Striving No More, Part 1, or Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope

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The cell group we left when we left Philly/Circle of Hope the first time, in 1998.

This is part 1 of a 5 part series. This post started out very differently. I set out to write about our ongoing struggle to follow Jesus, now in MN, and what that means for our participation in a local faith community. As is usually the case, however, I felt like I couldn’t tell that story very well without giving some background on our participation in other faith communities, including and especially our experience with Circle of Hope. Since I find myself telling this story so often, it made sense to pull it out of its context as a precursor or the background for any other story I might tell and instead let it stand alone as its own tale. It is, obviously, a story in its own right, and a foundational one for me, no less. This also gives me the ability to refer (link) back to it the next time I feel the need to re-tell it as context for further adventures. So, here goes.

As anyone who knows much of anything about me and/or has read much of this blog would know, to whatever extent I have, however little that may be, I “grew up” as a would be Jesus follower among the people of Circle of Hope. As I’ve often said, it was in that faith community that I learned that an isolated faith is no faith at all, that following Jesus is a communal project. It was among them that I learned that the church is a people, not a place, that “we are the church” and that it is therefore incumbent upon us to go and be the church, which is why it’s impossible to “go to church,” unless you mean you’re go(ing) to (meet the gathered) church. It was among them that I learned the power of storytelling as a means for working at right relationships, together. In fact, most of what I’m still trying to learn about how to follow Jesus has its roots in their proverbs, such as:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible”
  • As I alluded to above,”the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ “
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
    • “We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “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.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

That basic concept of a cell group based church remains foundational and formative for my understanding of how the church can and maybe should work. As I’ve said before and they (the people of Circle of Hope) can describe much better than I, the metaphor is biological. Just as the human body exists as a collection of cells, each working together to serve the whole and allowing the whole (that is, the body) to grow as cells not just reproduce, but multiply; so too the church can function in this way as well. The local church known as Circle of Hope exists again not as a building or slickly produced worship experience or program or ministry, but rather as a collection of cell groups and, eventually in Circle of Hope’s history, congregations that work together in a network to serve Jesus in the greater Philadelphia region. Every cell, a circle of no more than about ten or so, has Jesus as “its only agenda” as described above. The cell has a leadership team consisting of a leader, apprentice, and host or hostess. The cell forms and covenants together, perhaps after telling one another their “stories” for a little while so they have a sense of who they are as a group. Their covenant specifies when they will meet, how often, and for how long. No cell is meant to go on forever. It’s written into each cell’s “DNA” that it will eventually either “multiply,” or die.

Once stories are told and a covenant made, each cell is free to focus on whatever they’d like to. Whatever they do, whether it’s read a book or talk about the latest sermon or explore coffee shops in the city, those activities are a means to the end of deepening their right relationships with God and one another as together they do the face to face hard work of trying to follow Jesus. When “life happens” and a group member walks into a meeting with what feels like the weight of the world on their shoulders, whatever activity may have been planned for that evening may be delayed or scrapped altogether so that the group can surround that person in love, support, and prayer. It’s about being a people on a mission together. All the while as the cell goes through its life cycle, the cell leader is discipling his or her apprentice so that when the group is ready to multiply, the apprentice is ready to step up as a leader of the next cell group. This is important because it really gets at the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” and turns it into a reality. As cell groups grow and multiply leaders are constantly being called out, trained, equipped, and unleashed to lead. There’s a part to play for everyone whether they lead a cell or not as it’s “all in” to do the work of not just following Jesus but having a life together. The people of Circle of Hope have bought and rehabbed old buildings and turned them into worship spaces, art galleries, and thrift stores that serve real needs in their community, including the need for jobs. The people of Circle of Hope have started community gardens and host an ongoing, free baby (and kids) goods exchange where everyone brings their gently used baby and kids clothes and offers it to their neighbors who might have an older or younger kid in need of just that size or that item.

