Tag Archives: community

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.

There is a third, spiritual way

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 coming alongside 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 shows the way

Jesus-in-Gethsemane

In the famous scene of Jesus praying in the garden the night before his crucifixion, Jesus came back from praying alone to find his community. It says in Luke: “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’”

Luke is generous to say that the disciples are “exhausted from sorrow.” It is also likely that they had not learned to turn to prayer when they are exhausted or exasperated or confronted with their typical temptations. They came to the end of themselves and conked out.

Many of us have a habit of falling asleep right when we need to pray. Many of us come to the end of ourselves and purposely put ourselves to sleep with some drug or media. Frozen has anesthetized millions, for instance. When Jesus is crucified the next day he demonstrates how he has accessed resources beyond his personal strength or the power of his community. When he receives the wounds of the world, he cries out, “Father forgive them.”

Prayer is our access point to life

What do you cry out? The other day when I was praying, I again realized I have a few places in my daily life that provide regular temptations. I have unhealed wounds that are easily injured, typical exasperation points, and things that make me want to take a long nap somehow. I have some things I often cry out, but I need to follow Jesus and access resources beyond myself rather than just sitting at the end of my meager capacity feeling alone and resenting my meager community. What are those places for you? A few of mine are:

  • Leaders who are out for themselves and do not listen, do not serve, do not know.
  • Cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Parents abusing their children because they are at the end of themselves.
  • Being falsely accused by customer service people.
  • When the power of my convictions is eroded by the apathy of my colleagues.

Like Jesus, we are also dealing with the wounds of the world. We are exhausted and exasperated. I think Jesus is sometimes frustrated with us, too, because we prefer sleep to prayer.

But I also think Jesus looks on us fondly even when he is frustrated because he knows we are mostly dust in our own eyes. He is calling attention to that place deep within us that we can access by prayer. We have access to spiritual resources beyond ourselves and our communities. Our perverted instincts might tell us otherwise, so it is going to be a battle to get healed — some things will have to die. But in the midst of that battle, amazing capacity is gained and we give birth to the wonders of God with us.

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.

Columba the Creative Sufferer

The Celtic church folk seem like family when you get to know them — inspiring spiritual ancestors! Some people think it is a little weird to get to know them — they are long gone, after all. But when we are trying so hard to represent Jesus as a radical, missional community, I’ve got to say a few words in honor of Columba. He stokes my fire. He’s right in the middle of re-creation, and we aspire to be as meaningful to our corner of the world as he was to his.

Re-creation is an earthy, sweaty process of creative suffering. Columba learned a lot about being reborn — about the kind of suffering-like-Jesus that pushes into the light from the dark. He knew about rebirthing — about the suffering-like-Jesus that pushes from the light into the dark. From both angles, he proved that the pain of getting deeply involved with God’s re-creation was worth it. As I tell you part of his story in honor of his death day, you’ll probably be considering what God is teaching you about being born into your own fullness.

Columba (521-97) might be more famous than you know. He is one of the three “patron saints” of Ireland, with Patrick and Brigid. He founded many communities of radical disciples of Jesus in Ireland before he went to Iona for the last 30 years of his life. From Iona he masterminded the mission to the great tribe called the Picts in Scotland. The community he founded on the edge of the world became the mother for hundreds of other communities all over Scotland and the world. It was a missionary factory for centuries. And it is known for being the place where the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s artistic treasures, was written.

Columba was born a to an aristocratic family, the son of a king. When he was at Finnian’s great school in Clonard,  Columba’s hut was in a favored place nearer the chapel, because he had brought so much with him when he came to join the community. Quite a bit was written about him, and some of it makes him look a little imperious, maybe overly ambitious, like he took himself quite seriously, especially as a young man. He was a leader. He did rash things but he made up for them and went on. He was intense, so intense, disciplined and austere that a lot of people could not keep up with his example. But all these attributes made him someone who could be followed.

He was a big, tall, handsome man. So the icon on this page does not do him justice. He’s old in it. He’s got his Celtic tonsure on (shaved up to a line from ear to ear). And he does have his book.  Columba had a big voice too — you could hear him from far away. He often used it to sing. People loved to hear him sing. He wrote songs. He also loved to write poetry, and is known for having written one of the earliest known poems by an Irish native.

To get the full idea of his song, you have to pretend you are hearing it in some echo-y, house made of rock, a dark place with candles in the 500’s. This is just a bit of the very long piece:

 Altus Prosator

Ancient exalted seed scatterer
whom time gave no progenitor:
he knew no moment of creation
in his primordial foundation
he is and will be all places
in all time and all ages
with Christ his first-born only-born
and the Holy Spirit — borne
throughout the high eternity
of glorious divinity:
three gods we do not promulgate
one God we share and intimate
salvific faith victorious:
three persons very glorious.

Try reading the Latin, it makes it even better.

Altus prosator, vetustus
dierum et ingenitus
erat absque origine
primordii et crepidine
est et erit in sæcula
sæculorum infinita;
cui est unigenitus
Xristus et sanctus spiritus
coæternus in gloria
deitatis perpetua.
Non tres deos depropimus
sed unum Deum dicimus,
salva fide in personis
tribus gloriosissimis.

This artistic son of a King turned to Jesus and went about making new Christians where there were very few in his big, dramatic, creative, radical way.

From dark into light

Columba’s introduction to creative suffering began with a shock to his system when he was about 40 years old. You may have experienced a similar situation that meant life or death for your faith. The Spirit of God does not let us rest in the dark; almost-involuntary birth pangs begin, and we have to push toward the light, even though the opening seems kind of small and we seem kind of weak. We have to repent, change and move along to our fullness.

Columba’s biographers aren’t quite clear on just what exactly happened, but here is the  watershed moment. Finnian of Molville had a very famous rare book. It was a copy of the Jerome’s Vulgate, the first Bible translated into Latin. Columba went to stay with this other Finnian and every night he secretly went to the library and made a copy of this precious book for himself. One night Finnian caught him in the act. He told him to hand over the copy, which by rights belonged to him. Columba refused to do it, even though he was in the wrong. Finnian took his case to the high king of Ireland at Tara. The king ruled in his favor. He said: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” — the first copyright law.

