Tag Archives: incarnation

Resisting word wars: Incarnation means winning the right to be heard

People are getting less interested in the rantings of our politicians all the time because the thin veil of their manipulative mendacity is worn so thin.  The expensive ads by campaigns and superpacs do not move most of us anymore. It makes me wonder whether anything can move us. Since I am in the being moved “business” that’s an important question.

Unfortunately for Jesus, politicians practice the same kind of speechifying that churches have practiced for generations. The politicians get up in a pulpit and relate ideas in hope of convincing people to share their point of view and vote them into power. Their point of view does not necessarily need to have any relation to who they are or even what they actually do — they are making a point, not a relationship. A politician might hound Al Franken out of the Senate while protecting the serial groper-in-chief. Obama talked like a populist while being funded by the banks he bailed out. In like manner, professional ministers are regularly exposed as not much different. They don’t win the right to be heard by actually relating as humans; they win the battle for power by appearing solidly, consistently beyond normal discourse.

Winning the right to be heard

By now, I think we are all accustomed to demanding our right to be heard and have forgotten the prerequisites for getting heard. We rely on our protected free speech even though people can’t rely on our moral behavior, that’s in our protected privacy. It is a recipe for miscommunication. The new rules seem to be: “I can be as mean as I want and others should not take that personally, since we’re just talking.” I hope you have not witnessed a Twitter war or had some Facebook opponent try to take you out. But it happens. They exercise their right to divide people up in honor of their quest for a moment of empowering assertion; but “it isn’t personal.”

Everything is personal. We’re all related at some level. I still think I need to win the right to be heard.” No one trusts what we say before they trust who we are. We often talk about “incarnational mission” in our church. “Incarnational” has become a a buzz word among Christians these days, but incarnation has been God’s missional methodology from the moment Jesus was born of a woman. A purposeful life that is, by nature, incarnational is not difficult to imagine, especially if you look at what Jesus does and not just what he says. God got a hearing by becoming one of us, and continues to guide us as one who “comes alongside” in the Holy Spirit.

I learned about winning the right to be heard as a freshman in college. I kind of bumped in to Jesus humbly trying to get me to listen to him as I was discovering  the need to win the right to be heard by my new friends. I had basically deserted my pulpit-centered Baptist church as a senior in high school as I wandered around in the wilderness of depression and doubt. I came out on the other side having met God in significant ways. I was so motivated that I decided to introduce myself to my dorm hall as a Christian. I did this in ways that make me cringe a bit now, but they turned out to be strangely effective methods. People became Christians. I was not a good missionary, but the fact that I existed was weird enough to get some attention. I had no method but to be who I was, since that was all I really knew how to do.

I had no pulpit, and what I did say was not particularly impressive. But I did exist. I did not hide who I was. I was an incarnation, which is the essence of evangelism. This experience at an impressionable age solidified a truth in me that has stuck with me my whole life: God can use anyone. It also helped me understand that being relatively normal is the best way to deliver the extraordinary. God became a regular human in Jesus, born of a wonderful, but relatively typical woman and the impact was extraordinary.

Image result for trump zuckerberg

We don’t need word power

Toni Morrison is famous for saying in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”

Some Christians may have practiced such oppressive speech in the name of their sovereign God, but we are trying to outlive their bad influence and convince people, person by person, that the Lord Jesus is still the dying and rising God beside us in our dying and rising.

Many politicians and other power hungry people foist incessant word-warfare on us, and many of us are willing to learn their craft — we also try to demand or buy the right to be heard. I think Jesus followers should resist that temptation and, instead, win the right to be heard by being regular people who come up alongside others and persistently exist. We enter human dialogue as ourselves in Christ, not as bodiless proponents of some ideology beyond us. We have the relationship with God we have as who we are and we reveal that connection in the same way we tell any other story that allows someone who cares to understand us. If we ever gain a sympathetic ear for who we are and for Whom we have come to know, it will probably be less about how powerfully we communicate or manipulate than it will be because we are real.

Our faith does not need millions dollars behind it to make it real. Jesus’ life, and Martin Luther King’s for that matter, were powerful because of who they were and what they did, not merely because of what they said. In an era in which most public language can be justly suspected as lies, we need a renewed devotion for incarnational mission. It is a new era full of a new variation of people who seem to be turning off the powerful manipulators beaming down on them.  According to Ad Age,

“in the last quarter of 2017, time spent on Facebook every day declined by 5 percent, or 50 million hours, a drop the company attributed to its intentional efforts to prioritize more meaningful content. But it also saw the number of North Americans on the platform fall for the first time, to 184 million from 185 million in the third quarter.”

I hope for more people to wake up and live real lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of people think Jesus is beaming down on them in a similar coercive way. They don’t want Christians to follow them around with notifications, either. Jesus has been associated with the establishment in Eurocentric countries for so long, it is hard to get Him separated. But he isn’t one and the same with Trump and Zuckerberg, manipulating huge communication platforms to dominate us or profit from us. Jesus is still like the baby, now crucified and risen. Like Jesus, I want to win the right to be heard, so people can see that I am not some ideological parrot and so they can better see Jesus alive and alive in me. Whether I am effective at that mission or not is important to me. But I think Jesus will manage to be real, regardless of my ability, as I have always experienced him to be.

