Tag Archives: Circle of Hope

Why does being part of Circle of Hope seem so demanding?

Aren’t most churches afraid of being too demanding? If we ask too much, people might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether!

Image result for jesus demanding

There is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding.

For instance, some Sunday Meeting Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople.

I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

We are ambitious — that is demanding

Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is also demanding. We make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. What’s more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation once, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

We we assume you have “the stuff” to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. 

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had emulate Abraham’s faith and hope, not just rely on their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem confrontational. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is this: live as your true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Our era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. 

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. She got demanding and changed thousands of lives. But her situation was different. Almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and what she was complaining about was a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a screenwriter put a Maria Von Trapp character in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — they think everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start 17-year war in Afghanistan or design a rocket that can hit the U.S. from North Korea. It is surprisingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

What do YOU think?

When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive ambition. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how we do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Builders or spenders?: Five ways to keep building

I read a book about the Byzantine Empire a few years ago. I’m not over it. Periodically, I waft off into a little lesson on Greek emperors. That behavior does not make me popular.  But I just instinctively do it sometimes because I am ruminating  on the lessons their lives are teaching me. Every leader can learn great cautionary tales from history. Don’t you wish the present leaders of the U.S. would would seriously listen to a few tales? One lesson they could learn from the Byzantine emperors is this: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.

I saw this remnant of Byzantine glory in Istanbul.

Builders and spenders

As I read the intriguing, pared-down history of the Byzantine Empire, focused on the emperors, I was interested to see that one way I could categorize them was as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade. Their successors regularly lived off or squandered all they had built up. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.

Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich, rich, rich. People are lamenting the lack of jobs when the unemployment rate is 4.1% (Spain ~ 16%, Congo ~ 46%). Everyone thinks they deserve to be rich as their birthright! The 1% recently harvested the profitability reflected in the low unemployment rate with their “tax reform.” They are spenders. Maybe the whole U.S. Empire is dying. Maybe a new emperor will save it. But right now we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.

I think it might be hard to imagine building something in the United States (like Circle of Hope in all its manifestations) because it has become customary to train everyone to manage the wealth of others or the wealth they expected to receive [Here are some options for you!] [Here you go in case you are in elementary school.] I know many people consider managing and increasing wealth as a productive enterprise. I think that is lying to oneself. Wendell Berry starts off one of my favorite poems by revealing that lie again.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. — Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,  Wendell Berry, excerpt

He goes on to say that we should get in touch with God and the earth so we can be and can do something real — like grow something, like build a church. Churches seem to have a lot of people trained to perform Christian musicals and create weekly variety shows on Sunday, but do we train each other to build practical things?  (I have to say this, even though I love a good musical from almost any source!). I run into people living like what is built is there for them to manage or perform rather than living like they were meant to build something useful or beautiful or new — like they are creating with the Creator. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. I think the church trains them to do it.  Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And, ultimately, the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.

We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate through us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us — we’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.

Five practical ways to build something

The following are simple things that might help us shake off the empire mentality that stalks us and help us find some fresh new ways to see ourselves in the world as it is now. As Berry suggests:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.

I doubt that my suggestions will seem like we are losing our minds altogether. But they might start something fresh building.

1)     Be a friend. The foremost and everyday discipline of a builder is: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the Kingdom of God. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the Kingdom are crumbling.

2)     Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.

Right now, God help us, we are considering buying the biggest mess we have ever bought in the neediest neighborhood at the highest price we’ve ever paid.  It is the building in the picture above at 115 W. Chelten. We may not decide to do it, but just thinking about it has already started to reshape us and inspire us. I talked about it all through snow day and I am pretty refreshed right now, and impressed with the leaders who are daring to dig into the idea.

3)     Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us should pitch in, not just the leaders. Please don’t say “that’s not my job” too often. It is not the leaders’ church. Everyone has the job of being a builder; Jesus resides in each of us and all of us.

I am certainly not saying, “Get busy you slackers!” Our church is a beehive of activity.  LOTS of us love to pitch in. The newest congregation we just hived off is the one with the audacity to consider a huge building!  All the congregations can tell stories about what they have been building, lately, this week! (Maybe they will tell them in the comments).

As far as attitudes that ground being a builder and not just a spender go:

4)     Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.

5)     Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow? That’s a Christian question.

Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just “get ours” and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the empire and it certainly does not work in the church.

