Tag Archives: community

Collective, Covenant and Community in the age of Trump

Our beloved neighbors in our little Pocono community had to move and were replaced by an interesting new clan who are making quite an impact. In some ways, these new neighbors represent what is happening in a lot of places where people are devoted to taking care of themselves instead of building common structures that take care of everyone. Any assumptions I may have about what it means to be a “we” should not be taken for granted anymore.

In our little lakefront community, an extended family, including 95 year old grandpa who still drives, moved into the association but did not want to follow many of the rules – at least they don’t so far. I’m not sure they even read any of them before they signed the deed. So our board has the dreadful responsibility of enforcing some restrictions on them. They put up an above-ground pool, which is forbidden. They blare karaoke into the late-night peace of the forest. They claimed they were going to paint their house purple and that would meet the forest-colored aesthetic required, since there are purple flowers native to PA. Several board members are wondering to what extent they will be dealing with the matriarch’s “crazy” and “bitch” tattooed on opposite arms.

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I think I have a similar disquiet when I notice the sign in the subway that tells riders (primarily males) “It’s rude dude!” when they don’t offer their seat. Does SEPTA really expect people who are rude to be moved by a blanket shaming from some anonymous source of authority? Aren’t they already sealed in a cloud of headphone noise and going it alone? I suspect my neighbors up the hill stopped listening a long time ago, as well, and might feel any seat they manage to get needs to be kept, not shared.

An article in the NY Times [link], which is undoubtedly no source of inspiration for my Pocono community or my subway companions, had an article about rural Arkansas and why it was likely to stick with Trump which highlights the challenges of making covenants, building community and even considering something “collective” these days. It all came down to whether the county should fund a library.

[P]eople here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor…

That was the crux of the issue — people didn’t want to pay for something they didn’t think they would use. I suspect that many residents are willing to pay for some institutions they see as necessary, like the sheriff’s department, but libraries, symbols of public education and public discourse, are more easily sacrificed…

Economic appeals are not going to sway any Trump voters, who view anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people, with disdain, even if it ultimately helps them, too. And Trump voters are carrying the day here in Van Buren County. They see Mr. Trump’s slashing of the national safety net and withdrawal from the international stage as necessities — these things reflect their own impulse writ large.

For Jesus followers, the “impulse writ large” is always the big picture they care about. We would like our impulses to correlate with the new law written by the Spirit on our hearts. That desire connects us to the whole world Jesus loves. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, we can certainly do that ourselves, but he did come to save it. If you’re following the master who loves the whole world, individually and collectively, you’ll need to figure out where you fit in that picture. You certainly won’t be able to do it without a real time relationship with Jesus, and if you enter that relationship, it will relate you to all the others who share it.

Clinton AK. Audra Melton for the NY Times

Covenant is an antidote

The NY Times thinks people who live in cities in the Northeast are much more enlightened than rural people in Arkansas (and the poconos) who vote for Trump. But I am not so sure. Just try to build a church on the sharing of people who make a covenant together to be it and people begin to look quite similar. In an age of perceived scarcity and self-reliance, it is hard to rely on people sharing their lives and resources. Many people tend to see their contributions to our common fund as another tax required by an institution they don’t completely trust or which pays for services they don’t personally need. Just because they follow Jesus does not immediately mean they have taken out their headphones and offered the Lord a seat on their conveyance, public or otherwise. He’s not with them in the Uber, as they get the cheapest ride no matter what it costs the driver. He’s not on their bike with them as they dodge the potholes the city cannot afford to repair, maybe because half the new developments got a tax abatement. They might not even get up for Him on the El.

I’m not really shaming everyone, I hope. I’m not a sign on a subway train anonymously telling rude people they are rude. I’m not a government official enforcing mysterious laws that eat away at our minimal disposable income. I’m just trying to deal with how “conservative” even the supposedly “liberal” people are when it comes to sharing life together. In an age when even rich people feign scarcity, the first thing to exit the budget is often sharing.

Unlike so many other churches, ours decided the ultimate goal for each disciple was to be a person who could live in a covenant of love as a responsible, joyful member of the alternative community Jesus empowers: the body of Christ.  That seemed crazy enough to be miraculous and so worthy of Jesus when we started, but covenanting seems to be getting harder all the time. I wonder if our pastors are tempted to downplay it, or even scrap the idea, since it cuts out a lot of people who don’t trust like they used to. Donald Trump makes us feel like everyone must at least be on the spectrum of untrustworthiness somewhere. People beg us for money to feed their substance addictions as soon as we get on the sidewalk and the governments seem addicted to spending money in secret for which we get no direct benefit. We’re hit up coming and going, even while our bosses and landlords squeeze as much they can for as little in return as they can get away with. When the church says there is not enough money, even the covenant members, who ARE the church feel justly suspicious.

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Extra points if you can sport me in this picture of the conference at the Meeting House in Oakville ON.

Can we even talk about being a “collective?”

Last week I spent a couple of days in Toronto by invitation of the Jesus Collective. The “Jesus Collective aspires to unite, equip and amplify a Jesus-centered, third way movement” of the church in our changing era. People from all over the world are fed up with the potholes in their antiquated institutions and are getting back to the basics of being Jesus followers. They are becoming what Jesus Collective often describes as “Anabaptish,” just like Circle of Hope. They read the Bible and their contexts through a Jesus lens, which often makes them at odds with traditional and systematic approaches from the past, while also making them much more effective in relating to people who trust the church (and God!) about as much as they trust anything else.

As I experienced the meetings and made new relationships, I developed a nagging doubt. Can anyone even tolerate the idea of being a “collective” these days? Conservative people will feel their pockets are about to be picked and liberal people won’t tolerate being connected to someone who is not on the same page with their justice issues. People collecting themselves around Jesus and the basic truths and experiences every follower can share seems quite radical in this era. I wonder if people will do it.

