Why I Ditched the Grown Ups for the Children

The week before New Years Eve I schemed up a plan at the last minute to ditch the grown ups at our morning Sunday meeting.

I’m usually involved in a significant way at our meetings (I am the pastor, after all) but it has been years (close to a decade probably) since I got to be with our children during a Sunday meeting. The children are a very significant part of our church, so I needed to go and be involved in a significant way with them. We ended up throwing a surprise New Year’s Eve party complete with a balloon drop, games and prizes, pudding parfaits, ball drop, and countdown to noon (EST but midnight in Vietnam) all made by the kids. We surprised the grown ups and made them yell and celebrate something new with us. The most fun, I kept telling the kids, was that WE made it for THEM. It was a gift.

Children have gifts to share with the community.

Some of you might say, “Of course.” Others might be saying, “Huh, yeah, I guess they do.” Let me enumerate a few.

Children easily express themselves.

In joy or sorrow, children are close to their celebration and grief. Everything is cause for some eruption. Learning to regulate is still in the future for them, but that process often goes awry as we grow up and we, the adults, end up too regulated, our emotions shriveling for lack of expression. Children remind our hearts of their capacity for the full spectrum.

Children know how to trust.

Jesus called little children to the attention of the adults who followed him on more than one occasion. It seemed a special feature of Jesus’ hope for us that we relate to God as a parent. He taught us to pray “Our Father” he told us that “unless we become like a little child we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children trust their parents even if they are untrustworthy. I have a vivid memory of going over to a new friend’s house when I was about 10. His little brother, who was probably 6 or 7 told me, “My Dad knows everything.” Being the youngest in my family, I had never been exposed to such foolishness. “Of course your dad doesn’t know everything,” I thought, but having enough compassion intuitively not to be responsible for this boys disillusionment, I said nothing, just wondered. Trust like that kid had in his dad is not far from the faith we need for the darkness of the world.

Children need us to express our faith. 

“My Dad knows everything.” The corruption, destruction and rot have their limits. Somewhere, somehow, God contains it, sustains us and plows a path for us through the drifts of icy death dealing to other side of death, and maybe just tomorrow. Our children’s fragility is a gift to us in this harsh reality. They need our gentleness and we need their need. What future are we creating for them? What hope are we demonstrating for them? What faith do we have to show them? Will our Heavenly Father save us? Will our Heavenly Mother care for us. Our children know what we believe. They can smell it. They need our faith because the world is not safe. We are in Christ, though. You can be, but you need the tribe of Circle of Hope to maintain and grow it.

Children are good at being themselves.

At the party, the children offered us these gifts just by being themselves. In Circle of Hope in South Jersey we do not have a curriculum for our children. We have a tradition. We have a routine, which is helpful for our togetherness, but the content is our life together. We tell stories from the Bible but more importantly, we DO the Bible by forming our tribe, our extended family in Christ, just by being ourselves together and including others in our fun. Having a project on New Year’s Eve was great for building our team. Everyone played a part. We dealt with our limitations, we sorted through conflict, we loved one another, we listened to each other, gave and received honor, and went a little wild together. We made a mess and ate too many cookies. We danced and whooped. The Kingdom of Heaven is near!

Circle of Hope receives this gifts and creates an environment for them to be received and for children to grow.

Our theology about how we raise children is well developed but under communicated. I encourage you to read this page on our website, which is a brief summary of how we think our community is a great environment for children to grow up into a life of meaning and faith. If you’re really into it, like on the Children’s team or a parent yourself, you would be interested in our Children’s Plan, a more extensive document about how we practically create and maintain that healthy environment for our children.

You Should Read Poetry



A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa

Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

“Venus’s Fly Traps” by Yusef Komunyakaa takes me back to the Southern California of my childhood. I spent most of my time as a child running around the safe sunshiny neighborhood with a tribe of boys of which my brothers and I comprised the better part. I remember my own lot of sunny grass at the corner of Arlington where, once, we found a dead cat. I remember the shortcut through a backyard and over a cinder block wall into the Sears parking lot which I insisted on taking even when I had a broken arm. I remember the stillness of the backyard in the afternoon when, for some reason, I had it to myself. Silence is quite loud. Do you remember that?

The entire universe that existed in our three block kingdom echos in the bravado of the five year old in “Venus’s Fly Traps.” I had that same sort of confidence in my knowledge; that same sort of arrogance in my ignorance. I remember that for a few months “ass” meant “penis”. Yusef Komunyakaa takes me to that part of my life when the world was small enough for me to know it all.

In “Venus’s Fly Traps,” sexuality, fertility and life are juxtaposed with killing, danger and death from the title onward. The Venus Fly Trap is one of “the tall flowers in [his] dreams” that “eat all the people except the ones [he] loves.” They have “women’s names and mouths like where babies come from”—women’s names, like Venus, the fertile one herself. The five year old Komunyakaa doesn’t comprehend the sexual innuendo. His adult self inserted this expression, but I won’t say that the knowing wasn’t there.

In the Spanish language there are two verbs where English has one. Conocer means to have experienced something or someone. Saber means to have knowledge about a subject . Yusef Komunyakaa at five sabe mucho (knows/understands a lot) even if he has not yet conocido mucho (known/experienced much)—he has a knowing that is beyond words. His impressions of the world are technically incorrect in some cases. For example, all bees do not live in domesticated white bee hives. But his impressions are correct in their knowing. For example, fertility and death are inextricably linked. The adult poet who has conocido mucho gives words to the unspoken world that the child sabe. With Komunyakaa I am drawn back to that moment of knowledge and ignorance all wrapped in one. I can never repeat the purity of that mental emptiness, but I can conjure the memory to aid me in centering prayer and meditation, practices I use to perform my own tiny kenosis each day to make room for the real God that wants to fill me.

The remembering of childhood is a great pond for reflection, a collection of meaningful experience that has survived the evaporation of the years. The adult communicates with the child, gives him words, wonders what exacly each of those moments contained, and adds his own existential angst that may have, indeed, been buried in the child or may just be a projection from the adult. This is an invitation to integration, a worthy portal toward wholeness. If your heart is filled with unresolved pain of your own—full of unexamined memories and forgotten feelings—there will not be much space for others, let alone for God. The soul of a leader needs a great deal of tending. Poetry is one way to do that I recommend.

Komunyakaa transported me to an important place within me that needs healing and does not often get the attention that healing requires. Thank you, Yusef. You gave me, an awareness of my weakness, my still unhealed scars, and the simple quietness of my childhood play.

Poems like “Venus’s Fly Traps” are especially useful because they go back so explicitly to forgotten places. They get the reader to the right place in the caves of memory to discover new corridors and passageways that have yet to be explored. This is the poet’s gift. Any leader who accepts these maps and does some spelunking will be great regardless of his or her way with words because of the depth of self they conocen and saben. The union of past and present, that which you knew long before you learned it and that which you thought you knew but at some point learned to forget come together and talk it out. This union is the essence of good poetry about childhood, and a great starting point for any time of prayer—get small, get quiet, go to a place inside you that hopes and dreams better than any other, the part to which belongs the kingdom of God.


Why I Love Jordan Peterson (But He’s Wrong)

Jordan Peterson and Jesus?

Many of my friends are fans of Jordan Peterson. They appreciate his pragmatic and inspiring call, particularly to men, to take responsibility for themselves, and become agents of good. “No matter how bad a situation is, you can make it worse.” This is a good mantra. He speaks passionately, to the point of being choked up. I appreciate his deep desire to speak the truth, and I love some of the archetypal inferences on human psychology that he’s been describing in his examination of Genesis in his current lecture series. But the examination of Biblical morality and human psychology cannot end with Genesis. In fact it ought not to even begin with Genesis. Properly, it begins with Jesus, who IS the Truth. Jesus is the Truth personally revealed. A commitment to Truth is a commitment to a living person. Following him requires daily meditation on who he is, who we are to him, and what he did in the first century as recorded in the New Testament.

What About the Prophets?