Mystical hope in a deteriorating world

We founded Circle of Hope in a ripe moment of history and the outcome has been beautiful. A few weeks into the process, we sat in a small circle discussing what our name would be. We ended up with several versions of a name with “hope” in it. But some people did not like any of those versions. A few people (and in a circle of ten, a few is relevant!) thought it was just too much to put “hope” right out there in the church’s name.

Barack copied us?

Maybe they were right to be cautious. Regardless, they were certainly representative of many others, since many people think hope is far-fetched, even dangerous — mainly because they think it is something tied to outcome. If you are a circle of hope you invite expectations that might not be met. So many people are laboring under all the “outcomes” required of them, and under all the “outcomes” that were promised and did not happen. For most people, “hope” is optimistic feeling, or at least a willingness to go on, because we sense things are going to get better. But is that sense about worn out  these days? What if you put “hope” right out there on your poster, like President Obama did, and then everything does not get better like you promised? What if you imply that Jesus is going to get you a job, provide a mate and cure your cancer and it does not happen? Won’t the name of your church just point out the fact that it did not happen?

We had people on our little team whose hopes had been dashed. What’s more, some of them had grown up in the church, where they even memorized Bible verses like in Psalm 116: “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication…I was brought very low and he helped me.” But it did not always happen just like the verse promised. After a while, it is hard to figure out what to do with dashed hopes.

I have memorized some Bible verses myself and I am an optimistic guy — and God has repeatedly helped me when I was “brought low.” Even so, I have never thought it was wise to make promises God was not going to keep, at least act as if God were the Amazon of human need.

Another way of experiencing hope

I am reading a little book that beautifully points out there is another kind of hope represented in the Bible which is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at hope in terms of outcomes. We can see it in Habakkuk 3:17-19 where the prophet dances on the heights even though the land is devastated, or when Jesus offers water inside for outwardly thirsty people in John 4:13-14, or in the “total immersion course” in the school of hope that the book of Job is where he ends up singing Job 19:25-26: “I know my redeemer lives.”

Cynthia Bourgeault calls this hope “mystical hope.” And that is the title of her book, too. Mystical hope has three characteristics in contrast to our usual notions of hope. These usual notions, based on outcomes, are not bad, they just are not complete or entirely useful. She says, in light of the three biblical examples mentioned:

Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.

This kind of hope has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by someone intimately at hand.

This hope bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy , and satisfaction: and “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it produces them from within.

Mystical hope makes a Circle of Hope and allows us to act for good outcomes. This week the pastors passed around a couple of pieces that tested our hope. One was from the Census Bureau.

The map above shows the increase in the number of young adults (18-34) in the United States living at home with their parents in 2015 compared to 2005. The changes in society in the last ten, certainly the last 40 years are staggering. More than 1 in 3 young people lived in their parents’ home in 2015. That is a huge increase in one decade. What’s more, of those people, 1 in 4 are idle, that is they neither go to school nor work. Many people see this as a poor outcome. Are all these people hopeless?

The other piece was about alone and lonely men. A journalist who researchers psychology was pondering the Las Vegas shooting. An apparently completely alone man was the shooter. As a “lone wolf” he is not that unusual among men. The author says:

As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.”

But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?

For many men, the answer is “no.” So, we spend our time posturing instead.

From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that Real men do everything on their ownReal men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

The byproduct is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.

Many woman might feel exactly the same way, of course. And the evil ways of late capitalism has made a perfect environment to create unhealthy, isolated people.

I want to say more about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book in the future. But for now, let me end with a quote that speaks back to twentysomethings who feel that their future is bleak and parents who feel their children are hopeless cases, and to men and women who feel isolated and friendless, stuck in some pattern that feels hopeless. There is something deeper than your situation.

Hope is not intended to be an extraordinary infusion, but an abiding state of being. We lose sight of the invitation – and in fact , our responsibility, as stewards of creation – to develop a conscious and permanent connection to the wellspring. We miss the call to become a vessel, to become a chalice into which this divine energy can pour; a lamp through which is can shine.

But what if we are intended to become this vessel, this body of hope? What if, in fact, this effervescent, “lightness-of-being” energy is the fuel that drives our human life toward its divine fulfillment? What if our insistence on treating it as a rare and exceptional phenomenon is a way of ducking the invitation that was permanently extended at the Samaritan well that blazing midday?