Then the history gets kind of mixed. However it got going, there was a war over this incident. Columba’s clan, whose members were mostly Christians, took up for him against the high king at Tara, whose followers were still mostly pagan. 3000 people died in a huge battle. Columba’s side won but Columba was mortified. The battle over his misdeed was a shame to Jesus. He was given a great penance. Radical that he was, a person who did big things, he put himself in permanent exile. He said, “I will never look on Ireland again.” And he vowed to go win as many people to Jesus as were killed in the battle on his behalf. That is creative suffering! — a radical pushing out of his darkness into the light.

He ended up on Iona, which was the first place he could get to where he could not see Ireland anymore. Columba turned away from what was wrong and literally went a new direction toward what is next. It cost him. He loved Ireland. He lost family and power. But he did something in line with what he was given to be and responded in faith to the mess he had made. He didn’t go on stealing and fighting. And it hurt. He took what Paul said seriously. “My present suffering are nothing compared to what is prepared for God’s children” (Romans 8). He got the message. If you fear what has been or you fear what is next, get into your boat and do something.

From light into dark

Columba looked for what was prepared for him. As a result, he had a great success in what he did for Jesus. He was soon crossing the strait from Iona to Scotland to try to convert the Pictish king. He took his great light and he pushed into the spiritual darkness with it.

To get to the city of the king, Columba and his comrades had to cross the river that goes out of Loch Ness.  He asked one of his helpers to swim over and get a boat he saw on the other side that could carry him and the rest of the crew over the river. About halfway over, disturbed by all that splashing, a gigantic beast rose up out of the water. With a roar, it tried to devour the swimmer. Columba stood on the bank and said, “You shall go no further. Do not touch the man.” It was like ropes pulled the monster back. It was dragged back into Loch Ness. I don’t know if that is totally true. But they thought a monster was in Loch Ness way back in the day.

People don’t tell these stories for nothing. Whether you believe the history or not, the truth behind the story remains. Jesus will turn away our foes as well. What seeks to devour us feeds on our fear. But if we follow Christ we are God’s heirs and our destiny is secure. We’ve got to suffer through the work to get though to our destiny. But it is worth it. We’ve got to face the monster. God is on our side. Push your light into the darkness.

Not all of Columba’s creative suffering was as a result of his sin and poor judgment and neither is yours. We don’t just suffer just because we are fools. There is a positive side to how we suffer. Our pain often has more of the suffering of the artist to it. It is creative suffering like the trouble of giving birth to something. Trying to find a way to express our hope and convictions is an art. Trying to push the beauty of our relationship with God into the dark – how to say it, how to express it, how to get it out there – is creative.

The Celts were good at evangelistic art. They spread the gospel more by infiltration than by arguments, more by osmosis than by domination. They brought Jesus by art, by incarnation, by relating, by singing it. They let people experience their lives in Christ — feel what was in their hearts, trusting in the light to penetrate the darkness.

We are often pushing from the darkness into the light, but we are also pushing from our light into the darkness and they are both beautiful expressions of this groaning creativity of the Spirit in us. Our suffering is often a good thing. We need creative suffering. The example of the Lord and the message of the Bible is that suffering is part of creation. God can be creatively involved in our pain.

It took suffering to create us and recreate us. If you are broken and trying to push into the light, don’t let anyone steal that from you with a pill or a false promise. If you are trying to push some light into the dark through your art — whether it is setting the table or painting the Mona Lisa, singing, speaking, writing, conversing, even if you think you are a terrible artist and should just quit — don’t give up on that; die trying to do something. Whatever God gave you to do to express that creative suffering — push out of the dark into the light; push out of the light into the dark. In that you will be like Columba — and Jesus.

Four more reasons people might not care to be radical Christians: Part 2

Who are radical Christians? They may not look as wild as you might expect, or be famous for being “out there.” But, like I said last week, they will have some basic characteristics. For instance:

  • They are devoted to being at the heart of the kingdom and to having the kingdom at the heart of them.
  • God is not trying to get them to do things with moderate success; they are trying to get God to do things.
  • Following Jesus is not a side job, it is their vocation.
  • The church is not one of many options; it is their tribal identity.
  • Mission is not a leisure time activity; they will use their money-making work to make it happen.
  • Believing is not exhausting for them; it is exhilarating

My whole Christian life has been devoted to being a regular guy who is a radical Christian. When I became a Christian, I never thought it was about joining a club or being on the right team. I just picked up on what the Bible was saying and went with it. And I did not miss that the Bible was written by regular, flawed people who were saved, not superpeople, or people who even thought they could get it right. It seems to me that the Bible is written “in the face” of people who think they are great or who think they need to be great to make God look good. Regular people who are filled with the Holy Spirit living heart to heart with God: that’s radical. What they do may never get into the news cycle, but that’s not the point for them. The are at the heart and they do from the heart like good trees bearing good fruit, their roots sinking down into eternity.

But there are reasons people might not want to be radicals these days. Here are four more, that are a bit more personal:

5) They probably don’t have a taste for community

So many churches in the past fifty years were just political fronts for the Republican party or the new age movement — they weren’t communities gathered around Jesus. One time I had to demand that my deacon not put local Republican voting guides on the church’s info site – that in a supposedly Anabaptist-tradition congregation! More often I have had to defend why Jesus is the loving center of what we are all about and not just a figure of intolerance — and that to people in covenant with me! It is no wonder that people feel liberated when they get out from under the thumb of the church’s dialogue-stifling system– if that is Christian community, count me out, too! But as people get free of the nonsense, they often end up inoculated against true Christian community by the faux community they have experienced.

Even more, in general, “churched” or not, the population seems to be losing their capacity to connect (could this be true?). People have grown up in detached families. They are immigrants who have left their culture. They have moved to the city to get away from community and be themselves. They live virtually. The hand held computer has taken all their attention. The church comes around and wants consistent relating and it seems like it might be from another planet. But they are going to be gone for the next three months on a job anyway, so the temptation to care about that is fleeting.

church scene of the crime6) The church was the scene of a crime.

This might be the most under-reported reason why people lose their faith. Something bad happened to them while they were part of a church and they did not have the resources to get over it without leaving the church – or the church did not have the resources or opportunity (see the first point) to help them.

