Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face

On Christmas Eve we will sing the mystery again with the song everyone knows and no one knows completely: Silent Night. A later verse that needs some concentration includes this line sung to the child Mary is holding: “Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face  with the dawn of redeeming grace.”

The line reminds me of a couple of lines from William Blake that have meant a lot to me:

And we are put on earth a little space
That we might learn to bear the beams of love.
William Blake

Bear the Beams of Love -- Mary Southard

Bear the Beams of Love — Mary Southard

Gerald May talks about Blake and the radiant beams of love in a book that has been important to me:

“I think William Blake was right about the purpose of humanity; we are here to learn to bear the beams of love. There are three meanings of bearing love: to endure it, to carry it, and to bring it forth. In the first, we are meant to grow in our capacity to endure love’s beauty and pain. In the second, we are meant to carry love and spread it around, as children carry laughter and measles. And in the third we are meant to bring new love into the world, to be birthers of love. This is the threefold nature of our longing….

Choosing love will open spaces of immense beauty and joy for you, but you will be hurt. You already know this. You have retreated from love countless times in your life because of it. We all have. We have been and will be hurt by the loss of loved ones, by what they have done to us and we to them. Even in the bliss of love there is a certain exquisite pain: the pain of too much beauty, of overwhelming magnificence. Further, no matter how perfect a love may be, it is never really satisfied. The very fulfillment of a desire sparks our passion for more; sooner or later we discover a deepened yearning within what felt like satisfaction. Even in their beauty, the beams of love can often seem too much to bear.” Gerald May in The Awakened Heart

Advent has me signing up for getting hurt again. Who’s with me?

I will have a lot of resolutions on my list, again, for 2015. Some of them will be the same as last year. But at the top of the list, I think I might put, “Suffer.” I mean, suffer with Jesus, the Son of God who is love.

I don’t mean that in some grandiose way, as if I were Jesus. I just want to use the capability I have, born of the capacity the Lord has patiently enlarged in my heart over years of loving me.

Oh yes, I want our church to operate effectively. I want to be successful in all the great plans we have made. I want to make good investments in buildings and business. I want to use our money efficiently. I don’t want to waste a minute. But we can do most of that and just get tired and irritable. We can do a lot of that with further arguments about justice. We can do a lot of that by exercising power and leveraging guilt and fear.

I want to act out of my heart connected to the heart of it all. I want to stay vulnerable to what Gerald May called “our passion for more…a deepened yearning within what felt like satisfaction.” That will cost us. But, at the end of the year, I want to have invested the year in eternity and to have experienced eternity invested in the year. The beams of love are shining. I want to bear them.

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Being a network of congregations and why that got going.

Some people discovered this piece among my pages last week. I thought I would share it again. It first appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, fall of 2005

Let me say right off: we may use the 21st century word “network” to describe ourselves, but what we are doing is as old as Jesus. As usual, we’re ancient/future in our outlook.

That’s why we needed to put out this issue of the Dialogue. We wanted to focus on the network of cells and congregations that forms Circle of Hope because we sometimes seem strange to people. Supposedly, being a Network it is hard to “get.”

Maybe that is because people have been “got” by other thinking so the Bible is hard to “get.” One can hardly take a step in the Bible without running into God working through what might be called a network of people or without being called on by Jesus to form one!

I’m not sure the writers of the Bible would be able to “get” how most Christians in this era tolerate the enculturation of Christianity to the point that most Christians can’t form networks. Don’t you think they would be appalled by our racially and ethnically segregated worship? Wouldn’t they be amazed that many Christians think their country, their city, their neighborhood, their church, their cell is better than, or in competition with others? Wouldn’t they be puzzled at how many people resent the supposed imposition faith relationships make on their individual “freedom?” I do.

Like we are doing, I think the Bible-writers, if parachuted into Philadelphia or born here, would be very determined to perfect a network. They’d do it even when people in G’town complained about going “clear down to” Broad and Washington. They’d step it up when people in Kensington said, “So many people in the other congregations are so old!” They’d keep working it out when people in South Philly lost track of the fact that other congregations exist and vice versa, and vice vice versa.

