“…Or Any Century,” Especially if You’re White

As Someone with Unmet Attachment Needs Due to Complex Trauma, the Depth of Belonging Experienced in Circle of Hope Ruined Me for Any Other Church

This isn’t one of my Circle of Hope cell groups, but it symbolizes the togetherness they embody. Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

When my family and I moved away from Philly for the last time in 2005, we thought our connection to Circle of Hope was lost, and thus began many years of what felt like our own desert wandering as we cast about for another faith community in which to root ourselves. This blog chronicles many of our attempts to start over with other churches over the years. One way to tell that story is to say that we never felt like we truly belonged in any other faith community because, as I have sometimes said, “Circle of Hope ruined us for any other church.” I do believe that our cell multiplication movement is somewhat unique in the USAmerican context, and it’s worth noting that language that I first encountered in Circle 25 years ago about “being the church,” for example, which at the time was so unique in my experience, is now in common use in many churches. I take comfort in that. I think it means we were onto something all those years ago, and still are.

Of course another way to tell the story of our “desert wandering” is to see the role that trauma and unrecognized and certainly unmet attachment needs played not only in my own development but in our various church experiences. The fact that we left Philly at all in 2005, I know now in hindsight, had a lot to do with trauma and attachment. I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed, and that’s really not for me to know. We left, and over the years, thanks be to God, I participated in lots and lots of therapy and eventually landed on a diagnosis, Complex PTSD, and therapy modality, EMDR, that really seemed to help.

Still, we found over and over again that our attempts at participation in various faith communities since leaving Philly and Circle just didn’t seem to work. The reasons for this are complex and cannot be reduced to a binary. At the very least, it’s a both/and, not an either/or. It’s both true that no other faith community could match the depth of belonging we experienced as a part of Circle, and it’s also true that my trauma and attachment needs made it hard for me to attach in healthy ways in any of those communities. So I’m grateful now to have a much better context in which to understand those experiences, and even more grateful to have a bit of a better sense of who I am and where I come from. I’m not healed, but I’m healing. Thank God!

Resisting Capitalism and Violence

I’m writing about all this because it wasn’t all that long ago that my wife and I sat in the office of a pastor of one of those other churches having a conversation about what’s truly important these days regarding how we follow Jesus. I had become more and more convinced over the past few years leading up to this meeting that following Jesus required resisting capitalism and violence. I’ll explore this conviction briefly before I continue. For quite a while I’ve understood that it was the duty of those who would follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to resist violence. I’ve written about this a fair bit, even once concluding that if we mean it when we say we should resist violence, that probably means resisting violent entertainment too. I went so far as to make “a proposal for a violent entertainment decision-making framework.” I’ll admit that I only stuck with my proposal for a little over a year before it fell to the wayside with many of my other good intentions. Still, when it comes to violence, many Christians give lip service to the idea that it should be resisted. For example, in the U.S. it’s fairly commonplace for Christians to subscribe to just war theory, but by doing so they validate violence by speaking of it as a last resort. Increasingly, though, I could no longer number myself among them because it seemed to me that a clear eyed look at Jesus’ life and teaching inexorably leads to the realization that when Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, he was asking all Christians to do so, forever.

I regret to say that it took me even longer to come to a similar place of resistance toward capitalism. Once my eyes were opened, though, that conviction became plain as day too. I’ve said before that I agree with those who see the Sermon on the Mount as a “canon within the canon.” This teaching by Jesus, his longest, is a clarion call regarding both violence and exploitative economies (of which capitalism is only the latest). Instead of violence, Jesus teaches a way of peace. Instead of economies that create haves and have-nots, Jesus teaches us to share, to live out of the abundance of God’s good creation rather than scarcity created by human greed. Incidentally, in a sharing economy, violence is unnecessary.

Where You See One (Capitalism or Violence), You’re Likely to See the Other

Capitalism and Violence go hand in hand. Photo by Valentin Antonucci on Pexels.com

The more I looked at capitalism and violence, though, the more I saw just how intertwined they were, to the point that I now say that where you see one (capitalism or violence), you’re likely to see the other lurking nearby. Capitalism is utterly dependent on violence for its existence. Capitalism creates haves and have-nots, and the haves need violence to make sure the havenots keep their hyphen. We see the link between capitalism and violence in walls and borders, in immigration policy, in home security systems and gated communities, in policing and incarceration, and in so many other areas of our society. Capitalism requires violence, and while it may not be true violence requires capitalism, the correlation between them is strong. So again as I say, where you see one, you’re likely to see the other.

So this brings me back to our conversation with that pastor in his office. He asked me, “Do you think this (the need to resist capitalism and violence) is something about which good Christians may disagree, or is it essential to being a Christian in the 21st century?” I couldn’t help myself before blurting out, “…or any century.” So you can probably see where this was headed. We were told that we could stay in that church but “would be very lonely” with no one else who thought this way, or we could leave and hope to find a community with which our thoughts about following Jesus might be better aligned. We left, and after a stint in another faith community in the meantime, we were grateful to reconnect with Circle over the past year-and-a-half of the pandemic. Once the At-Home Sunday Meeting started and cells began meeting online too, we joined others for whom distance or disability or other factors had previously been barriers to entry into our community. I’m so grateful that as a church we’re working to eliminate those barriers by expanding our gaze. We’re already seeing the fruit of doing so as we meet new friends with whom to connect with God and act for redemption. Praise God!

I Centered Myself…Again

As you can perhaps tell, this call to resist capitalism and violence is one that remains alive in my imagination. I return to it often, and recently I had what felt like a revelation about it. We’ve been in a moment for a while now in which well-meaning “white” folks like myself have been confronted in new ways with our need to repent of our addiction to white supremacy (which is also dependent on violence with capitalism well intertwined). We need not only to repent, but to repair/repay and work for change…and healing. Some white folks have been in the struggle for racial justice for a long time, and for that I salute you and thank you for leading the way. Others of us, and I probably fall into this camp, believe in the “cause” but are frankly too comfortable, too remote from those that suffer because of racism, to move out of our heads and into our hearts, out of our ideas and into the streets. Perhaps we support the struggle and may even fund it, but for various reasons there’s something holding us back, like a job that requires a clear criminal history which therefore prevents us from showing up at protests or participating in the nonviolent civil disobedience that we might otherwise feel called to. I could give lots of excuses, but that’s really what they are.

Be that as it may, many of us believe that the struggle for racial justice is one to which we are urgently enjoined. This struggle is being waged against the principalities and powers of racism, capitalism, and violence, and it is a struggle that demands a choice of us. We must take a side. There are no innocent bystanders. We are either complicit in oppression or we are courageous enough to counter it. One of my pastors from Circle, Jonny Rashid, is finishing up a book titled Jesus Takes a Side: Embracing the Political Demands of the Gospel. Jonny argues- and I agree- that, well, Jesus takes a side. He’s for the poor, for the oppressed, for the outcast and marginalized, for the silenced and ignored. And of course, he’s for each one of us and all of us together. But here the language of intent vs. impact becomes important. A law that on its surface appears to merely insure that all voters are truly eligible to vote may appear (and no doubt is designed to appear) to have been written with the most innocent of intentions, but if it turns out (and it almost always does) that the impact of that law is to disenfranchise BIPOC communities, then it’s clear that such a law must be resisted. So while Jesus is certainly “for” all of us fully, I would argue he may not be “for” all us equally, because some of us are already way too “for” ourselves . Some of us willingly participate in the domination system, the hegemony of the principalities and powers, because it benefits us. We get something out of it. If you look like me, you get easy access to student loans and a good education and “nicer” neighborhoods with decent houses in communities with low crime rates. What exactly, then, do I need to be saved from? From the look of things, I’ve already saved myself.

So I can either sit contentedly in my comfort while the world burns, or I can join Jesus in taking a side by embracing the political demands of the good news which he both preached and practiced. For me and perhaps for you, this means resisting capitalism and violence and white supremacy. Recently, though, I’ve begun to hear some push-back against the idea of wholesale rejection of violence, and probably capitalism too. After all, I sit in a decent house in a “nicer” neighborhood with access to a fair bit of capital, all protected by violence. So it may be true that I feel called to resist capitalism and violence because I’m so very inured to them. My material life in this world is based on them. This whole greedy, violent, racist system works quite well for me. I do need to resist it lest I gain the whole world but lose my soul! Let’s be clear though. For me to make the argument that all Christians should resist capitalism and violence, especially those that do not benefit from these oppressive systems, is like playing a game that was rigged for me to win and arguing that the game is unfair and shouldn’t be played anymore only after I had won.

Resisting Oppressive Systems is Urgent and Necessary Work…Especially for Oppressors

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

So does everyone need to resist capitalism and violence? (And what authority could I possibly have to make such declarations?) I’ve just made a pretty compelling case that the answer is no, or at least that I’m in no position to give an answer, because too often the language of nonviolence is used by those that have already benefited from violence, like myself, to silence and disempower those that have long been oppressed through violence. Likewise, the powerful tend to like their capitalism so long as it continues to work exclusively to their benefit. Once a Black Wall Street appears, it is quickly met with violence. So it turns out that I as a relatively affluent white person protected by violence very much do need to resist capitalism and violence if I am to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. For what it’s worth, I also need to resist individualism, for the work I’m called to is communal, though still very personal, work. That said, I can’t generalize from my experience and say that all Jesus followers are called to work for justice and shalom in the same way. When I vehemently disagreed with that pastor about whether or not well-meaning Christians had to agree about resisting capitalism and violence, as is usually the case I was only partially right.

I was only partially right because when I said that, I was operating with a pretty big blind spot. I was centering myself and my experience as a European-American. I assumed that my experience must apply to everyone everywhere at all times. As you can hopefully see, that’s a pretty racist thing to do, but something that white folks do all the time.

I repent. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

When it comes to resisting capitalism and violence, let alone most other things, I can’t really speak for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and outcast in society, nor for the BIPOC community. I’m still not proximate enough. I may understand that in order to survive, the materially poor have had to form bonds of kinship, connection, and sharing, but somehow I’m still tempted to resist taking a side. If “they” are poor in one way (lacking access to food, shelter, healthcare, and so on), and I’m “poor” in another way (lacking the lived experience of community and kinship), well then I’m off the hook. We’re all “poor,” one might say, even if a clear look at the facts reveals most plainly that some of us are not. Besides, hasn’t Jesus already destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between us? Do I really have to do anything?

