Tag Archives: missional

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.

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.

Columba the Creative Sufferer

The Celtic church folk seem like family when you get to know them — they are inspiring spiritual ancestors! Some people think it is a little weird to get to know them — they are long gone, after all. But I think it is important we try. We are trying so hard to represent Jesus as a radical, missional community, So I need to say few words about one of the greatest Celtic radicals who built missional communities: Columba.

Columba stokes my spiritual fire. He’s right in the middle of re-creation. And we aspire to be as meaningful to our corner of the world as he was to his.

Re-creation is an earthy, sweaty process of creative suffering. Columba learned a lot about being reborn — about the kind of suffering-like-Jesus that pushes into the light from the dark. He knew about rebirthing — about the suffering-like-Jesus that pushes from the light into the dark. From both angles, he proved that the pain of getting deeply involved with God’s re-creation was worth it. As I tell you part of his story in honor of his death day, you’ll probably be considering what God is teaching you about being born into your own fullness.

Columba (521-97) might be more famous than you know. He is one of the three “patron saints” of Ireland, with Patrick and Brigid. He founded many communities of radical disciples of Jesus in Ireland before he went to Iona for the last 30 years of his life. From Iona he masterminded the mission to the great tribe called the Picts in Scotland. The community he founded on the edge of the world became the mother for hundreds of other communities all over Scotland and all over the world. The Iona Community was a missionary factory for centuries. And it is known for being the place where the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s artistic treasures, was written.

Columba was born a to an aristocratic family, the son of a king. When he was at Finnian’s great school in Clonard,  Columba’s hut was in a favored place nearer the chapel, because he had brought so much with him when he came to join the community. Quite a bit was written about him, and some of it makes him look a little imperious, maybe overly ambitious — like he took himself quite seriously, especially as a young man. He was a leader. He did rash things but he made up for them and went on. He was intense — so intense, disciplined and austere that a lot of people could not keep up with his example. But all these attributes made him someone who could be followed.

He was a big, tall, handsome man. So the icon on this page does not do him justice. He’s old in it. He’s got his Celtic tonsure on (shaved up to a line from ear to ear). And he does have his book.  Columba had a big voice too — you could hear him from far away. He often used it to sing. People loved to hear him sing. He wrote songs. He also loved to write poetry, and is known for having written one of the earliest known poems by an Irish native.

To get the full idea of his song, you have to pretend you are hearing it in some echo-y, house made of rock, a dark place with candles in the 500’s. This is just a bit of the very long piece:

Altus Prosator

Ancient exalted seed scatterer
whom time gave no progenitor:
he knew no moment of creation
in his primordial foundation
he is and will be all places
in all time and all ages
with Christ his first-born only-born
and the Holy Spirit — borne
throughout the high eternity
of glorious divinity:
three gods we do not promulgate
one God we share and intimate
salvific faith victorious:
three persons very glorious.

Try reading the Latin, it makes it even better.

Altus prosator, vetustus
dierum et ingenitus
erat absque origine
primordii et crepidine
est et erit in sæcula
sæculorum infinita;
cui est unigenitus
Xristus et sanctus spiritus
coæternus in gloria
deitatis perpetua.
Non tres deos depropimus
sed unum Deum dicimus,
salva fide in personis
tribus gloriosissimis.

This artistic son of a King turned to Jesus and went about making new Christians where there were very few in his big, dramatic, creative, radical way.

From dark into light

Columba’s introduction to creative suffering began with a shock to his system when he was about 40 years old. You may have experienced a similar situation that meant life or death for your faith. The Spirit of God does not let us rest in the dark; almost-involuntary birth pangs begin, and we have to push toward the light, even though the opening seems kind of small and we seem kind of weak. We have to repent, change and move along to our fullness.

