Tag Archives: love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the basic thing Christians do?

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

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

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

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The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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Is this church still holding together?

Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.

Not really sure who Mr. Chandler is, but he was in a magazine.

The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot.  We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?”  It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”

So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.

Most of what I think is 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?

The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.

More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some 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.

This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.

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.

I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.

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.

I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.

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 thing 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.

People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.

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.

This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.

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.

And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.

Love and mercy, that’s what you need: So love and mercy to you and your friends

Do you need to read this blog post because I am going to offer you some bit of info that makes your life better? Maybe. You’ll be better off if you read it for love.

I want to read your blog post for love. I’d rather you read mine because you love me — or at least you would like to. I would rather read your post because I want to know you, or at least know of you: your gifts, your wisdom, your part in the community we share, whether face to face or just as members of humanity. I don’t think you are an info machine regurgitating data you have effectively evaluated and reconstituted and I am surely not that.

Two things happened last week that made me think many of my friends are overly influenced by two mutually detrimental experiences: their social science teachers and their evangelical preachers. It makes them treat people as if they are data and data sources. Before I tell you about that, I can probably sum up my reaction to my experiences with the Brian Wilson song that came to my mind as I pondered my discomfort. What we need is love and mercy, not another teaching that tells us we’ve got it all wrong or another preaching that tells us we can never get it right.

I loved seeing Brian Wilson sing this at the Tower Theater!

Do we really have it all wrong?

We took a survey of the people who came to our church planting summit last week. They had a LOT of wise things to say off the top of their heads that I will be pondering (and helping us to incorporate) for a long time.

But there was an interesting streak that a few responders added to the mix. It bothered me. They apparently looked around the room and quickly sized us up according to the ideal church/social group they thought we ought to be. They asked things like, “Why are we so much this and not enough that?” and “Where is the data that proves what you are saying?” Even though we have a proverb that enjoins people to resist “bean counting” they applied a mentality that is very common these days. Aren’t most things reduced to, “What does it cost?” or “What don’t we have enough of?” Apply that mentality to a social group, like the church, and it is “Who is underrepresented” or “What is missing?” I often say the mentality leads us to eating the holes in the Swiss cheese.

I’m not saying facing facts is irrelevant. I think Jesus-followers should be the people most able to face the harsh truth about themselves and their group. So bring on any truth that statistics and spreadsheets can tell! But let’s also admit that figures lie and liars figure. And even when they tell the truth, their truth is never deep enough. The great truth we know as Jesus followers is that the facts which prove how worthy we are of condemnation are not the facts we live by. Jesus looks at us like a mother getting the first glimpse of her newborn, or a father looking down the road and seeing a figure who looks like his son coming home. We could not possibly have it all wrong, being so loved. Even if nothing is working out, love and mercy are working out.

Are we really never going to get it right?

The next night I sat under the teaching of the spectacularly-talented Gungor family. I appreciated the depth and variety of their music. I was also very interested in their fan base, who seemed happy to get a chance to ask them personal questions.

From what I can tell, they are refugees from Evangelicalism, but they haven’t completely lost touch with their homeland. As a person who never quite got into the Evangelical fold, it is usually hard for me to describe what I think about it until I run into it again, like I did with Gungor. Their music was all about light and connecting with God, but at the same time it was deeply intellectual and bent on making a point. When they started talking, it became even clearer that their view of us was as unrealized projects who need to conform to ways we have yet to perfect. We haven’t got it right yet and we never will.

Like Michael and Lisa, God’s leadership motivates me to grow and change. We are travelling onward. So bring on your expanded vistas and the hope of eternity! I think they were trying to bring that. But there was also this other streak. Like when Lisa said her new revelation of late was “If we’re not all free, none of us are free.” That is a great word to the powers that be as they insist that Americans are free because of the society’s goodness and power, when they are not. But the impossible dream of waiting for Christians to take over the world and make democracy and capitalism (or anything) work is the kind of thing Evangelicals hope for that make everyone in the meeting get the idea that there is endless toil to complete.