  • They got a divorce and only one of them got custody of the church.
  • They had a messy break-up with someone and couldn’t face sitting in a meeting with them.
  • They had a conflict and never faced it or forgave it.
  • They unwittingly got connected with a mentally ill person and didn’t want to handle it.
  • Their children did not get along with other children.
  • The leader said something that didn’t sit right and they were too afraid of him (generally) to talk about it.

If you have a relationship difficulty, it is tempting to not grow through it but to just move on. Most conflicts require confronting something in oneself, but the habit for many is to blame and cut off. People tend to be “slash and burn” relaters. We’ve all become samplers. So it does not take much to scatter us. Once we get scattered from the church, it is easy to see it as the scene of the crime we are trying to escape.

7) Perfect love does not cast out their fear.

Being a radical Christian is not a sociological phenomenon. If the society is open to Jesus or not, following Jesus is still going to be a matter of having a living relationship with God. One will have to lose their life to save it. Jesus will have to be accepted as Lord. It is a scary proposition.

  • If one lives by the detailed laws of science and relies on a few significant relationships for comfort, then the demands of Jesus are very big. Not only does Jesus insist he is the law and the most significant relationship we have, he insists from an eternal perspective.
  • If one is convinced that being an individual is the height of self-realization, if one is acclimated to the rewards of the economy, and if one believes love is all you need, then Jesus might seem like he is way too abnormal.
  • If one is mostly reacting rather than thinking and feeling things through, Jesus is way deeper than what seems possible.

Faith can be overwhelming for some people. They don’t have the heart for it. They are even defensive that I said that and then talked about saying it.

Christ’s love is the key to being other than what I just listed. Otherwise, being a Jesus follower from one’s heart is too huge to try.

8) Church people will not do evangelism.

Given all the problems enumerated above, and last week, Christians are loathe to make disciples. Just the thought of “making a disciple” seems like it must be against the law, or certainly some relic of a colonial past. They won’t even tell their story of faith, since it is up against the big alternative narratives that have taken over the airwaves. They wonder if everything that is important to them is just socially constructed anyway, so why would they infringe upon what someone else has constructed for themselves from all the bits and pieces of spirituality readily available? They won’t even give people a chance to discover the Gospel and change.

I think the main reason people might not want to be radical Christians is that they don’t really  know one. They may never have a dialogue in which the Holy Spirit gets to play an intimate part. All those spiritual experiences they are having may be left to be organized by their own imagination rather than the risen Lord. They will still be interesting, mysterious and moving experiences, but they won’t be radically Christian.

I think all Christians should speak up about what brings them life — especially the radical ones guarding the integrity of the faith for the next generation.

Thanks for all the dialogue last week about these ideas. The process of thinking together makes being a new people in Christ possible.

What It Takes to Have a Decent Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playa La Mision, Baja

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

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

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

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

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

Six Things I Did in My 20’s that Made All the Difference

Cake for the twentiesWhen I was on retreat last week I had a moment of wonder as my memory wandered back to my twenties. Some days I remember myself as the world’s dumbest 21-year old! So many of my present twentysomething friends seem so much better off than I was! As far as my soul is concerned I think it was like I was a spiritual refugee in my twenties who washed up onto the shores of Christianity. I made some big mistakes as I haltingly made my way into the strange new land of Jesus. But the good thing is that I also did not know that I shouldn’t adopt what appeared to be the best things about the ancient culture of my new homeland. I just kind of did things without a lot of insight or direction as I settled in. I “somehow” happened upon things that proved to be astoundingly important. Here are six things I did that have shaped my life for the better ever since.

I learned to live simply on purpose.

I was very poor. But I decided to stay that way on purpose. My cause was world hunger, apart from the mission of the church. Every extra penny I could get was designed to go to people who were starving. I became committed to not eating up other people’s resources in general. I ended up learning about the historic Christian discipline and even spiritual gift of voluntary poverty. It seemed strange then and it does now. But I managed to miss ever being tempted to live off fast food or to waste money on things that were meaningless. My resources have been purposefully used and that feels good.

I received the Spirit.

I was also poor in Spirit. “Receiving the Spirit” is what Pentecostals tell you to do to have a REALLY personal relationship with Jesus. I kept shooting for that no matter how uncool it seemed (and it did). A lot of Pentecostals are weird. But the best of them are radicals. If the Apostle Paul says “Be filled with the Spirit,” they are going to go for that. As I look back on it, some of their theology is so wrong that I’m glad I wasn’t paying very good attention! What I got was that I could and should have some experience of God’s Spirit in my life. I opened up to that and I met God personally. I thought it was thrilling then. I did not realize just how much more experience there was.

I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible.

“My lifestyle” is a pernicious phrase, it is so egocentric. But I was very egocentric in my twenties. I was forming my “lifestyle.” I was determined to be the best Christian possible and my teachers were all about the Bible. Thank God for teachers who got me to study the Bible! I’m not sure how they did it, but I sure thought knowing the Bible was crucial. I spent something like seven years doing 2PROAPT (which I still recommend to people) as my daily act of devotion. I got the basic material down. I must have pondered almost every line in the New Testament and tried to “apply” each of them “to my life,” as we said. I did not understand everything I should do about the Bible. But I filled my mind with the raw material of transformation that I have been using ever since. What’s more, I had a life-forming dialogue with the Bible writers about what is important and how I should live that formed my ability to keep having that dialogue.

I got married and had children, in that order.

These days, people are either wiser or more controlling, I can’t tell for sure. They wait a lot longer to get married. I did not wait. At age twenty, if I was dumb or dumbstruck about anything, it was the blessing of Gwen. And, I must admit, I became her very dumb husband at twenty-one. I knew very little about sex, myself, relationships, intimacy – name anything that would make me a decent partner. But being married improved me when I was available to be improved. Love shaped me instead of my career or my personal desires. Add the children on to that (I had four by the time I was 29) and that just deepened the requirement for me to learn how to love someone and to be responsible for something other than what moved me or pleased me. I don’t think I was too conscious of the benefits of my choice, but, as it turns out, it was nice to get a head start on being a grown up.

I lived communally.