Columba’s biographers aren’t quite clear on just what exactly happened, but here is the  watershed moment. Finnian of Molville had a very famous rare book. It was a copy of the Jerome’s Vulgate, the first Bible translated into Latin. Columba went to stay with this other Finnian and every night he secretly went to the library and made a copy of this precious book for himself. One night Finnian caught him in the act. He told him to hand over the copy, which by rights belonged to him. Columba refused to do it, even though he was in the wrong. Finnian took his case to the high king of Ireland at Tara. The king ruled in his favor. He said: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” — the first copyright law.

Then the history gets kind of mixed. However it got going, there was a war over this incident. Columba’s clan, whose members were mostly Christians, took up for him against the high king at Tara, whose followers were still mostly pagan. 3000 people died in a huge battle. Columba’s side won but Columba was mortified. The battle over his misdeed was a shame to Jesus. He was given a great penance. Radical that he was, a person who did big things, he put himself in permanent exile. He said, “I will never look on Ireland again.” And he vowed to go win as many people to Jesus as were killed in the battle on his behalf. That is creative suffering! — a radical pushing out of his darkness into the light.

He ended up on Iona, which was the first place he could get to where he could not see Ireland anymore. Columba turned away from what was wrong and literally went a new direction toward what is next. It cost him. He loved Ireland. He lost family and power. But he did something in line with what he was given to be and responded in faith to the mess he had made. He didn’t go on stealing and fighting. And it hurt. He took what Paul said seriously. “My present suffering are nothing compared to what is prepared for God’s children” (Romans 8). He got the message. If you fear what has been or you fear what is next, get into your boat and do something.

From light into dark

Columba looked for what was prepared for him. As a result, he had a great success in what he did for Jesus. He was soon crossing the strait from Iona to Scotland to try to convert the Pictish king. He took his great light and he pushed into the spiritual darkness with it.

To get to the city of the king, Columba and his comrades had to cross the river that goes out of Loch Ness.  He asked one of his helpers to swim over and get a boat he saw on the other side that could carry him and the rest of the crew over the river. About halfway over, disturbed by all that splashing, a gigantic beast rose up out of the water. With a roar, it tried to devour the swimmer. Columba stood on the bank and said, “You shall go no further. Do not touch the man.” It was like ropes pulled the monster back. It was dragged back into Loch Ness. I don’t know if that is totally true. But they thought a monster was in Loch Ness way back in the day.

People don’t tell these stories for nothing. Whether you believe the history or not, the truth behind the story remains. Jesus will turn away our foes as well. What seeks to devour us feeds on our fear. But if we follow Christ we are God’s heirs and our destiny is secure. We’ve got to suffer through the work to get though to our destiny. But it is worth it. We’ve got to face the monster. God is on our side. Push your light into the darkness.

Not all of Columba’s creative suffering was as a result of his sin and poor judgment and neither is yours. We don’t just suffer just because we are fools. There is a positive side to how we suffer. Our pain often has more of the suffering of the artist to it. It is creative suffering like the trouble of giving birth to something. Trying to find a way to express our hope and convictions is an art. Trying to push the beauty of our relationship with God into the dark – how to say it, how to express it, how to get it out there – is creative.

Jesus in the Book of Kells

The Celts were good at the art of evangelism. They spread the gospel more by infiltration than by arguments, more by osmosis than by domination. They brought Jesus by art, by incarnation, by relating, by singing it. They let people experience them as they lived their lives in Christ — feel what was in their hearts, trusting in the light to penetrate the darkness.

We are often pushing from the darkness into the light, but we are also pushing from our light into the darkness and they are both beautiful expressions of this groaning creativity of the Spirit in us. Our suffering is often a good thing. We need creative suffering. The example of the Lord and the message of the Bible is that suffering is part of creation. God can be creatively involved in our pain.

It took suffering to create us and recreate us. If you are broken and trying to push into the light, don’t let anyone steal that from you with a pill or a false promise. If you are trying to push some light into the dark through your art — whether it is setting the table or painting the Mona Lisa, singing, speaking, writing, conversing, even if you think you are a terrible artist and should just quit — don’t give up on that; die trying to do something. Whatever God gave you to do to express that creative suffering — push out of the dark into the light; push out of the light into the dark. In that you will be like Columba — and Jesus.

