Of Course. Always.

I wrote this reflection for Circle of Hope’s recent At-Home Sunday Meeting, and wanted to share it here. I’m wrestling with how we can know God’s will, and more importantly, how we might come to God when we’re unsure what to do. The text is below, and if you click play in the video above you can hear me read it.

He pulled up at his parents’ house around 9 on Sunday morning. He knew the coffee pot would have just shut off after two hours of being on, and his mom would have just turned it back on to keep it warm a little longer.

His parents liked to linger in bed on Sundays, reading the paper and drinking their coffee. He longed to linger in their unhurried approach to the day.

He was stopping by because a big decision weighed heavily on him, and he was hoping they could lighten the load. He helped himself to some of the remaining coffee as they joined him at the kitchen table. His folks knew why he was there, but they didn’t press him. They talked about the weather and some of their ailments as they aged.

Had he heard about his high school’s robotics team and how they were doing this year? They knew how much he enjoyed being on the team during his high school career.

They talked about the news a little and asked him what he’d been reading lately. When the small talk seemed about as done as the coffee, they decided to take a walk together with the dog, just like old times. The old boy was slowing down, but seemed to keep pace with his parents just fine, maybe because they were slowing down a little too.

They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp fall air and the colorful leaves. He wanted to ask them what he should do about this big decision of his, but there was something about the rhythm of their steps together, something about the feel of the dog’s leash in his hand where it had rested so many times, something about the sight of his parents’ hands comfortably clasped together with well-worn grooves where they had come together so often, that all gave him pause.

He looked at his parents and smiled, and they responded with loving nods of affirmation, and in that moment he realized that the weight of trying to figure out what he should do had lessened. It wasn’t gone, but he remembered that whatever he did, he wouldn’t be alone.

And then it struck him that underneath the big decision he had to come to terms with, were some more basic questions, like “Do you love me?” and “Are you with me?” His parents’ eyes said it all:

“Of course. Always.”

They rounded the bend toward home and his parents asked if he could stay for lunch. “Of course,” he said, “always.”  

(One of) My Bravest Day(s)

(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)

A school picture, I believe, of my grandmother

I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:

Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?

Cars Crash

All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:

This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:

Image Credit here

To The Third and Fourth Generation

I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:

  • “Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
  • “…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
  • “There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
  • “I was raised to be…perfect…”
  • She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”

So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.

Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.

‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

Numbers 14:18

I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.

Another Questionable Death

My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:

In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:

-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
-Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
-Obedience makes a child strong.
-The body is something dirty and disgusting.
-Strong feelings are harmful.
-Parents are always right.
-Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt.
-Duty produces love.
-A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
-A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
-Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
-A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
-The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
-Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.

-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)

Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.

It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle

So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.

So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”

It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, go here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

For mental health resources, go here: https://nami.org/Home

My Measly Voice

My freshman year college roommate wrote me an email on the eve of yesterday’s inauguration that clocked in at just under 4,000 words. The basic gist of his argument in all those words seems to be that:
  • I’ve changed. I’m not the same person he knew in college, for about a year (we were only roommates for freshman year). He goes to reasonable lengths to try to express his appreciation for the fact that my journey has been very different from his and he says he knows that my experiences (which again have been very different from his) have shaped me.
  • Echoing one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs, I like to say that “Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible.” My old roommate suggests, however, that it isn’t really Jesus through which I see the Bible. Rather, as far as he can tell in regard to me, “socialist liberalism” is the lens through which I see everything, including Jesus and the Bible. He says: “Socialist liberalism seems to be THE lens with which you see the Bible, Jesus’ teachings, the mission of the church, the only hope for USAmericans (my term), and the only morally justifiable way to accomplish economic and racial reconciliation.”
  • He goes on to suggest that when I write about my own story and struggles, he “applauds my courage and candor” and “there is not a hint of self-righteousness; only humility.” When, however, I:

“label conservative Christians as ‘fundagelicals’, rail against well-intention(ed) Jesus followers who disagree with socialist liberal political positions and mock them for completely missing the point of the gospel message, label every Trump supporter as racist, publicly shame any Christian who proudly supports Israel because you read an ALJazeera article,  devote a majority of a blog to try to see how you can survive thanksgiving with Trump-supporting in-laws, tweet and retweet 50 times  everyday with cynicism, hatred, and intolerance of those who disagree with your worldview, and see yourself as…someone who proudly resists a government that hasn’t had a chance yet…and to do all of that using very selective, theologically liberal biblical hermeneutics to make your case and claim the moral authority and high ground while at the same time subliminally (usually not directly) shaming every evangelical Christian…………… it says an awful lot more about the dangerous place you are in instead of the morally indefensible place you claim the ‘other team’ is living in.”

He wasn’t done, though. He adds that again from his perspective I “…can often come across as a self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country hence your USAmericans monicker.”

  • He then suggests “as a friend” that I “leave the militant socialist liberal Christianity stuff out of your social media life” and that I:

“flip the script to inspiration devoid of antagonization. I know it’s difficult to do that in this new administration but trust me, there is a better way to speak truth to power. The easy way is to keep reading alt left propaganda, get yourself all worked up, retweet 150,000 quotes and articles a day, resist the oppression of whatever it is that upsets you, carry around your white guilt as you live in suburbia, and spend your days miserable reading alt left books from progressive-only bookstores, written by left-wing authors. That’s actually the easy thing to do. The hard way to bring real change I believe is by inspiring a generation of people to the true gospel; the life, teachings, death, resurrection, red letters, and black letters of Jesus.” He says that I should inspire people “…by giving as much credence to the world of politics as Jesus did…not much. The Kingdom was all about speaking truth to power on a different level. Let the Essenes and Barabbas deal with trying to take down the oppression of Rome. Jesus’ speaking truth to power looked so different from Brian Zahnd…’s worldview.”

  • He adds that Obamacare was “doomed to fail” because, basically as I understand what my old roommate was saying, it tried to force people to care about one another. It tries to legislate morality. Finally, he concludes that “…rooting out all imperialistic Christendom from the world isn’t the solution in my opinion. The solution is changing the empire from within Christendom itself; one heart at a time. I believe that to be the hard way, but the more effective way. Politics is a failed system; for the left and the right; for both Christian conservatives and Christian progressives. There’s a better way.” Incidentally, I don’t think he’s plugging Paul Ryan’s economic plan with that last “better way” bit.
  • At the end he says he looks forward to seeing more of my family and sports related posts and posts about my faith community, and hopes that he’ll also see me “inspire the echo chamber” with something they “haven’t heard before or retweeted already,” with the gospel.

Phew! That’s a lot to digest, and I don’t even know where to begin to respond. What I don’t want to do is get into an online argument. I’ve been in more than my fair share of those, and they never, ever end well, but on a couple of occasions they have ended relationships. So, although it’s as tempting as the sweets I’ve been consuming much too frequently of late, I will do my best to resist the urge to defend myself, to take his points one by one and show from my perspective why he’s misunderstood me (there’s probably a lot of that) or why I believe whatever position I’ve taken or acted on is one that is as consistent as I can muster with my stated desire to follow Jesus. Some of what he said above is (needlessly) incendiary, whether he meant it to be or not. Nevertheless, I believe in his own way that he means well. So I’ll assume the best and instead of defending myself, what I will do is simply state, as clearly and briefly and in as straightforward fashion as I can, what I believe and why I do what I do. I think I’ve done this before, but lest there be any confusion, here goes:

Despite lots of very compelling reasons not to, I still want, and am trying, to follow Jesus. I know several smart, loving people who have tried to do the same and concluded that they cannot. As I keep saying, their stories aren’t over; so who knows what will happen with them in “the end?” I bring them up because I can relate to them and I respect their reasons. If you want to know more about this, I’ve written about it extensively of late. Just read my last several posts. For my part, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I want to do this; no, I am compelled to do this, because somehow I still believe that as much as I may try (and fail) to hold on to Jesus, I believe deep down that Jesus is still holding on to me. Among the “prosperity gospel” preachers Trump gathered to pray for him as he was inaugurated yesterday, one of the other religious leaders (I don’t remember which one) prayed that Trump, in office, would “be his best self.” That’s one of the few sentiments from yesterday’s proceedings that I can support. I believe, and it has been my experience, that only as I try to closely follow Jesus am I ever truly my best self. It as at the foot of the cross, that great playing field leveler, that I see myself as I truly am (broken but healed), and more importantly, see those around me and around the world for who they truly are (God’s beloved children whom I am to love whether I consider them friends, neighbors, or even enemies). So I am trying, still, to follow Jesus, now well over the threshold of my fourth decade. In many ways that is no small feat these days. I’m not proud; I am grateful. I know, however, that I may not be following Jesus very well.

Even so, there are some basics about following Jesus that have become non-negotiable. I’m glad for this too. Among my “non-negotiables” is a willingness to be certain of very little. This willingness has been crucial to my ongoing relationship with Jesus. I used to be certain about various things that I thought were necessary for faith, like my former certainty that the Bible was inerrant, for example (it’s not). I used to be certain that Jesus was, as I’ve long now said, “a white Anglo-Saxon U.S. male protestant that shopped at the mall, lived in the ‘burbs, and spent his day pursing the American dream” just like most other people I used to know. Little of that, it turns out, is true. I used to be certain that following Jesus was “as American as apple pie” and that doing so, therefore, meant that following Jesus went hand-in-hand with being a “good (white) American,” that doing so meant being patriotic in the U.S. flag next to the “Christian” flag in houses of worship kind of way. According to this way of thinking that I used to be certain was the “correct” way, following Jesus was about following the rules of “checklist Christianity” (again, this is well-trod ground for me on this blog). Included in those rules were a whole bunch of “do’s and don’ts:”

  • Do read your Bible and pray every day and “go to church” every Sunday
  • Do be “polite” or “nice” (even while engaging in not-nice acts, like supporting an unrepentant sinner whose first actions in office reveal an unloving, unjust agenda; gone from the White House website, for example, are pages championing civil rights efforts and efforts on behalf of the environment- which is itself a civil rights issue– and the Trump DOJ has asked for a delay in pending litigation that would have defended disenfranchised voters of color in TX)
  •  Don’t use bad language or (for some) smoke or drink or even dance (my still favorite Baptist joke is that sex is bad because it might lead to dancing)
  • Speaking of sex, don’t engage in any other than male-female sex inside of marriage. I’m not pronouncing a judgment here, by the way; I believe that sex outside of marriage is sinful because it destroys the right relationships we were made for. There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I’m off point. Right now I’m just recounting all the “rules” I grew up with that I used to be certain about.

