Tag Archives: covenant

Collective, Covenant and Community in the age of Trump

Our beloved neighbors in our little Pocono community had to move and were replaced by an interesting new clan who are making quite an impact. In some ways, these new neighbors represent what is happening in a lot of places where people are devoted to taking care of themselves instead of building common structures that take care of everyone. Any assumptions I may have about what it means to be a “we” should not be taken for granted anymore.

In our little lakefront community, an extended family, including 95 year old grandpa who still drives, moved into the association but did not want to follow many of the rules – at least they don’t so far. I’m not sure they even read any of them before they signed the deed. So our board has the dreadful responsibility of enforcing some restrictions on them. They put up an above-ground pool, which is forbidden. They blare karaoke into the late-night peace of the forest. They claimed they were going to paint their house purple and that would meet the forest-colored aesthetic required, since there are purple flowers native to PA. Several board members are wondering to what extent they will be dealing with the matriarch’s “crazy” and “bitch” tattooed on opposite arms.

Image result for it's rude dude septa

I think I have a similar disquiet when I notice the sign in the subway that tells riders (primarily males) “It’s rude dude!” when they don’t offer their seat. Does SEPTA really expect people who are rude to be moved by a blanket shaming from some anonymous source of authority? Aren’t they already sealed in a cloud of headphone noise and going it alone? I suspect my neighbors up the hill stopped listening a long time ago, as well, and might feel any seat they manage to get needs to be kept, not shared.

An article in the NY Times [link], which is undoubtedly no source of inspiration for my Pocono community or my subway companions, had an article about rural Arkansas and why it was likely to stick with Trump which highlights the challenges of making covenants, building community and even considering something “collective” these days. It all came down to whether the county should fund a library.

[P]eople here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor…

That was the crux of the issue — people didn’t want to pay for something they didn’t think they would use. I suspect that many residents are willing to pay for some institutions they see as necessary, like the sheriff’s department, but libraries, symbols of public education and public discourse, are more easily sacrificed…

Economic appeals are not going to sway any Trump voters, who view anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people, with disdain, even if it ultimately helps them, too. And Trump voters are carrying the day here in Van Buren County. They see Mr. Trump’s slashing of the national safety net and withdrawal from the international stage as necessities — these things reflect their own impulse writ large.

For Jesus followers, the “impulse writ large” is always the big picture they care about. We would like our impulses to correlate with the new law written by the Spirit on our hearts. That desire connects us to the whole world Jesus loves. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, we can certainly do that ourselves, but he did come to save it. If you’re following the master who loves the whole world, individually and collectively, you’ll need to figure out where you fit in that picture. You certainly won’t be able to do it without a real time relationship with Jesus, and if you enter that relationship, it will relate you to all the others who share it.

Clinton AK. Audra Melton for the NY Times

Covenant is an antidote

The NY Times thinks people who live in cities in the Northeast are much more enlightened than rural people in Arkansas (and the poconos) who vote for Trump. But I am not so sure. Just try to build a church on the sharing of people who make a covenant together to be it and people begin to look quite similar. In an age of perceived scarcity and self-reliance, it is hard to rely on people sharing their lives and resources. Many people tend to see their contributions to our common fund as another tax required by an institution they don’t completely trust or which pays for services they don’t personally need. Just because they follow Jesus does not immediately mean they have taken out their headphones and offered the Lord a seat on their conveyance, public or otherwise. He’s not with them in the Uber, as they get the cheapest ride no matter what it costs the driver. He’s not on their bike with them as they dodge the potholes the city cannot afford to repair, maybe because half the new developments got a tax abatement. They might not even get up for Him on the El.

I’m not really shaming everyone, I hope. I’m not a sign on a subway train anonymously telling rude people they are rude. I’m not a government official enforcing mysterious laws that eat away at our minimal disposable income. I’m just trying to deal with how “conservative” even the supposedly “liberal” people are when it comes to sharing life together. In an age when even rich people feign scarcity, the first thing to exit the budget is often sharing.

Unlike so many other churches, ours decided the ultimate goal for each disciple was to be a person who could live in a covenant of love as a responsible, joyful member of the alternative community Jesus empowers: the body of Christ.  That seemed crazy enough to be miraculous and so worthy of Jesus when we started, but covenanting seems to be getting harder all the time. I wonder if our pastors are tempted to downplay it, or even scrap the idea, since it cuts out a lot of people who don’t trust like they used to. Donald Trump makes us feel like everyone must at least be on the spectrum of untrustworthiness somewhere. People beg us for money to feed their substance addictions as soon as we get on the sidewalk and the governments seem addicted to spending money in secret for which we get no direct benefit. We’re hit up coming and going, even while our bosses and landlords squeeze as much they can for as little in return as they can get away with. When the church says there is not enough money, even the covenant members, who ARE the church feel justly suspicious.

Extra points if you can sport me in this picture of the conference at the Meeting House in Oakville ON.

Can we even talk about being a “collective?”