Jesus follows in a long line of Hebrew prophets who spoke out against the organization of human sinfulness in unjust power structures. He went around challenging these power structures and creating a new way of thinking and being which he announced as the Kingdom of God. I agree with much of Peterson’s examination of how sin began with Adam and Eve and self-consciousness, but Peterson overemphasizes the role of the individual in the shaping of society in my opinion. The individual speaking truth is his main hope as far as I can tell. I really do appreciate this perspective. When I was younger, heavily influenced by the elite Marxist intelligencia that Peterson thoroughly condemns, I was convinced that I ought to lead the revolution (hopefully nonviolently) in some way, shape or form; but I experienced a conversion. I was converted to a commitment to the Church. I chose a community of transformation over an ideological movement because I realized that no matter what the laws might say, real change is a matter of the human heart. Societal change would only occur with the transformation of millions if not billions of individual hearts, and God’s chosen means of that transformation was the Church—a community committed to the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In this regard I agree with Peterson, however, the heart that Jesus compels me to have is so heavy with compassion and grace for the poor and powerless–the outcast and the stranger–that I cannot help but sympathize and even mobilize with the social justice movements in our society that cry out with the voice of the Hebrew prophets and, dare I say, the voice of the Lord. Peterson would disagree with this conclusion.

These movements have many, many faults. Our participation at various levels with them requires our utmost creativity and resolve. We need daily discernment and much dialogue to effectively maintain our difference as Christ followers in the slough of bitter ideology that dominates the discourse and the practices of many (but certainly not all) who work for justice. I am still convinced, as I was when I was converted (now 15 years ago) from Marx’s revolution to Jesus’ revelation, that the best alternative for the world is the Church. We need to be committed to the reality that Jesus revealed and is revealing in himself. Our calling as the Church is to relate to each other and to our neighbors in a way that condemns and conquers the enmity of the world. This is third way thinking that prejudices peace and justice without using the weapons of the world—violence, coercion and hate. We are empowered to do this by a Holy Spirit who grows in each of us abundant love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Individuals Can’t Get all the Credit (and Blame)

Let us not be convinced by Peterson’s elevation of individual choice and truth as a means of salvation, as if preventing another Pol Pot or Stalin is the only thing we live for. I am not compelled by Peterson’s pragmatism. He assumes that history’s alternatives are limited to what governments and markets have done. The threat of human wickedness is not a new reality. The 20th century provided a horrifyingly powerful accelerant to the fire of human evil with the development of catastrophic technology, but it didn’t reveal a new facet of humanity; it magnified the old. It’s as old as Genesis (I think Peterson and I agree about this too–I love his common refrain in the Genesis lectures, “These people who wrote this [Genesis] were not dumb. They were bloody brilliant!”) But I do disagree that we should believe that individuals are powerful enough to do as much evil as we have done if they were not organized in a system greater than themselves. As early as the age of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, the trend of the rich to organize against the poor was decried justly, and with the authority of God. Our individual evils have the capacity to coalesce and metastasize in unpredictable ways. Individual self reflection is absolutely necessary, yes, but there is more to it than that.

I follow Walter Wink’s thinking in “The Powers that Be” (a good book- I recommend it to you). Wink suggests that societal injustice, though begun by individuals, develops to the point that it takes on a reality and even a will of its own. Wink attributes this to spiritual forces (which Peterson rarely acknowledges). But even if we consider social injustice strictly sociologically and historically, it is reasonable to conclude that the powers are now so complex and endemic that it is nigh on impossible to deconstruct them without years (maybe hundreds of years) of concerted effort by millions if not billions of individuals. Changing the laws will not achieve transformation. Just as changing the laws about discrimination against trans people in Canada will not necessarily make the lives of trans people in Canada better (which is the debate that has gotten Jordan Peterson famous).

I do not have much hope for this hundred year, billion person project, but I do have hope in creating an alternative society in the Church that lives a life in service and discipleship of Christ who goes to the least of these and will judge us by our service to them (Matthew 25). I think Jesus would likely hang out with trans people if he had his first advent in 21st century Canada instead of first century Palestine. I do not demand a grand narrative for why or how people of color, gay people, or trans people are so poorly treated and disproportionately disadvantaged in our society (even if some individuals aren’t and some individuals who are not part of a minority group are equally disadvantaged). I do, however, demand justice from my elected officials, and I will use the tiny power I have to join with the Hebrew prophets of old to speak for those who do not have as much voice as I do. This is not my primary task (that’s building the church which is a grand narrative that lasts into eternity with its Head, Jesus, the risen Christ), but it would be poor discipleship of my Master to not do what I can when I can as often as I can.

Circle of Hope is an Alternative

In Circle of Hope we can do more together as a collective if we can agree about our task—we live in the Truth, with the Truth, including others in the Truth through cells and Sunday meetings, facilitating a 24/7 community that is a viable alternative to the powers that be and the discord which dominates all sides of political discourse. Our mutuality as people of justice has been a distinguishing characteristic since we began. We have participated with many justice movements, but we have always maintained our particularly christocentric stance. We participate as “invasive separatists.” We agree with social justice movements as much as we actually agree with them. We recognize their need for transformation even as we join with them in solidarity. We are not corrupted by their ideologies, though this is a real danger if we don’t maintain a robust dialogue among us.

I love Jordan Peterson because he makes me think, but I am not going to follow him, and I recommend that my friends take his insights with the grains of salt I am suggesting. I love his Jungian analysis of human behavior and the Genesis stories, but I am disagreeing with his political advocacy more and more as I see him engaging with trans people around the C-16 Bill in Canada that passed in May of this year. Regarding his demeanor and some of what he has said, kindness is not weakness, and weakness is not as weak as Peterson thinks. As Christian-esque as he appears with his year-long meditation on Genesis and his frequent quotations form the Sermon on the Mount I wonder about his relationship with Truth, whose name is Jesus the Crucified. I hope, if he hasn’t already, that he can access a personal connection to the Truth himself, through his zealous commitment to personal truth that has made him famous and worthy of conversation on my blog.

More Than a Day of Gratitude

Gratitude is a muscle

Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s arguably the best American holiday. Gratitude makes life better. Everyone agrees. Not everyone agrees that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) but they’re not far off when they give thanks. So at our morning Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ we’re celebrating with a season called “More Than a Day of Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a muscle, it takes practice, and practice makes perfect, right? I’ve been practicing naming all the good in my life as a gift from God for quite some time. It started before my first cell in New Jersey, but that’s where it really took off in community and got bigger than just me. We called it the “God Check.” We asked each other week after week, “What did God do in your life this week? We don’t have to have anything, but we do have to check. Or maybe something happened and you think God might have been doing something but you’re not sure, so let’s check it out.”

It didn’t have to be anything fantastic. We weren’t looking for bona fide miracles. We were looking for moments when we were aware of God’s goodness, or maybe just brave enough to try naming God in our ordinary lives. Gratitude is good for us humans no matter how we do it, but I believe directional gratitude is even better. Giving thanks to God is a place to start a real relationship. Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite poet and the featured artist of our Water Daily Prayer this week) calls God “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

How this works in a real life

A while back, I was meeting regularly with a woman who was having trouble seeing God as a giver of anything. She wanted something very badly, but she hadn’t received it. The complicated emotions that came with this threw everything she had believed into question. Did God care? Who was she to demand anything from God? Why did she want it so much? Why couldn’t she be content with what she had? If God is the giver of good things, why not her, and why not this specific good thing? Why not for her? I was with her in that plea, confusion and subsequent anger. We worked together on the second part of the “God Check”: something was happening but what the heck was God doing? Where was God in this? Was God anywhere?

Part of reestablishing a relationship with God was naming God as “You.” She had never really experienced much intimacy with God, so this resentment was seriously threatening the faith she thought she had. Maybe all the good she had received really was just from “the universe” or just random cause and effect. Many of us can relate. This perspective is a common option in our culture. We can choose to see the world this way, but we don’t have to. It seems that humanity has always had a collective sense that there must be a source. Religion’s pervasiveness throughout time and culture is evidence enough that, at worst, we have a common delusion that we just can’t seem to shake; or, at best (and my preference), we have a common desire that directs us beyond chance and the observable universe.

It’s okay if it’s a choice

I submit that this is, indeed, my preference. I don’t have much beyond my subjective experience to back it up, except for the similarities of so many other subjects. Our desire for good and our hope for a God who gives it is significant evidence (Read The Abolition of Man for a ridiculously thorough and compelling argument for this in a scant 113 pages). My suggestion to my friend was simple: just change your language. Choose “You” over “Universe.” Point your gratitude and wonder purposefully… persistently… preponderously.

