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Why does being part of Circle of Hope seem so demanding?

Aren’t most churches afraid of being too demanding? If we ask too much, people might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether!

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There is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding.

For instance, some Sunday Meeting Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople.

I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

We are ambitious — that is demanding

Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is also demanding. We make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. What’s more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation once, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

We we assume you have “the stuff” to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. 

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had emulate Abraham’s faith and hope, not just rely on their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem confrontational. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is this: live as your true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Our era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. 

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. She got demanding and changed thousands of lives. But her situation was different. Almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and what she was complaining about was a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a screenwriter put a Maria Von Trapp character in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — they think everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start 17-year war in Afghanistan or design a rocket that can hit the U.S. from North Korea. It is surprisingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

What do YOU think?

When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive ambition. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

Alternativity in the era of Trump, Kid Rock and Charlottesville

Deactivating creates some alternativityMy Twitter account is dead. It was compromised somehow and I started following a growing collection of interesting, and unknown people. I did the first steps of repair – changed my name and password. When that did not work, I discovered other repairs to try. Instead of trying them, I hit the “deactivate” button. You probably have done similar things by now that provide a strange sense of liberation from the web.  I will miss my connections with the Congo and the Middle East; we’ll see if they lure me back. But I won’t miss fame-seekers, marketers and hackers.

I have twinned my Twitter experience with last week’s exploration of alternatives to COBRA health insurance. Gwen retired from her job, so our health insurance was deactivated. We could no longer ignore what had been hidden in the gobbledygook of her pay stub. I plunged into the indignities of the AHCA website for the first time. I was hit, again, with the realization that the one percent has, indeed, managed to extract an extraordinary entry fee for the privilege of using their medical system.

 

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Wants to be alternative

My twin experiences end up being a parable for this new era in which we live: the hopefully brief era of Trump/McConnell, Bannon/Kid Rock, the era of survival of the fittest effectively applied to the state-run economy, the era of scarcity among the wealthy and lack of community among the inextricably connected. I fled to prayer this morning when I woke up to it all. We are up against a lot.

False scarcity

Big communicators, like the Koch Brothers, convince people that there is not enough to go around, so you have to fight hard for what you get and protect it. Their evil message trickles into everything, as if we were not sinful enough to think it anyway. People are scared of losing their jobs, their homes, their future retirement money, so they give whatever it takes to stay afloat.

Fear mongering

Now it is threats against North Korea and Venezuela that the mouth-in-chief is piling up in the airwaves — and his approval rating actually goes up! Perhaps his followers in Charlottesville will succeed in creating the same kind of atmosphere that propelled Nazis into power! People are scared of violence, of losing security, so they cut off from people and demand protection.

Colossal foolishness

It remains hard for me to believe, for some reason, that the one percent is really wicked enough to follow the gospel of maximum profit for minimum expenditure as if it were salvation. As Weber famously explained it, the “spirit of capitalism” has profit as its end, profit as a duty, and cultivates industry, frugality, punctuality and honesty as the means to that end. Most Americans, especially Protestants, are completely conformed to this foolishness.

Christopher Carter’s complaints about it all made the rounds of my Facebook friends:

A car plows into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters to the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville. This is evil. And in the midst of it all, our administration (president and speaker of the house) release statements that say nothing of substance in order to declare that they said “something” to those who chant their names at these rallies.

I am not surprised by the racism of white people as I encounter it all too often. I am, however, hurt, and continue to be fueled by a righteous anger by the fact that 58% of Protestants and 52% of Catholics voted for a President whose life and politics are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.

We are in the throws of a theological crisis. Similar to times past when white Christians theologically accommodated slavery, then Jim and Jane Crow and lynching, and then segregation. Too many Christians mistake the individualist freedom of the State with the freedom we find in Christ. For these Christians, the State and the freedom (i.e. entitlement) they find in the racialized oppressive practices of our country, has become their idol. We must call this idol worship what it actually is, heresy. Unless your faith is rooted in the state, bathed in whiteness, and dried on the backs of the poor and people of color, it is incompatible to be a person of faith and support a president who does not speak out against this violence and who’s name is chanted by white nationalists.

What do we do?

We are trying to do it every day, no matter who hacks us or what it costs.

The Bible verse that sums up the proper response for me today should be much more widely applied than it is:

God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-7

The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.

The body of Christ is alternativity

Abundance

Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.

Fearlessness

Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.

Wisdom

Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.

Alternativity

Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.