In my late twenties we formed an intentional community that lasted for eight years and often had upwards to twenty people in it. Within that group of dear people I did some of my deepest formation and some of my stupidest things. It was a wonderful, irreplaceable experience. Even the people I lived with who are now geographically distant still feel like relatives. I think that is how the church should be. We took Acts 2 (see “I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible,” above) and decided to do it. Our “household” was a great environment in which to practice simplicity, too. Looking back, I think it was best for doing theology. We sat with each others for hours figuring out what God wanted us to do. Each year we would re-write our “statement of formation;” they are one-page works of theological art. When I was getting my first license with the BIC, I sat down with my household and asked them, “Here are the questions they are asking. What do I believe?” They could tell me. Christians don’t do much that is more countercultural than submitting themselves to love. Doing that with intention in my twenties shaped me.

I protested things.

It might be that if you never get over the edge to become a protester in your twenties, you lose the capability. Living simply in community was something of a protest in itself. Being Pentecostal was a statement, too. But I am talking about coming up against political philosophies and government actions that steer people toward destruction. I wanted to do something about hunger. I got (symbolically) arrested for trespassing on the weapons testing site in Nevada a few times. We picketed a new abortion clinic. We complained about Ronald Reagan. I evangelized, which, in itself, is a direct confrontation with the powers that be. I am glad I “got over the edge.” Getting over my fear of being vocal about my faith needed to get an early start. I think it helped to develop the habit of pushing against my fears before my brain hardened into the  habit of not doing faith that way.

There are probably more things that could be noted, of course. You are probably doing other things that you will note later. These are just the things that came to mind last week. I offer them as encouragement to my many 20something friends, many of whom are so much more mature than I was. I hope you don’t give up. If you are doing something that seems crazy for Jesus, now, it might be the very thing that will have made all the difference in thirty years. Do the best, most spiritual, most Christ-following thing you can think of doing with the capacity you have. You are equipping yourself to keep doing the word for the rest of your life. If you’re not twentysomething anymore, at least we’re not dead yet – neither is Jesus. Maybe some wild or difficult thing we are doing for love or truth right now will be very memorable in a few years!

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It’s a Depression: How to face poverty

The story goes that one of the young brothers among the desert monks went to an elder and asked, “Would it be right if I kept a little money in my possession, in case I should get sick?”

The elder, seeing that he wanted to keep the money, said, “Keep it.”

The brother went back to his place and began to wrestle with his thoughts, saying “I wonder if the elder really gave me his blessing. So he went back and asked him, “In the Lord’s name, tell me the truth, because I am upset over this money.”

The elder told him, “Since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep the money, I told you to keep it. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now this money is your hope. If it should be lost, would God not care for you?”

 That’s the question, isn’t it? “Will God care for me?” In a depression that is even more difficult to believe.

The gift of poverty 

We sometimes talk about the spiritual gift of poverty that is implied in 1 Corinthians 13:3: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” and spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

If you have the gift of voluntary poverty (like the monks in the quote above were working out), then maybe the economic depression we are in feels like an opportunity to trust God and you are excited to see what happens. For most of us, however, we are more likely to be slogging it out in our more typical spiritual capacity. No doubt we long for greater gifts. But, for now, we are trying to do what we must do in the face of difficult circumstances.

poverty
MoMA | Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936

What to do when we face poverty

It is a good time to revisit what we are called to do when we face poverty. There are some basic ways we typical believers are taught to live:

1) All believers are called to live free from the bondage of materialism and undue attention to personal comfort (Matt. 6:19-24, Luke 12:33-34, 14:33). The goal is to never be burdened with material things and never to be a burden (1 Thess. 2:9). This does not mean individualism or self-reliance, but it does mean personal responsibility.

2) Some people may be called to special divestment of wealth because possessions are a stumbling block to them (Mark 10:17-23). This does not mean that having possessions is wrong. But it does mean that possessiveness can control us. We may also be called to divest ourselves of our high expectations for our wealth and success and reduce ourselves to following what God has for us rather than what the “invisible hand” promises. This expectation may be more controlling than the possessions themselves.

3) Not all giving and not all poverty are examples of the gift of voluntary poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-4, Rev. 2:9). We may need to admit that we need help – that we are involuntarily poor. The greatest antidote to poverty in our society is sharing, and sharing is probably the antidote we are most reluctant to use. Share housing. Share incomes. Come up with joint projects to make money. Individually, we may not all have enough to live on. But, chances are, as a church we have more than enough to live on.

Rely on one another

If we do not help one another, we may not get a more miraculous act of help from God. We often rely on God to move the godless mechanism of the “economy” to help us, instead of relying on his own body – and we are upset that we are not helped. Likewise, the body often has very little imagination for how we are connected financially and we end up sending people to “the world” for help, relying on people/powers who don’t care about Jesus to care like Jesus! In this era of reduced circumstances, we will need to return to a Biblical view of ourselves. For that necessity we can give thanks for the depression.

I think we need to seek a dramatic filling of God’s Spirit in our church, so we can meet the challenges of this day. The first Christians are a good example of how this can happen in a group of people. When the Holy Spirit filled them they followed the Lord’s example of

  • owning nothing that tied them to this time and place and
  • distributing what they had to relieve the burdens or meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).

Right now, we are seeing an increased call upon our compassion fund for food and shelter; I am delighted that we store up money for that use. Many of us already share housing and even incomes – that’s good. Our convictions and skills may be even more necessary this year – because it is an economic depression.

I believe God will help us. Even if we don’t obey him, for our sake he becomes as poor as we are. But to be blessed, we must become poor in ourselves to be rich in Him.

Answering those Who Teeter…again

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”  Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.  Matthew 19:27-30

The philosophers and scientists of our time have applied a lot of brainpower to finding out as much as they can about the natural proclivities of the rest of us. We are analyzed and tracked exhaustively so that what we want to consume will be delivered on demand. The Egyptian slaves of old built pyramids, we buy things. All this year the nation has breathlessly watched the statistics to see whether the big American consumption behemoth will start to eat ravenously again and so propel the stockholder’s profits and create those elusive jobs. The wise men of the age nervously watch to see if their predictions about what we want are right.

