Tag Archives: courage

We love what evangelicals were: Let’s be who we are becoming.

When the seminarians cohort met last week to do some theology, Corinne quoted a speech by Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton (from our mutual alma mater!), as an example of an Evangelical who is struggling with us:

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

He went on to talk about race, nationalism and economics as other notable places where the Evangelical movement has long been off the rails in the United States, noting that someone told him when one Googles “Evangelical” one gets “Trump.”(I tried it. Sure enough, the last three entries on the first page concerned Trump). A Christian is in big trouble when Trump is associated with their spiritual convictions.Image result for evangelical millennials

That kind of “evangelical” is why people leave the church

One of the generators of the post-WW2 Evangelical explosion was Fuller Seminary. Now Fuller is facing decline as the white church causes an exodus of millennials. As a church founded by an evangelical-influenced Anabaptist and twentysomethings, Circle of Hope regularly hears and feels the abhorrence associated with the label “evangelical.”

Carolyn Custis James asks the church what they are going to do about their reputation in the Huffington Post:

What would inspire [millennials]  to return [to the church] if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “come!” or “stay away”?

To begin with, if you want people to stay or return, how about not labeling them? —  like calling them “millennial?”

We’ve been creatively answering Custis’ questions and many others for many years. At our meeting to do some theology we pondered the question “What’s up with Evangelicals?”

  • We considered how to affirm Evangelicals who keep the faith while jettisoning the label that has been hijacked by powerful racists seeking to control the domination system.
  • We considered how we are not an exclusively Evangelical church, by any stretch of the imagination, but how we care about all the traditional emphases that mark the movement.
  • We noted that while we share some convictions with historic Evangelicals, at the same time we care about the contemplative prayer movement from the Catholic church, the spiritual immediacy of the Pentecostals, the social action of the Mennonites, as well as all sorts of art, thinking and influences from movements that most people have never heard about from all over the world. We aspire to transcend labels.

Jeff Sessions is a good reason to wear the label “Evangelical” lightly

The big “for instance” about Evangelicals came up during our “Ask Me Anything” session on South Broad last Sunday. One of our friends asked Rachel what we are supposed to do about Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children after they enter the U.S. illegally. Sessions said,

“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (whose dad is a notable Evangelical pastor) summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” – USA Today

What are we supposed to do with that? Let’s be kind of Evangelical about it right now and actually care about what the Bible says. I think it is obvious that Paul is not writing the Romans as if he were Jeff Sessions! Jesus was killed by evil-doing authorities and the Apostle would soon be killed likewise. Neither of them were notably obedient to the established order out of principle. If anything, Paul is recommending in Romans 13 that the church obey the authorities so they don’t all get killed before the church takes root in Rome! Nero will shortly try to get rid of all of them after the big fire (Trump is like Nero). Even a cursory reading of Romans 12-15 reveals a vision that far transcends something as measly as obeying worldly powers as a goal for Christian behavior:

  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
  • Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8).
  • You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (14:10).
  • We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up (15:1-2).

As our dialogue developed among the cohort, I was happy to see us shrug off the label “Evangelical” as well as others plastered on us by the world while affirming the goodness that can be found in most containers (like “Brethren in Christ”). We ended up wanting to help people who  think Jeff Sessions might be a member of Circle of Hope find their way out of the thicket of lies growing up around them. Really, I don’t think any of us even know Jeff Sessions; much less is he one of us. Besides,  the trap he is in makes him about as real as reality TV and he probably knows he is just playing a role — he might not like it either. Regardless, our debt to him is love. And though he deserves contempt, we are not going to treat anyone with contempt. If we are convicted to be more faithful than others, we will bear with the weak and build them up. We are going to overcome evil with good.

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

I have been in many discussions lately in which the convictions I just described have been labeled as “not enough.” From what I understand of the persistent arguments thrown at me, I am supposed to wear a label from the most recent political fight and defend it. I am supposed to get power and use it rightly. I am supposed to be with the Evangelicals or against them, as if our endless strife were Lord and not Jesus. It is tiring.

So I was glad to find some actual edification as I was zoning out in front of the TV on my day off. I tuned into Gone With The Wind again after flipping through other possibilities —  I love to watch finely-done movies, even if they are philosophical travesties. I only got to the part in the movie where the disreputable but moral Rhett Butler convinces the daring but disreputable Scarlett O’Hara to violate all standards of public mourning by dancing with him at the charity ball. She mildly laments that her reputation is going to be shot after all their unseemly waltzing. He tells her, “With enough courage you can do without a reputation.”