Seven ways we are avoiding the temptation to institutionalize

dove-out-of-cage

I innocently wandered into institution land” the other day. Someone lumped our church into the category. It felt strange when they politely said, “I don’t believe in institutional religion.” Meanwhile, here I feel like that bird above — and dead institutions are the cage! I’m one of the people who could have rejected Jesus because of bad institutions! It was a memorable moment  — memorable enough to write about.

The broad definition of “institution” is: a society established/organized/founded for a purpose, often charitable, educational or religious. That sounds fine, right? Then you remember that institutions become big, controlling establishments run by the funders or the leaders for themselves quite often. But Jesus was about as “anti-establishment” as you can get, wouldn’t you say?—isn’t that why the funders and leaders got him killed? When they were about to do it, he said:

“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” — Jesus in John 12:31-2

I’m a Jesus-follower, so I have nothing BUT fear when it comes to being a mere institution. They are, by definition, not all bad. But they are often led by the “princes of this world” who are not drawn to Jesus and are prone to merely preserving themselves. When it comes to the institutionalized church, I am as tired of it as anyone else [previous post]. I even protest its origins [previous post]. I am not interested in turning my relationship with Jesus into a program housed in a corporation that is mainly designed to preserve itself and profit the insiders who own it. So how do I keep people from labeling me “institutional” just because our Circle of Hope “society” resembles other religious people in various ways?

Here are some ways we’ve been trying to have a common purpose without becoming the establishment.

  1. We try to provide real help for people in real need.

Our greatness is in serving others. That’s why we are organized in cells, so everyone gets a chance to be served and to serve. That’s why we support compassion and mission teams so people get a good chance to express their passion, not just conform to expectations.

And that’s why 20% of what we share in our Common Fund is designated for people who are in need or are not us. For an example, read this post about caring for North Koreans. Our thrift stores kick in about $100K a year more for the same purpose.

What’s more, one of our main goals in the next five years is to perfect our mutuality system, so we can help people with debt and other challenges. We also want to help start businesses so we can provide jobs and have alternative sources for funding what we want to do. What’s even more, that’s why we are not building temples but trying to find out how to do church planting in an expensive market without busting the bank.

  1. We dial down the hype.

We are committed to transparent truth telling, even if it makes the leaders look less than perfect (since we are less than perfect, that is not hard). The leaders don’t particularly trust anonymous, entitled institutions either, so we don’t want to excite everyone’s inauthenticity meter every five minutes.

  1. We are a team. We lose if people don’t play.

People mock the fact that many of us grew up on soccer teams that gave everyone a trophy at the end of the season. Maybe that idea has problems, but we still think everyone is important, whether they are on the travelling team or not. You don’t even have to like soccer analogies or feel comfortable not calling it football/futbol. Older people and younger people lead our church, men and women, people of all backgrounds. Everyone counts. We are a living body, not a program. And if people don’t live it, we are set up to die quickly.

  1. We are honest about debt.

We share money. We make big plans with our money. And we also know that debt keeps people from being a part of sharing or dreaming.

Let me go off on this for a minute, since this is a bigger relationship killer than people think. Debt is the big fact of life for most normal people. Factoids: 1) For households with credit-card debt, the average is $15,799. We know that so-called “millennials” feel the vise grip of debt more painfully than most. 2) We know that the average debt for graduating college seniors is more than $23,000, and recent graduates stumble in paying this back—since the jobs they’re finding are often part-time, lower-paying, service-sector.

When you add in a car loan, and an occasional bad spending decision, and people wonder if they can ever be legitimate members of the tribe. They have little to share. When the church is trying to get some money together for our common purpose the process can feel like another debt collection.

We’re trying to be honest about the struggle.  We need to be part of our common financial life for our spiritual health, for our connection to the body of Christ, and for our own dignity. So we talk about it; we share the problem; we help each other.

  1. We try to stay relational in the virtual age.

Tech is helpful, but God help us if it replaces face-to-face relating!. Even our websites (like this one), blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are for beginning and extending relationships. Even if you see us on YouTube it is still very easy to see everyone in person. We’re in cells and we keep the Sunday meetings small enough to be touchable. We’re an anthill more than an agency. We are a gathering more than a show.

  1. We set goals we can meet.

Obviously, we do not meet ALL our goals. But we keep moving right along every year according to what we all think we should be doing. Everyone gets a say, if they want it. Our last few “maps” have been especially visionary, I think. We are in the middle of a lot of productive disruption and growth. It is challenging and exciting. But even when we have big dreams, we are also realistic. We want 100% participation from our covenant members and regular meeting attenders. So we don’t set the bar so high that many people won’t even consider getting over it. Our five-year plans did not come from some faceless bureaucracy; they came from our own dialogue with God and each other.