Yes, of course I do. Jesus takes a side, and so must I. I as a white person may very well be called to resist capitalism and violence, but I cannot impose this calling on anyone else. The work of building beloved community belongs to all of us, but we have different parts to play. My part is to as much as possible divest of power and privilege, both in my individual life and in the communal spaces where I find belonging in society. I must hold space without filling it. I must decrease. I still don’t know how to do this very well, and I trust that I’ll be working at it for the rest of my life. I do know that it can only be done together, though, so I’m grateful to be part of a faith community that is willing to do this work with me. We’ve already experimented with a bit of radical wealth redistribution. I can’t wait to see what we’ll try next.

And if I Kill, I Kill

Esther accuses Haman

For Such a Time As This

…he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther 4:13-14

That phrase, “for such a time as this,” gets used a lot by those at least somewhat familiar with this story from the Bible. I’m one of those who will do so when it comes to mind and seems appropriate for whatever I’m talking about. I was surprised, though, when I was invited to revisit Esther’s story by this recent entry in Circle of Hope’s Daily Prayer. As the Daily Prayer writer reminds us:

In the story of Esther, a Jewish woman becomes Queen for the intimidating King Xerxes. One of the king’s men, Haman, hated the Jews and was plotting to destroy them. She was in a unique position of power to prevent the annihilation of her people. 

What struck me about Esther’s story when I initially revisited it was what came in the next couple of verses from chapter 4 after the famous “for such a time as this” line:

15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

I think it’s common among Christians, myself included, to pick out parts of the Bible that are resonant, but ambiguous or otherwise easy. We remember that Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and we’re tempted to think that our lot as his followers should be easy and light too. The use of “for such a time as this” is a case in point. We often want to talk about it generally as a call to do something meaningful when the time seems right to do it. “For such a time as this” devolves then to mean little more than “strike while the iron is hot.” So when I began to read Esther’s story again, verses 15 and 16 were eye opening. When Mordecai, her cousin, implored her to use her royal position to save her people, she feared for her life, and rightly so. To approach the king unbidden was to risk death. So the this in “for such a time as this” had to do with facing death for the sake of others. Esther eventually agreed to do this, adding, “if I perish, I perish.”

Esther Is a Hero; Am I?

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

What immediately intrigued me about Esther’s willingness to use her position of privilege and power to lift up her people, even risking death to do so, was how resonant it seemed with the work of antiracism. Isn’t that what “white” people are called to do, after all, to use our unearned power and ill-gotten gain to undo the systems that lift us up by putting BIPOC down? So as I sought to find my place in Esther’s story, I wanted to occupy the position of hero, to see myself in Esther’s shoes, heroically using whatever power I have as a “white” person within a world of white supremacy to fight for those who are oppressed by it. Of course, this is a very white thing to do, to see myself at the center of every story, always the hero, always virtuous, never wrong.

Thanks be to God, I kept reading Esther’s story, and wound up reading the whole book. It’s not that long, just 10 chapters in total. Not surprisingly in the end, Esther’s story is complex. She was afforded the power and privilege she had as queen in a foreign empire only after the former queen, Vashti, was deposed for not performing her duties as a trophy of the king. She literally refused to be paraded around as a sex object. In an even more patriarchal society than our own, she had agency, and she used it. Now I know we do the Biblical text a disservice when we read it anachronistically, bringing the ideas we encounter in the text into the present and subjecting them to modern scrutiny as if they belong in our time. Be that as it may, I also do the text a disservice if I think I can somehow read it with any sort of objectivity, for objectivity is a function of whiteness too. I do not read from some enlightened plane from which I have mastery over the text. All reading is interpretation, after all. So while words like patriarchy or sexism might have been foreign to the participants in Esther’s story, the worlds that those words evoke were not. Just like today, men treated women as objects and exercised mastery over them whenever possible. And just like today, when women refused to play along there were consequences, sometimes severe.

Vashti refused to play along and was deposed. Esther, the hero of our story, did play along, and found herself in a powerful position as a result. If you read Esther’s whole story, you’ll again find the tale to be very complex. Esther was able to save her people, and this is worthy of celebration. It’s also worth looking at why the Jews were threatened with annihilation in the first place. In the text we read that Haman, a noble in the king’s court, became angry with Mordecai, Esther’s Jewish cousin, because Mordecai would not prostate himself before Haman as the king had decreed. Mordecai refused to debase himself before another man, and Haman was enraged. He vowed to punish Mordecai with the genocide of all his people throughout the land. Haman vindictively enlisted the king’s support for his homicidal revenge, and was successful in securing a decree that all Jews would be killed on a certain day, thus setting the stage for Esther’s heroics. Later, when the king intends to honor Mordecai for the part he played in foiling an attempt on the king’s life, the king asks Haman what should be done for “the man the king delights to honor.” Haman, who flew into a genocidal rage when Mordecai would not debase himself before him, is unable to do anything other than center himself when he answers the king, assuming that it is he, Haman, who would be so honored. Haman gives an elaborate answer, thinking that what he prescribes will be given to him, and is shocked to discover that he has designed an elaborate reward not for himself, but for Mordecai.

Esther Saved Her People from Violence…Through Violence

So again as I imagine myself in this story, I want to assume Esther’s place, thinking her to be the hero who wields power for good. It is humbling then to realize that this role does not fit me. Esther came from an oppressed people and rose to power by participating in her own subjugation as a sex object. And the end of Esther’s story is notable too. She saves her people from annihilation, yes, but does not stop there. She acts to secure Mordecai’s place in a position of power at the king’s side, and Mordecai works not only to reverse the decree that would have killed all the Jews, but to empower them to “defend” themselves and get relief from their enemies. At the appointed time, the Jews act retributively against those that would have done them harm, and the text records that 75,000 people died at their hands.

As a Jesus-follower called to the way of peace, I do not celebrate this violence. There is a case to be made, I think, for using power against itself, but from where I sit that case collapses when it comes to violence. Violence is a self-propagating power. “Violence begets violence.” To use it is to perpetuate it. Jesus defeats the power of violence and death finally not by participating in violence, but by succumbing to it. When Peter pulls his sword to violently defend Jesus, Jesus heals the guard Peter attacks and tells Peter- and all Jesus followers from that point forward- to put away his sword. All that said, where I sit matters. I sit securely in a position of affluence that has come through violence and is maintained by it. So I can not very well judge when victims of violence respond violently, and I must admit that any instinct I have to call those oppressed by violence to repudiate it, is a very self-interested appeal.

My Entry Into Esther’s Story Is Unfortunately Through Haman

Because God’s mercies are new every morning, my repentance can be too.

What then am I to do? Where do I fit in Esther’s story, if I do at all? If I am brutally honest, I must admit that I am most like Haman in the story of Esther. I receive the benefits of an extractive economy that favors me, and my affluence is protected by state violence. And it is often true that even though this is the case, I am tempted to want more. In a hierarchical system, I am tempted to envy those above my station and despise those below. And it can be tempting to erupt with violent impulses when I do not deem myself to be sufficiently honored for my status by those who are subjugated in order to maintain it. So if I were to be given lines like Esther’s in her story, it would be far more likely for me to say, “If I kill, I kill,” rather than “If I die, I die.” I do kill, actually, but am so far removed from it that it can escape my notice, if I let it. As I write, violence is occurring all around me. Shootings are occurring in Minneapolis just to the southwest of me. In Afghanistan, the Taliban advances to rapidly reclaim territory lost during the U.S. occupation for the past twenty years or so. The Taliban is claiming this territory violently, just as the U.S. did.

Yet I sit in comfort, insulated from all this harm. This violence, both near and far, is directly related to my safety and comfort. I may not have genocidal thoughts, but I am complicit in it. I occupy land that was forcefully wrested away from its original inhabitants through genocide, and am afforded a lifestyle procured through centuries of enslavement. So even if I do nothing, I do something. Simply by going about my life in a way that largely comports with the expectations of whiteness and capitalism, I do harm. I may not want to mean it, but it is nevertheless true then that if I kill, I kill.

I want to end this post on a hopeful note. I want to talk about the healing that Jesus brings, the unity that can be found through the Spirit. I want to sing the praise of the alternative economy that my church, Circle of Hope, is trying to live into and the ever so small steps we’re taking toward reparations to Black folks for the harm caused by “white” folks. I want to talk about how God will make a way when there seems to be no way, and I believe that God will in fact do so. But I dare not reach for hope with one hand while continuing to clutch the levers of power with the other. White guilt does no good for anyone, and I dare not indulge it here. That said, white repentance cannot be avoided. Together with my European-American siblings in the faith, I must at first follow the example not of Esther, but of Vashti. I must refuse to participate in the systems of oppression that favor me, and I must be willing to endure the inevitable loss of power that will result. Perhaps there is a progression here as I continue to look for my place in Esther’s story. I begin like Haman, oblivious to my self-centeredness, willing to resort to violence on a whim. Like Vashti, Lord willing I eventually find my agency and voice as I refuse to be exploited, even if my exploitation benefits me. And there may come a time when I am called to risk my life for my people like Esther, especially if I widen my gaze to see that all people are my people.

For now though, I want to discipline myself to do the work of repentance. I too often eschew this work. I am so grateful that I have the chance to actively work at antiracism both at my job and as a part of Circle of Hope, and I am committed to this work for the long haul. I know I have a part to play in it. I don’t think it’s wholly true that the best I can do as a European-American is to cause as little harm as possible. I am a part of the new humanity. Beloved community is for me too, and I’m invited to help build it. But I cannot have it both ways. In order to fully participate in beloved community, I must bring my whole self, all of my humanity. So I dare not bring whiteness into that space, for whiteness obliterates humanity. As I keep saying, I am not “white,” after all. My ancestors are Jewish, English, and German. I have roots in Irish soil. So I must continue to take off whiteness, and put on Christ, and I must likewise repent of the notion that my progress toward beloved community will be linear. Every day, I must choose this path of repentance and reconciliation, for every day the powers will continue to draw me in the other direction. Thank God that her steadfast love never ceases, and that her mercies are new every morning, for each day certainly has enough trouble of its own.