Last week I spent a couple of days in Toronto by invitation of the Jesus Collective. The “Jesus Collective aspires to unite, equip and amplify a Jesus-centered, third way movement” of the church in our changing era. People from all over the world are fed up with the potholes in their antiquated institutions and are getting back to the basics of being Jesus followers. They are becoming what Jesus Collective often describes as “Anabaptish,” just like Circle of Hope. They read the Bible and their contexts through a Jesus lens, which often makes them at odds with traditional and systematic approaches from the past, while also making them much more effective in relating to people who trust the church (and God!) about as much as they trust anything else.

As I experienced the meetings and made new relationships, I developed a nagging doubt. Can anyone even tolerate the idea of being a “collective” these days? Conservative people will feel their pockets are about to be picked and liberal people won’t tolerate being connected to someone who is not on the same page with their justice issues. People collecting themselves around Jesus and the basic truths and experiences every follower can share seems quite radical in this era. I wonder if people will do it.

After all, we have been this “new” Jesus collective, writ small, in Philadelphia for a couple of decades now. So we have some experience with the problems. And while we are wildly more successful than I hoped when we got started, there is no doubt that, post 9/11, the next generation is pretty suspicious about “collectives.” They feel scarcity and they feel condemned to go it alone for the most part. I’m not even sure they feel like they are “going it alone,” most of the time, because they have always been surviving a perilous journey with little more than their own resources to rely on. Many people can barely attach to another person successfully, to love and be loved, much less can they imagine building a collective. Creating a Jesus-centered community requires some things that are generally in short supply these days: the agency to create not just survive, the ability to trust in Jesus despite the horrors church leaders have perpetrated, the capacity to center on something (marriage, locale, vocation included), and the audacity to hope for the fruit from long-term laboring to build a countercultural community in the world.

I immediately signed up to help build the Jesus Collective. My new friend, Matt Miles, said he left his finance job to lead the formation of this new organization because he could not imagine a better place to serve in this time. While I couldn’t help looking at all the problems associated with birthing something so hopeful in the world, I had to agree with him. The fact is, the worse the world gets, the more Jesus becomes our Savior. When we are prosperous and feeling good, it is easy to give God a high five and move on with our self-controlled lives. When the world-as-we-know-it and the church-as-it-has-been seem to be sinking, many will jump ship. But in such times, there have always been large numbers of Jesus followers, who listen to the Holy Spirit moving wherever there is an opening for new life (just like dear Francis of Assisi who we celebrated last Friday). They band together to represent Jesus coming alongside everyone with ears to hear and hearts to follow. We are on that edge in Philadelphia and it looks like the path we have been following is becoming more obvious to people all over the world. I want to move with them.

Why should I make a covenant?

Last night the Pastors led us in a very interesting and engaged meeting about making a covenant. A couple of my friends asked the most important (but often unspoken) questions right out loud. There were many other good questions, too, but I woke up thinking about one, in particular. While I was praying this morning I gravitated toward a couple of answers for it from the Bible. So I thought I try to boil down a big subject in this post.

Here is the question: “Why should I make a covenant? I am doing good things, I am involved. Aren’t I already doing the covenant?”

Great question.

It is definitely true that one can keep the spirit of the covenant without the “sign” of it. That is Paul’s whole argument in several of his letters. Circumcision of males was the main distinction that visibly made one a Jew and, by heritage, part of a special relationship (a covenant) with God. In Romans he says:

[Abraham] received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:11)

In Galatians he makes the point again, twice!

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Galatians 6:13)

If an argument for making a covenant with other Jesus followers was about fulfilling an obligation or keeping a law, I think Paul would be against it.

We are into the new covenant

This doesn’t mean that God is any less a covenant-making God. Not only is God fulfilling the covenant with Abraham in Jesus, the Lord is making a new covenant with everyone who will eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation. Paul reminds the non-Jews to whom he is writing:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)

He obviously thinks this new covenant God is making has the same visible signs as in the past, only moreso – deeper and universal.

The reason we make a covenant with one another is not about law, it is about incarnation. Christ in us and Christ in all of us reveals the glory of God.

As Paul teaches:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Can Jesus be practically incarnate if we do not have a visible body in which the Spirit lives? Paul spends much of his letters telling us how to form that body based on this new covenant.

Individualism is devolutionary

In this era the philosophical movement that began in the 60’s in the United States has about convinced everyone that everything meaningful or spiritual is happening in an individual. If we connect too much to someone else, we might not be true to ourselves, which is all we have (or so it is taught). The military teaches this new outlook the best, I think. Here’s the Army from a couple of years ago.


Here’s the Air Force. I saw this commercial so many times at the theater during the holidays I can about recite it.

The good point the video makes is that you can’t have an effective force without effective individuals. In Paul’s universe that translates into: there is one body but the same Spirit who is working in everyone. The bad point that I think is more relevant is that “It’s all about what is happening in me.”

Without the work of the Spirit in each of us making us one, there is no body of Christ. No amount of formalized covenant-making will make us live in love. But we need a form: our own bodies and the Body of Christ, to make that love relevant and transformational. God became empty of the prerogatives of God to become one of us and calls us to a similar love by that example. Jesus entered into our sin and suffered for his bloody love; then he left the communion symbol as the center of an ongoing community based on that same kind of love. It has formed the church ever since.