I may have gotten as much from that line as I have from Paul’s letters on today’s subject. I’m not sure why he didn’t write it himself; he surely thought it! As people who take our faith, the Bible, the Church, and its mission seriously, we need a lot of courage these days, because, as one of the cohort noted, “Evangelical” might as well be an “F word;” and Jeff Sessions represents the church on the news! Our reputation is shot with the so-labeled millennials. We live among Americans and they like to fight, not love. They love power, not pleasing their neighbors – even the weak ones seem to wake up every day wondering who stole their power! We need courage! Because I can’t help thinking we were made for this very moment, good reputation or not.

There are a lot of loving Evangelicals (I hope you said, “Of course!”). Their movement has roots in all the serious-Christian movements in the history of the Church. I can be one of them, or not, because I am serious about following Jesus, too. Wherever the Lord is followed, I’m fine. We all have the future in Christ to receive and build; we need to avoid  fighting to do it right now. We are meant to end strife, not conform to it.

That’s not to say I don’t think a good argument can be usefuI! — but I would hardly let one label me. As Paul said (in Romans 13, Jeff!), “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” There are great labels yet to be born, like “There goes that effin’ armor of light guy!”

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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Patrick had nerve — redux

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him,

  • we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working.
  • we keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered.
  • we get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with
  • we undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing

We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve — redux

Patrick had nerve

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him, we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working. We keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered. We get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with. We undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing. We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve

Valor

Wealth, therefore, is “THE POSSESSION OF THE VALUABLE BY THE VALIANT”; and in considering it as a power existing in a nation, the two elements, the value of the thing, and the valour of its possessor, must be estimated together. Whence it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are, they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, and eddies in a stream (which, so long as the stream flows, are useless, or serve only to drown people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should the stream dry); or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as “illth,” causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, (no use being possible of anything they have until they are dead,) in which last condition they are nevertheless often useful as delays, and “impedimenta,” if a nation is apt to move too fast.  — John Ruskin “Ad Valorem,” 1860

Chuck put this quote on his Facebook page the other day. It is so great and so coolly old, that it bears repeating. It reminded me that the sleeping bear of the younger class is finally waking up in response to its self-interest. It is finally finding its voice in response to, you guessed it, economics. Its entire childhood and youth has been nurtured in an atmosphere of debate about economics and in preparation to be employed as part of the economy. Its elders have systematically denuded the societal landscape of meaningful dialogue and morality and reduced everything, socially or philosophically, to a “free market.”

Christians generally have nothing meaningful to say about this change, either being swept up in it or totally marginalized by the new narrative. So in the spirit of Ruskin, I want to redo his quote for the faithful. Since the sleeping lion is really asleep, and the source of true wealth that so many of the younger generation are seeking is not going to be found in the “economy” or in political justice or in freedom or in any of the other sources upon which the 99% (a purely economic designation, but the title that is sticking) are making demands. Here I go.

Faith, then, is the possession of the valued. It is not only valuable in itself, but it makes the possessor valorous and so valuable to the world. The question has always been, if a supposedly faithful person is not valorous in the cause of his or her faith, are they faithful? Many people who attend meetings and wear the name Christian, are no more faithful than a time schedule or a title, since they never act on anything the meeting implies or the name includes. They are not receiving or dispensing living water, they have, in fact become dead water, they are eddies in a stream – they no longer are part of the live flow, but one could die of them if they should fall into them, and should they become fully separated from the Savior and his people they could be a stagnant pool growing contagion. Worse yet they become dams, sitting among the faithful impeding what could be done if the water did not have to come up against them or find a way around them or wait for them to deteriorate enough to break apart.

Harry Potter zaps Impedimenta

Does anyone want to be “impedimenta?” Of course not. It happens when valor is misdirected, at best, or is no longer an aspiration, at worst. Among us people become impediments when their valor is spent on their part in the economy and they have no practical plan for home or shop that has anything to do with Jesus. When the economy runs us around and God seems too nice to demand more courage we’re dying.