My practice of you-ing has greatly enriched my life and the life of my cells. Now, a few generations of cells later, and there are five cells who make the “God check” a regular part of their meetings. More folks are getting into the practice. Their gratitude muscles are growing, and their thank you’s are bending in a personal direction, often for the first time. My friend told God about her bitterness, and God has gotten more you-y as a result. All transformative growth takes time. We need more than just a day of gratitude. We need a life of gratitude.

The ancient Israelites had one big event that they made a whole week about to make sure that they remembered (Passover). God liberated them from captivity and made them a people. Time and time again in their book of poems, songs and prayers; the Psalms; they remember what God did to make them a people. We too can start with the basics that we are anything at all, that hawks are anything at all, that clouds are anything at all, that our families are anything at all, that our church is anything at all, that resurrection is anything at all. Lay the gratitude on thick. Do it again. And do it in God’s direction. It will get you somewhere, and as you are arriving, you’ll realize it’s not very different from where you’ve always been, but you are very different.

What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much?

What if Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter That Much?

The Circle of Hope Pastors were wondering about this question indirectly on the most recent episode of their videocast, “Someone Asked.” What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much? Or, maybe, what if your opinion shouldn’t matter as much as it does. My opinions matter to me a lot, or so it would seem. I have a lot of opinions. Opinions might be my favorite thing. I grew up around a dinner table of intelectual brothers who were well-read and very opinionated. Having urbane conversation might be my love language as a result.

So I surprised myself when I told my buddy as we were biking today that, at least in the church, unity needs to trump authenticity. Being correct about anything is not as important as being connected to other members of the body. This does not mean we don’t have opinions–remember I love opinions; t means that it’s better to hold your opinions loosely than to commit strongly to your own thoughts and instincts. What do we gain by being right, after all?

Our culture gains a lot of entrenched power systems that change little about the every day lives of regular folks. We get sold binary opinions as commodities. It seems like everything is pepsi vs. coke, red vs blue, left vs. right, black vs. white. The division serves its real purpose, to divide us against each other and ensure the status quo. But if we want to change anything it seems we must choose to throw our lot in with one side or the other. We must choose a side. The opinion that comes most naturally is to be against. Saying no is so easy. And then we are reduced to deconstructionists. We spend much of our energy in what passes as conversation telling the other side how they’re wrong.

Is Conversation War?

And if the supposed conversation gets heated enough, or loud enough or long enough, we become so invested in defending ourselves against the threat of being the wrong one, that our  choice becomes who we are. Our opinion about the available options becomes a central part of our identity. We carry the wounds of previous attacks into new conversations. Our defenses are up before the person we are listening to says anything at all. Opponents seem to pop up everywhere. Once we’ve been in war, our minds have trouble experiencing any safety. Hyper-vigilance exhausts us and we don’t function at our highest level anymore. Are we good for only one thing; for being against?

From a natural perspective, I would say yes. Our ancient ancestors survived out of fear, tribalism and suspicion. Our more recent ancestors have been dominated, duped and discarded enough to know the contemporary stakes. Choosing the better of two evils is as good as it’s going to get. It’s not going to get better but we better fight like hell so that it doesn’t get any worse. And yet it does. The current discourse in the United States seems worse than it has ever been. I believe this is because we have been sold our choice as our salvation. In general, we have been convinced that our opinion, our preference, our desire is who we are. And now being right is a matter of life and death.

What Happens When Jesus Blows It All Up?

Jesus said something that blows all this up. He said it a long time ago and we aren’t very practiced at hearing it or applying it. He said, ” Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 6) If most of our opinions are as linked to life and death as I think they are, than we need to lose our opinions to find our lives in Christ. Our opinions do not matter as much as we have been conditioned to think they do. Our safety is not built on our capacity to defend ourselves, or any righteousness we produce. It is built on Jesus Christ, his victory over death and his promise of a future. This applies to everything, not just what happens when we do. It means a lot for how we talk to one another and even how we think.

The benefits of the demotion of our opinions is unity and probably better solutions to the problems of the world, but definitely a better alternative to the problems of the world. As Christians, we break the binaries starting with the ultimate binary between life and death. Let’s break the ones that exist in our minds and conversations as well. Use your intellect, yes. Puzzle through the troubles of this world, yes. Have a debate too, yes. But do it with charity, generosity, deep empathy for your partners. This will build the presence of the future here and now. We will be the best thing the world has going for it, not by getting the right answers, and having the right opinion, but by being a people, united from many perspectives, loving across many boundaries and losing many lives to share a new one in Christ.

Marriage Architecture in Verse

I recently had the chance to officiate a marriage ceremony of Circle of Hope people (the first time I have done this as a pastor). These words are based on what I shared with Scott and Anneliese and their guests. Scott discovered this poem for me. I am very grateful to him for that. May their union be blessed, protected and deep.
“Most Like an Arch This Marriage”
by John Ciardi 1958
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.
This poem struck me so truly with truth and wisdom I decided we need to walk through it again after Anneliese’s friend had just read it.

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.

This marriage began a long time ago, but we pause now at the entrance of its new era. The two of you have been becoming married for quite some time, learning each other and in the process better learning yourselves. You’ve become geologists intensely interested in the formation of each stone that makes the column standing there across from you. Each glint and divot; every smooth and rough edge wants to be known and so many of them are between you two. You come to other, in many ways fully formed. Pressed into somethingness by outside forces, made from nothingness maybe, and since then, hewn by previous hammers, crushed before by lives lived in joy and sorrow. You come to the other as you are. This whole ceremony is designed to give you that moment to see your beloved as who they are. To love them in their fantastic intricacy and beauty. To wonder about what more will be made. We stand at the entrance, and pause. It’s time to secure this arch.

Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Stepping in to these vows, you make real the idea of firmness that has sprouted in your minds. The dreams of partners idealized or otherwise, get set aside. The stones are set. Now we make it real. You make it real, and heaven gets made with you.

You know Paul when he was talking about marriage in the letter he wrote in the New Testament to a church in Ephesus seemed to think that marriage was tied up in the redemption of all things. A great mystery he said. I don’t claim to know how it will be, but I do believe that what you two are doing has something to do with heaven unfolding.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

And its power is in weakness? What?


Accepting your falling and planning to fail, but doing it together will lead to marital success. And to do that together, today you resolve to set much aside. Do we all know this word, abeyance? The force of the weight above the arch is abeyed to the side and channeled firmly into the ground. Each side putting the weight to its side. The weight of your life together will come from within and without. Life will continue to crush from above, and your common weakness will perennially hurt your beloved. The abeyance for that inevitability will be forgiveness or this arch will not stand forever. You will set to one side your hurt out of love for the other and your common purpose: this marriage, most like an arch.

And the poet knows that this type of relating is at the heart of meaning itself. That expectation, that trust, that hope, says something about the nature of meaning—a term naming the fact that teaches fact to mean. It is foundational truth, not just to your marriage, but to the truth itself.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

“All I do at piling stone on stone apart from you is roofless around nothing. Until we kiss I am no more than upright and upset.” I love this poem! This is where the particular becomes essential. It is not just any column, This specific one is the one on whom you lean. The one you chose, the one who chose you. The one you choose, the one who chooses you. The threat of rooflessness is specific to THIS one. Without her you have no home. Without him you have no home. This is clear to you now, but it might not be as clear in the years to come. And so we make a big deal about the promises, the vows, you make today. We make a memory that cannot be forgotten and we tie it to these promises. To love, to forgive, to lean, to be one. We’re all here to remember this with you, and help hold you up when the geometry gets shifted, and your own weight doesn’t hold you up as well as it does today.


Paperboy Dreams (And Acts 2)

Living the paperboy dream

The paperboy dreams planted in the NES soil of my childhood came to fruit last week. A friend of mine in Circle of Hope is in a tough spot financially. Somehow, she fell in with a tribe of paper deliverers who drive the pre-dawn darkness of South Jersey delivering The Philadlephia Inquirer, New York Times, Daily News, Wall Street Journal etc. Her cell organized to help her get the job done more quickly each night so she can snag another hour of sleep before she hits her day job.  A cell is the basic unit of Circle of Hope. We meet in people’s homes, coffee shops and bars all over the region to live a real life of faith together and to include others in the tranformational community God keeps knitting together.