In the meantime, if lives in the individual cell groups and in the network of cells and congregations as a whole are being changed and people are experiencing what it means to really be a part of something larger than themselves as they respond to the experience of actually having a life together that is rooted in Jesus, then each cell group is growing. This group project of following Jesus together is powerfully transformative, such that you can’t help but talk about it to your neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. Among the people of Circle of Hope, you don’t really “invite someone to church” (remember, that’s impossible because the church is a people, not a place).  Instead, you invite someone into the life you’re having together as the church in your weekly cell group meeting. You might also invite them to the “public meeting” that happens on Sunday when all the cell groups gather for worship and teaching, but that meeting is also a big part of the church’s life together and serves as a celebration of all that good stuff that is already happening throughout the week. In any case, ideally each cell grows, and once it gets to be bigger than roughly 10 people or so (the “just right” size for meaningful face to face relationships in which there’s space and time for everyone to be heard, known, and loved over the course of a group’s life cycle), so long as the apprentice leader is ready, the group multiplies, forming two groups from one, with the apprentice leading a new group with his or her own apprentice and host, while the former leader selects a new apprentice and host, and the whole process starts over.

Multiplication is hard, and it doesn’t always happen, but forming a group that is designed to grow in this way, that has multiplication again written into its “DNA” is a powerful reminder again that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it. As members of that church, folks yearn to know and be known and loved for their own sake, to be sure, but again they’re learning that following Jesus is a group project. Therefore, they are not (only) their own. They’re not trying to “save” anybody by offering them “fire insurance,” by convincing or coercing them to say a few magic words before they die so that they don’t burn in hell forever. That’s not their motivation. Rather, the love they experience in the life they’re having together with Jesus makes for a genuinely better life than any they could have known otherwise, and certainly better than any that any one person could have known alone, and folks therefore want to share it. They have, after all, been invited to join God in the “family business” of reconciliation. By definition, then, a cell group can never be insular. It can never go on indefinitely in any sort of static form. God’s love can not be contained in this way. No one’s perfect, obviously, and no group is either. Some groups don’t multiply, in which case once their covenant period has come to an end the group dissolves and members are free to become a part of other cell groups.

I should say too that because this is how the people of Circle of Hope work so very intentionally at being the church, at being a people on a mission together, “membership” looks very different among them. It doesn’t happen by attending a class and signing an agreement to give of one’s “time and talents.” Like some individual cell groups make a covenant together that outlines what their shared life will look like, the people of Circle of Hope as a whole have done the same thing. Thus, to join the circle, you become a covenant member. Remember too that on Sundays the various Circle of Hope congregations have a “public meeting” to put a public face on the life of the church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. This meeting is a time for worship (remember, “without worship, we shrink”) and celebration of all that good stuff happening throughout the week. Similarly, as cells multiply congregations do as well and Circle of Hope has grown over the past 20 years from one fledgling congregation and a few cells to a network of five congregations and more than 50 cell groups. Thus, each quarter all the congregations and cells gather for a “love feast.” This is a celebration of the life the whole network is having together; it’s also a time when folks join the covenant that helps bind the whole network together. The process is intense, but beautiful. At a Love Feast, a covenant member will stand up in front of the whole assembly and introduce their friend who is joining the covenant. They might say, “This is my friend John. He’s a buddy from work who started coming to my cell. His family lives elsewhere and he didn’t have too many connections here. He didn’t really know a lot about Jesus and honestly may not have been that interested in him, but I’ve really seen him grow and change since joining my cell. He’s been really honest about some things and I’ve seen him really love the people around him well. I know he’s working to love and follow Jesus now too, and I’m proud to recommend him for membership in our covenant.” Then John will say a few words about why he wants to join the covenant, and then the gathered church can lovingly ask John questions. Then the group together assents to John becoming part of the covenant they all share together, and the party begins. It’s intense, like I said, but you might imagine, deeply meaningful and not much like most church memberships I’ve been around or know of.