I want to be part of that church and I want people to know it, not just because I am individually an army of one but because they see me as part of the people who once were not a people but now are the people of God. I want others in the body to know I mean it and I want to know from others that they really mean it, not just because they looked inside and found some faith, but because they also looked outside and joined the team, they said it, they wore our connectedness like an honor.

I did a little word search and saw that I have said quite a bit about this subject. Here you go:





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Tenderness is the heart of the covenant.

When Jesus passes you the cup at the Love Feast it is an act of tenderness. Maybe you can’t look into his eyes and see it; but when you drink, you might be able to feel it. When you are surrounded by others who love him and love you, the tenderness might become more evident. I hope so.

It always happens. Someone at the feast will come up against this tenderness and it will throw them for a loop. Some might be frightened by it and might even refuse to drink. You can feel their resistance. Others will be melted for the first time and understand the liquid love being offered — a few flee to the outskirts of the group, they are so overcome. That’s because the heart of the covenant is tenderness and it unravels the world.

We have tenderness

When Paul wrote to his church plant in Philippi from prison, his tenderness towards them spilled out again and again. I think he imagined them gathered around the communion table where Christ’s selfless love was on display, ready to consume, when he wrote:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:1-4).

How tragic it is that so many Christians skip most of his exhortation and immediately stumble over “being like-minded” and then “having the same love” and then being “of one mind.” In postmodern America many people assume being like-minded is impossible, if not illegal. Difference is prized and protected. Sameness is about rights, not communion. “One mind” sounds like an ideological demand reminiscent of the Nazis, or something — it might seem as if Jesus were passing the cup and each person is commanded to swallow an elephant-sized ideology to follow him! I think many of my friends feel just that way when the cup comes to them. Some won’t even take a sip, much less make a covenant at  a “love feast” because they can’t swallow what they perceive to be a massive load of mind-boggling stuff that comes with it.

How do people miss “comfort” and “sharing” and “compassion” in what Paul says Jesus brings? How do they miss the possibility of “joy,” or “love,” of being of “value” and being freed to value? Drinking deeply of all those wonders are what the covenant includes. Unity in Christ is a spiritual reality infused with love, not a doctrinal argument presided over by the winners of the latest round of law-making.

Don’t miss the longing

Jesus “took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom’” (Matthew 26:27-29).

He knew His death was going to usher in the age to come. He wants us to be included at the future banquet table God has prepared for his loved ones. He desires to be there with us. This new covenant symbolized with the bread and cup has that longing in it. It is not just about the beliefs we share, but the hope, the longing.

Don’t miss the vulnerability

“In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.  The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this” (Luke 22:20-23).

By his own hand Jesus shares with his betrayer, just like he shares with us. This is the self-giving love that thrills Paul, and humbles me. If you came to the table wondering if you really believed some boatload of rationality, wouldn’t you miss that God, in the likeness of your own body, is going to impossible lengths to tell you something completely beyond that? This new covenant comes through service and death, not through rational domination. There will always be some society-dominators who make an attempt to take over the world by force or manipulation, often thinking they are doing it for everyone’s good (back to Nazis). But that is obviously not the way of Jesus. The cup is full of the new covenant in his blood.

Don’t miss the sharing

“Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).

I experience the tenderness of Jesus in so many ways. I have a sense that God is with me, sharing life, sharing love, healing, restoring. Prayer is comfort and power. The church is sustaining and fruitful. My faith is a gift I treasure. All these things and more are symbolized by that cup; they are the grace I drink — my share of the shared life God gives. Jesus imagines all this as he moves through death with me. In the verse above he imagines his future and mine with him. We will drink again when the work is done: his first, mine next. I share in his work; He waits patiently for mine to finish. But we will share the cup again, one on one, together with all the others who love him — today and then forever.

This short post is just one small way I want to keep protesting the captivity of Jesus in the minds of so many. They have been trained to look for a principle that fights for hegemony or organizes them into some kind of holiness. They reduce their covenant down to a contract, even a law. Meanwhile Paul writes to them, “Surely there is some tenderness in you, because Jesus is that tenderness — and he has given you himself!” Whenever we share the bread and cup, or whenever we are having the same attitude and intention of Jesus; we are deepening the tenderness the world needs so much and every one of us with them. May we all stay soft to the tender gestures of Jesus, like handing us that cup — especially when we think deep thoughts and decide what to believe.

12 basics for covenant keeping in conflict

This piece is for everyone who wants to work out a covenant. The covenant relationships most common to us are the ones we keep in our marriages and the one we have with each other as the people of God gathered face to face as the church. [Listen to the pastors’ latest video].

A covenant is not the same as the more-familiar contract. A contract is an agreement the partners maintain as long as expectations are met and justice is done. A covenant like God makes is an expression of character – a character devoted to realizing self-giving love and mutuality — true love is more about the character of the lover than the characteristics of the beloved. A covenant is made by partners who promise to give love and commitment without an end in mind for themselves – their goal is keeping a reconciling, growing relationship alive and, if they follow Jesus, breeding love.

Not exactly what I have in mind — but warlocks have an idea about covenant and Hollywood will exploit anything.

A covenant is refined and comes to fullness when it endures conflict. It needs conflict like certain pine forests need fire to rejuvenate. Just like God’s covenant with us in Jesus goes through death to life, our covenants of love with God and others also endure that kind of suffering to become what they can be. So conflict between covenant partners is part of the love. Having healthy conflict is part of the covenant.