A few suggestions for being faithfully valorous: 1) Follow the inspiration(s) God will give you after you have spent ten minutes, or so, every day with him in concentrated relating for a week. It doesn’t take much to get marching orders. 2) Multiply your cell with people who are not delivered to you by the “church” — go ahead and include them in your life rather than merely being included in theirs.  3) Take the steps in your marriage that will bring it to a place where positive, God-inspired things are directing it rather than your energy-sucking power struggle. 4) Make your church something that makes a difference, never merely inhabit it. 5) Use the occupy movement as a tool for your faith; love, relate, discuss, protest, but don’t be the backside of the “economy.”

A Psalm — for Courage

I wrote a small psalm to share with the main mother in my life and she thought I should share it with you. I have been admiring the film-makers who are the prophets of the unbelieving world, these days. They are no more heeded than God’s own spokespeople. But the call remains.

Lord, save us from the liars
And from our own lies.

The ice cap is still melting,
But we did kill Osama bin Laden.
There were no WMDs in Iraq,
But we do know that Obama is Hawaiian.
The perps of the money melt down still reign,
But we are now friends with Duchess Kate.

Forgive us as we calculate
How much it costs
to tell the truth.
Each keystroke hurts;
Each small look a threat
Of crass resistance.

The iciness is growing,
So we kill our terror with quiet.
New enemies rummage around in us,
So we deftly adapt reality.
The audacious win the power,
So we turn our minds to drivel.

Forgive us as we obfuscate
How much it costs
To live in truth —
Each threat of conflict,
Each painful question
A reason to live a lie.

You have caused yourself endless trouble
Being and telling truth.
You have caused us endless trouble
Following and discerning.
We lack your courage.
Speak it into us.

Kristen and the Sword of Wendell Berry

I have been meaning to tell this little story about Kristen for a few weeks. The Monday after resurrection Sunday seems like a good time to tell it. Our good feeling of new life is going to meet up with our schedules. The resolve we honed with our Lent disciplines is going to meet up with opposition. The week after Easter can be such a let-down because we get tested and we don’t meet the test as well as we would like. So I thought I would offer you a story about how Kristen got tested met the test. I think of her up on her soap box quite often, making herself heard among the big loud men speaking for the empire. I appreciate her example, because I also need the courage to open my mouth and speak my heart. Like her, I am also confronted with a world that desperately needs what has been lavished on me in Jesus.

She was doing a summer internship last summer at a farm in Massachusetts. It was some, wonderful organic farm that invites the kids up to do some work, get themselves dirty and get reconverted to humanity. One of the farm’s outlets for their produce was the farmer’s market in a village nearby. Kristen went along to help sell the kale and whatnot.

It happened that the village had a good Massachusetts tradition of having a “speaker’s corner.” When there was a farmer’s market, they set up a place where people could exercise their right of free speech. Since it was near the Fourth of July, speakers were feeling especially patriotic and quite a few people were getting up to say something. The rhetoric was tending to lean Tea Partyish.

One man got up and read a familiar paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”

He thought that the government was doing a relatively admirable job of securing our rights with its various wars. He exhorted the crowd to support the troops. Kristin was not having it. She had been reading Wendell Berry. She was about ready to join Shalom House for a couple of years (at least). So she decided to get up on the soapbox and speak back with poetry. She whipped out the sword of Wendell Berry and said: 

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be. — 1991 – I

Her new friends at the farm we a bit concerned. Not only were her listeners the prospective buyers of farm-fresh organic tomatoes, they later told her that they were not entirely convinced that the villagers would not do her harm if she kept reading her poetry. But sometimes when Kristen gets going she needs to complete her thoughts. So she kept going and closed with this: 

 Now you know the worst
 we humans have to know
 about ourselves, and I am sorry,

 for I know you will be afraid.
 To those of our bodies given
 without pity to be burned, I know

 there is no answer
 but loving one another
 even our enemies, and this is hard.

 But remember:
 when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
 he gives a light, divine

 though it is also human.
 When a man of peace is killed
 by a man of war, he gives a light.

 You do not have to walk in darkness.
 If you have the courage for love,
 you may walk in light. It will be

 the light of those who have suffered
 for peace. It will be
 your light. 

