9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. 11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. 12 Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. 13 With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. 14 I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. 15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. 16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word. –Psalm 119:9-16
I offer the scripture above as some context for what will follow. Here’s a little more context, from Circle of Hope’s proverbs:
Now hit the “play” button below and listen to a song Circle of Hope adapted for worship, and then I’ll talk about it below.
As you can tell, this is a recording of live worship at one of Circle of Hope’s Sunday Meetings. Here’s the lyrics:
I’m not the same
Your word has changed me
It is hidden in my heart
My life has a fresh start
I’m walking out freer
I’m walking out stronger
I’m walking out better
Better than when I came
Oh, it’s getting better
Oh, it’s getting better
Oh, it’s already better
Better than when I came
Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, has a great post this morning about worship and its potential to unlock deep memories and create change. I appreciated it much, and found it resonant with what’s been happening within me of late. As I’m writing here about worship through music and I used the term “resonant” just now, I was struck that this term has multiple meanings, including those scientific and musical. One of those meanings is this: “a synchronous gravitational relationship of two celestial bodies (such as moons) that orbit a third (such as a planet).” So resonance has to do with being in sync, and this is exactly what I’m talking about.
I was ready to sync up with Rod’s post this morning because I was awake into the wee hours of the morning listening to the song above and a few others that I’ve come across while exploring what Circle has shared via archive.org. Here’s one search result of all kinds of content they’ve uploaded including worship music and sermons, but I don’t think this is exhaustive and may not even include the song above. Here are a few of my favorite such songs and gifts for growing:
Rod’s post references some of the latest brain science regarding where our brains store basic memories and how we can access conscious emotions. It reminds me very much of what I’ve learned about trauma and the kind of trauma therapy that I’ve been engaged in over the past year, EMDR. My very crude understanding of EMDR- and why I’ve been undergoing it- is that traumatic memories (and, perhaps, their associated emotions) can get stuck in the “back” of the more “animal” part of our brain, where instincts like our fight or flight mechanism reside. EMDR activates both hemispheres of a person’s brain while they “reprocess” traumatic memories in the hope that those memories can “move” and no longer be stuck. I know in my case the Complex PTSD I live with as a result of my emotional abuse as a child can cause “emotional flashbacks” in which suddenly I’m feeling something that is bigger and maybe unrelated to what is actually happening in the moment. In those moments when I’ve been “triggered” by something that somehow reminded my animal brain of the trauma that I suffered, my behavior is driven not by what I want to do or who I hope to be, but by an instinct to protect myself due to an “unconscious predictive model” or “emotional schema” that my brain has created. Here’s what Rod said about it, citing the research he was learning about:
At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic. They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.
According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.
What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days.
I’m no expert, but I think this “reconsolidation” has something to do with the “reprocessing” of traumatic memory that is the focus of EMDR. Anyway, Rod goes on to say:
What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.
Rod says that worship can be just such a transforming environment, and it’s no surprise that this is included in the lore of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. Under the section titled, “We are meant to go deep with God,” they say:
◉To have a full relationship with God, one must live in an environment where worship can be learned, the spiritual disciplines gained and spiritual warfare fought.
◉ Prayer is the key to fulfilling our mission of transformation.
◉ Solitude and silence are crucial tools for experiencing God’s presence.
◉ Without worship, a person shrinks.
I’m Not the Same
Without worship, a person shrinks, indeed. I’ll be honest, I deeply miss the kind of authentic, embodied, soul-stirring worship through music such as what Circle of Hope regularly engages in. The evangelical, suburban, Assemblies of God mega-church of my youth may not have had great theology and I often criticize it from the safe distance of time and miles. BUT- they routinely created an environment in which (musical) worship at least could be learned, and I think I learned it. My childhood was terrible. I enjoyed “white” privilege in the “Bible-belt” south, of course, but it wasn’t fun. My mother abused me; my father enabled it; there were financial problems and most of my growing up was in a trailer park, and the other “Christian” kids at the “Christian” school my parents sent me to bullied me mercilessly. I developed a debilitating stutter that only made things worse. And yet, over and over again I met Jesus in worship, and it filled my heart with joy. After each such experience, I walked out “freer, better, stronger,” and “better than when I came.” I wasn’t the same. God’s word, hidden in my heart/limbic system, had changed me.
I can, of course, only speak with (meager) authority about my own experience and how God touched and moved me. But I have been touched and moved. I was the teen who went away to some youth group overnight experience at which there was musical worship when we arrived. I was standing in a row with my peers where maybe we didn’t have seats, and I got into the worship. My eyes were closed, my hands upraised, and maybe there were tears. I was communing with God. Only after the song or set ended and I opened my eyes did I realize that I was standing alone; my peers had moved off to stand at the side of the room. I don’t remember; I may have felt embarrassed, but the point is I was into it, and I think it made me better.
So I “caught” worship in that way as a kid, and I definitely experienced it in our two stints in Philadelphia as a part of Circle of Hope. Just listening to “Better” above (please do give it a listen), I’m struck by a number of things. The worship leader introduces the gathered church to the worship environment they’re creating together. In typical, blessed Circle of Hope fashion, he invites each person to connect with God personally and to recognize that as they do so they’re also connecting with one another. It’s “corporate” worship- meaning “corpus-” worship as one gathered body. He mentions that they’ll be singing in different languages and using instruments from around the world. It shouldn’t surprise you at this point that this an another expression of one of their proverbs, that “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Not only does Circle talk about being members of the “transnational body of Christ,” they also speak about the “great cloud of witnesses” and routinely remember that they are part of the “transhistorical” body of Christ. You can see that in action here. Finally, the worship leader mentions an aspirational hope that they’re going for, and they sing like it’s real, present, and happening right now. Regardless of life’s circumstances, Jesus makes things better, and you can tell just listening to that moment captured in the recording. Of course, that feeling doesn’t negate the many ways in which the world is broken and in need of healing. In fact, some say the “best thing Circle does” is take part in God’s redemption and reconciliation project through their many compassion teams:
Anyway, I sure feel better having had “Better” on repeat over the past number of hours. Kirsten and I couldn’t tune in “live” to Circle of Hope’s online meeting yesterday, but we did watch it later. Here’s what they say about their online meetings during COVID:
Welcome to Circle of Hope! We are a church in Philadelphia and South Jersey. This is our connection point during the COVID-19 crisis. We are the church 24/7. Social distancing and quarantine won’t stop God from demonstrating love and hope among us. This is not a show. We are doing this together—relating to God and each other in real time in the meeting. We want you to participate. The live chat feature on our YouTube live event is key to that. Please feel free to join in! We’re in a season we’re calling Practicing Resurrection. We can live our lives according to a rhythm that opens the door to possibility. It might feel like nothing is happening but something probably is. Stay close to your practice. Simple, practical faithfulness keeps us close to God so we are ready to receive the next miracle. They don’t have to be so few and far between.
I love this description. I think it’s something like a miracle that God keeps demonstrating love and hope among them, even via a YouTube broadcast. This was really evident in their observances for Holy Week as they walked with Jesus toward the cross and invited us to as well. There were nightly online vigils and daily invitations to prayer via their daily prayer blogs. Then, a few of them snuck into Lemon Hill in Philly for their usual Easter sunrise gathering also broadcast on YouTube, and it all culminated that night with their usual Sunday evening gathering, again also broadcast on YouTube. Our oldest son remarked on Easter evening that the online gathering was somehow joyful and celebratory, and I added that they “acted like something miraculous had happened.” Christ is risen, indeed!