  • Conflict is normal: it is a natural, inevitable reality – especially because the world is subject to sin and death.
  • Conflict is nightmarish: it is scary and often mismanaged in painful, abusive and/or destructive ways.
  • Conflict is necessary: it is what God goes through with us; it is needed for producing growth.

12 basics for covenant keeping when there is conflict (as there will be!)

These basic statements are not for judging whether a covenant partner is living up to their part of the relationship. I list them for self-reflection by people who want to master self-giving love by enduring conflict with the goal of enjoying and providing the blessings of covenant in Christ. They are a list of ideals – some we may be good at expressing already and some may show up our deficiencies. If we can learn them, we will be well on the way to showing up for the benefit of our partners, like God shows up for us in Jesus.

So, here’s what you do when you are in covenant (like in marriage or the church) and there is conflict…

  1. Prepare the setting, if possible, and plan for constructive confrontation.

Avoid distractions, interruptions, or non-private discussions; being overly tired/stressed; or being emotionally reactive (Proverbs 16:1-3).

2. Take responsibility and take initiative to directly address the issue.

Avoid running from the problem, using the “silent treatment,” waiting for the other person to make the first move, or allowing problems to accumulate (Matthew 5:23-4)

  1. Attack the problem, not the person, and propose viable options or solutions.

Avoid judging or criticizing the other person and/or their personality, appearance, family of origin, etc., name-calling, power messages or manipulative actions, or attempting to change or “fix” them (Proverbs 15:1-2)

  1. Stay on the subject; focus specifically and concretely on the facts, actions, feelings and events.

Avoid sweeping generalizations, using the “everything and the kitchen sink” attack, bringing up the past, comparisons with others, or irrelevant issues (Proverbs 17:14)

  1. Take responsibility for your part of the conflict and humbly admit when you are wrong.

Avoid being proud, stubborn and arrogant by blaming the other person for your feelings or actions, or denying your humanness and blind spots (Philippians 2:3-5)

  1. Practice active listening and effective communication skills; use self-disclosing “I” language.

Avoid accusatory “you” statements, exaggeration, and extreme language (e.g.: “never, always, all, everyone” etc) or interrupting (Ephesians 4:29).

  1. Be calmly assertive; state your needs, wants, hurts, disappointments and feelings clearly.

Avoid pouting, nagging and complaining: putting words in others person’s mouths, or expecting them to read your mind (Matthew 12:34-37)

  1. Show honor, consider how you speak, be truthful, and practice courtesy

Avoid lying to protect yourself or someone else. Put all of the following on your “forbidden” list: name-calling and sarcasm, belittling or degrading the other person, and abusive, intimidating, forceful or violent behavior of any kind (Proverbs 15:4).

  1. Be considerate; appreciate and understand the other’s needs, feelings, interests and differences.

Avoid the idea that you need to think or feel the same way as the other person. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to deny differences in taste, upbringing, viewpoint, customs or coping mechanisms in order to resolve your conflict (Romans 14:19-15:4).

  1. Be willing to forgive an offense in order to cultivate the other’s growth, healing and well being.

Forgive can be functionally defined as “giving up our ‘right’ to hurt back.” Avoid becoming resentful, bitter, punitive, alienated and controlled by vengeful fantasies and actions (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

  1. Strive for mutual understanding and a “win-win” outcome; develop an “us-we-ours” view of the situation.

Avoid trying to change the other person. Let go of the need to get your own way or to “win” the argument. Stay away from a self-centered “me-my-mine” attitude (Romans 15:7).

  1. Agree to agree. For the moment, you may need to agree to disagree — if there are unresolved issues, arrange to discuss them later. If necessary, get outside help from an unbiased, neutral, objective mediator or arbitrator. But keep the covenant goal in mind.

Avoid the temptation to withdraw from the situation and let the conflict go unresolved, as far as it is up to you. At the same time, don’t pull in biased family members or friends to support you. When arguments escalate or become too intense, suggest calling a brief time-out to allow flaring tempers to cool (Proverbs 15:22, Matthew 18:15-17).

This is primarily taken from a seminar by Jared Pingleton which he has published elsewhere. It is not reproduced, in total, or quoted for profit.

Lowest Common Denominator Assumptions

I still remember the time, a few years ago, when fifty people came to our meeting about making a covenant.

Joshua Grace and I led most of it. Nate Hulfish got in there, too, even though he came with a fever and could barely talk! It was January, and everyone had to venture out over treacherously icy roads to a church basement in Camden. One intrepid person even found a way to get there by public transpo from Philly — he apologized for being late because he had to wait twenty minutes for one tardy bus in 28 degree weather!

It was heartening. It was encouraging to find out that we were still meeting people who would do unusual things as if they were usual. Ten of our cell leaders were there, bringing cell mates with them – they’d been to the meeting before and they were going to lead other meetings that week, so you might have thought it was “beyond the call of duty” to show up.  One of them said, “The church is not in the meetings, it is a 24/7 reality.” One of them was upstairs caring for her cell mates’ children so they could enjoy the meeting! Like I said, it was pretty amazing.