  1. The leaders are unafraid to be who they are.

Well, maybe we are a little afraid. After all, it is a labeling era—you think you are trying to follow Jesus and people tell you you’re just an institution as untrustworthy as all the others!

Nevertheless, our pastors, in particular, are “out there.” They are honest, they are open to hard questions—even if they can’t answer them! They try to go through depression and anxiety with the same mutuality and hope they suggest to others. They pray, and listen, and try to stay free from the temptations to get established in something that no longer needs Jesus to operate.

So if you think all churches are institutions in that bad, coercive, uncaring, unchanging establishment kind of way, is there any way you can give us an exemption? Jesus doesn’t fit the label, do we have to wear it? It would be interesting to hear your honest opinion when you came to visit us, or, better yet, got to know us. We’re doing something new over here that doesn’t match your stereotype. If we ever stop moving with what the Spirit is doing next, we’d like you to tell us.

Stop the Repression

Sometimes it looks like the only “safe place” we can understand is the self-protected heart-space we keep free of outside influence. Sometimes we extend the idea of “having good boundaries” so far that we can no longer get out of ourselves and express the love of Jesus. Meanwhile, God has violated the boundaries of space and time to come to us in Jesus. Today he is in the heart of Jerusalem teaching us how to live. Nevertheless, self-protection, self-discovery and self-protection seem reasonable to us. But they don’t always lead to strength, tenderness or faithfulness, just more self-ness. Stop the repression!

barbed-wireA woman who was abused as a child finally felt like she needed to cut off her mother. She was an evil woman who would rather destroy her daughter than admit her husband had abused her.* For years the daughter “set appropriate boundaries” and “took care of herself.” These are such basic recommendations from psychotherapists that they have become cliches. She applied the teaching and definitely experienced more peace and less anxiety as a result of keeping her mother at a distance. But she did not become more gentle or experience much joy. She was supposedly loving herself, but the way she did it cost her the thrill of giving herself to another. To maintain her new defense system she had to continuously reaffirm the necessity of protecting herself. She was like North Korea, in that she expended costly efforts to maintain big weapons while the heart of her country starved. Hardening her heart to her mother’s horrible life did transform her from a passive, frightened pawn. But the hardness also moved her toward being an angry, tough woman who, ironically, was willing to destroy her love rather than let down her defenses – a lot like her mother.

Our abusers have no qualms about remaking us in their image. Evil has no reticence about expressing itself through us. Jesus wants to stop their repression. Love requires that we lose the ways we have been saving ourselves in the face of what threatens us and find our true selves in relationship with our Savior.

Our network talked a lot about this risky love last week, here and there. We are trying to figure out how to love and it hurts sometimes. We are especially afraid of abusers and evil people who don’t mind telling us we are fools to follow Jesus, who ignore us, or who aggressively impose their Christ-less ways as if they were moral, even while they tell us to not be so aggressive. We are tempted to be passive in order to not be a nuisance or to cut them off contemptuously, or become like them in other ways.

When I see Jesus in the center of Jerusalem today, teaching in the Temple courts in full view of people who are plotting to kill him, people who can’t see the peace he would bring to them, I take heart and keep learning the lessons of love. His objective is obviously to bless people, not just make sure he is not abused. He refuses to live in fear. He is not so dominated that he maintains some semblance of peace instead of being his true self. To love is to be more committed to the other person than we are to the relationship, to be more concerned about their soul than with whatever comfort not rocking the relational boat might bring to us.

We need to honor the dignity and admit the depravity of the ones we love in order to truly love them. We cannot love if we distance ourselves or overlook the damage of another’s sin; neither can we love if we fail to move into another’s world to offer a taste of life. Like Oscar Romero, we might have to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of helping another experience their own longings and need for grace. The risk to love like Jesus is worth it. We need to stop the repression dominating us, but we need to stop the repression of others as well to experience the freedom and fullness of self-giving love.

Yesterday was Oscar Romero’s martyr’s day. Let me leave you with a quote from him, since he inspires me to risk love like the Lord’s, even though I have been abused, even though I am afraid, even though others might be evil and I might prefer evil in some ways, too.

 romero    I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
      The church preaches your liberation just as we have studied it in the holy Bible today. It is a liberation that has, above all else, respect for the dignity of the person, hope for humanity’s common good, and the transcendence that looks before all to God and only from God derives its hope and its strength (Last Homily).

* freely adapted from The Wounded Heart