So Kirsten and I were a part of Circle of Hope in two stints, from ’96-’98 and ’03-’05. In the latter stint I was a cell leader apprentice, then cell group leader, and for a short while a cell leader “coordinator” (a leader of cell leaders). Obviously, this model for how to be the church together has stuck with me and continues to captivate and shape my imagination. Obviously too we left Philly and Circle of Hope not once, but twice, both times under duress in the first case as Kirsten’s dad was rapidly dying here in the Twin Cities and in the second case in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth. In the latter case, we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

And truth is, since leaving Philly and Circle that second time we’ve struggled mightily in our efforts to be a part of any subsequent church. I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog. The one notable exception was House of Mercy here in the Twin Cities, which we were a part of for five years between Circle of Hope stints and which we’ve tried to reconnect with here since we’ve been back. There’s more to say about that, but this post is focused on Circle of Hope and why it continues to serve as the model for what I hope for from life together as the church. Before I end, I should add that every once in a while I’ve been in touch with one of the pastors of Circle of Hope since we left. I appreciate his leadership even from afar and even long after we’ve moved away- again- even if I didn’t always submit to it very well when I was there. I recently asked him to comment on the way a local church here in the “cities” is working at trying to follow Jesus together, and he had some helpful things to say. I’ll say more about that in a follow-up post to this one, but for now I want to comment on one of the things he said in response to me expressing some reservations about how that local church here was working at “being the church.” He said:

“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”

I suspect he’s right, and again I’ll have more to say about that in a follow-up post. For now, though, I want to focus on his comment that they (Circle of Hope) “would likely look wrong, too (to me), by this time.” I think part of what he’s getting at is that Circle of Hope has changed over the 20 years of their life together, most of that life now having occurred since we left for the last time 13 years ago. They’ve added some “proverbs” to their collection of them and taken some away. People have come and gone (though many have stayed). They’ve stayed true to their mission of being the church through cells, but because they work so hard to be relational not just with one another but with God and therefore to be organic; that is, living and alive; because this is so, their life together has changed too. For instance, they have compassion and mission teams now in addition to cells. These other teams are never programmatic but rise up when there is a need for them and go away as soon as that need is met. Cells remain the basic building blocks of the church. Compassion and mission teams work with the cells to help the larger network fulfill its calling in the region, especially as they are called to works of compassion and service. As they say: “None of our teams constitute a ‘program’ of the church. They are all an expression of the life of the Spirit in the body of Christ. They start with an inspiration and form when enough people want to join together to express God’s leading. When they lose steam or their service is done, they disperse.”

This may or may not be one of the changes my former Circle of Hope pastor was perhaps alluding to when he suggested that they “might look wrong” to me “by this time.” I don’t know. I do know that I continue to appreciate what Circle of Hope is becoming. As they listen to God and try hard to get with “what God is doing next” and listen to one another as they keep making their covenant together and do the hard work of being the church together, face to face, person to person, lives are being changed and they are impacting their region. I’m glad just to know that they’re out there and will re-double my effort to figure out what that means for me and my family here in MN.  I appreciate too that in the past I’ve gotten the message that what God is doing in the Philly region among the people of Circle of Hope is just that- what God is doing there. I don’t think they’d ever try to “take this thing national.” As I said, I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor to comment on how a local church here was working to be the church, here. Part of that work by that local MN church involves their connection to a larger, (inter)national group which I’ll comment on in a separate post. Anyway, about that, my former Circle of Hope pastor said, “why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local?” This question is contextual and his larger point was that, from what he saw online, he likes the local church here, but my point now is that the work of being the church together is always contextual too. God got really particular in the person of Jesus, and he continues to work quite particularly in local people in all the places and times where they can be found. I need to be better at not only paying attention to what God might be up to among the people here, where I am now, but perhaps more importantly, I need to be better at allowing myself to be one of them. In other words, I need to be better at letting God do his particular work in and through me, here in MN, whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.

Be Who We Are, Where We Are

This post from Rod White was timely. I especially appreciate this part:

The big threat of our era is the inability to be who we are where we are instead of always standing outside of ourselves taking a picture or imagining some other experience instead of the one we are having.