This list of rules could go on and on. My point is that the rules were the focus of the kind of “Christianity” I grew up with, and they extended to belief, which is to say that some of the rules dealt with lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God and the Bible. Anyway, if you could “check off” all the rules, you were “in;” you were a “good Christian.” Over time, however, and largely through my own experience, I’ve come to understand that this way of trying to follow Jesus is no way at all, because it’s not really about following Jesus at all. It’s about following the rules; it’s about imposing a new “law,” when in fact Jesus came to put an end to the law. It’s why I now say that “rules are for relationship.” Read Mark 2. It’s literally all about Jesus and his followers breaking all kinds of rules (ones in the Bible, no less) in order to show that they are a means to an end, not the end. Thus, the rules point us in the direction of right relationship, but they’re a poor substitute for it. And that’s just the thing, too many would be Jesus followers I know are willing to substitute the rules for Jesus. That is what I would contend is the “easy way.” The hard way is basing one’s faith on a relationship with a living God who is always on the move, always to be found on the margins, loving and including those that we so often do not. As Pierce Pettis sang, “I can’t go with you and stay where I’m at.” As All Sons and Daughters sing:

 I could just sit
I could just sit and wait for all Your goodness
Hope to feel Your presence
And I could just stay
I could just stay right where I am and hope to feel You
Hope to feel something again

And I could hold on
I could hold on to who I am and never let You
Change me from the inside
And I could be safe
I could be safe here in Your arms and never leave home
Never let these walls down

But You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You will lead me Lord
You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You lead me Lord
Where You lead me
Where You lead me Lord

My point obviously is that most of those things I used to be so sure of I simply am not sure of any longer. As always, here I am reminded of “my” teacher and mentor (not personally of course) Frederick Buechner, who says:


Lately I’ve had a few more bad days than not, but I remain sure that “he who does not love remains in death,” and that “Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth.” I’m resolved to know these truths and “little else,” for fully living in response to them would take a lifetime. Again as All Sons and Daughters sing:

Lord I find You in the seeking
Lord I find You in the doubt
And to know You is to love You
And to know so little else
I need You
Oh how I need You (x3)

Or, as Paul put it: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Living in love with a living God who is always calling me higher and deeper, more fully into my best self, more fully into right relationship with God and with my neighbors, friends, and enemies near and far- and with God’s good earth- means showing up for racial justice and engaging in action and awareness in regard to it; it means speaking truth to power whether it is that of Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Wall Street or Caesar. Declaring that Jesus is Lord means saying that Caesar (or Obama or Trump) is not. Living that out is messy and hard, but necessary, and very political in fact. As usual, Rod White said it better than I could:

“OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”

In fact, his whole post about the election as a “whitelash” is instructive. I encourage you to read it. Again, for my part, if acting in the voting booth and in my social media posts to bring as much justice as I can with my measly vote and my measly voice makes me look like a “self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country,” then so be it. Lord willing, my more “liberal” and “left-ish” friends will find me equally offensive. If I follow Jesus well and closely enough, what will come through most clearly is love for neighbors near and far and friends and enemies alike. To the extent that my online presence does not make that clear, I repent and beg forgiveness.

Living as if Hostility Has Been Put To Death On the Cross with Jesus, Because It Has, or the Buck Family 2016 Christmas Newsletter


This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:

It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:


All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
And we will cry out

And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
And we will cry out

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God


There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:


That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.

It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”

Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:


I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus.

Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so.

I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was.

Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.

What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.

When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.  

So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?

This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?

Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus.  Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:

14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world.

Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit.

If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.

As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.

It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.

Family Update: Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:


Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:

Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:

As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”  



Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan


The Arc of our Lives is Long, but Bends Toward Jesus, Part I


Over the past little while I’ve found myself preoccupied with thoughts of eternal torment. There’s good reason for this. As someone who is trying to follow Jesus, the notion of “hell” is one that I must contend with if for no other reason than because it seems to loom large in the “Christian” imagination, at least as that imagination is conceived of in popular culture and by all too many would-be Jesus followers. I’ve written about this before, and certainly have done my share of wrestling with it. It seems to me that often the decision to follow Jesus-or not- is presented as the “answer” to the “question” of (how to avoid) hell. Thus becoming a Christian for so, so many has been about getting their “fire insurance,” something which seems to have little to do with following Jesus. Instead, what is presented by hopefully well-meaning but misguided “Christians” is not so much about following Jesus; it’s about lending intellectual assent to certain beliefs about Jesus and the Bible and then saying a formulaic prayer, all so that one can avoid being eternally tortured by the same cosmic child abuser that not only asked Abraham to kill his own son to prove Abraham loved him, but would ultimately subject his own son, Jesus, to the same fate, all so that the impossible rules he set up in the first place could be somehow satisfied. Sure, Isaac was spared at the last minute, and we too who would follow the rules (believe the things; say the things) of “getting saved” get spared too, but it doesn’t work out so well for Jesus, at least in the very short term. And for all the folks who won’t or can’t or don’t get a chance to follow the rules of “getting saved,” well they’re going to burn- forever, while consciously awake and aware of their torment. At least that’s the story that’s been told by too many for too long. Is it any wonder that a whole generation has propelled us into a “post-Christian” era here in the U.S.?

I should back up a little. I’ve talked a lot about Kingdomworks on this blog, and recently I posted all my pictures from that hot summer of 1995 on the streets of Philadelphia. I put all those pictures up so that I could begin to fully tell the story of that summer in a way that I haven’t before. This is long overdue. Look for that post soon. In the meantime, I’m mentioning Kingdomworks now, and again posted all those pictures recently, because of a somewhat strange confluence of events in my life related to Kingdomworks (KW). Bart Campolo, seen above, is the visionary leader that founded Kingdomworks so many years ago and then led it through a transition from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities across the country before stepping away. He’s someone that I still look up to and consider a friend even now 21+ years removed from my summer doing Kingdomworks. Interestingly enough, though, Bart no longer calls himself a Christian. I won’t dare speak for him or try to say too much about his story; it’s his to tell and he’s done so quite publicly, even at the cost of no doubt a not small measure of criticism and condemnation.

Here’s what I will say about my friend, Bart. He works really hard, and those of who have had the privilege of relating to him face to face can attest to this, to be warm and inviting. His smile can light up a room and he’s just someone that you want to open up to, to tell your story to. That’s a great gift that he keeps working hard to keep giving whether he does it in Jesus’ name or not. My relationship with Bart was significant for me when I did KW that summer, though I’m sure it probably wasn’t for him, which is understandable. I was but one of the many college students there that summer, and one in a long line of young people (I was then, anyway) that he’s reached out to, taught, mentored, inspired, and sometimes cajoled into doing “kingdom” (then; “good” now) works over the long years. More notable has been my relationship with Bart since doing KW. It has ebbed and flowed over the years as all relationships do, and let me be clear that I’m not a close personal friend by any means. Nonetheless, there is a bond of friendship. Like many who have participated in programs that he’s led, I’ve been the recipient of more than a few newsletters he’s written, first for KW, then Mission Year (MY), then the Walnut Hills Fellowship (WHF- more about that later). His letters are always compelling and inspiring.

Take this letter he emailed to those on the mailing list for the WHF, which literally is the first one I came across when I started looking through all my emails from him. I could give you many more examples just like this one. Read it, though:

Dear Friends,

Stanley is a dirty old man, and by that I don’t just mean he talks about younger women in inappropriate ways.  He smells bad, too.  Really bad.  On the other hand, Stanley is about as gentle a fellow as you are likely to meet here in Walnut Hills, which is why the rest of us put up with his stink, even at the dinner table.  He’s our friend, after all.

After dinner the other night, we held our annual show-and-tell talent show, which is kind of a homey cross between American Idol and The Jerry Springer Show.  Just after one of our teenagers proudly modeled her pregnant belly (her talents, unfortunately, do not include good judgment), I was getting ready for “Cincinnati’s loudest burp” when Karen tapped me on the shoulder.  “Della says Stanley has bedbugs all over his jacket,” she whispered urgently.  “What do we do now?”

I quietly moved next to Della, who sadly shook her head.  Sure enough, Stanley ’s back was literally crawling with bedbugs.  How did I know they were bedbugs, you ask?  Around here we learn to spot our bedbugs the way an endangered horror movie hero learns to spot her zombies.  Della knew too.  “You gotta get him out of here, or my family’s leaving,” she told me. “I love y’all, Bart, but we can’t be getting no bedbugs.”  And just that quickly, everything changed between Stanley and the rest of us.

I called him outside, but there was no way to avoid embarrassing him.  He didn’t argue or minimize the problem.  He just shook his head and told me he didn’t know what to do.  I shook my head too.  Three weeks later, I still don’t know what to do.

