Tag Archives: dialogue

How to deal with natural opposition: Five proverbs

Every Cell Leader, when they get to know the typical cell member, is going to run up against opposition. I’m not talking about Trump-like antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him.

Don’t we naturally resist the supernatural? Don’t we naturally avoid the unaccustomed? When a person seems oppositional in a cell they should not automatically be tagged “bad;” they just have baggage like the rest of us. They are loaded with large societal pressures and they have the habits formed by their life experience.  They have assumptions about how life works and they instinctively desire the cell to conform to them. They are not likely to automatically change their mind and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  They feel understandable opposition. Who would not be a little bit reticent? Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

softening up opposition with chips
A good cell does not require chips. But they can help.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue quite often (and often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the middle of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. I love the dialogue, since revelations are best received face-to-face.

Christians often assume that because their beliefs or teachings are true for everyone they must be intelligible to everyone. But as Christians, we’re part of a story that has its own language (the language of the people of God). As Stanley Hauerwas has argued, we can only really understand ourselves and our place in that story if we are trained in the language of the Church. Our mates don’t seem intelligible half the time,  a diverse church is that much harder. So we must patiently share the language of the Church, particularly Circle of Hope,  if we want to have a fruitful dialogue with other Jesus followers — much more if we hope to include people who don’t follow Jesus yet! Our common language reinforces our awareness that we are part of a common story and teaches others how to become part of it, too.

In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells and face opposition. As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nurturing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. You might see them as basic building blocks of our our language — the language people are learning as they learn faith in Jesus these days. Here goes:

Progress is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all. So there might be opposition.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. One night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable, even downright avant garde. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this once,” as if they were visiting Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. That was kind of scary! I like to be on the edge of what is next, but I don’t want to befuddle Ohioans!

Other times, it might be better to befuddle people. Because in my search to share a common language, I am tempted to fit in with what everyone thinks is fitting at the moment. I am so sympathetic to the discomfort of someone who is not aligned with me, I solve their problem by not being a problem. If Jesus is a problem, I leave him out too! If people are committed to things that are killing them, I might not risk being opposed and let them die!

Rather than fitting in and waiting to be discovered, I might want to be honest about the revelation I carry and help someone fit into it. The loving negotiation we have in a cell when a new person arrives should be a highpoint of our week, not some awkward moment we fear, just because will might face natural opposition. For Jesus sake, we face opposition carefully and don’t just adapt to what’s coming at us because we want to appear nice.

What everyone has come to think is normal is not always our new normal. I am thinking of all the things scientists and pseudo-scientists have invented in the last 100-500 years, especially the last 50 years– what the latest thinking popularizes as “best practices.” As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” (that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure).  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt. We have a better vehicle and just because it was not invented yesterday doesn’t mean it isn’t the best vehicle.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good [just saw this] and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) More and more, people believe we are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it. It is natural opposition.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life. But that doesn’t mean people won’t think their idealizations are exactly what the church should provide and promote. Plenty of people thought Jesus would miraculously wipe out Rome and solve all their problems; He didn’t do it the way they wanted and we still don’t.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, it’s trying to be clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  For instance, how did Evangelicals in the United States adapt so completely to the language of capitalism and nationalism that they consider certain conservative economic principles and gun rights as tantamount to the Gospel? How did the Roman Catholic Church become a kingdom? I think they adapted to what was “now” and got stuck there. They answered the wrong questions, which were more about power than grace — in the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!); in the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

Our basic question should be, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But God does speak the language of love to the beloved, and so should we. Sometimes that love makes us the opposition!

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one person fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated. Our cells are an antidote to what is dividing the world and making us anxiously alone. The better we get at teaching people the language of love, the better off we all are — especially those people who seem like opponents until they aren’t.

Is this church still holding together?

Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.

Not really sure who Mr. Chandler is, but he was in a magazine.

The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot.  We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?”  It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”

So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.

Most of what I think is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

What holds us together?

The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.

More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some more.)

1) We assume people are not infants…

(or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.

We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.

This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.

2)  The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know

we are a “ship of fools”

as far as the deluded world is concerned.

You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.

I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.

3) Dialogue is practiced.

Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.

Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.

I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.

4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head,

not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”

The hardest thing to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.

People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.

5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other,

and promote such dissolution.

Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.

This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.

My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.

A Stance: How Jesus Acts on His

Jesus lived among people with stances on everything, too.

Here is Jesus taking a stand. He has a “stance.”

And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” — Mark 7:9-13

The Pharisees had their stance and Jesus had his. They each saw the world in a certain way.

The Pharisees had a point of view that had been refined over a few hundred years. They had an intellectual and emotional attitude. Their stances were so important to them that quite a few conspired to get Jesus killed when he threatened their validity and power.

Jesus had some stances, too. Most of them were pretty basic, when it came to behavior. To the law-abiding Pharisees who wouldn’t even follow one of the ten commandments he said, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.” When he was talking to people who sin he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43).