I’ll probably have more to say about this later. 

Thoughts on Turning 40 Over a Year Later

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I’m two months into my 41st year. Turning 40 last year felt monumental. It seems like such a milestone. Maybe 40 is the “new 30;” I don’t know, but either way I had attached some significance to this event. The big day came and went with not a small amount of disappointment. I’m not complaining (or I don’t mean to be); Kirsten did her best as she always does to help me feel valued and loved. Nonetheless, I wondered what I had to show for my four decades of existence thus far at that point. As I had been anticipating turning 40 for some time, no doubt, I found myself hoping that the day would come and I would find myself surrounded not just by (my immediate) family but also by friends and maybe some colleagues and hopefully whilst immersed in a faith community of which I was a valued part. However, having just recently moved across the country again when June rolled around again last year, that certainly didn’t happen. I was just weeks into a new job when my birthday arrived, and we had yet to make a solid connection upon returning to House of Mercy (and sadly, probably still have yet to do so). Obviously, then, there had also been little time to develop new friendships or rekindle local old ones. That latter part still hasn’t happened, and may not. As for the former part, the developing new friendships part, that’s certainly slow going at best, and near nonexistent at worst.

It’s not that I don’t have friends, though. Had we been in OH, there are a few dear friends there that I’m sure I would have celebrated with. Had we been in TX, I’m hopeful that the same would have been true. The fact is that moving as often (and as far) as we repeatedly have, even if “only” every 4 or 5 years and even if we wind up repeatedly returning to places we left; nonetheless moving that far that often has a way of limiting the relationships that can be successfully cultivated and maintained. There’s certainly something to the “wisdom of stability,” and as always I’m hopeful that our last big move was, well, our last.

There’s another truth at work here, too, one that I continually struggle to come to terms with. I’ve been very fortunate over the years, especially my early years, to have benefited from good relationships with a few mentors that have taught me so very much about how to become the person I want to be. After one of these big cross country moves many years ago, as I was probably complaining to one of these mentors about my struggle to find a new one where I was, he said something that I would paraphrase as, “Well, maybe it’s time for you to give what you’ve gotten.” That is, maybe it’s time for me to be less focused on finding a mentor, and more focused on being one to somebody else. This is, after all, how discipleship is supposed to happen, right? “Each one” should not only “win one,” but teach one. The healthiest version of me is the one that is both teaching and being taught, the one that is simultaneously a leader and a follower.

I think this is salient because of the old adage, “If you want a friend, be a friend.” In other words, I need to focus less on myself and quit wishing for folks to surround me in loving, supportive relationships (that is, community). Instead, I need to love and support those I come across and offer the bonds of friendship without expecting anything in return. After all, it is of course only through giving that I might hope to receive. Thus, I plan to reach out over the next little while to those friends, wherever they are, that I’ve been blessed with thus far over my 41 years, mostly to thank them for their friendship and do what I can to maintain it. If you hear from me soon, you’re among those I want to express my gratitude to in this way. In the meantime, I need to much better do the basic work of following Jesus. I’m working to teach my kids how to do this (follow Jesus) and why we do so. I’m trying to better introduce them to the “big story” of a God who is for us (all), and that because this is the case we can truly be for one another and for the good world God gave us. The better I model this ideal- loving and being for those around me, whoever they are- the more likely I’ll celebrate my 42nd birthday not by wanting to be blessed by all my many local friends, but instead by wanting to bless those that I’ve been lucky enough to come to know and love over the past year, and beyond. Lord, let it be so.

Consumption or Community?