After all, we have been this “new” Jesus collective, writ small, in Philadelphia for a couple of decades now. So we have some experience with the problems. And while we are wildly more successful than I hoped when we got started, there is no doubt that, post 9/11, the next generation is pretty suspicious about “collectives.” They feel scarcity and they feel condemned to go it alone for the most part. I’m not even sure they feel like they are “going it alone,” most of the time, because they have always been surviving a perilous journey with little more than their own resources to rely on. Many people can barely attach to another person successfully, to love and be loved, much less can they imagine building a collective. Creating a Jesus-centered community requires some things that are generally in short supply these days: the agency to create not just survive, the ability to trust in Jesus despite the horrors church leaders have perpetrated, the capacity to center on something (marriage, locale, vocation included), and the audacity to hope for the fruit from long-term laboring to build a countercultural community in the world.

I immediately signed up to help build the Jesus Collective. My new friend, Matt Miles, said he left his finance job to lead the formation of this new organization because he could not imagine a better place to serve in this time. While I couldn’t help looking at all the problems associated with birthing something so hopeful in the world, I had to agree with him. The fact is, the worse the world gets, the more Jesus becomes our Savior. When we are prosperous and feeling good, it is easy to give God a high five and move on with our self-controlled lives. When the world-as-we-know-it and the church-as-it-has-been seem to be sinking, many will jump ship. But in such times, there have always been large numbers of Jesus followers, who listen to the Holy Spirit moving wherever there is an opening for new life (just like dear Francis of Assisi who we celebrated last Friday). They band together to represent Jesus coming alongside everyone with ears to hear and hearts to follow. We are on that edge in Philadelphia and it looks like the path we have been following is becoming more obvious to people all over the world. I want to move with them.

The Lord among us organizes us, not the program.

The Lord among us is the organizing force, not the program.

The pastors finished their reading of Pete Enn’s book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. They loved it. But one of them had to note that the Bible leads to a right-now experience of the Holy Spirit and discernment, not mere wisdom. 

I visited a church on my travels last week and a similar sentiment kept rising to the surface among my friends. They want to be led by the Spirit, not just their pastor or tradition.  Keeping the program running has value, but it is hard to do if the reason for doing so has become sketchy. A theology built on principles without Presence is hard to sustain.

Likewise, Hallowood Institute’s first offering on “spiritual bypass” last Saturday highlighted the tendency of Christians to find a work around when it comes to their deep healing and the difficulty of relating to God by keeping faith “in their head,” citing principles and following the program rather than opening up to the fullness of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Programming is too easy

“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them — that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat-rational Paul) when they commit to their program.

Why does it so often seem like making “programming” basic to following is a good idea to Christians? Why send an email rather than making the phone call? Why make an event rather than a relationship, etc.?

I’m not suggesting that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. Circle of Hope is a very well-planned enterprise! I’m protesting how we fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationships and organic connections can and should do. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than following the Spirit behind its genius.

Just because we went to school and got trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. And the big thing is: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know and keep them moving in the right direction we suspect they can’t figure out.

Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?

I guess since we broke out into this song one night at our cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:

My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.

When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.

I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.

What is the basic thing Christians do?

Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.

Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”  They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We are tempted to organize all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”

It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.

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Code switching: All us weird people need community

When I was in my early teens in California, the Vietnam War was raging and the country was dividing up. Our living room was divided, too. My father was disturbed that Aretha Franklin was playing on the radio, not to mention those haircut-challenged Beatles. And periodically, KWOW, the little country music radio station whose tower was about a mile away across the soon-to-be-tract-homed fields outside our front window, would invade the AM airwaves with something like Marty Robbins singing “Ain’t I right?” — written to warn the nation about Freedom Riders deluding Southerners. It is safe to say the U.S. has been a mess throughout my lifetime when it comes to peace and love, and most of the other things that feed our souls. We still really need each other and we can’t get together.

Code switching as a survival tool

I learned some mild code switching in my diverse and diversifying environment before I found out how important the skill was to people who did not fit into artificial norms. I was friends with the “hard guys” whose relatives exclusively spoke Spanish. I could hang with the jocks.  And I knew how to stay out of trouble with my redneck relatives. I was integrating my living room. At the same time, I also discovered Jesus and began to learn how He transcends all the competing cultures and identities vying for affirmation and power. He has a surprising knack for getting people together who just do not belong together as far as the world is concerned. He provides each of us access to a common  “code” that is a rock for us in a stormy cultural sea.

Code switching never seems to work that well, anyway. Sociologists filled up volumes talking about “alienation” until Jimmy Carter got himself fired for admitting to the national “malaise” in a TV speech. But the the lack of further honesty did not mean people felt any less left out of society and even out of connection with their own bodies. People are no more confident now than when Carter pointed out they weren’t. Sociologists have filled up even more pages about all sorts of oppressions and separations right down to assessing the commonplace indignities called microaggressions, which communicate slights and insults toward one’s supposed category.

So my personal history has been on a parallel track with people bearing the fruit of their obsession with the microaggressions they experience. The closest I got to this in my young, privileged days was feeling weird that my name is “Rodney.” People seemed to think it was odd. I never met another Rodney face to face until I arrived in PA and two were in my congregation. In California, I only knew about Rodney Allen Rippy and my dad didn’t much approve of him, either. We all think we are weird. We need community desperately so we don’t get carried away with our alienation. I even needed some Rodneys. 

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

The other day Bethany told our Coordinating Group an interesting story about moving from alienation to community. A conversation with a new co-worker turned out to be a loving meeting of the weirds. She said I could relay it to you:

I had a really interesting conversation with a coworker yesterday that I think you all should know about. My colleague asked me about an idea that he had, he wanted to teach a workshop on “code switching” to our predominantly Black and queer residents. I was typing an email as he was talking to me and I immediately stopped in my tracks. Lol. I explained to him that for me, I hear code switching as a way of asking people of color but especially Black people to assimilate to concepts of “respectability” in speech. I added that “code switching” is really a symptom of systemic racism (I try not to use the language of white supremacy a lot because that can be really off putting but… I really wanted to say that it’s a symptom of white supremacy). He went on to say that as a queer man, he views code switching as a means of safety and survival. 

We continued talking and even really got emotional as we talked about our identities with one another. I confessed that I never feel Black enough for other Black women (I was home-schooled, I grew up in the suburbs, my name is Bethany… lol) and because of systemic racism, I will also never truly be understood or accepted by White people either. He said that he never feels gay enough for gay men and that gay men don’t take him seriously. And, he never feels straight enough for straight people either. A few moments later, we simultaneously said “it’s exhausting.” 