You can tell that I resent their science, can’t you? I resent big, powerful, faceless entities relentlessly using data collected on me to create products that are the images of my inmost desires. Essentially, they keep trying to get me to buy myself! – or at least some grainy image me or faint whiff of my desire. As much as they work on it, they’ll get more adept. Really, doesn’t it seem like the powers don’t even sell products anymore, they just sell just the hope of having the experience of being ourselves? We have fallen into a weird self-consumption; every day we get tempted to take a bite out of “ourselves.” We seem to be trying to get a self by eating ourselves. If you don’t notice you aren’t full yet – the advertisers do.

The recent Jeep commercial we were subjected to before Young Victoria (or was it Nine?) is a good example. I live. I ride. I am. Jeep. I wonder why the powers can afford to spend a bazillion dollars on that nonsense. It must be because it speaks to what a lot of us believe, and so brings a return. I think it feeds us our own delusions and sin and then gives us a Jeep to assuage the insatiable hunger for something  — we buy things that can’t satisfy, but we’re used to accepting the sensation of momentary fullness as something. It is like eating a diet of candy canes. We seem to generally like that.

As you can see in the scripture, Jesus feeds us what we don’t know we want. He does not base his actions on data he collects from us. He has an entirely different idea of consumerism. Jesus feeds us what we aren’t. It means transformation. When Jesus says, “Give up all your nonsense and come make sense with me, in every sense of the phrase,” it might initially seem like a bad deal. A Jeep seems like it might be worth it, in comparison. But, the Jeep only looks like it is all about wind in our perfect hair. One can’t buy freedom like that. Even if more elementary school teachers brainwash more children into thinking freedom can be paid for with our lives, it still will not be true. Jesus is better than the Jeep. He says, “Make a total allegiance to me and you will not miss anything you desire. Love turns to LOVE.  Family to FAMILY.

I am not sure we believe that allegiance to Jesus will transform our stuck-in-the-mud desires into fully human desires. A lot of us spend a whole life teetering, twittering and vacillating between Jeep and Jesus. I’m not denigrating the process of decision as I hope you will see, nor am I even saying that the way to Jesus can’t be through Jeep. But I am lamenting whatever pain teetering may bring to us. (If you’re not experiencing teetering, this may just irritate you, beware).

I think teetering makes forming community hard. I felt like writing this note to you because I watched some brilliant people trying to do some brilliant community formation the other day and they ran right into some people who just couldn’t get out of their Jeeps to do it. To be a part of the mission, their recruits had to leave what they were already doing to join in with a new brilliant thing that was being formed. They just could not do it. They could not heed the call the whole way; they wanted to adapt the call to match what they were feeling. They wanted to compromise and “sort of” be a part. When they heard someone suspect that the community was too radical, they backed away. They pondered and pondered until the window of opportunity passed and they had slid into some other pursuit.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The recruits might have just as well been considering becoming a Christian, or making a covenant with the others of Circle of Hope, or just coming to a meeting in a regular fashion. (Or, to be honest, it would be the same thing on the antichirst side — they could have been called to not be a Christian, not commit to some “system,” or never be “in or out” of the boundaries of some meeting). Or maybe it sounds familiar because someone went through a similar experience when someone who loved them would not marry them. Or maybe you’ve read Matthew 19 before and felt with Jesus as he struggled.

No doubt you felt with yourself as you struggled, just like the first followers of Jesus. Transformation is hard. I don;t think we should underestimate how hard the change from unreconciled to reconciled with God is – especially since sin has retrained our hearts!. Reconciliation with others – even sticking with people we love, much less dealing with those we hate, is hard. Making a covenant, racial reconciliation, peacemaking! – we aren’t always feeling it. We feel like getting a Jeep, or at least like having wind in our hair — and if we follow the training of the people who apply the science around here, that is about all we will feel. It is amazing how often we trade Jesus in for a desire that is undeveloped. But it is not so amazing that we can’t have sympathy for those who asked Jesus, “What then will there be for us?” People are  always wondering that. And Jesus doesn’t mind answering the question….and answering it again.

On Hild Day — in praise of women leaders

[In honor of Hild Day, Nov. 17, and in honor of the good women leaders among the Circle of Hope, I thought I’d re-do a piece written in 2008 and share it with you]

Leadership makes a difference

When I say that, a good 90% of us probably automatically tune out. As far as the organizations we understand and the church as it is, we already have a lot of leaders over us and we don’t see room for many more, certainly not ME.

We don’t imagine Jesus calling us to lead any time soon, either.

When Jesus talks about his claim to lead the people of God he pictures himself as a good shepherd, as opposed to all those false shepherds that lead everyone into misery. Very few of us would sign up to be a shepherd like that, good or false.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30.

Most of us don’t feel like we need to be in the shepherd role. I call that leadership on the “macro level,” sometimes. Not everyone is given that role. And I think that makes sense, since we don’t really need that many of those catalysts and guides.

But all of us are leading, in one way or another on what we might call the “micro level.” God has given each of us the capacity to make a difference. You count. You are in the father’s hand. You are carrying eternal life. So what you do means something. What you do leads me. You are like an undershepherd looking out for my interests.

I was arguing this out with a person the other day and telling him that his immoral life was leading me. He was presenting me a direction for how I should follow Jesus. I had to think, “Should I do it his way, or another way?”  He wasn’t happy to hear me thinking about this. He wanted to make no difference. He said, “I live my life and you live yours.” But I told him that was impossible. We get a common life from Jesus, that doesn’t belong to either of us exclusively. We are tied together —  if you just live whatever you think your life is, doesn’t that lead me to exercise the same illusion? Besides, we are tied by love. I love you. I cannot make you not make a difference to me. Where you are going, in some way, is where I am going too. The question is, “Where are you leading me?”

In some major ways you can tell where a people is going by where their macro leaders are going. But that is not the whole story. Especially in the church, you can tell where the church is going by what the preponderance of the individuals are doing, where the microleaders are going. If we are mostly passionate, visionary, loving, faithful people, things will go that direction. If we are not responsive to the Spirit of God’s leadership, nothing I or another macroleader tries to catalyze will get too far.