Lowest Common Denominator -- Jaako Mattila
Lowest Common Denominator — Jaako Mattila

The meeting was even more amazing to me because I compared what my friends were actually like to what some denomination leaders thought they were probably like.  I had just come back from a conference in which I discerned some attitudes in “higher up” church leaders about what people could tolerate when it came to living out a commitment to Jesus. They didn’t expect much. I probably shot my mouth off a bit too much (as I am wont to do), but they were talking about the BIC doctrine about peacemaking, which is so close to my heart. They didn’t expect people to make peace much.

The Brethren in Christ list peacemaking among their collection of ten “core values.” We say we are all about:

Pursuing Peace: We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and non-violent resolution of conflict.

 That is not a radical statement. But it is right there among our top ten values!

In the Articles of Faith and Doctrine we say:

Christ loved His enemies and He calls us as His disciples to love our enemies. We follow our Lord in being people of peace and reconciliation, called to suffer and not to fight. While respecting those who hold other interpretations, we believe that preparation for or participation in war is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. Similarly, we reject all other acts of violence which devalue human life. Rather, we affirm active peacemaking, sacrificial service to others, as well as the pursuit of justice for the poor and the oppressed in the name of Christ.

That is a straightforward statement.  It is worthy of people who will get out in 28 degree weather to investigate how to form an authentic church! Yet when I called on my leader to promote a “prophetic” expression of our stated doctrine, he publicly worried that others would not take too kindly to such aggressive behavior (whoever these “others” are, I don’t know). It seemed to me that he was managing for the lowest common denominator, or working on a non-violent resolution to conflict by avoiding conflict altogether!

So it was encouraging to meet up with the next set of Circle of Hope (BIC) covenant-makers who are, basically, brave enough to do something that other people might assume is just too much to ask. I will always wonder, I guess, about what the big deal is about following Jesus. If you’re going to do it, do it! Why doctor up his clear teachings and example to fit into the lowest common denominator that can pass for Christianity?

It is such an honor to be sought and called by Jesus! It is not like he is “asking too much of me” when he gives me life and assumes I’d like to live it! I have rarely been disappointed when I was “presumptuous” enough to assume that Jesus has impressed others in exactly the same way. We’re glad to follow Jesus! Put me in coach!

I expect to keep finding those kind of people and doing what I can to form a covenant community with them. After all, thirty more people than one might expect could pile into the basement at any moment.

Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.

I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist).  What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.

Care about people where they are

The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).

But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”

I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.

Cohabitation facts

Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married.  It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.

Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

What is the best way to marry?

Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.

It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?

A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
  • Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
  • Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.

Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:

The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012)

Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)

Go Ahead and Marry (2000)

Related articles

Intent: Jesus Is Not Tupperware and You Don’t Sell Him.

I was going to take a picture of our pitcher. But I found the exact one on Etsy for $8

Gwen was marveling at a Tupperware pitcher the other day. Someone gave it to us for our wedding and it is still working well. Other pitchers come and go, but the sturdy little Tupperware goes on and on — which, I suppose would be a good reason to trust Tupperware. The corporation would be delighted if you formed a love relationship with your plastic pitcher and the business behind it.

A lot of people do trust Tupperware-like operations. You might know that Tupperware was among the original direct sales organizations that sprung up after World War 2 — Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise gave women something to do after the men came back from the front and told them to go back to the kitchen. Now they have about 2 million people who sell products worldwide. Individual, entrepreneurial capitalism is like the new American dream which comes complete with a post-Christian religious-like philosophy [addictive Tupperware propaganda here].

The method is so ingrained in our society that a lot of people seem to think the church is, essentially, a Tupperware party. You invite a bunch of people, show them your stuff while eating appetizers and try to parlay your relationships into a Jesus sale. People have certainly criticized Circle of Hope because their friends don’t want to come to our Jesus party and buy Jesus. They want to improve the product. That’s if they even want to be involved at all. Plenty of people would rather die than be involved in direct sales!

It is hard to describe the church outside of some economic metaphor, since our imagination for forming society in the United States is almost completely subsumed under how our economy works and what rights and laws are commensurate with making it doable and just. Half the time on the BIC Listserve the men (mostly) of our denomination are talking about politics as if the church has a big stake in the economy of the United States. I think we can do a lot better than merely debating just how crazy the recent Senate vote on watered-down gun laws was (although, Lord knows, the prophets need to turn up the volume). I think we can do better than integrating into the economy.

Intent holds us together

At least I don’t think we have much to say about society until we have a church. The church is how God does his work and demonstrates the life we have received. Here is a great teaching from the Bible that briefly sums up what the church is all about:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10).

If you want to sell something, sell that!

Better yet, swear off economic metaphors for describing God’s people altogether, for a while. Because the church is not an economy in the popular, “consumer/free-market capitalism” sense. We are a people who God rules and through whom God reveals the character and purpose that creates us. We ARE a people in which someone can be included. We DO God’s purpose of revelation by which we include ourselves in the destiny of the world, whether it invites us to the party or not.