I’m telling you this story because I was so grateful to connect with such a beautiful stranger so deeply and to even be able to tear up with one another. But, I’m also super grateful to belong with all of you. Even with our differences of experiences, lifestyles, etc., because we belong to Jesus and that serves as the crux of our foundation, I feel like we also belong to each other. I’m grateful for that.

Have you all read this article about community care? I think it unintentionally describes our Circle of Hope and our cell movement. Check it out.

Weird, code-switching people need community

The article Bethany mentioned is Self-care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive. As I read it, I said to myself, “Can this really be a thing?” Listen to this revelation:

The term community care is known in social movements and in the nonprofit world but has yet to move into mainstream culture. The concept shouldn’t be that hard to translate: Community care is basically any care provided by a single individual to benefit other people in their life. This can take the form of protests, for which community care is best known, but also simple, interpersonal acts of compassion.” 

Sociologists are now filling up pages with thoughts about how caring for someone other than yourself needs to “move into mainstream culture?!” 

I suppose I should not be surprised. The task of “mainstream culture” during my lifetime has been to promise everyone individual freedom in service to the ultimate, capitalist strategy to divide and conquer, right down to our conflicted senses of who we are as persons. I’m with Bethany. I’m glad that I have an alternative to that exhausting daily onslaught. I spent a good chunk of my adulthood trying to be a part of the alternative — a whole counterculture called Circle of Hope that not only holds on to community care, but has the spiritual power to offer it as a gift to the hollowed out U.S. society. 

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

My quest to be part of the Lord’s alternative was furthered when I recently came upon Pamela Lightsey, a queer theologian who articulately describes her resistance to being labelled according to her sexual identity. She’s all right with fighting her way out of the individual box in which society has tried to trap her, but she is not accepting the box as truth. She is larger than popular dichotomies. She insists on being considered a whole person and certainly not considered according to what she does or does not do in the bed. I am happy that the LGBTQ community has grown this resistance to all the labels of the hypermodern era, by which I think they may have been most damaged by the powers seeking to define and dominate everything.

Now we have this rambunctious new term in political and academic contexts: “queer.” It is a term that calls into question the stability of identity based on sexual orientation. In this sense, “queer” is a critique of the tendency to organize political or theoretical questions around sexual orientation per se. To “queer” becomes a way to denaturalize categories such as “lesbian” and “gay” (not to mention “straight” and “heterosexual”), revealing them as socially and historically constructed identities that have often worked to establish and police the line between the “normal” and the “abnormal.” It is unlikely to stop its denaturalizing project with those categories.

Like Bethany, I am glad I have a place to have a dialogue of alternativity with trustworthy people who not only love me, they serve my best interests. I like living in a place where my main concern is not code switching in a vain attempt to make myself presentable, if not safe. The church is a good place from which to care. After a lifetime of being weird and then being made to feel weird as a means to keep me fearing the next punch coming my way, I am glad to be weird together with a group, in Christ, who, by nature, doesn’t conform to the identities over which the world obsesses. We all have a new self in Christ connected to all the other redeemed selves by the Spirit of God. 

Love under the umbrella: Helping leaders keep us dry

I like sharing an umbrella with someone. It gives me an excuse to get close to them in our special safe place, cared for and caring. Maybe I need to like it, since I often forget to carry an umbrella! (It is hard being a native of California).

I also don’t like walking in the rain next to someone who I don’t think wants to share their umbrella, them dry, me not. And I don’t much care for sharing a tiny umbrella that deposits run off down my collar. (You can tell I have experience with all this).

A leader’s “umbrella”

I am thinking of umbrella’s and rainstorms because the metaphor of existing under the umbrella of someone is a relatively common way to describe how people function in a group. They are often protected by someone else’s greater power; they are “under their umbrella,” so to speak. Some people think of this picture as being about authority, I think of it as being cared for and caring.

To think about being under a leader’s umbrella, let’s start with the Apostle John, the master teacher on community in the early church. His time period was so tumultuous and threatening, he might relate to Jon Snow.

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.   But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (1 John 2:18-20) As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2 John 1:6)

John’s three letters provide a lot of guidance for sorting out the intricacies of relationships in the body of Christ, especially relationships with leaders. The leaders have a limited but crucial function in keeping the church together and moving ahead while it faces all the opposition it always faces. As a leader, John seems to be having a tough time with people who push the boundaries – they say they don’t sin, they leave the fellowship to start communities based on the perverse understandings they call the truth, they don’t walk in love, and more. It looks like things have not changed that much, have they? We are still having trouble dealing with people who brazenly sin. We are never sure what to do with beloved friends who decide to set up shop just outside the boundaries of our church. We are not always sure whether they or us are not walking in love – or even if we like thinking about they or us. We are always sorting things out.

under one umbrellaAn image that helps do some sorting is about being “under the umbrella” of someone. In John’s terms, being under his umbrella, would be under the “anointing from the Holy One,” and showing that an individual “belonged to us.” He is writing to “dear children” so he undoubtedly thinks of them as under the protection of his parent-like love. When you have someone sharing your spiritual umbrella they have a special, intimate place you provide for them. Some of John’s friends used to be under his umbrella as he is under Christ’s umbrella. He is in pain as he writes his letters, since they are now out in the rain. It is even more painful that they call the rain sunshine! The whole point of his umbrella was to keep people spiritually dry and they are all wet.

When under a leader’s umbrella seems too special

One time we had an intense discussion among some leaders about how certain people seemed to function “under the umbrella” of a leader (particularly people who seemed to be buddies with a pastor). We were sorting that idea out. Some people seem to get special treatment. When they sin (sometimes repeatedly), the patience shown them looks like it is too patient. It is like they get a “bye,” when other people get opposed. Some people even get elevated into leadership through less-than-typical ways because another leader facilitates that. It can make a person wonder how that happened when others go through a lot of scrutiny and function with a lot more accountability.

It was an important discussion. I had a couple of immediate reactions:

1) When the church is not having a vibrant mission — that means it is not including new people who need to be fed with truth and love, people turn to the niceties of their structure and start wondering about injustices. When the “umbrella” is not expanding, people begin to squabble about getting wet.