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.

The hush: Tasers and John Doe Graves

I’m glad I am not the only worried one. The national media wandered into a couple of territories with which I am familiar recently: Citizen’s Bank Park and Imperial Valley, CA. They told some disturbing, important truths about where our country is headed.

Tasers at the Phillies

Jacob and I were at the Phillies game when the teenager got tasered by the Philadelphia policeman. A hush fell over the crowd where I was, followed by boos. I don’t think any of us knew quite what to think as we saw the kid fall on the ground. Although Gov Rendell thinks it should not have happened, the polls seem to be going in favor of tasering trespassers. People seem to just be happy the authorities are tasering instead of shooting bullets!

It makes more sense than ever why my youngest friends are so hesitant to speak up about being a Christian among their friends and workmates. The last ten years have seen a steady erosion in the respect for people who express a “suspicious” mentality. Running around on a baseball field is hardly defense-worthy self-expression, but watching someone getting tasered for doing so sends a message: the powers that be can stop you and stop you hard. I kind of wish all the seventeen-year-olds in the stands had rushed the field and run around in protest. But, as it is, I think people digested the message that the police are prepared to do what it takes to keep us in line. We are all terrorists until proven innocent. If you suddenly bring up a picture of Jesus being questioned by Pilate in your mind, I think that might be appropriate.

Immigrants buried in the desert

Another story someone mentioned to me makes me understand a bit more about how hard-hearted our government is prepared to be. Something has been happening along the southern border of my old home state, California. Had I found a way to do it, I really wanted to get involved in calling for justice and love at the center of the immigration debate in neighboring Arizona by trekking with some people at the end of May along the “migrant trail.”   Out in the desert, desperate people too often die trying to get to some work in the U.S. CBS had a segment on 60 Minutes about drownings in the All American Canal which was even more appalling to view than the tasering.

After about 16 years of the government burying victims in Imperial County, CBS said something about it.  The fence the government put up in the urbanized areas nearer San Diego works. It sends people out into the desert to cross the border, where they meet up with the All American Canal – a swift-moving aqueduct bringing Colorado River water to San Diego. It is like a moat for California. The canal has no escape devices for people who fall in or dive in.  Scores have died. The Imperial County officials seem to think that if you are doing this illegal thing, you should die. There is a growing collection of graves for unknown drowning victims. It is horrifying how willing the populace is to accept the deaths of foolish and desperate people in the All American Canal, and the whole Sonora desert.

The incident at the ball park and the militarization of the border are both examples of how we are all being tempted to accept our government’s commitment to violence as the best way to solve problems. I don’t want to be silently complicit as the culture develops in that direction.

We, as the members of the Lord’s body, as the light of the world, are the alternative to the evils of the world. We should not be so threatened that we make our cell meetings a secret we fearfully hide lest someone make us illegal. The new humanity is built by obedient followers of Jesus who don’t care if telling the truth about evil puts them at odds with the same fearmongers who killed Jesus in the name of national security,

Nineteen Flame-tending Women, to Start

February 1 is Ibolc. It marks the first stirrings of spring in Ireland. St. Brigid’s Day is attached to it. Candlemas is also attached to it, marking the 40 days after Christmas when Mary went to the Temple, with baby Jesus in tow, to honor the rules for being ritually purified after giving birth, and thus meeting Simeon and Anna. It’s the Candle Mass in the old days because everyone in Ireland brought their special, home-use beeswax candle to the meeting for a blessing. Those candles symbolized the presence of God, the flame of the Spirit with them. As with all the big days of the Christian year, Brigid’s Day is all mixed up with legend, the seasons of paganism, and arguments over what is the best way to honor her memory.