In a similar vein, when a young man asked about how to make an album, Michael told him, among other things, to “Follow what is in you.” Given more time, he might have told him to “Follow Jesus, who is in you.” But, as it is, the young man got the word to assess what is in himself and follow it to success, or to not care about success and be content with whatever is in him – be yourself. That’s a good word to a young man who sees Gungor and can’t feel good until he is Gungor, but it is also and invitation to “Be that perfect you and you’ll be happy.”

When the New Testament writers tell us our hearts are deceitful and assure us God is greater than our hearts, I don’t think they are merely calling me to change everyone’s heart or follow my heart, in the sense that life is an endless project I need to get right. The “burnt out evangelicals” I promise to never disparage again (since most of the people at the summit said they could wear that description!) have been pushing such a rock up the hill long enough. The work makes them feel like crap and the only solution they are given is work harder and like it! Our good works do not make us good people. We can get it right because Jesus got it right for us. It is not going to get any better than that because we somehow out-save Jesus. It is already done. Love and mercy is where we live.

We’re already more than the moral to the story

I don’t know every bean-counter and evangelical on the planet, so whatever stereotype I concoct is just that: a concoction. I’d rather love people than relate to them as a concoction I should assess or exhort. So I am pondering how to end this post. These days little stories, like I have just told, are commodities people consume and store in data bases, if they “like” them.  If they are Evangelicals their story is a new way to preach and every story has a moral. In both cases, bean counter or evangelical, the story is rarely about us as we are, it is always about who we should be or who we aren’t yet.

I can face who I should be and who I am not — I live in love and mercy, after all! But I surely need to be careful or I will become an aspiration, never to be realized, rather than a person in Christ who has aspirations. I am not sure it is even safe to look into eternity if you are not securely by the Lord’s side while you are doing it!

So see if this works for you. When Jesus says “Before Abraham was born, I am!” in John 8, I don’t think he was assessing himself honestly or making a point, or even telling a story. I think he was being vulnerable, being himself. In a similar way, I think we can say, “We are who we are” and rest in that, even though we know there is more to do and a long road ahead. Even the most ambitious man in the Bible, the Apostle Paul, says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” – basically, “I am who I am.“

We live in the love and mercy of God. That’s who we are and that’s the essence of what we bring to the meeting or the concert. We are not the facts, or the work, or the moral to the story. Facts, work and morals are all great. But who can live under the weight of them? Who wants to be judged by them? Even now, when you are at the end of what I have said, can I live under your assessment or can you live under whatever judgment you have strained out of what I have written? Probably not. So listen to Brian again and end up in love and mercy, instead.  Be in the church too and let it be: we are who we are, and whatever we become will be a gift of love and mercy.

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In Honor of White Corpuscles

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

Turning away does not work for good

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

white corpuscle

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

White corpuscles

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

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

It is a life and death matter

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

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

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

I woke up fearing fear: Being pulled toward the edge of the inauguration.

fear is a liar

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:16-18 (NIV)

I woke up pondering these verses. I think the Holy Spirit was helping me face the fear that seems to be infecting the world around me and infecting me! Many of us feel like we are being pulled toward the edge of something as we move closer to the inauguration. It is scary.

Some of us are lashing out in various ways and maybe getting ready to get on the bus to head for Washington to lash out in a big way. They have undoubtedly been told, perhaps by the silence they meet when their voices get louder, that such behavior is wrong.

Others of us are pretending nothing is happening, as if by sheer force of will we will render the fearful things unreal, or irrelevant. They have undoubtedly been met by some passionate person knocking on their foreheads, sending them another email, barraging them on Facebook requiring them to get out of their denial and face the enemy before it is too late.

Meanwhile we have the 24-hour infotainment industry, the 1%’s plaything, managing perceptions, wondering how to deal with Donald Trump tweeting lies that somehow need to be considered seriously because he’s the president.

