‘we’ Ron is talking about. I’ve certainly been listening to so-called gay people for my whole adult life. Just to be clear ‘gay’ people have been ‘us’ while ‘we’ have been dithering about ‘them.’”

Someone wrote in response to my thoughts: “clear?”

I guess my problem is not clear. So here I am writing about it.

For one thing, I have never been an evangelical. I officially left that fold (to the extent I was in it) when I became consciously part of the Brethren in Christ (that’s now another whole story, of course). I am fond of evangelicals, and I have ridden on their bus at times. I just wanted to miss all the excess Ron calls tragic. I am still getting tagged with the tragedy, but I tried to miss it. So when Ron says “we” need a better approach, I want to note that I did not adopt the former bad approach along with millions of other Christians.

For another thing, so-called “gay” people have been part of my life and part of the church for as long as I have been a part. The tone of the article sounds like “they” just got discovered and people should stop being reluctant to accept their existence! My views have developed along with the whole movement in the last 30 years, but my friendships with LGBTQ people have always been just that: friendships. They have been part of my “we.” When I think of the people Ron is talking about I think of faces, not some mysterious “other.” Christians belong to a transnational, transhistorical, transcultural body in the Spirit; only people who renounce Jesus could be considered truly “other,” I think – and we are called to love even them! So-called “gay” and so-called “straight” are called to the same allegiance and the same application of it.

We have tried to stay out of polarizing debates about sexuality during the life of Circle of Hope. But even we got blamed for the “tragic” behavior of evangelicals in the local gossip column! We ended up making our statement and trying to repair the divisions the “us” vs. “them” competition for the dominant, legalized thinking of the day caused in our community. I think we were pretty successful. But I suppose I am still sensitive about getting dragged into some loveless debate about some “thing,” when the “thing” happens to be someone I love.

Lowest Common Denominator Assumptions

I still remember the time, a few years ago, when fifty people came to our meeting about making a covenant.

Joshua Grace and I led most of it. Nate Hulfish got in there, too, even though he came with a fever and could barely talk! It was January, and everyone had to venture out over treacherously icy roads to a church basement in Camden. One intrepid person even found a way to get there by public transpo from Philly — he apologized for being late because he had to wait twenty minutes for one tardy bus in 28 degree weather!

It was heartening. It was encouraging to find out that we were still meeting people who would do unusual things as if they were usual. Ten of our cell leaders were there, bringing cell mates with them – they’d been to the meeting before and they were going to lead other meetings that week, so you might have thought it was “beyond the call of duty” to show up.  One of them said, “The church is not in the meetings, it is a 24/7 reality.” One of them was upstairs caring for her cell mates’ children so they could enjoy the meeting! Like I said, it was pretty amazing.

Lowest Common Denominator -- Jaako Mattila
Lowest Common Denominator — Jaako Mattila

The meeting was even more amazing to me because I compared what my friends were actually like to what some denomination leaders thought they were probably like.  I had just come back from a conference in which I discerned some attitudes in “higher up” church leaders about what people could tolerate when it came to living out a commitment to Jesus. They didn’t expect much. I probably shot my mouth off a bit too much (as I am wont to do), but they were talking about the BIC doctrine about peacemaking, which is so close to my heart. They didn’t expect people to make peace much.

The Brethren in Christ list peacemaking among their collection of ten “core values.” We say we are all about:

Pursuing Peace: We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and non-violent resolution of conflict.

 That is not a radical statement. But it is right there among our top ten values!

In the Articles of Faith and Doctrine we say:

Christ loved His enemies and He calls us as His disciples to love our enemies. We follow our Lord in being people of peace and reconciliation, called to suffer and not to fight. While respecting those who hold other interpretations, we believe that preparation for or participation in war is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. Similarly, we reject all other acts of violence which devalue human life. Rather, we affirm active peacemaking, sacrificial service to others, as well as the pursuit of justice for the poor and the oppressed in the name of Christ.