If all this seems overly dramatic, then you must be unaware that bedbugs, which were largely wiped out in this country by DDT in the 1950s, are in the midst of a major resurgence, most especially among the poor people in inner-city neighborhoods who are least equipped to fight them.  It only takes one hitching a ride on your clothes to infest your house, and after that they are incredibly difficult to get rid of, even with the help of an exterminator, and even if you can afford to throw away your bed and most of your furniture. They feed on your blood every three nights, but you can’t just leave and starve them out, because they can survive without feeding for more than a year.

Spiritually speaking, bedbugs are a kind of modern day leprosy.  Della and her family aren’t the only ones afraid to touch Stanley these days; all of us keep our distance.  Until we can find a way to shower and dress him in clean clothes each week, we don’t even let him come to dinner anymore.  He’s a gentle old crackhead who needs our love, but we shun him.

We’re still not safe, of course.  Every day we hug people who might be carriers, or invite their kids into our homes, or go to visit theirs.  A few months ago, when Marty and I had a false alarm in our house, our whole ministry here flashed before our eyes.  Bullets in the backyard we can handle, I think.  Bedbugs…I don’t know.  How can you love anybody if you can’t sleep anymore?

Then again, how well can you sleep when you know your old friend Stanley is just a few blocks away, filthy and bug-bitten and alone?  Not so well, it turns out, when you think about it.

I used to judge all those Bible people who shunned the lepers to protect themselves and their families.  I thought I was different because I was willing to spend my life in a ghetto.  Now I know better…and wish I had some DDT.



Inspiring, isn’t it? I always find his letters heartfelt and truthful, and usually challenging and convicting too. Let me share one more before I go on:

Dear Friends,

The other day I met a young woman whose entire life was built around her identity as an urban minister, and whose entire life was in shambles.  She was burned out from her work and, in the aftermath of a failed romance, suddenly aware that most of her other relationships were unhealthy as well.  The more we talked about her path and the key decisions she had made along the way, the more evident it became that something was deeply wrong.

At first I thought it might be some combination of the usual suspects:  religious legalism, a broken home, an addiction of some kind, clinical depression, or a history of abuse.  But as our conversation wore on, and each of those possibilities was ruled out, I began to suspect a different kind of wrongness.  Eventually, I asked.  This may sound strange, I began, given what you do for a living, but I want you to think very carefully before you respond:  At the core of your being, do you really believe that the personal God you’ve been serving even exists?

She looked up from the patch of floor between her feet, maybe to make sure she had heard me right or maybe to see if it was a trick question.  In any case, she held my eye as she shook her head.  No, she said quietly, I don’t think I do.  After a moment of silence, she asked a question of her own:  That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?

It was all I could do to keep the grin off my face as I answered her.  Actually, I said, that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all day.

I wasn’t out to undermine that young woman, of course.  The reason I was happy was that the root problem of her faith—of her whole life, really—was one I knew we could work around.  You see, two days out of three I don’t believe in a personal God either.

I used to think my lack of credulity had mostly to do with living in this ghetto, but over the years I’ve discovered that you don’t need to be surrounded by ignorance and brokenness to begin wondering about the likelihood of a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful creator.  You don’t need to be a bad person, either, or a stupid one for that matter.  In fact, many of the best and brightest people I know find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Someone is actually listening to their prayers.

Honestly, I think whichever psalmist wrote “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God” must have been an arrogant fool himself, unless he was simply fronting like the rest of us.  Or, better yet, unless he was misquoted.  Perhaps what he really said is that only a fool hopes in his heart that there is no God.  In that case, you and I may be doubters, but we are no fools.

Regardless, it seems to me that what we hope for is ultimately more important than what we believe, anyway, partly because our hopes better reflect our true selves, and partly because those hopes so often determine what we believe in the end.  That is good news for those of us who often doubt the existence of a good and loving God.  Why, after all, would we even notice those doubts, let alone lament or defend them, if we weren’t so deeply attracted to their object in the first place?

Certainly my young woman friend (let’s call her Marian) is attracted to the possibility of such a God.  Indeed, as she puts it, she is “absolutely desperate” to remain a believer.  Beyond her understandable fears of losing her job, alienating her family and friends, and perhaps going to hell if it turns out she’s wrong, Marian is desperate because she is virtually addicted to the everyday experience of living by faith.  She’s hooked on the comforting routines of discipleship, on the easy camaraderie of spiritual fellowship, on the purpose and identity she draws from openly following Jesus.  Also, on a more existential level, she’s terrified of being alone and adrift in an uncaring Universe, with no meaning but that which she can fashion for herself.  Really, she needs the assurance she’s on a divine mission like a junkie needs a fix.  I can relate, of course.  I’m a faith addict, too.

It isn’t just that, like Marian, I’m already so deeply invested in the idea of God.  It’s that the idea itself is so utterly fabulous.  Whether or not you believe in a good and loving God who can and will redeem everything and everyone in the end, you have to admit that a God like that beats the pants off all the alternative possibilities, including all those lesser Gods whose so-called grace depends on everything from theological orthodoxy to luck of the draw.  Which is all the idea of God needs to do, as far as I am concerned: Beat the pants off all the other possibilities.

Now I know there are folks who claim they can empirically prove not only the existence of God, but also quite a few particularities about his character and expectations, but I don’t know anyone who takes those folks very seriously.  Even my fundamentalist friends will admit that such things are matters of faith.  What they won’t admit, generally speaking, is why exactly they put their faith in the existence of this or that particular God.  Then again, born as most of us are into overwhelming currents of familial and cultural rituals and assumptions, I doubt they had much choice.  That kind of directional leap of faith is the unique burden—and the unique opportunity—of the true non-believer.

When I say “directional leap of faith,” by the way, I don’t mean choosing what you actually believe.  Nobody gets to do that, unfortunately, just like nobody gets to choose who they are attracted to, or what they are afraid of, or if they like strawberry ice cream.  Faith is a feeling, after all, and, like it or not, you don’t get to choose your feelings.  All you get to choose is how you respond to them—what you say, where you place yourself, who you watch and listen to, when you start or stop trying to do the right thing.  What you do get to choose, in other words, is how you live.

Until proven otherwise, I choose to live as though what I (and Marian, and maybe you) desperately hope to be true actually is just that.  I can’t prove anything, but I reckon that if there was a good and loving God, that God would want me to love people—especially poor or broken people—so that’s what I’m trying to do.  I figure that God wouldn’t want me to hurt myself with drugs or alcohol, so I don’t.  I wish pornography and junk food were equally easy for me to refuse, but at least I am disappointed with myself when I succumb to their false promises, because I feel certain that the God I hope for would be disappointed, too.

Here at last is my point: I believe that living by faith—even on those days you don’t believe in God—is the best life possible, for Marian, for me, for you, or for anyone.  You might call this my version of Pascal’s Wager, except that Pascal’s argument for taking the leap was centered on his fear of eternal damnation, and mine has nothing to do with that.  My best argument for choosing to live by faith is the happiness and meaning that choice gives me right here and now.  A good and loving God in the process of utterly redeeming every soul in the universe may not be the most obvious of existential possibilities, but it is certainly the most beautiful of the bunch, and even more certainly the only one I deem worthy of my devotion.

And here is my good news: The more I live by faith, the more strongly I suspect that my faith is not in vain, even here in Walnut Hills.  I pray that happens for you, too, wherever you are.

Your friend,


I forwarded this last one several times after I got it back in 2011, and I introduced it by saying: “To whatever extent I can still call myself a Christian, I’m able to do so in no small part because of him” (Bart). It’s a bit poignant to read it now, knowing that Bart no longer chooses to consciously “live by faith.” You know what, though? Bart remains one of the most inspiring people I know, or know of. KW was an amazing ministry that tangibly changed the lives of inner-city kids, at least for a little while. Even more so, it tangibly changed the lives of we (relatively) rich white young people who wanted to live among and love inner-city kids for a summer so many years ago. I can certainly say that I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years since doing KW trying to work out its meaning in my life. The same can be said for MY, which is still going strong now many years since Bart left it, and which has been even more impactful not only because it’s a year long program but also because it is operating in more than one city. I’ve been grateful to come across MY alums (like one of the people that now run this inner-city ministry) doing amazing work trying to love folks in the city. All of them were changed by their year of service in the inner-city living in intentional communities focused on loving God and loving people as if nothing else matters.

After leaving MY, Bart and his family moved to inner-city Cincinnati where they started the Walnut Hills Fellowship, which is the context of the two letters I shared above. They moved there with some friends and attracted a few others along the way. They didn’t set out to start a ministry, but found that one grew up around them as they worked intentionally to know and love their neighbors, especially through a weekly dinner party they invited all of their neighbors to. As usual, Bart probably says it best in this, his first WHF letter:

Dear Friend,

 When I stepped down as the President of Mission Year a few years ago, I figured I had written my last monthly newsletter.  Even after my family’s jaw-dropping move from suburban Philadelphia to inner-city Cincinnati returned me to street-level urban ministry, I planned to keep things fairly informal.  Certainly I had no intention of starting another non-profit organization.  A thrift shop perhaps, or maybe a laundromat, but nothing that required any fund-raising.

 However, it wasn’t long before I realized that establishing a for-profit business as a vehicle for community-building would leave me precious little time to provide pastoral care for that community once it was built.  The more Marty and I reached out to our neighbors in Walnut Hills, the more aware we became that many of them are not only poor and vulnerable, but also alienated and alone.  That awareness led us to start our big neighborhood dinner parties, which have proven a wonderful way of connecting people, both to us and to one another.  It turns out the only community-building vehicle we really need is the ability to make marginalized people feel at home.  That and enough time to love those people in practical ways, now that we’re all connected.