A Question I Agree With- What Boundaries Are We Being Called to Cross Right Now?

Photo by Travis Saylor on Pexels.com

I was recently blessed to be able to preach to my church, Circle of Hope. You can see that talk below, and then what follows in this post is an expanded version of that sermon. I hope for more dialogue in what I offer here, so please contribute to it in the comments if you’d like. Here’s the talk as I delivered it:

And now let’s go a little deeper with it. I start this conversation at a place I turn to often for inspiration and grounding in how I work at following Jesus, and that’s with Circle of Hope’s proverbs. These are sayings that we’ve collected over 25 years of being a church together that reflect the wisdom of our lived experience. One of them goes like this:

“We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so.”

In this season of Sunday Meetings in our church we’ve been working with questions that defy easy answers. Our pastor Julie really helped my thinking about this in an episode of the Resist and Restore Podcast where she was wrestling with questions raised by the Bible, and she said that “sometimes it’s okay to not try to answer the question” right away. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s okay to simply agree with the question.” So today I hope we can wrestle with a two-part question: “What boundaries are we being called to cross right now, and how do we cross them?” I think this is probably one of those questions that we wind up agreeing with for a while because the answers are elusive or complex. That doesn’t mean we simply stay where we are, never moving toward any sort of resolution, but it might mean staying where we are long enough to really listen to each other so that we can discern together where God’s Spirit might be calling us next. So let’s try it out.

When I wonder what boundaries God might be calling us to cross right now, here are some that come to mind for me. Feel free to comment with any that come to mind for you. As I name each one, I’ll say a few words about it. Here we go.

We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Racism and White Supremacy and Move Into Beloved Community and the New Humanity. 

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

I can’t say what crossing this boundary means for Black and Brown and Indigenous people. I’m obviously a European-American steeped in whiteness and unearned privilege. So, I’ll just talk about myself. For me, crossing this boundary might look like reorienting my life so that I and my family can move more fully toward making reparations for all that we’ve been given as a result of racism. It might mean re-learning American and world history. Especially as someone born in the land that settlers call Texas, I now know that almost everything I learned in school as a child came from a point of view that was meant to justify colonization, subjugation, and exploitation. Even more, though, I think crossing the boundary of white supremacy culture might mean dying to my precious memories of church. That’s another one of our proverbs in Circle of Hope, by the way. We say that “those among us from ‘traditional’ Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of ‘church’ in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.” But what if the so-called Christian background you grew up in was rooted in a tradition steeped in white supremacy? I remember looking around on Sunday mornings as I was growing up at a sea of people who looked just like me, who usually thought like me and talked like me. In my traditional Christian background, white preachers gave sermons that they prepared for by reading the commentaries of other white preachers and theologians. The church I grew up in as a child took for granted that America was not only the greatest country in the world but was beyond reproach. It would have been unconscionable in that church to wonder out loud why so few Black or brown folks found their way into our midst. Poverty was regarded as a problem, but one removed the experience of almost everyone in that church. I’m not here to bash them, but I want to make clear that racism and white supremacy are embedded in everything in our society, including the church, even Circle of Hope. I can’t help but wonder, then- are there precious memories of Circle of Hope that we need to die of in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility? 

I’m so grateful that our church has begun talking about reparations, about how to redistribute the unearned privilege and economic security of our white covenant members to Black covenant members. We’ve only just begun really thinking and talking about this, but I think it’s holy work. And I’m especially grateful that we’re being led in this by BIPOC members of our church. I think this work is so very important because we can’t cross the boundary of racism and white supremacy without taking a hard look at what that boundary looks like in real life. I write to you now from the “safety” and comfort of a fairly middle-class neighborhood in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. But speaking of the so-called safety of middle-class neighborhoods like mine begs the question- safe from what, and at what cost? The fact that so many people like me live in places like this is not an accident. So I hope you’ll bear with me as I spend a few minutes talking about how this happens. 

There’s a great resource here in MN called the Mapping Prejudice Project. Volunteers spent thousands of hours researching house deeds, looking for what’s called racial covenants. Mapping Prejudice says that:  

Racial covenants were tools used by real estate developers to prevent people of color from buying or occupying property. Often just a few lines of text, these covenants were inserted into warranty deeds across the country. These real estate contracts were powerful tools for segregationists. Real estate developers and public officials used private property transactions to build a hidden system of American apartheid during the twentieth century.

Mapping Prejudice has a devastating timelapse map that shows the explosion of racial covenants in the Minneapolis area from 0 such covenants in 1910 to 22,331 of them by 1955. As you watch the number of covenants represented by blue dots on the map multiply over time, by 1955 you see a sea of blue surrounding the urban core. To learn more, check out the short video from TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) below, which is part of a longer documentary about this.

So it only makes sense, then, that today Minneapolis has the lowest African-American homeownership rate in the country. Mapping Prejudice adds that:

…since most families amass wealth through property ownership, this homeownership gap continues to feed our contemporary racial wealth gap. Wealth is built through generations, with one generation passing resources to another. Thanks in part to the racial biases that have been baked into the real estate market over the last century, the average white household in the United States has ten times as much wealth as the average black household.The racial wealth gap makes it hard to erode residential segregation. And it contributes in every way to the racial disparities in education, health outcomes and employment facing our community today.

Ironically, the segregated neighborhood in TX I grew up in was poor. But because of disparities in educational access and employment that worked in our favor, my wife and I found the middle-class easily within our reach. So for European-Americans like us, even when our parents’ generation didn’t pass on much wealth to us, racism and white supremacy still gave us opportunities that are reserved for us through a process of exclusion. And this exclusion is embedded in everything, including the church, and again that includes Circle of Hope. 

So I and so many others like me are called to cross this boundary, to die of our precious memories of “church.” I’m reminded again that Sunday morning in America is still regarded as the most segregated hour in the week. What does this mean for us as Circle of Hope? We’re a majority white church committed to the work of antiracism. We’re doing that work too, but it’s so very hard. Racism is about systems and laws and policies. It’s about the economy and education and the so-called criminal justice system. It’s written into the very foundation of this country. This systemic power isn’t just “out there,” in society, though. If racism equals prejudice + power, it continues to be animated by the prejudice in human hearts, hearts like mine. So combating it in order to bring God’s justice and shalom to the whole world means doing all the work to fight these system of injustice as we encounter them in society, but probably more importantly it means doing the work to root out white supremacy as it’s internalized in my own mind and heart, and maybe yours too. How to cross that boundary is a question I agree with, and it’s urgent work. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. I should add, it’s work that I’m eager to do. Being ensconced in a white-washed world means missing out on the vibrancy of God’s creation. So I don’t want to participate, for example, in capitalism’s consumption of Black culture. I want to be in relationship with people who don’t look like me because in Genesis 1 God speaks of creating humankind in God’s image. We modern Westerners usually talk about this just like we talk about everything else, individually. But as I read the text that just doesn’t make any sense. If we bear the image of God at all, it is only together that we do so. There is only one single person in which the fullness of God is revealed, and that’s Jesus. But together, we are his body. So I must repent of trying to do alone what is only possible together. I must repent of thinking that anything less than beloved community and the new humanity Jesus calls us to could ever hope to encompass the love that Jesus said would mark our identity as his followers.

We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Ableism.

We need to see everyone around us. We must expand our gaze. Photo by ELEVATE on Pexels.com

I’ve had the privilege recently of helping to make Circle of Hope’s At-Home Sunday Meeting. It’s a meeting I hope really is being made in real time each time we have it. The folks on screen in the YouTube part of the meeting are participating with anyone viewing each Sunday though the chat, and that real-time interaction continues in part 2 of each meeting over Zoom where we interact “face to face.” That said, whether someone participates in the meeting live or comes to it on YouTube at some point later on, there’s still opportunity for connection and relationship. Go to circleofhope.church/community and check out the list of cells. Mine is on that list if you want to come check out the primary way that we work at being the church together. But what I’m talking about now is the team of people all over the country who are committed to creating the content that gets shown on YouTube and who are working at building the community that gathers on Zoom. One of those people on the team is our friend Dani, who is disabled. She’s been instrumental in helping our church discover and root out all the ways that ableism has infected so much of what we do, just as racism has. Dani was featured in a couple of our podcasts recently, both the pastors’ Resist and Restore podcast and our Color Correction podcast, hosted by the Circle Mobilizing Because Black Live Matters team. She talks I think in both of them about how, for example, the disabled community has been pleading for years for the ability to work from home, to have widespread food and grocery delivery, to have churches hold space for meeting online like we’re doing right now, to have virtual medical appointments available, and for widespread and easy access to video conferencing tools. She says the disabled community was always told “no,” that it was too expensive or the technology wasn’t available. And then she adds with great poignancy and just a touch of appropriately righteous anger that after only two weeks at the start of the pandemic of able-bodied individuals having to stay home, all of a sudden all those tools that disabled individuals had been begging for were suddenly available. Dani talks too about being in a wheelchair in the grocery store and having people bump into her and be surprised that she was there because they literally didn’t see her. 

So how do we expand our gaze to see everyone who is around us? How do we cross that boundary? I talked before about prejudice in the context of racism, and it certainly exists in the context of ableism too, and in many of the same ways. Ableism is likewise built into laws and policies and procedures, into the way we talk and think, and in the church, likewise in the theology we read and in our understanding of how to include just as we’re included. Dani talks about how the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, often doesn’t apply to church buildings because churches successfully lobbied to be exempt from it. Churches wanted to be exempt from it in order to preserve an aesthetic for their buildings that doesn’t include ramps and chair lifts, for example. I can’t help but think here of Jesus’ words in Matthew, when he pronounced woe on hypocrites that Jesus said wanted to “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside (we)re full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” So crossing the boundary of ableism for those of us who are more able-bodied probably means allowing God’s spirit to breathe life into our dry bones so that we can follow the Spirit into new spaces that we build together with everyone around us, and which everyone around us can access fully. And discerning how we can best do this together is another question I agree with.

We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Homophobia and Transphobia.