I know this is not true of quite a few people who read this blog, but I would say that many of us probably take ourselves much too lightly. You are not leading us where you think we should be going. As a result, you are more like one of the thieves or hired hands that Jesus is fighting than you might like to think.

Hild can help us think this through. In the era in which the New Testament was written, and in the era that saw the flowering of the Celtic Church, our spiritual ancestors had the very same challenges we do. The work of Jesus always faces challenges to find its place and find a voice in every culture. And it always takes Spirit-empowered people to lead the way. Leadership makes a difference. There are always the thieves and the hired hands, and we pray that there are always the undershepherds listening to Jesus, the good shepherd, and following.

So I want to re-tell the story about how it worked out a long time ago with Hild. I think this makes sense because we are a lot like the Celtic church. They were planting the church in a place like Center City Philadelphia, where so many people do not have faith and do not have a clear picture of Jesus at all. Our cells and our congregations are remarkably like the communities that the Celts formed to help people work out a way to live the abundant life Jesus promises and be a part of calling people who can hear the voice of Jesus into the fold to share that life.

Hild’s story center’s on Whitby, on the East coast of Northumbria. She became the famous leader of the Whitby Community about the year 650. That’s nearly 300 years after Patrick’s pioneering work in Ireland. A vibrant faith had spread from there to Scotland and down to Northumbria, and it had also moved up from Kent in the south. At this point the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northern England were the most vibrant on the islands. And Hilda was in the middle of it.

The story of Hilda’s leadership in the church begins with King Oswald, who became a follower of Jesus. King Oswald decided to help his people know the Lord so he sent off to the great community on Iona, where he had once lived in exile, to recruit a person who could help people come to faith.

The history of Oswald’s recruiting looks a bit like the  last U.S. presidential election. The first man Iona sent was too hot and people did not like him. Oswald sent him back. The next man sent was Aidan, who was gentler and more politically savvy. Aidan found a lot of success.

It was Aidan who spotted Hilda. Hilda was a distant member of a royal family who decided to become part of an intentional community at age 33. There were no communities exclusively for women in Northumbria at the time, so she was about ready to leave for France to join one there when Aidan persuaded her to stay. He trained her himself and gave her leadership of a household. She eventually moved to Whitby and founded a community where she was the leader for the last 23 years of her life. Unlike many of the Christian communities at the time, there were men and women at Whitby — Hild lead them all. They began what became a famous school. The community had a lot of influence in the surrounding area for hundreds of years. Hilda became so well-known that many people came to her for practical counsel and spiritual direction. If you have recently gotten close to the age when Jesus began his ministry and are feeling a little nervous about what is next, Hild demonstrates that the best is probably yet to come. If forty was the new thirty for you, don’t fret.

hild at tableUnlike many of the women of her time, Hilda ended up a macroleader. Aidan noticed her gifts and she responded to the call. There is a great picture of her at a present-day community near Whitby where she is seated at a round table leading, as she did in the tense and foundational discussion that happened at the Council of Whitby. We are still feeling the after-effects of that meeting.

I think Hilda followed the example of Jesus well. A good macroleader sees herself as a gate – an opportunity for people to enter into life, a way in to the community of faith. They are also a protector — they lay their lives down for the people and the cause. They are the servants lifting up the enterprise. They see the wolves circling. The also see who and what is next — like how Jesus talks about the sheep not of the present fold. The macroleader works at maintaining a vision that is beyond the present to help us get where we are going.

Our Cell Leaders, Cell Leader Coordinators, team leaders, and pastors are all doing their best to exercise this kind of transforming leadership. We are blessed with an astounding number of sincere, teachable and faithful leaders! Either they gain and exercise the audacity of Jesus and Hilda, or we make less of a difference, as a people, than we hope to make.  When I made a speech at a conference of the BIC last year, I was surprised to find out that they look to us, as a body, to provide some leadership for the whole denomination! They asked, “What have you learned in Philly that we could all apply? How do we live out the gospel these days?” I think I felt a bit like Hilda might have felt when she was being recruited by Aidan — I had a much smaller idea of who I was. We have something to bring; we need to bring it.

Hilda was also a notable microleader. Not that all women do this, but they are often better at not missing the trees for the forest. So many men cut down all the trees and pave things over so they can build something new in the name of their domination which they then call “safety!” Women can often lead with better empathy that starts with the trees there are and nurtures the true forest out of them.

This is well represented in the most famous story about Hilda that has to do with the cowherd named Caedmon, one of the workmen on Whitby’s large landholdings. Caedmon was at the opposite end of the social scale from Hilda. He was an illiterate farmhand. He seems to have been content with his lot except for one thing. Whenever the guys passed around the harp at the end of the day before bed, Caedmon headed for the door if he saw it coming his way. Songs and stories were valued and he was a tone-deaf guy. He wanted to get into the mix but soon everyone knew how embarrassed he was about his lack of ability.

One night he felt especially ashamed of himself and went back out to the cows, lonely and miserable. He ended up sleeping in the barn. There he had a dream. A man came to him and called him by name,

“Caedmon, sing me a song.”

“I can’t.” he said. “It is because I can’t sing that I am out here instead of with everyone else at table.“

”Can’t sing?” the voice said. “You can and you must.” ‘

“What must I sing about?”

“Sing about the creation of all things.” And Caedmon composed and song, right there in his dream —  a poem of praise of Creation. When he woke up, he discovered the dream was true. He sang his song to the cows.  In the morning, he told his boss what happened. The boss thought the story was weird enough to tell Hilda. .

Hilda got excited. She and the senior brothers and sisters gave Caedmon a little test. They chose a passage from the Bible and read it to him. He was to go make it a song. He took a whole day, but came back with an excellent song. At that Hilda invited him into the community. They didn’t bother to teach him to read Latin, they wanted him to make songs in English for people to sing as they ploughed and did their spinning. Caedmon is the first known English Christian poet.

In this Hilda was encouraging microleadership like Jesus also describes in the passage about being the good shepherd. Obviously Caedmon becomes the good cowherd in a whole new way.  Each of us are encouraged, I think, to see ourselves as someone with something to give. We get fed in the fold so we can grow into who we are meant to be. We count. Jesus knows us, Hilda knows Caedmon. We are not inconsequential. As it often goes, the least are often given the most because God loves using the least. He likes being the least.

