I’m back on campus

Camden County College, Tell Me Your Story
Me and my new friend, Yelitza in the Cafeteria at Camden County College

Some of you heard the story of how I got kicked off Camden County College’s Blackwood campus last November for holding my “Tell Me Your Story” sign.

It caused a bit of a stir among my friends and people I didn’t even know. Someone egged me on to enroll in a class because the security official who booted me said I would be welcome only if I were a student. A bunch of people quickly helped me reach the $500 GoFundMe campaign goal I started (Thanks again!) and now I’M BACK ON CAMPUS!

My first day was Thursday. After my Digital Photography class (It’s basically just Photoshop 101 which I am totally interested in and it could come in handy as I communicate Circle of Hope’s unique vision) I went and sat in my old spot with my sign. Within 5 minutes I was having a great conversation with a new friend about his long distance relationship. Within 15 minutes I was confronted by security… again.

I thought last time it was the head of security, but this time it was actually the head of security. A guy named Steve. Nice guy. I’m not sure why they need to come out with the heavies, five deep to have a conversation with me, but that’s how they roll, I guess. Steve asked me if I was a student. I whipped out my shiny new student ID and John, the not head of security who I had spoken to before asked me if I attended classes. I told them how excited I was about learning Photoshop. Steve thought it was actually pretty great that I went and did what John had suggested, but he wanted to give me another hurdle. I had to go and talk with the Dean of Students to get permission to do my project.

The Dean, Jackie, was nice but in a hurry, so she asked me to send an email. This is what I wrote her:

Dear Dean Tenuto,

Thank you for seeing me in your office on Thursday to talk about my idea to listen to people’s stories on campus. You asked me to tell you why I wanted to do this.

It’s basically an expression of who I am and a gift I have to give to the campus. I always wanted to bring the power of a non-anxious presence “to the streets.” There’s something special about a non-judgmental ear with a stranger. I discovered this as a hospital chaplain, a career for which I am highly trained but no longer employed in full time. I recently moved to Camden County (I live in Haddon Township) and I thought the Blackwood Campus was one of the few places around that had a high enough concentration of available people to try my idea.

My plan is to sit in the “quad,” or whatever we call it outside” the Connector” building, with my “Tell Me Your Story” sign once a week for an hour or so. I did this a lot last semester on Wednesdays (before security asked me to leave) and it was a lot of fun. I only got positive feedback from the students. Now that I am a student, myself (I enrolled in a photography class mostly in defiance to the strange experience of being kicked off campus for what I thought was a beautiful thing), I think this exercise doesn’t really need sanction because it is a peer to peer connection that enriches the community and builds connection and kindness on campus. However, I submit to the request of campus security as I did in November.

Will you now give me permission to do this, please? Thank you.


Ben White

And I got permission! Now I’m free to do my beautiful thing and hopefully keep making friends. I was there yesterday but it was raining, so I was in the cafeteria. I’m looking for people who want to be the alternative with me. Jesus is building a Circle of Hope in South Jersey. I’m looking for those who want to expand our Good Story Telling and break down as many barriers between neighbors, classmates and even security officials as possible.

I actually hit the ground running

  1. It didn’t rain on the 4th day of January (today) so I went for a run. It IS New Year’s resolution time and all. I always take an opportunity to start or renew my discipline because I always need a chance to start again.

You may be like me. I’m an “all in” kind of guy. If I’m not going 100% toward my goal, if I fall off the wagon, if I don’t do what I said I was going to do perfectly, if I miss one day… I might as well just quit. What’s the point if it isn’t perfect? Hopefully you’re not like me, and hopefully I’m not like me this time either.

I was telling folks at our Sunday meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike this past Sunday, that we often aim for the wrong thing when we’re making resolutions. If we aim to BE something that we are not, we will probably never hit the mark, and we will probably quit quickly. But if we aim to DO something and get good at doing it we will be in better shape. BUT… the real spiritual genius is the person who aims to get good at not quitting. When we don’t do the thing we resolved to do and return to the discipline anyway. This is an area in which I need improvement. You might, too.

Didn’t make it this far (Cuthbert Blvd.) Tomorrow is another day!

Today I went running and, confession time, it totally sucked. I’ve been too long out of the habit. Mind you, I’ve run the 10 mile Broad Street Run in the past. I might have told you in the past that I actually like to run. Well I didn’t like it today. I ran to the Cooper River from my office in Pennsauken and back. It was two miles and I had to walk a couple times. I could be tempted to call this a total failure, not because it was, but because that’s the kind of guy I am (see above). But in those moments when I decided to throw my pasty legs back into a trot from a walk I felt a tiny triumph. I need to remember that triumph for next time so I’m writing a blog about it. I hope you can relate.

Rob Bell likes to talk about Hebrew words a lot. One of them he mentioned on his podcast again this week was T’Shuvah. Which often gets translated as “Repent” in English. But T’Shuvah comes from the Hebrew root that has to do with turning. It’s more like “come back!” than “Repent!” (i.e. “Stop sinning” or “Change your mind”). Returning is the key to spiritual discipline and discipline of any kind. You don’t need to succeed at your discipline every time. Be good at straying from your plan and returning to it. We need as many New Year’s days as we can get.

Remember (which is another way to return), you don’t need to become someone you are not, you need to return to who you really are. This body of mine can run, and I am returning to that. What can you do that you would like to return to? God is saying, “come back!”

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

Holy, Holy Geese

I don’t think I can tell people enough that in Celtic iconography the Holy Spirit is often represented as a wild goose. To the Celts of ancient Ireland and Scotland, Ah Geadh-Glas (Wild Goose) was a more apt description of their experience of the Holy Spirit. How caged and docile is your experience with the Holy Spirit, how unlike a dove?

I’m sure if I studied the mourning doves that come to the feeder in my back yard I could find the appropriate mystery and wildness in them too, but geese have just spoken to me more in my life.

I started my early rising prayer life at Eastern University with the Canada Geese on the pond there. I trained the ducks to eat out of my hand, but the geese would have nothing to do with me. Only the nesting mothers would allow me near them and they scared me with their violent hisses. I’ve come back to the morning geese this fall because, again, I live by a pond (though this one calls itself a lake).

The geese are there waiting for me when I rise and then I wait for them to leave. And watching them go is the most wondrous part of them, and the thing about them that for me makes them best to tell the Holy Spirit’s story. They talk about going for a while and it’s not always at the same time. At first I thought it must be the angle of the sun–they usually leave soon after the sun crests whatever treeline it rises behind, but as I paid attention I could tell that it wasn’t nearly so exact.

geese-take-flightThe fun of it is I can tell when they are leaving but I’m never sure of the moment they will go. They flick their heads and grunt at each other, seemingly consulting one another about the every day revelation that it is time to fly to the best grass nearby. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and measured it. One study reported that this period of consultation lasted anywhere from nine to twenty-two minutes.