Since Circle has pivoted to offering so many of their usual rhythms and practices online as much as possible during the pandemic, Kirsten and I have been inexorably drawn in. We were part of this community since its very early days and during the very early days of our marriage, after all, and after leaving after a couple of years (long story), we were drawn to move across the country once already just to be part of it again. Obviously, we left again and that’s another long story that I’ve told more than once. Still, it’s undeniable that something is happening not only among Circle (their cells are growing/multiplying during the pandemic, for starters!), but in Kirsten and I too.
Surprised by Joy
In short, and to borrow a C.S. Lewis book title, we’ve been “surprised by joy.” For whatever varied reasons, we just haven’t had any joy for a while. It seems obvious, but I’ll state it- following the Lord not only of ancient (and modern) Israel and Rome, but of America and every place in between; following the one who was before all things and in whom all things hold together; knowing that he is all this but also the suffering servant who ended the cycle of violence on the cross and was vindicated in his resurrection- following this Jesus should bring joy. It was joy that sent Jesus to the cross after all:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. –Hebrews 12:1-3
So, given the option to choose joy in a way we just haven’t experienced for a while, we’re going for it. During last night’s online meeting for Circle that we participated in after the fact, they talked about the rhythm during this season of practicing resurrection and offered some ways to keep at it:
I offer the screen grab above (one of Circle’s pastors, Julie, is pictured above; I hope she doesn’t mind) to highlight the “We move with how we’re moved” bit. If it isn’t clear, we feel moved. We feel joy again for the first time in a long while, despite the difficult times we’re in. This is a miracle, and we’re moving with it.
Our Life Has a Fresh Start
Maybe we’re actually moving with it (back to Philly); who knows? We have no immediate plans for another trek across the country, but what we do know is that this joy has moved us out of the congregation we had been participating in here, and that is now “official” after a conversation with their pastor a few weeks ago. I don’t really need to say any more about that, except that we very much appreciate our time with them and are grateful for all they’ve taught us. Now, we’re really trying to lean into the practices we’ve taken up again- prayer, meditation, worship that connects us with Jesus and the joy set before him and which he sets before us, and we’re doing our best simply to pay attention, to listen to what we might be called to next. As Circle says in another of their proverbs: “Following the Spirit is risky business, calm seas do not make good sailors.” Whatever the sea holds for us, Jesus will be with us and the winds and waves know his voice. We pray we do too.
Circle of Hope Audio Art‘s second album, Patiently Impatient, has been a gift for growing that keeps on giving. Another song from this album, “Come Rescue Me,” was featured in my last post, and I’ve called Patiently Impatient my “pandemic playlist.” I think the whole album is worth a (repeated) listen. It features a variety of musical styles and is sung in multiple languages in typical Circle of Hope fashion, since one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs is that: “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Here are the lyrics from “Ocean,” embedded above:
Jesu, guidance. Now I know what love is
Compass, Kindness, all that I need in You
I will sit in silence and contemplate the things I don’t know
As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul
the ocean of my soul, the ocean of my soul
Jesu, lightness, now I know what life is
Center, Likeness, all that I see is You
I will sing in silence and contemplate the things I can’t know
As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul
Here are the notes from Circle of Hope for this song included on the Bandcamp site for the album (linked above):
Sometimes hymns and songs can be so personal to the writer that most people singing it do not connect with the sentimentality or content. Declarative passages about what the writer felt like or what they are promising to do can be a stretch to connect with. While this piece has that personal touch and describes a journey, see if you can latch on to the imagery of learning about life and love from Jesus. What does this personal connection inspire you to consider in that prayerful space?
The imagery does indeed evoke a prayerful space. I’m reminded of the book that I also referenced in my last post, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. Laird suggests that it is through prayerful silence- the Christian practice of contemplation- that we truly meet God. Or, perhaps better put, silence is the space in which our unbroken connection to God is revealed as the “ground of our being.” It is through silence that we remember ourselves as a “branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” Here’s that helpful page again from Laird’s book:
Laird says that we can’t not be silent, that it “is naturally present.” As I’ve come to understand it, silence is the space in which noise appears- the noise of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, desires, and distractions. But the space, the silence, is always there.
In that Silent Land, a great vastness opens up. The Circle of Hope song above describes it as “the ocean of my soul” in which God swims. There is something primal, elemental about this space in which we are always connected to God if only we can slow down and still our minds and hearts enough to know it again. I’m reminded of Paul’s writing in Colossians 1:15-23:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[a] your evil behavior.22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
My Body Keeps the Score. Spoiler Alert- Love Has An Insurmountable Lead
So it is in Jesus that all things were created and all things hold together, and in the Silent Land we re-member this as we are re-collected. I’ve talked before about how our bodies “keep the score.” Our bodies have a memory; they store trauma, trauma that our minds may not even remember. But our bodies know, and for some of us it is a lifelong journey to seek healing of this trauma in our body’s deep memory. Yet though our bodies remember pain and trauma, they also remember love and light. God declared his creation “good,” and our bodies know this too, and knew this first. So our bodies have an even deeper memory that knows, as Circle of Hope sings in “Come Rescue Me” (also from Patiently Impatient and referenced in my last post), that “you are the light, life to these bones.” In the Silent Land our minds become quiet so that our bones can tell us this.
The Circle of Hope song at the top again says that “You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul.” I suspect Jesus may have been speaking of something like this in John 14:5-21:
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7 If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
15 “If you love me, keep my commands.16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[b] in you.18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
In the Silent Land our bones remember that it is in Jesus that they have life, that they hold together. Likewise, just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him, so too through the Holy Spirit is Jesus in us, swimming in silence, in the ocean of our soul.
This ever present unity with God at the very core of who we are enlivens us to see Jesus in one another and to live like Jesus did. Again, going back to “Come Rescue Me:”
For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”
I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.
Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and the life he gives enables us not only to live like him, but to die like him, for the way of Jesus is of course a way that leads to the cross- and beyond it- to new, resurrected life.
In These Dark Times, the Fire Shut Up In My Bones…Is Love
These are dark times, or at least the darkness is a little more obvious to most of us now. I only have to look at Facebook or turn on the news to be reminded of this. Some will focus on the darkness and feel the need to tell prophetic truth to the powers-that-be, calling them to account for their sin. This is holy and often thankless work. But I, too, feel a “fire shut up in my bones” which I cannot contain. What moves me these days…is hope. In my family we talk a fair bit about following Jesus these days. I’ve said for a long while that if Jesus doesn’t absolutely change one’s life; if following him isn’t an act of devotion given to this One whose love has indeed proven mighty to save, than it’s not worth it. How could it be? Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?! Jesus calls us to be meek, merciful, and pure in heart. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to give to those who ask of us and pray for (and gather, I dare say) only enough bread for today, trusting God for what we need for tomorrow. Jesus calls us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, and to not be anxious about any of it. According to Jesus, this- this teaching– is the narrow gate that few can enter. And putting this teaching into practice is the house built on rock that can withstand the storms of life. In these stormy days, “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said. They are the ones living Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and they give me hope.
They give me hope that the Jesus Way is possible. It’s possible when we take time to enter the Silent Land, where we remember who and whose we are. In silence, the ocean of our soul, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. In the Silent Land we can plumb the depths of God’s great love for us, and it will invariably overflow into love of neighbor and help for those who are suffering. And somehow, mysteriously, by entering the Deep Memory of the Silent Land my brokenness and trauma are healed as I participate in the healing of others. My healing is terribly important, because “hurt people, hurt people.” So I must pursue it. But how do I find it? How do I find my (healed) life? The Jesus Way provides a clue, perhaps. Jesus enters our suffering and suffers with us even to the point of death. So following Jesus means that we too are called and sent to love others in this co-suffering way. We are invited, really, to lose (give up) our life. And that’s how we find it.