New development: The practical beginning of the “second act”

Development is hard. For instance: The crew and I, led by the devoted foreman Ben Blei, are in the last throes of finishing the project down the street at 1226 S. Broad. All the details we missed are becoming evident. All the last-minute demands to meet the deadlines are irritating us. Relationships that need to work, but don’t work that well, are becoming obvious. Our limitations are also becoming obvious. There are a lot of problems associated with developing an old abandoned building. There are good reasons people don’t take on big projects like that.

As I was writing that line, someone emailed and told me they were as good as an abandoned building and God started developing them! But they had some good reasons why they did not want to get with that program: details, demands, relationship issues, limitations, etc, etc. It is exciting whenever I hear about someone who is in the throes of developing faith! Because the main development project people resist taking on is themselves.

That kinds of sums up the focus of my new job. I’m now the “development pastor.” It is a big idea for a job description, in that I am going to get practical about how we get from here to there as the whole church, Circle of Hope. But it is also a very small idea, in that I am going to have more time to be devoted to individuals, especially the leaders, as they move into their future in Christ.

I am excited. I even renamed this blog to make that clear!

I need to develop and I want to help others develop

That’s probably the same as you – we’re on the same team after all. I just get to lead in it. We all need to develop — we’re doing it one way of another. I want to follow Christ into my fullness.

To develop in Christ means one has some kind of experiential knowledge of spiritual things that moves them to action — not just book knowledge, or secondhand knowledge or even Circle of Hope knowledge. You know God and that relationship is developing. I first learned this when I finally read the Bible and saw in Romans 8 that people who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. In all our talk about our “second act” we have been devoted to risking that the people of our church will be led by the Spirit: we’re trusting Christ to be at work in all of us; we’re trusting each other to keep developing as people in Christ and to resist settling into some placeholder life.

The last time I spoke in a Sunday meeting I offered three basic things we all need to hold on to if we are going to keep developing as individuals in Christ and keep developing as the Lord’s church. Let me briefly list them again.

  • Take incarnation seriously

The finite manifests the infinite, the physical is the doorway to the spiritual — like Jesus the incarnate Son of God is our way to eternity. This is the way to that. There are not sacred and profane places or moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places and moments. Christ in YOU is the hope of glory. Christ in US makes us the incarnation of the Lord in the here and now. To develop, take that honor seriously. You and we are important, no matter what voice inside or big power from outside tells us.

love will always be key to our development

  • Practice remaining in Love

Only love “in here” can enjoy love “out there.” Fear, constriction and resentment make us blind and need to be overcome. People cooperating with their development let their inner darkness and fear rest in Christ. God’s gift of love in Jesus makes that possible. There is no law or moral code that makes you better than remaining in Love. Stay there no matter how many times someone wants you to prove the validity of what you know in your heart by the data, or they try to make you love the empty container of the law without the content of the Creator. “Remain in my love,” the Lord says – then you will develop.

  • Stay close to the cracks in everything

Jesus says, “The last will be first and the first last.” Paul says, “When I am weak I am strong.” It feels upside down. But when we stay close to this seemingly irrational crack in normality, we begin to see Jesus — out there on the edge of what looks like an abyss to us. He is always about to fall over the cliff into what people think is nuts or impossible. We need to stay close to that. This is the hardest for me and most of us because it means we need to stay close to our own suffering. We need to be one of “the poor in spirit” who are blessed. We need to notice our own cracks and not cosmetically alter them. Living with Jesus on the edge, where things are cracked and paying attention to our own cracks in health and relationships is the mother of spiritual development.

development area

We need to develop as a church in mission and I want to help

Our ambitious map for 2015 is full of what’s next. It is so packed, we will probably need to extend it beyond a year! It is a very practical doc but very focused on heaven. We are redesigning ourselves to match what God is telling us and changing to meet people where they are at now. I hope you share my estimation of us: we have what the world needs; we are the next church finding its way in a changing world. As believers with a beachhead in the megalopolis, we are incredibly well-positioned to be used by God — and we are being used.

I have already been at work helping us to refine who we are so we can move into who we are called to be now. We planted new admin at the Hub. We redeployed our pastors to “get out there” and not be a four-headed unit with too much responsibility. We deepened our reformed Leadership Team and turned the Imaginarium into a rolling Council meeting. We are retooling how we use our two corporations: Circle of Hope Inc and Circle Venture to let us relate to the powers in useful ways. We installed Rachel as a new pastor and released me to think bigger and act smaller. We are getting together the masterminds (and we have them) to imagine how we can be large and personal, prophetic and empathetic, active and contemplative, dispersed and focused, attentive and inclusive, communitarian and missional.

All my experience leads me to this moment of development, I think. While it is hard for me to change from being the day-to-day pastor of a congregation, I am excited for this new moment of opportunity. I have some good years of service ahead of me! Even more exciting, I think, is to be a part of Circle of Hope, now — when devoted, reconciling, ambitious brothers and sisters in Christ are moving into their second act and trusting God to do something even greater.

There is always a little pain in the introduction

My sense of church planting begins with introducing myself and the Lord who is with me. Like God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in me, a human. So church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee; we’re walking around being one with God; God is walking with us and we are walking around with the Lord. When Jesus talks about planting the word about his work, planting the Word Himself, in the world he says it is like a seed going into the ground and “dying.” I find the process just that painful and just that joyfully regenerative all the time.