2) Pastors and other leaders in the church are allowed personal choices and preferences about who shares their limited umbrella space. Intimacy is not unlimited and is usually subjective. It is not necessarily something one can demand. A leader might have a special interest in someone, have a history with them, or have a deeper knowledge of them than they have of others. They should not show favoritism, but certain people might be under their “protection” in a deeper way than others — that’s OK until it’s not. It is a blessing that we all care for one another — and we have many leaders, not just one pastor. So having a special place with the pastor is not the main marker of one’s value.

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Umbrellas take some discernment

As I thought about the conversation some more, I felt a lot of sympathy for people who feel “out in the rain” and for leaders with an umbrella strapped to them:

1) I feel for people who innocently enter the church with hope and trepidation and become subject to the whims of inconsistent leaders. Leaders can often be so blind and we can so often be oppressed by their blindness. They forget that what they do usually teaches more than what they say or write. When their friends get special, even undeserved treatment, the rest of the people they oversee don’t feel much like friends. If they don’t even know that they turn a blind eye to an influential friend’s weaknesses, the whole church can feel dangerous.

2) I also feel for leaders who get monitored for any hint of injustice by people who never do the difficult things they are doing. Before one can criticize someone for protecting someone in a perverse way, they should probably have someone under their umbrella themselves! John called people “dear children”  — the people he had nurtured in faith are like family to him, so of course he is concerned for their protection. Such care is a beautiful thing; we wouldn’t want to turn it in to a commodity that should be equally available to all from the “pastor store.” We should all be producing that love ourselves, not just demanding it.

It is no wonder that people have deserted the capital-C-Church in droves during the last decade. In general, the leadership is likely to be inept, unconscious or experimenting with things John would call antichrist. It is no wonder that people who manage to stay connected often resort to being nice but a bit remote, lest they have to deal with the intricacies of love in a missional community. John knows it takes the anointing of the Holy Spirit to persevere and truly walk in love.

I hope we stick with it. The deep-level discussion among the leaders encouraged me. It’s not like it is typical for regular people to worry about how to help the person needing discipline while attending to the desires of people who need someone to be disciplined! We are so not antichrist! Though our relationships can get so sick, they are also the places God is making us so well. I hope we keep praying, with John, that the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in love and keep sharing our umbrellas.

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The Lord among us is the organizing force, not the program.

The Lord among us is the organizing force, not the program.

“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them, that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat rationalistic Paul) when they commit to their program. So why does it so often seem like “programming” is a good idea to Christians?

I’m not saying that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. I’m protesting how we are tempted to fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationship and organic connections can and should fulfill. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than the Spirit behind its genius. Just because we are all trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. and the big thing: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know.

Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?

I guess since we broke out into this song the other night at cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:

My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.

When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.

I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.

What is the basic thing Christians do?

Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.

Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”  They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We love organizing all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”

It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.

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The still points: Finding home in the midst of change

Things change. The world is a transient experience. We are lonely for home – someplace we can feel anchored, someplace certain, someplace where our roots feel secure and stable.

While we are meditating on that, someone plows into our pizzeria or we just hear about ten such things from the 24-hour news alarm. While we are trying to secure our place in the world as the church, our constant failure and dislocated relationships scare us and discourage us until we worry that our fragile connections will deteriorate and we will be alone again.

How do we deal with this lonely, rootless experience we have as humans? The main thing is our lifelong movement toward the goal of oneness with God. That pursuit causes deeper integration, a new instinct for being rejuvenated in solitude, and the capacity to pray. But I think there is even more. There are attitude shifts and decisions we make that provide us with “still points” where we feel secure in a world that keeps shifting. We need to find the “clefts in the rock” where we feel covered.

still point

How can we find these points and overcome the nagging rootlessness that often makes us so lonely? Here are four suggestions.

The still point of faith

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3:1-3

When our faith is out of our minds and hearts and also into our bodies and habits, the symbols we use, the language we speak, and the time we share all provide thin places where we experience the security of the cleft, where we feel covered with God’s hand. They all lead to the great still point.

There is something beyond time and history, beyond what shifts in its impermanence. There is something that can’t be debunked by investigation or made obsolete by new discoveries. That something is a Someone. That Someone is known as we journey into the realm of faith, hope and selfless love. That journey in mind, heart and step will help dispel rootlessness if we persevere in it.  Our friends in recovery know this well, the first three steps of the twelve steps are all about facing rootlessness and coming home. #2 says: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. It takes working the steps to find the still point.

The still point of commitment

I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth. – 3 John 1:3

Much of our rootlessness can be overcome by committing ourselves to certain people, values, things, and projects and then refusing to be unfaithful to those commitments. We need to give up on “hang loose.” Otherwise our lives end up characterized by infidelity, broken promises, broken words, cheap commitments, and hastily withdrawn loyalties – and acute loneliness.

Permanence adds a missing ingredient to the words love, friendship, promise and loyalty. It brings the element of timelessness. Teilhard de Jardin, the philosopher-scientist-Jesuit, spent much of his life frustrated with his church family. He was occasionally encouraged by his friends to abandon them. However, he would always dismiss the temptation with the simple statement: “I can never leave because I have given my word.” His commitment gave him a still point.

The still point of history

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. – Romans 11:17-18

I think it is great that we can swipe our cheeks and find out from what part of Africa our ancestors derived. The DNA science gives us a small sense of having roots. Maybe it is good that archaeologists become more clever every day and uncover the truth (or fiction) behind ancient texts. They help us feel like our faith has a secure foundation.

We all feel better when we stand within our tradition and know our history. The newest person who comes into our church or any church does better when they refuse to think their history with the group begins when they make their covenant. They are grafted into a long history and are supported by the roots. They are not losing themselves when they adopt certain traditions and add their energy and voice to steering the future. In a real sense they are transhistorical, alive in Christ wherever Jesus has been honored throughout history. That sense of history provides a still point.

The still point of community

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. – Ephesians 2:19-22

Finding home is more than finding a building, a city, or a country where we feel we belong. That’s just part of it. It is finding a heart or a community of hearts where we find enough safety and warmth to dare to be faithful and loving, to be true — like when Adam first saw Eve and said, “At last, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” That wasn’t just sexual attraction, that was comfort to his heart. He found in Eve what the rest of creation did not have for him.

