This Is Your Life, Or Is It?

What follows is one of the more personally notable posts that first appeared on Canon Fodder, the blog my friend Jared and I shared until recently:

So the end of 2007 saw my family wrapping up what Jared has appropriately called the “Robert and Kirsten- this is your life” tour. We hit the road like college freshmen on their first Spring Break on December 21st (only we’re a post-30-something family with a toddler in tow) and drove to Chicago, where we stayed with a good friend from my seminary days in the Twin Cities. The next day, we finished driving to the Twin Cities, and it was a homecoming of the most poignant of sorts. We thrilled to be in the Cities again for a variety of reasons. In the first case, it was just good to be in such a familiar metropolitan area. The Twin Cities aren’t Philly, of course, but then again I’ve only ever managed to live in Philly in spurts (the summer of ’95 while doing Kingdomworks, then the first two years of our marriage from late Summer ’96 to early Summer ’98, then early Summer 2003 to the Fall of 2005). We lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul for nearly five years straight from ’98 to ’03, and perhaps not surprisingly (in hindsight, of course) I hence reserve a special affection for our time there. When you live somewhere for five years and are intentional about really getting to know the place, well, you really get to know the place. It helped that both Kirsten and I had jobs where we got paid to take kids to the wonderful Minnesota History Center and Como Zoo or the Science Museum, for example, but boy we sure didn’t mind doing so. Anyway, it was great to be back. The Cities really do have a lot to offer in terms of culture and urban life in general, and of course I say so by way of contrast to living now in little Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a de facto suburb of Akron (which statistically isn’t all that smaller in population than St. Paul, but somehow manages to feel much smaller).

Of course, what was nicest about being back there was re-connecting with the people and places that had particular meaning to us. Regarding those places, we spent time in the neighborhood in north Minneapolis where we lived for most of our five years there. We saw our old apartment building a number of times (and even saw our old landlord out running the snowblower), spent time at my favorite coffee shop where the owner instantly recognized and greeted me, we stopped by our old (now totally remodeled) library, we drove past the house Kirsten’s dad passed away in, we went down to the Mall of America, we drove past (though never managed to spend time at) my seminary, etc. More importantly, we saw our good friends Teka and Steve and their new baby just before they went out of town, we spent time worshiping with the House of Mercy and had dinner afterwards (despite a major snow storm) with our good friends Lori, Pierre, and their daughter Simone and our other good friend Sarah, plus two of the pastors from House of Mercy (now the only two)- Russell and Debbie (and Debbie’s wonderful family; Russell’s couldn’t make it)- whom we are also privileged to count as friends. Being with those people was really important and meaningful to me. Being “at” House of Mercy was too, but more (perhaps) about that later. We also spent time with Kirsten’s family that are still in town- her younger sister Kim and her family, her brother Kris and his wife, and her newly returned Mom (until this past summer Kirsten’s mom lived with us in Ohio). We also visited with one of the families Kirsten used to do home care nursing for whom we have stayed in touch with and whom we now count more as friends than anything else, which was also good.

Naturally, being there made it easy to imagine moving back, and we briefly discussed what it might look like, though without any real motivation at this time. To say the least, however, we really miss it.

So we got back from that thirteen hour drive on the Friday after Christmas, spent one night at home, and then loaded up our other car- this time with Jared and Tina along too- and kept heading East for a weekend trip to Philly. This little trip was actually Jared’s idea, as he had suggested some time ago that seeing some of the people and places that were most important to us in Philly would help he and Tina to know us better- and vice versa- as we plan to do a “Coleman heritage” tour of the places that are historically important to Jared and Tina in the Akron/Canton area. Anyway, loving Philly as we do, we were more than happy to oblige, knowing that it would be a bittersweet trip.

