Practical thinking about drugs

The wisdom or rightness of whatever we are doing depends primarily upon our motivation or purpose for doing it. “Why?” and “what for?” make a difference. Jesus followers know why they are alive and what to live for.

animalsacrificeThe Apostle Paul masterfully helps us with our decision making about activities that could “go either way” in several of his letters — “Is this action wise or right?” For instance, in his day there was a debate about what to do with food that comes from the temple “store” after having been sacrificed to idols. He writes:

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:3-9)

We may not have a similar circumstance in our own time (although some people think eating genetically modified foods might be something sacrificed to a corporation). But lately we have had the debate about ingesting drugs of various kinds; there is a parallel. This is the second half [previous post] of some thoughts we explored in our last “Doing Theology” time; Paul is a good guide to questions we have to keep asking.

This might be a question more suitable to what we are discerning:

Is it right or wrong to drink and glass of wine or smoke a joint?

The Bible seems to teach it depends — who is doing it, where and when? For myself, I rarely drink any alcohol in public and usually don’t serve it  because I am aware that some people should never drink any alcohol and I am in solidarity with them. In his argument about eating temple meat, Paul, likewise, says that even though he feels free to eat whatever he chooses, he abstains when he is around people who are against eating such things because he doesn’t need to do anything — especially if it causes someone to stumble over a debatable matter. He has enough confidence in his freedom not to need to exercise it just to prove he has it. His argument (above) easily applies to most ampliative drugs, since they are unnecessary.

More important to most of us is this question:

Are you using drugs to enjoy the gifts of God to the glory of God and to edify the body? Or are you trying to escape or numb pain? Is your drug use about God and others or just about you?

An ampliative or therapeutic drug is just a substance. It can (at least many drugs can) be used for good or it can be used sinfully or ignorantly. Instead of its potential good impact, it could have unintended or sin-ridden consequences. Like anything, it can take on meanings beyond what it is and have undue influence. Whether you use a drug or not, if Jesus is Lord and extending his kingdom motivates you, then you will be able to work things out – God has accepted you even if you have an alternative approach to someone else’s, or you interpret your needs differently, or even if you are just plain wrong at this moment.

You could use a drug and think “nothing can touch me. I am free and strong!” Or you could use a drug in fear, to escape what you should be facing. You could use a drug and feel holier than everyone else. Or you could not use a drug you need and be a big detriment to everyone who has to make up for how badly you behave. You could use a drug ignorantly or rebelliously and become addicted.

We’ll have to work it out.

How does one decide about using therapeutic drugs or attempting to use ampliative drugs therapeutically?

Here are some important questions to ask on the way to answering that question:

  1. Are you avoiding the hard questions that the drugs might help you avoid?
  2. Will the drug/medication aid your maturity or will it numb the process or even blind you to it?
  3. Are you praying things through or is the drug your refuge?
  4. Do you have friends and therapists to talk to or does the drug help you avoid scary relationships?
  5. Is taking the drug/medication an expression of faith and service or is it running and numbing? Conversely is refusing to take it relying on yourself instead of humbly admitting your need?
  6. Will not using the drug/medication build up or tear down the body?

Questions that help do theology from where you are starting:

How are you presently using drugs of all kinds?

Have you or your loved ones (friends or family) ever been prescribed or used drugs to their detriment? What happened?

What are the most important parts of this dialogue so far for your future health and the future health of Circle of Hope?

What is God telling you about using ampliative or therapeutic drugs?

Here are some “one-liners” we collected at the end of our Doing Theology time. These are not ‘last words,” just the wisdom some people were willing to offer:

  • Talking about drug use more lets everything that might be suppressed get out into the light. Not talking can leave us lost in feeling defective.
  • As a church, it is better to be known as a fertile ground for recovery than as a place where one is free to party.
  • Peer pressure is a big thing in a community. It runs things. We need to remember that what we do influences others.
  • Drinking wine could be joyful if Jesus is behind it. He obviously thought so.
  • We should handle substances relationally, not legally. Our sin addiction keeps us isolated and prone to cutting people off.
  • Avoidance is part of humanity. The Zoloft user could easily tell the alcoholic to get the speck of sawdust out of his eye while she has a plank of dependency in her own.
  • Jesus can transcend the space of our deepest suffering, dependent on a drug or not. We yearn for transformation.
  • drug moneySuspicion of one’s personal capacity is warranted. None of us is all that self aware. None of us is capable of competing with the billions  of dollars spent to get us to use unnecessary drugs.
  • The body  of Christ is useful in all healing processes. Just learning how to be the body is healing. The therapeutic dyad central to psychotherapy amplifies this truth.
  • Where does my necessary suffering end and unnecessary begin? I cause a lot of my own suffering. We all need the mirror.
  • Getting connected to something beautiful usually starts before sobriety.
  • How do we get to the place where we can ask the question: “Show me how I work so I can be healed?”
  • Rationalization and spiritualization are enemies of transformation.
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What about drugs? Some background for doing theology.

When we are doing theology we are mentalizing with God and his people. We are not working on the social construction of reality; we are listening for the reality behind what we think we know — the voice of God. In that process we honor the Bible as the trusted basis for hearing from God and we respect people who have done the work to understand the Bible. But we are not just parsing words, making laws, or arguing over theories. We are trying to figure out who to be and what to do. Doing theology is thinking and feeling along with God and conforming one’s thinking and feeling to his or her truest self.

drug companiesAbout a month ago we decided to do some theology about drugs. The situation in the United States is so drug-induced that it caused a government report: Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse.  The solutions in the report did not do theology, of course, and they came up with the typical solutions of the the day: education, tracking and monitoring, proper medical disposal, and enforcement. All these solutions will be hard to implement, since drugs, legal and illegal, are a huge business in the United States.