Paul talks about sharing the sufferings of Christ. “Filling them up,” being planted again and again. Very specifically, for me, part of that suffering is the need to keep introducing myself to new people and new situations and not hiding out in or merely enjoying the little group of people who already “get me” and love me. I am doing that again right now as I tell you about Jesus in me. This blog is one way to “get out there.”

Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Ecce Homo, 1871.

During each era of my life in mission, I have discovered things about Jesus in me that have proven  valuable for church planting. As I tell you about a few of them, I hope you will consider how you might introduce yourself with what you’ve got.

College days

It all started with that college Bible study. I was called to be a church planter early on.  Jesus used the most inept evangelist ever to win many of my dorm mates to Christ. In my sophomore year, I started a Bible study to disciple them. It grew by my junior year to two apartments and 50-100 people coming every Monday. I have not forgotten what it was like to feel twenty – ready to invent the wheel.

What did I (and my friends) have?

  • gall
  • conviction that “if it is true for me it will be true for everyone”
  • trust in the presence of God, not our skill

That’s all great for church planting. We thought, “There is a great movement of goodness in the world and we have found it.”


I went to seminary. I was called from planting a new youth group with the Assemblies of God back to the college church who had lost their beloved youth pastor a few months back and a lot of their kids. At the first meeting I led we had four people. When the church blew apart about seven years later they did not fire their boy (lucky me!) with everyone else. Plus, there were about 200 kids from jr. high through college. They were about a third of the church.

What did I (and a very beloved team) have?

  • I had added a wife who added incarnational evangelism as a concept to my sense of mission. When we discovered Anabaptists, we began calling the idea “invasive separatism.”
  • Love
  • Fun
  • Tons of energy
  • Empathy

That’s all great for church planting. We lived like, “Life in Christ is a big party and you are invited.”

The first church planting

We finally decided that the group of us who lived and worked together at the center of this youth ministry were not going to make it into the next act of this Baptist church. So we got them to send us to plant a new church. It was their first and maybe last multiplication. We had never heard of a church multiplication but we did not want to be responsible for a church “split.” We traveled together for another seven years or so and the new congregation is still going.

What did I (and this remarkable congregation)  have?

  • We discovered that we were a group who had the same odd flavor mix that the Brethren in Christ has. Mostly we were Anabaptists because of our simple, straightforward Bible reading – we were doers of the word. But we had the Baptist pietism flavor and I, especially took holiness flavor into Pentecostalism. That and some great practices we discovered (like the Love Feast) seemed perfectly suited for what we postmodern types were looking for.
  • We already had community.
  • We just wanted to do it; we did not have to do it. It was all new and exciting to us.
  • We liked being real.

That’s a great combo for church planting: a convicted core team doing their own thing based on a dream, not just an application of a program or a duty to some principle.

Circle of Hope

During our short stint in the BIC homeland we were called to explore urban church planting (when it was not so fashionable!). We thought God was calling us to one of the mega cities of the third world. But we finally ended up, to our surprise, in Philadelphia. We thought we could contemporize BIC thinking to meet urbanites where they lived. It was a mid-life leap for me: all my training and experience were put to the test. I liked that. I became a Christian by having my new beliefs put to the test and they survived. I still do not want to be part of an institution that is not constantly being tested to see whether it deserves to survive in its environment.

What did I (my family and the small core team)  have?

  • Inspiration
  • Willingness to risk it all
  • Supportive friends and family
  • A vision
1st PM at B&W 3
Hot, dusty, delighted when we took a new risk in 2005.

When I came to Philly I had a simple conviction. I was not a likely candidate to win a bunch of people to Christ from scratch and form a church. I thought I was sent to catalyze what the Holy Spirit was already doing. I would introduce some people to Jesus and include some ready-made partners, but who I would mostly find were people who had an idea that what I was talking about was what they were looking for. They would mostly be burned out evangelicals, dissatisfied Catholics, under-used twentysomethings who Baby Boomers would never let drive the car, and people who were spiritual but who had never met an authentic Christian before, people who wanted the church to be a good thing but just hated it.  I parachuted into Philadelphia and wandered the streets for a few months and, sure enough, I met a lot of these people. From September through March we gathered  a formation team, formed four cells and were ready to have a public meeting on Palm Sunday.

What did we have?

  • Encouragement from successful people that we could do it. I had an almost slavish humility in practicing what others had learned.
  • A good plan – and that we did our plan. We had good, practical goals; we considered the barriers to meeting them; we had actions steps for how to accomplish what we considered. It was a serious project — and still is.
  • I had a very supportive wife and family. My sons and their wives are stalwarts in the church and my youngest son is our newest pastor.
  • We listened to the call and were there when the Spirit was beginning to move. As a result, we have been copied relentlessly. And that is great.

What do you have? What do we have now? What is the Spirit doing and how are we moving alongside? Yes, we answered that call and those questions in the past. But Jesus is dying and rising all over the region and the world right now. How are you and I planting the church with him?