1995 – V To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Thank God for people with the courage to share their heart for peace! Jesus died on the cross for reconciliation with God and others. Jesus pointedly did not raise an army to achieve his ends. Jesus rose again and continues to rise in people who have the courage to be the light. The light comes from being at peace with God. But peace with God that does not make peace on earth doesn’t really have much to get up on the box and say, does it? Let’s meet our tests this week with audacity and hope.

Tasers and John Doe Graves

I’m glad I am not the only worried one. The national media wandered into a couple of territories with which I am familiar recently: Citizen’s Bank Park and Imperial Valley, CA. They told some disturbing, important truths about where our country is headed.

Jacob and I were at the Phillies game when the teenager got tasered by the Philadelphia policeman. A hush fell over the crowd where I was, followed by boos. I don’t think any of us knew quite what to think as we saw the kid fall on the ground. Although Gov Rendell thinks it should not have happened, the polls seem to be going in favor of tasering trespassers. People seem to just be happy the authorities are tasering instead of shooting bullets!

It makes more sense than ever why my youngest friends are so hesitant to speak up about being a Christian among their friends and workmates. The last ten years have seen a steady erosion in the respect for people who express a “suspicious” mentality. Running around on a baseball field is hardly defense-worthy self-expression, but watching someone getting tasered for doing so sends a message: the powers that be can stop you and stop you hard. I kind of wish all the seventeen year olds in the stands had rushed the field and run around in protest. But, as it is, I think people digested the message that the police are prepared to do what it takes to keep us in line. We are all terrorists until proven innocent. If you suddenly bring up a picture of Jesus being questioned by Pilate in your mind, I think that might be appropriate.

Another story someone mentioned to me makes me understand a bit more about how hard-hearted our government is prepared to be. Something has been happening along the southern border of my old home state, California. Had I found a way to do it, I really wanted to get involved in calling for justice and love at the center of the immigration debate in neighboring Arizona by trekking with some people at the end of May along the “migrant trail.”   Out in the desert, desperate people too often die trying to get to some work in the U.S. CBS had a segment on 60 Minutes about drownings in the All American Canal which was even more appalling to view than the tasering.

After about 16 years of the government burying victims in Imperial County, CBS said something about it.  The fence the government put up in the urbanized areas nearer San Diego works. It sends people out into the desert to cross the border, where they meet up with the All American Canal – a swift-moving aqueduct bringing Colorado River water to San Diego. It is like a moat for California. The canal has no escape devices for people who fall in or dive in.  Scores have died. The Imperial County officials seem to think that if you are doing this illegal thing, you should die. There is a growing collection of graves for unknown drowning victims. It is horrifying how willing the populace is to accept the deaths of foolish and desperate people in the All American Canal, and the whole Sonora desert.

The incident at the ball park and the militarization of the border are both examples of how we are all being tempted to accept our government’s commitment to violence as the best way to solve problems. I don’t want to be silently complicit as the culture develops in that direction.

We, as the members of the Lord’s body, as the light of the world, are the alternative to the evils of the world. We should not be so threatened that we make our cell meetings a secret we fearfully hide lest someone make us illegal. The new humanity is built by obedient followers of Jesus who don’t care if telling the truth about evil puts them at odds with the same fearmongers who killed Jesus in the name of national security,

Meeting Fatigue

meeting fatigue

One of my friends told me, last night (at the public meeting), that he wasn’t at a meeting we had mutually agreed to attend because he’d “had enough Circle of Hope meetings” that week. I thought his decision seemed pretty realistic. But it was also true that he had counted a birthday party, a personal conversation with someone with whom he was working out conflict and dinner with friends one night as “meetings” too, I think.

It can be pretty discouraging when your life turns into a series of meetings! When a toddler’s birthday party turns into a “church meeting” and puts you over your meeting ration for the week, I think a new conception might be in order.

The syndrome called “meeting fatigue”

Perhaps we need a new psychological term for this syndrome (maybe there is one): meeting fatigue. The symptoms might be:

  1. the inability to say no to a social event,
  2. the inability to talk to your loved ones about why it is you are not going to attend the first-birthday party or the game night,
  3. the inability to find one’s date book and strategize the use of one’s time.

