“…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.

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.

Farewell

My brother, Gary, about 10 years ago, in the room where our dad was dying.

I got word this morning that my brother in Texas was in cardiac arrest. From what I had heard, he had been having a rough go of it of late. He had struggled with his health for quite a few years. He suffered a stroke some years ago that may have changed his personality some. He had been diagnosed some time ago with the kidney disease that killed his mother (we’re half brothers) and had received a transplant as a result, but that left him immuno-compromised. More recently, he’d been in a very bad car accident that required surgery, a lengthy hospital stay, and rehab. While hospitalized, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then got COVID. He apparently recovered from COVID and was in a rehab facility trying to build his strength back and was preparing for radiation and chemo for the cancer. Over the past few days, I’m told he was in a great deal of pain, though, and then this morning his heart stopped. Word was that he probably “wouldn’t make it.”

He didn’t.

Over the coming days I’ll try to do the work of processing, of feeling what I feel, of grieving. Our relationship, such as it was, was nearly non-existent. My mother, of course, was the woman our dad married very soon after his mother died, and my mother was not only my abuser, but I’m sure in ways I probably can’t understand, his too, though he was nearly done with high school by the time his mom died and my parents married. My brother and I disagreed about most everything, and I wrote about our difficult relationship here. As I look back on that post, I’m sure that I was less charitable than I could and probably should have been. I said that however I thought of him, I knew I needed to love him. I wrote about his less than stellar health and how I would process our relationship when he died. It seems that day has come.

2020’s Top 10

I needed a picture to sum up my writing in 2020. This one, of one of the first cell groups my wife and I were ever a part of, seems to fit the bill.

I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.

Number #10 Post Read in 2020: A Chronic Would-Be Rescuer Confronts His False Self

This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

Number #9 Post Read in 2020: Better

This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.

Number #8 Post Read in 2020: My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.

Number #7 Post Read in 2020: Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.

Number #6 Post Read in 2020: Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

You get music again. I give what I have to give, I guess. Rich Mullins still inspires me, and I hope this song of his plays at my funeral.

Number #5 Post Read in 2020: It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

I wrote this just before Christmas of 2020, riffing off Brennan Manning, and yes, Laird’s Into the Silent Land again.

Number #4 Post Read in 2020: Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

This is another early in the pandemic post from 2020, explaining why the way I encounter Jesus among the Circle of Hope continues to inspire me and captivate my theological imagination.

Number #3 Post Read in 2020: In Memoriam

I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”

Number #2 Post Read in 2020: Why I Keep Talking About…Alternativity, the Bruderhof, and Church of All Nations

This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.

Number #1 Post Read in 2020: Buck Family 2020 Christmas Newsletter

I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.

It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.

This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:

The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”

The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus

What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:

The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Manning goes on:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”

Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:

All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.

This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.

Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:

The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.

To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”

The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…

Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Stripped and Filled

I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.

The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”

“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”

This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”

I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.

Proximity Redux- Consumption or Community?

Note: I wrote this post almost four-and-a-half years ago. I was reminded of it the other day, and find that it’s as relevant as ever as Christmas in this pandemic year fast approaches. These days, I’m still choosing between consumption and community, between Mammon/Mars and Jesus. I’d like to think I’ll finally make my choice for good (no pun intended) and be done with it, but that may not be how it works. I suppose some days we’re more faithful, and some days less so. Thank God there’s very little, my own fate least of all, that’s really finally up to me. Meanwhile, beloved community beckons like a song, and a song rises in my heart in response. Together, may we join the heavenly chorus, the same chorus that greeted those shepherds so long ago to announce to the world that peace had finally come to earth. Peace be with you and yours this Christmas.

wp-1471280789133.jpg

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:

wp-1471281630951.jpg

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.

Ikea

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.

Joy and Sorrow in the Circle of Hope

I write as Pandora’s algorithms serve up a bittersweet tune on my “Christmas Choral Classics” station. I wonder what previous likes or dislikes, my input to the algorithm, has led to this outcome. The tune is instrumental. Maybe I am too. How much of my writing on this blog, intermittent and streaky as it may be, is marked by music? If I could write music, I would. If someone would teach me to play the guitar that sits idly in my bedroom, I might never put it down. Writing is in my blood, but who’s to say what my best expression of it might be? If I live long enough, maybe I’ll discover that I’m a songwriter. Wouldn’t that be something?