That is a straightforward statement.  It is worthy of people who will get out in 28 degree weather to investigate how to form an authentic church! Yet when I called on my leader to promote a “prophetic” expression of our stated doctrine, he publicly worried that others would not take too kindly to such aggressive behavior (whoever these “others” are, I don’t know). It seemed to me that he was managing for the lowest common denominator, or working on a non-violent resolution to conflict by avoiding conflict altogether!

So it was encouraging to meet up with the next set of Circle of Hope (BIC) covenant-makers who are, basically, brave enough to do something that other people might assume is just too much to ask. I will always wonder, I guess, about what the big deal is about following Jesus. If you’re going to do it, do it! Why doctor up his clear teachings and example to fit into the lowest common denominator that can pass for Christianity?

It is such an honor to be sought and called by Jesus! It is not like he is “asking too much of me” when he gives me life and assumes I’d like to live it! I have rarely been disappointed when I was “presumptuous” enough to assume that Jesus has impressed others in exactly the same way. We’re glad to follow Jesus! Put me in coach!

I expect to keep finding those kind of people and doing what I can to form a covenant community with them. After all, thirty more people than one might expect could pile into the basement at any moment.

Burned-out Evangelicals and Millenials

As I was praying this morning, I realized I might be overly preoccupied with two groups of people I seem to love more than others — even though God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34).

I am very concerned with the burned-out evangelicals I meets who are super sensitive to being marched around by narcissistic leaders.

I am also concerned about the slavish millennials who are like hunter-gatherers living in small tribes feeding off the cast-offs of society, with little hope of the future.

Of all the people who were worshiping with me last night: successful professionals, immigrants, hard-working teachers, dutiful parents, etc., I tend to hone in on these two subgroups. I think that is because they need to be saved and are oh so close to getting there but often have the deck stacked against them.

"If someone tells you that you are “on fire,” and your first thought is not to stop, drop, and roll...you might be an evangelical." -- Elizabeth Kaeton
“If someone tells you that you are “on fire,” and your first thought is not to stop, drop, and roll…you might be an evangelical.” — Elizabeth Kaeton

I’m not a burned-out evangelical because I never really was one. I had plenty of opportunities to travel with them (I was even trained by Campus Crusade before they coolified their name to Cru), but when I was making a decision about who were my people, I found the Anabaptists. I liked the Brethren in Christ because they added on “Pietist” and “Wesleyan,” to their Anabaptist roots, and basically refused to be too strongly affiliated with some past description because old labels don’t make that much sense in the present. But even though I don’t live in the mainstream, I still meet many skittish people who grew up in a mega church or a conservative, little, strangulation-by-Bible church. They don’t always have a live relationship with Jesus, but they do know a lot of Christian stuff. It is often like they are inoculated against any real relationship with Jesus because they were trained to be suspicious of every wrong way one might have one!

They need to be saved rather than just be deserters of the bogus faith of their past, or mere critics of what others say.

Click pic for positive look at the "millenial" generation
Click pic for positive look at the “millenial” generation

I’m not a millennial, either (according to Pew, I am a GenXer). But nobody really knows what a millennial is, anyway, which is probably what makes someone a millennial. They appear to be less “white;” they can’t remember a time without the internet; they can work devices and act technologically savvy. They don’t care as much about success, and that is good, since they will probably be less well-off than their parents. Under their parents’ watch, their future wealth was stored up in the 1%, the government became more like a corporation and started selling off public assets to businesses, and people became so fearful of terrorists and of losing their jobs that they stopped trying to change things. The younger one is, the more likely she is to feel like it is “all up to her” and maybe she will be helped by a few close friends. For many of these people, the church is just another huge institution they sometimes hover around looking for scraps of meaning to put in their personal identity backpack.

They need to be saved rather than left isolated and suspicious, being injured by the huge forces that use them like raw material, like slaves sent to make bricks without straw when they speak up.

My life is filled with students, children, parents, and Christian leaders — all sorts of people. I love them all. But these two groups seem to make my heart break and my conviction stir. I think they represent what is hardening the hearts of the next generation. One of the things I want to do most with my days is work with God as he softens us up for love and truth. Most days I am not sure what I am trying to do makes a bit of difference. Most days I am content to let God make of it what he will, since he is part of every generation and his mercy is new every morning.