Hit “play” on the video above and listen to one of my new favorite songs, written by Rachel, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. The song was recorded by the people of Circle of Hope and included on the Patiently Impatient album from Circle of Hope Audio Art. I’ve been aware of the album for some time but must not have really listened to this particular track before, or if I did, it didn’t hit me in the way that it has recently. Whatever the case, I encountered it again during one of the first online Sunday meetings for Circle of Hope during the pandemic. Here are the lyrics:
Come Rescue Me, be my retreat
I feel alone, darkness seems strong
I need Your touch, Your promise of peace
A Hope for my weary eyes.
For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”
I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.
You are the Light, life to these bones,
I am Your child, You rescue me.
I especially appreciated the way the song was sung and interwoven with words from the community about what they were receiving from God during that online meeting, as COVID-19 began to really take hold in the U.S. You can see that below:
Beautiful, isn’t it? Since that meeting, I’ve had this song playing perpetually in the background of my imagination, a balm during these troubling times.
This morning it came to the fore of my mind as I was following along with this morning’s Circle of Hope Daily Prayer(s). I wrote in my last post about Why I (Still) Keep Talking About Circle of Hope and how the pandemic has counterintuitively lowered barriers to participating in the life of Circle of Hope, in my case from afar. Part of that participation has meant really following along with the Daily Prayer: Water blog. I try to fully immerse myself in that observance each morning, but have actually also been reading the Daily Prayer: Wind blog too. The “Water” blog is described as being “encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith” (so perhaps for folks who have been following Jesus for a while, like I have been very poorly trying to), while the “Wind” blog is described as “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Like I said, I really try to immerse myself in the “Water,” but recognize that the journey of faith is perhaps seldom very linear, and sometimes I need a little “Wind” at my back too. One thing I like about “Wind” is the way it continually introduces readers not only to Jesus and the life of faith, but to Circle of Hope and the life of that particular community, whose “gravity” I continue to feel the pull of.
What Have I Done? My “False Self” Keeps Making a Mess of Things
So again that brings us to this morning. In today’s “Water” entry, titled “What Have I Done?”, we continue learning from a children’s story by Mercer Mayer, Herbert the Timid Dragon. Today’s part of that story helps us to see how even our best efforts to live into who we want to be can go horribly wrong when we haven’t reckoned with our “False Self,” which is described as “a way of being in the world that doesn’t match who (we) want to be.” When this “False Self” drives our behavior, we can be misunderstood and relationships can be damaged. We get scared, and we “jump right back into…old patterns” that do not reflect our “True Self.” In the “Suggestions for Action” section from this morning’s entry, it says:
To discover our true selves and to draw close to God (intertwined actions) we, too, need to learn through taking new action, meeting failure and fear, and starting to identify our patterns of living (like running to hide) that may need to change. It’s a conflict. What have I done? is the inevitable question we all ask as we seek to know God and ourselves. On this journey within, we first discover how we are not who we think we are, and we are surprised in the process. Many spiritual seekers have called this, the discovery the False Self: the habits of thoughts, feelings, and choices we make unconsciously, trying to make ourselves safe and happy. (For more on this, see Invitation to Love by Thomas Keating).
Pause now and ask God to help you see beyond your current understanding of yourself. Let yourself remember failures you’ve known or times you have felt misunderstood by those around you. Instead of dwelling on the pain/guilt/shame of these memories, see if you can catch any patterns that those failures or conflicts might reveal about how you “do” life or how you pursue happiness. Jot down whatever floats into your awareness.
As I reflected on the times of significant failure in my life, and especially those times when I felt misunderstood and hurt, I did indeed see some patterns. It’s not like I haven’t looked for such patterns before. I’ve had years of therapy, including almost a year most recently of EMDR. I know how much my childhood trauma so often drives me into the “back of my brain” as I seek attachment and approval in inappropriate ways, which inevitably results in being misunderstood and hurt. Still, when I did this work again this morning, it struck me in a new way. I think one of the reasons is actually because of yesterday’s “Water” entry. The “Suggestions for Action” from yesterday made the following invitation:
To know God and know our true selves, we can make a good start by listening deeply to our hidden wishes. What do you wish you could be? The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are important. The longings we often turn away from, perhaps because they seem childish, are important. Pause and invite your wishes for yourself to come into your mind. Maybe you’ll remember a childhood memory of what you wanted to be and do. Don’t dismiss these. Welcome them. Look within them to see what they might tell you about yourself that you have forgotten. Write a brief summary in your journal.
As I reflected yesterday, I was reminded that when I fled Texas and the abusive upbringing of my youth and went away to Gordon College, I wanted to be….(wait for it)….President. Just what we need, right, another “white” male President? Thank God that didn’t pan out. Still, at the time, my intentions were good, I thought. I wanted to help people, and thought that position would give me the best chance to help the most people. So I enrolled as a Political Science major and completed three years of that program before “life” happened and I eventually graduated from another school with a different, more “utilitarian,” degree. I’ve told that tale elsewhere. What I wrote down from yesterday’s reflection, though, was: “Leaving the trailer park for college to be President was a continuation of the seeking attachment/approval through rescuing that I had been branded with as a child, but on a grand scale.”
I’ve written extensively again about my childhood trauma and how I was “parentified” from a very young age, particularly in regard to my mother. What I continue to learn, though, is that as emotionally infantile as my mother was and as much as that demanded that I learn how to “care” for and even parent her, my father’s role was in some ways even more complicated. As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.
It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.
How Jesus Rescues
Upon further reflection over my 4+ decades of life, it seems pretty obvious. My biggest “failures” in life (I have several in mind)- the times when I’ve felt most misunderstood- I can now see more clearly as times when I was trying to “save” somebody. Some of these efforts were more “successful” than others, but always I can see how I was trying to do what I thought was a “good” thing, but in a (very) wrong way. And this is where today’s “Wind” entry comes into play. As the post explains how Circle of Hope tries to “resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit,” there is a lengthy quotation from Eugene Peterson. Peterson is talking about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and he supposes that each temptation can be interpreted as a way of doing something good. The temptation to feed himself when he’s starving by turning rocks into bread is an invitation to also feed others who are hungry. The temptation to throw himself down from the temple and be rescued miraculously is an invitation to evangelize, to demonstrate the good news that Jesus embodies. The temptation to worship the devil and thereby receive the right to rule the nations is a chance to finally have the world be ruled justly (by Jesus). Thus, Peterson says:
In the three great refusals, Jesus refuses to do good things in the wrong way. Each temptation is wrapped around something good: feed a lot of people, evangelize by miracle, rule the world justly. The devil’s temptation is to depersonalize the ways of Jesus but leave the way intact. His strategy is the same with us. But a way that is depersonalized, carried out without love or intimacy or participation, is not, no matter how well we do it, no matter how much good is accomplished, the Jesus way. We cannot do the Lord’s work in the devil’s ways.
The “Suggestions for Action” from this “Wind” post are:
If the devil thought he could dominate Jesus, how much he must think he can express himself through us! We need to take a daily inventory. Am I trying to do good in an evil way? How unconsciously am I part of something that claims to be a good way but is not the Jesus way? This will take some meditation.