Today, though, you get this writing, and so do I. Reading is to writing as hearing is to speaking, and today I finally started in earnest to read Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh’s Romans Disarmed.

The back cover says it’s about “Reading the Bible from the underside of empire.” It comes highly recommended from the venerable Byron Borger, proprietor of Hearts and Minds Books. He’s a friend of the authors, from what I can tell, and is credited with reading the entire manuscript and giving feedback on it. He wrote effusively about it in a not too long ago edition of his Booknotes newsletter, which I highly recommend you subscribe to. I asked for and received it as a gift last year, I think, but it has been among the many books I have lying about that I think will be important, but haven’t made time to read yet.

I heard somewhere once (I can’t remember where) that “deeper than the part of me that can’t, is the part of me that doesn’t want to.” Whatever the original context, I apply it to reading this book because while I may have felt too busy or undisciplined or scattered to finally give it a go, I have deep suspicion that underneath all that can’t is a won’t. I think some of my reluctance to finally pick it up and dive in comes from a judgmental place within me. I have always felt like my own worst critic, and honestly, I do not yet know if that critical self is my shadow or true self. My mother is all mixed up in this, and in me. Strange- as I write this I’m reminded that I’m just a few days removed from the 22nd anniversary of her death. If COVID doesn’t claim me before this time next year, then I will have lived half my life with, and half my life without her, and yet she’s always with me whether I want her to be or acknowledge it or not. In any case, my ongoing work to be differentiated from my mother includes sorting out just whose voice is so judgmental inside me. Is it really mine, or is it hers? Or doesn’t it really matter, if perhaps I am a proverbial chip off the old block?

Back to Romans Disarmed then, I think part of my “won’t” about reading it has been some expected self-judgment about Keesmat and Walsh’s admirable life vs. my own. They live in a solar-powered farm in Canada that is heated by a wood fire which they also cook by, if I have all that right. They also happen to be PhD’s who have long had what I would now call a proper understanding of the “empire” we live in and the Jesus-follower’s place in contradistinction to it. I don’t know if I could, or would even truly want to, live the kind of life they do, but I sure admire it and feel no small amount of guilt about how my own life stacks up to it.

All that said, I know they have something to teach me, and I’m eager to learn. Perhaps, then, if I both can and will make time to do so, I’ll do some writing as I read Romans Disarmed, which at this moment I’ve only just begun. It has ten chapters. If I really want to wrestle with what they say, maybe I’ll try to write one post per chapter over the next month or two.

Light In The Darkness

It may be fortuitous, serendipitous, even providential, dare I say, that I begin reading (and writing!) with Advent and Christmas on the horizon. Circle of Hope, my faith community mostly located in Philly, is looking forward to Advent this year as a season in which to experience lament in the midst of hope. Here is how they frame the Advent journey this year:

Advent is all about the drama of hope — light in the darkness, presence in the midst of brutality, trust in the face of fear. We are choosing to go through the suffering rather than around it. We can trust God to be with us because so many years ago God was born as a tiny baby. Can we rejoice in the Lord, Jesus, even now?

We are following this description of hope from Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, “In the midst of suffering, hope takes the form of “arguing” and “wrestling” with God. Such  lament is not merely a cry of pain—it is a way of mourning, protesting, and appealing to God.”

“In the midst of suffering” We are, indeed, suffering. Collectively, we are suffering more consciously than we have in recent memory. There is a mutuality God desires with us. God hushes in our disconsolate ears, and we hush back in the ears of the vulnerable baby God was. We are caring for the fragile way God shows up by caring for the fragile way we are showing up right now.

“Not merely a cry of pain” Entering our pain is an invitation into something new—a call from the future—rather than only rumination on the past. 

“With God” God has been born into our lament already. The presence of the baby is already here. The STORY is already told. Advent tells our story in the light of God-with-us. This season, we will highlight the power of anticipation, and paint a picture of hope lived out in real life.

Somehow this framing of the Advent season seems especially appropriate this year. I write on the day after the U.S. earned yet another infamous record in its inexorable march toward the worst kind of exceptionalism, having passed 200,000 new coronavirus infections in a single day. Likewise, another day has passed without justice for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and so many others. Today is another day in what is hopefully the waning days of the Trump administration, but even if the government of the U.S. follows the obvious will of the voters and inaugurates Biden in January, Trumpism seems entrenched in a large minority of the populace, and it is hopefully obvious that Joe Biden will not save us from this or much of anything else. U.S. presidential administrations come and go, but the unfettered consumer capitalism and the violence with which it is inextricably linked, both hallmarks of the U.S. empire, remain.