The “sweet” part of that trip was just being back in Philly again, for starters, along with seeing some of our good friends there too and attending worship with Circle of Hope. Philly is an amazing city that I’ll always love. It’s huge (for a long time it’s been #5 in population in the country, though Phoenix may have recently eclipsed it) and obviously very historic. It’s a city of “firsts-” first capitol of the country and birthplace of the nation, the first library (the “free” library) was founded there, as was the first hospital, and children’s hospital, and so much more. You can walk on streets that are as old as the country itself, and to do so is a remarkable thing. Philly is incredibly diverse, and that gives it an energy that is lacking in “Caucasian Falls” (and even the larger NE Ohio area) where I now live. Speaking of energy, there’s a “hustle and bustle” that I really like. When we got in town with Jared and Tina we drove down to Center City (downtown) and stopped by the Reading Terminal Market. We drove through the center of downtown to get there, and there were people everywhere, such that Tina remarked, “Now I understand what you mean when you say that no one is ever out” in downtown Akron or Canton. Philly is a city of neighborhoods, which isn’t the same as the “boroughs” of New York, but indulge me as I say that it may not be all that far off, either. West Philly/University City (where the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel are, among others) has a “feel” that is entirely distinct from North Philly. South Philly is definitely its own animal as well, as is Roxborough/Mt. Airy/Germantown (where we lived for most of our two times there). Moreover, Philly really feels like a “city.” It’s got an incredible transit system including buses, a subway, trolley cars, an “el”(-evated train), and regional rail system, such that you can be much less dependent on owning a vehicle (which is one of my great frustrations about NE Ohio). It’s got huge, incredible bridges going over a major body of water (the Delaware River). Obviously, perhaps, I could go on, but you probably get my point by now.

So it was cool to show Jared and Tina some of those places. We were able to stay in town with our good friends Jill and Brian, and Jill’s gift for hospitality was in full effect, to our great benefit. We also visited with our good friends Laura and Leonard and their daughter Hannah, and that evening at their house was incredibly fun and familiar. Those are good people that we really miss.

The most monumental part of our weekend in Philly was of course attending worship with the folks fromCircle of Hope East. This moves us over into the more “bitter” part of this “bittersweet” trip. While Philly is the city that in many ways most captivates my imagination because it was the locale for my Kingdomworks experience- which marked an extremely seminal period in my life- it also does so because it serves as the setting for Circle of Hope, the faith community that likely most captivates my imagination (which is no disparagement in the least bit to House of Mercy- it’s just that House of Mercy-in my experience- for good or ill has always been more about what its pastors do, while Circle of Hope is unique in really creating that sense that they are a community of like-minded Jesus-followers “on a mission” together).

Kirsten and I came to Circle of Hope as barely twenty-year-old newlyweds who knew almost no one in the big city in 1996, just months after Circle began. Circle’s vision is to “build the church for the next generation” in Philly through cell groups, and it wasn’t long after finding them that we found we were part of a new family. The vision is simple really. Circle “gets” that the Church is a people, not a place, and that the “priesthood of all believers” is to be taken seriously. They further “get” that Jesus characterized his mission as having much to do with justice when he proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophet’s words at the inauguration of his ministry; so Circle seeks to be about bringing God’s peace-with-justice too. They also seem to “get” that if all this talk about the kingdom of God is to be taken seriously, it likely means that our allegiance is to that King first and foremost; so when you’re a part of Circle there is this wonderful sense that you’re a “world Christian” rather than an “American who also happens to be a Christian.” That’s a big part of the diversity that Circle strives for, and it’s apparent in the songs they sing, the practices they adopt, the other ministries they support, etc. Anyway, getting to the nuts and bolts of the vision, Circle started as a cell group-based congregation and has now grown into a network of congregations and cell groups throughout the region. The idea, as I so often say, is that as Christ-followers we’re supposed to have a life together. We’re supposed to be a discernible community. “Attending church” shouldn’t be about getting re-charged for another isolated week of pursuing the American dream. Rather, we need to be intentional about developing meaningful relationships with one another as we seek to build God’s kingdom and pursue his dream for the world. As the pastors at House of Mercy would say, “it’s not (only) about us.”