Again, what you do good or bad, is going to cause something. It is sort of a sin to think of yourself as having no responsibility and leaving it all to Hilda. It is not Hilda’s job to be you! Caedmon heard God’s call directly. The leaders didn’t even know who he was. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus and follow. The following makes a difference. The one flock is people of all sorts following Jesus, and that gives it its beauty and power.

Hilda was ready to go to France. She ended up at home leading a community. Before long she was engaged in one of the leading communities of her area, hosting a synod that included people from Ireland, Scotland, and the South of England. Jesus is always looking for leaders like that who expand his fold and nurture and protect those in it. I’m not sure how Hilda felt about her responsibility. I know our president wondered how he got into his responsibility. Someone was testing him when he got started and asked him if he felt ready to be the leader of the free world. He said, “Who would?” I think many of us feel the same awe, like we just got an unusual song to sing, when Jesus calls us to make a difference.

Every one of us, whether we just entered the circle or not, has an opportunity to make a difference by what God has made us and given us to do. I don’t care if you are a big sinner right now, or if you are a women, or if you can sing or not. What you do starts good things and unlocks God’s capacity to transform.

We need our macro leaders to have energy, or like Oswald, we’ll have to go looking for someone who has some.

We need our microleaders to listen to their dreams. Sometimes the movement of God starts with your disappointment about what you can’t do. Please don’t give in to the disappointment and think you are useless. Please don’t let the wolf get you. The Good Shepherd is on our side and will keep working for us to have an abundant life – each of us and all of us.

The Heart of Good Dialogue

“Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking. You were all called together in one body to have peace. Always be thankful.” Colossians 3:15 (International Childrens Bible)

After something like fifteen hours of intense dialogue this past weekend during the Discerning Retreat, I felt like I needed a silence transfusion. But that need did not diminish my joy over the radical thing I got to do. We were definitely called together in one body – for real, not just in theory. And we had remarkable peace.

Dialogue is not easy. It is easy to talk (or at least think of what you would talk about if you dared to talk); it is harder to listen. It is easier to speak inauthentically– playing a part, following a line of thinking; it is harder to take oneself and others seriously as expressions of God’s Spirit. In this day, it is hard not to succumb to the prevailing thought that “everyone has a right to their own opinion” and merely “agree to disagree,” as if that thought and action were somehow supremely moral.

In Paul’s thinking, I think he would say, “The good news is that everyone has a restored right to God’s word of truth.” And, “For the sake of living in the peace Christ gives I would gladly give up all my so-called rights.”

A partner came up to me after the retreat was over and was so happy that we managed not to fight. It was the first time she had been involved in our discerning process directly. She had never seen a group of believers talk about difficult things with mutual understanding, patience and hope like we did. Another person said a similar thing. She was amazed that we could disagree so well.

I hope they didn’t think we just had a remarkable affection for each other. That is true. But we have to agree on some basics things in order to disagree well — like the scripture that heads this post. We can’t accept what we discern as practical application of our faith unless we do agree on some foundational realities of that faith. As in the words Paul wrote to the Colossians above, we have to agree that the peace of Christ is more important than our latest brainstorm or our latest desire to rise to the surface. We have to agree that we have been called together in one body and that our fears won’t protect that or our brilliance create it. We do need to be alert for what can destroy us, and we do need to passionately exercise our gifts to be the body, but, at the bottom of it, being called together and lead by God is the basis of any discernment we might have.

I have to admit that when I entered the retreat time, I was at peace, but I was not very thankful, yet. I was more anxious about what was going to happen. The pastors ran out of planning time and wished there had been more; we didn’t get our logistics right and ran into last-minute glitches; significant partners were absent or indisposed – there is always something. But during the prayer walk in the neighborhood, about when I was buying old china from a neighbor’s yard sale (which Gwen actually liked, even though it did not match what she already had, as I’d hoped), I was moved with a great feeling of gratitude. It hit me.

I managed to let Jesus rule the situation. I let my joy over being called into the body and having a real one to live in rise to the top. I listened to the hearts of my prayerwalking buddies as they prayed. I admired the burgeoning neighborhood into which God has plopped us. I realized I was astounded.

Maybe always be thankful is even more the essence of discerning dialogue. Conversation with someone who is grateful for what they have been given and grateful for who they have been given to be is a pleasure. Their receptivity to God’s grace makes them the most able discerners. I long to be one of those kind of followers of Jesus.

BEING Built together as living stones: And a lament for the lack

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house… 1 Peter 2:4-5

As we come to our Discerning Retreat We find ourselves in the sometimes-absurd-feeling position of taking the verse above with radical seriousness. Let me rephrase that, we are not just seriously considering being living stones; the event presumes that we are living stones being built into a spiritual house. There is a huge difference between merely aspiring to be something and seeing if it works out, and actually assuming one is something and working it out. It takes some courage to be so presumptuous.

Let me lead us in a lament on why it is hard for many of us to presume we are what Peter is talking about:

free radical and living stones

1) Some of our best potential partners “hover” over the church.

Good people can’t abide denominations; they go parachurch for their mission; they can’t stand relating too long without getting to do exactly what they want. So they hover over the rest of us, dipping in periodically to abscond with what they like and leaving the rest of us to be the church. I compare them to free-radical atoms that cause organisms to deteriorate. They are like high-end shoppers who periodically hold an extravagant fair where they get their goodies; the rest of the time they cast their nets into various groups and scoop up whatever they want to consume and discard the rest.

2) People who were once radical enough to be a member of the “tribe,” no matter what, have a tough time maintaining that once they have children.

It is hard to imagine your child’s needs being met among the living stones when they are in the process of being indoctrinated by the school and their peer group. When your child is having trouble relating or participating, it is hard not to adapt to their leadership.

3) We have quite a few ex-dating, even ex-marriage partners cordoning off sections of the fellowship.

If I am upsetting you right now because I said this, I probably mean you. I feel your pain, but if we organize around you, worry about how your despair is driving you out, or are drawn to see the world in terms of being on your side or not, we are not being constructed; we’re expanding your sense of being destroyed.

4) On the same subject, we have numerous mixed marriages or mixed faux-marriages among us. I mean that people are built together with mates who don’t follow Jesus.