Church can become a matter of competing stances.

But what did Jesus do as a result of his stances? Did he try to get someone punished? Did he want to enforce them? Did he want to get someone killed? Not at all. He did not treat us according to his stances, he died for us. He treats according to his love.

We need to “go and do likewise.” Do so will be tough, because postmodern “democracy” is a constant collision of stances. Supposedly, the world is ordered by people expressing their individual consciences within the safety of laws that protect their identities. In reality, as we all know, it is ordered by people who can buy enough influence to guarantee that their stance seems very important. Regular people get lined up behind a particular stance and are defined by massive definitions of “identity” and argue all day like congress. Since the institutions are God-free there is no center to bring any substance to the dialogue, so the process is a constant competition to see who will define the center today.

A few years ago Gwen and I were in court because she was subpoenaed to appear in the district attorney’s case against the young man who threatened her on our stairs with a letter opener taken from my office on floor below. She talked him down the stairs and was fine (thank God!). But she then had to go through the torturous “justice” system while the young man languished in jail for months. What the lawyers did epitomizes what we all do these days. It is even worse, maybe, than what the Pharisees were doing with their law, certainly similar. The lawyers compete, case after case. They try to get witnesses confused (“You said the knife was six inches long, and now you say eight. What was it?”). They try to find a way out of following the law. They accuse the other side of procedural mistakes. There is no real interest in the truth. They often make sure their clients don’t tell their story at all, because they can’t compete in the game very well. It seems to me that we are all being trained to defend our self-interested stances with the same kind of dialogue.

What you do about your stance is more important than having one.

When “what is your stance on?…” is the big question in the church, which it sometimes is, it is trouble. The church definitely takes a stand in the world, but it does not act on it stances like the world. For one thing, the church is a kingdom, not a democracy, essentially. That doesn’t make democracy a bad way to run governments; it just means governments are different from the church. But the main reason the question can mean trouble is this: if we argue our stances all day we’ll end up with a competition to dominate a godless center, just like the world does.

Jesus stance

We have stances, just like Jesus has some very radical stances. And just like Jesus doesn’t mind talking about his stances, we talk about ours. More important, Jesus has an even more radical way of acting on his stances. It is how we act in relation to our stances that makes the church like Jesus.

The big example, like I began, is Jesus’ stance on sin. He has a strong “point of view” (from the center of creation): “Sin is killing you. Don’t mess around with pretending you aren’t doing it. You Pharisees don’t even follow the Ten Commandments and act like you are so holy!” His stance does divide up the world between people who are for him and against him. But here is the big difference: he does not treat people according to his stance on sin. He wrestles the sin for them and then with them. He acts for everyone, whether they follow him or not, by acting out of his dying love.

Our church and all the churches are in danger every day of getting divided up into competing stances. I think it is safe to say that most people think the validation of their rights/opinions/political identities/power is crucial these days. They judge the church according to whether it agrees with their stances. We even get judged for not having stances!

I think our only hope in such a day is to discern whatever we can call Jesus’ stances and then act on them the same way he did. He is the center and we listen for truth from the center, but then we treat people in love, not according to their stances or ours. The love may not be based on how great they are, or on their right to be loved. At its best, our love for them will be a dying love animated by Jesus himself.

How to nurture dialogue: Discern, don’t soak up what’s unsaid

Over and over we have met as a congregation’s stakeholders or as the Council of the whole church and shown the world how Jesus lives in his body. We are a good example of an authentic church. It can be difficult to be in a large group and listen (much more to talk!), but we keep succeeding at it. And it is good that we succeed because such listening and inspired replying is one of the crucial skills for being a real Christian. Circle of Hope is blessed with hundreds of people who will engage in the deep love of dialogue. The world will be even more blessed when we can engage even more.

discern

Don’t just soak up emotions

I think the main difficulty for a lot of people in these large, community dialogues comes down to this question: How can I hear the Holy Spirit rather than merely soak up emotions? So many of us grew up in places where there was little direct communication! We had to pick up the emotions and underlying content by squeezing them out of what was unsaid, what was nuanced, what was withheld. So many of us are such experts at reading vibes, we almost never listen to actual content; we listen for what is in between the lines – especially for the emotions we crave or fear will not be there. So put us in a Council meeting and we are overwhelmed with all the vibes that are assaulting our emotional Geiger counters. The most wicked, hurting, selfish or mistreated person can end up coloring our sense of what happened rather than the Holy Spirit.

We know that the Holy Spirit is resident in the followers of Jesus, in one way or another, at some level of consciousness for the follower. When we listen to content or emotions, we are listening for the Lord, too – especially when we are in a meeting designed for that. We want to give our brothers and sisters the grace of listening for Jesus in them all the time, but we especially want to do that when we say we are doing that.

Question your discernment

Here are three sets of questions distilled from a good book on decision-making called The Discerning Heart by Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au that might help us listen. I offer them to you to help sort out what you are doing when you are listening for Jesus and trying not to merely soak up emotions and call it listening. When we are in a group dialogue ask yourself these questions and ask them of others, too.