I think I know quite a few people with meeting fatigue among Circle of Hope. If it weren’t for being part of the church, they would not feel obligated to spend so much time in marginally useful or satisfying meetings. The basic meeting structure of our church is pretty simple: 1) connect and worship on Sunday, 2) be part of a more intimate cell. That’s it. The rest is purely voluntary. But once people get connected, they can be included in many other social and missional enterprises. Incrementally, they can end up attending brunch every weekend, countless birthday parties, baby showers, weddings, move-ins, protests, team meetings, concerts,  and who knows what else? One’s function in the body can seem like it is happening in an endless series of meetings.

There is a way out: change your mind

Like many psychological issues, change can happen when one’s mind changes. I am not a picture of mental health, but I don’t feel obligated to attend my life as if it were a meeting. For instance, I am going to see the Phillies whup the Cardinals tonight with Jacob. It is not a meeting. I was actually at the public meeting in Camden last night, but I saw it more as an opportunity to connect and serve, not as a mere meeting I was obligated to attend, lest I get into trouble (I suppose there would have been some kind of trouble if I’d stayed home to watch my Netflix and didn’t offer the speech I’d prepared, but you get my meaning).

I often want to say to someone (and sometimes I do say to someone) who feels burned out on meetings, “Get over yourself. The world is not revolving around you. You are not being spread too thin or stretched in a million directions, like you are a finite piece of wonder everyone wants a piece of.” But that sounds kind of mean, doesn’t it? And I don’t always have the right to be so blunt. More often I say, “If you are that worn out, I give you personal permission to not come to any meeting I’ve organized. You’ll probably just be a drain on it anyway because you’ll feel rebellious about sharing our love the whole time we are giving it to you.” But that’s kind of angry sounding and I don’t always feel it will be heard in the right spirit. So I have most often said, “Let’s go over your schedule together and see what can be adjusted. It looks like you have too much to do.” That isn’t always so well-received, either, but it might be the most useful help I could offer.

I think we rarely have a time issue as much as we have a strategy issue. We don’t know why we are doing what we are doing. And if we do know why, we have not had the courage to organize ourselves and do what we’ve decided. It is a lot easier to be mad at someone else for making us do something we don’t feel good about than doing what we think we ought to do and letting the results be what they are. It is worth considering: What toddler needs you at their party if you are contributing your “obligation” to them? Spare them.

Suggestions for what to do about your apparent  fatigue

When I am done being angry and reactive to people who are in meetings with me with their love hidden under their resentment and their passion muted by their rebellion, I can have more sympathy for the psychological state they are in. They need a new conception. If one sees their life as 50-60 hours of work with night classes tagged on, getting kids to school, being at their mother’s birthday party and then “going to” church, it can begin to feel like an unmanageable mess, like meeting fatigue. When does one mow the lawn? Much more, when does one sit down to plan the schedule? My father used to call it a “rat race.”

I have one small suggestion for anyone with meeting fatigue. Forget all the other meetings until you get the most important one set. Have a daily meeting with God at the beginning of the day. Get up as early as it takes to do this, even you are tired for the rest of the day, until you get used to having this “meeting.” Learn how the Lord sees your day ahead. Take your planner with you and let Him start sorting it out with you. I think God can offer a conception for what is happening that will work for you. Plus, I think He’ll build up the strength you need to do what makes sense rather than being pushed around by nonsense. Most of all, I think he’ll deepen your love so, no matter what is going on, you’ll be bringing something from Him to it.

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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Reorientation — education is not the key to your future

[I had a short offering to give last night at the “Re:Orientation” event. I thought I’d put an even shorter version out here for you to see what you think. We were presenting an alternative to what universities usually say during orientation.]

Friday we were going out to 69th St. to buy a birthday present with my 2-year old grandson, who loves to ride El. A nice man got on the train and started talking to him and I ended up talking a little, too. He ended up saying, “I like Obama, but he said he would bring the young people home. And that is not happening. Instead he wants to send more to Afghanistan. “ Like every president,  Obama says he wants world peace and then sends 18 year olds, mostly poor ones, to die to protect Citibank and Exxon. No wonder there were well-organized anarchists in Pittsburgh on Friday to represent the angry 18-year-olds. We have more un-kept promises from a new president (who makes a lot of promises!). The future looks like more of the past.

Is education the key to your future?

But that is generally not what the University teaches. Long before we go through the college orientation, the institution of “school,” in its many forms, has generally taught that the future will be better and it belongs to the educated. The omnipresent president was telling that to elementary school kids a couple of weeks ago.