I woke up pondering these verses because I woke up pondering fear, my own and everyone else’s. John had a lot to say to me. He comforted me. There are so many good things that he wants to give us, the church, in this frightening, unpredictable day in just these few lines! Pick out what you need. I picked out three things:

  • Confidence
  • Perfect loves drives out fear
  • Whoever lives in love lives in God

People have said so much about this passage over the centuries, that I feel like referring you to a Google search project. But let’s just be us and see what God is going to do with us today. We face a lot of fear.

One of the things that kills the community of the church is a common reaction to fear: I think something bad is going to happen in our relationship so I plan for it not to happen in advance. I try to solve the problem you might have before you have it. I might not even let you say much about what you are feeling because I already fear what you are feeling before I hear you say it! Likewise, I don’t say much about what I feel or think because you are going to react negatively or I might be offensive and we would have a conflict, or you might be silently offended and leave. So in order to connect, I don’t connect. This happens in close friendships, marriages, and business partnerships, but let’s think about the church: all our cells, teams and budding partnerships. John has a few things for us to apply.

Don’t let fear steal your confidence.

Our confidence comes from God who is love and who loves us. Some people read John’s words, above, as if he is saying: “We will have confidence on the Day  of Judgment if we are like Jesus.” There is something to that. But if that is all there is, it is a good reason so many people who believe it never get out of their starting blocks because they are afraid they won’t finish the race.  I read it as saying: “We have confidence because God’s love is with us; so we know we will be able to stand before Him without fear, now and forever.” Paul says it even clearer, but I will just refer you to him.  Don’t let fear steal your confidence.

Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love.

Love is a powerful weapon. People seeking the common good all over the world know this, even when they don’t know Jesus. Most of us feel that love makes a difference. Love upends things, even fear. When John says “Perfect love drives out fear,” some people focus on the “perfect” in the sentence. I do think John means to say God’s love is perfect and we should perfect it. But the point is not to be perfectly loving so you can be perfectly disappointed in how bad you are at loving and how ineffectual your love seems. We can end up being fearful of not being perfectly loving, right? — even fearful about being fearful!

Such an attitude about oneself usually results in criticizing others for how unloving they are; then there we go again in our usual judgment-laden struggle. I think what John means to say is this: Jesus is bringing us confidence to face our fears as we face them in the middle of his love. We love, not fear, because He first loved us. As a result of this great, self-giving love of God in Jesus, we end up connected to God again and so able to bring God’s kind of love to the world. Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love, just receive God’s love in Jesus and give what you’ve got.

Hang on to the love where you find it

Love is the best we can do. I know a lot of brilliant people who know a lot about a lot. They are going to apply their wisdom and all that intelligence to make the world a better place. I just watched Hidden Figures (loved it) in which three black women friends rose to the top ranks of NASA in the 60’s. The movie made you feel like miracles can happen, and they happen. But most of us are not going to do or experience a movie-makeable miracle this week. And John does not promise that, or even imagine the expectations of the 21st century, where if you don’t do something amazing, nothing is happening. What he does promise is this: the great love who-God-is and what-God-does-in-Jesus is infecting the world with eternity. Even unbelievers who latch on to that great breast are fed with possibilities for all we long to receive. Like Paul also says, even the best ideas and greatest ambitions without love are gone like the ring of a bell that has stopped disturbing the air. The love who God is and the love God does is greater. Hang on to love where you find it and let the seed of God there lead you into fullness.

Yes, it will be hard to have confidence in such love because it is imperfect. But your judgment is not always the point. God is the creator of love and none of yours will be wasted.

Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

Kindness and so much moreI feel like I have a new friend after reading Katherine Willis Pershey’s book: Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. We have only exchanged one email, but I already hope she moves here, or at least comes over to inspire us.

I would like to quote you the entire book, in case you do not buy it immediately, but I will just do this one part today. It feels urgent that I get you to think, feel and pray about marriage, since several are falling apart as we speak, and, I think, the partners in them don’t really want them to fall apart, but they are floundering. They did not do what the following quote suggests we do and the resulting injuries feel insurmountable.