How will we introduce ourselves and the Lord who is with us? As God became incarnate in Jesus, we are his body, filled with His Spirit. Church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee, Circle of Hope is Jesus walking around the Philly region. I find it painful.  But I also experience resurrection in myself and others through that suffering. My true self is put into action and grows in the process of getting out there with Jesus. For the joy of that re-creation, we endure the cross.

Further thoughts on church planting:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days

Someone is always looking for the star: Seeking with the Magi

Someone is always looking for the star. They want light from God. They are looking for salvation from the darkness they feel and the darkness pressing in on them. These seekers are always odd, since most people are just calling darkness light and having a fight if you contradict them. But quite often these odd people have stories written about them, because they find the places the star leads them.

The story of the wise men is a story about odd, light-seeking people. The prophecy of the star at the birth of Jesus is found in Numbers 24:17. The magi who were looking for Jesus knew about this prophecy. In their Persian libraries they maintained the Jewish scriptures and had access to the works of the great Jewish wise man, Daniel, who had reached the higher echelon of the profession in Babylon. So the wise men looked for the new born King of Israel because they read it in the scriptures and acted on what they read.

I want to be like one of the magi. I want to be good at seeing the signs. I want to keep looking for the places where Jesus is being born. Since they already had all the writings, I suppose the wise men could have enjoyed sitting in Babylon or somewhere in Persia reading about the interesting things that might happen in places they’d never go while  eating pomegranates after work — I could be eating M&Ms and watching the Eagles. Instead, they wanted to be on site. They wanted to see God born. If I walk around Philadelphia with their attitude, there is a good chance I will see where the light is resting too.

The Greek word for the wise men is μαγοι, (magi). It is from this word that we get our word magician. At that time Matthew was writing about the wise men who saw “his star” rise “in the east,” the boundary between those who attempted to sway the spirits and those who performed what we might call science was blurred.  For instance, early chemists were often alchemists, people trying to change one substance into another (usually into gold) by all sorts of methods, including incantations, but also including methods that we would recognize today as experimental chemistry. Similarly, these magicians from Persia who came to find Jesus could probably be referred to as scientists in a broader sort of way. People say there were three magi, but there could have been two or twenty-five. There were three gifts mentioned in the account in Matthew, however.

The star mentioned in Numbers 24 was prophesied by an unusual character, called Balaam. Balaam seems to have been a sort of traveling soothsayer, and could be considered a distant professional relative of the magi who came to Jesus’ house. He was based at Pethor, which is not only near the River Euphrates, but is also close to Babylon. Back in the day, Balaam was contracted by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Israelites. The Israelites were moving through Moabite territory on their long journey to the Promised Land and the king wanted them to keep moving. The Israelites were not going to settle in Moab, so the Moabites had the opportunity, as had the Edomites and Amorites before them, to show hospitality and enable them to go on their way. But, like the others, the Moabites displeased God, only they did it by hiring Balaam. The account of what happened to Balaam — how he was commissioned, how he was warned about his behavior by God, how God rebuked him by making his donkey talk, and how every attempt he made to curse the Israelites simply led to them being blessed — can be found in Numbers 22 through 24. In one of Balaam’s attempts to curse the Israelites, he ended up speaking the prophecy the wise men learned:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. (Numbers 24:17 KJV)

In one sense, the prophecy applies to Israel itself, particularly with reference to David’s conquest of the Moabites. But the concept of the scepter, a symbol of kingship, refers not only to David, but to David’s greater son, and refers back to Genesis:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. (Genesis 49:10 KJV)

This passage from Genesis refers to the coming Messiah, to be descended from Judah. By inference, we can say that Numbers 24:17 also refers to the coming Messiah. The wise men seeking the newborn king probably knew about Balaam’s oracle. Maybe Daniel himself made the connection for them, since he also prophesied about the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-26).

More than how they arrived at their conclusions, I am impressed by how the magi applied their wisdom. They not only knew that the star and their studies meant something, they knew what to do. Then they did it. They took off for the place the light led. In a very real sense, they went to attend to the birth. That’s the kind of knowledge I want. The world does not need more people eager to fight for their thinking to be ascendant. But the world does need more people who are eager to see what God is doing and cooperate with what is being created. The wise men did not know if they could prove their point. But the proof they already had pointed them in the right direction. They had the courage to take their provisional knowledge on the road and to let their wisdom be subject to change. Such knowledge requires trust in God, but they went with it.

I want to be like the magi. I want to attend the births. I want to be in the places the light is breaking in and breaking out. I want to follow the Savior even if that sometimes means I don’t know exactly where I am going.

People need to be saved; everything I learn keeps pointing to that reality. They are being enslaved and trained by godless powers or by powers taking the place of God. But they are seeking and I can cooperate with what is being born in them. What shall we do?

1) Believe that the Savior will be born. That begins with believing Jesus, God-with-us, was born, of course. But there are many poor places in Philly right now where Jesus is being born, just like John says. John’s nativity story skips the history and goes straight for the wisdom: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).

2) Go find out where the Savior is being born. So often we try to create a birth moment, or we think we are sent to impregnate every moment. We call that being missional, as if we were the actual incarnation, not just carrying the Spirit of God with us. We are important, but we can get a bit grandiose. The wise men were more likely to have been raggedy, unaccepted-by-the-establishment types, certainly not like three medieval European kings, searching back alleys and stables for something the powers were trying to kill. Rather than assuming we are supposed to find time in our busy schedules to keep the world filled with light, I think it is a better ambition to go find where the birth happening and be wise enough to assist with the birth.