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We were out on a hike yesterday in our old N. Minneapolis neighborhood. There’s an amazing trail there through the North Mississipi Regional Park. As we entered the Webber Park portion of the trail, which is across from our old apartment building, we came across this bridge where local artists had obviously been encouraged to decorate the bridge with positive words and images. Here are some pictures of the bridge and those words/images:

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It’s a pretty cool bridge, encouraging us to “work to save planet earth” and to “imagine peace.” One panel, a larger view of which is at the top of this post, also has the words “community” and “one love.” Those who know me know that the pursuit of (meaningful and sometimes “intentional,” even occasionally “Christian”) community has been an enormous part of my adult life. I’ve written about this pursuit frequently on this blog before, but several formative experiences have served to root this ideal at the center of my yearnings for the kind of life I want to be a part of. I suppose my first experience of (something like) “real” community occurred as an undergraduate at Gordon College. This continued in a hyper intense setting during my Kingdomworks experience, and then, not much more than a year later, was cemented as I was immersed as a newlywed in the just started Circle of Hope.

It was through the teaching and more importantly, the experience of community through Circle of Hope that I first came to understand that the Christian life is a communal one, or it is no life at all. Shane Claiborne, peripherally connected to Circle of Hope in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly since its early days, would later pose the question in his seminal book, The Irresistible Revolution, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” It’s a basic, but powerful query that distills much of what I now strive for as someone who purports to follow Jesus. At 41, I’ve come to believe that I no longer have time to “mess around.” If following Jesus won’t make much of a difference to me as I live my life, much less to anyone else, I’m not interested because it’s simply too hard. And the thing is, I want it to be hard. I wrote about this years ago in both my undergraduate and graduate thesis, but it’s hard to put the energy into doing something that isn’t perceived as being worthwhile, and part of the perception of worth is wrapped up in notions of difficulty. I would hope I’m not naive or reductive enough to think that any hard thing is a thing worth doing; obviously there’s a little more to it than that. But if Jesus “really meant what he said,” what a life we’ve been invited to participate in and help create!

Jesus inaugurated his ministry by declaring the fulfillment of the proclamation of “good news to the poor.. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” of setting “the oppressed free” and of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this election year especially but in every year, who wouldn’t want good news for the poor to be a reality? Aside from the powerful corporations and politicians that benefit from the prison-industrial complex, who wouldn’t want prisoners and the oppressed in USAmerica and around the world to be set free? Who doesn’t want to see the blind recover their sight? This is a political platform and agenda for life that I can get behind. This is, of course, all about reconciliation. It’s about reconciling and pursuing right relationship not only with God but with one another and with the beautiful world God made. It’s about right relationship within our own broken hearts, with our own fractured selves. Thus, Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation, but this is a profoundly difficult task, and it was the experience of Christian community through Circle of Hope that taught me that in no small part because this is such a difficult task, it’s one that can only truly be undertaken together. As I came to learn, all those “you’s” in the Bible that address how we are to live as Jesus followers are largely plural; they’re addressed, to you, the community of Christ followers. If we are to have any hope of living a life devoted to delivering (tangible, practical) real good news for the poor and imprisoned and oppressed and blind in the world; if we are to have any real hope of living a reconciled life, we must attempt it together, because we need each other.

We need each other to resist the temptation to pursue the American dream. It’s an enticing dream, after all, one that has captivated the imagination of large swaths of the world. It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination can get you every(material)thing you want out of life. It’s tempting to think that material things are the best of what can be had in life, and even simply that having is what life is about. To the extent that the “American dream” (not to mention the USAmerican economy) whatever it once might have been or been about, has now been reduced to one centered on consumption and the acquisition of goods, it can rightly be said to be more of a nightmare. Don’t we all know by now that “money can’t buy you love,” after all, and isn’t love what we really want? Love requires work, though, and involves reconciliation. Thus, “stuff” can often be a tempting, if unsatisfying, substitute. The “American dream” is more of a nightmare, however, for many other reasons, including notably that it’s simply unsustainable. It’s not possible for all the world to live like middle class USAmericans, we who consume such disproportionate amounts of the world’s resources. The planet is already damaged, perhaps irreversibly so, now, in large part due to our exploitation of its resources so that we can afford our middle class lifestyle. If everyone lived as we do, there would be nothing left. I believe at some level the most powerful in our society know this, and care not a whit. So long as some can achieve this way of life, though largely as a result of the circumstances of their birth (too customarily as white USAmericans), then the allure of the “dream” can continue to be held out as a hope for all both here and abroad. Thus the system is perpetuated with a few (we white middle class USAmericans, largely) benefiting a little and fewer still (the much talked about “1%”) benefiting a lot, to the detriment of everyone else.