I’m struck by the word “participation” from the little bit of the Peterson quote that I copied above, and I’m reminded actually of another Circle of Hope’s “gifts for growing,” a recent episode of the Resist and Restore Podcast, in which part of the time is spent wrestling with the question: “How is God being with me in the midst of suffering and tragedy better than God protecting me from suffering and tragedy?” This question really gets at what I hope and pray is one of the central tenets of Christian theology, namely that if the Way of Jesus is anything, it is a way of co-suffering love. We see this most clearly in Jesus, who saves us from ourselves and from the violence and destruction of the world we’ve tried to make without God, not by scooping us out of it so that we can go to Heaven when we die, but by entering it as one of us and suffering its effects with us. In Jesus, again as Eugene Peterson put it (this time in his Message translation of the Bible), God “put on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Fully embodied, God-in-the-flesh humbled himself and subjected himself to everything flesh experiences, “even death on a cross.” This is how Jesus, the Suffering Servant (nay, Slave) rescues us, by suffering with us. This suffering led Jesus all the way to persecution and death, and beyond it, to the resurrection life that we are invited to live into in this season after Easter.
In the Silent Land, I’m a Ray of God’s Own Light, a Branch on the Vine
“This will take some meditation,” indeed. Some initial observations are that (obviously, I know) I need to stop trying to rescue people. I know of course that I can’t even save myself (from myself, no less). I am perpetually as much in need of rescue as anybody. And Jesus is my rescuer. I’m grateful for this season of late, especially as Circle of Hope in their Daily Prayer blogs and in their online meetings has been inviting us all to keep watch throughout the day with breath prayers. I had been struggling for a while to develop a practice of meditation using a breath prayer and had been greatly helped in this by the Martin Laird book Into the Silent Land (another Circle of Hope recommendation). Here’s a page from that book that I’ve found most helpful:
As I try to hew close to my practice of contemplation, I am reminded that I am “a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” I have already been rescued, and this rescue helps me to see that part of me which has always been rescued. On the very next page from the one copied above, Laird writes:
“That’s right,” cheered Father Alypius. “Thoughts keep coming back because that’s just what thoughts do. But if you look directly at the thought or the feeling and ask who is the chatterer, who is suffering, you won’t find anybody, you won’t find a sufferer. There will be chattering, sure. Suffering, sure. The thoughts coming and going. Don’t look at the suffering, the anguish, the fear. These are objects of awareness. I’m asking you to look into the awareness itself. Not the objects of awareness. These have dominated your attention for decades.
When, through contemplation, I can be still long enough to know that God is God, that Jesus is the vine and I am a branch that knows no distinction between branch and vine, I can see all my thoughts and feelings for what they are, weather on the mountain of my awareness. I am not the weather. I have thoughts and feelings; I am not thoughts and feelings. I am a ray of God’s own light. This awareness, which requires daily practice to cultivate, “frees me from the need to be free of what others do to me,” and it helps me to remember that I don’t need to rescue anyone in an unconscious attempt to rescue myself (or either one of my parents).
There is, of course, still suffering in this world. But the world-to-come is already here because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and as we participate with Jesus in his resurrected life, we have the sacred privilege to do good things in the right way, the Jesus Way. We can suffer with those who are suffering just like Jesus does, by being close to them. Just like Jesus interrupted the world’s cycle of violence forever on the cross by receiving the world’s violence without retaliating, we too can follow him in this way. Here’s a picture of someone teaching us what that looks like:
The Civil Rights Movement is instructive in this regard. Much ink, obviously, has been spilled regarding this from voices far more learned than mine; so suffice it for me simply to notice that while many “white” people were the perpetrators of racial oppression, injustice, and violence, there were a few who mobilized to join their black brothers and sisters who were suffering, not to rescue them (because the “domination system” was and is still very powerful), but to learn from them and suffer with them. For some, this resulted, like Jesus, in suffering to the point of death.
Such co-suffering love is the “fruit” of a good tree, a tree that has matured to the point of bearing fruit. I pray to bear such fruit some day. Meanwhile, thank God I have a rescuer. Thank God my failure and fear can show me those parts of me that still need rescuing. May I learn their lessons so that, armed with my True Self- a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light- I can get on with the “family business” of reconciliation and co-suffering love. It’s urgent work.
I’ve often said that I thinkCircle of Hope basically “ruined me for any other church.” I’ve written before aboutwhy I keep talking about Circle; so forgive any repetition here. Circle is a “cell group” based church, begun in 1996. Kirsten and I joined just a few months into its existence and just a few months into our existence as a very young married couple, and quickly became part of a cell. It was among Circle nearly 25 years ago that I first learned that the church is a people, not a place, and that therefore it’s impossible to “go to church.” I have a powerful story to tell about how our cell cared for us when I was involved in a bad car accident, including sharing resources in a very generous way. Anyway, the basic theory of a cell church is as follows. The “cell” metaphor comes from how the human body works. Crucially, cells either multiply or die, and as they multiply, the body grows. According to cell church theory, and very much as evidenced in practice among Circle of Hope, this is how the body of Christ can (should?, I dare say) work too.
The way Circle does it is that each cell has a leader, an apprentice leader, and a host. In your cell, “Jesus is the only agenda,” meaning that a cell can wind up organizing itself however it decides- they can talk about the last sermon, read a book together, whatever- but the “point” of the cell is to deepen their relationships with one another and especially with Jesus. Usually each person has a chance to as vulnerably as possible tell their stories, and then the group makes a covenant- spelling out details like when to meet and where and what their format will be, including how long to meet. There is always an end date because written into the DNA of the cell is that it will multiply or die, as I spoke of above. When that “end date” arrives, the cell can agree to extend its time together, but not indefinitely, because then the group becomes something other than a cell. More on that later. Anyway, as you live your life together as a cell, your life is changed! Centered on Jesus, you grow to really love these people and know them. “Iron sharpens iron,” as it were. So you talk about it. You tell your friends, loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers about this life you’re having together, and you invite them not to “go to church” with you, but to experience life together with your cell. The bar for entry is low- you don’t even have to be a Jesus-follower yet, but chances are you’ll want to follow him too, in time.
So cells grow, and when the circle of ten that is the usual size for a cell becomes a circle of, say, 12 or more, the cell multiplies. All the while the cell leader has been meeting with and mentoring his or her apprentice so that when the cell multiplies the apprentice becomes the leader of the second group and takes on his or her own apprentice, the original leader takes on a new apprentice, and the process begins again. The multiplication process is hard, of course. No one wants to see some of the group members move off into the new cell that is being birthed, but it seems to me that this is a necessary part not only of cell multiplication but of discipleship and healthy psychological growth. The letting go of the members of your cell that are going into the one being birthed allows for differentiation and appropriate attachment in which we don’t “need” one another in a clingy way, but instead cherish and love one another while standing on one’s own two feet.
So as cells multiply among Circle of Hope, new leaders are constantly being cultivated, called, discipled, and unleashed to lead- all within an organic system of trust and accountability. Within the cells, discipleship- and healing- is happening too not just for the apprentice cell leader, but for everyone. All have opportunities to discover and share their gifts. And the Sunday meetings (the “worship service”) are joyful weekly family reunions as folks see others they were in cell with before and new friends are welcomed to check out the weekly celebration of the life together that is happening throughout the week in the cells. Here’s a picture of one of those early weekly “Public Meetings:”
And here’s the “bulletin” from one of those early meetings:
Among Circle, as cells multiply eventually congregations multiply too so that no one congregation gets too big for face-to-face relationships, and so new pastors are called out from among the people of Circle too. Of course, there is training and accountability and a discernment process that happens with this, but it’s simply beautiful.