Each night for the past two weeks she has had a wing man or woman to be a temporary member of a very interesting club of early morning paper delivery people. One woman I met had been delivering papers every night/morning for 35 years. Another younger guy had taken my friend under his wing. He delivers three or four routes by 6 a.m. He could definitely make it to Sunday (another NES reference). If everything goes according to plan, a truck delivers freshly printed papers to a warehouse in Marlton by 2 a.m. the paperboys and girls bag them and hit the road. If you’re really good, you bag as you go, but that seems nigh impossible to me and my friend. On our night the delivery was late and there was an weekend insert in the Inquirer so bagging took a little longer. We were delivering papers in Audubon by 3:15 a.m.

You gotta aim for the mailbox–Fun being the church for real.

Because I am the way I am, I imposed some fun on the dawn. My friend was already much better at throwing papers from her driver’s seat. But some people on the route ask for special deliveries. They would like it on their porch, or just so on the top step of their stoop. You really must get out of the car to accommodate this requests, but I convinced my friend that we had to try to throw the paper to the porch, no matter how long the walk was. Pro-tip: Wall Street Journals and USA Todays are way too light to get any distance. Pro-Tip #2: If you lose papers in the bushes, you have to pay for them.

I had a lot of fun with my friend, who’s really more like a sister because she is part of my Circle of Hope family. Who else is going to go out in the middle of the night with you to deliver papers? This was not my friend’s idea. In fact, she objected, but her cell was already on the move. One of them made a spread sheet and sent it out to people who loved her. In less than 12 hours a dozen people had signed up. That’s real love. It’s like a 21st century version of the description of the first church in Jerusalem in Acts 2

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Cells are a real way to replicate this life, and you get to be a paperboy in the middle of the night and live your paperboy dreams. People need this extended family. They always have. Even before the screens came in to isolate us and virtualize our togetherness, humans needed a tribe. They needed an extended family system to be healthy, let alone world changing agents of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

Togetherness is a recent casualty

Cultures throughout history have consistently formed means for this type of togetherness. Even in the first century there were other groups, often religious, who took care of each other like the early Christians did. But our movement survived by the power of the Holy Spirit and today it’s expressed in the shared burden of a paper route for a cash strapped mom, and in many other ways. Other movements are passing away, ours is worth the sleep deprivation because it will last forever.

The counter narrative that we need to go it alone, the rise of the individual as a self contained responsible unit of society is a relatively new phenomenon. On the scale of human history, it was not too long ago that going it alone meant death. I’m sure even then, our selfishness threatened the selflessness necessary for community to thrive. The extreme nature of the sharing in Acts 2 is a testament to the special nature of their togetherness. Can you imagine liquidating your assets to feed the poor people in your cell? This togetherness was an essential part of their witness. It was not just the teaching of the apostles.

We’re doing Acts 2

Today, we are better positioned to help one another but I’m not ruling out selling my house when disaster strikes. My smaller act of radical togetherness organized by my friend’s cell is a worthy reenactment of the original Acts. It’s probably Acts Chapter (M-bar)(M-bar)(M-bar)DCLXIII at least! (BTW that’s Latin!) Cells destroy isolation and properly relocate our responsibility for everyone’s needs in the community and not the individual. Jumping through bushes and diving through jeep windows after my stray paperboy shots is how I celebrated that last week. Got any other stories about your cell?

Four Reasons Not to Make Rules for Your Kids

Oliver and TheodoreMy sons are six and three years old. They are now both old enough to cause considerable damage (to each other, their mother and our house). But they  are not old enough to have the requisite impulse control and self-regulation to refrain from doing so most of the time. They are in constant need of discipline because they are human three and six year-olds. I don’t hold it against them (most of the time). Deciding how to discipline our children is something most parents are thinking about, but we don’t always do it together. I think I have something novel to add to the discussion: aim for obedience instead of compliance.

Depending on which dictionary you check, you might conclude that obedience and compliance are synonyms, but they’re not. I asked my facebook friends and the general consensus agreed with me. They are different, and how they are different is the essence of what I have to say. Compliance is about the rule of law, and obedience is about the rule of love. It’s regulation verse relationship. One complies with the law, while one obeys a person. I want every time I discipline my children to be about relationship not rules.

I want my children to obey me. I don’t want them to follow the rules. Here’s four reasons why.

1) I want them to have a relationship with me.

Theo (3) insists on removing his pants and underwear completely when he goes to the bathroom but then does not want to be bothered to put them back on. He wants his mother or me to do it for him. He claims that he does not know how to do this arduous task. Instead of making a rule about putting on your own dang pants (which would be completely reasonable) I say, “I don’t want to put on your pants because I know you can do it and you’re practicing taking care of yourself.” I am committed to saying this because when I am rushing to get him into bed after keeping him up too late I want to be able to put his pants on for him quickly so we don’t have to have the same old fight right before bed. As I help him I say, “I’m putting on your pants for you because I know you have a hard time with it and I love you.” If I made a rule about pants, I would be ruled by it too and Theo would learn to follow the rules and not me. Obedience is about relationship, it saves everyone from legislation.

2) I want them to disobey when necessary

Oliver (6) would prefer to eat cookies for breakfast lunch and dinner (who wouldn’t?) but I tell him, “I want you to grow up to be strong and healthy so you cannot have a cookie for breakfast.” But the world is also fun and full of surprises. Occasionally we get to celebrate that with cookies at 7:00 am. If I completely block the hopeful road of an unhealthy breakfast I think I hurt his hope muscles a little bit. I need his hope muscle to be strong because he may need to disobey the unending rules of our culture that will sweep him into despair. Disobedience to unjust laws and anti-christ ways of thinking will be an essential part of his adulthood, if he becomes the man I am praying he will be. He will need a lot of hope to believe that anything he does in the face of such great forces will mean anything at all.

3) I want them to have a sense of agency

Rules beget drudgery and performance. There are enough forces in this world preparing to steal my sons’ sense of their own agency. I don’t need to be a part of it. In moments of despair I do wish that these tiny ones would just do as they’re told and stop bothering me, but when I’m writing a blog, that despair is not part of the manifesto. My heart’s desire is that they have a healthy sense of agency. Capitalism will try to reduce them into a cog in whatever system they participate, a consumer or a product to be sold. The One Percent will figure out how to trick them into slavery, virtual or actual (depending on how dystopian our future is). They will need to have a sense of themselves that is quite separate from what we in Circle of Hope have deemed the Great Other, the amalgamation of surveillance state bureaucracy, globalized economies and incredibly entrenched injustices. The problems are so big and the system so inscrutable and esoteric that attempting to do anything more than survive with your head down is only for dreamers and fools. Obey specific individuals whom you have agreed to respect,  O my sons, not institutions that are lost in themselves and given over to the principalities and powers of the air. We’ll start now by using a pencil on our homework not because “you’re not allowed to use pen,” but because “the pencil is the best tool for the job when you’re learning which direction to write a lower case “p.”

4) I want them to have a healthy image of God

Our images of God are intrinsically linked to our images of our parents. Jesus taught us to relate to God as a parent, and so our parents are the source material for our language about God and our associations with the words mother and father. As children, the grooves in our brains are literally being formed. So when we arrive to adulthood trying to relate to God as a parent, we bring with us some patterns of relating that are hard to get around. I want my sons to have an image of me that is relational because that is the type of fatherhood that best corresponds with the type of parent God is. God is not the overbearing father or the bad cop mom. God loves us and treats each of us differently according to our specific needs. God’s care for us can not be reduced to a set of rules or principles (though many continue to try to do so). God can’t be tied up by the rules we make about God, and on his best days, neither can Dad. “Theo, your unintelligible whining is irritating but I care about what you have to say. Can you talk to me so I can understand?” I care about him more than the rules I am tempted to make about whining.