What It Takes to Have a Decent Impact

I just returned from two weeks of travelling to California—Mexico—California–Georgia. (My bags are still not back from California!)  It was wonderful to see old friends and visit new places. Now I am eager to get on with it. Circle of Hope always looks so beautiful from a distance! —  close up, too, of course, but ravishing from a distance. And the mission we share with other Christ followers seems even more pressing, given all the things I experienced.

Here are three of the things I learned, again, about our mission during my travels:

1) To have a decent impact on the world for Jesus, it takes living in a community that can get along. It would be great if people just did what they were told, but they need to be loved, heard and included in order to get to being led.

At the BIC General Conference our community was falling apart and we spent all our efforts and passion trying to figure out whether we could hold together. Just last night I spoke to another person who attended the conference who was scratching their head, wondering at the fear-based approach we seem to practice. It seems to be an assumption that people will not get along, so don’t let them try. It seems to be a big fear that unseemly people will say things, so we don’t let anyone say anything. That doesn’t work.

People know the Lord by how we love one another, Jesus says. Working out authentic community is a top priority for the mission.

2) To have a decent impact on the world for Jesus, it takes solitude and rest. If we are in mission with Jesus, we are in over our heads, just putting our hands to the plow. We are not superheroes (like Batman taking punches from Bane); we need to recuperate and get some resources.

Playa La Mision, Baja

Sitting on a beach in Mexico is a luxury for most of the world, so I understand that my resources afford me great privilege in gaining some rest. But however one can achieve it, it takes Sabbath to do good work. It takes not working to work. If we are just surviving the daily onslaught without gaining resources of personal strength, we basically have to shut down and be steely most of the time, grit our teeth and survive. We should never underestimate the power of our personal defense systems to shut us down when we are threatened. We can live perpetually threatened and never have the sense of capacity that allows us to reach out with truth and love. It takes a lot of personal time with Jesus to have our defenses eased.

People know the Lord by knowing people who know the Lord. Having enough space to develop our relationship with God and not just keep the wheels turning is crucial.

3) To have a decent impact on the world for Jesus, it takes leaving one’s family and home and coming back married to Jesus. It is painful, but there is often a contest between those we love for who gets to direct our lives. Jesus should win or everyone loses.

At the wedding I had to note how easy it is to put up with our loved one’s self-destructive behavior, even adapt to it, rather than speaking and living grace into it. There is nothing like entering a family system and an extended friendship circle gathered for the blessed event to get a good look at how things work. Jesus was rather plain about loving his family and friends, but he also very plainly told them to get behind him, as if they were Satan, if they tried to deter his mission. How we love who we love is probably the hardest thing we ever have to learn as a co-worker of Jesus. If our small loves undermine the greatest love, it is a great loss.

People get to know the Lord by hearing and seeing the revelation clearly. There is not really a way to keep the picture totally unmuddled, but we can’t serve the muddle, nonetheless.

Lessons on leading learned and re-learned at the BIC General Conference.

I loved being with the Brethren in Christ at the recent, brief conference in Ontario, CA. We are full of creativity, wisdom and energy for mission! Stories from the congregations in the United States and Canada, as well as stories from around the world from Brethren in Christ World Missions and the Mennonite Central Committee were inspiring!

I am always inspired to go home and do the best I can to serve Jesus after the conference. That alone is worth the airfare. This time I also learned a lot about leading in two ways: 1) I got to meet many new, young leaders who are hungry to do well and to do well as the BIC. They are inventive and eager. Good traits. 2) The other way I learned about leading came from being led by my General Church Leaders and Board. They were having an instructive time of it, trying to navigate their way through the mess we are in as a denomination. I will have plenty more to think and say about the actual issues at hand. For now, I have a list of things I need to reaffirm for myself, and for others who are listening, about leading the church (or your cell, family, workgroup, community garden, etc.).