Likewise, with Circle, you don’t “join the church;” you make a covenant. This usually happens at a quarterly Love Feast, when all the congregations and cells get together. A current member who has covenanted with Circle and who has been basically discipling a person who wants to join, stands up and introduces the new member-to-be, talking about their relationship with this person, that person’s relationship with Jesus, and often describing their life together in a cell. Then the new member-to-be gets to share why they want to covenant with Circle, and then anyone can ask questions of them, and then usually they are accepted into the covenant. This too is beautiful. Here are some photos from an early Love Feast, held at a park. (COHers, look at Rod and Gwen!):
And here is a photo of an early version of the Covenant:
Circle of Hope’s Gravity Still Holds Me, All These Years Later, From All These Miles Away
Speaking of leadership, the cell leaders lead the whole church with all its cells and congregations. There are “leaders of cell leaders,” called Cell Leader Coordinators. The Coordinators give oversight to the pastors, who lead the congregations and help cast the vision for how Circle is following Jesus together. Likewise, the pastors keep the dialogue going among the church to protect its “gravity.” I think of this language around gravity as an apt metaphor for what keeps me compelled and captivated by this vision all these years later and all these miles away. I think one of the most beautiful things that Circle does is its “mapping” process. The “map” is more than a document, but it is a document, that spells out where Circle of Hope sees itself in something like one, five, and ten year intervals. If Circle is a people on a mission together, the map says what that mission is. Or pick a vehicle metaphor. If they’re rowing a boat together, the map says where they’re going. Either way, we’re talking about movement, and that’s how I see Circle, as a movement. The map is not dictated, top-down, by the “people in charge.” Crucially, because Circle is organized in ever multiplying cells, Circle is ready-made to discern together- all of them- what the Spirit is calling them to next. So when the yearly mapping process begins, time is spent in each and every cell listening to each and every person for what the Spirit is telling them about where God might be calling them. This assumes that even broken, traumatized people (and many of us living in American empire and subject to rapacious capitalism and the lie that is “whiteness” are indeed broken, traumatized people) have God’s Spirit within them and have something to say about it. That information is collected by the cell leaders and passed on to the pastors and Coordinators, who distill and refine it for common themes. Then, there is a meeting for all covenant members where what has been heard is presented as a vision for those time frames mentioned above, and they vote on it. It’s simply amazing. Everyone has a chance to be heard. Everyone is honored for the Spirit of God within them, and the discernment they engage in is truly mutual. This is the antithesis of a pastor-driven or program-based church, and again the gravity of it all still holds me, even all these years and miles away. Here is the cover of the Map from 2004:
I should mention too what all this results in. Even all those years ago, the people of Circle of Hope were buying old buildings and rehabbing them (themselves, mostly) to turn them into multi-purpose spaces that could serve as meeting places for congregations but that would also house thrift stores, for example. Today Circle runs several of them. These stores not only serve their neighborhoods by selling cheap goods, but give opportunities to give jobs to those that might otherwise struggle to find work. Here’s another photo of COH’s first meeting space, with some of that rehab in process, in this case making space for what I believe was Circle Counseling‘s first office:
Additionally, periodically Circle has a “BGX,” a baby (and kids) goods exchange. Here’s a photo from one of their recent ones, taken from the Facebook page linked above:
This is open to the neighborhood where a congregation meets and parents of kids of all ages bring their kids clothes and goods that their kids have grown out of, and everybody swaps. So assuming enough people come and the age ranges of clothes and goods offered covers the need, everyone leaves having given something to a parent of younger kids, and having received something from a parent of an older kid. This mutual sharing of goods is free, of course, and is an incredible gift. Speaking of sharing resources, Circle has a “debt annihilation team,” in which members pool resources with a little “seed”/starter money to pay off each other’s debt. One of Circle’s former pastors wrote about it in Sojourners magazinehere. Within the Debt Annihilation Team, all of everyone’s contributions are focused on one person’s debt until it’s paid off, and then the next persons’s, and so on. Members covenant to stay in the group long enough to pay off every member’s debt, even after their debt has been paid off. This way, everyone’s debt is paid off much sooner than they could have otherwise, and there is teaching and accountability given as part of the group to prevent future capitalistic “debt slavery.” This is an incredible, beautiful gift. Going back to Circle’s use of buildings, they are also used as art spaces and concert venues, among other things. And as just one more example, lately Circle has been organizing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One way this is expressed is in recognition of the way POC are over-policed and disproportionately incarcerated and then held in jail due to the cash bail system; so Circle periodically helps toraise funds to bail out Black mothers around Christmas time, so that they can be with their kids.
As should be clear, the people that make up Circle of Hope are a people on a mission together with a captivating vision for where God is leading them. Need more proof? Like most good movements, they have their ownmusic, art,proverbs, andrhythms of life. This rhythm of life in the form of the (two) daily prayer sites that they write and maintain are especially on display now, during Holy Week, even in the mist of the pandemic of COVID-19. Each day of Holy Week folks are invited to pray together by making a sacred space in their home and place an object in it in keeping with that day’s theme, and then share on social media if desired. People can “keep watch” throughout the day at the usual monastic times of 9am, noon, and 3pm by saying a breath prayer together, and then each night there is an online evening prayer time that is offered (because everything is online due to the pandemic, an unfortunate fact that has fortunately made it possible for people like me to re-connect from far away).
I should highlight again those “proverbs” I alluded to above. They are ever growing and sometimes changing, but below are some of them from some years ago, including some that go back to the beginning of Circle of Hope and my connection to them. These proverbs helped to form me as a Jesus-follower early in my adult life and captivate me even now. Here’s how I remembered and applied them to myself in 2016:
Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible.”
“The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it.
“Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.“
I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege.
“Without worship, a person shrinks.”
“We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth.”
“We learn best person to person, not program to person.”
“In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
“A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
“We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
“In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind.
Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
“Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our ‘agenda’.”
“Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.”
“Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
“Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
“A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”
Traumatized People Make Bad Choices. I’ve Made More Than My Fair Share of Them.
You might ask, then, why did we leave Circle- twice, and the second time under not the best circumstances? I’ve been learning a lot recently about trauma and its effect on the brain. A great resource for this is Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s seminal book, The Body Keeps The Score.Here’s a good summary of some of his work. Before I continue, I’ll give you some of the writing I did for the recently edited “about” page for this blog, where I wrote:
Let’s get something out of the way. I am a childhood trauma survivor. The trauma I experienced was “complex,” and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I contend with daily is complex as well. That matters because trauma- especially complex trauma experienced from birth (and even in the womb)- dramatically impacts how the brain forms. So these days I understand that for someone with Complex PTSD like myself, I can frequently be driven into the “back of my brain” where the fight/flight/freeze mechanism drives behavior and higher thought (which is centered more or less in the “front of my brain”) is shut off. This response (being driven into the back of my brain) can be “triggered” by almost anything, and it almost never leads to good outcomes, especially relationally. So my therapeutic work now is focused on trying to essentially “hotwire” my brain. I’m grateful for the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which posits that the brain can change throughout life. New neural pathways can be formed even as adults, and these new pathways can work around old ones that trigger a trauma response.
All of this is important because so often my own behavior is incomprehensible to me, when I’m in the front of my brain, that is. Why do I repeat the same mistakes relationally throughout my life? If I believe as we read in the Bible that it is our duty to “owe nothing to anyone,” why do I rack up debt, work hard to get out of it, and then do it again and again and again? One clear answer is trauma, and this reminds me of the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 7:15 that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” From what we know of Paul’s life, he was undoubtedly a trauma survivor, among other things. Of course, I’m not a clinician, but just as Paul was limited in his understanding of the world by the first century context in which he was rooted, I too am “limited” by the context that I bring to the text, and Paul’s words here sound awfully familiar. I can relate. In the passage Paul refers to various laws “at war within him,” one of them being the “law of sin.” There’s a lot to unpack there and voices far more authoritative than mine to listen to when doing that theological work (some of which will be referenced below), but for now I just want to notice that I often feel the same way- every day I do the opposite of what I want to, and however we conceptualize sin, I know that trauma and the brain’s response to it is part of the picture.