We go through life needing to find that home. Jesus demonstrated how we find it when he was sitting with his disciples one day and his family came to the house looking for him. No doubt Jesus loved his mother and his family, but he did not immediately get up and go to them. Instead he said” Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?” Pointing to those around him he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” He is not disrespecting his mother, he’s just teaching us that home is deeper than blood. Faith makes a family than transcends all the ancestries that divide us.

One of the great scandals of being a Jesus follower is contained in that moment. Jesus respects his origin as a man, but he is king of country that transcends and unites all other identities. Many people would fight even the hint that their personal identity does not make them who they are and should be defended at all costs. Yet Jesus persists in knitting together a new family sharing a renewed blood, heart to heart, bone of bone. In another incident a woman shouted out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus answered, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Yes I had a wonderful mother, but I am more than my biology.

Our community in Christ is bound together by something beyond blood, ethnicity and geography and will outlive them all. Our new home in faith is an answer to the loneliness, it is the great still point, the shelter from the storm, the cleft in the rock, that can root out our rootlessness.

Already today I have confronted my weakness, been in an argument, heard about a car disaster, read a distraught email, found myself confused by problems in various structures, lost something, and the Facebook news reported that Texas A&M had also scheduled a white supremacist rally for next month. It is 9:00 am! I am going to reread this post and see if I can’t find that still point I long to live in, sensing God’s sustaining glory in the cleft of the rock.

What to do when that troubled person is not going away?

Here is my prayer lately: “Oh Lord! I am connected to people who can’t stay reconciled with  others or with you, and they are not going away. What will we do?”

They are a bit like the person I disappointed the other day when I gave him the outreach number for Project Home (215-232-1984). I was in my local Rite Aid and a man immediately began following me through the store looking for carfare somewhere, then he was hungry, then he was mad I would not help him. I would not give him what he wanted — he did not want us to have a life together; he wanted to feed on what I have. I did not have time to make a deep relationship, but I did manage to give him the number and even an address on the back of my receipt after I borrowed a pen from the cashier[Where To Turn]. He did not really want my help; he wanted my money to support his unspoken program. But he did take my receipt

Some days I feel like people are following our community around with similar designs and some unspoken, maybe unconscious program. A trusted partner does not want to stay reconciled with our “institution” but they do want the free childcare someone gives. A person leaves their spouse in the lurch and divides up their friends. Another wants the pastor to keep their impending divorce a secret while they pretend nothing is happening. Another wants their adulteries to be none of our business while they prey upon innocent people coming into the church. Another creates a faction based on their ideology. Someone else loses their faith but they don’t want to lose their friends, so they stick around. These are all the kinds of things that have happened recently or are happening now.

Sometimes people wonder if they can handle so much stuff! They think, “Why can’t these people stay reconciled with Jesus and his people, at least with their spouse!”

Well, sometimes they can’t.

Some churches tidy up and don’t let certain people in or get rid of outliers quickly. We have always been committed to just the opposite. Let these untidy people in! — and stick with them until it is just impossible to do so. We make it hard to leave. We know there are no unmessy people for whom Jesus died, ourselves included. Loving with a self-giving love will never be easy — being loved isn’t even that easy! So we are not very tidy. Every situation is unique to the person in it; their journey toward or away from Jesus or our church is their own — we’ll just have to work it out.

Or maybe they won’t work it out. Sometimes people leave “the church” but stay in the community. Some people don’t like most of us or Jesus and still stay, picking people off to be their friends. These folks end up being a living example of lack of reconciliation — the reconciliation we prize so much! If you go with their self-realization, you’re in, if not, you’re out. It hurts.

What to do?

So what do we do when people just can’t do it as right as we want them to, when they are distressed and doing self-destructive things, or when their mental or physical health causes them to do what they might not otherwise do? What if they are wrecking things? What if it is like they are following you around the Rite-Aid?

The New Testament is mainly written about these kinds of situations, especially Paul’s letters. Try reading them again with the question, “What do I practically do about the people who feel too messy for me to handle?”

What do I do when…

  • …I want to cut them off? — You might need to, but you better have a word from the Lord before you give up on reconciliation.
  • …I want to get even with them? — Don’t.
  • …I want to play according to their rules and win? — A fool’s errand.

Here are a few of things I advised last week when I talked to people facing these dilemmas:

  • Stick with Jesus. Jesus is in the middle of the mess and there is really no place else to go, ever, than Jesus.  I was trying to encourage one of our pastors after they were told how much they and everyone else were doing wrong. Only Jesus can help us bear that kind of criticism with grace. 
  • If an accusation doesn’t come from Jesus, pause before you react. You don’t have to receive every accusation. When people desert and betray you it hurts! Troubled people are troubling. They will get your natural defense system to kick in, for sure. Note that, don’t just be defensive. Act out of your heart connected to Jesus, not your heart in fear for its life! You have the life.  You can’t be condemned. If you have sinned you can repent without fear.  But you are not subject to someone’s self-centered or arbitrary rubric, certainly not their condemnation. 
  • Make sure you are following Jesus, not someone who does not love you. Desperate people exercise a lot of power trying to get stable. Many people just want others to follow them; they want power. They are kind of like drowning people who desperately cling to their rescuer and threaten to drown them both! People get themselves into situations where they did not and do not trust Jesus or anyone else. They work out of a survival instinct. You don’t need to join them in it if it does not really lead to survival. You don’t need to join with someone who does not love you, or Jesus. You might not be able to discern what’s going on with them and God, but you can probably tell if they are acting out of love for you.
  • Check your distress level. You may need to decompress lest you think this turmoil is real relating.  Suffer creatively don’t merely suffer with. The compassion of Jesus is leading somewhere, it is not just a tank of healing and neither are you. You know that people drink of your love and are thirsty again, and then blame you for not having enough of the “love” they crave. They need living water. Jesus has overcome the world (go back to number one).
  • Beware the urge to tidy up after messy people all day. We always have house guests and boarders in the church who don’t keep our house like we do. It can be downright painful to listen to them when we just want to clean up the peanut butter they just left on the countertop. We don’t want to speak honestly to an out-of-control person in our cell. We don’t want to run into someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. But there will be no tidying up until the final day when the world is renewed. Attempting to control everyone before then is not our job. People don’t need to make us feel good before we love them.  

Sometimes we just have to meet someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. We will try to make things right, as far as we are able, but we will not stop following Jesus, knowing He is able to do more than we ask or imagine.