I’m not bothering with the controversies too much. I feel free to strain out good things from not-so-good things whenever I can. I’m into “testing everything and holding on to what is good” as Paul instructs the Thessalonians to do. Using Jesus’ metaphor another way, I think we should strain out the gnat of good and not swallow the camel of nonsense when we need to.

The site of the perpetual flame and a flame keeper at Kildare ca 1780

I like to remember the Brigids of my own era on Brigid’s Day. As the church was first forming, brilliantly, in Ireland, Brigid was a great leader (see last year’s blog about it, if you like). At the site of the community she founded and lead in Kildare, we visited the enclosure for the perpetual flame that Brigid tended and which burned for over a thousand years before Protestants doused it. The flame was a sign of the presence of Jesus in the heart of Ireland. The guide told us that the flame’s keepers were on a twenty-day cycle. Nineteen women were selected to keep the fire going and on the twentieth night Brigid kept it herself.

I like the idea of nineteen women keeping the flame of faith going. I know several sets of those kind of women, and so do you. They are keeping faith alive in a time when there are a lot more than Protestants trying to douse it! I collected my own roster, just to celebrate the idea that women are still courageously tending the flame. I listed the first nineteen who randomly came to my mind, below, and resisted listing nineteen more. I know many women who keep the flame burning among the Circle of Hope. I thought you might like to add one or two to the list, as well.

Brigid’s Day is a good day to celebrate what burns with the fire of Jesus. It is a good day to celebrate faithful women who tend the flame and to imagine all the good they are causing to stir up springtime in the winter of the world. By selecting nineteen I did not mean to deselect all the rest, of course — this is not the Grammy Awards of spirituality! I just want us to look around on Brigid’s Day and note the spark of the perpetual flame in each one, celebrate what God has done, and anticipate what God  might do.

Here’s my random nineteen.

Gwen – spiritual director, promoter of mental health, flame-builder in children
Sarah – leader of cells and cell leaders and network builder
Rachel – pastor to many and group leader for those in need
Marquita – homemaker, daring leader, student
Aubrey –vision keeper, compassionate teacher
Jen – risk taker, church planter
Martha – business maker, fearless leader
Tracey – tenacious servant, overcomer
Megan – hardworking environment maker
Katie – hospitable faith builder
Christina – business builder, evangelist, mother to many
Kelly – ambitious talent user, seeker of the deep
Angie – teacher in song, empath
Missy – missional organizer, persistent servant
Mimi – peacemaker, missional educator and fire builder
Emily – visionary organizer, risk taker, networker
Melissa – consistent caregiver, safety net sewer
Brittney – visionary outreacher, passionate leader
Courtney – multi-talented creator, brave life developer

If you feel like contributing to the formation of another nineteen flame-tenders (or more!), add a comment!

Aidan: Coming from the “holy island”

This is St. Aidan’s day. He came from his comfortable, focused community on the island of Iona to serve in Northumbria in 635. He developed the new community based on Lindisfarne, the mystical island that came to be known as the Holy Island. He lead them into a long, productive ministry of church planting. When I visited Lindisfarne last summer, I saw his name on the wall, first on a list, on the roll of bishops in the old island church.

Aidan is a good example for us, since we are an island, ourselves, offering an alternative to the people of our age. And it will take a long time and a long obedience to make a lasting difference.

As a result of the infighting of the royal families in Northumbria, Prince Oswald had been exiled and lived with Aidan’s community on the island of Iona, off Scotland. He became a passionate Christian there. Oswald’s name came up in the line of succession and he returned to Northumbria as king.

The new king brought a leader with him from Iona to install as his bishop. The man was hard and demanding. No one would listen to him. He ended up returning to Iona defeated and resentful. When Aidan heard the story of his failed mission, he was moved. He asked him why he did not feed the people the truth like feeding milk to a baby.