The journey to the wellspring, the to secret of Jesus, the Master of Galilee, is the great inner journey to which we Christians are called.

I am glad we put hope right out there in the name of our expression of the Church. It almost dares people not to meet Jesus. On the one hand, God has produced outcomes that are far greater than we imagined as we sat in a little circle of ten in my living room. We hoped good things would happen and even more than we hoped happened. So that’s great. But what about all that did not happen? What sustained us when we failed, broke up, died, lost faith, were betrayed and confused? It was that mystical hope, that turning toward the living water that energizes us to get up and follow Jesus.

Other posts on Mystical Hope:
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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The different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church

Why did I miss diving into the Divergent series until now? It is totally my kind of thing: anxious twentysomethings/teens forced by the government and their colluding parents to choose an identity that doesn’t fit them. Watching Kate Winslet (symbolizing the authorities) have her hand nailed to a computer screen by a well-thrown knife — what could be more interesting?

There is just so much to talk about here! So much of what the movie’s (and books’) characters face is exactly what people are thinking and feeling in the church all the time.

For instance, in Divergent-world, people are assumed to be pre-programmed. So far, it looks like Tris just isn’t. And it looks like Four/Tobias doesn’t want to be. Isn’t that just what we are all talking about — am I just who I am, or can I be someone more? “Can I choose? Do I have to choose? What if I choose wrong? Who decides the choices? Can they make me choose?”

In that kind of atmosphere, people have a lot of questions about the church, too — which is all about choosing, after all, and all about taking on a new identity. For instance: “Are the pastors a bunch of Kate Winslets with secret plots to use us for their own purposes?” That’s a good question. But, more likely, the question is about choices. “Should someone else choose what I choose (like Jesus)? Are they just programmed differently? Can I say what the choices are? I like choosing more than I like what I choose — what about that?” There is a lot to think about.

Continue reading The different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church

It is the second act — what do we do now?

Imaginarium gilliamIt is true that Terry Gilliam stole the title “imaginarium” from us and applied it to his devilish movie. The five people who knew about that movie before I just told you may have had trouble taking our “rolling Council” meeting seriously. Nevertheless, the others had a very visionary Imaginarium in February. Recently we have simply answered this question when we meet: “What is God telling us?” What moved the group in February was pondering what it takes to be what we have imagined and what it takes to lead it. We are implementing the vision of our “second act.” Things are loosening up, changing, and growing. What do we do now?

Here are five things that God seems to be saying to us about moving into what is next for Circle of Hope. It is amazing that all this good thinking happened in one hour!

Our “second act” is like when the kids are in high school and we get a miracle baby.

  • It has disturbed the homeostasis. Some of us have to get used to imagining ourselves as parents when we were already settled into our post-reproduction phase.
  • Our system has become pretty secure. It is good to have it disrupted because it needs to be disrupted to expand. Further leaders need to emerge. Pastors need to turn to equipping others and to not being overly in charge.
  • If we follow God’s lead through this change we will win the battle we are in. But there is a remote possibility that we won’t have the faith or follow the vision. We are taking the risk to meet the challenge even though we may prefer avoiding failure rather than risking success.

Many of us are at the tipping point when our attitudes change and we think we can sway something.

  • We have stokeable imaginations. We can get fired up. This is a good trait.
  • What we are talking about becoming in this year’s Map takes prayer. If we are praying all the time, we can see it God’s way and we can be it God’s way.
  • Some of us have felt overwhelmed — like we were foster parents to a giant baby called Circle of Hope. It was like the baby was foisted upon us and we were not exactly ready to parent. We fell in love with the baby and we decided to raise it. Now that we are raising it, it feels like our baby.

One of the main calls to the Leadership Team is to pick up the load. Be responsible.

  • To be responsible probably means a change in how many of us see ourselves. We can’t lead if our faith is locked inside “personal salvation” boundaries — that means faith is something I get for myself and it mainly lives in me. We’re talking about having faith that is about others and about the cause, not locked up in our own survival, preference or good feelings.
  • One of us gave an analogy of this based on how they have changed their gardening practices. In the past their garden was not very thought out. They planted what was given to them or went with half-price plants at the end of the season. This year they have already been germinating seeds under the grow lights in expectation of spring. We need to be the kind of people who foster spiritual seedlings, not just wait for people to find us, not just think of ourselves as afterthoughts or leftovers, and not mess around with “whatever” until the season for planting has passed.
  • To pick up the load means being active as opposed to passive. We can be a movement or a monument (or even a mausoleum if we don’t watch it).