Photo by Sarah Chai on Pexels.com

Just as we so often approach Scripture and read capitalism, whiteness, and ableism into it, for far too long we’ve done the same regarding homophobia and transphobia. I want to be careful here not to speak for anyone else, however. And I want to be honest too. Due to the circumstances of where, when, and to whom I was born, I’m aware that just as I internalized white supremacy culture as I was growing up, I also internalized homo- and trans- phobia. I was raised in an environment in which I constantly heard that tired phrase that we should “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” It’s taken me decades to see that to the extent that ever I saw my trans and queer siblings in the faith as anything other than beloved children of God, actually I was the sinner, and it was my sin that needed repenting of, if not hate. I’m so grateful, then, that our community is committed to the work of overcoming homophobia and transphobia just as we are committed to the work of antiracism. More than that, I’m so grateful for the trans and queer friends in our body that I’m privileged to know. I see you, and I’m glad to be in community with you. Still, we have a long way to go. The space we hold together is undoubtedly not as welcoming as we would want it to be. Some of us still have a lot of work to do in our own hearts as we repent of what we were taught in the churches of our youth and keep learning how to love like Jesus does. So if we want to keep up with him, we simply must meet him outside the bounds of our own narrow thinking and experience. We must follow him into the wide open spaces where we too can be included rather than fencing off territory that we keep trying to control.

We’re Called to Cross the Boundary Caused by Physical Distance and Keep Learning How to Be One Church Together, Wherever We May Be.

A map I made a while back of people in my Circle of Hope cell group from all over the country.

The boundary caused by not being in a shared physical space together- whether that distance is marked by streets, zip codes, or state lines- involves a question I suspect we’ll agree with because any answer to it lies at the end of a road we’ve only just started down. That question is, “How can we be one church with cells and congregations up and down the Delaware River watershed but also made up of people across the country?“ This question is near and dear to my heart because as I said at the beginning I’m a member of the covenant Circle of Hope shares together who happens to live in MN. If it weren’t for the At-Home Sunday Meeting and the work being done to include me and others like me in all kinds of meetings and events over Zoom, for example, I don’t know that I’d feel very much like a part of our church. Look, I know the impact of this pandemic has been devastating. More than 600,000 lives have been lost in the U.S. alone. Many are grappling with the now chronic effects of long COVID. Jobs have been lost and many small businesses especially in the restaurant industry have succumbed to the economic effect of the pandemic. Many are grieving; many more are struggling, and even as vaccination rates slowly rise and society in rich countries like ours try to turn the corner, hoping to return to some semblance of “normal,” it’s increasingly apparent that whatever kind of so-called “normal” we eventually get to, it won’t be the same as it was before. Some things have changed in ways that I at least hope will endure. 

We simply must not go back to a normal in which voices like mine are centered and preferred. 

We must not go back to a normal in which the feelings of European-Americans and especially cisgender, heterosexual European-American males are protected at all costs. The costs are too great. 

We must not go back to a normal in which our gaze remains constricted and we fail to see our disabled siblings. We can no longer center the needs of the able-bodied among us as if they’re the only needs worth considering. The disability community is working for justice and building bonds of kinship even as we speak, and we’re missing our chance to join them in this beautiful and holy work if we leave them to labor in the shadow of our exclusion.    

We must not go back to a normal in which queer and trans folk find some of us open, but not terribly affirming, especially in the church. People are really just people, aren’t they? Aren’t we? The drive to control, to label some as sinners so that others can be saints, to draw lines around our community in order to protect whatever good we think we have, does not come from God. Some of us are so desperate to be “in” that we will ruthlessly leave others “out.” We are all God’s children, all beloved, all bearing the image of God together. If God is in us and with us, we fail to fully see God if our gaze doesn’t encompass everyone. 

And we must not go back to a normal in which we hold space for community and connection only for those who can show up in person at one of our meetings. When I talked before about the devastating impact of the pandemic, I know of course that my description of the devastation was incomplete. The truth is the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the church too, including Circle of Hope. In some ways the pandemic has revealed the best of Circle of Hope, the living, breathing heart of us- Jesus at the center of our cell multiplication movement. Our cells have been remarkably resilient, transitioning to Zoom as needed and continuing to hold space for connection there, and now many of them transitioning back to in-person meetings in as safe a way as possible. I’m continually reminded of how our church was really built for such a time as this. We have buildings and we use them well as blessings to the neighborhoods they’re located in, but we do not need them. Our church is a people, not a place. Be that as it may, when the doors of our buildings closed because of COVID, some of us were left out. Of course I know that online meetings have very real drawbacks. I know making eye contact through a screen is hard. Until we have webcams positioned in the middle of our screens, it seems like we can either give eye contact, or we can get it, but we can’t do both at the same time very well. So I understand why some don’t connect in this way; I really do. It’s unfortunately kind of inevitable that when in person meetings don’t happen, some folks drift away.

So I’m very, very grateful that vaccines and the tools we’ve learned during the pandemic like mask-wearing and social distancing now make it possible for in-person meetings to resume. And my deepest, sincerest prayer is that the Delta or other variants do not force new lockdowns due to the high percentage of people that still remain unvaccinated. The disruption the pandemic caused gives us an opportunity, though, and we simply must not miss it. Our church is being re-planted, and our roots in the Delaware River watershed are deep, and will remain as we bloom again in Philly and S. Jersey. But the Spirit is wild! And though we may plant the seed, God makes it grow. It’s growing in unexpected places. It’s growing in Minnesota, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. It’s growing in Texas and Illinois. Who knows where we might bloom next? 

So let’s continue to be the church together, but let’s continue to reimagine what togetherness can look like. Online connection is hard for some and may cause them to drift away, but it’s a lifeblood for others, including me. I’m not just trying to soak up Jesus through a screen. I’m forging new relationships and making new friends. I talk to some of these friends on a near weekly basis. I think and pray about them constantly. I belt out our songs during our At-Home Sunday Meeting and throughout the week really. When the weather’s nice I do so outside or with the window open, and I wonder who among my Minnesota neighbors might hear me. I wonder if they might strike up a conversation with me someday because of the way they hear me live my life with our church. My cell is made up of people all over the country, including in the greater Philly region. We hold space online because that’s the territory God has led us into. But we’re not disembodied. And I can imagine a future in which we have herd immunity and my cell continues to meet online, but some of my neighbors on my block join my wife and I in our living room to participate in our life together. Can you imagine it? We’ve always done our best as a church to move with what the Spirit is doing next. Let’s not stop now. 

An Afterword: Crossing Boundaries in Search of Diversity Might Miss the Point

A picture of my cell, meeting over Zoom. In cells, we learn how to live with each other.

I want to revisit briefly the proverb that started me thinking about all these boundaries. I said it goes:

“We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so.”

Of course that’s not entirely true, though. That’s not the whole proverb. It has another sentence, which is:

“Don’t bean count us.”

So the whole proverb is: “We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so. Don’t bean count us.” I’m revisiting it because I started reading Dear White Peacemakers by Osheta Moore. I only made it into the beginning of the preface before something Osheta said struck me. She’s writing about an intentional community her friend is a part of that includes disabled people. She says:

“They decided early on to be intentionally diverse not for diversity’s sake but because living with each other in their distinct differences teaches them how to be human. Fully.”

Read that again if you need to. I had to. This statement suggests that crossing boundaries in search of diversity might miss the point. Diversity and inclusion (not to mention equity) may be virtuous and worthy of seeking not for their own sake, but because “living with each other in (our) distinct differences teaches (us) how to be human. Fully.” Fortunately in Circle of Hope we have a couple of other proverbs that I think get at this a little better. We say:

A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.

And:

We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.

So let us be a reconciling community and an anti-racist one that therefore represents the new humanity. We do this as we learn how to live with each other in our distinct differences, but we won’t get there without crossing boundaries. Thanks be to God that if we do this, the good news is that in the end it won’t matter what the bean counters think.

Of Course. Always.

I wrote this reflection for Circle of Hope’s recent At-Home Sunday Meeting, and wanted to share it here. I’m wrestling with how we can know God’s will, and more importantly, how we might come to God when we’re unsure what to do. The text is below, and if you click play in the video above you can hear me read it.

He pulled up at his parents’ house around 9 on Sunday morning. He knew the coffee pot would have just shut off after two hours of being on, and his mom would have just turned it back on to keep it warm a little longer.

His parents liked to linger in bed on Sundays, reading the paper and drinking their coffee. He longed to linger in their unhurried approach to the day.

He was stopping by because a big decision weighed heavily on him, and he was hoping they could lighten the load. He helped himself to some of the remaining coffee as they joined him at the kitchen table. His folks knew why he was there, but they didn’t press him. They talked about the weather and some of their ailments as they aged.

Had he heard about his high school’s robotics team and how they were doing this year? They knew how much he enjoyed being on the team during his high school career.

They talked about the news a little and asked him what he’d been reading lately. When the small talk seemed about as done as the coffee, they decided to take a walk together with the dog, just like old times. The old boy was slowing down, but seemed to keep pace with his parents just fine, maybe because they were slowing down a little too.

They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp fall air and the colorful leaves. He wanted to ask them what he should do about this big decision of his, but there was something about the rhythm of their steps together, something about the feel of the dog’s leash in his hand where it had rested so many times, something about the sight of his parents’ hands comfortably clasped together with well-worn grooves where they had come together so often, that all gave him pause.

He looked at his parents and smiled, and they responded with loving nods of affirmation, and in that moment he realized that the weight of trying to figure out what he should do had lessened. It wasn’t gone, but he remembered that whatever he did, he wouldn’t be alone.

And then it struck him that underneath the big decision he had to come to terms with, were some more basic questions, like “Do you love me?” and “Are you with me?” His parents’ eyes said it all:

“Of course. Always.”

They rounded the bend toward home and his parents asked if he could stay for lunch. “Of course,” he said, “always.”  

Inclusion is a Power Play I Repent of So That I Can Be Included

To the Victors Go Narrative Control

One of my pastors and friends, Ben White, keeps reminding me of something I’ve been saying recently. It has to do with the fact that especially in my case as a cisgender heterosexual male of European descent living in the U.S., I usually find myself centered in most of the power structures in society. The history books that have been adopted and used for generations in schools across America, for example, were largely written by people that look like me, for people that look like me, centering us as the heroes in the story of America and thereby justifying our privileged status in society. The furor over critical race theory currently is a desperate attempt to maintain this control over the narrative about our country, because if the full truth were told, the story gets a lot more complicated and the privilege and power that people like myself enjoy must be seen for what it is- unearned, unjust, and unjustifiable.