We may not all be in one of these messy situations right now, but we probably will be. Let’s keep praying for one another, keep being honest, and keep following the One who will bring it all to right in the end.

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What will Wonder Woman do to the children?

Gwen and I went to see Wonder Woman — ALL of it.  I even sat through the credits at the end because they were just so beautifully done. I found it to be a lavishly and lovingly produced piece of art. I’d go see it again just to enjoy the production values. But it also contains a surprisingly compelling story. See what you think.

As you can tell from the trailer, the movie keeps getting bigger,  louder and more frenetic as is moves toward its conclusion. My lingering impression from the experience was, “This thing is HUGE!” As we watched the credits we were in awe. I said, “There must be 1000 names on this list!” There were actually over 1500, I found out, and that does not include the 5600 extras that were hired.

Wonder Woman came out on June 2 and has already grossed over $300 million dollars worldwide. That’s BIG. It may make way over $100 million dollars in profit.  Isn’t it amazing how we have gotten used to such large numbers attached to comic book movies? This one took about 12 years to write and 4 years to make. What does a ten year old do with all that hugeness that keeps beating down on him or her? What am I going to do with it? But, more important, what will Wonder Woman do to the children?

The movie is such a big idea crammed into a couple of hours. What does a child do with it all? Here are just a few of the themes: ancient myths,  being a god, problems with mom, leaving home, first love, losing your virginity, experiencing a new world, finding your power, sensing your destiny, losing your mate, confronting evil, being an alien. When a giant story beats down on you, what do you do with it?

Is this a good response to Wonder Woman?

I kind of wish we all screamed, especially the children. Instead, I think the kids are swallowed. They adapt. They conform. They become acclimated and develop traits that allow them to survive in the presence of the machine.

The experience of Wonder Woman was such an overpowering noise! — part of the anti-silence in which we live.  We saw it on a very big screen and were surrounded by sound: thundering hooves, whizzing WW1 bullets, titanic explosions — by the end, too many explosions.  Maybe we are all used to such things by now. But we should probably notice that watching these movies could be another little dose of the PTSD that soldiers get in battle that dulls their senses and makes them anxious the rest of their lives (this has been studied). Some of these movies may be like taking your kid to work — in Afghanistan.

I look over my precious collection of grandchildren and wonder what the machines will make them. We considered our plan for children as a church last Saturday. I watched Wonder Woman on Friday. It was quite a juxtaposition. I wonder if we will have enough community in Christ to counteract the 1500 people who rammed Wonder Woman into our consciousness and threaten to trample it into submission.

 

A Stance: How Jesus Acts on His

Jesus lived among people with stances on everything, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Church can become a matter of competing stances.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus stance

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

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

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

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

In Honor of White Corpuscles

A few weeks ago a thoughtful friend told me about a revelation he had. He had unwittingly translated certain cultural instincts from his childhood into the church, and he was getting some wit about that. (Gimme a church wit’ wit). Whenever there was a person who was doing something “wrong,” his first instinct was to “shun” them. He avoided them. He certainly did not talk to them about what they were doing wrong! He kept them on the outside of his life. They became somewhat invisible.

Turning away does not work for good

This did not work for much good, of course, since he still felt bad/mad/sad about the problem and the person he shunned did not get whatever benefit he might bring to their struggle. This was his revelation: Jesus is God getting right into the middle of the human mess and dying for people while they were still sinners. It dawned on him: This passive-aggressive thing we do where we never say anything directly and surround offending people (essentially everyone) with unspoken (constant) disapproval is not particularly Christian. It is not.

white corpuscle

The way the body of Christ works is exactly the opposite of avoidance (some people call it “tolerance” or “live and let live”). The body of Christ works like a human body. When there is an infection the white corpuscles in the blood stream multiply and rush to the area of disease or wound. They don’t shun it. You can see their spent residue in the white ooze that surrounds the boo boo on your finger. In the church, people who become aware of some sin, or disaster of judgment, or lack of reconciliation, or of anything that might weaken or, if left unattended, kill the body, turn toward the person and the infection and surround it with love, truth and attention until it gets better. Shunning the infectious person or relationship only makes them more powerfully infectious and might be as good as telling them to go to hell. The church is in the healing business.

White corpuscles

In the physical blood stream there are a lot more red blood cells than white corpuscles. The life delivered by the red cells far outweighs the need for infection control by the white. This reality is exactly replicated in the Body of Christ. The life of Christ in the Body, spiritually surging through us like blood in our spiritual bloodstream of Christ is the best antidote to the death that threatens it every day.

Just like our physical bodies, we have built-in defense systems that leap into action when disaster strikes. Like white corpuscles in the blood, the infection fighters in the body of Christ increase in the day of trouble. On a normal day, there are relatively fewer people with the awareness of what could kill us moving through our body. They are gifted with discernment. They keep watch over us. If they are wise, they only worry us with their worries when it is necessary. Most of the time, they trust the life of Christ to overcome its opponents. Pray for them. They are an important minority. Watch them instinctively go about their business. When you see them caring, join them. They lead us to turn toward the trouble and heal.

It is a life and death matter

I’ve been watching this life-giving process happen in healthy bodies over the years and watching it not happen in dying bodies. It isn’t that easy to kill a church, but it can be done. When a simple cut is left to gangrene, poison can take over one’s whole body. The same kind of thing can happen in a church. It is rare, but it happens if you are arrogant enough to think you are impervious.

More often, like a physical body, the church works to naturally cleanse itself. I have warned people from time to time that they should stop being infectious, since the body will eventually, without even thinking about it too much, treat them like a sliver until they pop out. As a pastor, I feel responsible to be among the white corpuscles.  But my goal is rarely just to pop someone out. Jesus redeems “slivers” all the time. I usually feel even more responsible to those who are unwittingly in danger of losing the connections they cherish or missing the experience of growth they long for because they have become an infection. It often pains me to bring it up, since I have some avoidance mechanisms that encourage me to shun people…but then I remember Jesus turning toward me.

I think my friend was learning one of the most important lessons of love. He could of learned it from observing his body recover from a wound. He learned it from seeing his relationships not recover from their wounds. By extension he learned how the love of God is the great antidote to what ails us all — a love that turns into trouble rather than away. Seems simple until one tries it. Then it seems like getting a new life.