Pershey is talking about John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (another recommendation). Specifically, she boils down his work into one very Christian exhortation: be kind. If you need a Bible verse, it could be Ephesians 4:32 (memorize it): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I agree with her. That about sums it up.

Continue reading Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

SOMEONE has got to love their enemies

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. I have always celebrated it as a day to remember the absurdity of war and how much humankind needs a Savior. I usually get in trouble with someone when I do that – or even say it (like I just did again). I have not so totally hidden myself in the margins that someone in the mainstream will not find an opportunity to remind me that “brave soldiers saved me so I can have my naïve faith in the land of the free.”

The first time I got into trouble for being a peacemaker was when we were teaching The Cost of Discipleship to the high school kids.(Gwen and I have never lacked for ambition). Bonhoeffer was making plain sense of the Sermon on the Mount, which clearly says “Love your enemies.” If you only love those who love you, you are not a follower of Jesus, who is God-with-us gracing the righteous and unrighteous.

NOT what really happened.
NOT what really happened.

As it turns out, I found out I was teaching the daughter of one of the men who had been part of “the great escape” from a Nazi prison camp in World War 2. He did not take kindly to a whippersnapper casting doubt on his heroism. His daughter went home and told him I had said, “I can’t imagine Jesus wearing army fatigues” – and she was not lying.

Continue reading SOMEONE has got to love their enemies

New developments

Development is hard. For instance: The crew and I, led by the devoted foreman Ben Blei, are in the last throes of finishing the project down the street at 1226 S. Broad. All the details we missed are becoming evident. All the last-minute demands to meet the deadlines are irritating us. Relationships that need to work, but don’t work that well, are becoming obvious. Our limitations are also becoming obvious. There are a lot of problems associated with developing an old abandoned building. There are good reasons people don’t take on big projects like that.

As I was writing that line, someone emailed and told me they were as good as an abandoned building and God started developing them! But they had some good reasons why they did not want to get with that program: details, demands, relationship issues, limitations, etc, etc. It is exciting whenever I hear about someone who is in the throes of developing faith! Because the main development project people resist taking on is themselves.

That kinds of sums up the focus of my new job. I’m now the “development pastor.” It is a big idea for a job description, in that I am going to get practical about how we get from here to there as the whole church, Circle of Hope. But it is also a very small idea, in that I am going to have more time to be devoted to individuals, especially the leaders, as they move into their future in Christ.

I am excited. I even renamed this blog to make that clear!

I need to develop and I want to help others develop

That’s probably the same as you – we’re on the same team after all. I just get to lead in it. We all need to develop — we’re doing it one way of another. I want to follow Christ into my fullness.

To develop in Christ means one has some kind of experiential knowledge of spiritual things that moves them to action — not just book knowledge, or secondhand knowledge or even Circle of Hope knowledge. You know God and that relationship is developing. I first learned this when I finally read the Bible and saw in Romans 8 that people who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. In all our talk about our “second act” we have been devoted to risking that the people of our church will be led by the Spirit: we’re trusting Christ to be at work in all of us; we’re trusting each other to keep developing as people in Christ and to resist settling into some placeholder life.

The last time I spoke in a Sunday meeting I offered three basic things we all need to hold on to if we are going to keep developing as individuals in Christ and keep developing as the Lord’s church. Let me briefly list them again.

  • Take incarnation seriously

The finite manifests the infinite, the physical is the doorway to the spiritual — like Jesus the incarnate Son of God is our way to eternity. This is the way to that. There are not sacred and profane places or moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places and moments. Christ in YOU is the hope of glory. Christ in US makes us the incarnation of the Lord in the here and now. To develop, take that honor seriously. You and we are important, no matter what voice inside or big power from outside tells us.

love tatoo

Continue reading New developments

2014 #9 — That "other" person is someone I love!

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #9 most read post. In November, I objected to evangelicals unwittingly “otherizing” people while trying to be compassionate about their convictions.

Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face

On Christmas Eve we will sing the mystery again with the song everyone knows and no one knows completely: Silent Night. A later verse that needs some concentration includes this line sung to the child Mary is holding: “Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face  with the dawn of redeeming grace.”

That line reminds me of a couple of lines from William Blake that have meant a lot to me:

And we are put on earth a little space
That we might learn to bear the beams of love. William Blake

Bear the Beams of Love — Mary Southard

Awaken our hearts, Lord

Gerald May talks about Blake and the radiant beams of love in a book that has been important to me:

“I think William Blake was right about the purpose of humanity; we are here to learn to bear the beams of love. There are three meanings of bearing love: to endure it, to carry it, and to bring it forth. In the first, we are meant to grow in our capacity to endure love’s beauty and pain. In the second, we are meant to carry love and spread it around, as children carry laughter and measles. And in the third we are meant to bring new love into the world, to be birthers of love. This is the threefold nature of our longing….

Choosing love will open spaces of immense beauty and joy for you, but you will be hurt. You already know this. You have retreated from love countless times in your life because of it. We all have. We have been and will be hurt by the loss of loved ones, by what they have done to us and we to them. Even in the bliss of love there is a certain exquisite pain: the pain of too much beauty, of overwhelming magnificence. Further, no matter how perfect a love may be, it is never really satisfied. The very fulfillment of a desire sparks our passion for more; sooner or later we discover a deepened yearning within what felt like satisfaction. Even in their beauty, the beams of love can often seem too much to bear.” Gerald May in The Awakened Heart

Advent has me signing up for getting hurt again. Who’s with me?

Love is a lot to bear

I will have a lot of resolutions on my list, again, for 2015. Some of them will be the same as last year. But at the top of the list, I think I might put, “Suffer.” I mean, suffer with Jesus, the Son of God who is love.

I don’t mean that in some grandiose way, as if I were Jesus. I just want to use the capability I have, born of the capacity the Lord has patiently enlarged in my heart over years of loving me.

Oh yes, I want our church to operate effectively. I want to be successful in all the great plans we have made. I want to make good investments in buildings and business. I want to use our money efficiently. I don’t want to waste a minute. But we can do most of that and just get tired and irritable. We can do a lot of that with further arguments about justice. We can do a lot of that by exercising power and leveraging guilt and fear.

I want to act out of my heart connected to the heart of it all. I want to stay vulnerable to what Gerald May called “our passion for more…a deepened yearning within what felt like satisfaction.” That will cost us. But, at the end of the year, I want to have invested the year in eternity and to have experienced eternity invested in the year. The beams of love are shining. I want to bear them.

That “other” person is someone I love!

I have traveled in the same circles with Ron Sider since I was in my twenties – actually ran into him on my son’s street a few weeks ago. I was profoundly influenced by Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I am a fan.

I say all that so my small criticism of what he recently said in Christianity Today is not taken as a slam. His article: Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate: We need a better approach to the traditional biblical ethic on sexuality in the November 18 CT was passed around by some of my acquaintances and friends in the BIC, which made me wonder what it was all about. So I read it.

A progressive evangelical “gay” policy

Here’s the gist: 1) He wants evangelicals to admit their track record on relating to: “gays” is tragic. 2) He makes a more-generous-than-usual argument about Biblical tradition that ends with the conclusion that everyone who is not in a lifelong heterosexual marriage should be celibate. 3) He ends with seeing the present argument as an opportunity: a) to do what it takes to nurture marriage, b) to listen to “gay people” c) To be nice: “Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without ignoring, marginalizing, and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.”

His thoughts seem revolutionary to some people. For instance, someone wrote in to voice their struggle with Ron’s assumption that gay people could be saved (!). Ron knows CT’s audience, so I appreciate his boldness. I saw that the moderator of our denomination and a bishop posted the article on Facebook. So he got some affirmation. One commenter said that he appreciated how a person of authority stated something that he had thought for a long time.