The “cell” metaphor uses the language of biology as an analogy for the “body” of Christ. Just as the cells in your body work together to make up the whole, so does the Church. Just as your body grows when those cells “multiply,” so does the Church. So a “cell group” is more than a mere “small group.” It’s not a Bible study, or fellowship group, or anything else. It’s a group of people who gather in Jesus’ name with the express purpose of (simply!) loving and getting to know one another deeply. Hence, “Jesus is the only agenda” of a cell group. When all those cell groups get together to worship on Sunday, the “public meeting” becomes a celebration of the life of the Church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. “Evangelism” in this context becomes less about inviting people to your church and more about inviting them into your life, and into the life that your church is having together. As folks really get to know and love another in cells, they start to talk about it. They tell their friends, neighbors, co-workers, loved ones, etc., and pretty soon their cell starts growing. When their cell group gets too big, it multiplies- forming two cell groups. This works because the original cell group leader has been discipling/mentoring an apprentice cell leader all along, and that new leader is ready to step up when the time is right and lead his or her own group. In this way leadership is developed and that whole “priesthood of all believers” thing gets unleashed and folks are always being challenged to realize and utilize their gifts- and not everyone has to be a leader, of course, as the “body” has many needs. Anyway, that cell multiplies and the process starts over and in this way the kingdom of God advances as folks who maybe wouldn’t have said they were Christ-followers before are drawn into a way of life “on the way” with Him. In my experience at least, it’s an intense and beautiful thing.

As a church that is intentional about being a church “for the next generation,” Circle is full of amazing, smart, resourceful “young people,” and it’s been incredible to see what all those young folks, full of vision and with their gifts unleashed, have accomplished. Circle started in 1996 with a handful of people in one congregation with a handful of cell groups, and now boasts two congregations (with two more on the way) comprised of about 44 cell groups (of approximately ten each). Along the way they’ve rehabbed (themselves) three buildings and started two thrift stores and a counseling agency-and so much more. It hasn’t all been perfect, of course. There were three congregations for a while before scaling back to the present two, and long before the two current thrift stores there was another one that didn’t make it. Even so, every failure- even some spectacular ones- were regarded as learning opportunities and those lessons learned were incorporated into the next new thing.

So, as I said above, Kirsten and I came to the fledgling Circle of Hope in 1996 and were immediately embraced by a new “family” as we got into our first cell group. That family really cared for us when our car was totaled in ’97, and the manner in which they did so gave hands and feet to the talk of the vision for Circle of Hope in a way that marks me to this day. They gave us an old car when we wouldn’t have had one otherwise and paid to get it up to par and even paid off what we still owed on the loan for the totaled car. They loved us in the most practical of ways when we needed it most. So it was with very mixed emotions that we moved away from Philly after only two years in ’98 in order to be with Kirsten’s dying father in the Twin Cities.

Of course, once there we found House of Mercy, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The vision of the pastors of House of Mercy was to build a church that focused on the recovery of “evangelical” (good news) theology, liturgical eclecticism, and active participation in the world. Mark Stenberg, Russell Rathbun, and Debbie Blue started House of Mercy when they realized that none of their friends believed the Jesus story anymore, largely because the good news of the gospel had been turned into bad news in the hands of (in my words) “fundagelicals,” and they wanted to do something about that. They were wonderfully humble enough, however, to recognize that folks had been “doing church” for 2000 years, and they weren’t likely to suddenly discover the right way of doing church that no one had ever thought of before. So they sought to draw on the best of all that church history (hence, liturgical eclecticism) and incorporate it into what House of Mercy did. One of the ways this was realized had to do with crafting a worship experience that appealed to all five senses (like the historic church had long done). So walking into a House of Mercy service is an experiential feast, and the incense and use of candles is something that I’ve always cherished. Moreover, the arts are a really important part of what House of Mercy does too. House of Mercy “actively participates in the world” by- among other things- offering a prophetic voice to the powers that be, a duty that Modern American Christianity (or at least some parts of it) seemed to abdicate for a long time. It was at House of Mercy that I first really learned about grace (and “true” prophecy, despite having grown up Pentecostal). Still, after five years (including my seminary experience) we found ourselves drawn back to Philly and Circle of Hope. So we went.

