Why Circle of Hope Needs Miracles (2005)

First appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, April 2005

There isn’t much to Circle of Hope if there isn’t a miracle — and that is the way it should be. As a matter of fact, when God drew a few people together to form this new rendition of his church, we deliberately tried to install “fail safe devices” that would guarantee that we needed God’s presence to survive – we hoped the church would self-destruct if it was not motivated by the Spirit; we wanted it to die if love didn’t move it; we plotted for it to collapse into an appropriate heap of trash if it didn’t require God to do what it was doing. Don’t you still feel like that’s the way it should be? There is nothing worse than a church that can cruise along fine without the presence of Jesus!

Or do you think I’m sounding grandiose? Maybe you’d like it admitted that, like in most groups of almost anyone, a good 75% of us are probably “conservative” — meaning many of us are more likely to preserve and protect what is rather than moving on to what is next. “Relying on God’s presence to survive” could seem a little over-the-top! Destroying the church because it is not as wild as Jesus could seem a bit extreme! Even talking about miracles may seem grandiose.

It’s true, the natural pull on any group, including our church, is to “nest,” to settle, to collect in a comfortable warm pool of stagnating water at the lowest point in the landscape. The fiery passion and vision that creates a new church (like it created the first one) can be contained by the damp matches that are drawn to its warmth. To some, our “big bang” sometimes seems surrounded by a “stratosphere” of semi-interested people who don’t practically care if Jesus lives or dies and who play an energy-sucking tug-of-war with God’s gravity. So some days it may not seem like we are motivated by the Spirit, moved by love or even noticing God much at all.

Nevertheless, it is a miracle we got going and it is a miracle we survive. I don’t think we would be anything to point at whatsoever unless God kept saying, “Let there be light” and he turned the lights on in our house. There would be no “damp matches” to talk about unless there were lit ones to compare them to. I think we have many more “big bangin’” people than our share, actually.

It is always hard to be a Christian. To be one requires God. To be the kind of Jesus followers we have been called to be especially requires God’s miraculous touch. It is very challenging! Just look at the four characteristics we embody, named below. God has drawn us to be people with those characteristics. We are called to live in the radical heartland of his kingdom. To live there, we need God’s touch to keep making us alive. We need a regular miracle to be the body of Christ dba Circle of Hope.

We need miracles because we expect to live in community

We want to live in love like we’re encouraged to live in Ephesians 5: Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We have had numerous little households, a few larger communities and a few marriages all break up among us over the years. We have had literally thousands of people visit our meetings and never “stick.” We have deeply failed in overcoming our culture’s tendency to keep some distance for fear of losing independence.

But we have often succeeded, too. That’s a miracle. The other day a young woman complained to me that it was much easier for her to make new acquaintances in a bar than in a church. “Why is it so different?” she asked. I told her that assuming Christians were too stuck up to go to bars probably wasn’t all there was to it. It might have more to do with the fact that bars are anonymous (until you become one of the regulars) and churches are communities of love. A bar’s community can form spontaneously and last until the drinks are consumed. We are eternal and our love is weighty. You’d have to be very drunk not to see that. So a person becoming acquainted with us will see it. To make a connection that weighty and keep it, takes a miracle. It takes a work of God in us to love like Jesus and to offer ourselves for others.

We need miracles because we rely on everyone’s personal initiative.

If people do not respond to the Spirit’s prompting, we’re dead. Because all we are is a collection of whatever the Spirit of God expresses through us, just like we are described in 1 Corinthians 12: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all [people]. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

It might be easier to recruit star-power leaders and hold big events that transcend our humanity. But we are determined that regular people, filled with God’s Spirit will operate our “vehicle.” So some seasons we have sat in the garage until our tires went flat and other times inexperienced drivers have roared right out into the street and had a crash.

But aren’t you amazed that in ten years we have had the initiative among us to build three congregations nearing 400 people, thirty-four cells (68 leaders), fifteen mission teams, Circle Venture, Circle Counseling, Circle Thrift, and more? That’s a miracle.