The wild goose then is a perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit because they are common enough (in Ireland and Scotland and Haddon Township, NJ where I live at least) but unpredictable and elusive. They can even bite you. Following the Holy Spirit can feel like an actual wild goose chase, yes, but if we give up trying to catch Her and instead be contented in watching and listening when She happens to be there in the morning (and who knows for how long?), we will love Her and She will shape us. And in many, many mornings She will still be wild but we may just be tamed.

Here’s a poem I wrote for Her.

Ah Geadh-Glas

O Holy Sprit, Ah Geadh-Glas,
I am familiar with your leavings,
Though uncertain of your path.

I could tire of the finding–
Leave your joy here in the grass,
But I’ll marvel at your going,
Walking water in noisy splash.

And I’ll wonder at your flying.
Flocked with kin above me, pass!
Make me happy, wild and singing,
O Holy Spirit, Ah Geadh-Glas!

Passion might be overrated

Siri tells me that passion means “strong and barely controllable emotion” and I’m like, “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” And she just keeps repeating herself. (Try it, you’ll see)

People often describe me as passionate, enthusiastic and the like, and I have often said that my job as a pastor is to stir up the passion in others, but I think I just decided to stop. Barely controllable? Is that really what I’m going for? Do I even feel that way?

Steve Jobs was famous for saying, “People with passion can change the world for the better.” He may have been one of the highest priest of the cult of passion which tells us all to “follow our passion” and “all you need to succeed is passion.” Entrepreneur blogs and conferences spoon this stuff up like a toddler eating cheerios. Let’s get excited! Let’s get riled up! Let’s have an intense experience!  You need to be this type of person if you are going to succeed, if you are going to matter. It’s a lot of pressure, especially for something we can’t really control that well.

It seems we’re all travelling from one intensity to another because Christians do this too. Churches specialize in either achieving barely controllable emotions for the people in the crowd or making people feel awkward about their securely controlled emotions—usually both at the same time. You could think that being a Christian is for people who are passionate only. It’s for people who can cry on TV or raise their hands and close their eyes for rock music, or dance with the organ.

Here’s the WOMP, WOMP:

Being a Christian is more about discipline than passion. Actually being a successful entrepreneur is too. Can you see in the tiny print of my screenshot that the secondary definition of passion is “the suffering and death of Jesus”? That kind of passion is what it’s like most of the times. Christians are doing a lot of dying. Dying to the script that tells us who we’re supposed to be even when that isn’t who we are. Dying to the emotional patterns that keep us afraid. Dying to our selfish desires that would have us leave nothing for the poor. Dying to the idea that we have to be somebody or make something of ourselves. Dying to our sins and the desires that warp our hearts.

And all that dying takes a lot of discipline. It takes a life of devotion. We can’t just whip ourselves into a feel-good frenzy on Sunday and then hang up our suit, or Sunday Best skinny jeans for next week. This is a 24/7 thing and you won’t be able to sustain your passion for very long. That’s because you’re a human being. Jesus was a human being too and his passion was to die so that we could all go through death and come out the other side.

There is life on the other side of death. There is life on the other sides of all the tiny deaths we die in our disciplined devotion, in our reprogramming, in our faith. When we don’t feel like it, when we’re bored, when it’s not the same as it used to be, when the passion isn’t there, plodding forward is perfectly fine. There’s life on the other side of that feeling, probably more than on the other side of a passionate experience.

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

-Hebrews 12:1b-3

Don’t lose heart, friends. You’re doing great.

What if I didn’t have to be myself all the time?

A friend of mine was feeling trapped this week by feelings and thoughts he was having that he didn’t like. The exact situation doesn’t really matter that much because I think most of us can supply our own scenarios in which our thoughts and feelings come to us as unwelcome strangers. When this happens, it can occasionally upset our sense of who we are. I think this is a good thing because our self is not the sum of our thoughts and feelings (Thank God).

It seems that the only way to be “true to ourselves” in our western, individualistic culture is to gratify our desire and never change our minds. I don’t think anyone actually lives this way but somehow this is what we are being told. Marketers mine our desires to exploit us for profit. Politicians never admit they have changed, even over a 40+ year career. We need the money to live every one of our fantasies. We need the wisdom from the age of 22 to make all the right decisions forever. I know it sounds kind of silly when I say it that way; but I think parts of this script have seeped into our consciousness.

Most folks reading this blog are not philosophers or psychologists, and neither am I. We haven’t all thought that much about what it means to be a self or what constitutes a self. The swirl of our head-space and heart-space is disorganized and unclear. Am I my thoughts and feelings? Do I have to be honest about everything that comes into my mind? Can I choose which thoughts are me and which ones aren’t? And if I can, how do I do it? Must I respond to every feeling? Is every desire supposed to be gratified? Can I choose which desires are worth pursuing? If I don’t feel good about something, can I do it anyway?

Jesus gives hope to this troubled mess of which many of us have become aware, and in typical Jesus fashion, that hope comes through death.

“For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.” – Colossians 3:3-4

Jesus doesn’t solve all the swirling. Some Christians might tell you that he makes all of these problems go away: Jesus gives you the answers and you should just think and feel what you’re told. That’s an unfortunately accurate parody of some practical theologies I’ve seen. No, Jesus does not give you operating instructions for your self. Instead he promises a self that is more you than you can ever be without him. That version of your self may even be as surprising as those unwelcome thoughts (but in a good way). The glory of you is tied up in the glory of Jesus. The promise of Christian hope is the future revelation of that glory.

In the meantime, you can measure your thoughts and feelings by the glimmers of that glory that are already breaking into our reality. But they will not be as concrete as the elaborate lies we are fed by other glimmer manufacturers of this life. The future glory requires faith and community to uncover and keep flickering. It is fragile and the dead weight of the self that “died to this life” is heavy enough to crush it. We need help from the Holy Spirit in community to move towards the future we have been promised. It is not automatic. It never has been. Otherwise there would be no need for Paul to remind the believers in Colassae who they were in Christ.

Your self is hidden in Christ with God. You are not done yet. I hope you find freedom in that today—I hope you find a lightness in knowing that. Trust the dis-ease you feel when you are getting trapped by an overwrought demand for authenticity to everything inside you. It is not all you. You are not all you…yet.

Jesus will make you a good driving instructor

I’m not a very good driver. This is mostly because I’m easily distracted. Birds, clouds, interesting people, and burritos are numbers 1-4 on my list of most frequent causes for close calls. I am, however, a really good driving instructor. And since it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, I better quickly say that it’s mostly because of Jesus.