Build community in hard times — it is more than surviving.

I do a lot of talking so I went on retreat—not just to stop listening to myself all day, but to listen to God. Why talk if you’re not talking to God—and listening?

Benedict, scribeIn the course of my retreat, I heard a lot from a book by Esther de Waal. It is a good one I picked up after one of our friends helped us explore it not long ago in Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WATER: Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Benedict of Nursia is one of those spiritual ancestors we love. He is one of the most influential Christians you may have never heard of.

I am telling you about him today because we are had an About Making a Covenant meeting and twenty people considered entering our community in a more intentional way. Benedict caused a revolution by considering the same thing in the 600’s. Before Benedict wrote his new rule for the communities of monks he was founding, most radical Christianity was solitary; spiritual athletes were the people who entered it. Benedict was one of those atheletes, but he attracted a bunch of people who were not. He realized that following Jesus is mostly for ordinary people. What’s more, a group of individuals sitting at the feet of a “sage” is not very Biblical. His breakthrough was to emphasize the love among the members of the community as elemental to authentic spiritual life; multiplications of those communities are still shining the light of faith today.

His rule says: “The monks are to bear with patience the weaknesses of others, whether of body or behavior. Let them strive with each other in obedience to each other. Let them not follow their own good, but the good of others. Let them be charitable towards their brothers with pure affection.” (72.5-8).

His communities were all men, but women applied this rule in their houses, as well (thus, his language).

DeWaal says that within a hundred years of Benedict’s death, his rule had provided a collection of communities that wrapped Europe in a cloak of faith. “Whereas in the very earliest days monks had gone out into the desert leaving behind them a comparatively sophisticated life, now that pattern was reversed. In a world in which barbarian invasion, political uncertainty, and the power of the sword seemed the most immediate realities, [sound familiar?] and in a simple agrarian world where parishes were served by priests of humble peasant birth, [sound like many of our neighborhoods?] the monasteries came to stand out as centres of light and learning” (p. 20).

cell vanessa
Who is that person sitting in the cell’s “second row?”

Radicals in covenant are important lights in deteriorating circumstances. They not only take care of one another, they provide opportunities for people to know God, learn love, and create sustainable community. Our cells are like Benedict’s little communities wrapping our region in a cloak of faith. We focus on God in prayer and worship, we study to deepen our faith and life, we work for one another and serve those we can touch. The Benedictines were known as change agents by Cruce, libro et atro—cross, book and plough. We have our surprisingly useful version of that.

It was and is all done in love by normal people. When some of those normal people make a covenant to be Circle of Hope at the end of the month they will deepen our capacity to make a difference in this upended world. I think they will reflect a story Pope Gregory I told in his biography of Benedict.

“A certain hermit named Martin had chained himself to the side of his solitary cave near Monte Cassino. When he heard of it St. Benedict sent him a message: ‘If you are indeed a servant of God, do not chain yourself with chains of iron. But rather, let Christ be the chain that binds you.’”

Like Benedict, we point to Christ. It is as simple as that: in the cell where Jesus is the agenda and in our covenant to live as the Body of Christ. That is where the transformation starts and where it continues to astound me.

[First published at Circle of Hope.net]

How do YOU think people see your church?

The first question we asked our cells in order to gather some discernment about where God is leading us was this:

When a newcomer or unbeliever gets to know us, whether in a cell or Sunday Meeting, through one of our events or teams, or through an individual, what are the things they will most immediately notice about us and what gifts will they find easiest to access?” 

What do you think?

Examine yourselvesWe dared to take Paul seriously when he tells the Corinthian church: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor. 13:5). If we can be honest about what others see in us, we will not just follow the scripture, we will probably follow our humility right into spiritual growth! We are who we are, but who knows what we might become if we listen?.

Our cells had a LOT to say about this question (and all the other questions!). When I set my mind to sort all their responses, I came up with eighteen different headings for this first one! I was encouraged by what the cell members thought people see in us when they first get to know us. I thought you might be encouraged too. I am not going to list all eighteen things! But I thought I would give you ten. I’ll give you my heading and then one of the answers I culled out which intrigued or moved me. So you get my heading and one answer verbatim.

Whether you are part of our church or not, these things might give you something to think about. What’s more, I don’t doubt someone who is in our church will think the person I quote does not completely know what they are talking about. So we all might have more to think about, too. Regardless, I think we’d all like to be a church moving in the direction these thoughts signal.

Whether you think your church is seen in these ways or you think it just ought to be, let’s pray that we get there. Yesterday was Pentecost, and the Spirit of God is moving to take us into our fullness.

Here are ten ways the cell members think newcomers see us:

We are welcoming/hospitable/friendly/open.

  • You can be who you are.  You are relevant.  You have an opportunity to an actual path where God is leading you.  Walk with us – not your fear or a stereotype.

We create a distinct atmosphere.

  • We create an atmosphere where we try to attract those who are timid with things like the bible through our vulnerability showing it is OK to have doubts and disbelief.

We are a connected community.

  • We are not an obligation – this community is real and authentic and people are here out of choice.  We are not a thing to do.  We want to know you.  

Leadership is respected and varied.

  • Leaders don’t have to be older, mature people who have all their stuff together. Anyone can potentially be a leader and should see their gifts and insight valued and nurtured (not just for white male extroverts).

We have an open seeking spirit.

  • Vulnerability in sharing by both women and men. It’s good modeling by those in leadership because it sets a space to be real and to address deep set needs – we are a deep people because of this.

We are devoted to compassion.

  • Our good works are a natural progression from our togetherness

We share.

  • It is not hard to get resources of spiritual direction (informal), counseling, financial help, job connections.

We take action, are ambitious, intentional.

  • We are doers of the word. While other may talk about examples of how you may get involved the overwhelming expectation is that we are people who live through action and action particularly for both one another and those with need.

We expect people to participate.

  • They can get connected to anything (cell, team’s, leadership, etc.), the church is their oyster.

We are committed to dialogue.

  • It is the judge-free zone.  We all pretty openly discuss a lot of topics, personal and otherwise with widely varying opinions sometimes, and no one is upset.  