Some of us are waking up to this reality, and I’m glad. But that old truth just gets even more true here, that “the more you learn, (the more you realize that) the less you know.” As my consciousness has been awakened to the terrible reality of systemic racism and the ongoing oppression I continue to benefit from, I’ve been glad to have opportunity to dedicate myself to the work of anti-racism, and even better, the creation of beloved community and, for Jesus-followers, a more full expression of the new humanity that Jesus calls us to. However, I’m learning more and more every day that anti-racism is just the tip of the iceberg. The powers that be have solidified their hold on society not only through the violence of racism, but through many intersecting forms of violence including LGBTQIA2S+ hate, patriarchy and sexism, colonialism and imperialism, and through extractive and exploitative capitalism that commodifies the bounty of God’s good earth, changing the climate in ways that only intensify the harm of the other oppressions just named.

I Can’t See Where I Don’t Look

There’s something missing from that laundry list of systems of oppression I just named, however, and it’s telling. Of course the list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but a story comes to mind here. My church, Circle of Hope, has been working hard to meet the moment we’re all in during this ongoing pandemic. We believe that we’re called to move with what the Spirit is doing next. We say that “Like any healthy organism, we grow. So we are always preparing to birth a new cell, plant the next congregation and generate the next venture of compassionate service.” As we re-plant the whole church (our “content”) in the new soil of a world changed and still changing due to COVID-19 (our next “container”), we’re reimagining our network of cell groups and congregations across the greater Philadelphia region. Like so many churches, businesses, and civic institutions as the pandemic started, we pivoted to offer as much as we could online. I’ve talked about this before. This pivot enabled our life together to go on when in-person meetings were no longer safe. As we keep saying, our church, with Jesus at the heart of us and cell groups serving as the primary expression of that heart, was really made for such a time as this. We have buildings and use them well to serve our body and the communities around us, but we don’t need them. The church is a people, not a place after all. So as cells met through Zoom and other means and as our At-Home Sunday Meeting became our public face for a while, our church remained remarkably stable over the past year-and-a-half and even grew in unexpected ways.

People like myself and my family, for example, who no longer live in Philly, were suddenly able to be once again included in the life of our body. We also made new friends from all over the country who were able to be included in cells meeting online and in our At-Home Sunday Meeting, and some of them have also become integral parts of our body. What we also discovered was that we had simply been missing an unseen part of our body and members of our community, some of whom had been part of our church for a long time. This was not a malicious omission, but its effect was devastating nonetheless. We simply didn’t have “eyes to see” this before, but I’m so grateful that now we do, or at least we’re starting to. This unseen part of our body is directly tied to the system of oppression I failed to name in my laundry list of them above. That oppressive system is, of course, ableism, and the missing members of our community that we didn’t “see” in the way we needed to before is the disabled community. Our friend Dani is disabled, and a member of my cell is too. Truth be told, the mental health diagnoses I carry as a result of childhood trauma might technically qualify me as disabled too if I wanted to purse that route. I disclose this as an acknowledgment that the disabled community is very diverse and because I don’t want to “other” anyone who is part of this community.

I mention Dani because we’re part of Circle of Hope together and because she is a vocal advocate for disability rights and inclusion. You can hear a great interview with her in the recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, and I was privileged to also interview her for my employer as part of our anti-racism work during Disability Pride Month. In both conversations, Dani said something that was devastating for its poignancy and what it revealed. She said that she and other disabled individuals have been asking for years to be included by being able to work from home, to have widespread telehealth options, and to have opportunities to connect with a faith community through online means. She said they were always told that it’s too expensive or not technologically viable and were given other excuses. She then adds, “As soon as able-bodied people had to stay home for two weeks due to the pandemic, suddenly all those things that she and her friends have been pleading for were available.” She told another story during my interview with her that was revelatory for me. She mentioned that when she’s in her wheelchair in a public space like a grocery store, people seem to respond in two ways. A small number of people will see and approach her and begin asking invasive and unwelcome questions about her disability. More often, though, people will simply fail to notice her so badly that they sometimes bump into her and then are surprised that she’s there. I thought about this as we were talking and realized that it has to do with where we look. If I’m walking around a store, my gaze is usually held at my eye level. This is a decorating “rule” too, that we hang pictures at eye level so that we can “see” them.

Generous Eyes Have an Expanded Gaze

I think the lesson here is that we need to expand our gaze. My privilege enables me to look only where it’s most convenient for me to do so. The world is built for me not only as a middle-class, cishet male of European descent, but also as a relatively able-bodied individual too. If the world is my “house,” all the pictures are hung where I can most naturally see them, even if this places them out of sight for others. Likewise, those others who aren’t like me remain out of sight to me if I do not repent and change my ways by expanding my gaze. I’ve come over time to really appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, seeing it as a “canon within the canon,” the heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we can best follow him. I do it poorly myself, incidentally, but my posture is toward Jesus as I see him leading me in this teaching. So I come back again and again to this part of it in Matthew 6:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

As I’ve noted before, those footnotes for “healthy” and “unhealthy” in verses 22 and 23 reveal that those words imply “generous” and “stingy.” So if your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light. If your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness, and how great will that darkness be! I think part of having generous eyes must mean having a generous, expansive gaze, seeing people for who they really are, where they really are. We can’t just keep looking in all the places we’re used to. When we do, we miss beloved siblings in Christ and our humanity is diminished, remaining old and untransformed.

We Want to be Included in the New Humanity that Jesus is Creating, not Just Include Others in the Worldly and Fallen Systems That We Control.

This gets me back to what one of my pastors, Ben, keeps reminding me that I’ve said. It has to do with inclusion. When I choose to include others, I’m inviting them into a space that I am centered in and retain control of. How could it be otherwise? It’s like being neighborly in my home. I can be as intentional and inviting toward others that aren’t like me as could possibly be imagined, but they’re still coming into my space that is made for me, that caters to me, etc. This kind of thinking infects our theological imagination too. Our intentions may be good, but I think the logic often goes something like, “God is good and loving toward all. The church has historically been complicit in oppression of marginalized groups, and we do better when we seek to include them because we believe that God already does.” But if God already does, this thinking is revealed to be fairly backwards. God is creating a new humanity whether we choose to willingly participate in it or not. In this new humanity, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile…male nor female,” etc. We are one in Christ. This does not erase our other identities, it unites them. After all, if everything and everyone is the same, unity is unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we are all unique expressions of God’s boundless creativity and are woven together into the beautiful tapestry of the body of Christ, then we become a powerful witness to the love of Christ that we share.

So inclusion ought not be about me bringing others into a space that’s made for me and which I control. God has already included everyone in God’s family. We are all God’s children, all beloved, and are all being saved from the power of sin and death. When we really come to understand this, I think we learn that the only choice we have to make in terms of inclusion is whether or not we will include ourselves in this wonderful community that God is making. I cannot exclude anyone from their own belovedness, nor from their status as children of God. I can only keep myself out, really, and there are many ways no doubt in which I have been doing this very thing. So I must pray:

God, help me to repent. Help me to expand my gaze. Give me generous eyes to see all your children where they are, not where I prefer to look. You’re building beloved community and creating a new humanity, and you’ll do it with or without me. Thank you for always inviting me, though, and help me to lay down whatever power I think I have and step out of the spaces that I control so that I can join in the work of cultivating awareness of the belovedness of all. Amen.

Life Itself Is One Whole Cloth. In America, It’s a Racist Outfit.

If this image offends you, you might be missing the point.

We Need to Talk

This opinion piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks really got me thinking the other morning. I suppose that was the point, so good on her for keeping the dialogue going. What follows is my contribution to it. First off, I should say that generally I agree with her, and even specifically I agree with her regarding probably most of the points I hear her wanting to make. I do think that:

We need to talk about Derek Chauvin.

We need to talk about the life he stole and the people he terrorized and the institutions that trained him and armed him and sent him out on our streets.

We need to talk about Black Lives Matter. About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits. About Minneapolis children gunned down as they bounce on trampolines or ride to grandma’s house. We need to talk about the bigots who punch elderly Asian Americans on the sidewalks and the lawmakers who bully transgender kids in the middle of Pride month.

I think Brooks is spot on here. Police brutality, institutional racism, gun violence, and homophobia are not just worthy topics of discussion though. They’re not mere “issues,” either.

European-Americans Must Not Trade in Abstractions About Others’ Lived Experience of Suffering

For the victims of police brutality, the conversation about it is about lives lost, funerals to plan, and empty bedrooms.

For non-“white” Americans, the conversation about BLM is about living in a country whose institutions continue to act as if their lives don’t matter. The truth of this is indisputable to those who truly care to pay attention.

For indigenous Americans, the conversation about their missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirits is likewise a heartbreaking one about dinner tables with empty chairs, about lost potential and an aching lack of closure.

The conversation about gun violence is arguably the hardest one to have of all, because it has to do all too often with the lives of children cut short, with parents left forever to wonder if they could have done something more to protect their children, and who all too often are left to spend the remainder of their lives tirelessly working to reform and redeem a culture gone mad for its actual, dumbfounding love of guns.

The conversation about anti-Asian violence and hate is often about proud Americans who contribute in disproportionate ways to the common good of this country, while receiving disproportionate exclusion, vitriol, and oppression in return.

Likewise, the conversation about homophobia and transphobia is one that in many ways many of us are just beginning to have, and none too early, but like the others, for LGBTQIA2S+ Americans, it’s a conversation about the many ways they are hated, feared, excluded, and oppressed.

Missing from Brooks’ laundry list of whole swaths of American society that are oppressed by whiteness are Hispanic Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, among others, I’m sure. Our neighbors to the global south have long been exploited for their labor and scapegoated when it suited the “white” majority in the U.S., and our neighbors from the Middle East are usually vilified by many Americans who misread and misunderstand the Bible and use it as a tool to support not only the legacy of colonialism in North America, but its continued expression in Zionist Israel.