There’s a good reason to follow Jesus: He will make you a good driving instructor. I don’t know if all followers of Jesus will have the same experience, but here are some reasons a lot of the teenagers in my teen cell have asked me to teach them how to drive: 

  1. I live simply so my things don’t turn me into a thing. If my car gets messed up because someone forgets which was the gas and which was the brake, so be it. I don’t want this to happen, but if it does, my car is not my prized possession. As a follower of Jesus, I am taking him seriously when he says “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” so I’m trying not to have any of my possessions be very prized. They are not my treasure. Clare of Assisi famously said, “We become what we love…if you love things you will become a thing.” I am not a thing.
  2. I live in a mutuality system so I’m not afraid. If said forgetter of basic car functions does in fact ruin my car and I am unable to afford its repair or replacement, my resources extend beyond my own checking and savings account. I am confident that something will work out financially because I have a lot more options than those who do not invest their lives in making their lives not their own. My life is bound together with many others who have committed to mutuality as a way of life. If disaster strikes, I know I am not alone.
  3. I have the peace of Christ so I’m pretty chill. Loving a teenager I don’t know that well really, and trusting her with my own life requires some inner fortitude. This attribute is particularly greater than just me because though I am capable of white-knuckled anxiety, it is not one of my common traits and I consider this natural trusting a gift from the Holy Spirit. I think it’s more than my psychology, though not separate from it. I think it’s more than being easy-going or carefree; it’s a gift I was given to use. Check out your gifts on thewayofjesus.circleofhope.net.
  4. I will be resurrected from the dead so… enough said. I really believe this. I believe that my driving student/disciple will be resurrected too. So, worst-case scenario, we both die but it’s not the end. When I was a chaplain on the oncology floor I learned that the Resurrection had to be close to my conscious thoughts, working it’s way into my logic for everything, because the alternative was to let death win. Death was all around and I had to keep caring. It was a good lesson that I am glad I learned at a relatively young age. I bring it with me in the shotgun seat now.

This summer, my teen cell, which is made up of students from Collingswood High, Camden High, Audubon High and Pennsauken Tech, has met less frequently because of everyone’s summer job schedules. I have kept in touch with many of them through regular driving lessons that double as discipleship sessions. We talk about serious stuff because I’m one of the people in their lives that they know they can ask about anything, but I believe that a lot of my discipleship is how I love them as they learn to operate an automobile. I bring Jesus with me in that task and they feel it. I hope they will internalize that love and let it guide them as adults to bring the big stuff of their faith into the everyday stuff of their lives.

Adulting is hard (why do it alone?)

Sometime in the past year, “adulting” crested the horizon of my lexicon. Some more clever or hip people may have been using it long before that, but for about a year I’ve been saying “adulting” to describe all sorts of responsible activities.

Usually “adulting” means not going out all night on a week night, paying the bills, sometimes taking care of your kids, doing house projects… basically being an adult except in a sarcastic, I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-do-this way.

Adulthood has always been tricky to define because it is so culturally specific and often defined by experiences that are not universal. Beyond the complication that the unique experience of each individual presents to the idea of adulthood, social scientists have been reflecting on the recent trends in delayed development particularly present in the much-maligned millennial generation.

Economic climates remain dismal for the 99% and one of the ways the 1% is getting richer is financing the titanic student loans of an entire generation. All of the economic milestones that had once defined a “responsible adult life” have been pushed way off. Sex being unhinged from marriage makes that hallmark indefinitely delay-able too. So “adulting” is born as a joke that gets its humor from how much of a joke the whole thing is. What even is an adult? IDK. LOL.

dog, idk lol, circle of hope church talks about adulthoodBut seriously, I don’t know. It’s an arbitrary label based mostly on buying stuff so as a true millennial I’m saying “whatever” to the label. However, I can’t say “whatever” to the unique pain of becoming what the label tries to describe. Figuring out how to make your way in the world is hard. Figuring out how to pay the bills is hard. Figuring out how to buy a car or a house, or get married, or stay married is hard. Srsly. Adulting is hard no matter when or how it is happening.

It gets even harder when we are alone, which a lot of us are; or we are relatively alone, cut off from a larger family network, which many of us are. Circle of Hope is a chance to not be alone. Circle of Hope is a people that exists to be a “WE” in Christ. We’ve been drawn together across boundaries and beyond family ties. We are not alone because Jesus came to be with us, and because we are now with Him, we are SO not alone.

Practically, we do this when we gather in cells, groups of ten meeting face to face, which make it hard to hide behind self-reliance, pious bible quotations, or other facades. We get real with each other. We adult together. We pool resources and knowledge. We get each other jobs and get each other into college. We even pay each other’s bills when it doesn’t work out the way we planned. And now it is not so hard anymore.

Jesus is always messing things up

Jesus is a disruption.

From the very beginning of his story, Jesus is a total disruption. Mary and Joseph probably had other plans for their lives. I’m thinking especially of Joseph who “had in mind to divorce Mary quietly” because she was pregnant but then he had a very unsettling dream. The baby was from the Holy Spirit and he should take care of it. What!? Bye-bye, respectable, normal life as a carpenter. Bye-bye, tidy little home in Nazareth. Major disruption! He takes Mary with him to Bethlehem and ends up a refugee in Egypt for a while because he needs to escape from a despotic ruler named Herod.

Life with Jesus is like that for us today too. Thankfully I’m not a refuge (hundreds of thousands are here in the US because they are followers of Jesus though) but other forms of disruption are the norm for me too. Disruption is the norm for anyone who is following Jesus. He will eventually disrupt any of the plans we make without him. This is something we can embrace or run from. We can go with what the Holy Spirit is doing next (that’s one of our proverbs) or we can bend over backwards to keep things the way they are (which is really hard to do!)

Change is a fact of life but it seems like we were wired to resist it. The familiar seems so much safer I guess, probably because it seems controllable (even if it so isn’t). We all want the predictable safety of familiar places, people, and ways of doing things.

Traditions in the Church reflect this almost universal tendency. Someone gets a good idea and then eventually it becomes something we all have to do. Soon enough it’s a chaffing demand from an institutional bureaucracy that is all but impossible not to resent. We need some Jesus disruption, pronto!

At the Democratic National Convention there’s a lot of talk of change, both inside and outside the Wells Fargo Center, but Jesus is leading us to even more radical change than they are talking about. Radical as in deeper down—like at the root (“Radix” is latin for “root”). Jesus’ disruption is about the essence of power and freedom. He’s messing up the very notion of a nation state and our allegiance to it. He’s messing up our belief in the rule of law. He’s asking us for allegiance to him at a deeper, more radical, level of our lives. No political solution can address our greatest need. Jesus disrupts most conversation about solutions no matter where we are coming from on the political spectrum.