Philadelphia is deeply connected to the drug industry, even historically.  When George Washington lived at 5th and Market he wrote to his gardener at Mt. Vernon, “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere.” He and Thomas Jefferson traded herbal blends for their pipes. A recent Philadelphia Magazine highlighted how pot is coming. Recently the city recently decriminalized pot. There is now a $25 fine for possession of under an ounce and a $100 fine for smoking in public. And police are instructed not to arrest anyone with under an ounce.  People are lined up to help us become Colorado — let marijuana be legal and cash in.

drugs by the numbers

There is a theological framework for why this subject is important.

What are drugs?

Drugs are not a malevolent force against which we should war. They are not the disease of the users who should be scapegoated. They are chemical substances that, when taken into the human body through ingestion, injection or some other means, modify one or more of the capacities of the body for either ampliative or therapeutic purposes and not for feeding or nourishing the body.

The history of drug use in the modern western world tracks the development that has ended up in our consumer economies. Just before the twentieth century, regulation of drugs by taxation changed to prohibition and criminalization of their use and distribution. Some of the factors leading to this were 1) industrial workers needed more presence of mind than agricultural, 2) governments thought drugs would sap the country’s fitness for war, 3) most drugs came from the southern hemisphere so there were racists fears about foreigners corrupting the young, 4) science discovered more about how bad various drugs could be, 5) Christians and socialist thought they were morally corrosive and made people poor. People are still having these debates.

What is thinking about drugs that might be contrary to revelation?

  • Drugs are a form of technology

They can make body an object of manipulation. The body can be seen as separate from a whole person, just a machine to manipulate.

  • Drugs are used to “progress” out of what is viewed as the tyrannous imposition of creation.

These days people tend to think technology will make everything better. We don’t like physical or psychological pain, so we employ new drug technology to get rid of it. The drugs circumvent what is built into our bodies to order our lives in relation to the world around us and to time. For instance, if I am tired and have a headache I probably need rest, not coffee or an aspirin. Rather than smoking weed to go to sleep, I might need to start exercising and stop watching the blue screen late at night.

  • Power: Drugs are a means by which one manipulates the body according to their will.

As a result of the philosophy of power, there is a big concern over the addict who is out of control and dependent. If one does not have power over oneself it undermines the whole philosophy on which western society is running. Marx highlighted this call for power when he called religion the opiate of the people. It is ironic, of course, that society as a whole is increasingly dependent on drugs.

  • Breaking-Bad-Season-51Freedom: Drugs are a consumable that satisfies one’s needs and desires and frees one from suffering.

Ampliative drugs, in particular, are seen as freedom, even rebellion. It is ironic that they are in total conformity to the heart of present western culture. People have become engineers of experiences (maybe with their own meth lab). They don’t waste time waiting to bump into something good in creation, they make it at home. One author calls weekend party animals “bureaucrats of fun,“ administering their enjoyment like a nurse setting a med schedule.  The society thinks taking drugs is a moral imperative: they are a valuable technology through which we can manage and manufacture a better, more fulfilling life.  It must be added that they are also the ultimate consumer product: geared for maximum impact and instantly obsolete, used up – and they are easy: no need for training, travel or time. A good rebellion against “the man” would more likely be never using ampliative drugs, in particular.

I will follow this up soon with some practical advice for thinking about how to use drugs along with some of the thinking of the group we gathered for doing theology.

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12 basics for covenant keeping in conflict

This piece is for everyone who wants to work out a covenant. The covenant relationships most common to us are the ones we keep in our marriages and the one we have with each other as the people of God gathered face to face as the church. [Listen to the pastors’ latest video].

A covenant is not the same as the more-familiar contact. A contract is an agreement the partners maintain as long as expectations are met and justice is done. A covenant like God makes is an expression of character – a character devoted to realizing self-giving love and mutuality — true love is more about the character of the lover than the characteristics of the beloved. A covenant is made by the partners who promise to give love and commitment without an end in mind for themselves – their goal is keeping a reconciling, growing relationship alive and, if they follow Jesus, breeding love.

the covenant

Not exactly what I have in mind — but warlocks have an idea about covenant and Hollywood will exploit anything.

A covenant is refined and comes to fullness when it endures conflict. It needs conflict like certain pine forests need fire to rejuvenate. Just like God’s covenant with us in Jesus goes through death to life, our covenants of love with God and others also endure that kind of suffering to become what they can be. So conflict between covenant partners is part of the love. Having healthy conflict is part of the covenant.

  • Conflict is normal: it is a natural, inevitable reality – especially because the world is subject to sin and death.
  • Conflict is nightmarish: it is scary and often mismanaged in painful, abusive and/or destructive ways.
  • Conflict is necessary: it is what God goes through with us; it is needed for producing growth.

12 basics for covenant keeping when there is conflict (as there will be!)

These basic statements are not for judging whether a covenant partner is living up to their part of the relationship. I list them for self-reflection by people who want to master self-giving love by enduring conflict with the goal of enjoying and providing the blessings of covenant in Christ. They are a list of ideals – some we may be good at expressing already and some may show up our deficiencies. If we can learn them, we will be well on the way to showing up for the benefit of our partners, like God shows up for us in Jesus.

So, when you are in covenant (like in marriage or the church) and there is conflict…

  1. Prepare the setting, if possible, and plan for constructive confrontation.

Avoid distractions, interruptions, or non-private discussions; being overly tired/stressed; or being emotionally reactive (Proverbs 16:1-3).