So, while all these conversations desperately need to be had, we must always remember that what we’re talking about are people’s lives. Likewise, we must bear in mind the privilege and power differential of the conversation partners. When “white” people, people like me, engage in any of these conversations what we usually have at stake is our wealth and privilege and the ways in which we’re centered by society. To put it bluntly, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve somebody,” and society’s institutions are meant to serve European-Americans, especially cishet European-Americans like myself. So what’s at stake for people like me in conversations about the marginalization and oppression of others is the fearsome possibility of being treated like everyone else, of not being centered and served by society as a matter of course. It’s a terrible thing to confess.

Notice that difference, though. Again in conversations about marginalization and oppression, regardless of where my heart and my intentions might be, my social location places me on the side of the oppressor and among those that force others to the margins. For everyone else, the conversation is about education and opportunity, about livelihoods, about health and mental health outcomes, about life and death itself. In other words, conversations about such matters for people like me are often about abstractions based on the lived experience of others. Because of such a great power differential, one cannot in good faith argue that there are two sides to be considered equally. As Brooks writes:

Sometimes there’s no neutral ground. You stand with your neighbors or you stand against them. The opposite of Black Lives Matter isn’t “all lives matter” — it’s Black Lives Don’t Matter.

Or, as I keep saying, when we say “Black lives matter,” we mean they matter too. We mean society’s institutions so preference and center “white” male cisgender heterosexual lives it’s as if no other lives matter. So we must take a side, and if we stand with Jesus, we stand with the marginalized and oppressed. My pastor Jonny has something to say about this. He writes:

…Paul consistently undoes the patterns of this world in his ordering of Christian households. How he talks about Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people showcases a New Humanity and a new way of doing things. Our church’s work of antiracism isn’t a movement following the world, we are following the spirit. We are renewing our minds, transforming our hearts, resisting conforming to the patterns of this world. We are motivated to find our oneness and identity in Christ. That doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior. There is no such thing as an identity in Christ without divestment of worldly power. An identity in Christ that is not antiracist is a white Christian Nationalist identity that is a perversion of the Gospel. It is a false teaching led by false prophets (italics added).

I Cannot Get to the Whole Cloth of Life in Christ Without Removing the Wholly Racist Clothes I Grew Up In

This reminds me of one of our Circle of Hope proverbs. These are sayings of our church, wisdom we’ve collected over the years that help us continue the dialogue about who we are in Christ. The one I’m thinking of, as I’m paraphrasing it here, goes: “Life in Christ is one whole cloth…Jesus is lord of all, so we have repented of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.” I see this saying as a response to the ways in which European-American Christians have crafted a so-called Christianity in which they could worship God on Sunday, occasionally even in the presence of BIPOC and other marginalized people, sometimes even sharing a common cup of communion, and then turn around the next day and continue actively participating in the oppression and marginalization of their so-called siblings in Christ. In a recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, Melissa Florer-Bixler talks about her upcoming book, How to Have An Enemy, and suggests that such disingenuous and really anti-Christ actions might be grounds for withholding such table fellowship. Again as a cishet European-American male who so often is placed in positions of power and is able to deny others entry to privileged spaces, I’m hesitant to support any further exclusionary act, but I do think Melissa is probably right.

So when we say that “life in Christ is one whole cloth,” we mean that following Jesus is something we do with our whole selves, with our whole lives. Florer-Bixler gives an example of hearing about a church that proudly proclaimed it had ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in their congregation, extolling some sort of false “unity.” If life in Christ is one whole cloth, you cannot worship God with someone one day and then kidnap them from their family and deport them the next. Following Jesus may require that you follow him right out of your job. The same probably applies to Wall Street bankers and others, if I may be so bold. Again, we must choose sides.

I might also say that declaring that life in Christ is one whole cloth as a response to racist, oppressive compartmentalization of faith leads to the realization that life itself is simply one whole cloth. I think this is probably just common sense, when we really think about it. And this, then, leads to a further realization. As Jonny said, “…find(ing) our oneness and identity in Christ…doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior.” If life itself is one whole cloth just as life in Christ is, European-Americans have grown up wearing racist clothes. The racist rot in American society goes to the core. America is a bad tree, and we risk living as bad fruit if we do not repent and put on our new selves in Christ, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.

Galatians 3 speaks to this:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

A depiction of King Hezekiah repenting, clothed in sackloth

Churches like the one Florer-Bixler spoke of that celebrate the intermingling of oppressors and oppressed in their midst like to rush to their supposed oneness in Christ without doing the work of clothing themselves with Christ. Such dressing necessarily leads to repentance and the changed behavior Jonny spoke of. For those living a life in the whole cloth of Christ, racism leads to antiracism or we have discarded our holy garb. My church, Circle of Hope, is undergoing a painful moment in which we reckon with the ways we have yet to fully put on Christ, with ways in which we continue to work at removing our worldly racist garb. We want to put on Christ and we are, but we must not rush it. Some sackloth and ashes are probably in order for a while as we repent of the ways we have often unwittingly but sometimes wittingly, no doubt, participated in the racism that is all around us. We must change our ways, and I have hope that we will.

I must change my ways, and I cling to the hope that I will. I know, of course, that I cannot do it alone though. I did not get into the mess of white supremacy culture by myself, and I will not get out of it that way either. BIPOC members of our church have expressed that they view their participation in our community as being missional. In other words, we European-Americans make up a mission field that the love of Christ compels them to minister to. We need to be saved in more ways than one, and they’re here to help. Let us humbly receive the good news they have brought, that life does not revolve around us, that we can feel loved, affirmed, and valued for who we are without the crutch of false hierarchies, and that there is enough for all if we share with all freely and equitably. Now that’s a gospel word if ever there was one.

Starting Out

I wrote a little poem for Circle of Hope. You can read it below, or watch and listen to me read it above. I thought I’d share.

I’m not sure the waiting is the hardest part

I think maybe the starting might be

What if it’s new? 

A new place, a new path, a new way of doing it

What if I’ve never been there, or don’t know the way?

What if I’ve been here too long or only ever gone this way or done it that way?

How can I know where I’ll wind up, or make sure it turns out the way I want it to?

How can I be sure of what the future holds?

The truth is, I can’t 

I can’t know what the future holds

Because each day is a gift, full of surprises

We see some days as good, sometimes wildly so

We see some days as bad, sometimes tragically so

But to be alive and experience whatever comes, that’s pure gift

I can’t know where the path may lead

I can’t know if things will turn out the way I want them to

And truth be told, it’s probably better that things not go the way I want them to some of the time 

Because I don’t know what I don’t know

No, I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds me 

In the past, present, and future

So I’ll start out

Sometimes waiting is a kind of starting too

And finding something hard is just another unexpected, but temporary place

In a journey full of surprises

(One of) My Bravest Day(s)

(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)

A school picture, I believe, of my grandmother

I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:

Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?

Cars Crash

All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:

This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:

Image Credit here

To The Third and Fourth Generation

I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:

  • “Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
  • “…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
  • “There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
  • “I was raised to be…perfect…”
  • She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”

So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.

Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.

‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

Numbers 14:18

I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.

Another Questionable Death

My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:

In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:

-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
-Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
-Obedience makes a child strong.
-The body is something dirty and disgusting.
-Strong feelings are harmful.
-Parents are always right.
-Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt.
-Duty produces love.
-A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
-A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
-Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
-A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
-The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
-Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.

-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)

Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.

It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle

So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.

So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”

It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, go here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

For mental health resources, go here: https://nami.org/Home

Being “Circle of Hope People” on the Apostolic Edge

Minneapolis, now a suburb of Philadelphia?

Circle of Hope has been talking about living “on the apostolic edge” for a while. A blog post from 2017 talks about it this way:

In many ways, we are on the “apostolic edge” these days. I mean we are moving with Jesus into new territory, something like Paul, the Apostle (the “sent one”) telling the Romans“I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.”

The post continues:

I think Paul’s idea is this: wherever he goes, Jesus is already there. He is just working with Jesus to make him known. We “name” what people already experience as the presence of God. Sometimes we do it in words. Sometimes we do it just by showing up as individuals and as a community who can be seen, known, and loved. There are many edges of our territory (the place we know, the place we have come to so far) where we border a place where Jesus is not named, yet. That’s an “apostolic edge.” And there are no walls on our border!

Extending the Table of Our Dialogue to Unexpected Places, in Unexpected Ways

The pandemic has extended that “edge” perhaps further than anyone might have imagined. Many churches are doing as much as they can online these days because of the pandemic, and we as Circle of Hope are no different. People are finding our YouTube channel and meeting us there, sometimes for the very first time. Our Sunday Meetings are online, for now, and we offer other opportunities for worship, learning, and connection throughout the week, because “Sundays aren’t enough.” The Circle of Hope pastors have a podcast called Resist and Restore, and it usually begins with them saying that they’re “extending the table of our dialogue” all the way to wherever each of us are listening. In my case, that dialogue extends all the way to Minnesota, and through the online “dispersed” cell I lead of people all over the country, it extends further to Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Here’s a picture of a map I made of where people in my cell live:

Speaking of cell groups, as Circle of Hope our primary point of connection is and always has been through our cells– our small groups of ten or so in which “Jesus is the only agenda.” Cells are not a program we offer in some kind of transactional way. We try not to be transactional, and we don’t really offer programs. As we say in our proverbs, “The church is not a ‘thing’ that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.” So cells are something else entirely. Again, as you can read in our proverbs:

– Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our “agenda.”
– Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.

Our pastors have been saying that our church was made “for such a time as this.” Because of COVID, in-person gatherings remain unwise, though the vaccines give us hope that may change soon if the country can get enough people vaccinated before the virus variants take hold. This inability to gather in person is a challenge for most churches, especially those program-based churches whose life is centered on a building and what happens in it. Circle of Hope has buildings too and they offer much to the communities in which they are rooted, but they are not the center of our life together. Being a cell-based church, we could exist without buildings and would still be able to connect with one another, be who we are, and do what we have been given to do. If Jesus is the lifeblood of our church, maybe cells are the arteries that bring that life to all the parts of our body. They’re certainly the way that our body grows, and this is still happening during COVID, even though cells are for the most part meeting over Zoom or other virtual platforms. What a blessing that we aren’t having to pivot away from a program-based, transactional way of “doing church” in a building in order to try something new during the pandemic. We are trying some new things, but we already know how to be the church together in an unprogrammed way outside of a building. Thank God!