Washington University in St. Louis was orienting physically-challenged students this year with this statement. “Work-based learning experiences can help a student make career decisions, network with potential employers, select courses of study, and develop job skills relevant to future employment. Through the interaction of work and study experiences, students can enhance their academic knowledge, personal development, and professional preparation.” That’s a standard statement of common sense in the university world. Of course they gave a shout out to acquiring knowledge and developing personally, but the big reason to go to school is to prepare for your future job, to make yourself into something that is employable. The future is all about getting a job so you better get the education to get the job.

reorientation

Education is the key to your debt

But there is a lot more to education these days than they tell you. It is like this: the real future is about desperately needing a well-paying job to pay off the huge debt you incurred to get the education to get a future.

The Wall Street Journal on Sep 4 had an article about student loan debt. For instance, Zack Leshetz, a 30-year-old lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has $175,000 in student loans from his seven years in college and law school. Lately he has had his eye on the real-estate market. “Everyone says that it’s a great time to buy a house,” he says. But that is not an option right now, thanks to $800 a month in payments—and another chunk of student loans in forbearance, which means payments are halted while interest accrues. “I find myself living paycheck to paycheck.” He has also been engaged since March, but has held off on marriage. “There’s no way I can pay for a dream wedding, or even just a regular wedding,” Mr. Leshetz says. “I feel like I’m putting my entire life on hold.”

This is not all the university segment of “school” says about your future, but this is certainly in there: education is the future – it won’t be cool if you don’t stay in school. But the secret message is that debt is your future – get the education and then become a slave until you pay for it.

Reorientation toward the alternative

I want to present an alternative. Using a university to gain wisdom and skill is fine, but Jesus has a lot more in store for us than university education provides or than we can afford to pay for.

The quote below is part of an account in the Bible in which Jesus and the disciples are talking to a man who has “made it,” so to speak, but who is still intrigued with Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!
[The kingdom of God is where God rules and Jesus is followed]
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
[The “Eye of the Needle” is a small gate in old Jerusalem that is a challenge to big camels]
Those who heard this asked, (If it is that hard) “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with people is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said  to  them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God  will fail  to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Luke 18:24-30

The university makes promises it does not keep. Jesus keeps his promises. But that is not my basic point. Jesus is calling for a basic reorientation.

The promise of Jesus

Your future is taken care of; live your life now. Jesus doesn’t ask you to wait until you get an education to be someone. As you know, education can only be a useful tool in the hands of someone who is someone; it doesn’t make you anything. Jesus makes you someone who can use an education.

You don’t have to wait until you pay off your debts to engage fully in life. If you had to pay off all your debts, financial and spiritual, you’d never get finished, and you would just incur more debt, anyway. Jesus forgives you your debt to him — the heart-debts you owe to God for turning away from him and pursuing education and career like they can save you, or pursuing anything else. He gives you the future free of charge.

We, as the people of God who follow Jesus, organized as Circle of Hope, have never waited for college-age people to grow up before we invite them to show up. They are welcome to be a full part and to own the church. We are not looking for people who have paid off all their debts and come in with no encumbrances of doubt, sin, and other baggage, we can forgive you, too, and let you get on with it. We don’t want anyone to use all their energy on serving a false hope and end up a full-on slave.

We invite you to join us in doing the most important thing you can do in your twenties — even while you are getting an education, or struggling to pay for your apartment or to pay off your debts. You are valuable to God. Together, our resources make a huge difference in God’s hands. This is what we always say — Re-orient with us and see. Come along and be yourself in Christ with us and see.

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?

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 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.

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.

Pray and Not Faint

Jesus said, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” (Luke 18:1)  At least He said that in the King James Version. I think it might be more literally translated: Jesus told them that “they” ought always to pray and not to faint. The overuse of the designations for humans as “man” or “men” is often not warranted; it is just a bad, power-grab of a habit. But I digress before I begin.

The word to me lately has been right from the King James Bible verses I memorized as a boy. I need to pray, and not faint — that is “faint” in the sense of faint-hearted, “faint” in the sense that the circumstances make me despair that transformation is possible; my heart breaks, my heart melts within me, I am not stout-hearted. Jesus might have told them: “If you come up against the impossible, my friends, pray with abandon.” I am trying to listen.