So as Christians, we must be good at flexibility even as we are still human and still very much in need of the safety our attempts at control are trying to achieve. Jesus disrupts but also gives us the safety we need. Jesus offers us a more complete safety that is not dependent on our capacity to control our environments—his constant presence with us through his Spirit. To do what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do next we will need to become more and more flexible. In the spirit of that growth, we are trying something new with our Sunday Meetings at our congregation in South Jersey this weekend. We’re having 2 Sunday meetings! One at our regular time and place and one in Gloucester City in the afternoon. We’re calling it Church in the Backyard.

Church in the Backyard is an opportunity to meet new friends and do our public gathering in a new way. It’s a cook out in one of our cell leader’s backyards (222 Monmouth St. in Gloucester City) at 1:30 pm on Sunday. We’ll sing some songs and I’ll do a very abbreviated sermon.

Learning to Be a Team

A revolutionary gathering

Last night the cell leaders gathered at our location in North Philly to be the team. They are drawn together from across the region—many neighborhoods, many backgrounds, many (2) states.

In a world as divided and lonely as ours the work of our cell leaders is revolutionary. A cell is a circle of about ten people who gather together weekly to grow into who they were meant to be and be healed from what they have been. Participation in mutual relationships of love and truth make this happen. With Jesus on the team we can say this with confidence.

So many opportunities resist isolation!

There are so many opportunities to be on the team in Circle of Hope. Every cell is a team with a goal and a purpose: to include the next person in their loving relationships in Christ. Every cell is part of a congregation that has its own unique flavor and sphere of influence. The cell leaders work together to lead the congregation. It’s not just the pastor’s job to pray, take care of people and organize us for works of compassion. We share that responsibility and do it together. As a pastor, I am sometimes tempted to “get stuff done” right away (I’m pretty impulsive like that), but my real assignment is to mobilize the cell leaders and other leaders in the church to get stuff done together. That means I may have to take another step before i do it on may own!

Our culture pushes us toward isolation. We’ve been pounded into the capitalist peg-holes for long enough that we think we need to earn our keep, to be self-reliant, to maintain a personal brand that is always on fleek. The cell leaders choose to resist these demands and create a mutuality system.

It takes a lot of tending and communicating. It takes opening your laptop after a barrage of emails at work in order to check in with the Circle of Hope Team. It takes calling people back when they missed your text. It takes showing up on a muggy Monday night in July (which a bunch did last night). It takes keeping the lines of communication open with Jesus, the Team Leader. It takes believing that you own the business, because that’s how churches work (at least when they are working well).

We’re all in this together and we are forming a viable alternative to the violence and hatred of this world. I sent this YouTube video to friends of our church this month. It’s appropriate in July because it has sparklers. It might be too cute, but it gets me excited about how bright we might burn together.

Creating a map together helps

One way we were all in it together recently is by creating a map of what we think God wants us to be and do together—specific stuff that we are committing to. The cell leaders spent a significant part of their time owning the 2016 Map the other night—that is, taking the ideas in it and owning them—playing around with them and dreaming how we might actually accomplish them. Some of my favorite ideas were:

  • a free car wash (just cuz)
  • singer-songwriter night to open up space for creatives and making new connections
  • a real estate investment consortium that rents just enough to make a profit slightly better than a savings account in order to provide affordable housing
  • an alternative to corporate bankingmore conversation about how technology is consuming us and how we can take control of it better
  • sharing our money from our mutuality fund more liberally as a way to loosen up our personal generosity
  • starting a public woodworking shop
  • and a lot more prayer.
    Want to help us do it? Join a team!

Three Ways to Find Refuge and Safety

My new cell is meditating on a “lil nug” of scripture every week. This week it was Psalm 91:2 “He alone is my refuge, my place of safety.” After a week of terrible news in our personal lives and around the world, some of us were tempted to say “That’s cute.” We can read the words and understand them and even say we believe them but we were honest enough to admit that we might not really believe it sometimes.

When people invent new ways to hurt people like that guy plowing a truck through a crowd in Nice, France yesterday, when relationships are broken, when bills aren’t getting paid, when we are weary from anxious thoughts, when we can’t find a job, how in the world can we say with integrity that God alone is our refuge, our place of safety?

It’s a good question. Here are three things to try when the Bible’s promises seem like they’re just cute.

1. Write a song about it.

Here’s one we wrote last week: link.

When we put our creative energy into something it accesses a deeper place in us than our regularly scheduled thought programming. There’s something about trying to say something we believe in a beautiful way that gets underneath our cynicism. If you’re not a musician, find a friend who is. We wrote the song above for the Sunday meeting that spoke to the violence of last week. This song was based on the classic hymn “Be Still My Soul.” The Design Team wrote it collaboratively. Dan and Pat worked on the melody and a handful of other people worked together on the lyrics. Now it’s part of a soundtrack that is seeping into my soul.

2. Talk about it

A lot of Christians think it’s a sin to admit that they’re wondering if Psalm 91:2 isn’t just cute. They’ve been taught to say “yes” to everything in the Bible without very much room to acknowledge the ways they’re having trouble believing. It seems that standard practice for such problems is just to believe harder–force your will into it, be the round peg for the round hole even though you are clearly square. Sharing our honest thoughts and feelings about our beliefs is a great way to grow in faith.
Even just telling yourself or telling God can be helpful. There’s a strange release of pressure when you share something like that rather than keep it inside. It’s not like you instantly change your mind, but you create space in yourself for more of a process. You invite God into it. Jesus said a mustard seed of faith was enough, so I take him on his word. You might not have all the faith and that’s okay. You have enough. Being honest about where you’re at will help you have more.

3. Meditate about it

Try this: Close your eyes, breathe deeply–all the way into your belly. It helps me to imagine that I am filling up my whole body with air, from my toes to the top of my head; then let it out slowly. Repeat this and as you breathe in, say in your mind “You alone are my refuge” and as you breath out say, “My place of safety.” It’s not revolutionary. Christians have been doing breath prayers like this for years. Again, the benefit of this type of prayer is that it gets below our conscious hang-ups. It’s a way to reprogram our hearts. I can say from personal experience that it has a tangible effect on my day when I do it in the morning. Over the long run this practice has helped me to believe the promises from the Bible like “He alone is my refuge, my place of safety.” And that IS revolutionary.

We need a refuge. We need safety. The world needs a refuge. The world needs safety. When we live out of the promises like this one the best we can today, we will be a part of creating the refuge and safety for others, even if it’s in very tiny ways. When we do it together as a Circle of Hope, our collective tiny faith will be significant.

Drake, Richard Rohr, and Sex

I’m a bigger fan of Richard Rohr than I am of Drake, but when you beat Beyoncé in record sales I pay attention. Drake did that this weekend while I was talking about sex at the Sunday Meeting, and the kids in my cell that meets in a Pizza Shop in Woodlynne on Friday afternoons are sooo in love with Drake and his new album, “Views from the Six” (though it seems to be getting called just “Views”) that I just had to talk about it..