So let me try to help us keep working with this. My goal is to take us back to some of the scripture that gave us a few of the major reasons we decided to be the church the way we are. If we hope to keep building a network of love and trust in our distant, skeptical culture, we’ll need a strong foundation to stand on.


  1. Actually, we became a network TOO. The Holy Spirit has been inspiring similar things from the beginning.

We had the blessing of inventing how we thought God would plant a church for the next generation in Philly. We came up with an ancient/future answer: He’s going to do it like God is always doing things – bringing people face to face with him and with each other again.

Jesus had his own idea of “net” work:

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore.” Matt. 13:47-8

We’re all kinds of fish in one net, too. Paul had lots of pictures to describe a network. This one is directed against individualists who can’t seem to stay connected.

Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Col. 2:18- 19

We want to live connected to the head, and so to each other like a body is held together.

  1. We had the basic goal to survive as diverse, touchable, incarnations of Jesus in a neighborhood.

We had the inspiration to do something a little harder than corralling a market share by appealing to felt needs and using clever branding. We want to be real and we want to live in our neighborhoods. So we came up with a both/and method for meeting that challenging goal. Each congregation stays small enough to be touchable and the church (network) is big enough to survive. We want the intimacy of smaller and the capacity of bigger.

For the writers of the Bible, this is common sense:

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12

Jesus and his people are always up against a lot. Standing alone makes us sitting ducks for evil. Intertwined, we are hard to break into wreckable pieces. We’re not proud enough, as individuals or congregations, to take the dangerous path of going it alone, just “getting ours” or just being “us.”

  1. We wanted to do our part to knit together the Philadelphia region with love

When we looked at Philadelphia’s balkanized condition, it cried out for reconciliation, and still does. Lot’s of people know about this, but very few people, especially Christians, organize to do much about it. We thought it would be a cop out not to do our part, so we planned to be a network, crossing the boundaries between the neighborhoods with our own love. We are neighborhood-based and citywide. Sometimes we use the word “glocal,” since Christians are transnational — global and local.

This is the kind of goal Paul would recommend, don’t you think? It is the kind of thing he says he was trying to do, too:

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3

We want to demonstrate this “unity in love” to a world that hasn’t seen it much and which thinks it is impractical. The newer translation quoted above traded the more literal “knit together” in love for “united.” I like to think of us as knitting – each person, each cell, each congregation linking with the others to form a whole piece of material. When you hear Paul talking about that, he seems to be implying that if we DON’T do that knitting, we will not have the “full riches of complete understanding.“ I think he is right. What’s more, if we aren’t knitters others won’t get a true picture of Jesus from us, as well.

  1. We wanted to give people an opportunity to get healthy and exercise their capabilities. Multiplicity helps.

The organic growth of cells propels new people into responsibility all the time because new leaders are needed when they multiply and everyone’s gifts are required to do the mutual care of each little “body.” We decentralized our mission efforts too, and called for people to start their own teams to lead us in whatever the Spirit could generate from us. This way of doing things creates ferment. We like that “chaos” because it requires the Spirit of God to generate it, direct it and keep us together in it. Having many people engaged heightens our sense of dignity and accountability. So we are flexible and accountable at the same time.

 Plus, I think pushing multiplicity is the kind of approach God has always used. The first church is the best example. After Stephen riled up the leaders in Jerusalem, the first church was attacked and forced out of town into the nearby territory. By telling the story of Jesus, they created the first network of churches.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off menand women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Acts 8:1-4

When you have a system that is ordered by common love and faith and directed by the Holy Spirit it seems as crisis-ridden as Acts 8, at times. But handing everyone the responsibility to do their part wherever they are planted and expecting them to keep together in love seems like the best way to keep everyone growing into their fullness.

  1. The next generation is not a mass market, and we didn’t want to treat it like a market, at all.

Yes, yes, making church like a TV show “works.” A lot of things work that we wish did not work because people still don’t seem to understand what will kill them. Sometimes it seems pigheaded, but we don’t like to pander to people’s worst instincts just so they’ll come to a meeting, give money, or just like us. What we are trying to do instead is deliver the life and message of Jesus as a community in Christ. We want to be a safe place for people to explore God’s love as they are now. And we want to be discerning enough to keep our eyes open for where they are going to be next. We’re relevant and predictable at the same time. God knows how to speak everyone’s language, but that never makes the message inconsistent.