The community sent Aidan to Oswald, even though he could not speak the language of Northumbria. Oswald installed him on Lindisfarne, which came to be known and is still named on the road map today, as the Holy Island. Aidan’s first forays into the neighboring territory found him accompanied by the king, who interpreted for him. The passion and humility of both leaders had a huge impact.

Today, as I honor the memory of Aidan, I am longing to live with a missional community coming from their Holy Island. Lindisfarne has the unique character of being an island for only part of the day, when the tide is in. The rest of the time you can walk to it. It is a good symbol for people who want to make a huge impact, like we do. We must live on an “island,” in that we nurture our relationship with God and His people and feel our dignity as ones called out and set apart; being God’s people is our only hope and our great strength.  But we must not stay on our “island.” There is a rhythm to life in Christ that is as natural and cleansing as the tide. We must spend half the day, at least, accessible to the mainland and crossing over to create new islands of grace.

So many believers I know live on the mainland and visit the island.  They love the idea of the Holy Island, but they just vacation there. They even love the vacation. But they have not bought property. They haven’t settled there. As a result, they don’t even know the tide schedule. They can end up living so far away that they find life in Christ to be a memory.

In honor of Aidan, I want to walk with humility among the hungry people of Philadelphia. I will need an interpreter, since I am like an alien to a lot of them — I will rely on my King.  If I say or do something wrong, I know he will find another way to express his grace. If I successfully share the limited grace I am carrying, I know he will make more of it than I might expect. If I continue to contribute to building something of a Holy Island of our own, I hope it makes a lasting impact, as well.

Mating choices

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;  but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.  Philippians 1:20-26

The other night at Rabbi Time we had a lively discussion about marriage, sex, “dating” — that whole fascinating area. One of the main things God reinforced for me through the discussion was that many of us need a redeemed set of reasons for what we are doing, in general, now that we have turned to follow Jesus. And we need to apply them to marriage, sex and “dating” (unless you kissed it good-bye, of course).

Agape and Phileo Love: We Need Both | HuffPost null

The Bible on mating

If one looks in their Bible concordance for “marriage, sex and dating” a few passages can be located — but probably not the verses from Philippians above. Yet I think what Paul writes there might give more direction for how to connect than other passages. Who one marries or considers marrying, how one connects sexually, isn’t another “area” of life that the Bible writers don’t seem to go into too specifically. Sexuality and spirituality are at the very heart of who we are and everything said about anything is applicable. In essence, the Bible writers are giving direction for sexual relationships all the time, and periodically they get specific.

For instance, Paul is trying to decide whether it is more profitable to live or die (a much weightier subject than, “Who shall I marry?” even, and certainly weightier than, “Shall I go for an orgasm right now?”)! He decides that God will likely spare his life for further mission — if not, that is even better. That is good direction, I say, for how to make all sorts of decisions about intimacy. When we were talking the other night, a few times it seemed necessary to say, “Who you marry is a missional matter, not just personal.” Somehow, it seems that most Christians think such wild talk is for missionaries, as if their own purpose didn’t matter so much!

How to choose

Is it really so foolish to think that if one were looking for a mate they would want to find a good partner for fulfilling their part of the mission of Jesus to redeem the world? Wouldn’t that be as likely to result in satisfying sex and decent family life as wondering if you were aroused enough to sustain a long-term sex life, or attracted enough to think your relationship would stand the test of time, or whether you were ready enough to make a commitment that would include you staying home at night periodically, or to stop drinking so much, or to compromise some of your perfectionistic expectations?

There are a lot of variations on how and why we connect. I am hardly trying to sum them all up in a few paragraphs, here! But I do want to suggest that having a purpose and assuming someone else would share it with you is pretty sexy. Honestly, I think it is more deeply erotic than mere skin-to-skin or attraction-to-attraction can sustain.

Community requires presuming the “WE” doesn’t it?