The first emerging single on Drake’s album is “One Dance” which scored him his first Hot 100 No. 1 as the lead artist. It caught my attention when I was sampling the album, not just because it’s the one you’ve heard on the radio, but because Drake’s says “I pray” 3 times in the first verse and “higher power” in the hook. And that’s where Richard Rohr comes in.

Two of the podcasts I like (The Liturgists and Robcast) interviewed Richard Rohr this month. He was plugging his forthcoming book on the Trinity called “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and the Transformation of the Self.” The Trinity is the notion that early Christian Theologians worked out to describe how God, The Higher Power IMO, can be revealed to us in three persons in the Bible. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a unity of essence we call the Trinity. Working in the Greek language they came up with the word perichoresis to describe how the different persons of the Trinity dance (chore- think choreography) around (peri- think perimeter). The Divine Dance is a description of the nature of God. Three in one, non-dualistic, communal at the core, self-giving at the core, mutually submitting at the core. God’s existence, in essence, is coexistence and everything that God does in the Bible (and beyond) from Creation to Jesus’ death on the cross, to the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (which we celebrate this Sunday!) comes from that Self that is one in three and three in one. It’s a great mystery that somehow seems to make a lot of sense to me.

Rohr thinks we need to reclaim the theological vitality of the Trinity if we are going to help people be transformed or be transformed ourselves. The quickest way to arrest your spiritual development is to succumb to a cycle of judgment. “I’m not doing a good enough job.” “I’m not spiritual enough.” “I don’t know enough.” “I’m too messed up.” “God is disappointed in me.” These are sure-fire mantras for self defeat on your spiritual journey but they are also natural outcomes of a judgmental King of the universe who decides if we’re in or out of heaven as his primary function. Reinvigorating our Trinitarian theology, says Rohr (and I agree) would help us avoid lopsided views of God’s nature that seem to be magnetized specifically to attract judgment of all kinds.

So what does the dance that God is doing have to do with Drake and sex? Well, Drake has a lot to do with sex. I was disturbed by allusion after allusion to alcohol-fueled sexual encounters, hurt feelings and painfully-ended relationships. Drake is codifying a broken way of sexual connection that even he isn’t very happy with. I suppose most pop artists are doing this (and yes, Drake is pop), but now I’m paying a little bit more attention because I’m rolling with a crew of teenagers who love this guy.

“One Dance” fits Drake’s pattern but complicates it by adding religious language into the cocktail. His higher power is either a blasphemous prayer or the Hennessy-induced buzz he is feeling. How confusing and influential is this when you’re 14? I’m trying to help some teenagers navigate some tumultuous years with Jesus, and Drake is becoming a multimillionaire letting the tumult of teenage confusion ride all the way to age 29. Does not growing up and making a commitment to your sexual partner pay? If you’re Drake it does. I hope his stuff is not as autobiographical as it seems. Nonetheless, I’ll take his inadvertently theologically correct mash-up. “Higher powers taking a hold on me.” We need to dance.

Jesus prayed for us in John 17, not long before he was arrested, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We get to participate in the oneness that is threeness that is in God, and it’s a dance! This view of God allows us to even dance with Drake without fear of being smote, to talk about sex and the realities of most people’s behavior without the need to tell everyone they’re wrong. We can put down the billy club that Jesus didn’t give us because he never had one and stop regulating the world’s morality. If you want to talk about healthy sexual relationships that reflect God’s desires for you, come talk to me or talk to your cell leader! We won’t start with “You’re bad!” We’ll start with where you are at. There is a way forward and it’s toward God. Will you dance?

I think I might be putting God to the test

Remember when Jesus was out in the desert chilling with Satan? There’s this epic showdown in Matthew 4 when Jesus get’s tempted by Satan to do these three things that would betray his relationship with God and Jesus stands firm. In his second temptation Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the top of a high building to prove that he is the Son of God. Jesus says “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus knows who he is. He doesn’t need to prove it to his naysayer.

I’m not sure what to do with this but I think I am putting the Lord my God to the test. I’m not jumping off of buildings expecting God to catch me but I do often find myself looking for some more confirmation for my faith. I think a lot of people are in the same spot. Either we don’t feel confident enough in the faith we profess to refuse an alleged opportunity to “know for sure”, or we can’t profess any faith at all until we think we “know for sure.” We’re looking for some more faith and it seems like it would just be a lot easier if some kind of crazy miracle happened that was undeniable.

But undeniable crazy miracles happen occasionally and they prove to be, no matter the facts, super-deniable! We are really good at denying. If Jesus jumped off a building right in front of us and a bunch of angels appeared out of nowhere to catch him, some would never be the same and others would find a way to think it never happened, doubt their own sensory inputs even, or just forget. Jesus rose from the dead and it was immediately denied and covered up by the authorities. The disciple Thomas denied his friends’ assurances that Jesus was resurrected and Thomas refused to believe them until he saw Jesus himself. Jesus later told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What does he mean by that? I think it’s related to his refusal to put God to the test when he was on top of that building with Satan. Jesus wasn’t just having a Bible verse quiz off with Satan. He wasn’t just following the rules. He was demonstrating a different kind of relationship with God and exposing the inadequacy of Satan’s demand for a sign. Jesus tells Thomas that those of us who believe in Jesus’ resurrection without “undeniable” proof are more blessed. I think this is because the way we confirm our faith in God today is similar to the way Jesus did in the desert. He relates to God. He loves God. He connects to God person to person and spirit to spirit. This deeper connection is preferable to the sensory connection of “well that happened.”

Events and facts have a pretty high cache in our construction of reality. Some would say that the only things that can be described as believable are events and facts that are independently verifiable. Whether we would say that or not, this perspective sways us to some degree because it has won the day in our collective cultural mindset. You have to be an expert to say anything about anything and experts are quickly deconstructed as soon as enough people look at them. We live in a world of scrutiny. So much information, so much expectation, so much power. It easy to think that we have to figure it all out, or just say nothing, maybe believe nothing.

I’ve been a Christian for a while now and I’ve dedicated my life to extending to others the opportunity to know and be known by a God who loves them and to be saved by the connection to Jesus I have found. I say a lot. But, believe it or not, I still find this desire for a sign bouncing around inside me. I’m like a duckling quacking my head off because I need to hear that reassuring quack of my mother reminding me she’s there. I’ve never heard the voice of God like a few people did in the Bible. That would be believing because I have seen (or because I’ve heard, I guess). Instead, I believe because I am known. I believe because I know myself and I know how I have changed. I believe because my desires are shaped toward building God’s kingdom. I believe because I feel it inside. I find that faith in the quiet moments alone with God that I carve out of the morning hours before my children wake. I feel the absence when I don’t. It’s not very undeniable.