 All of which brings me to that non-profit organization I wasn’t going to start.

If the word ‘church’ wasn’t so loaded, I would say we’re planting one here, for all those neighborhood folk that nobody else seems to want or have time for.  But then you might think I was talking about Sunday worship services with music and sermons, when what we really have in mind is more like an every Thursday dinner party, with good food and conversation, some thoughtfully chosen ‘announcements’, and lots of follow up.  An inner-city youth group, if you will – with service projects, field trips, retreats, Bible studies, one-on-ones, and life skills training – but for families and individuals of all ages.  Regardless of what you call it, the big idea is simply to gather a bunch of broken people who need a loving, local, extended family, and then do our best to become one, according to the teachings of Jesus.

Besides being a more natural time for our crowd, meeting on Thursday nights will enable me to keep taking weekend speaking engagements, at least as long as people keep inviting me.  Still, unless I am willing to be gone virtually every weekend of the year – which doesn’t make much sense for a neighborhood minister – I can’t earn enough as a speaker to support this new ministry all by myself.  Neither can Marty.  No, to do what we believe God called us here to do, we’re going to need your help.

All of which means…I get to write monthly newsletters again!  Not big-time national organization letters like I used to write, mind you, but small-is-beautiful local ministry letters, with stories about the neglected people Marty and I and a few others are loving first-hand, right here in the neighborhood. 

You may be wondering why the ‘real’ churches of Walnut Hills don’t reach out more to such neglected people.  I used to wonder the same thing myself, in a fairly judgmental way.  Then it dawned on me that most of the churches around here are struggling just to stay in business, and that most of their pastors are working other jobs as well.  They literally can’t afford to welcome our neighborhood’s most desperate people, because such people consume lots and lots of time, have no money, and tend to drive away the more respectable people who do.  Weird, huh?  Lately I’m thinking Jesus himself must have had some generous donors, who enabled him to spend so much time with the prostitutes, lepers, and street people he loved so well.  A congregation of genuinely poor people like his – or ours – must always depend on outside support.  Hence those monthly newsletters.

Perhaps someday our gang will come up with one of those cool, evocative ministry names, like The Simple Way or The Sojourners Community or Mosaic, but in the meantime we’ve incorporated this thing as The Walnut Hills Fellowship.  It’s simple and self-explanatory, and hopefully it won’t scare away half the neighborhood.  Our first choice, of course, was The International Holy-Rolling Evangelistic Church of Sanctified Bible-Thumping Soul Savers Incorporated, but unfortunately, like those other cool names, it was already in use elsewhere. 

Those of you who know me well may also be wondering what will become of everything else I’ve been doing, from producing provocative workshops and articles, mentoring young leaders, and working as a justice activist, to recruiting for Mission Year and helping out all kinds of other ministries through EAPE.  The short answer is that, for the sake of my own sanity, I intend to organize all those other activities around a single, primary ministry commitment:  The Walnut Hills Fellowship. 

 So then, don’t let the humble name fool you.  What I’m asking you to support is a ministry that will communicate the unlimited, transformative grace of God first and foremost to this gritty little neighborhood, but hopefully far beyond it as well.  Granted, that’s not a particularly new or complicated idea.  I think that’s why we’re all so excited about it. 

Of course, in a very real sense, I’m also asking you to support me personally as an urban missionary, to give me the opportunity to creatively love the beautiful, broken people surrounding me here in Cincinnati.  Most of you already know what I mean by that, but I am looking forward to telling you more in these letters, and when you come to visit us as well.  For now, I hope and pray that you believe in me enough to help. 

Can you see why I find Bart inspiring? He spent years organizing and motivating sheltered, privileged “Christian” college students to move to the ghetto for a summer to love kids who looked and acted very differently than they did. Realizing that a summer was long enough to maybe inspire lifelong change in those college students, but not nearly long enough to really benefit the inner city kids those college students were supposed to be loving, he changed everything and morphed KW into MY, challenging those same sheltered, privileged “Christian” college students to give up not just a summer but a whole year. Meanwhile, Bart worked with local churches and other neighborhood organizations to do the most good that could be done with a steady stream of bright eyed college students hoping to change the world one year at a time, year after year after year.

Lives were changed and good was done, to be sure, but along the way Bart found that something in him remained unsettled, and he left Philly and MY and started the WHF, as he described above. From the stories Bart tells, it’s clear that he and those he gathered continued to do remarkable, life changing good in the lives of those they lived with and loved, even if it was gritty, hard work that didn’t “feel” very inspiring most days. That said, one “jaw-dropping” metaphorical and literal move deserves another, I guess, and after some years in Cincinnati with the WHF he and his family moved across the country again, this time to Southern California, where he lives now and is the first Humanist Chaplain at USC.

I suppose those of us who know Bart, even peripherally as I do, could probably have seen this coming, this movement toward a place where Bart now calls himself an atheist. He had been courting controversy for a while, especially during and in the aftermath of this bit of writing he did many years ago. It’s another story Bart tells best:

A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals.

Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to proclaim a God compassionate enough to seek the rescue of every one of his children—and powerful enough to pull it off—is a dangerous scandal to such folks. In a very real way, they don’t even hope for universal salvation. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?

And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people—especially young people—who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to his children, “I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity.” Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in hand all the reasons the children do or don’t accept in the first place.

These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:

Dear Bart,

This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you.

I lived and worked among the poor with Mission Year in the inner-city of Atlanta last year. When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and—after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason— rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a ‘cruel bastard.’ You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say for a long time.

Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I can trust him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really trust him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and love who are bound for Hell, it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God you know—who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen, yet remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.


Dear Sarah,

Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long.” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.

First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city—I suddenly did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that people’s lives don’t depend on whether or not they believe in God, but rather on what kind of God they believe in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I could rely on was that which I saw for myself.

What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, life and death. In the face of such clear dualities, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:

* There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that nine year-old rape victim, I despair.

* There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children— happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.

* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.

* There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.

I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance.

I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.

This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.

This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that he knows what he’s talking about, that he is who he says he is, and that he alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.

Unfortunately for me, God may be very different from what I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to God’s will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, all who die without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior go to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although God could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, God is no less just or merciful when they are raped, and those children and we who love them should uncritically give God our thanks and praise in any case.

My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.

Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to Hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking such a God, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility because, quite frankly, anything less is not worthy of my worship.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am. If Mahatma Gandhi and my young friend who got gang-raped are going to Hell because they failed to believe the right stuff, then I suppose I am too, for the same reason. John Calvin—or Jerry Falwell for that matter—may well be right after all, but if they are I would rather cling to my glorious hope than accept their bitter truth just to save my own skin.

You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want God to be—so how could I possibly believe that God is making all the bad stuff happen out there in the streets? I don’t hate God because I believe God is always doing the best God can within the limits of human freedom, which even God cannot escape.


On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love and made us for love in God’s image, then God had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us over to his Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So God did, I believe, and so God will.

I don’t hate God because, although I suppose God knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose God knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because in more than 20 years on the street, I have seen too much of evil (and too much of my own, moving-in-the-right-direction but-still-pretty-doggone-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hate-able, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.

Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear God’s voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me, too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you, and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.

And I do. And I hope you will, too, sooner than later.

Your friend,


Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change all the rules of ministry—especially of youth ministry. I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.

And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond his control or hate God for so much pain his little ones endure. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.

I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can’t find the limits of God’s grace.

I usually can’t get through that last bit of writing Bart did, which he appropriately titled “The Limits of God’s Grace,” without crying. I just find it so beautiful, so compelling. You can argue about his theology and certainly there’s much to unpack there, but what remains clear to me is that this is a man that desperately loves those around him- even strangers- or at least he wants to. Yet this is also a man who is awake enough to know that none of us are fully “home” unless all of can be, as Buechner once said. This is a man with deep and abiding empathy who goes on doing very “Christian” things even when he longer believes there is a Christ to do them for. Today Bart no longer hopes for a good and loving God that is desperately working to save us all. Yet Bart continues to do today what he always has. He organizes people into meaningful communities in which they proclaim good news by loving those around them, even if it’s just the good news that they are loved, and not alone, because they have one another. God bless him for it.

Obviously I’m a fan of Bart, but not only a fan. Despite his busy schedule and stature as a somewhat famous person, Bart has been committed to the work of relationship building, even with me. When Bart learned of how KW had changed my life such that a year after doing it I got married and moved to Philly, he wrote me, and in his letter he recommended a few churches Kirsten and I might connect with. One of them was Circle of Hope. If you know me or have been following this blog you know how large Circle of Hope looms in my formation as a Jesus follower. Thus, that moment Bart took to think of me and my story and jot down a note as big changes were taking place in my life proved pivotal in steering me down the path I continue to walk today. Bart and I would correspond again from time to time over the years, and I particularly remember the time he took to reach out to me by phone in 2011 as my father lay dying in a hospice facility. My family and I were living in TX, having moved there to be with my Dad as he died. I stood on the balcony of our small-ish apartment in Dallas and talked to him for about an hour. I think I had reached out to Bart, letting him know what was going on with my Dad and my faith and my life generally. Not only did Bart take the time to respond, he made the time to give me a call and support me by phone. Knowing what I know now, his life was likely going though quite a lot of change right about then as well, but I remain appreciative of the way he loved me.