3) Give your treasure for what is prospectively going to happen. Again, so often we are saving our treasure to apply the grand strategy we feel responsible to actualize. We hoard our stuff as if we know what’s coming. Or at least we hoard our stuff because we are afraid we know what is coming. The wise men had some valuable stuff to invest in a baby. Joseph probably used it for the family’s escape to Egypt. No money invested in God’s dream is wasted. Nothing you give to assist in the birth of Jesus goes unused. Either your heart gets better or the light gets brighter. Either your own chains get loosened or someone else stays out of spiritual or physical jail. Someone is always looking for the star. Help them.

No incarnation, no justice

You may experience the same theological divide I felt at the Justice Conference last week. Whenever one is listening to a parade of speakers there is not a lot to do but compare and contrast. So I did. And I felt an interesting contest going on. It was a fascinating smorgasbord of evangelical do-gooders and I enjoyed snacking on various goodies.

Strangely enough, I think my most long-lasting good impression has less to do the the speakers and more to do with the wonderful notebook the organizers made for each participant. Across from a nice bio of each speaker they had a page for “notes,” the “key quote” and the “key take away.” I am so unused to going to conferences that I forgot that we are often encouraged to get a takeaway from a speech. We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sift the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.

Well, I think I learned to do that a bit.

Evangelical justice

We were talking about justice at the conference and one of the scriptures used was I John 4. One interpretation dissected my understanding of that chapter more clearly than I can remember. I had forgotten how it could be divided up.

In his letter, John is defending the incarnation. Most commentators think he has some opponents in his congregations that are tilting the gospel toward Greek, “gnostic” thoughts that would not tolerate a God in the flesh or tolerate relating to God in a personal way. So it was surprising to see that even while thinking about John’s letter it is possible to divide up John’s thoughts in such a way that one can strain out the personal and end up with principles. One of the speakers seemed so steeped in his principles and committed to a sovereign God who was so “other,” that he had a difficult time figuring out how to argue for doing justice, which is so incarnational.

But he gave it a noble try. This Bible study is my takeaway.

1 John 4:9-11 — This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Why do justice? Here is what I stereotype as an Evangelical way to look at it, according to the passage above.

  • You should do justice by applying the principle: God loved us so we should love others.
  • Then, moving along with what John says, you could add the principle that: Our love means nothing; it’s all God’s love that changes the world.
  • If you are really going for it you could add: We should show love like God showed it in Jesus by being sent into the world so others might live through Jesus.

I don’t think those thoughts are all wrong. But I don’t think it is all John is trying to say, or that he would ever say it. Especially since he immediately says.

1 John 4:12 — No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

John is not merely applying principles, he is explaining the reality of God’s love living in him and God’s love being made complete in the body of Christ as they love one another and show his love to the world.

The incarnation of justice

I never would have become a Christian in the first place, had I just been signing up for the impossible task of applying biblical principles. I had enough guilt motivating me already. To be honest, the arguments that well-meaning Christians presented to me were not that convincing until I met God personally, which happened in spite of their arguments.

They were doing things like making principles out of the following nuggets from 1 John.

1 John 4: 16-17 — God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

One could read 1 John 4 like it was a very good argument for what a Christian ought to do. One can take the sentences above and focus on the last clause: “In this world we are like Jesus.” The principle could be:

  • Jesus cares about people so you should care.
  • Jesus desires justice, so do it.
  • Obeying the principles is the only way to have confidence on the day of judgment because you can demonstrate that you actually followed the commands of your teacher.
  • Doing what is written is the way that love can be complete and not flawed under God’s scrupulous eye.
  • God is love. If you say you are saved, you’d better be loving.

I don’t think those ideas are all wrong, but they might be missing the main thing John is talking about.

1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

It is only the love of Jesus at work in our hearts that can transform us into lovers. No amount of proper principle-applying will do it – especially when we apply the principles because we are afraid we will be disobedient and possibly judged if we don’t! Doing the work of justice no longer has to do with punishment, either; it is mainly about fearless lovers bringing the presence of Jesus with them as they dive into tangled-up humanity.

Nevertheless, one could reduce 1 John 4 down to one verse:

1 John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.

That was a key verse the Baptists gave to me as a child. It was so short almost anyone could memorize it and get a prize! And even a child can get the point:

  • Jesus loves me.
  • And because Jesus loves me, I should love.

Only that is not all that John is saying. I’d say that sentence does not mean that at all, all due respect to Mrs. Roadhouse, my second grade Sunday school teacher. He means: Our capacity to love is set on fire by God’s love for us. We are rebooted for love by his love alive in us. Without God in us, we won’t be loving like God. John is experiencing an ongoing incarnation and he does not want it stolen by people who do not have God in the world, just a set of religious principles. I think he, again, quickly says just that:

1 John 4:20 — Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

It is not so much what you say, it is whether the love of the living God is in you.

It’s not that John is not making an argument. It’s that he is making an argument for incarnation. His God is not “up there” and we worship this remote God by effecting empathy — like Jesus demonstrated, and like he left us word about in the Bible before he returned “up there.” To the contrary, John’s God has entered into our experience and into our lives. We enter into the difficult tasks of love, like loving people we can actually see today, because the Spirit has entered into us and Jesus is entering into our situation with us.