So I’m excited for the Love Feast this weekend, where we in Circle of Hope express our covenant love in Jesus and hear the stories of those led by God to partner with us in our local expression of the Body of Christ. The Love Feast is the place where I get to be a baby duckling in a sense. It’s not a booming quack from heaven, but it is a lot of words from my human brothers and sisters confirming the good news I have also received–confirming from the outside what I have known on the inside. And I guess if people stopped doing that I would indeed be in trouble, because this communal expression of our connection to Jesus and to each other is vital to my faith. I am not Jesus and my doubts are there whether I like it or not, so I’ll take the both and of my quiet interior journey and the shared stories of my community as enough.






“Keeping it on Chop” or NOT committing…ever

I may be on the cusp of a linguistic breakthrough because I was hanging out with teenagers yesterday and one said that she and this guy were “keeping it on chop.” She sad her friend had used that phrase to describe a relationship status akin to “just talking.”  I looked up the phrase on urban dictionary and there wasn’t an entry. Am I one of the cool kids?

It amazes me the creative energy we are putting into describing various statuses of romantic or potentially romantic relationships. Keeping things on chop means you could cut it off no problem at any moment. But of course there will be problems. Their relationship continues without definition or intention and “chop” might be the most appropriate word because it’s going to hurt when one of them gets chopped off. I don’t think this is the case in this relationship (thankfully I’m pretty sure) but this arrangement whether it is referred to as “on chop” or not gets a lot more complicated when the parties are having sex. The “chop” is then loaded with all the spiritual and physical attachment of sexual intimacy.

I got real with the teenagers for a minute and told them that the best way to have unprotected sex is to not have any definition or intention in their relationships. My parting words to them were “have sex on purpose.” The best way to have purpose in sex is marriage, but I was prepared for lesser goods in their lives. Am I being too realistic?

They assured me that sex was not a possibility at the moment and I assured them that it was. I’ve been a teenage boy trying not to have sex because of my commitment to obedience to Jesus and I know how hard that was. Take out the commitment to obedience and it becomes very easy. Christians dating is hard whether you are a teenager or an adult, but this slippery trend toward non commitment is making it even harder.

Christian young people could do themselves a big favor by defining and intending from the beginning of their relationships. Being honorable is a dying aspiration but I think we should keep it alive in Circle of Hope. It just so happens that we are swimming in a stream in which sexual honor has been completely deconstructed. Yes, it has a negative legacy attached to the patriarchy, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Each partner has dignity to bring to the relationship and communication about our intent is essential to achieving the honorable relating I desire for my dating couples.

My teenage friends’ Christian parents stop the conversation at “Don’t!” I’m continuing the conversation because I think it requires a lot of communication. Dialogue protects the gravity of a couples’ intentions. That conversation needs to start from the get-go. But it’s so hard to speak your heart or even have a conviction these days. This is why I love the show “Jane the Virgin” because the title character is figuring out how to be chaste (notably for nothing-to-do-with-Jesus-reasons). She wrestles with it in her relationship and demonstrates that it is a constant struggle.

Much love to my friends in the struggle. I pray you get married soon. My teenagers, wait until you finish college if you can. 🙂

Don’t Let Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark: How to keep caring when bad stuff keeps happening

The attack that killed 14 people, injured 17 and resulted in the death of 2 suspects, began yesterday morning, at an office holiday party in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The center is called “Inland Regional” because it is located in the “Inland Empire” of Southern California where I was born and spent my early childhood. My home town, Riverside is 15 miles south of San Bernardino. This attack literally hit close to home, and I feel it that way too.

The big statistic rolling around the internet today is that there have been more mass shootings in the US than days so far in 2015. 355! NPR.org reports that  “Gun sales are going up. There were more gun background checks on this year’s Black Friday than any other single day on record: 185,345, according to the FBI. That’s up five percent from Black Friday last year, when there were 175,754 background checks.” Are we going insane? Do we really think that fire will fight this fire? It’s very easy to despair. It’s very easy to close your eyes. It’s very easy to accept this scary reality and try to cope.

The Circle of Hope Pastors were talking yesterday on their videocast, Someone Asked, about climate change and whether we can actually make a difference when corporations, the main polluters, have effectively bought the US political system. Obama was in Paris encouraging us to believe we can change the world. I was admitting my cynicism and Joshua was encouraging me to apply my faith in Jesus to the hope for the world. If I am certain that God cares for the earth, I must act as if what I do and say to preserve it matters.

And how much important are we than the birds! Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds and the lilies but cares for humans even more, even by becoming one of us in Jesus. So when 14 people die in San Bernardino and 355 die across the country to gun violence God grieves. It comforts me that God is with us in our sorrow. It even encourages me to engage my own grief. The alternative would be to let my eyes adjust to the dark. To accept the wickedness of the world–to drink and be merry for tomorrow we die (Isaiah 22:13).

We were talking about this in my cell meeting last night. There is such big, scary stuff happening in the world. Our default is to distract ourselves. To avoid the small feeling that comes with paying attention to the glut of bad news we can so easily access. Isn’t their enough bad news in my own life? It’s a good question. I’m with you in it if you are asking it.

But the results of being as small as the fear makes us is slavery. We cannot control our future no matter how much money we save, how many guns we have, or how much we read up on what to do in an active shooter situation. Being human in an uncertain universe is a fact. We must be saved. We cannot save ourselves. If we live into the promise of Jesus’ future coming, when he will come and fully bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and a new humanity with it, we will have the hope we need to confront the fear of this dark world. Because Jesus saved us by coming as a tiny baby and living a fully human life and died the death of an oppressed person, and was raised form the dead because he was the Son of God–because of all this–we can believe that our tiny lives make a difference in the darkness. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9) and one day “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light” (Isaiah 60). We are those people. This has begun.

So we can pray. We can trust that God is bringing about his promises even though the world is against him, and the forces of evil with it. So we can offer the comfort we have–a church that is an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption. So we can have an active relationship with Jesus that transforms us and the people around us.

I’m not sure that the world will get much better, but I think that God will preserve us as a people until Jesus comes again- the Second Advent. And in the mean time we will be a sign pointing to the realest Reality that is breaking through the darkness–God is with us.




Jesus, My Twin

I was so moved by the documentary “Twinsters” I needed to tell you about it. “Twinsters” is the story of two identical twins who were born together in South Korea but quickly separated and adopted by parents in different countries, and how they find each other through the internet. Samantha Futerman, the twin protaganista and director of the documentary is an actress who lives in L.A. Anaïs Brodier, her twin sister who was raised in France but moved to London to study fashion, heard from a friend about a woman on YouTube who looked exactly like her.