It is tempting to wait and see what is happening, like you’re watching someone else’s show.

What? Never saw Disney's Hercules, either?
What? Never saw Disney’s Hercules, either?
  • It doesn’t matter if we switch around our leaders and do inventive structural changes if the church is not moved by the Spirit. If there is no movement there is nothing to steer.
  • One of us said. “If I say it, I’m more motivated.” They meant they need to talk about what they are doing because that helps them own it. For instance, people sometimes don’t want to say “I love you.” They don’t want to say it until they absolutely mean it. Some of us, even the leaders, don’t want to say, “I’m going with the ‘second act.'” They are waiting, doubtful.

Our best stuff is in the wings ready to move on stage.

  • We need to stoke what is coming. We have spent three months doing that. We switched our pastors around and founded “the hub” at 13th and Walnut. A new picture is taking shape. We deployed new local site supervisors. We refocused all our pastors more on making deeper and further disciples and less on administration of their locales. We began to refocus Rachel on being the BW Development Pastor. Our Compassion Core Team took up the challenge of getting us ALL out there in compassionate service.
  • We are meeting new people who want to be responsible. They want to build an army for the spiritual battle of our time.
  • A new proverb seems to be developing: The new person is a role you did not know you needed.
  • We even started to catch up with our sharing goals in March.

It is an exciting time to be a circle of hope in Philadelphia. There is certainly no shortage of hopelessness to fill with a bright future! It is exciting to be Circle of Hope, the people of God, too! We are filled with possibilities and we have the vision and leadership to make them happen.

 

Being a network of congregations and why that got going.

Some people discovered this piece among my pages last week. I thought I would share it again. It first appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, fall of 2005

Let me say right off: we may use the 21st century word “network” to describe ourselves, but what we are doing is as old as Jesus. As usual, we’re ancient/future in our outlook.

That’s why we needed to put out this issue of the Dialogue. We wanted to focus on the network of cells and congregations that forms Circle of Hope because we sometimes seem strange to people. Supposedly, being a Network it is hard to “get.”

Maybe that is because people have been “got” by other thinking so the Bible is hard to “get.” One can hardly take a step in the Bible without running into God working through what might be called a network of people or without being called on by Jesus to form one!

Continue reading Being a network of congregations and why that got going.

Does God care if our church exists?

logo 2007Every once in a while we need to ask the Lord if we should just close up the enterprise and do something else for which we are better suited! There is nothing worse than a church that doesn’t need the Holy Spirit to keep functioning, right?

So I asked a few questions of our Leadership Team the other day which I had been asking myself.  A few people got right back to me with some encouraging answers. I am sharing them with you, basically unedited (but anonymous since I didn’t ask them) to see what you think. What would you add?

I know people read this blog from all over, but I hope you won’t tune out. It would be interesting to hear what you say. We’ve been told we are full of it before, so no need to be shy. But also, what you see from far away might be helpful for us who are way into this quadrant of the Church over here. Leave a comment or send me a note.

Continue reading Does God care if our church exists?

Why I Love the Dress Sale

So on a scale of one to ten, there are some things about the dress sale that Jesus and I rate VERY high.

What dress sale, you ask? It is the buy-a-dress-for-displaced-Syrians dress sale that culminates in the Hallowe’en “gala.” That dress sale.

Sara doing her first sorting of the goods.

OK, here is more. The landlord buys and sells things. When we procured the street-level space for Circle Thrift on Broad St., he had it filled with wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses and what I call party dresses – probably because I am never invited to dress-up parties. He wanted us to buy the dresses as part of the deal. We made the deal and stand to make about $10,000 if we can sell all the dresses (even at our super-low prices). We decided to have a special sale and use all the profits to aid displaced Syrians, with whom MCC is already working and raising money to help.

After one week, we have only made about $500. But then, we just started and almost no one has heard about the sale or figured out what we are doing.

I think Jesus can get excited about this sale and rates certain aspects of it very high, as I do.