So hope and lament seem inextricably bound too, so long as we wait for Jesus to fully and finally set all things to right. Keesmaat and Walsh seem to have something to say about this in the little I’ve read so far. They begin Romans Disarmed by setting the stage for their work of really seeking to understand the Apostle’s letter to the church in Rome in a new, but paradoxically very old, way. In saying it’s a “new” way, I reveal of course where I stand in relation to Paul’s writing. I may not understand it very well because I don’t stand under it at all. As a cisgender straight male of European descent, firmly ensconced in middle-class life in the middle of U.S. empire, my position is one of standing “over” those to whom Paul wrote, and those like them today. That Paul lived and worked in the midst of empire should be obvious. We name his sociohistorical location as such today- the Roman Empire. Of course, Rome’s ancient empire was secured and maintained by that Roman “peace” which was anything but peaceful, the Pax Romana. It may be somewhat less obvious that we live in such an empire that is secured by such a peace today. Nonetheless, that we are now in what may be the waning days of a Pax Americana should be fairly clear to the careful observer.

That context for Paul’s writing and our reading matters greatly. As Keesmaat and Walsh write:

What happens if we read Paul’s letter to the Christian house churches in Rome as something akin to a call to disarm the empire? What happens if we read this letter written to the heart of the empire from the perspective of the margins of that empire?

Circle of Hope has been wrestling with this idea for at least a while now. As Rod White, Circle’s founding pastor wrote about Paul a few years ago:

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Those who wear “slavish shoes,” whether Paul’s and those to whom he writes on the margins of Roman empire, or their counterparts today on the margins of U.S. empire, know suffering and sorrow, and have reason to lament. Keesmaat and Walsh say:

Paul writes his epistle to the Romans from a place of “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). We suspect that you can’t really understand what Paul is up to in this ancient letter if you don’t have access to such a place.

They add, recognizing their own privilege as highly educated Canadians, that “if we have any access to the margins” (where they argue Paul’s epistle is best understood)…”it can only be through deep listening and shared tears.” This deep listening by the powerful to the powerless and sharing that brings tears can perhaps only come through the work of solidarity, which in turn requires proximity. We who inherit unearned privilege and power must give it away as best we can and get close to those who were marginalized so that we could be centered. We may not have been born on the margins, but if we want to really understand Paul, let alone Jesus, we might need to get there. Keesmaat and Walsh again:

There is a pathos to Paul’s writing that gets lost when interpretation gets too focused on the nature of the theological argument Paul is mounting.

They add:

…the pathos that goes all the way down to the core of creation also goes all the way up the heart of God.

And:

Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans.

You Need a Great Capacity for Joy

So whether we were born on the margins or recognize our need to in some way get there so that we can better see Jesus in his slavish shoes, there is a question of how, then, to live. On the margins, resources can seem scarce. Healthcare can be hard to come by. Social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic may be impossible. There is, again, suffering and sorrow. Keesmaat and Walsh offer an answer, if not a solution:

You need a great capacity for joy if you are to sustain life in the midst of such sorrow. But any “joy” that averts its gaze from sorrow, any “joy” that will not embrace the grief and hurt at the heart of things, is cheap sentimentality at best, an emotional cover-up and lie at worst.

They add, reflecting Paul, that “We need joy…if we are to have hope.” I said above that Circle of Hope was “my faith community, mostly located in Philly.” I say “mostly,” because in the midst of the pandemic as Circle and so many other churches pivoted to offer everything they could online, my wife and I began to reconnect with them. We have deep roots among them, and I have written about those roots quite a bit on this blog. In any case, we began reconnecting with them during Lent and Easter, and it was with no great surprise that we found ourselves experiencing joy as we did so, for the first time in a long time. Since that time, that deepening connection has only grown and finally culminated in us rejoining their covenant at the recent quarterly Love Feast. Today, I even lead a Circle of Hope cell group of people dispersed all over the country.