Some people have thought it is a little suspicious when they realize that we’re hard to “pin down.” We’re more of an amoeba than a corporation. But I think Paul was that relationship-oriented, too. Even when he was writing to believers he had never met, he presumed a common bond that would result in some good thing:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. Romans 1:11-12

Such mutuality forms a character trait that says a lot more about Jesus than most arguments about the Bible. In our postmodern era, being a people is more compelling than talking about what someone ought to “buy.” So, as cells, as congregations, between our congregations, and in relationship to the world at large we are trying to perfect sharing. We’re replicating the picture Paul paints in his letters:

God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Cor. 12:24-7

We may not have as well-developed and consistent character as we would like, but we are who God has. We accept that like he does. We’re not advertising ourselves. We are not a product. We’re a people.

That’s a lot of stuff in a few paragraphs, maybe too much, maybe too pared-down to make all the sense I would like. I offer it to help keep the dialogue going so we can listen to God and each other and end up creating the church the Lord would like to use next. So far, I think we have done a good job of listening and trying to keep up with him. We have, appropriately, bitten off more than we can chew and need God’s help to enable us to be what we are called to be. Let’s keep chewing.

Being Circle of Hope, “the network of cells and congregations who form one church in many neighborhoods” can seem a bit strange. Some people find it hard to “get.” But somehow that seems appropriate, since the world, in general, doesn’t seem to get God too well, at all. But I think God gets us and that makes all the difference to me.

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Homo Economicus at Christmas

black fridayI can only hope that the pundits were right and the “Black Friday” holiday was toned down a bit this year. I am praying that fad dies. God has answered my prayer so many times, I no longer suspect He won’t.

Maybe the one percent have stratified income so much that it is impossible to be as gluttonous as the general populace once could be. Or maybe we have already been sold so many internet connections that “Cyber Monday” is what I should be praying about, now — I’m not sure. But I can only hope that one day capitalism can lose its grip on the Baby born in poverty, then soon to be the Refugee, and then the Executed. My hoped is always stoked at Christmas time.

Homo Economicus’ engines are also stoked at holiday time. I mention “homo economicus” to point out how it is always quite a competition for how humankind is going to see themselves. “Child of God” probably still owns the hearts of most of us, but “homo economicus” probably gets a majority of our attention. What I mean by “homo economicus” is how the proponents of a capitalist view of the world see the nature of a human being and human desire. For one thing, the capitalists would not say that one starts with a human and then this human adopts capitalism and then is influenced by it in various ways. I think they admit that capitalism forms a particular kind of human, one that relates to the environment in certain ways – like they rush to stores on Black Friday in response to a trumped-up frenzy.

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Advent is a wonderful truckload of “foolishness”

Maybe Advent should culminate with a Mummers Parade. Maybe we should reorient the whole season to focus on how crazy it all is and stop cleaning things up. Prophets having visions, John the Baptist in animal skins, Jesus in a manger, foreigners with gifts, baby slaughter, angels, Holy Family displacement and immigration — it is much wilder than a family dinner with grandma and all that exquisitely pretty music, don’t you think?

Last night I began with convincing people that the prophets of the Old Testament could be considered “fools” — the kind Paul recommends to us when he says: “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10).

jokerHistorians dispute some of this, but Shakespeare popularized the idea that part of a king’s entourage in Europe’s included a fool, or a jester (who said things in jest). He could say things in jest because he was a fool. Sometimes the fool had an actual disability, a natural fool. And sometimes he was a licensed fool, a person who had license to say things back to the king or queen that others could not say. For instance, when the French king Philippe VI experienced a great defeat at sea in 1340 his “fool” told him the English sailors “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.” We preserved the memory of these people in our deck of cards (and Batman movies) with the joker.

We also preserve the function of putting all the foolishness on someone or letting all the foolishness out in some way so we don’t have to bear it ourselves. For instance, Philadelphia provides the world with the best Mummers Parade ever.  The following video will tell you all about it in the first 5-10 minutes. The government tried to eradicate the racism from the Mummers Parade in the 60’s, with some success. They keep trying to eradicate its spirit with super fancy costumes, but the comic brigades preserve the weirdness and the commentary. It is good foolery.