Respect people. — We are all members of one body and we all count. Leaders need to act like that. No, I take that back. Leaders need to believe that we are all members of one body and we all count and then act on that from their heart. The BIC, and most local church bodies, like Circle of Hope, have mutual respect built into their structures. We shouldn’t give that fact a high five and then do what we want. For instance, the BIC General Conference is made up of pastors and delegates. The people at the meeting were most of the best players on the bi-national team. A leader should assume that experienced players can run plays with even slight facilitation. We need to demonstrate respect, not just talk about it.

Share the process. — Like Ronald Reagan getting away with secret, illegal arms deals, it is easy to think that what is done in secret will not eventually be shouted from the rooftops. But what some people think is better kept under wraps is crucial to building the body — the process is also elemental to the goal. Bad means can come to worse ends. During our conference we found out that the Canadian regional conference of our bi-national church had effectively “seceded from the union” long ago and we were asked to affirm that. They even changed their structure and nomenclature long before they were not part of the whole. Interesting process: the no-contest, no-communication divorce.

Offer a complete proposal; don’t just say “trust us.” – Obviously, detailed proposals cannot be engineered in a group of 500 (or five, in the case of some of our cell groups!). That’s why a proposal is detailed-out and dialogued-over long before it gets to the final decision-making. We got a proposal for major restructuring that had so many holes in it that I wonder if we can get through the next two years alive. We approved it because “they worked hard on it” and we “want to trust them.” But we have lots of structures that are designed for dialogue and for building consensus. The leaders should be masters at using them. We should have a good idea of how the Spirit is moving in the church before we test our discernment at a group meeting.

Get along for Jesus’ sake. – We still don’t know, for sure why the BIC leadership fell apart last year and why the top leaders are being sent packing. The word from the lectern was, “We messed up.” They wouldn’t really define what “messing up” means, which has been characteristic of the whole “mess up.” At one point, our Moderator spent fifteen minutes trying to waive the bylaws so two leaders could be considered in an election. The two leaders stood up and declined to be considered. That was just one instance of apparent infighting, or at least scant communication. Poor relating happens; in leaders it is even costlier.

Never isolate people by how you talk about them. — In the BIC, the leadership regularly talks about “new” people and “Spanish speaking people” as if they were not fully BIC yet. It reminds me of moving to Waynesboro PA and being told by my neighbor that I would never be a part of the town because I wasn’t born there. I’ve got a feeling that I am still “new” to the BIC, twenty-eight years after arriving! I have spent nearly twenty of those years trying to get the leaders to accept the people from South Florida and elsewhere who are not-of-the-BIC-cradle as bonafide members of the denomination. They are still singled out like they don’t yet belong at every conference. They still aren’t “us.” Back to a previous point — it appears  that being a delegate makes little difference anymore in the practical BIC process; it appears from what is often said that being a Spanish-first delegate makes even less difference.

Never ignore things that might cause conflict. — I never heard so much gratitude for being “Anabaptist” at a BIC General Conference as I heard last week! It was as if people did not get the memo that certain elements of the denomination have been fighting the oldest parts of our distinctives for a long time, so we keep them as distinctives but downplay them in practice. I think our Anabaptist stream makes us ever-more perfect for meeting the challenges of post-Christian America. Thus, we should act like we are MCC, since we are MCC (get them to change their name!). And we should practice our theology of peacemaking even if we have to dialogue with veterans.

Learning lessons is not a passive aggressive way of saying, “I want to criticize the leaders in a clever way.” I hope my criticisms are straightforward enough. I imagine most of the GC Leaders already agree with most of what I have said, anyway. I really do want to learn. I think leading is hard. Barack, Mitt and the Congress are regularly horrible, but ever-present examples of what leading is like these days — disrespecful, secretive, singular. I want to do better. I want us, as the BIC, to do better. In the next decade, as all those new leaders get their full footing in the new era that is forming, we need to help one another represent Jesus well.