  • Are you speaking from the Bible? Are you speaking from our common lore?
  • Does the common sense we seem to be speaking from still make sense? Do the circumstances, opportunities and new revelations confirm it?
  • What are my feelings, intuitions, gut instincts, aspirations, and that sense of being spiritually confirmed tell me about what is being said?

What are we doing when we dialogue about what the Lord is saying to us? We can listen for things we know to be true. We can chew on things that might be reasonable or become more so. We can react heart-to-heart to revelations that could be from the Spirit. All these are better than falling into the group and feeling emotions that probably have more to do with what we ate, or who is angry with us, or who helped to install our defense mechanisms as a child. The process of discernment in the body is an art form that every contributing believer will want to master as deeply as they are able.

How many times have we received a great confirmation for our direction during our Council meeting, or immediately felt someone’s inspiration needed to be incorporated into our plans, or felt convicted that we needed to resist some direction or temptation? I can’t count the times. Our dialogue has made us who we are in Christ, as a people. One time we came to a conclusion that we needed to ban comparing the congregations.  We realized that the way we were talking was, for many of us, more about our desire to fit in and to have a place that looked like each of us instead of all of us. Comparisons are odious. When we (inevitably inaccurately) stereotyped another congregation as a certain type of people, we were actually contributing to evil’s strategy to divide and conquer us. Not only were we factually wrong about each other, we were very spiritually wrong. That was good discernment.

I am sure that someone left the meeting and did not even know we decided all that. They were probably too occupied with wondering what that “dirty look” meant when someone entered the room and glanced at them, or they were wondering what happened when a couple of people got into a little argument during the middle of a discussion, or they felt slighted when their comment did not seem relevant and people did not notice they were hurt. We’e are all good at soaking things up, and some of us think it means love to do so, but such an instinct rarely helps us dialogue in love and hear Jesus in the midst.

How do YOU think people see your church?

The first question we asked our cells in order to gather some discernment about where God is leading us was this:

When a newcomer or unbeliever gets to know us, whether in a cell or Sunday Meeting, through one of our events or teams, or through an individual, what are the things they will most immediately notice about us and what gifts will they find easiest to access?” 

What do you think?

Examine yourselvesWe dared to take Paul seriously when he tells the Corinthian church: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor. 13:5). If we can be honest about what others see in us, we will not just follow the scripture, we will probably follow our humility right into spiritual growth! We are who we are, but who knows what we might become if we listen?.

Our cells had a LOT to say about this question (and all the other questions!). When I set my mind to sort all their responses, I came up with eighteen different headings for this first one! I was encouraged by what the cell members thought people see in us when they first get to know us. I thought you might be encouraged too. I am not going to list all eighteen things! But I thought I would give you ten. I’ll give you my heading and then one of the answers I culled out which intrigued or moved me. So you get my heading and one answer verbatim.

Whether you are part of our church or not, these things might give you something to think about. What’s more, I don’t doubt someone who is in our church will think the person I quote does not completely know what they are talking about. So we all might have more to think about, too. Regardless, I think we’d all like to be a church moving in the direction these thoughts signal.

Whether you think your church is seen in these ways or you think it just ought to be, let’s pray that we get there. Yesterday was Pentecost, and the Spirit of God is moving to take us into our fullness.

Here are ten ways the cell members think newcomers see us:

We are welcoming/hospitable/friendly/open.

  • You can be who you are.  You are relevant.  You have an opportunity to an actual path where God is leading you.  Walk with us – not your fear or a stereotype.

We create a distinct atmosphere.

  • We create an atmosphere where we try to attract those who are timid with things like the bible through our vulnerability showing it is OK to have doubts and disbelief.

We are a connected community.

  • We are not an obligation – this community is real and authentic and people are here out of choice.  We are not a thing to do.  We want to know you.  

Leadership is respected and varied.

  • Leaders don’t have to be older, mature people who have all their stuff together. Anyone can potentially be a leader and should see their gifts and insight valued and nurtured (not just for white male extroverts).

We have an open seeking spirit.

  • Vulnerability in sharing by both women and men. It’s good modeling by those in leadership because it sets a space to be real and to address deep set needs – we are a deep people because of this.

We are devoted to compassion.

  • Our good works are a natural progression from our togetherness

We share.

  • It is not hard to get resources of spiritual direction (informal), counseling, financial help, job connections.

We take action, are ambitious, intentional.

  • We are doers of the word. While other may talk about examples of how you may get involved the overwhelming expectation is that we are people who live through action and action particularly for both one another and those with need.

We expect people to participate.

  • They can get connected to anything (cell, team’s, leadership, etc.), the church is their oyster.

We are committed to dialogue.

  • It is the judge-free zone.  We all pretty openly discuss a lot of topics, personal and otherwise with widely varying opinions sometimes, and no one is upset.  