Anaïs reached out to Samantha on Facebook and the love story was off to the races. They meet and make a connection that is beautiful. I was watching this documentary on my weekend away. It was the second movie Of the day. I was certain I would fall asleep, but the story was so engaging and the connection between these two women was so real, not only did I stay awake for the whole movie, shedding a few tears of joy, but I stayed up afterward to read more about what the two sisters were up to since the end of the film’s timeline.

It might be that I am a twin and I am very soft to the premise of the story–my heart was pre-warmed so to speak–but I also saw a great parable of God’s redemption project in their reunion and subsequent relating. I’ll tell it Jesus style:

How shall I describe the Kingdom of God? A certain woman was adopted by parents who loved her well and provided for her in a way that her birth mother couldn’t. The woman, though she was successful, had a longing in her that she could not explain, a dislocation deep inside of her. This feeling is common among adopted children, so I’m told. They often have what feels like a built in longing for connection to their roots, to the blood from which they were brought into being and fed in utero. That unresolved dislocation must often be appropriated when birth parents cannot be found or do not want for whatever reason to connect with their birth children. This certain woman had all of those feelings, which influenced her personhood in good and bad ways. And then she found her Twin on YouTube and they got to meet and even craft a life together. The pain of separation from their mother was still real but they had each other. Their thirst for blood family was satisfied. Such is the one who finds the Kingdom of God. Even if that longing for connection with some unknown parent was untouched or unseen it is born in every heart because you are born of God.

I have always loved the playful and at the same time sorrowful deconstruction of God as Father in Rainer Maria Rilke’s  poem “Unde meine seele ein wieb vor dir” from “The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Rilke looking intense (he was)
His tenderness burdens us like an incubus,
his voice weighs on us like a stone–we mean
to wait for his words to come and wish to listen
but hear only half, and fail to understand them,
for all that background drama from the past
makes such a shrill clamour in our ears;
we notice his lips, their shape, dropping
syllables that fall by the wayside. So
we are estranged, further than far apart,
even if love still loosely knots our lives;
only when death takes him do we grasp
that here, on our own star, he had thrived.

So do we see a father. And–am I
to call you father?
Though it would sever us irretrievably?
Rather my son. I shall acknowledge you
just as one does an only beloved son
when he is a man, even an old man.

Rilke projects his relationship with his father, and what he imagines is a common relationship between children and their fathers, onto his relationship with God. I don’t know if I let as many of my own father’s syllables fall by the wayside as did Rilke, but I do understand the inadequacy of our language about God and a longing to express the deep way God quenches our thirst for mutuality.

When I watched “Twinsters” I found a variation on that theme. God is like a long lost twin. Not that I am identical with God, but my innate sense of dislocation is satisfied so completely in Him. And in Jesus we are being made like him. Perhaps Jesus will be my twin. John said in 1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” and Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Jesus came to fully identify with us–from our dislocation to our satisfaction–from our alienation to our finding a connection like a home deeper than the home we’ve known. We will see Jesus like Samantha saw Anaïs. If you watch the movie I hope you can see Jesus in it.

My prayer is:

Jesus, my brother,
my twin brother,
you have found me,
and I am found by you.

I’m like 30. How do I make a friend again?

Someone asked this question in my cell recently. And it was sincere. I feel it. How do you go from not knowing someone to knowing someone or being there for someone? The prospect is daunting. And it’s more than just my cell mate. This is something everyone feels. I was recently listening to the Judge John Hodgman podcast (a hilarious fake internet court where John Hodgman, who is most famous for being the PC in the Apple commercials a few years ago, settles petty disputes between people who write in to the show). On this show a couple had recently had a baby and the husband wanted to make a concerted effort as a couple to find friends who were parents who would help them adapt to life as parents. The wife was reticent to put the time and energy into making new friends. It was a very interesting dialogue about parenting and how friendships form (there was a guest host so it’s not the same as the show always is but if you want to listen to it, here ya go)

Friendships form when you are young and transient so fluidly. Proximity is a big factor. How many of your good friends were in your algebra class in high school or on your floor in your college dorm? For folks that live close to where they grew up I bet the answer is “most of them”? But what about folks who have moved out of state? How do I make new friends when I’m totally new? The people on the podcast were Christians and they had a lot of friends through church, some of whom had already babysat for this couple’s 12 week old baby. The church looked good. The non-religious hosts were notably flabbergasted by that community.

The problem is that having kids or getting swamped at work or getting consumed by other stress tends to isolate us. Survival mode equals getting responsibilities dispensed and collapsing on the couch. There’s not a whole lot of time or energy left to make a friend or even maintain the friendships you already have. I think the Church often gets put in that expendable category and the community support that is available gets lost in the shuffle too. Church is a great place to make friends, and Circle of Hope especially because cells are, by design, anti-anonymity.

But making the time for others in our lives can often seem really hard, especially if we are wired to love our alone time. No one can get everything they need from solitude. Even those who are wired for alone time are also made for human connection. And if you are a Christian, you have even more incentive to lean into that part of who you were made to be, because it is in your human connections that you have an opportunity to share your connection with Jesus.

For me, it’s kind of what I do. I make friends. I don’t think I’m an expert yet, but I do think that being a Christian helps me do it. Because making friends is dang awkward. If you are going to really make friends with someone, like get beyond the acquaintances level, you’re going to have to cross a threshold. That threshold is sometimes just barely high enough to arrest the movement of the slow rolling ball that is your personhood. It just takes a little push to get over the hump. Other times the barrier is higher–your personal psychology or history makes you more risk averse, or the situations of you and your potential friend just leave the two of you more separate–the leap to friendship seems too far. Making it over that hump or across that separation is hard to do. It takes some faith. You could fear rejection, disappointment, scarcity…

Being a Christian helps me make friends because I get the stuff I need from a source other than these people I am trying to connect with. There’s less on the line in that awkward moment of becoming friends. In response to my cell mate’s question the other week I said “You have to say something sincere. Give honor. Be vulnerable.” Becoming a friend means risking exposure, putting your defenses down to some degree, letting the other in, or coming in when invited by the other. Can I risk entering that territory? What would prevent me? All friendship is spiritual whether both parties have a sense of the spiritual in their life. So if my spirit is secure in God, I am freer to be a friend.

I think identifying our need for true friendship is something in which God is very interested. How do you make a friend? Make friends with God and ask God to help you cross these barriers. Ask God to heal the wounds that fuel your hesitation. This sort of awareness doesn’t happen overnight. But ask and keep asking. Ask every day. I think you’ll get loosened up and opportunities to connect with others will shake out.