1. Weirdness. I think I give it a ten. Eventually we will get a bride from the bride of Christ out on Broad St. to advertise the sale. Thank God there are still people in our church who would do such a thing. They remind me of God getting into a human “dress.“  Plus, we’re doing it for displaced Syrians, which is rather weird. Mitt Romney wants to give heavy arms to the rebels. There are likely to be more refugees, soon. Most people don’t have a clue about Syria, in general. We do; that’s weird. The Syrians are being slaughtered by their government. We are weird enough to care about that.

2. Opportunity for mission. I think I can give it at least a 9. I am not sure we will take the opportunity, but we certainly have a good excuse to get out on the street and tell people about Circle Thrift and its commitment to MCC’s work of advocacy, relief and development all over the world. Plus we can raise people’s consciousness about Jesus and demonstrate that there are many Christians who are interested in more than “jobs” this election. Plus we can let people know about Circle of Hope, which is often one of the best-kept secrets in Philadelphia. Broad and Washington, in particular, needs to get out on the street and meet a few thousand of the new people in Center City, in South Philly and on campus.

3. Charity. I think I am at least at 8 in this category. The other day in Circle of Hope Daily Prayer, the “voice” led us to think about how giving makes us free. In the comments, Toni said: “By Christ I am freed to receive, in addition to giving. Giving helps me be connected to those around me, and to practice living in abundance. But receiving makes me feel less in control, and I have to trust those to whom I reach. It is scary, but good practice. What a privilege to receive the limitless love of Jesus, oftentimes by the hand of the generosity of His people.” The dress sale has so many levels of goodness to it! I think everyone in the church, at least, should buy a dress to support the new store and displaced Syrians, whether they need a dress or not! You could be donate it to Congreso’s prom cupboard. Or you could buy it for one-time fun when you wear it to the “gala.” That brings me to the last category.

inspiration from down south

4. Fun.For me it is a ten. But you’ll have to decide for yourself. I don’t like to do much of anything that is not good fun. Serving Jesus is a joy and I try not to let anyone or anything steal that joy. Selling the dresses, giving away money, advertising in new ways – all fun. Being at the “gala” where people wear the dresses, probably as zombies some of them, is even more fun. A couple of people have thought that associating zombies with distressed Syrians is insensitive – well, that’s probably true. Hallowe’en, in general, has real problems. We are redeeming it all, however. Or at least I hope we have fun trying. I love it when Circle of Hope dances together. Dancing in a dress bought to help displaced Syrians — even better. Making something nice out of Hallowe’en — even better. Praying in All Saints Day together at the end — even more fun.

Weirdness. Opportunity for mission. Charity. Fun. Some people might think that is my life in a nutshell. The dress sale might have been meant for me. But I think it is meant for Jesus, too. I’m not joking when I say he rates it highly. I suppose we could think of a few other things Jesus might do with hundreds of dresses. But don’t you think he is into this idea?

Jesus is the main reason I love the dress sale. Got any more reasons of your own? Stories to tell?

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Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?

We’re afraid to be too demanding because people just might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether! For instance, some PM Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople. I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

But there is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding. For one thing, we are ambitious. Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is demanding. What’s more, we make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. Even more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation a few weeks ago, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

At the risk of being seen as a dog kicker, I want to go ahead and kick a couple. There are two big reasons we seem demanding. One is because we see people a certain way and one is because the world is developing a certain way.

1) We are demanding because we assume you have the stuff to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. That’s how we see you.

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had to look at Abraham’s faith and hope, not just their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem very affrontive. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems affrontive, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems affrontive, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

2) Another reason we can seem so demanding is that the postmodern era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. That’s how the world is developing.

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. But, the fact is, almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and she was complaining about a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a Maria Von Trapp character appeared in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start a war in Afghanistan. It is surprsingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

I wonder what you think. When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive enthusiasm. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

Why Four Congregations?

Becoming a part of Circle of Hope can be very confusing. I suppose that is true of any church or organization – it is also true of us. I have had any number of people come into our room at Broad and Washington when the people aren’t there and ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Your meetings are on Sunday night?” Actually all this happened when the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit last summer. They said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in four congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us. We are slaves to our own understanding and we need a reconnection to what is beyond us. We are sinful and broken, and it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored. We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are four congregations in one church.