2. Take responsibility and take initiative to directly address the issue.

Avoid running from the problem, using the “silent treatment,” waiting for the other person to make the first move, or allowing problems to accumulate (Matthew 5:23-4)

  1. Attack the problem, not the person, and propose viable options or solutions.

Avoid judging or criticizing the other person and/or their personality, appearance, family of origin, etc., name-calling, power messages or manipulative actions, or attempting to change or “fix” them (Proverbs 15:1-2)

  1. Stay on the subject; focus specifically and concretely on the facts, actions, feelings and events.

Avoid sweeping generalizations, using the “everything and the kitchen sink” attack, bringing up the past, comparisons with others, or irrelevant issues (Proverbs 17:14)

  1. Take responsibility for your part of the conflict and be willing to humbly admit when you are wrong.

Avoid being proud, stubborn and arrogant by blaming the other person for your feelings or actions, or denying your humanness and blind spots (Philippians 2:3-5)

  1. Practice active listening and effective communication skills, including usage of self-disclosing “I” language.

Avoid accusatory “you” statements, exaggeration, and extreme language (e.g.: “never, always, all, everyone” etc) or interrupting (Ephesians 4:29).

  1. Be calmly assertive, stating your needs, wants, hurts, disappointments and feelings clearly.

Avoid pouting, nagging and complaining: putting words in others person’s mouths, or expecting them to read your mind (Matthew 12:34-37)

  1. Show honor, considering how you speak, being truthful, and practicing courtesy

Avoid lying to protect yourself or someone else. Put all of the following on your “forbidden” list: name-calling and sarcasm, belittling or degrading the other person, and abusive, intimidating, forceful or violent behavior of any kind (Proverbs 15:4).

  1. Be considerate, appreciating and understanding the other’s needs, feelings, interests and differences.

Avoid the idea that you need to think or feel the same way as the other person. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to deny differences in taste, upbringing, viewpoint, customs or coping mechanisms in order to resolve your conflict (Romans 14:19-15:4).

  1. Be willing to forgive (functionally defined as “giving up our ‘right’ to hurt back”) an offense in order to cultivate the other’s growth, healing and well being.

Avoid becoming resentful, bitter, punitive, alienated and controlled by vengeful fantasies and actions (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

  1. Strive for mutual understanding and a “win-win” outcome, developing an “us-we-ours” view of the situation.

Avoid trying to change the other person. Let go of the need to get your own way or to “win” the argument. Stay away from a self-centered “me-my-mine” attitude (Romans 15:7).

  1. Agree to agree. For the moment, you may need to agree to disagree — if there are unresolved issues, arrange to discuss them later. If necessary, get outside help from an unbiased, neutral, objective mediator or arbitrator.But keep the covenant goal in mind.

Avoid the temptation to withdraw from the situation and let the conflict go unresolved, in so much as it is up to you. At the same time, don’t pull in biased family members or friends to support you. When arguments escalate or become too intense, suggest calling a brief time-out to allow flaring tempers to cool (Proverbs 15:22, Matthew 18:15-17).

This is primarily taken from a seminar by Jared Pingleton which he has published elsewhere. It is not reproduced, in total, or quoted for profit.


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What do Christians REALLY want?

The title of today’s post hit me while I was walking the streets with Jesus on the way of the cross last Friday. I was pondering our journey in Capitolo Park, in the rain when I heard a nice singing voice on a loudspeaker in Spanish. I looked around south of Pat’s cheesesteak, but it appeared to be coming from even farther south. I started walking to investigate. I heard the Spanish word for sin, I saw the crest of a Roman legionnaire glinting in the distance, so I started running. Before long I was in a procession behind Mexican Jesus carrying his cross and being periodically whipped by soldiers who were taking their roles as seriously as everyone else in the parade. I stood very close to Mary, herself, and hummed along with the rest of the singers in the crowd.jesus on cross Annunciation

The police were trying to make it all work. The neighbors were standing on their stoops looking bemused and indulgent. A reporter made it a human interest story on Saturday in the Inquirer. But I was strangely moved when Jesus fell and the soldiers started yelling at him to get up and finally whipped him again with their cotton-rope whips to keep him moving toward His death. What an important spectacle! — few words, just a big visual aid for what the day in history was all about. I was glad I was with everyone for a while before I continued my own more meditative version of the discipline. As I stood out in the middle of Broad St. and prayed for the city, in the rain, in the median, in the line of sight for all sorts of cars wondering why anyone was doing such a thing, I began to wonder what people really want.

Lots of people do not want Jesus crucified and risen. That is for sure. It hasn’t changed much since Paul insisted that his story about Jesus’ death and resurrection was all he really had to give people. People wanted “spirituality” and the idol worship of the state back then, too, instead of Jesus. But what to the Christians really want? They did not want to get out in the rain and make themselves known as followers along the way of the cross, for the most part, certainly not with the Mexicans who were importing their extravagant passion play. I began to make a list in my head.

What do Christians REALLY want?

Mind you, this is not a list for all Christians, or even for the Christians I know. It is more along the line of “these are the things Christians get sucked into when their courage is weakened by their environment and the unique challenges of their personal journey” or “this is what people think Christians really want instead of Jesus that makes them hypocrites.”

  • They want the best for their kids.

Who doesn’t? But if that is all you really want will they ever find out what is best beyond what you can get for them?

  • They want to pay less taxes and control their money.

Thus, Republican candidates can assume the evangelicals will vote for them.

  • They want good friends.

So all sorts of churches have tight communities and don’t even need to mention Jesus to keep them going.

  • They want more personal time.

So many church people resent the church because it appears to eat up too much of the time not dominated by their jobs.

  • They want to argue about church policies

This is for people who are into church, of course. Most people only argue about policies when the church doesn’t have one that benefits them or has one that makes what they want to do look wrong.

  • They want to follow rules

No matter how much the Bible writers fight the constant pressure to makes rules that manage God people still want to tame the Lord and lead God around — you know, whip him into shape.