Thus when he started his humanist chaplaincy, a dear friend offered to give to a cause in my name for Christmas. The cause I chose was Bart’s fledgling humanist ministry. It didn’t matter to me that Bart wasn’t trying to love people in Jesus’ name any more. I knew he was still working his tail off to love people, and that is worth supporting regardless of the motivations of those who do it. I know too that Bart’s story isn’t finished yet. None of us have a finished story just yet, and I want to remain connected enough to Bart’s to see where it winds up. If the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, and if Bart was right when he wrote that there is an entirely good, loving, and forgiving God that is doing everything possible to overcome evil and win us all over as free agents- however long and difficult a task that may be- then it may be that likewise the arc of all of our lives is long, but bends toward Jesus. I wouldn’t wish for Bart anything that he doesn’t wish for himself and is willing to receive as a “free agent;” still, somehow in spite of my many reasons not to, I still love and want to follow Jesus and more importantly deep inside me I still know that Jesus loves and is still saving me. So again if Bart was right that a life lived secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us is the best life that can be had- in part because of the way that it enables, inspires, and compels us to most fully love those around us- then I still yearn for such a life for myself and all I know and love, including Bart.

I often come back to something Bart said once in 1995 as he addressed idealistic college students, including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. As I’ve said before, I know that this was probably a “live” question for him; that is, it’s probably something he was struggling with even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. Still, this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me? Stay tuned for part II of this post. I’ll have a little more to say about Bart, about some recent comments he made particularly about hell, and about what finding one of my KW teammates after many years recently has to do with all this. In the meantime, I’m comforted again by the thought I had above, that if the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, perhaps it may be that likewise the arc of all of our lives is long, but bends toward Jesus. God is love after all, and Bart sure keeps living a loving life. May we all do likewise.



I’ll have more to say about this soon, when I’m ready. In fact, I’ll probably just edit this post and add what I have to say, but for now I want simply to post these pictures. I talk often about the life changing summer of 1995 when I did Kingdomworks (now known as Mission Year) and lived with 8 other college students in an inner-city Philly church building where we ran a day camp, sunday school, and youth group for neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. When I run through my “script” about Kingdomworks, I always say that it was “during that summer that I was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” I usually add that it was only much later that I learned that “bridge” could be traveled in both directions, but I digress.

Anyway, for reasons I’ll hopefully explain when I add to this post, that summer- and those people I shared it with- have again been on my mind over the past 24 hours. I suppose I have a story to tell, but for right now, I’ll let the pictures say what words can’t.

Jesus Is Wanted In Minneapolis


You never know what might happen when you simply show up, or what you might miss out on when you don’t. This is one of the many “lessons,” that I know I already know, at least in my head, but too often fail to practice. Of course, head knowledge and experience are two very different things. So if you’ve been reading this blog at all or checked out the last series of posts, you might know that it has seemed that we’ve been on the cusp of something for a little while. Change has been in the air. Maybe it has something to do with the seasons. Here in MN fall approaches, with winter ever not far behind. But I know it’s more than that, as the seasons are changing in our lives too. Let me try to explain how by talking about my day yesterday.

I worked, of course. I work as a case manager, a role in which I serve people experiencing disability who are certified as requiring a nursing home level of care, but who choose instead to remain in their homes with services to support them staying there. I help them get hooked up with those services they need, whether it’s Personal Care Assistance (PCA), Homemaking help, Home Delivered Meals, or Independent Living Skills Training (ILS). A lot of my work is office based, but I’m required to see the people I serve at least twice a year, and there are between 40 and 50 of them; so I spend a fair bit of time out of the office too, visiting the people I serve. They’re somewhat diverse too. I have one person I serve that is part of a family that obviously has some means. Some are white. Some are people of color, though, and many obviously are otherwise disadvantaged. Two days ago I saw a Somali woman, for example, who doesn’t speak English and came to this country many years ago, as most immigrants do, hoping for a better life for her children. Since coming here, her children have grown up and her health has declined. Now she lives in a somewhat run down house in Minneapolis with a bed bug infestation that’s probably a little too big for her now with her kids grown. Her mobility is quite limited and she’s in constant pain. Her primary caregiver is what we USAmericans would call a step-son, the son of her husband (whom is not in the picture, may not be in the country, and/or may have passed away) by another wife. He had two wives, of which the person I serve is one. This “son by another mother” now dedicates much of his life to caring for the woman who helped bring him to this country. They’re the nicest people you’d ever meet, so very gracious, kind, and grateful.

As I met with them a couple of days ago I thought about all the furor in the news recently about immigration, and was grateful that I at least had some awareness of alternative stories like this one, headlined “Helping Syrian refugees is the Christian thing to do, say these church leaders.” It was in this story that I heard what some might stereotype as a very “conservative” Texas pastor talk all about the call to love one’s neighbors, even/especially displaced Syrian ones. When asked if he had an ulterior motive to “convert” the immigrants he was leading his congregation to help resettle, he said, “We have a saying in our church: we don’t serve to convert, we serve because we’ve been converted.” That’s powerful. Thank you, NPR, for that reporting.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such reporting on MPR/NPR of late, reporting about Christ followers defying their political leaders to do what Jesus says we should instead. Take this story, for example, about a NJ congregation that’s been resettling refugees for 50 years, despite the call by the state’s current governor to ban them. Here’s another story that tells a similar tale. This reporting is invaluable, and helps to shape my hoped for Christian worldview. It’s part of why I remain a public radio nerd (among the various nerd-doms I self-identify as belonging to).

Then yesterday I saw one of the people I serve who has significant mental health needs and has battled housing insecurity for some time. When I first started working with him, he was experiencing homelessness and was bouncing from a shelter to his mom’s place to wherever else he could find a place to stay. While I can’t/wouldn’t take much credit for it, I was privileged to be part of helping him find an apartment, and when I saw him yesterday, that’s where we met. He seems to be doing okay, for now, and it was good to see. Seeing that person I serve came on the heels of seeing the immigrant family I spoke of above the day before. Then yesterday, again on MPR, I heard some of this conversation while driving. Again, it’s stories like these that keep me tuning in to public radio, despite the accusations by some would be Christ followers, including an acquaintance at work, that MPR/NPR is a “liberal” organization. I frankly could care less. Jesus was pretty radical (see above), and I remain hopeful that a life spent following him is one that transcends binary USAmerican political ideologies.

That conversation I listened to part of in the car, about the Dakota Access pipeline protests, was moving. I was particularly struck by the part where the otherwise very savvy and sensitive host, Tom Weber, spoke of the allotment of land indigenous people were “given” by the U.S. government and the successive betrayals of their land commitments to and treaties with indigenous people by the U.S. government, when, for example, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the conversation as the host made that comment about the land they were “given”- again trying to make a larger point about how they were then betrayed and treaty after treaty was broken- the indigenous folks he was talking with were taken aback by the notion that they were given the land by whites. Of course, the indigenous people were there first, which is why I constantly bristle when political leaders in the current election campaign talk about the rules they want to impose about who can come here when and under what circumstances they can be allowed into our country. It’s not ours, and what’s amazing about indigenous people is that they not only know it’s not ours (speaking of myself as a “white” USAmerican), but know it’s not “theirs” either. They get stewardship (of creation, in this case) better than most Christians I know, but I digress.

Not long after hearing that conversation I had to pull over and stop by the side of the road before returning to work. I pulled over because I was crying. I had changed things up and was at that time listening to music that put me in a spirit of worship, and I couldn’t help but break down. All those stories I’ve described above were rattling around in my mind and heart, but so too was the story of how I and my family got to where we are now, in this season of our life as we’re working to take steps to follow Jesus in new ways, in part because we came upon a community of folks in which God is clearly up to something and so with whom we are privileged to join in. I cried as I thought about Syrian refugees and the history of oppression of indigenous people and the earth itself by whites around the world and in the Dakotas. I cried as I thought about our long search for people we could be on a mission with, a mission to be the church and love our community in profound ways, and remembered that at just the right time God seems to be bringing us into just such a community.

I cried too as I thought about the Carnival de Resistance which would be kicking off publicly later that evening, and which Kirsten and I planned to attend with the boys. We knew about the Carnival by virtue of being on the mailing list of the local Mennonite Worker, a group we admire and respect and hope to emulate in whatever small way we can. Their “recommended reading for new residents” alone is an invaluable resource I hope to work my way through. Anyway, knowing the Carnival was starting I went to their website and began investigating a little more. I was pleased to find that one of the organizers of the Carnival is Jay Beck of the Psalters, who have long been affiliated with Circle of Hope, the church community we were a part of in Philly. Anyway, the “CARNIVAL DE RESISTANCE is a traveling carnival, village, and school for cultural transformation bridging the worlds of art, activism and faith.” Obviously, we were intrigued and wanted to check it out, and again this also was on my mind as I sat in my car yesterday afternoon, crying as so many different parts of my story came together as a page of my life turned and a new chapter began.

So we showed up yesterday evening, and as I alluded to above, showing up is so often the biggest part of the work to be done in living into the life one feels called to. We showed up, and soon were drawn into the performance that was happening last night. Here’s what we saw:


That’s Jay, in costume as a raven. The performance was part play, part concert, part dance party. The Carnival describes the production last night, called “Rooted Wind,” this way:

This evening of theater weaves music, dance theater, storytelling and circus arts to highlight the power of Earth andAir in our ancient and contemporary stories of resistance. This show features loud-mouthed “Raven”, mute “Dove”, and the “Voice of the Cedars”, in poetic soliloquies about the gift of creation and prophetic rants against its destruction. The evening will end in a live drum and dance party.

Here’s some of what we saw:

Notice Jay drumming, something he’s known for. It was a powerful show, calling us to remember the lament of the prophets not only that God’s people should return to his ways, but over the oppression of God’s good world, described, for example, in this passage from Isaiah:

The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers, which in anger struck down peoples with unceasing blows, and in fury subdued nations with relentless aggression. All the lands are at rest and at peace; they break into singing. Even the junipers and the cedars of Lebanon gloat over you and say, “Now that you have been laid low, no one comes to cut us down.”