The other day the Cell Leader Coordinators were noting that several of the cells are somewhat tormented by people who have “relapsed” you might say, into self-absorption. Or worse, they have decided that our ways and our love aren’t good enough for them, after years of caring, so they are pulling up stakes and moving on to greener pastures. They are kind of the “anti-matter” of spiritual motivation. They suck the life out of you. To keep trying in the face of that takes the “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” It takes a miracle to keep saying, “Send me,” to God and to mean it.

We need miracles because we are called to keep searching for what is next

We are on a journey together. We are followers. We are driven by the strategy of God’s always-adapting redemption project, like Paul describes himself to the Philippians in chapter three: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. …I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.”

One does not have to be incredibly frank to immediately note that many of us are barely secure in what “is,” much less enrapt with what is “next.” Sometimes it is hard to tell if we are converting what is coming next or being converted by it! We like to think of ourselves as the next generation of the church, but many of us are a little too unsure about what is going on right now to press on too much.

But you just have to attend one of the love feasts in the past year to think we just might make it after all. I never tire of hearing the stories of people who have been taken hold of by God and changed. It is a miracle again and again. People have been coming out of families dead set against Jesus, out of homelessness and addiction, out of tepid and self-serving Christianity.

Not quite as public but still quite as amazing are those meetings we hold every year to discern our map for the next part of our journey together. We ask the cells what God wants to do next, then we decide together to do what we agree to do, and then we do it!. That’s a miracle year after year. We have an anarchic, organic process that breeds concrete results by God’s power.

Periodically, I talk to a believer who comes from what I’d say is “what was” and they look over Circle of Hope and assess what is going on (as church people are wont to do). They ask, “Why aren’t you bigger? Why aren’t you better?” Sometimes I feel embarrassed. But more often I remember to respond – “Hey, it is a miracle we are anything! We are just us, pressing on, just regular people doing all we can do. We’re just trying to keep up with what God is doing next”

We need miracles because we make countercultural moves that require God’s power

We are not like everyone else and we admit it. We even speak to the domination system like the first followers did in Acts 5: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

It is true that we have all the arguments of our culture happening among us, too, so it might seem like an overstatement to say we are countercultural at all. On the one hand, some of us want to be free by letting everything in – they fear obedience. For instance, we have our share of catastrophic sexual misadventures —  just like people around us. On the other hand some of us want to stay free by keeping everything out – they obey their fears. For instance, we have our share of judgmental attitudes — just like people around us. We can sound downright blue state/red state! And if we are really honest, we have to admit that most of us have a hard time making a decision that goes against financial security, resume fulfillment or sexual/relational connection, just like the unbelievers.

Yet, it is amazing how against the grain we can keep on growing! It is a miracle. We say to neighborhoods that are inhospitable to Jesus, “We will plant a new congregation in you.” We say to racism and unreconciliation, “We are going to look just like the kingdom of God, or die trying, even if it does irritate every one of us!”

When we say “No!” to the powers that foment violence around the world or on the street, who trust in brute force and punitive measures, it causes relational problems among us; it gets us tagged “liberal.” It’s a miracle we dare. When we say “No!” to the “tolerance” loving “god” who supposedly brings all the “faiths” together, it causes relational problems among us; it gets us tagged “conservative.” It’s a miracle that we risk it. In our cell last week we started talking about how the Holy Spirit guides us, and most of us thought that sounded like some radical Christianity was going on! It takes a miracle to not just slide into self-destruction on the slippery slope of what is going down, doesn’t it?

I hope God gives me the courage, if it is ever needed, to pull the switch that blows us up if we ever get to the place where it does not take a miracle for us to survive as the church. And I hope you beat me to the switch!

May God always triumph over the doubt and cynicism that questions whether the Spirit can motivate us. May God prevail over the broken relationships and sinful interactions that threaten to block the movement of love. May God always overcome the apathy and ignorance that gum up the recognition that God is at work.

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