When you answer the question about your church, what are the answers YOU get? Let’s keep praying for the Holy Spirit to move us into the place the Lord would like us to be.

[Originally published on Circle of Hope’s blog]

A “people”: Three key ways to be the real people of God

When we read the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the New Testament, we are tempted to read it in a WEIRD way, as individuals who are getting personal instructions. As a result of reading it that way, many of us stopped taking Jesus seriously a long time ago because we know we cannot follow those instructions! In the middle of our fragmented daily routine we lose hope of ever really following Jesus.

That’s one of the reasons we named ourselves a circle of hope. Because the teachings handed down to us are not meant primarily for us as individuals, they offer a vision of what maturity in Christ looks like for Christian communities. God’s work of redeeming the world is always about gathering a people. Sometimes when I refer to that basic fact, or just use the term “a people,” it seems like an odd thing to say. I have to explain, “Our church is a people. We are forming a culture centered on Jesus.” It seems like a foreign concept.

The Sermon on the Mount by Karoly Ferenczy

But forming a circle has always been God’s way. He started with calling Abraham and eventually formed the people, Israel. Jesus, the ultimate expression of what Israel was to embody, gathered a community with his twelve disciples at the core. After Pentecost, those disciples were sent out to gather in anyone in the whole world who would be a part of the people of God, formed where they lived. In light of this community-building mission of God, the Sermon on the Mount, in particular, is not a new law that judges individual merit, it is a vision of how to embody Christ. It describes the ongoing incarnation of God. It describes the slow, relentless transforming work of God in a people that spreads from where it is planted.

In his book Slow Church, Christopher Smith highlights three important  practices that are essential to forming a people in Christ. They are also elemental to what has formed Circle of Hope as a people

1. Staying

It is astounding, actually, that a church which twentysomethings began, is characterized by people who have stuck around. The lifespan of a Philadelphia-dweller is often brief; and we have experienced our share of people being among us for a short time. We don’t judge people who are moving around; they’ll probably find their place. But we know that the work of redemption is best done by people who stay. I decided to stay for nearly twenty years now; and our other pastors and many other leaders have done the same. Many of us even bought houses and made a commitment to stick around. Rootedness in a church community and in a place makes a huge difference in what God can do.

Monks have always modeled this for me well. Some contemporary Benedictines in Iowa talk about their vow to remain with their community this way:

We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledge one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.

The way of Jesus needs to be planted in a place to grow. We don’t carry it around in our imaginations; we can’t just search for it virtually. We have to grow it as it grows in us in our bodies in a place.

2. Dialogue

It is also amazing that we can stand the amount of conversation we rely on to form our community: all those cell meetings, team meetings, Mapping meetings, email, etc! It makes a few of us more than a little irritated. One woman told me she was leaving the church — not because she didn’t feel loved and did not love everyone, she just wanted less ; she wanted to go to church, not be required to do all that relating! But if we are the body of Christ (and we are) our dialogue is like the communication of neurons in a physical body’s nervous system guiding the movement of all the organs and limbs. We need it to be real.

Speaking the truth in love and having healthy conflict are fundamental to forming a people. Otherwise, faith is just a philosophy like all the others. So we work on it. Our cells are great at giving people a chance to speak the truth in love, not only because they create lasting relationships, but because they welcome in the next person to disturb the homeostasis and force new loving. We actually invite conflict with our annual mapping, our talk back times in the Sunday meetings, our doing theology times (like talking about sexuality last year) and in many other ways. We risk acknowledging our disagreement, believing that Jesus will be our agreement

3. Hard work and hard rest 

The world makes no apologies for demanding total allegiance to the workplace these days, making the workplace an all-encompassing community. In contrast, we keep insisting that allegiance to the kingdom of God is before all others and our primary vocation is found as part of the body of Christ, not as a worker in some enterprise run by someone else. Being graced with such great purpose means we are hard workers spending our lives extending God’s kingdom. Flourishing as the community we have become took work; it has been a lot of fun, even joy, but it still takes work. To keep up the good work means surrendering to the fact that life is in Christ. Sharing love, time, tasks and money like we do sounds like the Sermon on the Mount, but it does not always seem practical to apply the teaching unless we truly find our life in Jesus. It takes concentration and energy! I love building cells, compassion teams, businesses and congregations; I love mattering, but no one should say mattering does not feel costly at times.

That’s why we need “hard rest” too. It could be called “hard” because we have to discipline ourselves to meditate, retreat and enjoy times of Sabbath. I am not talking about the dreaded idea of “work/life balance” that makes an individual the monitor of how all the hours are spent. I am talking about nurturing a culture of trust in God and others, anxiety free. We need to stop working so we can rest, play, dream, reflect, study and just be ourselves and be a people. Israel had the Sabbath day built into their culture. There is really no good work unless there is good rest, no realized ambitions unless there is dream time, few commissions unless there is prayer.