Does Jesus really care about any of these things? He cares about us, so he ends up caring about what we care about. But, as the Son of God, none of these things make his top twenty list. He doesn’t have a wife and kids (or a house or even a career in the normal sense of the word). He gets tax money out the mouth of a fish. He has great friends, but they were not too reliable last week. He doesn’t work on dichotomies like public and personal. He is frustrated with Pharisees who have created policies about policies. He is a ruler, not a rule follower.

I suppose Jesus is so weird his weirdness is a good reason that people just motored through Good Friday and were impatient when a processional of Mexicans messed up their search for a parking space. Obviously, needing a parking space is not wrong and being frustrated about parking is a normal feature of city life. I suppose the problem is more about the desire that creates one’s list rather than the search itself. For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. For the frustration of being annoyed a parker might endure the processional.

What do you REALLY want? The church normally promises whatever people want in the name of Jesus so they can keep butts in the seats. Church ends up all about your kids, your career, your friends, your “you” time, and all brought down to principles, policies and rules that a fifth grader could understand and apply without too much demanding spiritual stuff added in. You’re OK if you attend enough meetings to keep off the absentee list.

But there was Jesus out on the street again last Friday. I felt like my puny, twisted desires were whipping him, too.  I was moved all over again to make myself absent to any of the normal fears that make me desire things I don’t have or desire more perfect versions of the things I already have in order to follow the Savior in the life I have been given. I want to know the miracle of being raised from the death of need so I can more needlessly receive and carelessly love. I want to know Christ, even though it means being one with him in death and suffering with him along this journey in order to know the power of his resurrection — instead of just desiring what I pretend I can get for myself.

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I am not Indiana

It is interesting to be alive as the United States goes “post-Christian.” I still remember sitting around the living room just after graduating from college predicting this day and looking forward to it, so we could get back to telling people the gospel and forming the church without being all clogged up with saluting the flag. We are not quite there yet — and I am not sure if getting what I hoped for (as usual) is going to be what I really want.

indianaThe example of the day for not getting what I want is the uproar over the “religious freedom” law in Indiana. (Here is a description from the NY Times, complete with a link to the bill). Governor Pence told ABC’s This Week that the new Indiana law is just an expansion of a federal law that is over 20 years old. It is about expanding individual rights for those who feel government has impinged upon them. “This is not about discrimination,” he said. “This is about empowering people to confront government overreach.” The supposedly controversial Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act is based on a 1993 Federal Law of the same name, signed by Bill Clinton. It protects individuals (which includes most anyone or anything that can get a federal id number) from risking a lawsuit by exercising their convictions. Not only can the Christian owners of a bakery refuse to write an inscription on the wedding cake of a gay couple, but the black owners of a T-shirt business don’t have to print the KKK’s burning crosses on shirts, and Jewish owners of a gift shop don’t have to put Nazi symbols on coffee cups.

However, Pence did not answer directly when asked six times whether under the law it would be legal for a merchant to refuse to serve gay customers. “The issue here is still: Is tolerance a two-way street or not?” he responded several times. The governor might have better reason to respond that way if “sexual orientation” were a protected class of people on Indiana’s list. But they are not. So the law leaves room for merchants to decide who is gay and whether they want to serve them based on their orientation. Why a state would want to further injure LGBT people now that they are finally enjoying the light of day is beyond me. Quite predictably, the bill has been roundly condemned around the nation. Seattle’s mayor went so far as to issue a travel ban to Indiana for city workers.

As a leader in the church, people turn and look at me suspiciously whenever religious arguments get adjudicated in the press. Republican Governor Pence says that Indiana is under fire for faith, so I am supposed to either defend him or not because he got on TV. People look at our church and wonder if LGBT people are a protected class among us, as if we were a state government! Once again, people who are not personally dealing with the varieties non-dominant sexual attractions start lumping everyone together into an “identity” and making them conform to the latest version of the political fight. I still don’t think those are our only choices. I am for religious freedom and I think the various RFRA’s, federal and in twenty-one states, make a lot of sense. At the same time I think the application in Indiana is wrong-headed and hurtful. I have the luxury of seeing things that way because I don’t need an RFRA to have religious freedom and I am not Indiana. Governments should be useful and are often dangerous; regardless, Jesus is Lord.

jesus weeps over jerusalem

“Flevit super illam” (He wept over it); by Enrique Simonet, 1892.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem yesterday he pointedly challenged the authority of both the empire and the religious leaders. They promptly killed him. We might like to remember his example. Alternatively, Republican Christians got themselves into power in Indiana and they intend to use the power of the state to defend their rights. They may save me from getting killed, I don’t know. But they also threaten to delude people into thinking that state law is somehow going to save them. It is not. It is just as likely to threaten your life. The big point of Palm Sunday, that even children could recognize, is that Jesus is the one who saves.

I think the people who are furious over the Indiana law are even more sure that state law will save people — specifically those who just want to love who they love without being discriminated against as a result. For more and more people, the state is god and the laws are the word of the lord. Whoever marshals enough firepower to win the legal fight rules — and people are deploying the weapons of “dialogue” in our country to overturn this law. The media is already holding court sessions for the latest round of social construction. The corporations are already deciding the verdict on Indiana. Charles Barkley gets on TV and pressures the NCAA to move the Final Four out of the state. Tim Cook of Apple denounces the law as an opening for discrimination (which it is). cancels all events in the state. Yelp issues a warning. Angie’s List says it is rethinking expansion plans. What Christians seem to miss on Palm Sunday is that Jesus is clearing out the temple of merchants and other powers so God is worshiped, not the regulations, laws and business interests that have come to substitute for God’s direct rule. As much as I am against oppression, I am surprised at how many Christians leave their faith behind in order to worship at the feet of the government (and the corporations who own it) whenever they experience discrimination, begging for freedom and demanding the power to make things right, as if American exceptionalism will actually save the world.