The mates are usually open to faith (at least to their mate having some), and are likely to be nice people. But they often take their mate out of the building materials storehouse. It is hard to be a living stone if you are not really available to be built into the building.

5) Some of the partners really keep their faith in their head.

That’s not all bad – there are intellectual issues to be had. But being built together is physical, emotional and mainly spiritual. We can’t just argue all day. We don’t want to live in a relationship that is like a bad marriage, in which the partners are just out for some kind of justice that matches what they are thinking or meets their demands, instead of being out to build the love of the relationship.

It’s a lament

Don’t take this the wrong way. This piece is kind of a “lament” based on my longing to be all that Peter is talking about – a living stone built into a spiritual house. I am a living stone and I do experience life in the spiritual house. It would have been easy enough to write a psalm of praise about how people are doing the exact opposite of what I have enumerated above. And I could have written a psalm of praise for how people in the conditions enumerated above are dealing with them faithfully. I have plenty of well-founded hope. Besides, the church depends on what Jesus is building. We are being built, Peter says. We, and millions of living stones all over the world, are being built by God into the typically wild array of diverse expressions of grace.

But I like the reality of the stark contrasts that also permeate Peter’s letter.  I think Peter wrote the exhortation I’m riffing on today because he was facing the same kind of stuff we face. People in his day, like in ours, just didn’t get the facts of their new lives in Christ or they didn’t accept them or they wouldn’t/couldn’t live out of them. They had any number of good reasons to not be built together into a spiritual house. We have the reasons our world tempts us to apply, too.

The Discerning Retreat is one of our radical antidotes to all that. It gives us a chance to take Jesus and one another seriously, in hope that we won’t be something in our head, just a theory, or merely a prospect. It calls us to be a people in real time, in love with each other, with the living Lord at the center. The retreat is far from the only thing we do, of course, to live out our lives in Christ. But it is such a good opportunity to come to the Living Stone and be built, as living stones, into a great place for him to live.

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Thoughts on Programming

Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. “Programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I don’t think anyone can see Jesus (or even the somewhat rationalistic Paul) doing or advocating “programming.” So why does it so often seem like a good idea to Christians?

We are not doomed to exercise our training

I’m not saying that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. But I do want to protest filling up every spare moment with an event that is supposed to serve the purpose that normal human relationship and organic connections can and should fulfill. Just because we are all trained to create a programs to do what we should just do personally doesn’t mean we should do it. Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise the training.

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 people skip the original hymn and essentially sing:

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. 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 that happened in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.

The church is face to face

I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders have a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. But most of us are free to live as 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 us real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals on Broad St. and Frankford Ave. 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.

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. Obviously 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 perversely admire a very tidy “love.”

It is the Lord among the “one another” that 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.

Do You Get Harry Potter?

As of today Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince has grossed $461,318,990 worldwide. Gwen and I contributed to that last week at the over-priced Bridge Deluxe near Penn (but how nice to walk to the theatre!). Do you get what is going on here? Just what is selling all these tickets? I have not been able to get into the books and I have been caught looking at my watch during the movies. What is the attraction?     

There is something going on. A bazillion people are concerned that another youngster is threatened by unseen forces and fighting overwhelming evils. Is every movie required to have this plot this year? — By use of some kind of magic (a transforming car, the Starship Enterprise, etc.) young people enhance their developing, misunderstood awesomeness to overcome the evil with the help of their friends, but not at the expense of their own self-esteem and uniqueness.

This propaganda is getting to be old hat. But, if the trailers are any evidence, the expression of it may be getting darker and even more dire. I felt quite educated by the previews before Harry Potter started lumbering into its 2-1/2 hours. I can’t remember them all. The next Twilight was one of them (Bella leaves vampire boyfriend with werewolf boyfriend; danger ensues, but will true love save even the undead?). 2012 was another (John Cusack and Woody Harrelson survive global catastrophe). And there was a creepier, Potteresque something I can’t remember. I was not encouraged, but perhaps enlightened.

This generation has some high expectations of success and happiness and it secretly blames insurmountable, possibly evil, forces for the inevitable shame they feel about their deprivation. That is my lesson du jour. Voldemort gets Dumbeldore killed. My boyfriend wants to suck my blood. We’re all about to be killed by a natural disaster and only John Cusack will survive. Anxiety. Fear. Unfulfilled dreams. Pass the prozac. Or please, pass the gospel. You people need a savior; Harry’s wand is not making it (and it is make-believe, anyway, btw).

The other strand that might be running through these movies is this (OK, this is lesson du jour deux): “I really want someone to love; I want community.” — Life-long school chums who are as weird as I am and know me, and accept me, as I am; the boyfriend who is wild and crazy but who will resist killing me (he’s so awesome) and may kill others for me; the brave survivors who restart the world from their little tribe. Connection, Hope. Restoration. Pass the church.

What Holds this Church Together?

I’ve come to love the “how” questions. But for whole segments of the population, I answer them rather poorly. The other night at “rabbi time” one of my favorite people (Jeff not only thinks and sings well, he plays the accordion!) asked one of my favorite questions about the church. “How does it hold together?” I didn’t get all of the back story, but I think he’s seen a few places fall apart. It took him a while to join in, since he was skeptical about Circle of Hope’s staying power! It does not seem to have enough mechanisms for survival; it just kind of is.

My answer received a funny response that I have been pondering since. “Every time you talk about this, you use the words relational, love, incarnational, but I end up not knowing a lot more.” (I felt a bit like Jimmy Carter being humored by Ronald Reagan). That reply echoed a much more incoherent protest by a blogger who objected to the chart I was explaining on the Circle of Hope blog a week ago. (Just how did you come across that blog, Courtney?).

So I thought I would try again.

Most of what I think is better summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
        Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

What holds us together? Here are five applications of the scripture we are trying to make, with just one example each that demonstrate how we are trying. (Want to comment with more?)

1) We assume people are not infants (or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.

We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.

2)  The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know we are a “ship of fools” as far as the deluded world is concerned.

You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.

3) Dialogue is practiced. Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.

Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.

4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head, not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”

The hardest think to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.

5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other, and promote such dissolution.

Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.

My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.