It is hard to imagine how we would apply the Sermon on the Mount and other scriptures that lay out the way of Jesus unless these three practices, among others, are at the heart of our life together. I think they have been at our heart and that is why we are still around. But 2015 will test them again. I hope we will stay, keep in the dialogue, work hard and rest hard. We are more necessary than ever in a megalopolis that needs to experience the people of God.

What does Jesus do when he gets in the middle of our dialogue?

Speaking the truth in love matters

Dialogue in the Spirit preserves our fragile relationships. What’ more, such dialogue is a major place that Jesus manages to be present to us — it is a “thin” place. The dialogue of prayer and the dialogue of every day community life in the Spirit keeps the grace and truth of Jesus trickling into our lives — and sometimes flooding in like it did when the men from Emmaus were in a deep dialogue on their way home from the crucifixion and Jesus raised them up from their pile of despairing, self-condemning words.

When we are in the dialogue of speaking the truth in love, even better, when we are considering how we are dialoguing, Jesus is more likely to be recognized walking alongside us. When we are conscious that our conversations include a third party, Jesus, good, new things happen. If you want inspiration and enlightenment, get in a real conversation in the Spirit — in your cell, on the phone with your relatives, in your office, as you are going along.

Something new and inspiring “happened” as the risen Jesus walked with the men going to Emmaus. In the course of considering what they were talking about as they went along, Jesus “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” The following three renditions of that moment capture some of the wonder of how God gets to us in the space dialogue provides.

What does Jesus do when he gets in the middle of what we are talking about?

Rembrandt Emmaus dialogue

He listens, for one thing. He builds trust.

I think we can see that happening in Rembrandt’s sketch of Jesus in the middle of then men’s conversation as they were heading back to Emmaus.

People saved Rembrandt’s sketches because they are just that good! In just a few lines of the artist I see sadness turning on the left and concentration beginning on the right.  In the dialogue, Jesus is raising them from the words that were burying them.

What does Jesus do when he gets in the middle of what we are talking about?

Tissot Emmaus dialogue

He reacts and rebukes for another thing. And in the process he builds hope. He reorients us. He opens up new possibilities.

I am not sure what Tissot was going for. But I think the man on the left looks like he might be having a productive argument with Jesus. The one on the right seems to be slapping his forehead in an “aha” moment. Jesus is redirecting them even as he is traveling their direction.

What does Jesus do when he gets in the middle of what we are talking about?

English Emmaus dialogue

He enlightens. He brings eternity into our mortality.

This is the painting of the road to Emmaus I want to leave in everyone’s imagination. It is one of the most unrealistic renditions possible, I think.  At least I don’t think actual trees in an English countryside look like that, and you can be very sure that nothing in Palestine looks like that. I think it is an especially unlikely culvert to find in the first century under the road down there on the bottom left. But that lack of “reality” is good, because the artist is putting the risen Jesus right where the Lord belongs: present, risen, in our own space, speaking into our own lives. Jesus is right in the middle of the conversation right in the middle of our own time.

I am in wonder today over the amazing ways Jesus is risen among us and how he raises us from being buried in words to speaking the truth in love. Wherever the story about him is told or people are searching for spiritual life, Jesus is regularly recognized walking alongside, caring for people who have opened their hearts to one another and God.

The both/and of our ongoing dialogue of love

Someone is always sinning; someone is always doing something you did not like; someone is always failing. How do we respond to that?

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.  Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else,  for each one should carry their own load (Galatians 6:1-5).

We use this section of Galatians so often, it has become the “both/and” proverb. It answers the questions that come up whenever there is a dialogue about something that is wrong in the body: Do we have to put up with every bad thing someone is doing until they get better, or do we need to put a stop to their nonsense before everyone gets hurt? Do we accept people where they are at, or do we demand that they live up to the gospel? The answer is “both/and.”

Can one be too empathetic?

baby in basketSome people are so empathetic that they defend the sinner even before they have repented! They understand the person’s problems so well and care about them so much that they are offended if anyone points out what they did wrong. Even more, sensitive people know that everyone is afraid of being criticized, so they don’t want more trouble being thrown on already-overburdened people who are just trying to have a life, for once. The “sinner” might just quit doing anything if they are asked to improve right after they just got brave enough to appear in public. So even if someone tries to “restore that person gently” the empathetic are afraid they could be mortally wounded in the process.

For instance, some people have been talking about the Audio Arts Team’s latest gift to the church. It is a brave thing to put out a piece of art that can’t be edited any more. But they did it and a lot of people love it. But like everything and everyone else, there are some “sins” lurking in that CD. If someone has a reaction to it that seems critical, someone else may automatically feel wounded and jump to the defense of the victimized artists. Rather than doing that, you’d think we would just instinctively “carry each other’s burdens,” since we’re all flawed — and if we caused trouble by being creative, bold and artful, then we’d really need help! Instead, some people try to solve the problem by insisting that there are no problems! — and they imply that people who love people don’t make people feel bad by saying they have a problem.