Meanwhile, in the church which, again, is not an Indiana in any way, shape or form, we are walking with real people who experience same sex attraction. Some are ready to strike out against inequality with their allies. Some may want to get married. Some don’t want to strike out or get married. And some would like people who are supposedly defending them to be quiet. The issues of faith , hope and love are bigger than the Constitution. I think criticizing Indiana’s lawmaking is important, but I know I will do more good, ultimately, if I follow Jesus more fearlessly in the face of bad laws. If I expect the powers-that-be to stop doing what the fallen powers of this world do, I will ultimately be less influential for good in that murky arena, too. When they want to reduce loved ones down to a “protected class” we need to tell them our kingdom is not of this world and this “class” is also expressing the first fruits of the age to come. If we can’t go that far, we can at least not project our frustration with Indiana on the church. We don’t need to fall into a political trap every time it is opened to us. We need to keep creating an alternative and not align ourselves with the pawns of the state who compete for some validation from the false god. Jesus is our hope for love and truth and we should keep speaking the truth in love.

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Six good reasons to observe the Holy Week

I have always had a bit of resistance to telling people about Holy Week. It is one of those things that casual people might gum up and consuming people might defile. It really deserves people who voluntarily seek the Lord  — not people who are not pressured into some observance by fear of unholiness nor people afraid of being on the outs with their peers or the people who dominate them. It is a radical thing to do — not really something to be visited but something to be accomplished, just like Jesus will say at the end of it, “It is finished.”

Walking through the Holy Week with Jesus is the ultimate in taking to heart the great theme verse of Lent, Philippians 3:10-11:  I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” The discipline is all about knowing Jesus – knowing his death and moving through it with him to resurrection.” Powerful.

At the same time, I also hate for anyone to miss it! So many Christians de-radicalize themselves and ramp down Christianity to fit into the “side-project” category while their schedule is devoted to who they really are. I cannot resist calling everyone into true faith that invades the schedule with as much discipline bent on knowing Jesus as it can tolerate – a true attempt at praying without ceasing and being the body on a pilgrimage together into eternity. This journey is our true life and no one should miss it. We got the strangest compliment the other day; someone said, “They really expect us to be Christians.” It’s true. I hope that’s not becoming unusual for the church in general. Holy Week expects us to be Christians.

So here are six reasons I think we should do it. You still have a few days to plan to do what you can to become who you might be — as Paul seems to say it, “attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

jesus checker


The Holy Week in the Christian discipline year is the week immediately before Easter. The earliest allusion to the custom of marking this week as a whole with special observances is to be found in the Apostolical Constitutions (v. 18, 19), dating from the late 200s and early 300s. It is great to be part of the transhistorical body of Christ. Circle of Hope also has its own version of this tradition that is as old as we are. It is great to be part of our own spiritual tradition. Some people think that resisting the tradition makes them something. Could be — thinking that being withdrawn, being “free” or merely being oneself  has good parts, too. But as a spiritual lifestyle staying singular is detrimental.


The main discipline of Holy Week is the spiritual exercise of being with Jesus, quite consciously, prayerfully and physically, as he moves through the final week on the way to his great work on our behalf. He is fully indentified with us and we seek to fully identify with him. We become one with him to know him and to die and rise with him. We could do this in our imagination in our house, of course, or binge watch it on a movie. Making the effort to go to a gathering connects us to our own problems with being that real, that active, and that committed as well as being all that with those people. We exercise our Christ-connected identity in graphic ways and that solidifies it.


The time we spend every day during the Holy Week gives us a lot of meditative space we do not normally have and may not normally discipline in our own schedule. The teaching, worship, dialogue and quiet give us a lot of space to receive Jesus: what he is saying and what he is doing. God came to us in Jesus in the past, he is coming right now and will come back to welcome us into the age to come. These mysteries are very deep and are a little different for us each year. We need to be softened to them and we need time to receive all that Jesus was, is and will be.


Many of us are just starting off in faith and we need to get a handle on what we are doing. Holy Week lays it out in a deep but linear path we can follow. Exercising spiritual discipline at this level is a formative first for many of us. It challenges who we are as individuals and a body, which is why many people don’t risk it. But it also makes us open to grow in the Lord’s direction as he leads us. Some of us are settled in Jesus and the church and are threatened with a loss of humility – enough humility to place ourselves in the now-familiar path with Jesus. But we need to place ourselves on that path as who we are now, not when we first took it, and going where we are going next, not stuck on the track we’re in. We dare not become content with our level. Holy Week demands a deeper level, since Jesus is out in front of us demonstrating what self-giving love means.


While spiritual discipline is probably primarily a silent, singular practice with God, we are never called to leave that as the full extent of our practice. We need each other. The weak need the strong and the strong need to weak. During the mutual discipline of Holy Week, we dispense with our normal cell schedule. We band together as four congregation who will meet as a whole on Easter morning and then will be sent into our stations on Easter evening. It is so descriptive it is priceless! The practice helps us face up to our new faces and to live in the truth and love that makes us one. The story of Holy Week is the story that made us the body of Christ. Reliving it is remembering our birth.


In a world of newly-forming detractors and deconstructors, the word of Jesus needs to be told and the way of Jesus needs to be demonstrated. This week of the year cannot be turned into a cute celebration of family and gift-giving; it is the Holy Week in which Jesus dies and rises. It is the gospel lived out by the Lord and His people. It is the re-creation moment held up for everyone to see. The Holy Week observances are like a march down Broad St. by which we let people know that people of this generation follow Jesus and take his work so seriously they are drawn to emulate it in their small way as they gather to be a part of it together. The more appointments we need to reschedule, the more bosses we need to ask for time off, the more friends we have occasion to tell what we are doing, the more trouble the whole process causes to the homeostasis seeking to deaden our hope, the better.