And yet even I find this “dream” all too captivating much of the time. Absent a community of like-minded (and “Spirited,” dare I say) Christ followers around me to help me live the life I know I’m called to- a life marked by the pursuit of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed, in short, a reconciled life-  I fall too easily into the pursuit of that lesser “dream.” My Amazon cart is full of “saved for later” items I’m ready to purchase the moment I can, and for good measure I even have an Amazon “wish list” of (high-minded, how ironic) books I’d add to my cart and would buy if I could as well. The Ikea catalog adorns my bathroom shelf above the toilet, and I spent much of this past Sunday morning communing not with God and his church but with my own consumptive desires as I refined the list of items I want to buy when I can. This is the life the corporations that run our (consumption based) economy and largely our “democracy” want me to live. They even know I’m on to them and I suspect without a hint of irony play into this meager self-knowledge by subtitling that Ikea catalog with the words “designed for people, not consumers.” It’s only people-as-consumers that buy their products and keep them in business, however; so let’s be honest.

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In my heart of hearts, though, I know I don’t want to merely consume; I want to commune. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want my life to matter to myself and, if it’s not too much to hope, to others, to the world. So we need each other to resist the promise of the lie that consumption brings happiness. We need each other too simply to do the work of a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. is rife with racial strife that has bubbled to the surface of the consciousness of white America. As I understand it as a white person, for people of color, that strife has always been at the surface because they’re daily confronted with the stress of institutional racism and oppression. It is only my privilege that literally affords me the opportunity not to think about this injustice on a daily basis, if I choose (not) to. Racial reconciliation, then, and the hard work of deconstructing racism and my own white privilege, is obviously very, very hard work. As W.E.B. Dubois said at the outset of the last century, “The problem of the…century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s likely true that this is no less the case for the 21st century than it was for the 20th, despite whatever progress may have been made in the last century. Again, we need each other to do this work.

I could go on, but I think the basic point has been made. As someone who wants to follow Jesus I believe that I and that all of us were made in and for love. We were created to exist in loving, right relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s good created order, the world. We are our best selves, I believe, when we live life with and for those around us, when we choose to serve one another, to esteem the other as better than ourselves, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” My family and I have experienced this type of community (or at least the meaningful, dedicated pursuit of it) most fully when we’ve been part of a larger faith community that puts this idea of love and peace with justice at the center of its understanding of what it means to have Jesus at the center of its identity.  We hope to experience such community again soon, and will redouble our efforts to work at bringing it about.

Renting=Spiritual Discipline(?)

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This is where we live right now. It’s the classic nondescript townhouse in the ‘burbs. It’s literally the antithesis of almost everything I claim I believe about the importance of place and one’s stewardship of it. My old/former friend/mentor David once said, as I’ve long since quoted, that “buying a house is one of the most important theological decisions you’ll ever make.” As he went on to say, there’s a lot that goes into such a decision. It involves deciding how much of one’s budget to commit to housing, for starters, and whether or not one will live beyond one’s means. It means deciding, for good or ill, who your literal neighbors are and how much time you’ll spend each day commuting to work or school. It should involve critical thinking about justice and race and economic disparities. I could go on.

The first/only time we bought a house, we chose this one:

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We really grew to like and appreciate that house in OH. It looks, and was, relatively small, but in a “bigger on the inside” sort of way. There were two bedrooms upstairs, a normal sized one on the main floor, and another tiny one on the main floor for a total of four. Plus, the basement was mostly finished, giving it a family room and second bathroom down there, plus a bonus room that variously served as a workout room for a previous owner and a sewing room (when Kirsten’s mom lived with us), office, and eventual extra “bedroom” in our almost decade in that house. Still, despite it being what I think is a fairly modest house from the look of it with a working class neighborhood vibe, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about (working toward) “owning” it.