So the short answer of why we left Philly and Circle twice, and under not the best circumstances the second time, is because I’m literally “brain-damaged.” Arguably both times but especially the second time we left, I was in the back of my brain and was responding to an emotional flashback. I wasn’t really thinking about what would actually be best for me and my family. It’s not a decision I’m proud of, but (again, literally) here we are. The question now, as always, is what to do about it. During this Holy Week and despite and because of the tragedy and trauma of COVID-19, I’m grateful for all the opportunities to re-connect with Circle online. Thanks be to God for that small good in the midst of all this bad.
Today on the Nomad Podcast I heard Shane Claiborne say that it was the belief in the early church that when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed all Christians forever. I’ve heard this argument before (maybe from Shane, with whom I share Philadelphia roots, including in Circle of Hope), but it’s what he said next that brought tears to my eyes. He then talked about something that is a frequent conversation topic in my home and with my boys especially, the myth of redemptive violence. He said if ever there was a test case for the myth of redemptive violence, this is it- Peter defending the only truly innocent person that ever walked the face of the earth, Jesus. I then made the connection that may have been obvious to others but somehow escaped my visceral awareness at least, between the redemptive in the “myth of redemptive violence” and the redeemer, Jesus. When we talk about violence as somehow evil, regrettable, or bad- but as the lesser of two evils or as necessary to prevent a greater evil- we’re talking about the myth of redemptive violence. I think what we’re saying is that the use of violence is somehow redeemed by its necessity to restrain a greater violence or a greater evil.
What is missed in this argument is that if redemption is the end that the means are to bring about, there is no substitute for Jesus, and it’s terribly ironic that we would even try. One way of viewing the cross, after all, a way I increasingly prefer, is to see that on it Jesus absorbed the violence of the world without retaliating, thereby breaking the world’s endless cycle of violence forever. When we then take it (violence) up again, we commit a double offense. First, we (hopefully) unwittingly re-start the violent cycle the cross was meant to put an end to, and we commit idolatry by substituting a sinful tool for our savior, hoping that the tool (violence) can put a stop to sin (in the form of other violence), when in truth only Jesus can do that.
As we then try to find ourselves in the story of Jesus we forget who we are. We are not to be counted among the crucifiers; we are to be counted among the crucified. We don’t wield the violent Power of the state to restrain evil or for any other purpose. On the contrary, we take up our cross and follow Jesus to certain death. As I’ve also heard Shane say, we can’t simultaneously love our enemy and prepare to kill them (by taking up arms).
Lord, let us hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Note: I wrote this post a year ago on Palm Sunday. I confess that I haven’t been feeling very free of late, and any dutiful reader of this blog is well aware that my writing has been sparse lately. I’m not a musician, but I can relate to the singer whose song has been taken from him. I will find my voice again soon, I pray. Meanwhile, this is as relevant as ever.
I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministryas he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.
Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…
…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?
Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.
Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:
Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.
Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:
Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.
Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp. He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister. Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:
Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning. While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church. After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.
Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth. The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis. Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.” He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.
Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943. He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.
Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?
The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”
Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.
That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.
All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”
The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.
The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.
Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…
(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”
Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political.
I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.
In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.
We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!
Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.
This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.
We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?
I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.
What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:
politics of empire
in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?
There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.
As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not. Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.
Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
I’ve written recently of our struggle over the past little while to discern our place within Mill City Church as we continue trying to keep up with Jesus. We met with one of the pastors this evening and a member of the leadership team, and had what I would call a loving and truthful discussion about what our next steps can and should be. The result of that conversation is that we felt affirmed in being “sent, not stuck,” and we are grateful for that. As we move on, an offer was made to share any language with the covenant members of Mill City that would communicate directly from us what we are doing and why. Here’s the language I gave, which obviously I’m sharing here too:
Our family has been on a journey with Jesus over the past year that has resulted in our lives being radically transformed and turned upside down. Becoming a part of Mill City Church when we did has been an essential part of that process. As we keep trying to listen to and keep up with Jesus, we now hear him sending us into a new phase that will mean no longer being a regular part of this community. Please know that as we move on we do so with a keen sense of having been empowered and equipped while part of Mill City Church to do the work that is now laid out for us elsewhere. Thus, being a part of this church was an essential step down our path of discipleship, and we could not make these next steps without having done so. Please know, then, how grateful we are for our sojourn with you, and know that we will pray that you keep listening to Jesus for your next steps as a church as you continue to join God in what he’s already doing and seek to love your communities in his name.
It was this heartfelt talk (click the link) in the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville that did it for me, really. I mean it. You can just stop reading now and listen to this talk. If the only thing this post accomplishes is to get you to listen to this “sermon” (he says it’s not really a sermon) by Pastor Jin S. Kim of Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities, my work here will be done. I’ve known about Church of All Nations (CAN) for a little while. I don’t quite remember how it came across my radar. It may have been because CAN is one of the few churches here in the Twin Cities that has cell groups, and actually calls them cell groups, thus indicating, one would think, at least some familiarity with the concept. As I’ve mentioned many times, it was a cell group based church in Philly, Circle of Hope, that we were a part of in two stints from ’96-’98 and from ’03-’05 and which remains so very formative in terms of my imagination for what the church can and should be. It’s why I keep talking about it. Over the past year, though, I’ve come across CAN repeatedly.
I’ll say more about CAN in a moment, but first let’s talk about the central theme of what I and my family have been learning over the past year- “getting small.” Remember, we’re learning to give away privilege and power so that we can relate to the Empire of our day (the violent, capitalistic U.S. one) the way that Jesus and the first of his followers related to theirs (the violent, Mammon loving Roman one), from “under, not over.” We’re trying to get “small” and maybe even get into “Paul’s slavish shoes” a bit so that we can better be slaves for Jesus, just as he slaved for us. Here’s the post again that unpacks all this better than I ever could. On my break at work I often walk from the building I work in up to my alma mater, Luther Seminary. Yesterday as I was thinking on my walk back to work a word came to mind: devolution.
I’m most interested in the first part of the first definition: “the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level.” This really gets at what I mean when I talk about “getting small.” Note that I don’t mean the “formal” sense of the word, “descent to a lower or worse state” because a lower state socioeconomically in U.S. empire is not “worse” than my more privileged one. If anything, I am in the “worse” state because my power and privilege insulates me from the reality of my need for a Savior. Indeed, if “getting small” has to do with decentering “whiteness” and relinquishing at least a few of the many privileges I enjoy because of my skin tone, if it has to do with recognizing that nothing belongs to me and that private property is a concept foreign to God’s economy and his kingdom- and therefore if I have two coats while my brother or sister have none it is incumbent upon me to give him one and apologize for keeping what God clearly gave me to give to him- if all this is true, then my aim is to transfer the worldly power that has accrued to me unjustly. My responsibility is to delegate the influence I’ve been given to my brothers or sisters who exist on a “lower level” in worldly society. I have to get small, and close, to those on the margins of secular society that I want to love and serve and be loved and served by and learn from, because solidarity requires proximity. Thus, this has been a year of devolution, and it’s far from over.