The times are on the Circle of Hope Calendar.

You may have more reasons! You may have stories to tell about why you do it. If this is a good place to share, please feel free.

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It is the second act — what do we do now?

Imaginarium gilliamIt is true that Terry Gilliam stole the title “imaginarium” from us and applied it to his devilish movie. The five people who knew about that movie before I just told you may have had trouble taking our “rolling Council” meeting seriously. Nevertheless, the others had a very visionary Imaginarium in February. Recently we have simply answered this question when we meet: “What is God telling us?” What moved the group in February was pondering what it takes to be what we have imagined and what it takes to lead it. We are implementing the vision of our “second act.” Things are loosening up, changing, and growing. What do we do now?

Here are five things that God seems to be saying to us about moving into what is next for Circle of Hope. It is amazing that all this good thinking happened in one hour!

Our “second act” is like when the kids are in high school and we get a miracle baby.

  • It has disturbed the homeostasis. Some of us have to get used to imagining ourselves as parents when we were already settled into our post-reproduction phase.
  • Our system has become pretty secure. It is good to have it disrupted because it needs to be disrupted to expand. Further leaders need to emerge. Pastors need to turn to equipping others and to not being overly in charge.
  • If we follow God’s lead through this change we will win the battle we are in. But there is a remote possibility that we won’t have the faith or follow the vision. We are taking the risk to meet the challenge even though we may prefer avoiding failure rather than risking success.

Many of us are at the tipping point when our attitudes change and we think we can sway something.

  • We have stokeable imaginations. We can get fired up. This is a good trait.
  • What we are talking about becoming in this year’s Map takes prayer. If we are praying all the time, we can see it God’s way and we can be it God’s way.
  • Some of us have felt overwhelmed — like we were foster parents to a giant baby called Circle of Hope. It was like the baby was foisted upon us and we were not exactly ready to parent. We fell in love with the baby and we decided to raise it. Now that we are raising it, it feels like our baby.

One of the main calls to the Leadership Team is to pick up the load. Be responsible.

  • To be responsible probably means a change in how many of us see ourselves. We can’t lead if our faith is locked inside “personal salvation” boundaries — that means faith is something I get for myself and it mainly lives in me. We’re talking about having faith that is about others and about the cause, not locked up in our own survival, preference or good feelings.
  • One of us gave an analogy of this based on how they have changed their gardening practices. In the past their garden was not very thought out. They planted what was given to them or went with half-price plants at the end of the season. This year they have already been germinating seeds under the grow lights in expectation of spring. We need to be the kind of people who foster spiritual seedlings, not just wait for people to find us, not just think of ourselves as afterthoughts or leftovers, and not mess around with “whatever” until the season for planting has passed.
  • To pick up the load means being active as opposed to passive. We can be a movement or a monument (or even a mausoleum if we don’t watch it).
What? Never saw Disney's Hercules, either?

What? Never saw Disney’s Hercules, either?

It is tempting to wait and see what is happening, like you’re watching someone else’s show.

  • It doesn’t matter if we switch around our leaders and do inventive structural changes if the church is not moved by the Spirit. If there is no movement there is nothing to steer.
  • One of us said. “If I say it, I’m more motivated.” They meant they need to talk about what they are doing because that helps them own it. For instance, people sometimes don’t want to say “I love you.” They don’t want to say it until they absolutely mean it. Some of us, even the leaders, don’t want to say, “I’m going with the ‘second act.'” They are waiting, doubtful.

Our best stuff is in the wings ready to move on stage.

  • We need to stoke what is coming. We have spent three months doing that. We switched our pastors around and founded “the hub” at 13th and Walnut. A new picture is taking shape. We deployed new local site supervisors. We refocused all our pastors more on making deeper and further disciples and less on administration of their locales. We began to refocus Rachel on being the BW Development Pastor. Our Compassion Core Team took up the challenge of getting us ALL out there in compassionate service.
  • We are meeting new people who want to be responsible. They want to build an army for the spiritual battle of our time.
  • A new proverb seems to be developing: The new person is a role you did not know you needed.
  • We even started to catch up with our sharing goals in March.

It is an exciting time to be a circle of hope in Philadelphia. There is certainly no shortage of hopelessness to fill with a bright future! It is exciting to be Circle of Hope, the people of God, too! We are filled with possibilities and we have the vision and leadership to makes them happen.


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THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days

Owen Alderfer, 1985

Owen Alderfer, 1985

The first General Conference of the Brethren in Christ I ever attended was led by the Moderator named Owen Alderfer. He impressed us so much that Gwen and I thought we had stumbled upon the Shangri-la of denominations. We had lived in intentional community for years and here was Owen Alderfer trying to teach mutual respect and dialogue to a group of over 500 delegates who took themselves rather seriously. Just the fact that he would trust the group to debate meaty issues was way beyond anything we had ever experienced beyond the local level.

His mentality has slowly eroded over the years until BIC meetings would have to resurrect the idea of dialogue and few delegates take themselves seriously since they have little purpose — other than experiencing the show. But I have not forgotten Dr. Alderfer. If you talk about what should form the character of a BIC church planting, you might look to his summary of his dissertation called The Brethren Mindset.

Alderfer summarized an ethos that had four overlapping assumptions:

  • Christian truth is open—ended.
  • No one holds a monopoly on truth; God’s truth, therefore, may come to us from a variety of sources.
  • A system of doctrine is qualified by trusting relationships among brethren.
  • Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body.

mindset.realpowerThis mindset helped form the way of Christ for the Brethren in Christ. Unwittingly, perhaps, it is amazingly suited for the postmodern world. I have often said, and thought when I joined up, that the BIC’s capacity to be a little “big tent” was the main thing it could offer to the future. Right now I think that has been reduced to a “mosaic” of identities with little reason to hold together. Alderfer’s mindset offers a framework to actually make that diversity into a dynamic unity. I think he matches what Cavanaugh calls the pilgrim way through the mobility of the globalized world (see previous post).