We don’t need an organization to work out Ephesians 3:10-11. And if the organization we adopt is modeled on consumer capitalism or American political theory, we’d be better off without one! We live out God’s purpose as individuals and in the course of daily life. We should organize our time to do that. The Spirit of God is in us and God is expressing life and love through each of Christ’s followers. But if we want to make ourselves known to the powers and provide a place for people to be included, it is pretty arrogant to think we can do that on our own. And since God’s intent is to work through the church, not just you or me, we should see ourselves as agents of the church, not as a church of me, myself and I. Because God has built each of us into the church, Circle of Hope is organized into cells and into teams. Our cells organize into congregations. Our congregations organize into a network. Our network is part of a denomination and is connected worldwide in creative ways.

What holds it all together? I focus on the word INTENT in Ephesians 3:10. God’s intention is the creative spark that again and again forms the body of Christ and animates it. And God’s intent is met with our similar intent, sparked by God’s Spirit in us making all things new. We hold together by the covenant that makes us a people and the agreements that make us doers of the word in so many ways. Our covenant, in particular, is what makes us more than a Tupperware party. We don’t hold weekly meetings to convince our members to buy another piece of the collection. We are all the “owners” ourselves and we present to others the person of Jesus, not a product; we call for relationship, not self-actualization through endless “freedom of choice.”

NOT a tupperware party

The leaders of the men’s retreat were working out our presumption of covenant love throughout the weekend. They took an audacious risk by making their small groups painstakingly diverse, crossing all congregations. Then they went even further by making dyads that were randomly selected by the small group leaders. Then they had these pairs doing intimate, spiritual things. They demonstrated a huge trust in God’s presence in the body. The had a huge faith that individuals would experience God’s truth and love and intentionally follow God’s lead. They assumed they could trust the small groups to include everyone. They trusted the dyads to do spiritual things. They presumed a covenant life and didn’t even allow for too much individual anonymity. I’m sure a few people were blown away, so far out of their comfort zone and over their capability that they are still reeling from it. But I did not hear anything about that yet. What I have heard is story after story of being moved, connected and inspired — and formed into a people as God intended.

Our destiny is to make God’s heart and God’s ways known to the world, to live out the eternal purpose of God made known in Jesus. Our destiny is not merely to keep deciding what we want to do. It is not to keep inviting people into sales events that presume they are merely meant for deciding what they want to do. We share God’s purpose. We are each someone valuable to God, and what we do has meaning beyond our capacity to choose. We are a people through whom God intends to work out his life and purpose, and what we accomplish has eternal ramifications. We have a God-intended destiny, and it defines how we take our steps together.

I think we should not get the drift, at least in a bad way

The “state” has sucked up the majority of everyone’s allegiance and made the church a private, leisure time matter. That makes our public covenant-making with the people of God a radical, countercultural act. We still think Jesus is Lord and he personally leads a kingdom. On vacation I read a stimulating book that stoked the fires of my covenant convictions. I’ll get to that in a minute. But here’s the gist: I got excited about how it made me think about a piece of our “about making a covenant” teaching that has just become more radical since we started teaching it.

The covenant is a life, not a concept

It should be an obvious teaching — elementary Christianity. In my estimation, it is stating the obvious to teach that a Jesus follower will not be one in name only but will, by nature, demonstrate their covenant with Jesus and His people with some basic activity. In the case of Circle of Hope:

  • they will obviously be part of our weekly meeting when the community shows herself to the world in worship and truth-telling (1 Cor. 14);
  • they will obviously be part of a cell where we share our gifts face to face, are given basic care,  and share in basic faith dialogue (Acts 20:20);
  • they will obviously be  part of some expression of our mission as part of one of our many teams or, if they are blessed, through their occupation (1 Cor. 2:4);
  • and they will obviously share their money in our common fund (Acts 2:44).

In our teaching about what it means to make a covenant with real people in real time, we note that we all have resources of spiritual gifts, time, care, and money. We actively put these resources into practice as a part of the body. All this seems like basic Christianity to me. But I think it has become radical. Circle of Hope is a community of activists in a lowest-common-denominator Church and world.

Are most American Christians followers in name only?

I’m coming to the conclusion that American Christians love nominalism; they like being Christians in name only. They are having a tough time right now because the culture changed on them and the nation is less inclined to protect their “freedom” to sit in their Christianity, having it unmolested by any need to exercise it. When Circle of Hope got started, we flourished by picking up a lot of the radicals who could not find a place in a nominalized Church, and a lot of new believers who never found Jesus from knowing inactive Christians. We are still going against the grain. But our capacity is going to be tested in postChristian America. Circle of Hope has also had some freedom to sit. Now we might have to mean what we teach.

The drift away from consensus building

Rachel Maddow explains driftThat brings me to my book. I have been reading Rachel Maddow’s Drift. It documents how the presidents have slowly become the sole deciders of when the U.S. goes to war, without the approval of Congress and certainly without the input of us citizens. The book shows how the privatization of what used to be soldiering and the expansion of secret operations has led to perpetual war that is off the radar of the nation. The leaders make sure we aren’t disturbed by war. Maddow is generous enough to say that this was caused by “drift,” not decision, starting with Ronald Reagan and added to by every president since.