Can one be too careful?

man and bearOn the other hand, some people think that empathy has gone too far and everyone needs to carry their own load and bear responsibility for what they say and do. They assume people are more likely to take advantage of loose situations rather than repent or even listen to reason. So they are not expecting good will to rise up if people are left alone.  As a result, they are often rather offended by the latest dumb thing someone did that went unquestioned or even got defended. They become very reactive because they can’t get their shell hard enough to repel the sin that keeps getting poured on them. If they say something about it, they are instantly seen as a mean person. So they walk around feeling unaccepted. No one seems to be held liable for carrying their own load, so the responsible people feel even more burdened!

For instance, the pastors and other speakers and the PM Design Teams are often the recipients of this group’s scrutiny, since they have a tendency to do something wrong every week. Compared to what should happen, something is always not happening. If one is intelligent, the problem with what gets done wrong (or not at all) just gets worse. It seems like every flaw could have been prevented and nothing ever gets better! One would think we would all “carry our own load,” especially if we accepted a role that is very influential in the church.  Instead, leaders, especially, make people have a fight with us about what we are doing or neglecting. Who wants to do that?

Polarized dialogue is an oxymoron

In the postmodern atmosphere these poles are often dividing up a dialogue. There is usually a group at one extreme that wants us all to bear one another’s burdens. If there is insensitivity, that is the main sin — Love means you never have to say you are sorry. Then there is another whole group at the other extreme that wants each person to bear their own load. If there is irresponsibility, that is the main sin — Love means everyone has to say they are sorry. In the adversarial way our culture has designed everything to work, those two positions could be vying to make policy until Jesus returns. It could be the survival of the loudest; MSNBC vs. Fox forever.

We keep thinking that Paul assumes an obvious both/and in the matter of loving sinners like Jesus loves each of us. In the course of a few lines he wrote: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…for each one should carry their own load.” We all bear one another’s burdens and each of us carries our own load at the same time.

  • In the name of sensitivity, one would not erase someone’s sin — because they are carrying that burden and need to be restored!
  • At the same time, in the name of responsibility one would not be insensitive and make it harder to repent — because we are in this together.

If someone is restored, we are all healthier. For restoration to proceed, both elements: carrying another’s burden and carrying one’s own load, need to be in every dialogue of love. Both elements need to be expressed by a heart filled with the law of love. The body of Christ is not supposed to work like a therapy room or a courtroom; we are the place where Jesus lives. There must be acceptance and judgment at the same time, but mostly there must be the Holy Spirit restoring humanity.

The Difference between Acceptance and Agreement

What I want is what I have always wanted: to live in a community of trusted partners and to act for redemption in every way we can think to act.

  • I hope we can be Bible-lovers — like many so-called “conservatives,”
  • I hope we can be welcoming and justice-seeking — like many so-called “liberals.”

I hope we will never stop calling people to follow Jesus as their Lord and to discern the movement of the Spirit for their direction. And I hope we will never stop trying to create an environment in which people can come to Christ in different ways, at different paces and according to their ability. I want Circle of Hope to be a safe place to explore and express God’s grace where truth does not kill and love does not lie.

Orientation is a starting point not our end point

I think that spirit makes Circle of Hope welcoming, not just to people naming various sexual identities, but also to people of various political convictions and spiritual backgrounds. We don’t believe that people need to change their ordinary orientation, sexual or otherwise, in order to follow Jesus. Instead, we invite everyone to change their spiritual orientation toward God and their fellow human beings. When people adopt that orientation, they submit their humanness, in all its wonder and flaws, to God as revealed in the way of Jesus. That reorientation makes all the difference.

The New Testament repeatedly says, we are all wonderful image-bearers of God as far as the Lord is concerned because of Jesus, no matter how the world defines each of us. We can rest assured that God knows, as well as we do, that we bear that image in imperfect, broken, and often hurtful ways. But our ongoing relationship with Jesus as Lord and our movement toward expressing our true selves is much more important than our imperfect behavior. Hoping to keep us moving and not stuck in condemnation, I think Circle of Hope has been doing a good job to embrace and challenge people in all the broken and glorious conditions they come to us just like we accept God’s embrace.

non acceptance: Liberal-vs-Conservative-SimpsonsEven with that urge to embrace people as they are, it is almost impossible not to compare and contrast one another. But, the truth is, when it comes to “us” and “them,” there is no “them.” There is only “us.” We are all beautiful and precious people valued by God. We are also broken people, to one degree or another, needing the healing of the Holy Spirit and the experience of authentic community to live as Jesus calls us to live. To be human is, among other things, to be in some wonderful and weird way, dysfunctional. We are all broken people, as well as glorious people (Romans 3:23-24).

We need to get to “us” not just define “me”

As a result of our brokenness, we are prone to conflict and usually scared to death of “them.” I encourage Christians who invest too much time in defining their opponents to apply the difference between acceptance and agreement. When we confuse acceptance and agreement we do not love as we should.