Not Just Where to Be, but Who To Be

When my wife and I rejoined Circle’s covenant from all the way in MN in the fall last year, our pastor Jonny said we were out here on Circle’s apostolic edge. Since then, we’ve been working through what that means for us. One thing it has meant is that we’ve felt a real tension between the physical space we occupy in the Upper Midwest, and the life we’re experiencing together with the rest of Circle of Hope in Philadelphia. Right now most meetings are happening online, but what will it look like when in person gatherings are possible again? So we’ve felt a real yearning to also be physically present with the rest of our Circle of Hope family in Philly, and as I wrote in my last post, we’ve been discerning what to do about that. This discernment has been about where to live, sure, but also about what kind of people we want to be, wherever we might live. I think in short that we want to be “Circle of Hope people.” We want to be Jesus-centered. We want to live into alternativity as we embrace life together, immersed in Circle’s cell-planting movement. I’ve long talked about following Jesus by resisting capitalism, violence, and individualism, and Circle has held space for that kind of life for far longer than I’ve been talking about it. It’s no wonder then that we’ve reconnected with Circle during the pandemic, and we are very, very grateful. Likewise, it’s no wonder that we feel drawn to be back in Philly again with the rest of Circle of Hope, and have been actively discerning about making such a move.

So as I mentioned, my last post dealt with this discernment process we’ve been engaged in. A move back to Philly would be our third such move as a married couple, first one as a family with kids, and fourth one for me individually. I said in that post that we were approaching this decision in very uncharacteristic fashion, that is slowly and hopefully in a more communal way, with conversation partners beyond ourselves. We know that when we do almost anything by ourselves, we often do worse than if we had acted in community. We are made for community after all. We are made for mutuality, and as Jesus-followers, for being the church together. Our lives are not our own. We belong to each other, and to Jesus. So we didn’t want our decision making process about moving back to Philly to be driven by the same old impulses, impulses rooted in trauma, individualism, scarcity, and need. Instead, if being in physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope in Philly again represents a move toward the community that we are made for, we wanted our steps leading up to such a move to be rooted in community too. Our conversation partners have been very helpful in this regard, and we are grateful to them. Along the way I’ve realized, with the help of the writing of Richard Rohr and others, that I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion. So I began to wonder what a “second half of life” approach to this decision might be, and that led me to ask questions like, “Is there a gift God might have for us in this? Might moving to Philly and the physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope that such a move would afford be such a gift?” I realized then that holding space for these kinds of questions might be the fertile soil in which an answer might grow, if well tended, like a garden. Notice I said an answer, not the (“right”) answer.

When the Time is Ripe, We Hope We Are Too

Circle of Hope is a “good tree” determined to bear “good fruit.” We hope as we develop that we’re becoming ripe, good fruit too.

And over time, an answer has emerged. The truth is that we do feel called to be in Philly, physically close to the rest of Circle of Hope. We’ve already made covenant with Circle again. Circle of Hope is our church. They are our people, and we want to be near them. We are “Circle of Hope people” already. So the only thing questionable for us about moving to Philly is when to make our move, not if. We’ve also thought about our desire to get as “small” as we can, to live in a way that outwardly reflects our stated values of generosity, sharing, simplicity, and abundance. This was especially salient because we had an opportunity this coming summer to rent a Philadelphia house that dear friends of ours own. This possibility made abstract thoughts about making this big move very real and concrete. Our friends’ house is in a neighborhood that is much less affluent than the one we currently live in here in MN, and not coincidentally, much less “white” as well. We’ve talked for a while about wanting to be in solidarity with those that live on the underside of our privilege, and we’ve known that solidarity requires proximity. So moving not just back to Philly, but particularly to our friends’ house in Philly, presented us with a rare chance to really live like we say we mean to. We began imagining what our life would be like there, in that neighborhood. I think we hoped to occupy that “small” space in, as much as we could, a “small” way. We would want to be there hopefully just to love and be loved by those around us there as we do life together as neighbors. We would hope to be humble there, not imagining ourselves to be “white saviors,” but simply desiring to learn from our neighbors and share in their lives.

This begged some questions, though. After all, we have neighbors right here. We’ve cultivated relationship with a few of them and with one in particular it might be said that there’s an extent to which we’re “doing life” together, but there are others that, truth be told, we don’t like very much, and probably more than a few around us that if we knew them at all we might feel similarly toward. We’ve experienced some of our current neighbors to not be very welcoming to people who aren’t “white.” We’ve seen a Trump sign or two around. We might even go so far as to unintentionally categorize some of our current neighbors as “enemies.” Again, this begs questions:

  • Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? 
  • How can we move into a poor Black neighborhood in order to love and be loved by our neighbors there- who would be different from us in many, many ways- when we can’t or won’t love our actual, mostly “white” neighbors right here and right now, simply because we might hope that we’re somehow different from them? In other words, we have to wonder how wise it would be to move into a poor Black neighborhood in Philly as what you might call “failed” Minnesota suburbanites. We regularly hear Black folks telling “white” people who want to do anti-racism work to basically get their own house in order. Learn their history. Talk to their own people. So we had to wrestle with whether or not we might be skipping out on the work we have to do right here, right now- work that generally speaking Black folks are asking “white” folks to do, because we prefer to do what might seem to be more glamorous work, but which we aren’t actually being asked to do.
  • The truth is, there’s an extent to which we may not like some of our neighbors here because they look and act like us, and we may not like ourselves here very much. Wouldn’t it be wise, then, to learn to love and accept ourselves, wherever we happen to be now, in all our belovedness, and then out of the wellspring of that love, move to where we feel called, to be close to our loved ones there?

So, then, if we want to get to Philly at some point and be loving neighbors to whoever is around us, we know we have urgent work to do in preparation for that now. Like it or not, we need to work on loving these neighbors here, especially if we don’t like some of them. If we think in a close-knit rowhouse community in Philly we might share resources and live in a genuinely neighborly way, why don’t we start practicing that now with our real neighbors here instead of holding out for our imagined ones there? So, we’ve decided to embrace the good gifts God is already giving us. Thanks to the accelerated use of video technology and other online tools brought on by this terrible pandemic, we are already living a deeply connected life as part of Circle of Hope now, right where we are in MN. We are covenant members, and are in a cell which I am grateful to lead. We share resources, even from a physical distance. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel like I’m “in” the Circle of Hope, centered on Jesus, and for this I am grateful. I and my family want to be geographically close enough to share more deeply “in real life” when the time is right, but for now we are resolved to keep learning, practicing, and preparing for that time, whenever it may be. Perhaps the time will be ripe for moving back to Philly in a couple of years, when our oldest son graduates high school. We hope that by then we will be “ripe” for such a move too, as we continue to develop and grow. For now, we are glad to be on Circle of Hope’s apostolic edge, living as Circle of Hope people right where we are. Who knows what God might do with our continued presence here and what seeds might be planted as we hold space here. Maybe something beautiful will grow. That would be pretty edgy.

Home and Homesickness

Me and my boys, experiencing delight.

It’s hard to believe we’re almost a year into pandemic living, which for my family means mask wearing, social distancing, and quarantining as we are privileged enough to be able to work and learn from home. The reality for my family is that we’ve rarely left the house for the past 11 months or so. In that time, we’ve only bought gas a handful of times. As the pandemic started, we had just bought an old secondhand car so that we’d have two again. We gave it away just before Christmas after it sat idly in our driveway for the better part of a year. Though we now have some seemingly (mostly) safe vaccines and will all get them when we can, we know it will be some time yet before we even know what a new “normal” might be, let alone have any hope of moving into it. The Biden administration may never be able to make up for the year the Trump administration squandered, and now with emerging strains threatening the efficacy of vaccines and the ability of healthcare systems to keep up with more contagious and possibly more deadly mutations of the virus, the world feels more uncertain than ever.

The one bright spot in what feels like all this darkness over the past year has been our joyfully surprising reconnection with Circle of Hope, our faith community in Philly. I’ve written a fair bit about Circle over many years but especially over the past year, and as I’ve said recently, I’m often reminded of how tied up our story as a married couple is in their story as a community of faith. Circle began in 1996, which is the year we were married. Lord willing, we’ll celebrate 25 years of marriage this August. I might be tempted at this point to recount again just why the way I experience Jesus among the Circle of Hope is so meaningful, but if you’re so inclined, you can read about that here and here, for starters. This pandemic is terrible, and I pray daily for it to end. Nothing could be worth all the suffering it has caused, including in my own life as I recently lost my brother during the pandemic. His cause of death may not list “COVID-19” and he had many other health issues, but he had been diagnosed with the virus at one point, and it would be hard to conclude it wasn’t a contributing factor, if for no other reason than because of his experience in an enormously stressed-due-to-COVID healthcare system.

My Pastor Recently Called Me a “Joiner.” See Below.

Still, being immersed in the Circle of Hope again, even from a geographic distance, has brought much sweetness in otherwise bitter times. In September I became a Circle of Hope cell leader again for the first time in about fifteen years, and I continue to lead that cell of folks dispersed around the country. In October we had our “birthday” in the church again as we formally rejoined Circle’s covenant at the quarterly Love Feast. Since then I’ve joined the Circle of Peacemakers compassion team, with whom I hope to learn much about how to do the work of peacemaking, wherever I happen to be. We attend Circle’s Sunday Meeting online each week; I gather for prayer with Circle folks over Zoom on Tuesday mornings; I read Circle’s Daily Prayer blog(s) each morning; I listen to the Resist and Restore and Color Correction podcasts; and the music of Circle of Hope continues to inspire and move me. In short, we are making every effort to be as immersed as possible in Circle’s cell multiplication movement, even from half a country away.

Nonetheless, we are keenly aware that this season of a big world made smaller by this terrible pandemic is just that, a season. While Circle’s Map for this year includes language about how to keep open the kind of connection that has been made possible for people geographically far away even when some kind of return to in-person gatherings has occurred, I know there’s no substitute for the embodied experience of being the church together (see what I did there?). We can still be a body together even when some of the bodies can’t be in the same physical space and are connecting through a screen, but I suppose for me it’s a little like the difference between seeing ice cream on TV and tasting it in my mouth. Something happens in my brain when I see the image of ice cream on a screen; I can imagine what it tastes like and that is an “experience” of it, in a way, but it’ll never be as sweet. Believe me; I’m not denigrating the virtual experience of community right now. It’s all we’ve got, for now, and that’s even true for the most part for everyone in Philly, but when the need for a virtual experience of the rich sweetness of our life together is over for everyone in Philly, I want it to be over for myself and my family too.