Once back, we quickly immersed ourselves in all that Circle was doing, and felt great joy in doing so. We joined a cell group and I became its apprentice leader. That cell multiplied and I led my own group. We became part of the formation team and helped launch Circle of Hope- East. This was particularly important to me in no small part because, having gone through seminary, I had harbored a fleeting hope to perhaps be its pastor. Circle hasn’t abandoned the “professional clergy” in the sense of having paid pastors that are supported by the church, but they have done so in the sense of relying on seminary training as the key factor in determining a person’s “fitness” to lead. It’s far more important to the leaders of Circle to have a pastor that really “gets” the vision. So when we came back there was an already formed group of “intern pastors.” I asked Rod, the lead/founding pastor about joining the group, but was rebuffed (everything with Circle is “relational,” and nobody in that group of intern pastors really knew me yet/again). Joshua Grace emerged out of that group as the candidate to lead Circle East, and though disappointed for myself, I decided to do all that I could to support him.

So we helped launch Circle East, and I became one of the Cell Leader Coordinators (a leader of cell leaders; the Coordinators were the leadership team- or “board” in institutional churches- of Circle of Hope). Kirsten and I also moved in with some new friends we had made- Aubrey and Jacob White (Jacob is the oldest son of Rod White, Circle’s lead/founding pastor). We wanted to be an “intentional community” that shared resources and sought to impact our neighborhood in truly meaningful and positive ways and we hoped to raise our children and perhaps grow old together. I’ve told this story a number of times, even on this blog, I do believe, but needless to say it didn’t work out. Our son was born four months early and our entire life was disrupted/changed forever. Some folks from Circle were incredibly supportive, understanding, and non-judgmental during Samuel’s entire 115-day hospital stay, and we will be forever in their debt. Unfortunately, others- including Joshua and the other pastors and cell leader coordinators, and Aubrey and Jacob- inexplicably were not so supportive, and the stress of that situation created fissures in all those relationships that practically blew them apart. Our “intentional community” crumbled around us and my leadership role with Circle was stripped from me (“for my own good and the good of the church, it was better for me to ‘sit this one out’.”)

Obviously, there’s much, much more to it. Suffice it to say, it was very painful- so painful that we moved out of that house, eventually asked to be released from our covenant with Circle of Hope (Circle’s form of membership- something else that is incredibly meaningful and rich with symbolism which I can describe further if asked), and then ran away to Northeast Ohio. Put that way, I guess that makes our lives here a bit of a “rebound,” which leads me to the title of this post. We just completed (in Jared’s words) a “this is your life” tour having spent time in the two cities that we lived in for the better part of a decade, which is the better part of our married life together (and boy was it something to attend worship with House of Mercy and Circle of Hope on back-to-back Sundays). Having done so, I wonder- that was our life, but is it still? Am I still mostly looking back and pining for what was, regretting all the mistakes made along the way? It was so hard to be back in that room where Circle East worships above Circle Thrift- a room whose very walls I helped build. It was great to see many folks and many were very welcoming, but it was so hard to see Joshua- and he especially was not so welcoming. So what now?

I have so much guilt about being here- guilt about abandoning our life in Philly and all that it represented, regardless of the circumstances; guilt about not only leaving “the city” but buying a nice, safe, comfortable house in a (very working class- hear the rationalization?) “suburb,” guilt about so much more. If my life is about following Jesus, and for me that has everything to do with living in community and being part of something bigger than me- being part of a group of people that are seeking to change the world together and realize God’s kingdom of love, justice, and peace (and actually doing something to make that happen with rehabbed buildings and thrift stores and changed lives to show for it), is this my life? Obviously I aspire to that life I just described, but the evidence of my actual life in Cuyahoga Falls would lead me to believe that I really don’t value very much that life I supposedly aspire to, for “one of these things is not like the other.”

So, not surprisingly, this is what keeps me up at night wondering if I’ll ever be who I want to be, if I’ll ever live the life I aspire to.


2 thoughts on “This Is Your Life, Or Is It?

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