In our Cell Plan we note that it’s a common mistake for people to assume that they should not accept someone fully until they have repented and changed. Some Christians think that a person is not evangelized until they behave properly! Some believers think they are condoning sin if they disagree with someone’s choices  but, at the same time, respect, honor, and accept them — even though the Bible calls us to be that generous! (see Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 3:15-16). If we applied acceptance and agreement as two different concepts, we might stop withholding acceptance as a form of disagreement and learn to better love those outside our boundaries of agreement.

Christ-followers ought to declare their love through their actions. Many Christians have the well-earned reputation of putting a lot of energy into their messages of disapproval — that’s their main activity! But disapproval is not the Lord’s main activity or His message! I hope people get the impression among Circle of Hope that, “We love you just like Jesus does.” For instance, we have been talking a lot about the protection of sexual minorities this week. I think it is an “of course” that people oriented toward Jesus and toward serving others would be among the first to look out for the human rights of any oppressed group, always showing them the utmost respect as image-bearers of God. The first time I ever got in “trouble” for moderating the Dialogue List was when I confronted a person who was sounding “anti-gay.” He was honing a message of disapproval and he wanted affirmation for it. I respected him, but I had to do my job, as pastor, to keep the community knit together in love, so I confronted him.

We want to be that unique Kingdom society within our secular culture that blesses those with whom we do not agree and who may not agree with us. Within that context of active, energetically-demonstrated love, we may then also make our differences clear. If we are loving as radically as we are given to love, this should only make the love we offer all the more meaningful and transformative. I don’t think I, or Circle of Hope, have always loved in transformative ways — but we mostly have! Even so, I am sorry for all the times people felt judgment, not love. People will outgrow us, get sick of us, or never understand us, but I always hope they never leave us because they bounced off our indifference or rejection.

We can’t make others accept before they agree. It takes faith.

I don’t think we are prone to judgment, but people feel judged nonetheless. It might be because they also need to learn the lesson we need to apply: the difference between acceptance and agreement. For instance, how someone sees sexual morality is the strange new litmus test for mutuality these days. Many people have liked us Christians but hated our morality. They have even felt “set up” when we were nice and then we did not agree with them; they felt welcomed to speak their minds and then felt betrayed when they were asked to listen. When it comes to unbelievers, in particular, they probably should restrain themselves from demanding that Jesus-followers sign up for the latest versions of the world’s philosophy, just like they don’t think Christians should tell them how to live. I felt like the church was demanding and a bit uncaring this week, too; so I also know something about how hard it can be to turn around and stay with love when I don’t feel the love coming my way. I still want to invite people into that process of staying with love in honor of Jesus, however.

I hope I am not wrong, but I think people can form mutually respectful friendships without demanding absolute agreement on all issues (most marriages seem to work this way!). There is a difference between acceptance and agreement. If there is acceptance, then any necessary agreement can be formed. Mutually respectful diversity, in the end, provides us with the most opportunity for growing, loving, and learning. What’s more, it allows Jesus to heal our wounds and make us one, just as the Healer and the Father are one, which is much more satisfying than anything the-powers-that-be promise.

Relationship pain for the Jesus-follower — new birth through conflict

Since the 1980’s there has been even more fighting in the church than ever! As postmodern thinking takes over the philosophical playing field and becomes more and more codified into law, conflict about the old, modern way of doing things happens all the time. The other day I was in a dialogue about what Circle of Hope is all about and someone kind of accosted me because they assumed I would be a proponent of some old-school church idea. A woman who was listening in to this impending conflict said, “Rod’s pretty much postmodern, if anyone is. I don’t think you’ll have to worry.” I did not think it showed.

The truth is (and you’ll have to decide, I’m afraid, what that means) is that I am not postmodern or modern. I am a Jesus follower.

  • I could easily be postmodern, since my life is “made” every day in relationship with the resurrected Jesus; grace is new every morning to experience and I experience it in a community based on that common experience.
  • But I could easily be modern too, since the source of my life is transhistorical and my call to live it is built right into my essence as a human being; before I was, Jesus is.
I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday and the celebration. I am not going to let it happen. I'm gonna use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that. -- Bill O'Reilly
I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday and the celebration. I am not going to let it happen. I’m gonna use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that. — Bill O’Reilly

Saying things like that about the truth can get one into a conflict almost every day. That is, you can have a fight if you hang out with people who have not just shut down in the face of the barrage of input beaming at them and attempting to reform them according to the latest new-improved paradigm. For instance, I included the term “postmodern” in my speech at Broad and Dauphin a few weeks ago and was schooled in both meetings about what I meant. I did not shut down; but I did think “Boy! If you are a leader you are asking for trouble.” Since Christians generally hate conflict — it feels so unloving and probably unholy, they certainly would not want to get into trouble! Our cell leaders face the pain of real or prospective conflict all the time and wonder how they ever got into the mess they are in!