I had a couple of moments last week when I realized I was acting out of an assumption that was just not warranted. I presumed there was a mutually understood “we” my fellow believer and I lived in — but it just was not there. I am trying to talk more about my assumptions rather than just bump into the reality that they are not shared – and feeling bruised. If you are still alone in the crowd, I hope you will enlighten me.

together with no community

I have always lived in the church. As a child I somehow got the impression that I ought to be “one of those people.” When I went to college I ended up quite consciously living in community with other believers — by the time I was a senior it was eight guys living in side-by-side apartments holding a Bible study for 70+ people every Monday. By the time I was 26, or so, I was living in an intentional community based on Acts 2 that included up to 20 people at a time for over eight years. As God focused my gifts toward forming and leading congregations, I continued to find my identity as part of a missional community animated by life in Jesus.

So sometimes I can be slow on the uptake or kind of flabbergasted when I meet up with Christians, especially people trying to lead me, who don’t run in the deep ruts of my instincts. For instance:

1) I can torment some of our Cell Leaders and the staff because they don’t really know much about building a team. I forget sometimes that a lot of people just wear themselves out doing jobs for Jesus because no matter how much it is said, they still don’t see themselves as part of a body — they are interchangeable parts of some abstract process. Especially if they can see the “big picture” of what the church is all about, a lot of leaders will feel that the whole job is theirs to complete, alone – so they get overwhelmed pretty fast and expect sympathy. They aren’t on God’s team (the One who does most of the work and has lots of sympathy); and they don’t presume that we’re all in this together — so they proceed to do it all by themselves. It is nice that they own the mission; it is just strange that they think the job belongs to them. They don’t work out of a team, and they don’t think to form one to get things done – they are struggling just to be a part of a “we” at all!

2) I can be a pain because I have a pain when the Brethren in Christ leaders are holding forth. The other day at our Regional Conference, our dear, new bishop got up to introduce the “business” section of the agenda and confused me again with an attitude that has been prevalent among my denominational leaders for quite a while, now. The first thing he started with was a funny/sarcastic/endearing remark, something like, “Now we are going to get to what we are all looking forward to” (wink). We were going to hear the reports about our mutual mission and make any decisions we had to make as the delegates from the churches who make up the conference – the “we” of the Atlantic Region of the BIC. As usual, I and several of the Circle of Hope crew, didn’t really understand why this was supposed to be so boring or distasteful, since inclusion in the process, making mutual decisions and being the “we” of the BIC was the only reason we drove two hours from Philadelphia. The leaders dispensed with the most interesting and dignifying thing we had to do as quickly as possible, and made it pretty plain that causing any dialogue about it was relatively out of order, since no one wanted to do it, anyway. Circle of Hope’s polity is so focused around dialogue, and lots of it, that I was hard-pressed to explain how we think our process is connected to the BIC at all.

3) I can get frustrated and be frustrating when people committed to being the total integers produced by U.S. political and educational philosophy try to relate to me. For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of personal pondering about why sexual morality is so irrelevant to quite a few of my believing friends these days. I think part of it is because their faith has no context. The “drank the kool-aid” of the propagandists who say that sexuality is just about what feels good to us in the moment; it is an impulse that doesn’t even need a relationship, much less is it anyone else’s business in the family or the church. Their faith is purely personal/private/theoretical – it can be aided by “church offerings,” but being the church is not crucial to having it. So all the parts of the New Testament in which leaders are trying to form a group identity and protect it are relegated to second-tier thoughts, if they are entertained at all. Some of my friends are so alone, they ease into a one-to-one “we” by hooking up with strangers while drunk, having a relationship with someone in another state, or relating virtually. Should they cohabit with an unbeliever in the same city, it might be considered progress; if there is love involved, that is deep. They have capabilities I am trying to figure out. I got married; I had children of my own eight years after I left my parents, I stayed married. So sometimes I have to ask people to translate and explain a lot about what they are doing and why.

I hope I am not just damning people because they aren’t like me – the original sin of postmodernity. But I am wondering if I am right enough about Jesus to justify the problems I have and be the problem I am.