You may recall, then, that Ched Myers has been a big influence in our year of devolution in 2017. His book Sabbath Economics had a follow-up book written by Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices, which was one of the books we read in January that helped launch us down this path. It was in that book that we learned that “solidarity requires proximity,” and in regard to Jesus’ phrase “the poor will always be with you,” it was Ched who said that this saying by Jesus “…is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church.” Anyway, Ched does great work, including his recent book Watershed Discipleship, which I’m eager to read some day. Ched is part of Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, and they help run this little site I discovered this year called Radical Discipleship. Among the great resources that site offers, one is a list of “Communities of Discontinuity.” These are communities around the country that are in some way trying to embody resistance to Empire in order to follow Jesus instead. On that page they quote Ched in one of his seminal works, Who Will Roll Away the Stone, in which he said that “…we are attempting to live in ways incongruous with and even defective from the expectations of our gender, race, and class.” Sounds a bit like devolution, doesn’t it? So among these communities of discontinuity are Circle of Hope, of course, and also South Street Ministries in Akron that we were also a part of at one time and whose pastor, Duane Crabbs, we have great affection for. Carnivale de Resistance and Christian Peacemaker Teams are listed. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker is as well along with the Mennonite Worker here in the Twin Cities, which is run by Mark Van Steenwyk, whom we’ve been privileged to partner with of late. Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s intentional community, is listed, as is The Simple Way, where Shane Claiborne got his start. And then there’s the Underground Seminary, also here in the Twin Cities.
When I clicked that Underground Seminary link for the first time, I discovered that it is run by CAN, and so I encountered them again. Incidentally, I also discovered that it was amazing and I wished that I could perhaps have gone there for seminary instead of where I did. Pastor Kim says that they started the Underground Seminary because in his work with pastoral interns at CAN he found that he kept getting “exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming seminary grads” and so “thought it’d be better to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.” That said, when I went to seminary the Underground Seminary didn’t exist and I doubt I would have been ready for it if it had.
I mentioned Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker above. His is a radical voice that I appreciate, and it turns out that he and Pastor Kim are good friends. They’re both local, and Pastor Kim wrote the afterword for one of Mark’s books. Mark also interviewed Pastor Kim for the amazing Iconocast podcast, which Mark used to be involved with. It’s another worthy listen. And then in this article, Mark quotes Dr. King, who spoke of a “mythical concept of time” by which “white” moderates “paternalistically believe” they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” by advising black folk to wait for a more “convenient” time to pursue civil rights. Regarding the myth alluded to above, Mark says:
But our myths weren’t born on the streets. They were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”
If you’ve been reading this blog and know anything about me, can you see why I might like Pastor Kim? Here’s one more pearl of wisdom from him, just to drive home the point. In a two-part article for Sojourners, he wrote:
The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?
But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?
◉ We are always trying to stretch across barriers: across racial/ethnic, class and cultural divides.
◉ Racial reconciliation is a matter of demanding justice, not just peace.
◉ A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.
◉ We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.
Such reconciliation is what CAN is all about, and about which they say: “Our central mission is to do the ministry of reconciliation.” This shows, as CAN is one of the most diverse congregations, I suspect, in the country. As Pastor Kim wrote about CAN in 2010:
Though according to this 2012 MPR story about CAN, there is a growing number of people of European descent that make up CAN, their commitment to embodying the new humanity is evident. As a Presbyterian congregation, they have deacons. There are 10 of them, and 8 of those ten are women. In most churches, it’s the other way around. There are 17 folks on staff (I don’t know how many are paid), and 9 of them are women, while 10 represent ethnic minorities. About all this diversity and the promise and potential pitfalls it represents, they say:
Many of us who began this journey assumed that we would be dealing with much more conflict as many cultures and worldviews add to the complexity of congregational dynamics. What we have discovered, to our delight, is the exact opposite. The very decision to join a church in which one chooses to be a minority seems to draw the kind of people who are willing to “lay down their sword” of power and privilege. The Korean American founders had to set the example first. Today, we all seem to be caught up in a virtuous cycle of who can lift up and value other individuals and cultures, to “consider others better than oneself.” The culture of public confession, corporate repentance, joyful celebration and vulnerable relationality that we have cultivated here is key to understanding the dynamism and eschatological hope evident in our life together.
This language of “laying down one’s sword of power and privilege” is obviously music to my ears, and as suggested above, I am indeed drawn to this church, but I’ll say more about that later. For now, just note that such language again is very much in keeping with “getting small,” with the year of devolution in 2017 that I’ve been describing.
Part of that devolution, though, indeed part of that giving up of power and privilege, has very much for us meant also quite really, if not literally, laying down one’s sword. As I’ve said, in the Sermon on the Mount, on the cross, and in our lives we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly calling us to renounce violence in all its forms, and so we’ve yearned to be part of a faith community that also understands this to be at the heart of the gospel. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered this bit of writing by Pastor Kim, in which, speaking of Jesus, he says:
He will not wage war to bring peace. He will not use violence to end violence. In Jesus Christ the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, will break bread together. In Jesus Christ “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our impulses of impatience, vengeance and violence will be changed, not by a violent inauguration of the last dispensation, but by the eschatological pull of God’s kingdom on all creation, old and new. When Jesus suffered violence on the cross without retaliating, he emptied violence of its power once and for all. Violence itself was crucified in Jesus.
Hearing the notion that violence itself was crucified on the cross with Jesus was somehow new to me in 2017. I heard it in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s book The Awakening of Hope, in which a chapter is titled, “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” Then, of course, I heard it in spades in both of the Brian Zahnd books I read this year, A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, as well as in Greg Boyd’s magnum opus which I’ve started reading and heard him speak about, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Meanwhile, Pastor Kim has been writing and talking about this at least since 2010.
So let’s review. 2017 has been our year of devolution as we’ve worked on “getting small” so that we can follow Jesus “from under, not over.” Inherent in that effort is a recognition of history and an awareness of our standing vis-a-vis the larger culture. That is, we live in the shadow of an Empire more powerful than the Roman one that loomed large in the culture of Jesus’ day and in the imaginations of many of the Biblical writers. Our relationship to that Empire, inasmuch as it makes claims and seeks power and control that properly belongs to Jesus and his kingdom, must be one of resistance. As Jesus followers we must resist not just consumerism but capitalism itself. We must resist not just “bad guys with guns” but violence itself, including that which is so frequently engaged in around the world with impunity by the U.S. government, not to mention in local police forces around the country. We must not accommodate Mammon and Empire- the powers and principalities- but by living into God’s economy, renouncing violence, and pledging allegiance to Christ and his kingdom alone, we must therefore subvert Mammon and Empire.
Still Trying to Keep Up With Jesus
Church of All Nations (CAN) is a community that “gets” all this, and more. They’re organized, at least partially, in cell groups. They started an “underground seminary” to raise up radical disciples who don’t have to be deprogrammed of their imperial, capitalistic outlook. They have a staff person whose job, in part, is to help organize the intentional community houses that are connected to their church. In short, there is much, much to like about this faith community. I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. But they embody a prophetic witness that is simply remarkable.
So why am I writing about all this? As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, Kirsten and I have struggled for some months now to find our place within Mill City Church. We have so appreciated that faith community over the past year that we’ve been a part of it. It was within Mill City Church, after all, that we heard the call to get small and renounce violence, to take seriously our responsibility to follow Jesus by renouncing any kingdom that is not his so that we can “give to God what is God’s” (our allegiance, our loyalty, our very lives; in short, everything). Of all the puzzle pieces God put together to lead us in our year of devolution so far, being part of Mill City Church was a crucial one.