I could not help but think that in the same era the BIC leaders have drifted the same direction (and I think that includes a lot of us pastors). They also do more in secret and ask the constituency to trust their advertising. We are not disturbed by our body life. It seems that the BIC started going this direction when people misapplied John Maxwell’s leadership training. I don’t think Maxwell meant to install the “my way or the highway” style that characterizes congressional debate these days. But it got installed.  I think the leaders drifted out of what they considered ineffectual consensus-building and into “over-anointed” leadership.

The radicality of covenant

I’m thinking about that drift in relation to maintaining ourselves as a group of activists. What I am working on is that Circle of Hope is growing up in an era where radicals are less likely to float to the top of a placid sea of nominalism and collect as a new, cool church. The sea of the nation and the Church is too stirred up, and the people who lead the nation and church have drifted into an authoritarian style that keeps people from handling too much reality. We might need to really choose to live by faith. We might have to be thoroughly disturbed. Honestly, I am delighted with that challenge. Good trees need to bear good fruit (Matt. 7).

The Jesus way honors us all as crucial “members of the body.” Our way of life as Circle of Hope demands that we act on the reality of our life in Christ – at least that is what we teach. We are going against the grain when we insist that we all make a difference, not just the leaders, in a world where Occupy sputters into distrust and ineffectiveness, and we don’t take to the streets when the president fights secret, debt-exploding wars that no one is required to pay for while the bankers run us into the ground economically with impunity. It is good to go against the flow if the flow is going down the spiritual drain.

When the thirty-or-so people showed up to consider making a covenant with us the other night, they were exploring something that has become even more radical than when we imagined it. Imagine! – people who would consider coming right out in the public, as it is now, and pledging their allegiance to Jesus and his people in a way that is not just in their secret thoughts but in their hands and feet and relationships, in a way that impacts their loves and their finances. That’s not a surprising thing in the Bible, perhaps, but it seems rather rare these days.

Answering those Who Teeter…again

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”  Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.  Matthew 19:27-30

The philosophers and scientists of our time have applied a lot of brainpower to finding out as much as they can about the natural proclivities of the rest of us. We are analyzed and tracked exhaustively so that what we want to consume will be delivered on demand. The Egyptian slaves of old built pyramids, we buy things. All this year the nation has breathlessly watched the statistics to see whether the big American consumption behemoth will start to eat ravenously again and so propel the stockholder’s profits and create those elusive jobs. The wise men of the age nervously watch to see if their predictions about what we want are right.

You can tell that I resent their science, can’t you? I resent big, powerful, faceless entities relentlessly using data collected on me to create products that are the images of my inmost desires. Essentially, they keep trying to get me to buy myself! – or at least some grainy image me or faint whiff of my desire. As much as they work on it, they’ll get more adept. Really, doesn’t it seem like the powers don’t even sell products anymore, they just sell just the hope of having the experience of being ourselves? We have fallen into a weird self-consumption; every day we get tempted to take a bite out of “ourselves.” We seem to be trying to get a self by eating ourselves. If you don’t notice you aren’t full yet – the advertisers do.

The recent Jeep commercial we were subjected to before Young Victoria (or was it Nine?) is a good example. I live. I ride. I am. Jeep. I wonder why the powers can afford to spend a bazillion dollars on that nonsense. It must be because it speaks to what a lot of us believe, and so brings a return. I think it feeds us our own delusions and sin and then gives us a Jeep to assuage the insatiable hunger for something  — we buy things that can’t satisfy, but we’re used to accepting the sensation of momentary fullness as something. It is like eating a diet of candy canes. We seem to generally like that.

Teetering on the edge of desire

As you can see in the scripture, Jesus feeds us what we don’t know we want. He does not base his actions on data he collects from us. He has an entirely different idea of consumerism. Jesus feeds us what we aren’t. It means transformation. When Jesus says, “Give up all your nonsense and come make sense with me, in every sense of the phrase,” it might initially seem like a bad deal. A Jeep seems like it might be worth it, in comparison. But, the Jeep only looks like it is all about wind in our perfect hair. One can’t buy freedom like that. Even if more elementary school teachers brainwash more children into thinking freedom can be paid for with our lives, it still will not be true. Jesus is better than the Jeep. He says, “Make a total allegiance to me and you will not miss anything you desire. Love turns to LOVE.  Family to FAMILY.

I am not sure we believe that allegiance to Jesus will transform our stuck-in-the-mud desires into fully human desires. A lot of us spend a whole life teetering, twittering and vacillating between Jeep and Jesus. I’m not denigrating the process of decision as I hope you will see, nor am I even saying that the way to Jesus can’t be through Jeep. But I am lamenting whatever pain teetering may bring to us. (If you’re not experiencing teetering, this may just irritate you, beware).

I think teetering makes forming community hard. I felt like writing this note to you because I watched some brilliant people trying to do some brilliant community formation the other day and they ran right into some people who just couldn’t get out of their Jeeps to do it. To be a part of the mission, their recruits had to leave what they were already doing to join in with a new brilliant thing that was being formed. They just could not do it. They could not heed the call the whole way; they wanted to adapt the call to match what they were feeling. They wanted to compromise and “sort of” be a part. When they heard someone suspect that the community was too radical, they backed away. They pondered and pondered until the window of opportunity passed and they had slid into some other pursuit.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The recruits might have just as well been considering becoming a Christian, or making a covenant with the others of Circle of Hope, or just coming to a meeting in a regular fashion. (Or, to be honest, it would be the same thing on the antichirst side — they could have been called to not be a Christian, not commit to some “system,” or never be “in or out” of the boundaries of some meeting). Or maybe it sounds familiar because someone went through a similar experience when someone who loved them would not marry them. Or maybe you’ve read Matthew 19 before and felt with Jesus as he struggled.