We were invited to lament over the destruction of the cedars of Lebanon, over the murder of environmental activists like Berta Cáceres- a growing trend around the world- and over the shallowness of our own Starbucks and smart phone addicted lives. Speaking of smartphones, while eating lunch yesterday I watched a video on mine, and then tweeted about it:

Here’s the video linked in my tweet:

Imagine then how that invitation to lament struck me, particularly yesterday, with the stories of refugees, indigenous activists fighting for the protection of God’s world, and sorrow over my participation in a system of unmitigated capitalist consumption that exploits and destroys both the earth and its people, all on my mind.

Here’s a little more from the show last night:

And here are some more pictures from last night:


Part of the vision of the Carnival de Resistance is to “embody” the life of resistance to the dominant culture/story of our day that following Jesus challenges us to undertake. They say that:

Our village life is so much work, but, oh, such a satisfying life. Still, we call it our Holy Game. Most of us will return to “normal lives.” Amazingly, many find that a real change has taken place. All of this that surrounds us and seems to claim to be necessary in some way, within the game, it’s lost some of its power. Maybe normal life is a game, too. Now which game is more holy? Which one closer to God’s dream?

Here are some pictures of the “village life” together:

Village Life


I think this commitment to life together, to embodying the alternative story of the other world that is possible for those who do the hard work of following Jesus, carries over even/especially into their performances, including the one we saw last night. Look closely at this picture:



What you see in the image above is someone on a bike, pedaling away. The bike is being used to create electricity to power the lights and sound system for the show. The green light in the photo tells you you’re pedaling hard enough to create the right amount of power for what’s being drawn by whatever you’re powering. If it turns white, you’re pedaling too fast, red and you better speed up. I guess the Carnival crew has a couple of people who do this throughout the probably 2 hour total length show, but one of them couldn’t last night for some reason; so at one point as I was standing near the back with Kirsten and the boys, someone approached me and asked if I would relieve the only guy who had been powering the show to that point, and I said yes and literally jumped in to do my part to make the show go on. I’m glad I looked and am relatively fit enough to do so! I was on there for about 20 minutes and worked up a nice sweat before the woman you see in the picture above jumped on after me.

Like I said, you never what might happen when you show up. So as the show was winding down I checked out the “Radical Reading Library” you see below, taking a picture to make sure I could add some of the titles to my ever-growing reading list.


As I kept looking around, I was pleased as I noticed on the table nearby some of Circle of Hope’s “Audio Art” CD’s (the three in the far left column below). I was reminded that Jay, whom I mentioned above, has been connected to Circle for a while, and it was good to see this part of my life popping up unexpectedly:


And then literally as I was looking at these CD’s and thinking about Circle of Hope, Kirsten came up to me and said, “Isn’t that Joshua Grace up there, performing with the band?” I whipped out my smart phone, thinking of the kids that may have died or been forever harmed by their work to harvest the elements that went into making my phone (not to mention what was done to the earth to get those elements), and looked again at the Carnival de Resistance website. I turned to the “carnival crew” page, and saw this:


Yup, that’s Joshua, alright, one of the pastors of Circle of Hope, and someone who I have some history with. At one time we were close enough that, depending on how they tell it, I may be part of the birth story of Lily, Joshua’s 11 year old daughter in the bio above. I at least was trusted to be the one they called when it was time for them to go the hospital for Lily to be born. I drove them late one evening, with Martha (his wife) in labor in the back seat. In any case, in my recent post about Circle of Hope, and probably in many of them on this blog, I said that when we left Philly/Circle the last time…

…in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth…we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

I think I’ve said elsewhere and said again to Kirsten last night that for some time now when I tell the story of leaving Circle of Hope the last time, I take full responsibility for the decision to leave and all that led up to it. It was my fault. I was wrong. We were very vulnerable at that time in our lives and were presented with an opportunity to grow, a chance to grow up some. Instead of leaning into that and doing the work involved, we short-circuited the process, and in the process, stunted our own growth. We cut ourselves off from the community, something the community no doubt also experienced as being harmful. I felt hurt, and so I acted hurtfully, including toward Joshua. I could explain, but I’m not looking to justify myself here. That Jesus’ job, I trust. Since then I reached out over email I think some time ago to make a meager effort to apologize, but I don’t know if it was received. Obviously, it wasn’t a very personal or heartfelt attempt.

So it’s taken us over a decade since leaving in 2005 to not just lick our wounds, but to allow them to heal. Time has helped, but time alone hasn’t healed them. There was still work to be done, and we’ve been doing it, slowly, in fits and starts. I think what I’ve been writing about of late and the place we’ve come to now is evidence of that.

So we saw Joshua performing with the band, and waited until the show and dance party that it ended with were over so that we could approach him and say hello. We did so, and I introduced him to Samuel, whose birth story he’s a part of as he led Circle of Hope East to continue to pray for us during Samuel’s long NICU stay, and came to visit a time or two as well. This is a picture from Samuel’s first of 2 birth story photo albums we made a decade ago:


If you didn’t gather, Joshua’s standing behind Samuel’s isolette, and you can’t actually see Sam in this picture. Anyway, I (re-)introduced Samuel to Joshua last night, and of course introduced Nathan to Joshua too. As we approached, he seemed ready for us. He must have noticed us in the crowd just as we had noticed him. As we got near him, he said hi to us by name, we hugged, and started talking. The conversation was brief, but cordial. I think he was surprised to see us. We were certainly surprised that he was there. I asked if he would have any time in the next 10 days or so to get together. We might get breakfast one morning, though he’s understandably very busy. I tried not to put any pressure on him, and was careful to say that if it works out for us to get together and talk more, great. If not, that’s okay too. So I was sure to say that in the event it doesn’t work out and we don’t connect again, while we were face to face last night, I wanted him to know I love him, and that I’m sorry for letting him down.

I was ready to say that, and to see him. It took 10 years, but I’m glad to have done so. He invited us back to the show this evening, which starts now in just a few hours. We’re going to try to make it. As we were driving home last night, I was reminded of this sermon I recently listened to from Mill City, part of their/(our?) series on “the Gospel and Race.” In it, Stephanie talks about Peter as part of a larger conversation about eating together with those who are different from you as a small step on the way toward racial reconciliation. She spoke specifically of Peter’s vision from Acts 10 of the “clean” and “unclean” animals descending on a sheet, and God’s invitation to Peter to upend everything he knew about what was right and proper up to that point, and to go ahead and partake of the “unclean” animals. Incidentally, while Peter is told to “kill and eat,” I don’t think this is God saying we should eat animals, generally, but again I digress. No, the point was clear: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter had this vision three times, and then was invited to Cornelius’ house, a Gentile (or “unclean” person in the eyes of the Jews at the time). Cornelius had a vision too, in which he was told to send for Peter. This reminds me of my recent writing about how God is at work everywhere at all times, “already up to” bringing about his dream for the world. We just have to pay attention and join him.

Anyway, Peter has his vision three times, and things seem to happen to Peter three times a lot. Jesus said Peter would deny him three times, and he did. Later, after the disciples and Peter were told of Jesus’ resurrection, three times Jesus confronts Peter, asking him, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter said he did, and each time Jesus told him then to feed his (Jesus’) sheep. I like Peter a lot. He’s impulsive, but acts out of the depths of his heart. He takes great leaps of faith, but then falters. Peter has great insight into who Jesus is, such that Jesus calls him a “Rock” and says he’ll build his church on him, but then immediately- in the same chapter– Jesus also calls him “Satan” when Peter just doesn’t seem to get it and gets in the way of what Jesus is up to. As much as I identify with David, I also see a lot of myself in Peter, and this was all on my mind as Kirsten and I drove home last night. Peter failed spectacularly as a Christ-follower. So have I; so have we, perhaps no more so than when we ran away from Philly the second time. And we’ve quite literally had to live with the consequences of that choice lo these ten long years, which is not to say that it’s all been bad by any means. We’ve learned a lot, Lord willing. We have Nathan. We’ve been privileged to bear witness as we’ve stood vigil over some deaths. Many other things have taken place over the past decade, some of which are documented are on this blog.

And now, here we are. Over the past little bit I’ve wondered if I’ll die soon. I’ve wondered this because I’ve been driven of late to, “as far as it depends on (me), live at peace with everyone.” So I’ve been doing the work of peacemaking. I’ve sought out folks I need to make peace with in ways large and small. Sometimes they’ve sought me out, but when presented with that opportunity, I’ve taken it. I’ve wondered if I’ve been driven to do this work because somehow I know I’m not long for this earth. Lord willing, that’s not the case. Then again, whether I live to 82 or 42, I’m not really long for this (“between the times”) earth anyway. Conversely, maybe my development is right on cue:


I did recently turn 40, after all; so perhaps I’m feeling generative, which “refers to ‘making your mark’ on the world through caring for others as well as creating and accomplishing things that make the world a better place.” We’ve been stagnant, after all, for far too long.

Either way, I told Kirsten that the timing of everything that seems to be happening just now was nothing short of providential. I find it hard to think it coincidental that just as we wrestle through all that has happened and all we’ve learned in our journey thus far and are drawn into a community that we feel called to be the church with- a community that really seems to have a mission that they’re working on together in direct response to what they hear God telling them as they do the hard work of paying attention to what he’s up to- just as we are finally ready to learn what can be learned from our spectacular failure to follow Jesus as we might or should have a decade ago, just then Circle of Hope rolls into town in the form of Joshua and the Carnival de Resistance.