I’m only cousins with Evangelicals

LGBTQ debate?
Is there an epidemic of early debate training?

This is the one thing I offered on FB: “I don’t think I have ever been part of the ‘we’ Ron is talking about. I’ve certainly been listening to so-called gay people for my whole adult life. Just to be clear ‘gay’ people have been ‘us’ while ‘we’ have been dithering about ‘them.’”

Someone wrote in response to my thoughts: “clear?”

I guess my problem is not clear. So here I am writing about it.

For one thing, I have never been an evangelical. I officially left that fold (to the extent I was in it) when I became consciously part of the Brethren in Christ (that’s now another whole story, of course). I am fond of evangelicals, and I have ridden on their bus at times. I just wanted to miss all the excess Ron calls tragic. I am still getting tagged with the tragedy, but I tried to miss it. So when Ron says “we” need a better approach, I want to note that I did not adopt the former bad approach along with millions of other Christians.

For another thing, so-called “gay” people have been part of my life and part of the church for as long as I have been a part. The tone of the article sounds like “they” just got discovered and people should stop being reluctant to accept their existence! My views have developed along with the whole movement in the last 30 years, but my friendships with LGBTQ people have always been just that: friendships. They have been part of my “we.” When I think of the people Ron is talking about I think of faces, not some mysterious “other.” Christians belong to a transnational, transhistorical, transcultural body in the Spirit; only people who renounce Jesus could be considered truly “other,” I think – and we are called to love even them! So-called “gay” and so-called “straight” are called to the same allegiance and the same application of it.

We have tried to stay out of polarizing debates about sexuality during the life of Circle of Hope. But even we got blamed for the “tragic” behavior of evangelicals in the local gossip column! We ended up making our statement and trying to repair the divisions the “us” vs. “them” competition for the dominant, legalized thinking of the day caused in our community. I think we were pretty successful. But I suppose I am still sensitive about getting dragged into some loveless debate about some “thing,” when the “thing” happens to be someone I love.

An old story: loving our neighbor on Tenth St.

tenth and locust windowsWhen we first got started as Circle of Hope at Tenth and Locust I was determined to stay under the radar of the Philadelphia authorities until we were established. I did not expect them to understand us, much less love us, and I have been generally right about them.

So I was pretty horrified when I showed up late for a concert one night and about six police cars were flashing outside our door! So much for staying under the radar. I think it got too hot in the mosh pit so they opened up all the windows and welcomed the neighbors to enjoy the music. One of the higher up, white-shirt policemen was about ready to go upstairs so I asked him what was going on.

Continue reading An old story: loving our neighbor on Tenth St.

My revelation from the past week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading My revelation from the past week

It's a new creation, vato.

I think it was probably in the room last night when we were together for worship. But I could not see it too well. There were not a lot of fist pumps with “Yes! I feel that sting. I know I have been poisoned. But Death, you have no power over me!” Lent kind of teases out that kind of reaction, but it can be a long tease for some of us. It might take even longer for people to start dancing around the room shouting, “Yes! I feel oppressed! I understand how the law has been keeping me down. But Jesus, you have freed me!” But it is all there in the Bible; Jesus-lovers trying to woo people into newness: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:56).

I think it might be easier to feel guilty for sin and just keep trying to fulfill the latest or oldest law. Being controlled so often feels like we are in control.

his rules are being challenged
his rules are being challenged

One of the reasons I try to emulate the Apostle Paul is that he is so out of control when it comes to the usual domination systems and he is so moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, I am getting a lot from my little video parable full of seekers, vato. Even when Paul is abused, shipwrecked or in prison, he doesn’t forget that Jesus just recreated him and that his eternal destiny is just around the corner from the latest mess. The diaper, the deadline, the demand, or the disaster do not derail his delight. He does not create a law so he never has to experience trouble; he lives by a law that turns trouble into life. His wonderful insight results in some great teaching that has been an antidote to the poison of sin and an alternative to the graceless oppression of law for centuries.

Continue reading It's a new creation, vato.