Obedience > Compliance

If I just get my children to comply with the rules I design for them, I will have the semblance of obedience. If I relate to them and get them to obey me because I have demonstrated the goodness of my love and the boundaries I set for them, I will have actual obedience. Rich Mullins wrote in one of his songs “Surrender don’t come natural to me/I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than take what you give and I need.” Many of us have that fight built into us. I know I do when I’m ready to dig trenches in my living room to defeat my children. God, give me (and us) strength to give and receive with discernment and trust. May we receive the love we need to love our children more than just keeping them in line.




What is the Bible IMHO

The Bible is the story of God’s people and how God has related to them for thousands of years. It is a testament to the work of God in the world throughout time but especially of the people of Israel and we who are grafted into it. It is written by witnesses of God’s work. It is not directly God’s work. God took interest in how the Bible was compiled but the evidence of the complex process all of the texts we now consider sacred have been through is compelling enough for me to conclude that God was channeling a flash flood more than filling a pitcher of water.
The multitude of experiences and perspectives shared in the Bible splash together in a muddy roar. It is not neat. Oral traditions cross with historical revisions for consolidation of power. Theological points subvert chronology. Poetry paints in brush strokes later analyzed with magnifying glasses for new subtext. It’s a mess—but a beautiful mess. The Holy Spirit breathes through it all because those who wrote it were breathing with the Holy Spirit. I choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is satisfied with the finished product as we have codified it, but I have no reason to believe it is complete. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive because the Holy Spirit is still at work in us and we can gain new insight. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will contradict the Bible, however, because God is too invested in this book. It is too useful in binding us together and preserving the wisdom and action of God.
It is rich enough to return to for a lifetime of study and application. But it is a book—the Bible says nothing. God speaks and the Bible testifies. Jesus speaks, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record it. Paul writes. Peter writes. John writes. And so on and so on. The Holy Spirit makes these recorded words alive to us by speaking through them. We don’t have a a dead book that has all the answers. Our book is enlivened by the One who has written the universe. It does not stand alone but God stands by it.
The authorship and compilation of what we call the New Testament is much more reliable as a historical document than what we call the Old Testament, and in their class the New Testament writings are fairly trustworthy even historiographically. This is a nice little feather in our cap of faith because the stories of the New Testament inform our understanding of the Old–the central story being that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because the New Testament is written Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, it carries extra weight for those of us who are reading it to gain insight into our life of discipleship to our Lord. Paul famously said in I Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly; the glass was even darker before Jesus.
This is so because Jesus is the full revelation of God. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14). He redefines and re-centers the whole conversation about God’s action in the world. Behold he is the new thing! And so we read all of scripture with Jesus as our lens. The logic follows: if Jesus and the Old Testament seem to be at odds, then we need to redefine what’s going on in the Old Testament. The narrative needs to be re-interpreted. Terry Brensinger wrote a great analysis of violence in the Old Testament that demonstrates this sort of interpretation brilliantly.
But the interpretation of scripture as a project is important primarily for the personal and communal instruction of the Church. Reading scripture is not about knowing only in the cognitive sense, though that is useful, it is about knowing in the intimate sense. It is a way for us to commune with God and be transformed by the stories that God has helped preserve for us. The Holy Spirit uses scripture to form us into the agents we need to be to continue the story and to include others in the flood.

There is Beauty We Don’t See

Sunday night turned was poetry night at Circle of Hope’s 7pm meeting on Marlton Pike in Pennsauken. Joyce Fazio and a team led us to consider how poetry can tap us into a deeper connection with ourselves and reality.

Words! “Words are a super power,” Scott Sorrentino said. Jesus, in John 1 is named the Word, the Logos. God incarnate was and is the Word–the organizing logic, the naming of all things, the content of everything, the initial act, the speech coming from the Source and the Source spoken–yes, the Word. And we have words. And we too can name, and speak, and reason, and act.

We can word too.
We are word-ing when we meet together with Jesus.
Then for sure, yes,
Certainly then, at least,
If not always, but then, yes,
when we are with Him so purposefully.

I love birds because they can fly. I cannot fly but when I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem, the Windhover, I thought that my ability to word could come closer to flying than I had previously realized. In this poem, Hopkins names the thing I longed for in flight more skillfully than I may ever achieve. He writes about a flying bird and marvels at “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” in a way that made me marvel at his own “achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” His word-ing of flying demonstrated mastery in two directions. I wanted to share it with you (I had to).

On this site some of his arcane language has easy footnotes: poetryfoundation.org/poems/44402/the-windhover
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Hopkins gets to the title of this blog post in the last three lines. He describes in great detail the moment that stirred his heart; when he noticed the Windhover, or kestrel, and intensely enjoyed it for what it was. The naming of its beauty intensified it. Realy experiencing beauty may be as much naming it as perceiving it. Words make reality more real, if only because they are shared, and maybe only with your self-same ears is enough. Like praying out loud when you’re alone. Word-ing is worth the time and energy (maybe all time and energy). There is so much hidden, unnamed beauty. We could spend our lives looking for it and never find it all (thank God). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” Hopkins says in another of his famous poems .The stirring of our hearts is just the occasion of our knowing and engaging fully with what is always infinitely present. It’s “no wonder” this bird so enchants him, because even dirt is shiny beautiful when turned out of the packed field (sillion is a very rare, old word for the mound made by dirt turned up by a plow). And because even wood turning to ash dies in flamboyant brightness. There is so much beauty to see and to name.
We gather on Sundays to see it and name it together, among other things. Hope to see you there soon.

How, Oh How Can We Be New?

Dan and I spent two hours Tuesday morning walking around our Pennsauken neighborhood hanging flyers on our neighbor’s door knobs. We wanted them to know that we’re trying to do something new by starting two new Sunday meetings, one at 10:30 a.m. and one at 7:00 p.m. Afterward I marked out the area we had covered on a map of our target are in the gathering room at 3800 Marlton Pike. On that big map, the streets we canvassed in two hours were about the size of a dime. Phew! This is going to take a long time! It takes some work to be new.

But every time I walk around the neighborhood I realize that we’re newer than we think. This week we met people who are new to the neighborhood who have never heard of us. We also met people who grew up in the neighborhood but they were still new to the knowledge that “Oh Circle of Hope is a church?! That’s not a firehouse anymore?!” We’re newer than we thought even before we started two new meetings.

The energy of the new meetings is a lot of fun. The teams that have gathered around them are the best part. On Sunday mornings we stand in a big circle at 10:00 a.m. and pray for all the people who might be on there way. Then we snap into action and we’re ready for them when they arrive. Many hands, light work… light work, good vibes. In the evening, the team turns our garage bays into a living room, moving almost every piece of thrift store furniture we have collected in the place. Folks that come for the first time are getting in on the action when it’s time to move it back. We’re making something together. It feels good.

And the goodness is spreading. The cell leaders are getting in on the action by hanging the same flyers on door knobs in the neighborhoods where their cells meet. We’re spreading out across the region. Planting seeds, maybe in areas not bigger than dimes on our map, but so be it–the seeds are sown. We’re doing it together. That’s the whole point.

Honestly, it’s not that grandiose. By doing something new I think we’re getting back to basics. It’s a lot simpler and, as a result, older. The church has been regular folks living life together for a long time. Our simple vision is an old vision. Acts 20:20 says that the disciples in the early church met “in public and from house to house.” That’s our Sunday meetings and cells. It doesn’t take much more than sincere participation in these simple gatherings to be a real Christian. The meetings need to happen because they need to be made. Christians are makers and we want to be good at making something with Jesus. Space needs to be made for the next person because we need to love them intentionally. Christians are lovers who love without exception. That’s it! Make something with love! Each person brings their gifts, their love and their mustard seed of faith that any of this matters and the miracle of the Church gets born every day. We’re new, yes. We’ve always been that way.

Check out our facebook events for details of our Sunday Meeting After Party on September 10th and or come to our Family Dinner for More Than Just Family on September 3.

All Hands on Deck

“All hands on deck” is an example of a synecdoche.

Synecdoche : nounRhetoric. 1. a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part.

