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.
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,Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, pp. 94-95
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.
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:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “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. 8 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.