What should be your takeaway from my Bible study? I don’t know. Did Jesus tell you anything? Did God’s love move you? If nothing personal happened between you and God, then there wasn’t much point in writing anyway. Especially when it comes to making an impact for justice in the name of Jesus, we’ll just be arguing if Jesus is not in us causing love to break out.

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Even my stable?

Advent is always so revealing.

Yesterday I wrote a pensive little psalm about it. I was just plain distressed about that stable and that vulnerable baby in it being the incarnation of God in the world. The call to be that alive and trusting and welcoming can make me shiver in the bleak midwinter of my hard heartedness and self-occupation!

The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I'm talking about
The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I’m talking about. That’s one crowded baby!

There is room in the stable for shepherds, who may as well represent pickpockets and thieves of all kinds, the riff-raff of my relational universe. There is room in the stable for magi, who quickly turn into kings as time goes on, who may as well represent establishment figures of all kinds, the oppressors of my relational universe.

Do you ever pray prayers like this?: “I have too much leftover from my insecure attachment to entertain one more person bent on getting something for themselves! Don’t I? I have too much narcissism to allow even the occupiers of the power structure to be valued! Don’t I?”

Is there supposed to be that kind of room in the stable? Even my stable? The church is just your latest stable, Jesus?

If there is supposed to be that kind of room, and I am distressingly sure that there is, then I would like to be a more realized baby. Thus my psalm:

I wish I were not such a typical baby,
like Oliver tired and grumpy
running to grab whatever’s new,
running from Mommy then mad and searching.
You are such a good baby.

I wish no one would come to my stable
and trouble me with their feelings,
breaking the frame and being so real,
making me love and then feel unloved.
You are such a good baby.

I wish I never had to be vulnerable
and sponge up more sin and death,
feeling my desire and resistance,
running in fear then madly searching.
You are such a good baby.

What will become of me,
locked up with you on this scratchy hay?
What will become of you,
locked up with me in my itchy heart?

The Hurricane, the Nanny State and Katniss Everdeen

Irene coming to N.C.

I know I could have turned off the TV, but I was a bit concerned about Hurricane Irene. Mayor Nutter said we might lose power for two weeks! Mayor Bloomberg shut down New York! It certainly sounded serious. And, of course, for some people it was extremely serious. David’s sister’s house in the mountains is by a little stream they never expected to pour through their first floor windows!

But, overall, don’t you think the coverage was a bit much? Aren’t we being overseen and instructed a bit too much? I don’t usually agree with right wingers, but it does seem like we have a lot of regulations just waiting to be applied in Philadelphia. We might actually have a “nanny state” already. A couple of girls were caught on TV walking down Main Street in flooded Manayunk yesterday and were also caught on TV being given a citation for doing it! Whatever you do, don’t overtax the “first responders” by being a fool! They are going to overtax themselves by giving you a ticket for violating some statute you never imagined existed. My rule in Philadelphia is, “Don’t forget. Everything is illegal if they want it to be, especially if you are a homeless or unlicensed human.”

We are definitely going the direction of Suzanne Collins’ picture of a super nanny state based on the ever-broadcasting tube in her very popular books for teenagers: The Hunger Games. The trilogy is a very inventive and subversive look at where we are going. I said on my personal Goodreads site: “[The Hunger Games] is an entertaining primer on how to react to a dystopia dominated by manipulative media and a huge military-industrial complex. To no one’s surprise the lessons are: be a superhuman survivor, be super individualistic, be superviolent but moral and, when you are completely burned, be super in love and start over in Eden/home/the wilderness.” (Here is the Circle of Hope Pastors site).

Katniss really does not like to do what she is told. The big problem for the authorities is, every time they try to kill her, she manages to incite a revolution. Plus, she is very good with a bow and arrow – a Rambo for the 2010s. It is a big problem for her oppressors when Katniss’s resistance is televised by the nanny state or televised by the rebels who take over the airwaves — it disrupts their programming schedule! The other day, I found myself wishing that one of my hacker friends had discovered how to hack an alternative feed into CNN and could broadcast a huge crowd of us shouting, “Will you please shut up, already!” We need the info, but not the constant, irrelevant making-news-out-of-nothing that programs us to buy every battery in Target! (I know. I could have  never turned it on. But I did.)

What are Jesus-followers to do? We could just do whatever the nanny tells us. Within that constant blather are seeds of actual information, after all, and we like being supportive and nice-looking. We could do like Katniss and find ways to get over the electric fence around our lives and murder our opponents – we like being judgmental, superior and holy-looking, too. I never think either of those solutions is adequate, no matter how many times the myth is replayed in the media. I still think we need to painstakingly work on living as an incarnation of the kingdom of God in the here and now. I think we need to take ourselves seriously as people entrusted with the Holy Spirit and live out an alternative that not only undermines, but transforms the  self-destructing status quo.