You also will need to do the practical thing of putting yourself in situations where you will meet new people. You can’t make friends with someone in your own living room very well (unless you host a cell or invite strangers over often for some other reason). I find that working together on something, being on a team is really helpful for my friendship formation. Let’s do something together. My best friends in college, for example, were those with whom I was protesting the Iraq war (check the pic above). Other friends have come from the work I’ve done forming the West Philly Tool Library, but most of all through the team at Circle of Hope. These are my soul friends. These are the ones I am bound to by more than affinity and my own time and energy. These are the ones I love. It helps that I made a public commitment to them at a Love Feast 14 years ago. That was a REALLY sincere thing to say–the covenant of mutual love in Jesus Christ–it doesn’t get much more sincere than that. You could consider taking that opportunity if you haven’t yet, or you could rededicate yourself to it if you feel like you’re fading out. It will be awkward. You’ll feel a little bit like an “ass-hat,” as my friend just described it, but Jesus will help you get over the hump. Our most recent Love Feast has stirred something among us at Circle of Hope that is drawing us closer together and closer to God in the process. That synergy is why and how we are a Circle of Hope. Let’s keep at it.

I want answers!

“Come on! Give me a straight answer!” My friends have actually said this to me as they get involved in Circle of Hope. They are flummoxed by what they perceive to be my vague responses to direct answers. They’re trying to see if they agree with us but I  am often more interested in why they’re asking the question or what they think the answer to that question is than giving them the company line. “What does Circle of Hope think?” Circle of Hope doesn’t think anything. We are a group of people with almost 700 brains. Our mutual love is what binds us together most. My personal opinion about any number of political or theological issues is much less important than our dialogue with each other and with God.

That notwithstanding we have written a lot of stuff down. We call it our “lore” because “lore” is more about knowledge and collective understanding than data. I think a prejudice toward straight answers has killed a lot of people’s faith in the last couple of hundred years. The “doctrines” we have created, and the “systematic theologies” to which we have shackled ourselves, have yielded a cold precision that has quenched the Spirit and hardened many hearts. If your thinking is rigid it is easily broken. How many times have I met someone who says they’re not a Christian anymore because they believe the science behind evolution! Much of our project as a Church over the past 150 years has painted us into corners like that. It’s all or nothing. The facts are the facts. You’re in or you’re out. When, really, life is much more fluid than that. Most people’s faith is too. And luckily Jesus encourages us in that. Our mustard seed of faith is enough. Our questions are welcome, and most of his answers leave us in awe and confusion, rather than security and certitude.

This is not to say that all that thinking, or thinking in general, is a waste of time. I spent three years studying these systems in seminary and I am enriched by that process, but I will not be bound by any data. I am bound by the living Lord. Jesus Christ is alive among us and he is not domesticated. His whole project was, as he described it, incompatible with the wisdom of the world. He’s the new wine that bursts old wine skins. He’s the new cloth that rips away from the old cloth as soon as you wear the pants a few times. He’s not meant to fit. We are meant to be fit for him.

On our weekly videocast, the pastors demonstrate this general hesitation. I may be the quickest to blurt out my opinion, but that’s more my personality than my conviction. I’m pretty quick to change my mind too. I process things out loud. I may say one thing this week and another the next week. That’s probably because I am a native of Circle of Hope. i grew up in this trust system. I take dialogue for granted and trust those with whom I am talking to correct me, challenge me and love me. We reach conclusions together that are always provisional because we are expectant to hear what the Spirit will say next.

Some things are a bit firmer. Jesus is Lord for example; also our list of proverbs, the Cell Plan and the Sunday Meeting Plan (though we regularly edit these documents in community as we learn more and find ourselves in new circumstances). Again, we have written a lot of stuff down! And maybe that’s the problem: our ongoing dialogue yields lots of content that is not very easily reduced to a few bullet points. We are not “sound-bite-able.”

And yet I continue to try to “soundbite” us. I want to translate what we’re trying to do so 5,000 people could at least know what we’re about, or maybe have a vague  impression of us that rings true before they make it into the dialogue. How can I communicate our lore to them? I must try to figure it out, because to do otherwise is probably hiding our light under a bed. A few of my recent attempts have been

  • We’ve stopped faking it. (We’re real Christians dealing with real life and a real Jesus)
  • We’re in your neighborhood. (Cells are outposts of God’s redemption project that meet all over the region)
  • Easy is boring. (Don’t reduce us to a soundbite)
  • You’re too big. (Self reliance is over rated. Be small. Be save-able.)

What would you add? How would you describe Circle of Hope to someone who knows nothing about us?

Why not? A cell with teenagers

There is one teenager in my current cell. It is very interesting to include him in our discussions and find out how he is working with this cell full of adults, and some adults who are a lot older than him. I started participating in cells when I was a teenager and I thought it was the coolest. I was out from under the shadow of my pastor dad’s leadership and free to experience the Circle of Hope community and my own faith for myself. I would describe my teenage discipleship as fairly ambivalent. I had mentally assented to the story of Jesus in the New Testament but I wasn’t very interested in real discipleship-walking in obedience, praying on my own, or sharing my faith as more than an intellectual artifact. However, being in cells allowed me to hang out with people who I thought were cool who were meeting regularly to express their faith. The gravity of those people’s faith and mutuality kept me in orbit long enough for me to have a real encounter with Jesus. I’m hoping that my current cell mate has a similar experience.

I met about 30 teenagers last night who are part of a Christian based service organization who are in need of some more discipleship. They’re in need of some gravity as they are in similar modes of ambivalence about their faith. The culture leads them in a lot of different directions and teenagers, as a matter of their psychological development, identify themselves most strongly by the groups they inhabit. o went to pitch them the idea of a cell as a way to be a group that identifies with Christ. Many of them  interested in forming a cell with me! They were already part of a group that helped them identify as Christians but they wanted more opportunities to get real and go deep – to have faith that was more than ambivalent. They also liked the notion that it would be whatever we wanted it to be. They would be instrumental in inventing this new cell or it wouldn’t happen.

I think, by and large, teenagers are also just bored and lonely. These particular teens live in neighborhoods where the only thing to do is run the streets with unsavory peers. These kids aren’t into that so they sit in the house all day and reach the limits of electronic communion pretty quickly. They want to connect.

So why not? Let’s make a cell of teenagers. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know. It doesn’t exist yet so you could help make it up with them if you want to act now.

Love them? I don’t even have to acknowledge the existence of my enemies

I’m a pastor in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing”…and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out a Taco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.

I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between me and my fellow Taco Bell customers? What would it take to bring us together in one body?

There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation.  These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than me; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably, that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.

Of course this was all speculation—an exercise in missionary imagination.  I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”

I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.

“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them.” One said,

Well that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.

“Wow, thanks! Yes!”

Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.”  He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.

What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.

There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and wham! I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!

I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”

After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism? I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?

It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos. We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are further and further apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.

But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. The generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.