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That “other” person is someone I love!

I have traveled in the same circles with Ron Sider since I was in my twenties – actually ran into him on my son’s street a few weeks ago. I was profoundly influenced by Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I am a fan.

I say all that so my small criticism of what he recently said in Christianity Today is not taken as a slam. His article: Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate: We need a better approach to the traditional biblical ethic on sexuality in the November 18 CT was passed around by some of my acquaintances and friends in the BIC, which made me wonder what it was all about. So I read it.

Here’s the gist: 1) He wants evangelicals to admit their track record on relating to: “gays” is tragic. 2) He makes a more-generous-than-usual argument about Biblical tradition that ends with the conclusion that everyone who is not in a lifelong heterosexual marriage should be celibate. 3) He ends with seeing the present argument as an opportunity: a) to do what it takes to nurture marriage, b) to listen to “gay people” c) To be nice: “Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without ignoring, marginalizing, and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.”

His thoughts seem revolutionary to some people. For instance, someone wrote in to voice their struggle with Ron’s assumption that gay people could be saved. Ron knows CT’s audience, so I appreciate his boldness. I saw that the moderator of our denomination and a bishop posted the article on Facebook. So he got some affirmation. One commenter said that he appreciated how a person of authority stated something that he had thought for a long time.

Is there an epidemic of early debate training?

Is there an epidemic of early debate training?

This is the one thing I offered on FB: “I don’t think I have ever been part of the ‘we’ Ron is talking about. I’ve certainly been listening to so-called gay people for my whole adult life. Just to be clear ‘gay’ people have been ‘us’ while ‘we’ have been dithering about ‘them.’”

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Despise the shame

حرام عليك (Haraam 3aleik) Shame on you!

That is the extent of the Egyptian Arabic Jonny has taught me and I still can’t pronounce it. (Shame on me!) According to him, it is an important phrase to know if you want to know about Egyptians and maybe the whole Middle East. He often calls them a shame culture. For people schooled in western philosophy and theology, the sociologists need to remind us that we are from a guilt culture. The generalizations of sociologists are hard to defend but they can be instructive to think about. Want to know more about how they label you? Here’s a full treatment of the building blocks of godless societies: fear, shame and guilt. It will help you get your mind around the ideas: link.

If you don’t want the full treatment, here’s the idea of what runs a shame culture:

Basically, shame is an act against the accepted system of values.  You feel shame when you are going against what others think you should be going with. It is especially activated when an outsider finds out that you have committed a shameful act. One author puts it this way: “He who has done a shameful deed must conceal it, for revealing one disgrace is to commit another disgrace.” There is an Arab proverb that says, “A concealed shame is two thirds forgiven.”

Dad loved Spade Cooley (and had a healthy shame attendant).

Dad loved Spade Cooley (and had a healthy shame attendant).

A 20th Century Syrian scholar, Kazem Daghestani, tells of an Arab husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. He drew a gun and pointed it at the couple while addressing the man. “I could kill you with one shot but I will let you go if you swear to keep secret the relationship you have had with my wife. If you ever talk about it I will kill you.” The man took that oath and left. The husband divorced his wife without divulging the cause. He was not concerned about the loss of his wife or her punishment but about his reputation. Public shaming and not the nature of the deed itself or the individual’s feelings had determined his action. That’s an old example from mid-twentieth century, but it is still applicable — and it tells the story of a lot of what happens in the Middle East. People are carrying secret shame.

You are probably carrying secret shame too, Egyptian or not. When you got up today, your “shame attendant” probably started doing its internal job. Maybe you looked in the mirror and said, “Yuck.” You got ready for a shower and it said, “Too fat. Too thin. Too hairy. Too out-of-shape. Too unnatractive to make love to.” The background music of our secret shame is playing all day and we never let anyone else hear it because that would feel even more shameful. So we end up dragged around by it all day; trying to feel better in spite of it all day. Right now as I write this, my left foot still hurts because I went down to the basement to turn on my laundry in the dryer (Forgot it last night, stupid) and I hit my foot on my toolbox. (Did not take it clear down to the workbench, lazy.) When I yelled in surprise and pain, my first thoughts were, “Why did you leave that there (you dummy!)?” And I also immediately thought that I did not want to tell Gwen I had hit my foot because she disapproves of me leaving my stuff lying around. My shame attendant was in full swing.