But Jesus is not afraid to cause conflict. To read the scripture it would appear that his main mission was a conflict. Likewise, the Apostle Paul exemplifies how a Jesus-follower inevitably fights. He teaches about it so much that I could hardly summarize it in a blog post. But I do want to reflect on four of his teachings for the sake of people who have not shut down, but are still speaking the truth in love. There are new things being born in this era; there is no sense trying to keep the baby from being born, even if it hurts. Here are four paraphrases of significant examples of Paul having conflict and the basic things he hangs on to when he is in a fight.

Trust God to be at work

Philippians 3:14-16 – Let’s walk by the same rule and mind the same thing: our call to follow Jesus with our all into His all. If you have another mindset, God will be revealing that to you.

We get all ramped up when we don’t agree. We are tempted to cut people off as a result, or to flee to like-minded people and create a faction. Paul is confident that God is at work. People pursuing maturity in Christ will figure things out with God’s help. Our anxiety (and judgment) about how immature they are or how right they aren’t won’t help. Hang on to trust.

Accept one another

Romans 15:1-7 – We should be like-minded toward one another with the mindset of Christ. He has received us in love through great suffering in all our weakness. With one mind and mouth, let’s praise God.

Even if I think my loved one or acquaintance is flat-out wrong, or even being wicked, my discernment about how to respond is based on my ultimate goal that we should be one in Christ. I don’t write them off, even if they seem unholy or dangerous. I don’t write them off by relativizing them, either. “Freedom” for postmoderns is being left alone to get what I deserve according to what I can achieve. “Acceptance” has become keeping an appropriate distance, not spiritual intimacy or even agreement. I don’t let me or mine get reduced to that. Hang on to longsuffering.

Resist oppression

Galatians 5:7-15 – There are always law-keepers and law-givers who tempt us to re-enslave ourselves. They don’t walk in the Spirit and their goal is not love like Christ’s, demonstrated on the cross. It is our liberty in Christ that allows us to serve. We don’t demonstrate our love by following rules that don’t come from Jesus.

Paul is so frustrated by interlopers who are trying to make the Galatians follow Jewish laws, especially circumcision, that he wishes they would emasculate themselves in the same way they are trying to cut people off from the Spirit. The aggressive new laws associated with social construction philosophy, such as campus “hate speech” codes, find their way into the church and cause conflict similar to Paul’s these days. Any number of people will think they are not accepted and loved (like Christians are supposed to do!) if their “laws” are not followed. I think the “laws” have some good intentions behind them (as did the Judaizers in Galatia!), but they need to come from God to be in everyone’s best interests – somewhere from which postmodern laws consciously have not come. Hang on to the Holy Spirit.

Humbly receive

1 Corinthians 4:1-7 – We have what we have received. If we don’t think this, our comparisons make us judges when only God is the judge. Any light we bring was generated by God. Any hidden thing revealed will find its final meaning in Christ.

The conviction that “we only have what God gives us” makes Jesus-followers prone to conflicted situations, which makes a lot of them want to stay hidden. The new regime marching under the colors of postmodern thought says things like: “Irrespective of what one might assume, in the sciences, problems do not arise by themselves. It is, precisely, because all problems are posed that they embody the scientific spirit. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed.” — Gaston Blanchard. There is truth in what he says if God is not with us, but he’s basically opposed to what Christians know.

Our faith leads us to know that goodness can be experienced; grace is imminent. Our questions do not call reality into being; and our lack of questions do not protect us from our built-in yearning to connect with our Creator. The fact that humans still make meaning of life still implies that there is meaning. Jesus is the truth of God. The Holy Spirit keeps affirming that. We’re going to have conflict. Hang on to your receptivity.

girlsgateConflict is not intrinsically bad. But it is likely to be painful – just like Jesus experienced. The world keeps trying to make laws against the violence being engendered by requiring people to endlessly compete for their rights in the social landscape. The most marginalized are supposedly protected enough to fight as hard as the dominators who protect them. Jesus-followers have another way.

But we will be in a fight too, just like Paul demonstrates. Some of us will opt out and just try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Some of us will not control our tongues too well and be conspicuous in a bad way. But let’s try to stay with Jesus and one another and meet the new era with joy, not just with dread about the next conflict. God is at work. We have been accepted by Jesus. No one can enslave us anymore. We have received wonderful things. There is a mystery that is unfolding to each person about their relationship with God.

A doula told me the other day that no matter how many mothers she accompanies, each birth she attends is like a brand-new miracle. Each rebirth is similarly amazing. If, as in the birth of a baby, there is suffering, why should we not attend the birth of faith in Jesus with the same understanding? People are fighting for their lives. Hang on to your amazement.

Other thoughts on conflict:

The intrinsic affront built into believing
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/why-people-might-not-care-to-be-radical-christians-part-2/

Conflict with the world: Disentangling from addiction
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/disentagling-from-addiction/

Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/why-is-being-part-of-circle-of-hope-so-demanding/