If You Just Build It, God Might Not Even Come

At the recent BIC General conference, one of the speakers shared a memory. The church used to build a building where they wanted to have a congregation, then install a pastor and challenge him to fill it. “Building first” seems like common sense to a lot of people. For instance, even before the Coordinators commissioned Jonny Rashid to lead Hive 2010, members of the formation team were already looking for prospective buildings. Maybe it is in the American psyche to think, “if you build it, they will come” – that is often makes sense for USonians, look at how Las Vegas gets people to trek out into a wasteland! Before people wanted to build a fence around it, people thought the whole country was built so freedom-loving capitalists from all over the world would come. Maybe we all experience a little trickle-down empire building. Maybe we’re so materialistic, we end up thinking of ourselves as a destination.

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

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

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

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

I think we usually want to build it once, if we build anything at all, and see what comes. It can feel a little daunting to have worked so hard and then need to work hard some more. If one’s illusion is that “I am supposed to build my dream and then live in it,” it is very daunting to discover that is not all there is to it.  But if one dreams about following Jesus, then there is the possibility of a lot more joy in store than just enjoying what you have built for yourself. In Jesus, the work itself is about living, not about achieving a life. One doesn’t work in order to retire from working, one lives. One doesn’t build in order to get a life, one lives in order to build. Always being on a journey, and often being in something like a military campaign, can be tiring, but it is a pleasant fatigue. It is a lot better than looking at everything you worked so hard to build and realizing that God doesn’t come to it anymore.

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

Seriously. Watch Your Tongue

Last night we had what we call “Rabbi Time.” It is an attempt to learn in a fashion that Jesus seemed to use. It is dialogical. It is full of questions. It allowed good minds to develop and strengthened our tools for mission. We centered around the word “identity” – how the world uses that word/concept/reality, the politics of it, the fracturing of it and our version of its formation — if we even want to use the word. I’m not ready to write about all we were thinking. It was a lot.

What is on my mind this morning is how serious it was. Rabbi Time was not without laughter, but people focused on important things: they did not feel the need to be ironic, when they laughed it was from joy or recognition, there were tears, too. I need to be with serious people like that. I think I feel about the people together for Rabbi Time like Paul felt when he wrote to the Philippians: I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:3-6) Having serious partners in whom one is confident is irreplaceable. Knowing that they are going to stick with God as God sticks with them is life giving.

I was also at the Brethren in Christ Conference over the weekend. It was also full of serious partners. I came away inspired; revved up and eager to give the best I’ve got to serve Jesus. We BIC, as a people, are securely focused on our mission. That is a very good thing – and we are succeeding in it in significant ways. If the conference was about anything, it was about telling encouraging stories about our mission. But I was disturbed to keep running into a strange jocularity among our leaders that undermined how serious we are. They seem to share a common sense of self-deprecating humor (or maybe low self-esteem) that leaks out into others-deprecating. The banter between two of the leaders on the platform at one point in the confrence was a good example of what ended up coloring a lot of the deep things we were talking about. At one point one of them spoke about our Manual of Doctrine and Government (the plan for how we operate as a family) and he said something like, “I’m sure you have this by your bedside for nighttime reading” in a mocking way, as if no one would ever take us that seriously. It was like John Stewart on the Daily Show, only it did not point at something that needed taking down. It was humor ruling, not serving. I thought we were being taught to be ashamed if we were too serious about the BIC. Since I know none of my leaders intended to do that, I am inspired to watch my tongue. I can only imagine how many times I have given unintended messages that undermined what I was shooting for.

A similar thing happened during Rabbi Time. Someone pointed out something about Circle of Hope and said something like, “It seems like it is of the Holy Spirit, but I would not want to call it that.” It was as if they were afraid they would be mocked, so before they spoke they did a pre-emptive attack on what might shame them. Such things have me ruminating on being serious. I think I need to be less ashamed of Jesus and his work in me (and us), and more ashamed that I would make him less than he is, even doubting for others that I was witnessing his Spirit at work before they had a chance to doubt it!  

The world will tear us down and mock us enough, let’s not help it. It is important to be able to laugh at oneself, let’s not lose that capability. But even our humor should build up. If we mock one another, our community or ourselves, we could make someone ashamed to take us and our Lord seriously. I need to watch my tongue. Seriously.