More directly, we have the purpose statement for the family business that guides us. They call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The essence of the Lords’ strategy for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. Our structure is a strategy for doing what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are four congregations for the purposes of strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way. We’re trying to get to making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. I think Jesus might use billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, and all that to call together disciples. But his main means is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

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

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. Then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and having them die. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

Broad and Washington was the first congregation that formed, so we have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton and Crescent has a very wide, region, too, all of South Jersey. Broad and Dauphin also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. We used to have congregations in the Northwest and Northeast, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, Broad and Washington has about 180 adults, in the congregation. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 40 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

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

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

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

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

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

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

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

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

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

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

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

Being four congregations as one church allows us to be neighborhood and city-wide, region-wide

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve Got to Keep Building

I’ve been reading a book about the Byzantine Empire. I’m afraid the people to whom I have been talking about it are ready to have me finish it! I keep learning lessons from it that I keep sharing. For a leader, meditating on the history gives some great cautionary tales; not least among them is: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.

I saw this remant in Istanbul last summer

As I have been reading this pared-down history, which focuses on the emperors, I’ve been interested to see that one way I can categorize them is as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade and then their successors lived off what they did. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.

Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport (after seeing one of the weirdest “Christian” musicals I’ve ever seen) and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich. We are screaming because unemployment is at 9% and making it uncomfortable for the 1% who are adept at gathering their huge share of the spoils. Maybe the whole empire is dying. But we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.

I think it is hard to build in the United States because it has become customary to train people to assume there is going to be a lot of wealth for them to manage. We train people to perform Christian musicals, but we don’t train them to build practical things (and you know I like my musicals!). I run into this as the leader of the church all the time. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. They are trained for that. Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works.  On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.

We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate in us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us. We’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.

There are many practical ways to build something. Today, five:

1)     Be a friend. Probably foremost and the most everyday discipline of being a builder: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the kingdom. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the kingdom are crumbling.

2)     Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.

3)     Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us, not just the leaders. It is not the leaders’ church; Jesus resides in each and all of us.

I am certainly not saying we never do anything, of course. At 19G, everyone is involved in building something new and are doing it well. At MC we are building a new location and building up a congregation to fill it with action. At FN we are rebuilding and using our advantageous location to relate to hundreds of new people every month (and don’t forget that FN is the motherland of Circle Thrift!). At BW we are in the most danger of not building because we have been around the longest and often feel the most secure (or maybe “settled” is more accurate). But BW is awash in new ideas, not least among them is incarnational evangelism and building the church from the ground up again.

As far as attitudes that ground the action go:

4)     Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.

5)     Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow?

Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just get ours and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the church, either.

Lesson from Palestine: Existence Is Resistance

My new favorite phrase.

I don’t want to use the phrase “existence is resistance” as if I just invented it. I learned it from Palestinians, like those from Stop the Wall, and from the Christian Peacemaker Teams in At-Tuwani, south of Hebron.

From top left clockwise: the village, surveying settlement takeovers, the villager tells his story, lunch with CPT

At-Tuwani

In At-Tuwani our MCC Learning Tour delegation met a woman from Switzerland who had been living in the village for six years as part of CPT’s work of support. She was about ready to return to Europe. The villagers are now organized enough to do without the protection of witnesses from the U.S. or Europe.

At-Tuwani is in “area C” of the apartheid system Israel is perfecting in its occupied territories. That means the village is under direct military control. Living in area C means that almost anything can happen to a Palestinian for “security” reasons. It means that one’s rights are adjudicated by military justice. Practically, it means that one’s land is subject to seizure and that the housing developments being planted on your grazing and farm land can supplant your long-held practices – and will be protected by the military (which, by the way, is protected by the United States). The village is something of a showcase for people devoted to nonviolent resistance. They have been dedicated to the proposition that existence is resistance.

We listened to one of the village’s activists talk about the awakening that caused him to be a leader in direct nonviolent action. When the nearby Israeli settlement was built nearby, it disrupted all the village’s ways. The “settlers” commandeered farmland and claimed grazing areas for their use. One day they beat the man’s mother when she dared to graze sheep in land they were trying to control. As we looked over the village (see the pic) he described how he had participated in securing its ongoing existence against the constant pressure and harassment of the Israeli settlers, military and bureaucracy. Their existence is resistance.