The captain calls, “All hands on deck!” and, of course, he is not calling the whole crew to lop off their hands and throw them to the deck of the ship. The hands are the part of the person he needs at that moment–he needs hands for pulling ropes and hoisting sails. “Synecdoche” is one of those strange words that got caught in my head via a handmade poster on the wall of Ms. Clock’s freshman English class at Central High School in Philadelphia. Synecdoche–the part and the whole speaking for each other. It sounds like the body of Christ, right?

We’re at an “all hands on deck” moment in the life of Circle of Hope in South Jersey. We’re trying something that we have never done before, and honestly, we have probably just enough hands to pull it off. It’s close. We are starting two new Sunday meetings on August 20th– one at 10:30 a.m. and one at 7 p.m. Each has it’s own flavor; each is going to be awesome.

The best reason to do something like this is precisely the difficulty of it. For me, one of the best reasons to be a Christian is the big project Jesus gives us. The world redemption project into which we are conscripted as Jesus followers is worthy of all my talent and ability. I have a purpose that makes life fun. I’m not just clocking in and clocking out; I’m living a whole life with my whole self and it’s a whole lot of fun.

young people smiling
here are some good hands.

i was telling one of the leaders of the new 7 p.m. meeting that the best things we have going for us are all the people who are making this thing happen. And the best thing we have to give them is an opportunity to make something happen.

We live in a world that makes us feel incredibly small. We’re always getting dinged for something, from parking tickets to hidden fees. We’re always being watched–by our employers, the government and especially the marketers. Things are set in motion by giant institutions that are so complex it seems futile to even understand them, let alone change them. People tell us that pure scientific facts are the only things that are real so we are just molecules in a swirling universe–our fates long set by physics equations in a distant star. Despair grows well in such tiny hearts.

So let’s make something–not because we have to but because we CAN! I told that same leader that we don’t have to do any of this. We could do nothing or anything else. This is incredibly freeing. We are part of something already. That is a fact worth living into. Jesus has included us. We’re not in jeopardy of being out. We can actively exclude ourselves if we choose, and Jesus’ is gentle enough to let us pull away, but let’s not. Our hands are useful. Our hand make stuff. Our hands are part of the whole. We are part of the whole.

Dan McGowan is a Good Bet

Dan McGowan begins on Monday as our New Meetings Launch Coordinator.

We created a position to help us make this daring transition from one meeting to two.  In August we will move our existing 5pm meeting to 10:30am and start a new meeting at 5pm. Today, the Leadership Team Core approved the position. We are taking a risk because we think two meetings will help more folks get to our Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken.  But we don’t have the people right now to pull it all off with only volunteers, especially when the meetings are separated by 5 hours. So Dan will help us do it. We’ve never done anything like this before.  It’s not guaranteed to work, but I think Dan McGowan is a good bet.

We need more opportunities for people to connect

God is doing great stuff in our community. People are finding healing and hope in our cells. We create unique opportunities every Sunday to grow and connect with God and each other. Pray with me that that an extra meeting in the morning means more people connecting to us and to Jesus. Even if you’re not so sure about Jesus, you might like to see what Dan and his team have to offer. It’s better than what you may have experienced before and more accessible than you may have imagined.

Dan’s Unreleased Worship EP

Dan is a gifted musician and he is passionate about Jesus’ work in Circle of Hope. Let this little “EP” of his worship song demos speak to his ability, faith and leadership (all of these songs were work shopped with other members of Circle of Hope design teams).


  • “Even if I Fall,” reflecting on Peter’s water walk in Matthew 14 and ours.
  • “The New Old Song,” a reinterpretation of the classic hymn, Be still my Soul.
  • “Then a Wildfire Grew,” a perfect Pentecost anthem.
  • “Resist Our Selves,” a Lenten lullaby.

South Jersey is Different

My Newjerzaversary

Yesterday was the one year mark of my New Jersey home ownership. July 9th will be my residential anniversary (my newjerzaversary). I moved to Haddon Township to get deeper into the region that God called me to as the pastor of Circle of Hope’s South Jersey Congregation. A lot has changed for me and my family in the last two and a half years (since I became pastor)! Our life is very different, because South Jersey is very different from Philly.

One of the things I love about God sending me to South Jersey is that my wife and I are really rather rabid Philadelphians. Moving out of our beloved city of brotherly love reminds us every day that we did something pretty huge for God. It was hard, and how God has brought us through that hardness puts a wondrous grin on my face every time that change hits me.

It hit me again this morning when I read a philly.com article about Philadelphia area fireworks displays. The South Jersey towns were included way down at the bottom of the article below several ads. Pennsylvania was first with a whole bunch of Pennsylvania suburbs listed. Some of them were up to 45 minutes outside of the city, but Jersey was separate, below the digital fold. Audubon, Barrington, Haddon Township, Collingswood, Gloucester City, and more all have pretty decent fireworks displays. You can see a fireworks show in South Jersey within 10 minutes of Philly every night through next Tuesday starting tomorrow. Check out the kids activities blog Kim writes for if you really love fireworks, seriously. After I read the philly.com article I had to call her to commiserate with a South Jersey native to say, “Wow, they really don’t care about us at all, do they?” I have become part of the “us” that is South Jersey. I am Circle of Hope in a very symbolic way. Our “we” crosses the Delaware. We are not respecters of divisions and categories that separate us.

How did the love grow?

This love for South Jersey did not happen because I love jug handles, or tiny municipalities piled on top of each other, or high property taxes, or even a great neighborhood school for my kindergartner. It happened because I love the people. I love Circle fo Hope and I love the people to whom God has called us to express his love.  Becoming a “we” and maintaining the “we-ness” is a big part of what I do as the pastor of Circle of Hope because we really think that it’s how we love each other that best shows the world who Jesus is and what his life among us does. I am grateful to God that he has included me in a “we” even bigger than our expression of the Church. The contrast is still very stark for my Philly-boy eyes and I’d rather it never fade, because it motivates me to get out there into all these tiny towns and the intricacies of the beautiful lives of the people who live there.

Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting in Pensauken is moving too (in August)

We’re on the move as a congregation too. We’re still meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike on Sundays but soon we will be meeting at two different times. 10:30 am and 5pm. We think that more of those lovely people will be able to connect with these opportunities than two evening meetings like Circle of Hope’s Philly congregations have always done. The dry run of the newly designed evening meeting was this past Sunday. I was so excited to see a group of people who are mostly younger than 25 getting serious about how to make church something in which their friends actually want to participate. Take it from me, the change ends up to be very fun, even if it doesn’t seem like it will be at the outset. God moves with us when we move and we see him in new ways when our routines and daily routes change. Moving our meeting to 10:30 am and making way for a new group gathering at 5 :00 is an opportunity for God to move in a bunch of new ways among us. I’m praying that in the near future we will look back together on the hardness of this big change with a wondrous smile.

Time for Problems

At 3800 Marlton Pike, we’ve decided to move our current Sunday meeting from the evening to the morning. This is causing a lot of problems. I love problems and I think some people find this a little annoying. If there’s a problem, at least then we know for sure what needs to be done! If you know me (and most of the people reading this know me) I like to DO stuff; so having a ton of stuff to do is comforting to me. But not everyone is like me (thank God!), and thus there are a lot of different ways we are responding to the problem of starting a second Sunday meeting.

Some are ambivalent, we haven’t talked about it enough yet for them to have an opinion. Some don’t like it at all because they have shaped their life around an evening meeting for years and changing is a lot of work. Some are enthusiastic, they’ve been trying for years to get that one friend to come to a meeting but they can’t make it work with their schedule. Some are worried, we don’t have enough people on the teams that pull off the existing meeting. Some are suspicious, what makes you so sure changing the meetings will make room for new people?

All these responses are totally legit. We don’t need to have our feelings validated because they are inherently valid, but I want to acknowledge them just the same. I want to acknowledge these feelings I’ve mentioned, the ones that I am aware of through conversations with you, but also the ones of which I am unaware. This change is arbitrary. it’s mostly an excuse to have some new problems instead of our old ones, and an excuse to be new in how we are expressing what God has given us to give to the world. I think this will be very good for us and our plan to be an environment where people can know God and act for redemption.