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Christians are often in the forefront — note healthcare

It was quite a night last night at the BW PMs! I am still in wonder about all the stories I heard and experiences I had. We are alive in the Spirit. We are making a difference. People are seeking healing — and many are finding it, sometimes in surprising ways!

The church has always been full of surprises, hasn’t it? Historian Gary Ferngren writes that in 251 A.D., when Christians were still a small minority, the church in Rome took care of 1,500 widows, orphans, the sick and the dying. A century later, the church in Antioch supported twice as many. Out of this support network Christians created the world’s first hospitals.

machaChristians have often been in the forefront of improving the world. Just talk about this one thing: how we have contributed to health care, and we sound pretty amazing.  For instance, the Brethren in Christ Church began a hospital in the rural, far-reaches of Zambia in 1957 at Macha, a village 50 miles from the nearest town, Choma. Dr. Philip Thuma has served there for years. Under his leadership the hospital grew into an innovative and effective malaria research center. Now it is a 208-bed inpatient facility with an affiliated nursing school. The research on malaria has world-wide partners.

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We are saved, not merely safe

Last night we had some interesting talkback in both PMs about my example of “hosting” our subway station at Broad and Ellsworth. I told what I thought was a humorous story that showed how hard it was for me to practice my convictions — I greeted a young woman in the station and then watched her remove herself to the far reaches of the platform. This struck a nerve in a few women. The nerve seemed reminiscent, to me, of a recent viral video of a woman walking silently through New York City for ten hours and enduring over 100 comments from men as she silently made her way.

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What I Learn from Project Runway

I discovered the other nightproject-runway-05 at the Love Feast that I might lose a couple of friends if I betrayed who won Project Runway last Thursday. Life is now DVR’d so there is no shared sense of real time — I forget these things. I am forbidden to disturb the perfect isolation of someone’s relationship with the screen. So now that I am down a few lines and have issued the spoiler alert, it was Sean from New Zealand, not Amanda from Nashville, Kini from Hawaii or Char from Detroit.

I don’t watch the show because I root for a winner. I never know why someone wins anyway (although I do think it should have been Amanda this time). I watch the show for  it’s message. It is such a perfect piece of capitalist propaganda that it is a priceless manual for my mission field.

heidi klum womens healthI was talking about the show the other day and yet another person gave me that “I’m-trying-not-to-get-into-this-with-you” look. But they could not resist. “Why do you watch that show? Isn’t it about fashion design?” The unspoken question was, “Pastor, you are into fashion design? Aren’t all those fashion people the definition of godless?” I told them, “I watch it to learn things.” Yes, Heidi Klum is still beautiful and I am fond of Tim Gunn; and it is amazing that these artists can make practical art out of anything in no time at all — those are also good reasons to watch. But mostly, I am listening for what people are being taught and Project Runway sums up America in 90 minutes each episode — 45 of which I actually view. (Thank you inventers of the DVR; I can skip most of the relational drama the film editors concoct).

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Stand against the hand: share and pray

When capitalism organizes your money, it undermines community. Worse, when capitalism channels your desire it warps prayer. The main things our church may be lacking the most right now are money and prayer. There is a good, macro reason for that lack which we might not even notice: we are in the grip of the “invisible hand.”

Let me say right off the top, in case you don’t read too much further:

1) We cannot sustain community without sharing money. Practically, we have made commitments as a group that require money, of course. But more profoundly, if you opt out of contributing to the whole you diminish it, even mock it, name it unworthy. You put a hole in our mutuality. Give ten dollars or a tithe, but stay in the game with us. We could lose the game.

2) We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire. Practically, if the consumption-driven economy drives you, you have another god. If you have stopped praying because, in reality,  your “needs” are met by your place in the economy and your desires are driven by the market, you look like a foreigner in the Kingdom of God. Pray one minute or make praying your vocation, but connect with the Spirit. You could die. And the church could die with you.

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