In all this I hear Jesus asking me, “Do you love me?” He’s had to repeat it enough times for me to pay attention, but I’m answering, “yes, Lord,” and I want to do the work of feeding his sheep, of loving my neighbor in ways large and small, of being the church and living into a different story than the one being told by the dominant culture I live in. Jesus is wanted in Minneapolis, and I’m happy to join the radicals and dissidents that make up his “known associates.”

Striving No More, Part 5a, or, Can You Love Coffee Without Loving Starbucks?


Or, What If The Empire Sometimes Does Some Good? Or, Why I Hope I Don’t Have To Talk Much More About 3DM.

This series started out as one blog post that became a two-parter, and then a 3 part series, and now I can’t do it in 5 parts without breaking up the last part into “Part A” and “Part B.” So this is the first part of how I want to wrap up this bit of writing I’ve been doing. I’ve called the whole series “Striving No More” in reference to the Keith Green song that I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, “When I Hear The Praises Start.” I mentioned that this is probably my favorite song of his, and I said:

It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.

I spoke in Part 1 of this series about Circle of Hope, about the central place it occupies in my formation as a young adult, newly married, trying to follow Jesus in the big city. I talked about all the things I learned about how to follow Jesus while immersed in that community, that first of all trying to follow the Bible(‘s teachings), let alone Jesus, is a group project. It was in that community that I learned that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible that talk about how to live the Christian life are not singular; they’re plural. They’re directed to you all, the church. It was in that community that I came to understand that Jesus ought to be the “lens” through which I read the Bible, and arguably most importantly, that the Church is a people, not a place, and so we must work at “being the Church.” I could go on, but that’s what Part 1 of this series is all about. Please read it, if you haven’t.

In Part 2 I found myself dedicating a whole post to Keith Green, whom I’ve already spoken of above. He lived a remarkable 28 years on this earth and his passion not only for loving Jesus but those around him remains an example to me today. His heartfelt music is so very earnest in the best sort of way, and was a soundtrack for my life probably from the age of 12-25, or something close to that. If I am to follow Jesus, I hope to do so from the heart, like Keith did. In Part 3 I then had to talk a little, again, about Rich Mullins. Keith and Rich represent the two (early) pillars of my connection to God through music, Keith carrying me through my teen years into early adulthood, and Rich picking me up just before and into college and then on into married life. Obviously, there was a little bit of overlap there. Like Keith, Rich loved Jesus and was compelled as a result to love those around him. Both struggled with aspects of the “institutional church,” and both were unafraid to speak or act prophetically when there was truth that needed to be spoken to power, even/especially if the “power” was supposedly “Christian.”

In part 4 I talked about House of Mercy and described why that faith community was so important to us for the five years we were here in the Twin Cities from ’98-’03, including all the major events that occurred in our life during that time. I spoke of our continued respect and appreciation for House of Mercy’s pastors and the debt of gratitude we owe them, and I alluded to our struggle to fully immerse ourselves in/commit to the congregation in the year+ that we’ve been back. I alluded to the reason for that struggle having to do with our felt need for community, for a commitment to “being the church” together in a way not dissimilar to what we experienced in our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope. I tried to be careful to say that I didn’t want House of Mercy’s pastors or House of Mercy- to be anything other than what they are. I did conclude, though, that if honest, “I suppose I yearn to really work at ‘being the church’ with others who are just as ‘into it’ as I am,” which I know is not the case for House of Mercy and its pastors, though they recognize the value of it as a supplement to what they’re already trying to do, if I’m not putting words in the pastors’ mouths.

So where does that leave me and my family?

Obviously our time with House of Mercy and especially Circle of Hope mark the high points in our experience of (being the) church in our 20 years of adult, married life. Since leaving Circle of Hope and Philly the second time in 2005, we’ve had a string of ultimately failed efforts to fully connect with any other faith community. Naturally over the past 11 years, I’ve asked myself why. I think there are a lot of reasons, of course. Maybe those early adult church experiences were “mountaintop” ones, and everything else- every other congregation that we’ve tried to participate in since- has simply been unable to stand up (in our eyes) under the weight of our (unrealistic, inappropriate) expectations for them. That could very well be the case. I think there’s a similar dynamic for me personally in regard to Kingdomworks (hmmm….I probably need to write a post entitled “Why I Keep Talking About Kingdomworks”). That very intense few months in Philly during the hot summer of 1995 between my sophomore and junior years at Gordon was a mountaintop experience for me if ever there was one. When I recently marked 20 years since that summer, a year ago, I remember thinking, and may have written, that in many ways, especially in my career choices but also in our decision to move to Philly as newlyweds in 1996 in the first place, in all of that I was no doubt trying somehow to relive or recreate that Kingdomworks experience. In fact, seven years ago, writing about Kingdomworks, I quoted a letter I got shortly after completing that Kingdomworks summer in ’95 from a Kingdomworks teammate, Holly, who said:

“At present I desire to high-tail it back to where we belong. Back on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”

In that same post from seven years ago I added:

“She (Holly) also said that when we went back, we would do it ‘for them this time’- for those kids and people like them, rather than for us (to open our eyes to the need for such a life). In many, many ways I’ve been trying to high-tail it back to where I belong ever since. I despair to report that I have not made it yet..”

So all of that is to say that I know it’s legitimate to wonder if our disappointment with every church since Circle of Hope and early House of Mercy doesn’t have more to do with “us” than it does with “them” (all those subsequent churches). After all, I quoted in Part 1 of this series, about Circle of Hope, something one of my old (Circle of Hope) pastors said to me the other day via email. I had reached out to him in order to invite his comment about something I’ll describe below, and again he said:

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

My experience of “life together” in a faith community that was really working at being the Church was again transformational for me. But I do well to remember that the pursuit of community for its own sake can be just as idolatrous, not to mention selfish, as any other such pursuit. After all, it was the martyr who wrote the book on “life together,” after all, who said:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.”

I fear- and recognize- that this is what I’ve been doing. I must be careful precisely here, however, because recognizing that I’ve “loved my dream of a Christian community more than…the community itself” does not absolve me of the responsibility to carefully discern how I and my family might best connect with and serve the community that is (as opposed to the one that I wish to be). After all, if I and my family are to keep working at following Jesus, we do well to carry with us the lessons learned when we have perhaps done so most faithfully- usually in community- since, as I said above, following the Bible, let alone Jesus, “is a group project.”

So that brings me to 3DM, the organization calling itself a “movement” that has been the force behind the rise of “missional communities” in more than a few churches across the U.S. of late. Mike Breen is a pastor originally from England. He coined the phrase “missional community” as a descriptor for the form of church life that seemed to be working in his parish in Sheffield, England. He says:

A Missional Community is a group of 20 to 50 people who exist, in Christian community, to reach either a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they are in relationship with choose to start following Jesus through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church.

A hallmark of missional communities is that they exist in a “rhythm of life” marked by movement “up” (toward God), “in” (Christian community), and “out” (toward those in need and/or who don’t know Jesus). As Breen says, “Each MC  (missional community) attends to the three dimensions of life that Jesus himself attended to: Time with God (worship, prayer, scripture, teaching, giving thanks, etc), time with the body of believers building a vibrant and caring community, and time with those who don’t know Jesus yet.” As the missional communities in Sheffield began to grow and develop “exponentially,” Breen began advocating for the use of the phrase as a proper noun and took this model for church life “across the pond,” where 3DM was born. As 3DM says of themselves: “3DM was birthed out of a desire to train leaders in the US in the principles, vehicles, and tools that were empowering the movement in Europe.”

When I reached out to my former Circle of Hope pastor recently and got the response I quoted above and in Part 1 of this series, I did so in part to invite his comment on 3DM. I had expressed to him my reservations about them, and he was good enough to give me a few thoughts, while along the way telling the truth about what he saw in me, as I’ve noted. I came across 3DM for the first time in OH and even went to one of 3DM’s two-day trainings for church leaders while we were part of a short-lived church plant that began about a year and a half before we left OH. Our participation in that new church didn’t last, and neither did that church for reasons that do not need to be told here or now, but that context of learning about 3DM and going to that training while we were a part of that church is important, as I’ll describe in more detail momentarily.

For now, what I appreciate about missional communities as I was introduced to them through 3DM is that they’re, well, missional. The practitioners of this way of working at trying to be the church together seem to get that, as I keep saying, the church is a people, not a place. Missional communities seem to be focused on really trying to have a life together, which obviously I would say is good. I even like that they try to marry “life together” with being very service focused. I appreciate that missional communities have written into their “DNA” that instead of having “Jesus as the only agenda” as with a cell group (a la Circle of Hope), instead each missional community has to have some sort of “out”ward focus that serves to direct the group’s energy toward loving their neighbor, whether their neighbor is someone experiencing homelessness or refugees or people caught up in human trafficking, etc. I should add that while I struggle with the “up/in/out” language, I simultaneously appreciate it. Adding “up” (focusing on/listening to/following God) and “out” (responding to God’s love for us with love for neighbors, especially when they suffer or are in need) to “in” (the community that is so important to me) gives a balance to the effort to follow Jesus, together, that it might not otherwise have. This is a needed corrective to my tendency to “love my idea of Christian community more than the community itself.”

Other features of missional communities are that they are much larger (up to 40-50 people) than a cell group (about ten people). Likewise, there seems to be some capacity for missional communities to “multiply,” though this does not seem to be so essential that a group must multiply or it will end when its covenant period does, as with a (Circle of Hope style) cell group. Unlike cell groups, however, in which discipleship happens naturally within the cell as the leader teaches and prepares his or her apprentice to become a leader in their own right while likewise the apprentice develops a relationship with whomever will become their apprentice- unlike that- with missional communities there seems to be something of a “parallel track” in play as in addition to whatever missional communities may exist within a church there is something else called a “huddle.” In a “huddle,” as I understand it, leaders very intentionally disciple/prepare others to go out and be leaders in their own right, perhaps of a missional community.