Here’s an adorable grumpy toddler

The biggest problem that we solve with a morning meeting is the proliferation of grumpy toddlers in South Jersey. I just don’t think the world needs any more of those. But there are tons of them in all the parks I go to and all the preschools that are everywhere around here. Their parents might want to know Jesus and we’re a really good place fo them to do that. But no one I know is going to mess up their toddler’s bed time routine to check out a Sunday meeting. The reasons the parents of toddlers among us are a part of our Sunday meetings is because A) they were part of us before said toddlers existed or B) they were looking for a church just like Circle of Hope for a long time and then they made it work. Our evening time frame screens out any casually interested people. You have to really want to do it to do it at 5 if you have young kids.

Fortunately we will still be doing it at 5, just also at 10 (or 10:30- what do you think?). Dan and Pat McGowan are leading a team of folks who want to connect a whole new group of people to our Sunday meetings. They have an innovative plan that they are going to try out this Sunday (June 25th at 7pm). Invite your friends to it. It’s an open meeting even if it’s a dry run. Everyone who shows up is a founder! If you won’t be there, pray for them (I guess you should pray for them if/while you’re there too).

Prayer is the best thing to do with your problems in general (that sounds like a cliche and it is) but a common byproduct of my prayers is dialogue. If I talk to God about them, I’m more likely to talk to others about them. Once I articulate them to myself and to God I can better work them out on the team or with the person who might be the source of the problem. We’re not making this big change yet. We’re thinking August, so we have time to face all the problems. Let’s sort them out together with God and each other.

Palm Sunday at Midnight in Washington DC

Washington DC is not solely responsible for the numbed-out, gotta-buy-my happiness-and-can’t, bickering-by-default, coercive domination we all suffer as 21st century human beings. Our despair about the way the world is going wasn’t born in the Capitol building, but it is a big bright target in the skyline of our thinking and feeling that is worth some of our spiritual energy. (Other targets include Wall Street, wherever the pornography mecca is, and the Executive Offices of Time-Warner)

praying at the capitol in Washington DC
Jerome Stafford, one of our pastors, leads in porayer

When Jesus went to Jerusalem back in 33 AD (or whenever) he was finally showing himself to the authorities after building a movement that he thought could survive what was about to happen next. On Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem to say to that powers, “Here I am!”

We went to one of our seats of powers and made a house of prayer there. Adapting one of our favorites from the Psalters, five us sang on the Capitol steps, “Many are those who pray, crying out at midnight in Your name./And You, Oh Lord, are a shield to all who suffer/Give us our daily bread/Rise up, Lord. Rise up! And deliver us from all that oppresses.”

For me, this tune has always been charged with the full circuit breaker of my conviction, yet somehow, now that it’s been channeled through this experience of praying on the Capitol steps at midnight, it is even more electrifying.

Jane and Scott Clinton were staying with friends near DC, so they were the first to join my cause. One friend who was supposed to come with me wasn’t able to, so I went to 1125 S. Broad Street as their 7pm meeting ended to find a replacement. Gift Koama lived up to his name and said, “I love adventures.” Then Jerome Stafford called me and said, “Don’t leave without me!” It was a bona fide road trip!

MLK Memorial Mountain of despair
The moon from the “mountain of despair” at the MLK memorial

We got to DC in time to make a quick pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, something I’ve wanted to do since they built it 6 years ago. It was like a warm up for my heart. The “mountain of despair” we exited through was very appropriate. Washington is the source of much despair, but we are a circle of hope!

We went to the steps and found Jane and Scott, then we prayed that the people who worked their would find ways toward peace and mutuality. We prayed for impossible things because that’s what hope and prayer are for. It was invigorating.

I bring you back my hope in these words we read from Colossians Remixed

“In the face of the empire
in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty
in the face of the imperial and idolatrous
forces of our lives
Christ is before all things
he is sovereign in life
not pimped dreams of global market
not the idolatrous forces of nationalism
not the insatiable desires of consumerist

Christ is before all things. Christ is all and is in all. He was in us as we prayed on the steps. He is in you as you read this post. He is in those who work at the Capitol. Yes even in that broken system. But He is sovereign over it. All things have been placed under his feet and he loves us and serves us from that place of power. The powers in Washington will never wield their authority like Christ, but we, as a circle of hope, will. We have power to grasp how wide and deep is the love of Christ, and death has been disempowered over us. So we face the seat of empire with Jesus unafraid and full of hope.

Come to 3800 Marlton Pike tonight at 7pm for the anointing at Bethany! Full details at circleofhope.net/holyweek

The Drums of War Beat Me into the Bible

When I was a freshman in college, terrorists high-jacked planes and flew them into The World Trade Center buildings in New York City. I was newly baptized and thus minted a new man, and newly immersed in the Christian subculture at Eastern University in St. David’s, PA. I was dismayed by my classmates response to what happened that first month of school. The drums of war beat me into the Bible. I poured through the New and Old Testament with a red ball point pen, underlining and exclamation pointing every call to peacemaking and justice I could find (and there are sooo many). Every amateur just war theologian in my Philosophy class inspired me to get the facts. I was building an argument, sharpening my spear, shouting a lot.

Che of Nazareth
Jesus is much more than Che of Nazareth

I don’t hate the zealotry of that young man in the early aughts. I learned the Bible well. I fell in love with it as my guide for life. Though I often painted Jesus as more Che of Nazareth, I was relating to him and wrestling with how to follow him with my whole life. The struggle led me to Mexico for a year of service with the Mennonite Central Committee. The spiritual intensity of that year has not been rivaled in the decade and a half since, but when I read my journals my immaturity makes me squirm. Or it might just be how glaringly naive I was. I am, to this day, a big proponent of my own naivete. I’ve owned my unswerving optimism as a strength even when it requires more resilience when my big hopes are often dashed. The intervening years of struggle and failure (AKA life) give me a much more nuanced perspective on almost everything. But what I learned in a tiny church on the edge of giant Mexico City holds true. Jesus was a revolutionary and his weapon was love. 

My sojourn in Mexico resulted in, among many other things, my sense of calling to lead the Church. I went knowing that I was a leader, but I was leaning toward leading the nonviolent political revolution that would bring about a new age of peace and justice. I came back from Mexico knowing that the transformation of the world would come person by person, heart by heart. I saw the violence of my own political zealotry as a supposed peacemaker and wanted more for myself. I wanted more for the world. I still do.

The drums of war keep beating. The news from Syria this week is deadening. We need more for ourselves. The “red line” of chemical weapons is such a low bar. I feel beaten back and discouraged. Those underlined red verses are coming back to me. The Bible that made me a Jesus follower is still a real comfort to me. The promises of peace, of life beyond death, of grace are new again. They are new every time I need them; and I need them every time I read the news. THIS is the world we live in. It hasn’t changed much in my entire adult life (which I know is relatively short). Anything better than this will only be slightly better in the hands of those in power.

So I invest in a kingdom that is not of this world. I show the powers that there is a greater power. Some are beating their chests to police the world. Jesus was beaten and killed to save the world. And then God beat back death! The American state won’t save me, only Jesus will. May the drums of war keep beating back to this peace. May you find refuge in THIS promise.

On Palm Sunday, I’m going to Washington DC at midnight to stand on the Capitol steps if the authorities will let me, to be at the source of those war drums and deliver Christ’s message of peace again. I’ve been there before to say no to war, but this time I’ll be saying “yes” to Jesus. I’m going to pray on behalf of Circle of Hope but it’s personal for me as well. I’ll say “This is who I am now, American Power. I’ve changed, but God hasn’t. Jesus’ peace can be yours too. Join us!”

Would you like to join us? I have a few spots in my car. Email me, comment, or sign up here, to be sent to the powers to show them who we are in Christ and that his kingdom is not of this world.

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

At the Lent retreat this weekend we were led to practice prayer of imagination. Here’s a story I wrote about my experience:

I’m on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes tourist into the clouds at the base of Niagara Falls. If the light is right, there are rainbows everywhere. The light wasn’t right. It was a gray day. I am seven years old and not too old to pout a little. But I am still captivated by the thundering water. Who wouldn’t be?

Everyone is wearing Maid of the Mist branded blue ponchos. As we motor out toward the thunder I lean against a familiar pair of jeans. I look down at the wet deck of the boat and I am startled by the fact that the shoes on these legs are wrong. I jump back and I can’t meet the eyes on the face of the strange man looking down at me. I think he smiles but I’m swiveling away to find my Dad who is not the guy in these jeans. Dad is three feet behind me. He saw the whole thing. He widens his eyes to say, “Here I am.” I retreat to the correct jeans for a moment.