For starters, I love cities and believe that there are justice issues involved in choosing to live in one. I lean toward thinking that it’s more just to do so, given the historic reality of white flight and the resultant declining urban tax base and property values. However, I know too that choosing to live in the city can unwittingly make one part of the gentrification process of the very disadvantaged neighbors one might seek to make common cause with. Still, I do love the city. So choosing to buy the house we did above was a conflicted decision as it was a house in a ‘burb. The nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it felt more like a small town with its own “downtown” and the like; it just happened to be adjacent to some larger cities in Akron and Cleveland (and, going the other way, Canton). The not nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it was sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls,” and that lack of diversity was certainly reflected in our experience there. I salved my guilt about (working toward) “owning” that house by:

  • Moving into it with Kirsten’s mom in tow and giving her the biggest bedroom for our first year+ there.
  • Later, by fostering a couple of African-American boys for a very short while in that house.
  • While we were in Texas for a year-and-a-half as my dad was dying right in the middle of our near decade “owning” that house, we rented it out at a significant monthly loss to a couple that couldn’t have afforded to live there otherwise. We hoped to eventually sell the house to them, but we wound up returning to it instead.
  • Much later, we gave up our basement first for a young married couple to move in and, as they left, then for a teacher friend to live in it.

None of that of course made my guilt completely go away. Whether or not I should have entertained such a feeling at all is another question, but I struggled with it until the house finally sold after our move to MN. In a sign of changing times and perhaps providentially, it just so happened that we sold the house to a an African-American family.

So, now here we are in a townhouse well entrenched in “nice” neighborhood in what is more classically and obviously a suburb. I have some guilt of course about where we are now, which is only slightly lessened by the fact that we’re renting. We sold the OH house at such a loss that it may be a long time before we ever “own” again. We chose this townhouse because it’s a few blocks from Kirsten’s mom (and sister), and ostensibly we’re here in no small part to help give care to her as her health declines. It’s within sight of a good elementary school that did very well with Samuel and his (slight) Autism diagnosis in the year+ he went there. However, Coon Rapids seems to have a lot of baggage in terms of a heritage of racism that we still run into every day. I’ve experienced this personally as I heard an employee at the local Ford dealer where I was getting work done on our car call the President a “raghead,” and in the news. Sadly, the school district also has a terrible history of discrimination of LGBT students that resulted in a rash of suicides.

That said, things here are very much changing too. When I let a manager at the Ford dealership know what I had heard and how offensive it was, he went out of his way to apologize and express his agreement with me. He may have been exercising good customer service, but it felt genuine. While attending a community event at a local park, I sat down with the boys for a snack while lunch was being served. In the circle we were sitting in, I saw another white family, but also an Asian dad and his boys and an African-American mom and her kids. Things are improving in the school district too, and even that good elementary school that’s just a stone’s throw away seems increasingly diverse when we attend school functions. I’m glad for that.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to put down roots here, and this is why after yearning for so long to live the “American dream” and own a home, I’m almost glad not to right now. When we did, I gave lip service to the notion that everything belongs to God and I was but a steward of whatever possessions I came to have, including that house, but I don’t know how well I actually lived that out. We are fortunate to have what so far is a really great landlord here; so with that in mind, I can say that my lived experience of renting this townhouse for the past year isn’t all that different from the decade we “owned” that OH house. I still make a large payment every month to the person/entity that “really” owns my residence (if not truly or ultimately again if everything belongs to God). I don’t have the freedom to do whatever I want with this place, but that’s what I’m grateful for now, because it reminds me that if I really believe that everything belongs to God and I am but a steward of God’s stuff, than I never really did have that freedom. Being more conscious of my likely transience in this place helps me be mindful of those who lived here before I did, and those who will come after me. Moreover, it helps me be thoughtful about that super important theological decision of just where to put down more “permanent” roots, and I hope and pray to use this time wisely to make sure we make that decision, whenever we do, with all the force of our convictions and wisdom of our experience.