No doubt you felt with yourself as you struggled, just like the first followers of Jesus. Transformation is hard. I don’t think we should underestimate how hard the change from unreconciled to reconciled with God is – especially since sin has retrained our hearts!. Reconciliation with others – even sticking with people we love, much less dealing with those we hate, is hard. Making a covenant, racial reconciliation, peacemaking! – we aren’t always feeling it. We feel like getting a Jeep, or at least like having wind in our hair — and if we follow the training of the people who apply the science around here, that is about all we will feel. It is amazing how often we trade Jesus in for a desire that is undeveloped. But it is not so amazing that we can’t have sympathy for those who asked Jesus, “What then will there be for us?” People are  always wondering that. And Jesus doesn’t mind answering the question….and answering it again.

Keeping the Covenant Real

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. –Ephesians 5:21

Paul writes the sentence above to exhort the Ephesians to a new way of relating. He immediately proceeds to exhort husbands and wives, in particular, to relate in that new way as married people, to have sex like that, to form families suffused with mutual respect and fidelity, just like Jesus relates to the church and the church relates back. I think Paul presumes (wildly assuming the presence of the transforming Holy Spirit, as he is wont to do!) that most of the believers to whom he is writing know how Jesus and the church relate, so he can boldly exhort people to apply the example to their marriages and to other relationships in the body.

Such love is a struggle

We’ve been struggling to be that deep as we ponder living in mutual submission as a covenant people who call themselves Circle of Hope. It all came into focus when we talked about the Love Feast this past fall among our leadership team and then at our discerning retreat. Oddly enough, the Love Feast had become a very popular public meeting! People would invite their mother, their unbelieving friends, people would wander in off the street. We were not sure what to do with that.

In some ways it was kind of great. It is exciting to think that people are interested in looking at Christians making love at their covenant members celebration. But it was also kind of creepy to have people looking in, being invited into the intimacy of communion when they don’t even believe, even being called on during the event to accept people into a covenant they don’t intend to make. I suppose that since we put up all our intimate pictures on Facebook these days and invite strangers to look at them (that is, until we understand the privacy controls – which I don’t), we are kind of comfortable with public “intimacy.” And I suppose that since so many of us have sex with random people and spend a couple of years living with our spouse before we marry them, we don’t have a great deal of respect left for the boundaries of covenant.

group hug on the way to covenant

So what about the Love Feast?

So we did not know what to do about the Love Feast. On one hand, by being so public about it, we invited people to drink the blood and enter the covenant circle when they had no idea what they were doing. Paul says this could make a person spiritually ill, handling spiritual things one has no business handling! On the part of the covenant members, it might be something like leaving one’s door open and letting the toddlers watch you have sex, inviting a person into intimacies they have no way of processing.

What’s more, on the other hand, it was awkward to be asking those who have a common covenant to listen to a person’s story, to accept another person into their covenant when they knew that all sorts of people at the feast had not made the covenant themselves. That dilutes the idea, at best, and mocks it, at worst. In some ways, allowing that to happen, is caving in to the strange propensity we have these days to always be a show, like it would be OK to be making a covenant with the body like we were on reality TV with people watching, somehow virtually – but then it would be “like” doing it, rather than doing it. It is not a show, we are really doing something!

Trying to hold on to the depth of covenant

There are many ways we follow Jesus. Most of them are public but some are done in secret. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and personal interests, others are contrary to both. In some ways we may please Christ and please ourselves, in other ways we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. In all ways, Christ is our way and gives us the strength to follow.

The covenant we make with the others in our face-to-face, heart to heart rendition of the church is more on the secret side, like closing our door and praying to our Father in secret. We have the relationship, we act on the relationship and then we express our character in public. The act of making a covenant and making covenant love is more likely to be difficult, not just another party. Crossing the boundary into a public allegiance to the body of Christ is more likely to bring reproach, and should not be diminished so it seems more “normal.” Committing to treat people like Jesus treats the church, becoming vulnerable to receive the love of Jesus like the church receives grace is probably contrary to the natural inclinations and personal interests of most of us, so it must be entered with reverence for Christ if it can be entered at all, Christ who is the one who gives us the strength to make such submission, who so completely demonstrates such submission.

So we are figuring this out. We think it is crucial for people to learn to make a covenant like Jesus makes with us, if they are going to be a long-term believer, if they are going to live in love and truth. I’m sure we will never feel free to be invulnerable and restrictive and so bar the door to people who shouldn’t be at the love feast – that is not our way, and not the Lord’s way. But we need to get better at not luring people into places we have not prepared them to be and to make sure we are maintaining our sense of being the people of God with an unalloyed allegiance to Jesus in an age where all the forces are working to erode that.