That said, the more we’ve learned along the way, the more marginalized within Mill City Church we’ve felt. This is probably a good thing. We are, after all, trying to get closer to those “on the margins.” However, it seems the call to radical discipleship and the conclusions we’ve reached about what it means for us are not shared by, according to one of Mill City’s pastors, “anyone else” within the church. Nor, we were told, would that call be included overtly in any of the teaching of Mill City’s pastors any time soon. Thus, in a recent meeting with two of Mill City’s pastors, it was made clear to us that if we are to continue on the path we’re on and remain part of Mill City Church as we do so, it will, at the very least, be a very lonely journey. We know that the path we’re trying to walk is a “narrow one that few find.” So on the one hand this served as something of a confirmation that we were moving in the right direction, but it really put in stark relief what we would be up against as we tried to keep moving in that direction within this church. As I said in a sub-heading in another recent post, “we followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus kept moving.”
So it is with mixed feelings that I write that we will be moving on too. It was made clear to us again that we would be alone within Mill City Church if we kept trying to follow Jesus the way we feel called to. We can live with that, but we don’t want to be a distraction, or worse, a divisive element within a church that may not be everything we thought or hoped it was. Thus, as I recently told someone in an email, “there are times when it has seemed that in order to follow Jesus we’d have to abandon the church altogether. We’re praying we’re wrong about that, because we know we can’t follow Jesus alone, especially if we’re trying to resist violent, capitalistic U.S. culture as we do so.”
And that just brings me back to all I said above about CAN. You can see, I hope, why it would be an attractive faith community to us. All the things we’ve been learning this year they’ve been living for more than a few. Still, none of that was sufficient to cause us to jump ship from Mill City and start over again among Church of All Nations. However, the talk I linked to at the very top of this post was sufficient, at least enough to cause us to want to give CAN a try. It’s that talk that I listened to, jaw slightly agape, and then got Kirsten and listened to again with her. This talk is remarkable, in no small part because of the fact that in it Pastor Kim tells the truth about history when he calls the U.S. a “racist” and “fascist” state, and does so right from the pulpit, fearlessly. Beyond that, though, I found as I listened to it that I had another epiphany.
The U.S. Is A Racist, Fascist State
I was reminded that one of Mill City’s pastors had a 5 minute “family meeting” before giving their regular sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but an effort was made to call out the injustice occurring and call us as Jesus followers to renounce racism and resist it. It was good, but it was brief, and then the pastor moved on to the bulk, and arguably the substance, of their prepared remarks. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing what happened at Mill City’s worship gathering that morning. At least the events in Charlottesville were mentioned and racism was called out, which is more than occurred after the Jeronimo Yanez verdict, for example (and the preacher on that Sunday has publicly apologized for saying nothing about it). I do, however, want to contrast what happened at Mill City’s gathering with what happened at CAN’s after the events of Charlottesville, because the difference is instructive. Pastor Kim had a “family meeting” in his talk too, but that meeting was the substance of his remarks. It’s all he talked about, and he spent not 5 minutes doing so, but 40. And he told the truth. He didn’t say something about “racism” generally as a factor that some individuals in Charlottesville allowed to motivate them to do hateful things. He said the U.S. was itself a racist, not to mention fascist, state. And he did this with authority that none of Mill City’s pastors could ever have, because they’re European American, while Pastor Kim is not, and neither are the majority of his staff. Nor is CAN itself dominated by any one ethnic group, while Mill City is far and away, from the looks of things on Sunday probably 95% or more, made up of people of European descent. In other words, save for some notable exceptions, Mill City is all “white.”
So as I listened to the urgency in Pastor Kim’s voice as he described what could happen if racist, fascist forces eventually “came for” people of color in this country and perhaps for “people of color- lovers” too- just as Nazis eventually “came for” Jews in Hitler’s Germany- it struck me that it was only in a context of proximity to people of color that the impetus to do more than just “stand in solidarity” with the oppressed in some metaphorical sense gains the traction that it needs. The pastor that gave that 5 minute talk about Charlottesville to all the “white” people who make up Mill City is to be praised for, and often speaks herself about, all her efforts over the years to cultivate relationships with people of color and build bridges, etc. That is indeed very praiseworthy. But when you’re sitting in an auditorium again full of “white” people, she could even have said everything Pastor Kim said about Charlottesville, and the words simply wouldn’t have held the power that they did when Pastor Kim said them. A “white” person preaching to “white” people about loving black folks and resisting racism is all very well and good, but I kind of doubt it will change much. On the other hand, a “white” person such as myself who hears those same words spoken by a non-“white” person who says them to a congregation that is filled with people of color from many nations around the globe is moved to act.
Our Place Is Not Between the Rescuer and Those In Need Of Rescue. Our Place Is Between the Oppressor and Those They Would Oppress.
Pastor Kim gave a great analogy in his talk about a loved one in need of rescue. If you’re separated from that loved one in grave danger by a crowd of people who may have the best intentions in the world, but who aren’t paying attention to your loved one’s cry, then they become a formidable barrier to any effort to get to and save your loved one. As Pastor Kim said, the crowd that is in the way might be very well-meaning, but if they’re not “woke,” if they’re not actively trying to save your loved one too or at least getting out of the way so that you can, they remain part of the problem. As I listened to this, I realized that my friend Jesse who’s pursuing his PhD at Temple, working largely on matters of race and the church, is right. For some time, as far as I know, he’s been convicted that he and his family as “white” folks follow Jesus best if they do so as part of a black church. Solidarity requires proximity, as I keep saying. If people of color in this country need “white” folks to not just build bridges and have good intentions, but to really be in solidarity with them, then proximity is necessary. We need to be close enough to be “in the way,” but not as a barrier between the rescuer and the oppressed. We need to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. So long, then, as I and my family remained in the mostly “white” Mill City Church, we remained “in the way” in the worst kind of way. So we followed Jesus into Mill City Church, but Jesus kept moving.
Granted, CAN is not a mostly black church any more than it’s a mostly “white” one. But I don’t think there will be ethnic neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. I know every congregation probably realistically can’t be as diverse as CAN, but if CAN is a microcosm of the new humanity, if it’s a “foretaste of the feast to come,” it’s a prophetic reality worth striving for. So where no truly diverse congregation like CAN is available, I think “white” folks ought to be “all in” in a local black church. Then at least the oppressed are not an abstract ideal to love metaphorically as you educate yourself and try to get “woke,” often from a distance; instead, they are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you worship on Sunday and work at being the Church together, however hard that might be. That said, we are blessed to live now about 4 miles from where CAN has their building, and so for all the reasons above, we feel very called to keep following Jesus into their midst. Who knows what will happen? What I hope, though, is that instead of being “in the way” in the worst possible way as a well-intentioned “white” person standing between the rescuer and those in need of rescue, we will instead find ourselves “in the way” in the “right” way, that is, on the way with Jesus, along the way of the cross. Lord, let it be so.
On a final note, I should add that I don’t regret our time among Mill City Church in the least. I think being a part of this church was a necessary step in our journey. It turns out it was just a step, but we couldn’t make this next one without having made that one. Thus, we are very grateful for our time among them, and hope to continue our relationships with those from Mill City that want to. After all, we’re all trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes this involves moving rapidly along the way. Sometimes it seems like no progress is made at all. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. As I’ve repeatedly said, Kirsten and I spent the better part of 20 years hardly following at all in many ways. Still, Jesus keeps calling us. Lord willing, we’ll all keep trying to answer, and follow, and keep up with him. Again, Lord, let it be so.
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