I should note that this type of multiplication strategy for growing leaders-in which a leader trains a whole group that consists entirely of other leaders who will repeat the process- is not unheard of in the larger, worldwide cell church movement (go here and here for some U.S. based organizations that identify with the cell church model), and I should further note that the largest church in the world is cell group based, but I digress. In any case in the cell church model as I experienced it with Circle of Hope, everything is focused on and streamlined within cell groups. The gifts of the members of the group are identified and unleashed to serve the church and leaders are identified and trained as each cell multiplies, but all of this happens within cells. There are layers to this, though (at least in my experience with Circle of Hope), as cell leaders are part of their own “cell” of sorts within Circle of Hope as they meet in “coordinating groups” in which a cell leader coordinator- a leader of cell leaders- mentors, trains, and disciples the cell leaders so that they’re better equipped to lead their cells. Still, the focus is on cells. By way of contrast, with the missional community model it appears to me that there are two tracks- the missional community track in which anyone can join a missional community and experience the “up, in, and out” rhythm of church life- and almost separately, unless I’m mistaken- the “huddle” track in which leaders call out other future leaders and train and equip them to lead and repeat the process.

As you might imagine, then, it was with very mixed emotions that we first encountered that new church plant in OH that was working to get missional communities started (though it wasn’t clear at first that this is what they were going for, as they called them something else). There was a lot that we really liked about that church, including the amazing and prophetic “manifesto” that made up most of its website and the willingness of its lead pastor to speak prophetic truth to power in part by espousing peacemaking in a country at perpetual war, for example. However, as I said above and have said elsewhere our participation in that church didn’t last all that long and that church has since come to an end. Still, we were glad initially to find a church that really “got” that the church is a people, not a place, as it worked to “be the church” through that “up, in, and out” rhythm of life together. I was glad to feel again like we were a part of a “people on a mission together,” as I had long described what I hoped for from church, even if the phrase (extended) “family on mission” as used and spread by 3DM felt like a commodification of my lived experience.

So when I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor for his thoughts on 3DM, I did so because we’ve recently come across another church, here in the Twin Cities, that is using missional communities as the “vehicle” for their group life together. I should probably stop right here for a brief aside. When my former Circle of Hope pastor suggested that much of what bothers me (about 3DM, and no doubt many other things) is in me, he was, I’m sure, quite right. I know this is so because it will take a long time I fear before I can extricate my understanding of missional communities and 3DM from my relationship with the staff person at that church in OH that was their biggest proponent. I ought not say much more about that except to state that he and I didn’t always love each other very well, and the fact that he was so “into” missional communities makes it hard for me to ever be so. I know; that’s my issue, not anyone else’s. Anyway, we found this church here that has missional communities, and I was immediately, though reluctantly and warily, intrigued. I’ll say more about that in my conclusion to all this in Part 5b.

In the meantime, I should state that in all my yearning in all the years since leaving Circle of Hope for the last time, in all the years since then in which I’ve longed to be part of a faith community that really was a community, that really worked at being the church and trying to follow Jesus together, I’ve wondered if my hopes were in vain, and maybe my faith too. If the life together as the Church that I experienced so many years ago now really was of God, and really did represent some of the best of what He has in mind for us, I had to believe that it couldn’t only exist in one city. I came to believe that it was vitally important to understand that if God, and my faith in Him- if any of it was real- then I must also understand that surely God was at work in every culture, in every land and language and time, and if I would but listen and try to get on board with what God was already doing wherever I happened to be, I would no doubt soon find myself immersed in just the kind of community I longed for, so long as that yearning for community was a result of being drawn to follow Jesus and realizing that I can’t do so alone.

This is why as I’ve been working through all this that I’ve come to a place of reluctant acceptance of 3DM. This was not an easy place to come to. I’ve not only struggled with 3DM because of how much I associate them with the staff person at that OH church plant that was so very “into” them. No, I actually have what I believe to be some legitimate concerns. When I first heard of them and started doing a little research, I quickly learned that there were a lot of affiliated/related groups that sprang up in the wake of the “missional community movement” begun by 3DM in the U.S. One of them is the Soma “network of churches,” and that staff person at the OH church plant really liked them. What I quickly learned about Soma is that they’re affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, another church planting group, and Soma is committed to the Acts 29 “Distinctives,” including the strong conviction that there is no place for women pastors or elders in the church. I’m deeply committed in exactly the opposite direction. Here is the somewhat buried page where Soma says their “distinctives” came from Acts 29’s, and here is the page listing the Acts 29 “distinctives,” including that firm commitment to exclude women from pastoral leadership. In fairness, I don’t know that 3DM shares this commitment, but again my early exposure to 3DM was deeply conflated with Soma, which is itself based in part on the Acts 29 Network in all its ugliness.

More importantly, though, something about 3DM just bugged me. It took me a long time to put words to it, but I finally did. Part of what bugs me is simply base on my part. I know now that I struggle to like missional communities because they’re not cell groups, and I know quite a bit about and am very experienced in participating in and leading (if not very well) cell groups. This objection on my part to missional communities is itself objectionable, and I’m aware of this. Beyond that, though, what “bugs” me about 3DM, if not missional communities themselves, is the way that something good that at best can be described as being “of God” has been turned into a product/program that is being sold in the marketplace. For example, the second thing you see on Mike Breen’s website is an offer for a $10 monthly subscription plan for his “daily audio devotional;” and if you want to “better imitate the life and leadership of Jesus” by “develop(ing) the DNA for making disciples who make disciples,” you can purchase 3DM coaching for only $150 per person, per month. (Not very) arguably, closely imitating Jesus and making disciples who make their own should be the goal of every Christ-follower. 3DM will teach you how to do so…for a price. Am I right to feel angry? I know there’s some justification in Scripture for paying pastors, but that coaching that 3DM is selling isn’t necessarily for pastors; they say it’s for “anyone in any context” (“who wants to better imitate…Jesus” as described above).

Anyway, all this blatant (and literal) commodification of what Jesus gave freely is one issue. A related one, and my last big concern about 3DM is the way that following Jesus, which by definition is very relational and contextual, has been turned into a program. If you don’t know me, I think programs are great for many things. Following Jesus and being the church are not among them. Like Debbie Blue of House of Mercy wrote once and I recently quoted in this series, “Faith is relentlessly relational, thus unsystematizable.” Like my former Circle of Hope pastor said when I invited him to comment about 3DM: “Why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local? I don’t think you like them. Can’t you just steal their seed thought and great presentation and do something yourself? (Like buying strawberries and making your own ice cream?)” Following Jesus, however closely you may want to, and especially “making disciples,” can no more be accomplished by a program than believing (in) Jesus can be accomplished by lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him. There are no (true) “checklist Christians” (that is, folks who “accomplish” being saved by ticking off items on a checklist detailing required beliefs and behavior).

After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Come understand me.” He didn’t say, “Come be enlightened by me.” He did talk about “believing in him” in the oft-quoted John 3:16, but read after that famous verse, and the argument’s a bit more nuanced. Usually when the concept of belief comes up in the gospels it’s in the context of a conversation about “eternal life.” Take this passage, where Jesus talks about where his authority comes from- God the Father- and makes it clear that whoever “hears Jesus’ word and believes (not “believes in”) him who sent me” (God the Father)”- whoever does so will have eternal life. Or take John 14:1-7. Jesus does talk about “believing in God,” at least in some translations, but no sooner has he done so than he says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The thief on the cross whom Jesus promised would be with him in paradise never said the “sinner’s prayer.” He didn’t have what many would-be “Christians” would call a conversion experience. The thief simply believed Jesus, and asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom. No doubt the thief didn’t understand much about Jesus in any intellectually theological way, but he had a relationship with Jesus, and that relationship was enough. He surely came to the father through Jesus. And even in John 14, the Message translation makes clear that it’s about trusting Jesus, not thinking all the right thoughts:

Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”

6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”

So being Jesus’ disciple, following Jesus, isn’t about intellectual assent; it’s about recognizing authority. It’s relational. Thus, in these and many other passages I think simply believing him is closer to what Jesus is often going for, and in any case when he was making disciples, what he did say was simply “Come follow me.” There is a proposition here, but again it’s very relational, and it’s made to each of us. Jesus is the one who makes disciples, after all, and they’re his disciples. We can help, to be sure, and do well when we again listen to him and get on board with the way he’s doing it.

So all of that is to say that while I have some significant concerns about 3DM, there was a time when I was so turned off by them that I would have considered involvement with them on the part of any future faith community that I would want to be a part of to be a “deal-breaker,” and that is now no longer the case. After all, in the most potent of ironies, the 3DM “missional community” program-for-sale-to-the-rich-who-can-afford-it is based on a relational, communal approach to following Jesus, one that I otherwise resonate with deeply. At some point along the way in this whole missional community “movement,” I suspect that God was up to something, and somebody was paying attention. They may have commodified and trademarked “the message,” but there’s some “good news” in there somewhere. I may have a deep distaste for what looks by all accounts like an empire that somebody’s building out of a kingdom that is surely not of this world, but I recognize that sometimes even the empire does a little good. I may not like the fecundity of Starbucks (or Wal-Mart, etc.), especially as they push local businesses out of business, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up coffee. In the next, final post in this series I get to talk about the “coffee” (or “strawberries” from my former Circle of Hope pastor’s question about 3DM above)- the good that I’m finding in what 3DM is selling and how it’s being expressed and lived out in a local church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Turning 40 Over a Year Later

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

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

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

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