Proximity

So more often than not over the past eleven months, there has been an ongoing conversation in our household about whether we should move back to Philly. Following Jesus as a part of Circle of Hope is a way of life that embodies alternativity. It means working toward an alternative economy, for example, as we resist the evils of capitalism by annihilating debt, giving away the goods that local babies and kids need, and creating “good” businesses like Circle Thrift that use capitalism to serve people, instead of the other way around. This can also be seen in all the people among Circle that share resources by merging households or creating childcare co-ops, etc. It means resisting the violence endemic to the larger culture too, whether through the Circle of Peacemakers or the Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter compassion teams, or simply through Circle’s historic ties to and immersion in the “peace churches” of the Anabaptist movement. One thorough reading of Circle’s proverbs, the lore and wisdom collected over the years, reveals a snapshot of this alternativity I’m describing, and I say all this because this way of life is meant to be lived…together. I call my blog Proximity, after all. Being close is at the core of the unity that Jesus keeps calling us to and literally embodies in his own person.

It was with more than a little hope and wonder, then, that we learned that our friends and cell members who currently live in Philly would be moving out of state this fall. They live in a neighborhood in Philly that is nothing like our current, mostly “white,” suburban context in MN. It’s an under-resourced neighborhood that is predominantly Black. Our friends’ kids are the only “white” kids at the local elementary school they go to. I’ve talked for years about valuing diversity and about the need to get “small” so that we could begin to experience life from the “under-“side of American empire rather than from our usual position of power “over” those less privileged than we are. Yet we’ve never managed to live out these values we supposedly aspire to. We keep buying houses in the suburbs. We keep racking up debt and maintaining our wage slavery as a result. We keep handing our kids lives in which the biggest problem they face is who got more screen time. I recently said about our current neighborhood that “…this suburban context of safety and comfort is the worst kind of at-risk neighborhood. It puts us at risk of not remembering we need saving, of not being proximate enough to our suffering neighbors to see our complicity in their suffering. Here, we feel very isolated and far from the beloved community.”

We certainly don’t want to make the mistake of glamorizing poverty or really making any kind of judgment, good or bad, about the lives of folks we hardly understand because we don’t know them. Still, I’m reminded of what Dr. King said about the reason why people fear and even hate each other:

“I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in remarks delivered to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa in 1962

We just can’t live separate any more, and so this chance to not only move to Philly and be immersed in Circle again but to live in a neighborhood and therefore in a way that much more closely aligns with the values we aspire to, seems like an opportunity not to be missed.

We keep trying to miss it, though, mostly out of fear. Moving across the country means selling our house, for starters. What if it doesn’t sell at a financially viable price, and in a timely manner? What about our jobs? We both do good, meaningful work for the most part. We both can work from home, and so we have great hope that our employers will allow us to work from home from Philly, but obviously there’s no guarantee. And of course there’s the kids and getting them set up in new schools in a new state in now much less than a year, during a pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, what about COVID? I currently check a lot of boxes for being at high risk for a bad reaction to it, and I’ll be honest, it makes me anxious. Our oldest son, a former micro-preemie born with lung damage (who is otherwise doing great at the age of 16 now, though) may be at high risk for a bad response to COVID too. What about all the exposure risk involved in selling our house, packing, and moving across the country? Will this move have been worth it if one of us dies after we get there? Obviously, of course not.

Yet, many people have moved, even moved across the country, during this pandemic. So, apparently it can be done. Yes, we could pick up COVID as a result of the move, and it might kill us. Then again, we could pick it up right here at home with the next careless package delivery or infrequent trip out into the community. And of course there’s the simple fact that a blood clot or heart attack or drive around the block could take any of us, at any time. None of our days are guaranteed, even from one day to the next. Each one is a gift. Certainly COVID has taught us this, hasn’t it?

Fathoming Our Fallings and Failures

What to do, then? We’ve been wrestling with this decision for a while now. We’ve made plenty of big decisions before, having repeatedly moved across the country. We’ve never been terribly discerning, though. And we’re really trying to, this time. We’ve talked about this with our friends who own the home in Philly. We’ve talked about it with their (somewhat close) neighbors, who are covenant members with Circle. We’ve talked to our pastor from Circle, Jonny. We’ve broached it with our cell, and I’ve talked about it with my therapist and with my Spiritual Director. My thinking about this has even been informed by the latest book I read, Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr’s book is worth (maybe more than) a whole post of its own, but I found it super helpful. Basically he posits that there at least can be “two halves” of life, a first half in which we work on building our “container,” establishing our identity and the like, and a second half of life, which Rohr says most people may not get to, in which we “fill” the container, in which we really live.

Early in the book he says: “When you get your ‘Who am I?’ question right, all the ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves.” Interestingly, not long before reading that, I had written in my journal about our discernment about whether to move or not. I said: “As I tried to meditate this morning, I wanted clarity about what to do, but I know that misses the point. If clarity comes, it will be about who I am, not what to do.” There’s so much great insight in Rohr’s book, but what I’ll focus on now is the part about “home and homesickness.” Rohr suggests that Odyseeus can finally go home at the end of his journey because he has “come home to his true and full self.” Rohr summarizes his writing in this chapter about home and homesickness by saying:

• We are created with an inner drive and necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self,
whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line.
• We are created with an inner restlessness and call that urges us on to the risks and promises of a
second half to our life
. There is a God-size hole in all of us, waiting to be filled. God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy. • We dare not try to fill our souls and minds with numbing addictions, diversionary tactics, or mindless distractions. The shape of evil is much more superficiality and blindness than the usually listed “hot sins.” God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church.
• If we go to the depths of anything…we will move from “belief” to an actual inner knowing…
especially… if we have ever loved deeply, accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, or
stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time or beauty.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, pp. 94-95

I’m struck of course by the notion of our journey looking for our True Self being in the shape of a “spiral and never a straight line.” We’re discerning whether to “spiral” back to Philly to be immersed in the Circle of Hope…for the third time. A spiral, indeed. For Rohr, it seems that “home” too is less about where you are than it is about who you are. Rohr has a lot more to say that I found really helpful, but again that’s fodder for another post maybe.

God’s a Better Parent Than I Am

So my cell met last night, and we heard someone’s story. This is an important part of how any cell forms, when intentional time is spent giving each person in the group extended time to tell their story of their discernment about who they are up to that point. The storyteller last night was talking about their own struggle with making decisions throughout life. As I understood her, she was asking questions like:

  • Why do we “have” to ask God for what we need or want when God already knows?
  • What if we ask for what we really want when God knows what we really need, and they’re not the same?

This all came to a head for me in a particularly insightful counseling session this morning. I resonated with my cell member’s questions about decision-making, in part because some time ago I realized that I had to agree with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Some think of the Sermon on the Mount as a “canon within the canon,” and I number myself among them. Like Shane Claiborne and so many others, I think Jesus probably meant what he said in this, his longest speech. I digress, though. For now, I want to focus on the preface to the “Golden Rule,” which, like so much else that Jesus calls us to, is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:7-12

After all the trauma in my own life and suffering in the history of the world, and in light of how so many would-be Christians throughout history have used their human-made doctrine of heaven and hell as a rod with which to beat anyone who didn’t tow the line of all their rules and regulations, I finally some years ago concluded that if I was to continue believing in God at all and trying to follow Jesus, I had to believe that God is a better parent than I am. Rohr actually has some great things to say about heaven and hell in Falling Upward, but again I digress. What I want to say here is that I agree with- I believe– Jesus in what he says above. If I know how to give good gifts to my kids, surely God does, and will, too. (Likewise, if I would never consciously torment my children forever because they never said the “sinner’s prayer,” then it’s inconceivable that God would.) God must be at least as good of a parent as I am, or the category of “parent,” let alone ”God,” is broken forever.

“Delight” Was a Hard Word to Say

So in my counseling session this morning we were working with my discernment about moving, and Rohr’s book, and my fellow cell member’s questions about asking God for what we want, and a few things became clear. So much of the impact of my complex childhood trauma has been about my perpetual quest to be “right” (to do no wrong, because doing wrong in my mother’s home was terribly dangerous). I realized this morning that there I was, approaching this decision about moving in the same way. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t want to let anybody down, not my current employer, not my wife or kids, not our friends in Philly whom I imagined might think we were failing to live up to our ideals if we didn’t move into their house, and least of all not myself. I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion.

I realized then that a “second half of life” approach to this would be much less about making the “right” choice, as if that were even possible, and much more about simply wondering what I really want (even if I can’t fully know what I really need) and then wondering if I can remember that I’m a beloved child of God to whom God wants to give good gifts, if Jesus is to be believed. My therapist walked me into a very therapeutic trap when she asked me what it felt like as a father to give my kids what they ask me for. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they need. “Of course,” was my obvious answer. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they ask me for, and again the answer was quick and obvious, “of course.” You can probably see where this is going as well as I could by then. I am a child of God, and was a child of very flawed parents. Nevertheless, as a child of a “good, good Father” and Mother in heaven, do I deserve what I need? Does God want to give me the good gifts I might ask him for?

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

I said above my therapist asked me what it felt like to give my own kids the good gifts they ask me for. I struggled to say the word, but the word that came to mind was delight. I delight in my children, and delight in giving to them. Immediately Psalm 37:4 came to mind, and it struck me like a punch in the gut:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

This “desire of my heart,” being fully immersed in the Circle of Hope with my wife and boys in Philly, is evidence, I hope, of my delight in Jesus, and faith tells me that God the Father/Mother delights in giving this good gift to me. My therapy session ended with some reflection on what this session felt like for me, what I might be taking away from it. I talked about this notion that God delights in me even as I delight in God. I said that the possibility that a full “homecoming” to my Circle of Hope family in Philly could be a good gift that God wants to give me felt like a little seed of hope. It felt like a seed that had been lingering on rocky ground, but which had finally found its way into fertile soil, where it was beginning to take root and grow.

Here’s to a bountiful harvest.