I have to admit that I don’t really care if we plant “Brethren in Christ” churches, not really. I am not a so-called “cradle BIC.” I am not even a cradle Christian, since my parents never attended a church. So that kind of blood-family loyalty is not my strong suit. Instead of just extending the blood-line, what I want to do is make disciples who have the hope of making disciples and plant churches that have the hope of reproducing churches. I want to live in a lively incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ — a body influencing individuals and whole regions by its unusual presence and prophetically demonstrating as well as explaining how it is the alternative to the fallen world around it, starting with introducing the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I love the four-legged stool idea of Anabaptist, Pietist, Wesleyan and now Evangelical ways that combine to make a foundation for the Brethren in Christ. But I would add more legs: the charismatic movement, the “purpose driven” influence from a few years ago, and I would go further back and include the original desert father and mothers, the Benedictine movement in the 600’s, the Cluniac reforms of the 900’s, and the Franciscan movement of the 1200’s – it all comes from a common yearning from people who want to be Jesus followers, not just part of some “thing.” I came into Christianity with a trip through the history of Christianity, being personally attracted to all the radicals who just wanted to follow Jesus the best they could, and I was basically opposed to all the men who wanted to systematize and dominate the church to death.

So I am not that interested in the historic character of the Brethren in Christ or the very limited theological contours it has written for itself. I doubt that most, if any, of the BIC church people are that interested, either. (This blog post may be boring you already!). It just so happens that I think the Brethren in Christ stumbled upon a rather appropriate way to be the church. To the extent that we can express our genius and keep it living and not merely codified, then we are a good team to join. If we aren’t really a team and we are just trying to drum up enthusiasm for our dying tradition, then we won’t really have a good way to make disciples and plant churches, and I think we should just close down and go juice up the Church of the Brethren, or change our name and become something relevant.

I think we should be what Cavanaugh calls “pilgrims” in this interesting age. I have been a pilgrim and I think Alderfer was, too. A pilgrim is moving toward the center looking for gravity, not moving toward the periphery looking for difference or newness. The pilgrim, unlike the tourist, has a motivator outside themselves: God, rather than the interior motivator of satisfying themselves with relationships, knowledge or experiences. They are mobile, but they are not looking from above with the imperial gaze, they are looking ahead into what is next and looking inside for what needs to be emptied. They are humble.

When we planted Circle of Hope, we elaborately planned to build a church that had a brethren mindset. If you want to have one, I think it takes four features that match Alderfer’s premise: dialogue, a culture, listening leaders, and mutuality. See whether you think this bit of our genius is well-suited to making lifelong disciples from the people of our era.

Invite people into a dialogue.
Christian truth is open—ended; that is, it is not captured in a closed system and articulated in creeds and formal theological statements.

The idea is: “God may yet illumine the minds of His children to grasp new insights. True Christian faith is more a relationship than a system. We must, therefore, be open to the Holy Spirit that he may bring us new truth as our relationships to God and each other are enhanced throughout our Christian pilgrimage. We must continually be open to God lest we miss some fresh word from beyond.”

As the people God used to build Circle of Hope we had and still have choices. Our “small groups” could have just been a “program” of the church or the cells could be the church. We could have spawned independent congregations, dependent congregations, or do what we did: plant equal congregations joined as one church. We consciously formed a network of cells and congregations that are held together by a dialogue of love. The dialogue begins in the cells. It extends to cells of cell leaders and the Leaderships Teams that facilitate our life together. It is generated in the public meetings and works its way back down into the life of the body. The church is a breathing organism. That’s why we often warn people not to merely consume it, as Americans are accustomed to doing with everything, that would be cannibalism.

Everything we do has a feeling of being open-ended. Someone suggested a new proverb the other day: a newcomer is a gift you didn’t know you needed yet. That’s how dialogue should work. Alderfer quoted Vernard Eller saying that “’The central factor in brethrenism…is a commitment to follow Christ in radical discipleship.’ This thrust immediately skews Brethren thought away from the conceptual, the theoretical, the systematic, the theological, and toward the practical, the applicable, the existential. One’s positions are not as important as is the quality of one’s commitment and discipleship. The Bible is enough, and further creeds and regimentation are distractions.” God is splendidly complete, but God is humbly walking with us through our time until we are finished.

Thus, one of the main pieces of theology my children learned is that the people of God do not “go” to church, they “are” the church. They were forbidden to say, “We are going to church.” That’s impossible. Cavanaugh says the pilgrim mentality sees no differentiation between sacred and secular, clergy and laity, worship and work, spiritual and temporal. Speaking the truth in love undermines those, and other, false dichotomies. I like to talk about who is moving, not who is right or wrong, in or out, up or down. Those either/or identity arguments are the tricks of the powers. Having the arguments ultimately reduces faith to one’s private opinion. And when faith is private, the nation state owns the dialogue.

Nurture a culture
The first characteristic leads into the second: The body of belief held by Gods people may well incorporate principles from a variety of sources.

The idea is: “No one person or group has a monopoly on truth; we need to draw upon and learn from one another–using discernment and wise judgment all the while–lest our system of truth be dwarfed or truncated.”

This characteristic is seen in the early development of brethren-ish people. They were descendants of radical reformed Christianity. But they did not find this intense enough, so they searched for a deeper, richer expression of the faith. Their journey was later influenced by Pietism—-from which they drew a personal, immediate experience of God’s presence coloring all of life by the pervasive activity of the Holy Spirit.