When the BW men met last night, their topic was “What do we do in a disaster?” (Timely, eh?) One of the conclusions voiced was that our connection with one another was possibly too weak to survive a disaster. We were either reliant on the government or reliant on ourselves. We agreed that our meeting was a great way to start something. But it was not enough to build the trust that would make one’s brother or sister reliable in a disaster. We don’t want to rely on the TV for our communication and we don’t want to be left alone on the other side of the fence. We really do need each other. To form an alternative community that allows us to be our full selves in the face of the powers that be we need to remember a basic truth Mike and Mimi scripted into  their wedding on Saturday: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:9-10)

I may be too optimistic, but I think both the nanny state and Katniss Everdeen are shooting (sometimes literally) for those goals listed in Romans. They just can’t get there without Jesus, and it is hard enough with him.  We need to keep at it with true devotion on behalf of us all.

Low Hanging Fruit

All definitions seem to require some relationship to sex these days. The “urban dictionary” defines low-hanging fruit as: “Girls who are somewhat hot – but not too hot, and who often work in positions of high public interaction but with low-barriers-to-entry, thus making them open and attractive targets on the one hand, but often self conscious and/or harboring self esteem issues on the other. This, as a whole, makes them susceptible and quite receptive to any overtures from the opposite sex. I.e., They are the easiest of fruit to pick.” The use of the phrase: “Salty just can’t stop picking that low-hanging fruit; he just brought home his fifth receptionist this month.”

I love/hate the postmodern democracy of truth demonstrated in the Urban Dictionary, even though it is frightening. It is sort of like an intellectual horror movie. I can see what is going to happen to the thinking, but I keep watching anyway.

It is about fruit picking

The more traditional way I want to use the phrase ‘low hanging fruit” relates to  farming (of course!). It means that when I stray off my running path in Southern California and steal oranges from the grove (not that I ever did that!), I will be able to reach the fruit that doesn’t require that I also steal a ladder. In marketing terms, “low  hanging fruit” are targets or goals that don’t require too much effort to achieve.

Circle of Hope’s “low-hanging fruit” appear to be mostly picked. This may also be true of your personal missional “grove.”

When we first started out in mission, we were sort of the only game in town. Urban
church planting was not so popular — and, to be honest, just living in Philadelphia was not as popular as it is now. We had the “marketing niche” (if I dare say that to some of you) mostly to ourselves. These days, we can throw a rock in every direction from Broad and Washington and hit a church plant sponsored by all sorts of denominations, some from within Philly and many from without, especially by the branches of the fractious Presbyterians. There is plenty of room for everyone’s mission and we love them all. But the proliferation of church plants has depleted the stock of low-hanging fruit that made our mission somewhat easy – at least easier than most missionaries face when they are on a mission. Just the young, semi-Christian people fleeing Lancaster could fill a few new church plants, it seems. We have our own contingent at 19G. Now they are spread out among a lot of good opportunities for growth and service.

Reaching the further fruit

So what we need to do now is come up with strategies and methods for reaching the fruit that is beyond our normal, easy reach. This is very good, since that is the crop  we were planted to reach in the first place. We are slowly but surely figuring out how to do that. We have great infrastructure and general methodology for incorporating new people into our new kind of church. But we need to perfect the specifics of picking that individual “orange” that just happened to get ripe at the top of the tree.

We hope our methods are incarnational, not merely attractional. But we always use a mix of methods. One example of this is the recent discussion at BW about how to relate
to teens (fruit that often can’t sit still long enough to be picked!). We have some nice specimens in our basket already, but their friends are not going to fall into our laps because we have a meeting and make fliers. Events might be part of our plan, but the biggest part will always be people in mission who are loving and who see themselves as harvesters all the time, and who can’t rest until that farthest orange is in God’s hand.

Some people will always see orcharding as violence done to a tree, I think. I see it as a good metaphor for our role in God’s spiritual garden.

Zeki and the Strings Attached in Istanbul

Istanbul is one of those places that has always been a big bazaar. Looking out from Topkapi Palace at the ships moving through the crossroads of Asia, it is easy to see why it has always been a good place to shop. Gwen and I are not great shoppers, so the Grand Bazaar was sort of lost on us. And we did not consistently do well with being asked to buy something every few steps along our way through the historic old city.

So when Zeki came up to us at the Blue Mosque we were a bit wary. He assured us he “worked for the mosque” and was not going to ask us for any money. He just wanted to give us a tour. We knew there were strings attached someplace, but we decided to go with it, since I didn’t mind taking him at his word and not giving him any money. The fact is, he gave us a great tour! The mosque would have been much less interesting and much harder to navigate without him. At one point he asked Gwen for her camera (which is a pretty nice camera) and went into the “restricted” area where women and infidels cannot go so he could get some pictures she would not get. They are good pictures. But he was gone so long that we thought we were never going to see the camera again; I thought I would have to charge into the restricted area and see what  happened. He reappeared, so we did not have to  wonder, “Why did we give Zeki our camera?”

By the end of the tour we were quite good friends with Zeki, so he told us all he asked was that we come visit his family’s shop. It was not too far away on a second floor. We realized that Zeki was a recruiter for the shop and it was undoubtedly the camera that made us look like possible rug buyers. We went with it because he told us the shop was air conditioned. It was cool and we got apple tea. (If you stick around in a shop you’ll get something to keep you there even longer. One day we had a three-apple-tea day!). The poor rug thrower flipped out all sorts of Kurdish rugs that were very beautiful and which we had no intention of buying.