But now Jesus’ story from Matthew 19:13-15 is at play here too. I’m reading the account of Jesus telling the disciples to “Let the little children come to me.” The guide for my prayer retreat asks, “What do you see? … People’s legs?”

“Yes,” my imagination answers with the flashing memory of those mistaken pants. And now I’m on the Maid of the Mist jostling on deck to get close to Jesus. I’m on a pillow breathing deeply, swaying a little in Circle of Hope’s building in Fishtown, but I’m on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls thinking, “Jesus is here.”

My Dad gives me a flip of his hand on the back of my blond head, suggestively flinging me forward through the legs in front of me. “Go,” he says silently, and I trust him. I weave past the wrong jeans, also sandals, bare skin, skirts and shorts. I get to the prow of the boat and Jesus isn’t here. The magnetism I feel in the crowd is focused on the falls so I figure he must be there. I strip off my Maid of the Mist branded blue poncho and climb up onto the first rail. I look over my shoulder. Dad is three or four rows back giving me a smile and a wave. He switches to a thumbs up. I grin back. With one foot up now on the top rail, I wait one more moment so as not to be surprised by the roll of the water beneath the boat and slip. When the time is right I duck out of my Donald Duck T-Shirt and dive off the boat and into the churn below.

Underwater, I don’t need to breath so I can dedicate my full attention without limitation to getting behind the waterfall. That must be where Jesus is. My thinking is I have to go really deep–way down deep below the power, and the clouds, even below the current that penetrates the surface. So down I go until I think this must be deep enough. I back up like a cartoon rearing to run and dart at the curtain of current that is still there this far down, but hopefully weak enough to penetrate. But it tumbles me back like a crashing wave. After tumbling backward I try again with the same result. Again and again, but it’s always the same.

Back on my pillow in Fishtown my sway has a gentle tumble to it. Again and again, head nodding in a gentle whip remembering summers at Huntington Beach getting tossed by the surf and loving it. But I don’t love this.

“Why is it always like this?” I cry in a soundless underwater shout. “Why are you so hard to get to, Jesus?! You’re supposed to be here.”

I’m still in the tumble and sway in Fishtown. “How does this story end? How does this little child get to Jesus?”

I slowly stop my subtle pillow dancing and I am still. And the Niagara river is suddenly still as well. Turning away from the tumbling current, I look up. The surface of the water, far above me is now calm and I can see by the gilding around the Maid of the Mist’s silhouette that the sun has begun to shine. I look over my shoulder at the impassable barrier, then back up to the boat eclipse. I am still in the water, floating in the depths without effort. My eyes fall slowly from the surface tracing the steady fade from a blue that’s almost white to a deep, deep blue at my eye level. I stare into this darkness, “How does it end?”

classic 70's snorkel maskThen something touches my shoulder and I wiggle away. Kicking madly toward the surface in fear, I look down and there is Jesus waving to me in the deep blue. He’s wearing one of those snorkel masks that’s just an oval from the 70’s, big fins on his feet, and a speedo. Yes, with the classic hippie hair and beard, but also hair all over his body. I swim down toward him and he darts away, though not too far this time. He lets me catch him and now it’s my turn to be pursued. We circle round beneath the Maid of the Mist ascending through the shades of blue and I am so happy. Jesus and I are playing tag beneath the Maid of the Mist in the Niagara River. “And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”

Eulogy for the Pinelands

Today I wept tears as I saw the writing on the wall of the Crowne Plaza Ballroom in Cherry Hill. So many of us were there to say “no” to a proposed pipeline conceived to send freshly fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania through the Pinelands to a coastal power plant in Egg Harbor Bay; and yet I knew that the commissioners of the New Jersey Pineland Commission were going to say “yes.” Yes to bottom lines and short term gains. I had my two sons with me. Two boys who I am currently trying to teach how to love the woods. Oliver, 6, asked me when we left before the vote was cast (He had to go to afternoon kindergarten). “What are we going to do if they say “yes.” I told him, “We’ll just have to keep saying ‘no.”

The pipeline is going under a road or in the shoulder for much of it’s 22 mile encroachment in the preserved area. It is likely that much of this landscape of my adopted state will remain preserved during construction, at least until the pipe leaks. I will be able to teach Oliver and Theo how to love the woods there still, but I feel weak against the logic of consumption, and the potential meaninglessness of my “no”– of our “no.” The forest will survive this, but I still feel like something or someone is dead. The foolishness of this vote brings to mind 1 Corinthians 1:18. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I’m smelling some perishing. There is rot in the air. I’m worried it’s in me, terrified it will be in my boys, certain it is in this decision and most of our governments decisions, and slowly becoming resigned to the reality that it is in New Jersey’s Pinelands.

And so I offer this poem as a eulogy and a prayer for the Pinelands:

The sandy soil soaks up sound,
And the needles in the trees don’t shake.
The stillness there is haunting
So bring out your Devil stories.

But the stillness is a welcome cure
To city folk like me
Who need some quiet whispers
And tannin tea stained shorts.

At the summit of a hill named after pie,
Where the sky and trees are endless,
I can smile and in my smaller way can say
That so am I

The Devils live in bottom lines,
Spreadsheets and excellent lies
Of those who should say no
But die instead with yes.

I pray with all the people
Who want more than just what’s theirs;
Who want what’s ours and what’s my sons’:
Trees, water, birds and air!

May your no be no,
And your yes be yes.
You said these words yourself.
Jesus, this time my no is no.

Cells are Resistance

Cells are my resistance movement. And this moment in time demands resistance. I’m pretty sure I would be in utter despair if I didn’t have a cell. Circle of Hope organizes into circles of ten we call “cells” where we do the actual work of being Christians together- loving, laughing, lamenting and including the next person. Cells teach me how diverse people can actually love each other. Loving across boundaries is something I witness and practice, not just something I believe in. If this were all just an intellectual exercise, fueled by the power of my own conviction, I would be depressed. Many people I know are depressed. I think they need a cell. They need a place where God does the miraculous work of knitting us together in love. We participate, mind you; our mutuality is hard won. We have to trust each other with our guard down long enough to acclimate to our togetherness. Humans are tempted to default to separation, self-protection, bald categorization… but in cells we resist that temptation and our resistance can transform the world.

Everyone is talking about xenophobia this week. Some are on the defensive against the accusation.  Others are on the attack, accusing someone else. It seems we’re all thinking about our fear of strangers (xenos=stranger in Greek). Donald Trump’s executive order has suspended immigration from countries said to be full of dangerous strangers. And it has pushed the country’s conversation from seething disagreement to shouting freak-out.

I am amazed at how foreign many of my neighbors have become to me in the short aftermath. How did YOU get caught up in the wisdom of “America First”? Really, YOU’RE into this too? Why does Trump’s rhetoric appeal to YOU? I’m trying to nurture surprise and curiosity rather than outrage. If I plan on loviing someone long enough for them to trust me, I can’t start with outrage (but I do understand why some folks are leaning in to that anger right now.) I’m trying to live out the reality that our common humanity unites us. Jesus came to teach us exactly what that looks like, which is love for people who are radically different. He crossed boundaries, included strangers, and told us to do the same, explicitly. So I’m practicing loving refugees and people who are scared of refugees.

The goal is loving well. We do not need to have a refugee live in our home to be obedient, though that would be a sure-fire way to ace the test (if it were a test). We can love the people we are actually with. We can hold our hands at our sides even when our instincts are telling us in error that we are certainly going to get punched in the face. We need to be saved form our certainty that the other wishes to do us harm. We need to resist the division in our hearts that is getting built into massive walls. Cells are a place to do that for real. Our cells are a resistance movement. Yes, go to the marches if you need to, but don’t think your normal togetherness is not revolutionary. Let’s not get divided up. I defy the empire that wishes to divide and conquer us. I will love and be loved even when it’s hard to do that. Jesus will help. This is my primary form of resistance.

My cell meets on Thursdays in Gloucester City, NJ. HMU if you want to get in on it.