We do not know what this means for us. Right now many Circle of Hope cell groups continue to meet online because of the pandemic. So mine is not much different. Right now Circle’s regular Sunday meeting(s) continue to happen online too. Of course, that will not always be so. So we have much discernment to engage in as we figure out what the new “normal” looks like in a world where it’s safer to meet in person again. That may mean that we need to move back to Philly again. The Circle of Hope pastors use a metaphor for their podcast that I keep coming back to. They say in the podcast that they’re “extending the table of their dialogue” through the podcast to wherever folks tune in to it. Right now that table comes all the way to Minneapolis and, through my cell, to Texas and Wisconsin and Illinois. I don’t yet know what the outcome of the dialogue will be, but I sure am glad to be part of the conversation.

Being a part of Circle again, even from a geographic distance, has helped me to find joy, and hope. It is, after all, a “circle of hope,” and I believe it will help me to sustain life in the midst of the sorrow of COVID, of racial oppression and economic disparity, and in the midst of endless war to maintain U.S. “homeland security.” Advent is about the drama of hope as we choose to go through suffering rather than around it. Jesus endured suffering on the cross of course, but in a larger way the promise of Christmas, of Immanuel, “God with us,” is a promise that God enters our suffering more broadly too. As Bono infamously said at that 2006 National Prayer Breakfast:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

I might quibble with some of what Bono said. There is an “us” and a “them” that he describes, and he could be seen as being somewhat condescending to “them.” Nonetheless, he was addressing the powerful in his speech, and I know that I occupy a place of power in this society. So I have much work to do to relinquish as much of it as I can so that I can get closer to the margins where Jesus and Paul are, in their “slavish shoes.”

All of this is why I’m so looking forward to Advent this year. I’m glad to be walking in the Circle of Hope as we recognize the suffering around us and lament it, even as our joy sustains us and moves us to hope. Likewise, I know that Keesmaat and Walsh will be wise guides as they help me to more fully get into Paul’s slavish shoes in order to understand his letter to the Romans from the underside of empire. Lord, let it be so.

A Tale of Generosity, Still in Progress

Confirm Image

This is my first post in a while, and I have so much to share, but right now I want to keep this short and just share this, which is long overdue. A few weeks ago I created a fundraiser for my sister, Lee, pictured above from more than a few years ago. As I say there:

Lee is resilient, hard-working, and giving to a fault. She has faced many challenges in life, but always chooses to keep moving forward and do her best for those around her. She has invested many years in caring for family, including her three grandchildren. Today, in her early 60’s, Lee works as a newspaper delivery person in north central Texas. It’s a hard job involving sleepless nights, and is very demanding on Lee physically. It’s also very demanding on her car as she puts over 100 miles on it every night and her route takes her into some remote areas outside her city.

And also:

Lee was advised that the car she was in was simply not safe to drive even more day on her daily paper route. So Lee felt compelled to act out of desperate fear for her own safety. She did so, and was able to get into another vehicle, one that is a little newer and in better shape, though it still already has over 100,000 miles on it. Unfortunately, because of Lee’s limited financial resources and options, she drove off the lot in this better vehicle knowing that she was already “underwater” on it (owing more than it’s worth), and looking at a schedule of payments that will likely have her paying on it long after this vehicle too has died.

Of course this is how cycles of debt are maintained in communities of people with limited financial resources. It’s how the system, unfortunately, is designed to work. And of course to make even this bad deal, Lee had to use resources she didn’t have, using rent money, for example. So, the good news is that Lee is now safe for a while in a work vehicle that will be reliable for now. What’s better, though, is that thanks to the generosity of those that have already given, she can recoup some of her cost in getting into the newer vehicle and still make rent.

I should mention that she told me to pull the plug on this fundraiser because she is in a safer vehicle (if not in a safer loan) and didn’t want to mislead anyone. I told her instead that I thought we should keep it going for awhile, while being fully transparent with this update. I said perhaps folks would continue showing up for her, and that enough funds might be raised to help her make some headway on this new loan. This way, when this vehicle needs repair as it inevitably will and/or needs to be replaced, perhaps her situation then will be much better and she can get into the next vehicle without being forced into an unenviable choice like she was with this one. Bearing that in mind, will you share this on your social media and invite others to get in on this goodness? What a story Lee will have to tell about the generosity of others and God’s goodness to her! Thank you!

So, can you please share this on your social media? Perhaps someone you share it with will want to get in on this generosity and goodness. Thank you!