Is God really like Zeki?

Fervent Christians often feel like they are Zekis. Their idea is: If someone really loves God, they will be out recruiting people to come to the store where the pastor will give them the pitch and they will buy Jesus, whether they want him or not. In some ways that has been an effective model. But it is not like God.

In my new favorite book, The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter talks about this.

We think God tells us to serve in order to get people to respect us or like us so that they’ll accept our God. The real essence of biblical blessing is that it’s done with no strings attached. Hopes, desires, fervent prayer, yes – but no strings at all attached…Learning to receive God’s free, no-strings attached offer and then graciously living a life to extend blessing to others without charge and without expectation is different [than being a recruiter]. When we become comfortable with unconditional love, I think we will find that it does witness correctly to who God is. And it’s a power that naturally draws people in. (p. 143)

Zeki blessed me, but he had strings attached. Apart from his striking Kurdish blue eyes, I will remember him for his clever hoodwinking.

In our present-day spiritual environment in the megalopolis, which is very skeptical about Christians and their myriad claims to truth, being a blessing makes more missional sense than ever. If you are stuck being a recruiter for the church or for your cell and are frustrated that no one is “buying,” maybe it is time to change your mind about how God works. Be a blessing as you have been blessed. For the people you hope will connect with God, meeting up with an incarnation is a lot more alluring than buying an abstraction; being loved right  now is better than the promise of good things that could happen if they come to your meeting or join your cause.

Incarnation is the Answer to Bad News Church

I was in Turkey last week. My body still thinks I am there. My mind is definitely still there.  It was a difficult pilgrimage in some ways. But it was a very stimulating one in almost every way.

For the first week, Gwen, my dears friends, and I fulfilled a long-held vision of taking one of the famous sailing cruises through the Aegean. I had very little idea of what I was getting into, especially since I let my friend do most of the planning. When I showed up in Bodrum, I met the people with whom I would be sleeping and eating on our little boat: two Belgians, four Dutch, two South Africans, four Americans, including me, and four Turkish crew members. They were nice people.

What I want to tell you about today is the small experiences I had of introducing myself to people whose English leaves a little bit lost in translation. Being the pastor of Circle of Hope is odd enough in the  religion-saturated United States. Explaining it to the post-Christian Belgians and Dutch is even odder.

The bad news church

For instance, my now-new-Belgian-Facebook-friend was very puzzled about my very existence. In Belgium the national government still owns the church buildings for the state-subsidized religious groups. My new friend was very interested (as a former mayor) that the people of my congregation actually pool their money to support my work.   Belgium is still highly influenced by the Catholic church, even though in 1967 about 42% of the population attended mass weekly and now it is only about 5%. My friend was also a bit shocked that I was married. When the subject of church came up, the first thing she had to talk about was celibacy! She was very concerned about the sex life of priests, since there has been a major sexual abuse scandal in Belgium for the last several years. I was meeting another person telling me the bad news about the church.

I think we forget that people are not necessarily antagonistic toward faith in Jesus; they really have no idea about faith in Jesus.  They think it is about connecting to the bad news church. It is hard to imagine an intelligent person in Belgium signing up for the state-sponsored Catholic Church, run by deviant, politically-savvy  priests holding meetings in empty, historic buildings. The only “issue” my friend had to offer when religion came up in our conversation was about celibacy! How unusual that I can have a wife! A sexually-active being, serving a community that supports his leadership — revolutionary!

Judgmental experiences

More poignant, perhaps, was my small conversation with a  Dutch passenger. She had some Christians in her background, so she was more in the know. Apparently, there is a “Bible belt” in Holland. She had ancestors from there and even knew about Mennonites, who got their start in the Netherlands. As soon as we started talking about Christianity, she made it plain that she was not happy about how churches judge others and hold to their bizarre convictions. Her first thoughts revealed her feelings about the notorious time there was a breech in the dike and people from the Bible belt would not come to help with saving the land because it was Sunday and they would not work on the Sabbath. It was the bad news church, again. But when I described to her what we were living as Circle of Hope, she almost immediately softened up. It struck a chord with her. She smiled at me and said, with a Dutch accent, “I would come to your church.”

Honestly, I think she is hungry for something. It is like she has been deprived of the church by a bunch of numbskulls who somehow took it over! I hate to be so negative, but the Catholic church still marching around in medieval costumes and the revival of Calvinist propositional-legalism is disastrous for evangelism. I know I am not supplying a lot of evidence for that, but I keep running into the bad news. What self-respecting Dutch person is going to ally themselves with people with so little love in their hearts that they would rather be “right” than serve their neighbor?

Incarnation is the answer

On one hand, I have nothing to prove. A person who wants Jesus can find him in the least likely places. We don’t worship the Christians or their churches. I am not the church’s history. On the other hand, we have a lot to prove. We are an incarnation of the kingdom of God, the presence of the future, as the Holy Spirit lives in us. If someone bumps into me, they should meet the love of Jesus. If they talk to me, they should hear some truth that resonates in some empty place in them prepared for God.

The old church is about gone in Europe and it is quickly disintegrating in the United States. Praise God! But do we have the followers who have the courage to incarnate what is next? Do we have people who can demonstrate the Lord’s truth and love to hungry people?  I hope to be among them.