Shalom House

That phrase made a lot of sense to me yesterday when we were meeting as the Shalom House Guidance Team. We have had a notable lack of success this year in keeping the house full. The Guidance Team, Listening Tour Team and House have done remarkable things, anyway. But we have a dream of nurturing a vibrant intentional community that makes peace and gives peacemaking a solid footing in Circle of Hope and the east coast megalopolis. We’re having trouble getting people to move across town to be a part of it. Much more do we have trouble getting people to move across the country! We think it is going to work out, but it has been discouraging. As we sat around the table yesterday, I could not help thinking that having such a community in the world is our version, in the United States, of “existence is resistance.” Someone needs to care about ending the reliance on military oppression to guarantee what passes for the “freedom” of United States citizens! I don’t think that someone is a big charity or some aberrant charitable corporation; that someone is me (and maybe you!).

Circle of Hope

The phrase applies to Circle of Hope, in general, as well. To be the vibrant, growing network we are in the Northeast megalopolis, existence is resistance. We live in a place that is famously the “most godless” part of the United States. We won the tag from the northwest a few years ago. Traditional Christians are lamenting the loss of market share. Pundits are noting the end of Christian America. To be honest, I don’t think I will miss whatever “Christian America’ was. But it is worth noting that it can be hard to be a Christian these days around here. People don’t mind bashing you; they feel the tide moving away from Christian dominance. Mere existence is resistance to the new domination of nothingness.

The hopeful thing about existence being resistance is that everyone can do it. Live in your village. If you are just that much of a thorn in the Israeli military’s flesh, that is noble. Be a part of Shalom House. Even if you don’t accomplish as much as you think needs to be done, the fact that you exist with the convictions you carry makes a difference. Be a living part of your living church. Even if your social circles think that is odd, at least they know a Christian who is not in a museum.

I think At-Tuwani, Shalom House and Circle of Hope are doing a lot more than existing —  they are creating! But I find it encouraging to think that if I just hang on and don’t cease to exist before my time, that is a good thing.

U.S. Duty to Report on Israel

After being in Israel and Palestine for ten days, I am a bit shocked. I don’t think it is just jet-lag. The situation there is much worse than I imagined.

I’ve decided that the relationship between the United States and Israel is much like the relationship Penn State had with one of its popular coaches before he was accused of being a child molester. This particular coach has been in the news for the past few days. Word is: He adopted foster children, set up a foster care home that became a chain of homes around the state, used Penn State facilities for activities, and then it was discovered that he had a decade or more of illicit sexual relationships with some of the boys in his homes for “at-risk” children. School officials apparently knew about the behavior and covered it up. Joe Paterno himself may have known all about it and did not inform the police. It looks like they really love the guy and can’t bear to admit he’s a blackguard.

I’ve never thought of Paterno and Obama as similar, but maybe so. The United States knows all about Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians who live in the occupied territory that Israel does not admit is occupied. It knows that the security barrier is ruining the lives of Palestinians. It knows that the wall is grabbing land and depriving farms and whole towns of water. It  knows that the settlements which the sixteen-foot-high “security fence” encompass violate international law. It knows (at least Jimmy Carter knows) that Israel is creating another apartheid system. Even Moshe Dayan’s widow was lamenting the sorry state of affairs this week in Newsweek – it must know about her! It looks like the government really loves Israel and can’t bear to admit it is a perp.

As a Christian, I don’t have much faith in governments beyond what they are ordained to do under God’s direction. Since I don’t think most of them are much interested in God’s direction, I leave them to God. I don’t think I can sort out what to do about the United States cutting UNESCO funding because Palestine became a member. Why in the world would the U.S. government protect the manifestly weird and cruel policies of Israel? It is mind-boggling.

But as a Christian, and as a Christian who now has some first-hand knowledge of the “facts on the ground” in Israel/Palestine I have some responsibilities. Here are a few things I am doing.

1)    I keep talking and so should you. We should tell the truth as far as we can presently see it and engage in the dialogue so we can find out more. For instance, military aid to Israel is budgeted already at 3.09 billion per year from 2012 to 2018 – talk amongst yourselves.

2)    I keep recruiting people for Shalom House. We’ve created enough stir
lately that I think gifted and available people are about ready to take the leap to join the community and make a difference. I am collecting a list of people who can recruit further members on our behalf, too, since I know  peacemakers are out there, we just have to connect with them.

