by Rachel Sensenig, pastor of Circle of Hope in South Philly
Many folks have asked me recently, where are we going? What kind of church are we trying to be? We’ve gone through some difficult and confusing changes over the past year with the retirement of our founding pastors, in a pandemic with layers of upheaval. What are we becoming now?
I believe we are trying to become a church where everyone can thrive. We have been acknowledging that the table of Circle of Hope was built and maintained mostly by cisgender, white, middle-class, educated folks, and not as accessible to others as we intended to be. Our foundation was always in Christ, but the culture we developed along the way was not as open as Jesus is.
Jesus is for everyone. So we are building a new table alongside BIPOC, queer, differently-abled and other societally marginalized voices, in hopes that we might be a place where the fullness of humanity is seen and known and loved and celebrated. Jesus is helping us to make this new table together, even through loss and change, humbly listening to the Spirit in one another and our neighbors.
Soil is another metaphor that describes our goal of becoming a church in which everyone can thrive. Jesus talked about seeds of faith rooting and growing and multiplying in “good” soil, meaning soil that is healthy and ready and open to receive new seeds. We’ve realized that some of our soil has gotten hard and rocky and impenetrable over the years. Wealth, busy lifestyles, defensiveness about impact over intent, more mentalizing than embodiment, and resistance to examining our culture has kept us from fully seeing one another and others who might want to know Jesus with us. We are in the painful process of digging up our soil now to allow the oxygen and light of Christ to free us of habits and structures and assumptions that have been consciously or unconsciously oppressive.
Here’s an example from the disability group that came together during our current listening process this year. They noted that we seem to have a “run yourself ragged” culture of church planting. Ambition is important (Jesus does say “go and make disciples of all nations!”) but we know that white supremacy culture pushes production and “results” in a way that thingifies people, as MLK described. Our differently-abled members are showing us the need for more gentleness and attention to caring for our bodies and whole selves. I agree. More patience and embodied attention will help us experience what Jesus described in the second part of that great commission above: “surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Taking time to care for ourselves and others wholelly helps and feel and know that God is, in fact, with us. Learning from members who are differently abled helps us get beyond our limited understandings about ability and strength, and into the way of Jesus.
We are trying to become anti-oppressive soil, in which everyone thrives more. Soil that is receptive and nurturing, curious and welcoming and celebrating of difference, open and humble in the acknowledgement that we don’t know where the wind of the Spirit comes from or how it blows (John 3:8, Ecclesiastes 11:5) We haven’t arrived yet. We are learning as we open our eyes and hearts to where God might want to take us. A humble posture is key. Weakness is strength in God’s eyes; our greatest power is in our vulnerability and need and willingness to follow our servant king. We are shedding the empire assumptions and habits that so easily creep into our lives in this country, especially for those of us who are given more unearned societal privilege than others. It takes ongoing intention to shed our self-sufficiency, the assumption that we need to be good and right and correct already. The gospel of Jesus is that we receive those things from God in community; we don’t have them on our own! Our egos are invited to decrease in order for the Spirit to increase in us.
The invitation doesn’t mean that anyone needs to leave the community. The invitation is to be transformed together. Soil doesn’t get remediated by taking things out. (Removing toxins from soil is nearly impossible.) You get healthier soil by adding to it (compost, fertilizer, air, water, limestone or whatever is needed to counteract the problem) and working with it over and over and over, turning it around. My point is: we need each other, more love, more listening, more humility, especially from us straight white folks. None of us can do this on our own. If anyone is willing to hold the tensions in these questions, and perhaps die to our precious memories of church, and enter into this ongoing process of conversion in the way of Jesus, we want to partner with you! Our transformation together will welcome others into the transformative power of God’s love.
On Sunday, we explored Jesus’s promise: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. We discovered that Jesus wasn’t talking about being uncontaminated when he mentions purity. He is talking about focus, desire, and child-like trust. He is talking about really going for it; really going for God. He is saying that if we want God with our whole hearts (which is another word for our whole lives in scripture), we will find God. If we really look for God, we will see God in all things, even in really difficult things.
It’s difficult to be whole-hearted, when we want many things, and can see things from many different perspectives, and we face lots of temptations and distractions all the time. So the prophet Ezekiel gives us some good news, that God can give us new hearts. God can remove our hard and fearful hearts that are crusted over with rejections and doubts and defenses like armor from the hurts we’ve endured…and give us hearts of flesh (just like the ones we have!) that can open to others and stretch and suffer and trust in new ways again. It’s painful to stretch, but it can bring a joy of mutuality and partnership that we might not have experienced yet! The Spirit will help us in our weakness. God can help us become a church in which everyone can thrive. God can make us soft, fertile soil for patient growth and healing. God can help us build a new table together, where everyone gets fed abundantly, not just with one kind of food but with many! Jesus is a gate that is open, where everyone is invited to come in and out and find spiritual safety and provision (John 10:9). Jesus, make us like You.