When you answer the question about your church, what are the answers YOU get? Let’s keep praying for the Holy Spirit to move us into the place the Lord would like us to be.

[Originally published on Circle of Hope’s blog]

Four blue words about making the most of your money

The death of Antonin Scalia has people talking about his legacy. Most of the comments start with “love him of hate him, he made an impact.” An oAntonin Sclaiap-ed in the New York Times says: Justice Scalia’s most important legacy will be his “originalism” and “textualism” theory. But it also says his attitude of calling opponents “idiotic” or worse may also be as memorable. He often made a point that recycled a 19th century slogan about Native Americans:  “The only good Constitution is a dead Constitution” — that may also be the kind of thing history recalls.

Scalia and ReaganWhen Ronald Reagan nominated Scalia in 1986 I was not thinking too clearly about my legacy. I was creating one, but I was a bit in denial about being too responsible for it. I was the father of toddlers and in the throes of planting a church, so I had a lot to influence. But I consciously left the future in God’s hands and lived as radically as I could imagine. I am sure I also thought my opponents were idiotic at times. As a result, a lot of good happened and no small amount of bad. I think I could have used
some more consciousness about what I was trying to build that others might live in.

I always say things like “We’re not building the pyramids here,” meaning that we know we are being shaped by God all the time; what we do is temporal and subject to development, like we as people are subject. But that can be taken too far, since we are made to influence one another and what we do also has eternal value, or at least long-lasting ill-affect. So I am glad we have a seminar coming up this weekend that will teach us about considering our legacy a little bit. It is called The Color of Money: Blue. Blue is the color of water, the season of the Way of Jesus devoted to people who are exploring the depths of being a Jesus follower. What do mature Christians do with their money? What legacy will they leave?

Last year the Capacity Core Team did some good thinking about money. Some of it will be worked in to the upcoming seminar. They came up with four words that I think we all have to ponder when we are making decisions about what to do with our money and what our money might do for others.

Four words to ponder when making money decisions

Character. How we use our money is a sure indicator of whether we are acting out of our true self in Christ, or not. Our goal is to become a sharer, like God. Most of the time, if we have a twenty in our hand, a choice is being made. That might be why our creditors love paperless, automated systems, so we never see that money at all and can’t figure out what is going on! We like not knowing, too, since it is hard to be responsible and the machine makes us think everything is taken care of.

Community. Having a common fund with the other believers is such tangible faithing that it is irreplaceable. It might shape us more than anything else; sharing like that quickens latent discipleship. Not sharing like that is also shaping everyone staying on the outside, right now. Being a sharer implies that we have a personal connection with someone. Bill Gates is a sharer too, but mostly with spreadsheets, with masses. We are sharers with each other, first. Our common fund is the basic tool of our love since it is built with love. Building one makes us something even as we are making it.

Resistance. We learn a lot about money in our society that oppresses us. Basic money management rules never change: Spending less than you earn will always be beneficial. Investing your money will always be better than doing nothing with it. And planning for the future will always be better than blowing your paycheck as soon as you get it. But in the U.S. those management ideas are usually applied to becoming wealthy not pursuing God. Some of us resist the pursuit of wealth by refusing to seriously deal with finances. Some of us resist resisting and try to Christianize the pursuit of wealth, or at least avoid talking about our preoccupation with it. Alternatively, we want to have a godly resistance, not just resistance of some sort. We need to address the use of money (which is a subject often laden with taboo or fully enslaved to some godless philosophy) with love and in the presence of God.

Investment. This is a very “blue” word, since it implies that you have something to invest: a character that makes godly choices, a community that is worth your heart, a conviction that frees you from slavery to the world’s ways and an imagination about what might be growing. Investing money is about creating wealth for most people — that is the goal of capitalism, right? But investment should be about one’s spiritual legacy: What we are given to give to the world? What is our best shot at moving transformation along? Investment is about building something that is bigger than just our own wealth. Circle of Hope is our most immediate “something” that we build together. But that tool we have builds something bigger than itself, too. We can see what it builds when we explore what our investment in MCC does, or when we can dare to spend our savings to plant another congregation, or in how we invest in the lives of our leaders and staff and manage to maintain our properties.

Sharing money is where we answer two of the most important questions in life: “Where do I belong?” and “Am I important?” Sharing what we have expresses our unity within the body and in our common purpose. What we have matters because we each matter. We need each other. Without each other we wither.

Antonin Scalia spent his whole life trying to get the cap back on the societal bottle that blew its top in the 1970’s.  Most Christians have been doing the same thing, in vain, right alongside him — no doubt some with great motives. We, as Circle of Hope, have been trying to do something else. Like our song says, we like that “new wine.” It is not new like it is an innovation. It is new because the world is, like Scalia said, a bit “idiotic” and life with God seems new to us. Each generation needs its own taste of the new life Jesus is bringing to an ever-dying world. How we handle our money is a great test of the faith we bring to living in that world. How we share is one of the most tangible ways we get to demonstrate that something new in the world is not only possible, it is being built.

Redux #10 — Six Things I Did in My 20’s that Made All the Difference

At the beginning of the year I want to repost “top ten” posts. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them!

This one is about all the important things I did in my twenties that have served me well throughout my life. Like it or not, in our twenties we seem to harden into what our next twenty years are going to look like. If you want to be a faithful person, start now. Something is going to harden you into your adult self — better that it is Jesus.

My revelation from the past week

I was encouraged by Michiko’s bold, vulnerable, faithful writing. So I asked her to appear as a “guest writer” on my blog this week. Here is her revelation:

It’s easy to look at the world right now and think that maybe there is no God.

On a personal level, as I’ve watched my son descend into addiction, I’ve at times wondered what God was doing.  Where was Jesus – when was he going to wake up and talk to him and bring him out of the hell he, and I were in?

Now that he’s going to NA regularly, I’ve started going with him.

Yesterday I was witness to the kind of love that I only see at Circle.  One young woman freely admitted her brokenness.  She was in full relapse, of food disorder, substance abuse disorder, and starting on the self-harm scale.  She also said she was apathetic.  She didn’t care.

One by one, the group acted as one.  It was one huge encouragement through many voices — One saying “You’ve done great to be here.” Another saying, “Push through; you’ll be OK.” Another saying, “We love you and are here for you.”

Continue reading My revelation from the past week