I have had such a great couple of years of spiritual experience and growth! I am very thankful. But, you know, a deeper relationship with God does not necessarily make life easier. The more I know the Lord (and so myself), the less I can overlook, avoid, or miss the reasons Jesus chose to die. I may have a greater capacity to suffer well, but I notice more reasons to suffer. I may have a greater capacity to serve, but I understand what I am up against more clearly, inside and out. Fainting becomes a clear option.

Today, the outside seems rather threatening. My friend returned from southern Sudan and reported that leaders there are preparing for war again. My president got heckled in the joint meeting of Congress last week. My governor is pushing casinos on my city. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on. I am very bothered by these things. But I almost don’t want to bring them up in conversation anymore, because it seems to me that people are so unaware or purposely turned away that they can’t engage.

Some days I feel surrounded by a spirit of disengagement. That’s far from everyone, of course, but so many of us seem to have found a way to survive that keeps us as safe as we can be from other people and the overwhelming facts of gigantic governments and corporations fighting for power, enormous info machines dominating communication, incomprehensible food production and medical care turning us into things we can’t imagine, and in my neighborhood, the constant threat that the thousands of guns will be used when the thin fabric of community finally tears.

We need to pray, and not faint! I keep hearing that from the Lord and I keep trying to figure out all it means to me, and to the church (one thing it means – this blog post!). My mind is drawn to the strange account of Daniel praying for the restoration of his people. An angel told him, Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. (Daniel 10:12-13)

My conviction to pray may be as strangely important as Daniel’s seems to have been. Angels may be deployed when I pray. Even though I speak my prayers into places I can’t fully imagine, I have been designated a key player. How are you working with that assignment?

Rather than giving up and letting the forces we fear drive us into a smaller and smaller boxes, we need to pray. Given how I am hearing the scripture, it makes sense that if just Circle of Hope prays for transformation, amazing things might happen. Since I know this is read all over the country —  if we all pray and not faint, who knows what we might release God to do?

If the impossible is crystal clear, the logical response is prayer. Now that we know Who we serve as well as we do, would we faint?

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Get off your ass and ask: Othniel and Acsah

The Bible

And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.

One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs. Joshua 15:16-19

I ask you.
No selfies in Acsah’s day, but this might be a good snap.

I have a special fondness for young couples starting out together; so this little bit of history in the book of Joshua is kind of irresistible to me. Othniel went on to be the first judge of the judges of Israel. But at this point, he and Acsah (name your daughter that!) are just setting up their own household. They seem to have been a visionary, ambitious pair. That is what I think, at least, when I envision Acsah and Othniel going back to Caleb’s house to get a better deal on her inheritance. All she had was desert and no water — but she had irrigation plans! It appears that she was pushing Othniel, “Go ask my dad for more!” But as soon as they got there, she jumped off her donkey and asked herself! Caleb undoubtedly knew he had a special daughter; he may have seen “that look” in her eye as soon as she rode up and immediately asked, “What?”

She got her water.

The Prayer

You may think it is too much to make a lot out of these little snippets of the Bible. That’s OK. But see if this moment doesn’t make a good prayer for you, anyway. Here is how it works.

We go to our Father and he sees us just as we are. He says, “What can I do for you?”

We say, “Do me a favor, since you know I’ve been given desert. I need springs of water. Give me also springs of water.”

He gives them.

It is something like that. Try praying it. Should I say, “Get off your ass and ask?” Probably not.

But we need to ask because we have some desert! Should we just take what we appear to have been given and make the most of the desert?

  • I’m talking about the spiritual desert — not feeling it personally, no faith, hope, joy, love, just a gnawing sense of need.
  • I’m talking about the relational desert – the friendship circle or marriage feels dry, makes me want to try a new city or a new mate.
  • I’m talking about the political desert – Philly has lots of water but it has lots of trouble: too much violence, too little money in its coffers, too much injustice and corruption.

Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” John 7:37-8

The vision

Being one woman, going to her father for what she needs and ending up with living water flowing from her in the middle of desert places – that seems to me like the best result of all. Taking her husband with her and irrigating as much territory as she can touch seems to be a life worth living. Acsah couldn’t help but ask. Do you do that anymore?

Maybe you think coming to Jesus and asking for living water is entirely too easy. Snippety. You are into much more complicated things. That’s OK. I have nothing for you. I think I get tinier all the time — just a child going to my Father in the place I know to find him and trusting him to give me what he has for me.