Tag Archives: community

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.

Image result for under umbrella

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

We need spiritual resources

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? In Frozen, the main character goes a typical route. First, she withdraws in order to save everyone from having to deal with her and then enjoys the perverse freedom of being alone to be fully herself without any responsibilities. Her sister goes another route. She teams up with bad people and good, but their combined strength saves the day. What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? Do you typically go for autonomy? Or do you react by turning to the community? Most of us try both. Sadly, they both supply about equally dissatisfying results.

We need what seems like a “third” way to us. We need spiritual resources, not just personal or communal resources. Think of the pursuit of spiritual resources as “paradigm shift.” If you think you have to solve it yourself, or if you think you have to solve it with all these people because, in either case, those options are all you’ve got, then think again. In Jesus, you have God to give you resources beyond what you have inside or at your fingertips. Beyond your ordinary awareness or even your spiritual awareness, is strength from the living God. When we have become a wound or we are being wounded and we can’t stop it, where do we go? Dig deeper? Connect closer? Those are not the worst ideas unless that’s all you think there is to do. Because there is more.

Jesus-in-Gethsemane

Continue reading We need spiritual resources

The Difference between Acceptance and Agreement

What I want is what I have always wanted: to live in a community of trusted partners and to act for redemption in every way we can think to act.

  • I hope we can be Bible-lovers — like many so-called “conservatives,”
  • I hope we can be welcoming and justice-seeking — like many so-called “liberals.”

I hope we will never stop calling people to follow Jesus as their Lord and to discern the movement of the Spirit for their direction. And I hope we will never stop trying to create an environment in which people can come to Christ in different ways, at different paces and according to their ability. I want Circle of Hope to be a safe place to explore and express God’s grace where truth does not kill and love does not lie.

Orientation is a starting point not our end point

I think that spirit makes Circle of Hope welcoming, not just to people naming various sexual identities, but also to people of various political convictions and spiritual backgrounds. We don’t believe that people need to change their ordinary orientation, sexual or otherwise, in order to follow Jesus. Instead, we invite everyone to change their spiritual orientation toward God and their fellow human beings. When people adopt that orientation, they submit their humanness, in all its wonder and flaws, to God as revealed in the way of Jesus. That reorientation makes all the difference.

The New Testament repeatedly says, we are all wonderful image-bearers of God as far as the Lord is concerned because of Jesus, no matter how the world defines each of us. We can rest assured that God knows, as well as we do, that we bear that image in imperfect, broken, and often hurtful ways. But our ongoing relationship with Jesus as Lord and our movement toward expressing our true selves is much more important than our imperfect behavior. Hoping to keep us moving and not stuck in condemnation, I think Circle of Hope has been doing a good job to embrace and challenge people in all the broken and glorious conditions they come to us just like we accept God’s embrace.

non acceptance: Liberal-vs-Conservative-SimpsonsEven with that urge to embrace people as they are, it is almost impossible not to compare and contrast one another. But, the truth is, when it comes to “us” and “them,” there is no “them.” There is only “us.” We are all beautiful and precious people valued by God. We are also broken people, to one degree or another, needing the healing of the Holy Spirit and the experience of authentic community to live as Jesus calls us to live. To be human is, among other things, to be in some wonderful and weird way, dysfunctional. We are all broken people, as well as glorious people (Romans 3:23-24).

We need to get to “us” not just define “me”

As a result of our brokenness, we are prone to conflict and usually scared to death of “them.” I encourage Christians who invest too much time in defining their opponents to apply the difference between acceptance and agreement. When we confuse acceptance and agreement we do not love as we should.

In our Cell Plan we note that it’s a common mistake for people to assume that they should not accept someone fully until they have repented and changed. Some Christians think that a person is not evangelized until they behave properly! Some believers think they are condoning sin if they disagree with someone’s choices  but, at the same time, respect, honor, and accept them — even though the Bible calls us to be that generous! (see Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 3:15-16). If we applied acceptance and agreement as two different concepts, we might stop withholding acceptance as a form of disagreement and learn to better love those outside our boundaries of agreement.