3)    I keep doing my part to build the Lord’s antidote. I am enthused to, I am aching to, be a part of creating an alternative community called Circle of Hope, in which we can speak the truth in love and not cover up things we find unlovely. Last night at BW we were alive with people talking about what Jesus is doing in their lives. At the Cell Leader training Saturday I was thrilled to hear how quickly people could testify to how God had met them on retreat. At the BW Men’s 9PM I was amazed at how we could talk about our sexuality with compassion and honesty. We have a great opportunity to invest our spiritual wealth to buy back people who have been kidnapped by the world with its constant talk of economics and security.

I know I have very meager-looking weapons. The Penn State Football program is to Circle of Hope as Israel is to Palestine as the United States is to Israel. But as 2 Corinthians 12:9 was teaching us again last night, our weakness may be our biggest advantage in the cause of truth and love.

The ABCs of the E Word — Connect

I love imagining Jesus walking through Jericho and spotting Zacchaeus in the tree. Unlike the popular children’s song, I don’t think the Lord wagged his finger at him and told him to, “Get yourself out of that tree shorty!” I’m not even sure Jesus knew Zacchaeus, personally, yet. But the Lord apparently at least knew his name, because he calls to him and tells him he’ll be at his house shortly!

So why did Zacchaeus immediately get down out of the tree and “receive him gladly” as it says? I suppose we’ll have to ask him in the age to come to know for sure. For now, I imagine it was because Jesus connected with him. 

First, of course, Jesus showed up on the streets of Jericho; he didn’t just connect virtually, like you and I are doing. More importantly, Jesus looked Zacchaeus in the eye and they connected, heart to heart. I think people could tell Jesus loved them just by looking at him — because he did. Jesus was out seeking the lost and he connected with a person who was ready to be found. 

The C of the ABCs of evangelism is Connect. 

Nate had a great time connecting a reporter the other day. Circle of Hope showed up in the county records because we are prospectively showing up on one of the crossroads of South Jersey when we take possession of that former firehouse. Here’s what he said about the interview: 

I spent some significant time with a reporter…this morning. He frequently reads the law notices for the region, and found Pennsauken Twp’s approval of the firehouse for a church last week.  He thought that was a story in and of itself and called me because he’s convinced there’s not another church out there that has ever reclaimed a firehouse…

He just kept saying, “You are so interesting! This is so awesome! I can’t believe you exist!”  I described the ideas of reclamation, restoration, and redemption simply as us doing with a building what Jesus is doing in the world.  He couldn’t get over how loving it was for a church to use what’s there rather than build yet another building.  He couldn’t believe that we’d plant something new rather than outgrowing the firehouse.  He was amazed at the lack of “programs” and the strategy for relating face to face.  His admitted cynicism about the church in general combined with his extensive knowledge of the region were very encouraging.  He assured me of what we have long suspected…that our particular location (on Marlton Pike by the 130 corridor) is perfectly situated for us to be and do what I described to him.  He wasn’t interested in doing it…but he was interested in making us known.

I doubt that the reporter would have been so interested if Nate was not so interesting. More importantly, he wouldn’t have cared so much if Nate had not cared about him. The reporter asked, “Is it OK if we talk about things that have nothing to do with my article?” A fifteen-minute interview turned into over an hour. 

To connect, we’ll be going some places where people don’t know us yet. More importantly, once we get there we will openly show whatever truth and love we are carrying and see who is interested. God was disconnected from his beloved creatures. He came as a person to reconnect — and to reconnect us. He walked through Jericho that day and made a person-to-person connection with Zacchaeus. That’s elemental to evangelism. Just like Jesus, we have no lack of opportunity to connect; we run across people every day unless we are hiding out. It is mainly a matter of showing up in love and spotting the people who are up a tree. Sometimes they are stuck, sometimes they are looking for someone; we need to keep the love in our hearts in our eyes so when they see us they connect with who they need.

First step – Go to some “lane” where people don’t know you so well. In our region, that should not be too hard, since there are about six million people nearby. Be there to connect in some way. It is OK to talk to people who are waiting in line with you for coffee. You can go to a block party and introduce yourself to everyone who is there. You can ask someone, “How’s it going?” when you are at the park and mean it. This will take some courage, so take the…

Preliminary step – Connect with God from your own perch up some tree so you have something of the Spirit that can be noticed.  Don’t worry that whatever small love you share with the Lord will be too small or uninformed.  Just let people connect with whatever faith you’ve got. Someone is likely to receive it gladly. I received it gladly when someone showed up and we connected.