God is always creating the culture by the power of the Spirit. As the people of God move throujoe snellgh time they adapt, redeem and bring hope. Their pilgrim sense of having a center in Christ that they carry along their way and having a destination outside themselves, given by God, allows them to be agents of an ongoing creation. When Joe Snell (one of our early church planting pastors) answered our call to try to mother our first new congregation, one of the first things he did was organize our proverbs as he got a handle on our culture. We had collected the sayings of Circle of Hope in a rather disorganized document. In the course of our dialogue, certain things had become more important than others and we could reduce them to a line book coveror two like the Old Testament proverbs. Joe put them in order. Ultimately, I was assigned to write a book about them, which I outlined as a group project with a few of my twentysomething comrades. We created a culture. We keep doing it: we write songs, we invent teams, we make a Map of our future together. The process makes us like family – we know who we are and who we are to each other and it makes us able to feel secure in hearing what God might be doing next.

Be a leader who listens
The thought system of the Brethren was something worked out in life among the Brethren.

The idea is: “A system of doctrine is not isolated from the trusting relationship of believing persons. The Brethren do not hesitate to state their beliefs and to support them with Scripture and argument; still, they are uncomfortable with a rigidly stated system regarded as capturing the entire body of truth and standing as the final measure of orthodoxy. More important is the Christian lifestyle and the caring relationships among Brethren. Minor and lesser differences may exist within a body as long as trusting relationship is maintained and fruitful conversation is progressing relative to the faith. Doctrine is seen as relational as well as logical; if there are differences between us we can work them out as long as we are under the Spirit and the Word and we maintain a trusting relationship.”

I think this mindset is perfect for the postmodern era. It would greatly enhance Brethren in Christ church planting, if we would stop diminishing the dialogue among the church at large, and our leaders demonstrated their trust for us rather than insisting that we trust them. I have objected, as I most recently did at the last General Conference, about the secrecy and trust-the-leaders mentality – not because I think the leaders are untrustworthy, but because I think they are undermining our unique capacity to plant churches that could make radical disciples. In the “global economy” radical Christians are like a boutique, like monasticism is within the Catholic church. Being small, familial, intense communities is our brand. Listening leaders culture that very necessary gift.

So when I came to Philadelphia to plant a church I first formed a formation team. They decided the church name; they helped form the plan. The first act was to begin cells and I was not even the first leader of one. While we want to double in size right now, I do not want to double by stealing the opportunity for individuals to become real Christians. No one needs to be a cog on a big machine. Just the opposite, they need opportunity to become deeper and to realize the full expression of their true selves as members of the body and full partners in the Lord’s mission. People often leave the church in their thirties because it is not meaty enough. It is boring, run by old white men who stopped listening in their thirties and just ran the organization. Leaders who listen demonstrate that the people are trustworthy and trustworthy people make a trustworthy church through which trust-starved postmoderns can find Jesus.

Practice mutuality
Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body and to the working out of its system of belief.

The idea is: “Individuality is a valuable reality among the Brethren–the preciousness of the individual and the contribution of one single person to the whole; however individualism is a dangerous heresy which allows barriers to be erected between brethren and cuts one off from the inspiration and discipline of the whole. Brethren need one another in the identification of Christian thought, in the mutual discipline of the sanctifying process, and in life—warming, life-giving fellowship among believers.”

A leader can say whatever she likes but the culture, the system, the practices are what ultimately teach. We recently had an exciting Council meeting. In an inspiration we changed around our leaders and decided to spend Circle Thrift profits on risky dreams of expanding our influence and numbers. We call it the “second act” of Circle of Hope. At this meeting people cried. They questioned one another’s sensitivity and wisdom. We demonstrated how precious we think individuals are and we also reinforced that we want to be subject to the inspiration and discipline of the whole. We welcome the visible process of being the body of Christ in all our diversity, held together by a dialogue of love in the Spirit. It is a mutual process that takes all of us — at least the process reveals who’s not moving. You cannot present a brethren mindset in a powerpoint, it requires a community to learn. Life in Christ is a mutual endeavor if it is merely happening in one’s personal philosophy, it has left the Bible behind.

Being the church has always been challenging. The postmodern era is just another challenge the world presents on its way through the dark. We carry the light of Christ with us as we also make our way and we see the dawn on our horizon. It is worth the effort to make an authentic church with an ethos that matches the heart of Jesus as best we can.

Here are the previous posts to which I referred:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
There is always a little pain in the introduction

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Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?

A version of some thinking we’ve been doing as Brethren in Christ church planters.

I think the story of Jesus and our own stories of following the Lord’s lead are crucial to church planting in this next era.  A person entering our meeting has plenty of preconceived notions about what church is in the United States. They need to run into a person whose story is being written with Jesus, not just a story that can beam in on a screen – they are up to their eyeballs in those, and not just someone else’s story — like the ones written in the Bible.

I think Circle of Hope has a unique story  about living out the historic Brethren in Christ coh grow chartethos to offer as a gift to our post-Christian culture.  Our leaders are feverishly trying to manage our “mosaic” with less resources all the time and with outdated practices, so we will see how we fare in the coming era — that story is being written. So far, it looks like we are getting further fragmented instead of united in love. Some of the reasons for that may have to do with a lack of dialogue about who God is calling us to be in a changing world. It seems like many of us have outsourced thinking to our leaders and they don’t have that much time to do it!

How we see the new environment being created before our eyes may help us decide what we ought to do to follow Jesus through it. Here are the two most common ways people find a way through: as a migrant or as a tourist.

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Patrick had nerve — redux

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him,

  • we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working.
  • we keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered.
  • we get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with
  • we undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing

We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

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