Christ-followers ought to declare their love through their actions. Many Christians have the well-earned reputation of putting a lot of energy into their messages of disapproval — that’s their main activity! But disapproval is not the Lord’s main activity or His message! I hope people get the impression among Circle of Hope that, “We love you just like Jesus does.” For instance, we have been talking a lot about the protection of sexual minorities this week. I think it is an “of course” that people oriented toward Jesus and toward serving others would be among the first to look out for the human rights of any oppressed group, always showing them the utmost respect as image-bearers of God. The first time I ever got in “trouble” for moderating the Dialogue List was when I confronted a person who was sounding “anti-gay.” He was honing a message of disapproval and he wanted affirmation for it. I respected him, but I had to do my job, as pastor, to keep the community knit together in love, so I confronted him.

We want to be that unique Kingdom society within our secular culture that blesses those with whom we do not agree and who may not agree with us. Within that context of active, energetically-demonstrated love, we may then also make our differences clear. If we are loving as radically as we are given to love, this should only make the love we offer all the more meaningful and transformative. I don’t think I, or Circle of Hope, have always loved in transformative ways — but we mostly have! Even so, I am sorry for all the times people felt judgment, not love. People will outgrow us, get sick of us, or never understand us, but I always hope they never leave us because they bounced off our indifference or rejection.

We can’t make others accept before they agree. It takes faith.

I don’t think we are prone to judgment, but people feel judged nonetheless. It might be because they also need to learn the lesson we need to apply: the difference between acceptance and agreement. For instance, how someone sees sexual morality is the strange new litmus test for mutuality these days. Many people have liked us Christians but hated our morality. They have even felt “set up” when we were nice and then we did not agree with them; they felt welcomed to speak their minds and then felt betrayed when they were asked to listen. When it comes to unbelievers, in particular, they probably should restrain themselves from demanding that Jesus-followers sign up for the latest versions of the world’s philosophy, just like they don’t think Christians should tell them how to live. I felt like the church was demanding and a bit uncaring this week, too; so I also know something about how hard it can be to turn around and stay with love when I don’t feel the love coming my way. I still want to invite people into that process of staying with love in honor of Jesus, however.

I hope I am not wrong, but I think people can form mutually respectful friendships without demanding absolute agreement on all issues (most marriages seem to work this way!). There is a difference between acceptance and agreement. If there is acceptance, then any necessary agreement can be formed. Mutually respectful diversity, in the end, provides us with the most opportunity for growing, loving, and learning. What’s more, it allows Jesus to heal our wounds and make us one, just as the Healer and the Father are one, which is much more satisfying than anything the-powers-that-be promise.

Winter is coming. Share your umbrella. — Leaders and led loving one another.

I like sharing an umbrella with someone. Maybe I need to like it, since I so often forget to carry an umbrella! (It is hard being a native of California). But I consciously like sharing an umbrella because it gives me an excuse to get close to someone in our special safe place and to feel like I am being taken care of. I like that.

I equally don’t like walking in the rain by someone who I don’t think wants to share their umbrella while they are drier than I am. 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 this).

A leader’s “umbrella”

The other day at the Cell Leader Coordinators review for Jonny Rashid on the occasion of completing his term as our pastor, the topic of who is under a leader’s “umbrella” came up. Someone referenced this post from three years ago. I doubt that too many people read it in the summer of 2010, so here’s an update. It is still an interesting topic for people who care about how the church works and who care about how they work in the church.

We can start with the Apostle John, the master teacher on community in the early church. 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 one “belonged to us.” He is writing to “dear children” so he undoubtedly thinks of them as under the protection of his authority and 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 pained that they are now out in the rain. What pains him even more is that they call the rain sunshine. The whole point of his umbrella was to keep people 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 buds 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.

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 in the last ten years. 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.