Striving No More, Part 4, or Why I Keep Talking About House of Mercy

This is part 4 of a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. So there’s a bit of writing I’ve been trying to get to- a story I want to tell- but I keep finding I can’t get to the crux of the matter until I first got out why Circle of Hope remains so central to how I want to “be the Church” with any future faith community, and then still couldn’t move on until I talked about worship (in song) and the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins on my faith formation as well. Now, I need to talk a little about House of Mercy. As I’ve mentioned, between our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope, we spent five years here in the Twin Cities, and were a part of the then relatively new House of Mercy. A lot happened in those five years. Kirsten’s dad died, and immediately thereafter my mom. I attended Bethel and wrapped up my undergrad. there through their degree completion program for working adults. I went on to Luther Seminary and did most of the MDiv program before having what can only be described as an existential/crisis of faith and graduated with an MA in the (ever marketable) History of Christianity instead. We moved onto campus at Luther and brought my Dad with us from Texas, where he had two major surgeries and was bedridden in our seminary apartment for quite a while, but it probably extended his life for quite a bit. Kirsten went to Bethel too and got her B.S. in nursing.

Along the way, House of Mercy was a very meaningful faith community for us to participate with at the time. They not only loved us through those parent deaths, but as I’ve previously said, I grew to really appreciate their mission focused on the “recovery of evangelical (good news) theology, liturgical eclecticism, and active service in the world.” I like the story of how Mark, Russell, and Debbie (the three founding pastors; Mark since left) looked around and realized none of their friends believed in Jesus anymore, in no small part because the good news about Jesus had turned into bad news in the hands of the church. So they decided to start a church to try to undo some of that. We read about House of Mercy in the local paper shortly after moving to the Twin Cities all those years ago. It was an article that talked about alternative approaches to “doing church” at the time and mentioned a few local congregations that were trying to be different. This was 1998, and House of Mercy was one of them. We liked that, like Circle of Hope that we had just left for the first time in Philly, House of Mercy seemed to be doing a great job of attracting young folks like us (at the time), especially the “unchurched” and “overchurched,” as I came to call them. House of Mercy was and still is a really safe place both for folks who hadn’t grown up in church and those who had grown up in the church, and regretted it. It was a safe place to be a little cynical. It was a community in which I learned that “doubt” need not “be the enemy of faith,” but could “be its partner.” It’s a community in which I heard (I think I actually read it, but that’s of no matter) Debbie say that “faith is relentlessly relational, and thus unsystematizable.”

Thus we really appreciated, and still do, the preaching of Mark, Russell, and Debbie. Bart Campolo, one of the great mentors in my life and someone I’m still privileged to call something of a friend, used to give a little test to try to make a point about the importance of relationships. He’d ask a group of people to name the five most influential sermons they ever heard and how they changed their life. Inevitably, people struggled to do so. He then would ask them to name the five most influential people who really made an impact on their life, and of course people could. The point, obviously, is that people don’t usually remember sermons very well, but if you do the work of building a relationship with someone and invest in their life lovingly, they’ll remember you. The conclusion then, was that if you want to influence someone, you have to spend time with and love them, not just preach to them. I believe that’s true and can attest to the power of this approach, but I mention it because Mark, Russell, and Debbie’s sermons were often so very good that I’m sure I could tick off more than five among them that I remember, and that made an impact on me.

In fact, I’ll name a few such sermons. In one, Russell tells a story, as he often does. He re-tells the story of the Garden of Eden, but at the end, as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and God locks the door to it from the inside, as I remember it, there’s a hopeless moment in which the two of them find themselves truly alone for the first time, and no doubt afraid. Suddenly, much to their great surprise, and again as I remember this sermon all these years later, God hops over the fence and joins them on the other side, telling them, “I’m coming with you.” Another time Russell preached a series in which each sermon started with the band playing the line from the REM song “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” The series consisted of Russell again telling a story, this time about the end of the world as it is imagined to one day occur by some “evangelicals,” or as I’ve long called them, “fundagelicals.” Anyway, in the story things don’t go as they think it will, and my takeaway from the series was Russell’s question, “What if the end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think it’s a profound question, and gets at the notion posited, I think, by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, in which people are free to leave hell if they choose. As Wikipedia describes it:

The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the “grey town”, which is either Hell or Purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of Heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift. Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on Earth, come to meet them, and to urge them to repent and enter Heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more solid and thus feel less and less discomfort. These figures, called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts, offer to assist them in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise. Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lies in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to “reality” and “joy forevermore”. An artist refuses, arguing that he must preserve the reputation of his school of painting; a bitter cynic predicts that Heaven is a trick; a bully (“Big Man”) is offended that people he believes beneath him are there; a nagging wife is angry that she will not be allowed to dominate her husband in Heaven. One man corrupted on Earth by lust, which takes the form of an ugly lizard, permits an angel to kill the lizard and is saved.

Wikipedia goes on to summarize the book by saying that thus:

…it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in Heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on Earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, the evil of Hell works so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on Earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on Earth would have been Hell. Few of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, Hell. Indeed, it is not that much different from the life they led on Earth: joyless, friendless and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse…

This is why Jesus said that the “kingdom of God” was “near” or “at hand.” Following Him isn’t about “being good” by trudging through life now so that you can have a better life when you die; we aren’t “saved” by saying a magic prayer and getting our “fire insurance.” No, following Jesus, if it’s worth doing at all, is about living into a kingdom of unspeakable joy. It’s about knowing a love so deep and whole and full that one is compelled to share it, compelled to be a peacemaker, compelled to lay down one’s life for those around them. It truly is the end of one world, and the beginning of another. Obviously, I’ve thought about Russell’s question ever since.

Here’s another memorable House of Mercy sermon. Debbie’s sermons are uniquely good, and in one of them she talks about being “born again.” She says:

           …how did we ever take this metaphor (of being born again) and make it all about something the one being born does? I mean, who does the most work to get something born? …Maybe our image of God would be richer if we quit thinking (of him as an) impassive, stoic, old man on a throne, and imagined a pregnant woman, waddling and crying, yelling from time to time, with the pains of labor, sometimes angry, sometimes tortured- giving birth to her children. What’s it like for the one being born? What’s it like for us? …I think sometimes I imagine salvation is being removed from the possibility of pain and suffering. But that’s so much not what it’s like to be born. As soon as we start that trip down the birth canal, we become vulnerable to all sorts of wonderful and frightening and beautiful and horrible and sad and amazing things…

…Maybe we’re being born. Again. Maybe the spirit really does move and blow. Maybe it’s happening all around us all the time. Maybe God is saving the world. Maybe there’s groaning and blood and pain in the birthing process and maybe it doesn’t feel like being in the womb. And maybe it isn’t always a nice warm breeze but thank God for breath and life and for enduring the labor.

Powerful, eh? All that said, though, what really worked for us, I think, about House of Mercy all those years ago was that pretty early on, especially since it was still a new church, Russell approached me and asked me to get involved. He gave me something to do. He recognized my burgeoning passion for justice- and community- and asked me to lead a new group he wanted to call the “Service and Reconciliation Work Group.” I said yes, and started this group. Naturally, I ran it like a cell group, and we did some cool things together. We volunteered with Safe Zone, a drop in center in St. Paul for teens experiencing homelessness. They (the church) sent me to the Call to Renewal, a conference put on by Sojourners for folks who wanted to help the church be better about pursuing justice. Eventually, the pastors trusted me enough to turn the Service and Reconciliation into an actual cell group, and over the course of the next little while that one group multiplied into three before we eventually left the Twin Cities and returned to Philly and Circle of Hope for our second stint there. I think part of why they trusted me to do this is because they recognized, as I had, that House of Mercy was great about bringing people “into the front door” of the church, using the unfortunate “church as building” metaphor, but it didn’t do a great job of giving them a good reason to stay, and so kept losing people “out the back door.” Cell groups gave some folks anyway a reason to stay, and when we returned to the Twin Cities and began to reconnect a little bit with House of Mercy last year, Russell thanked me and said that many of the folks who have been most integral in helping House of Mercy keep churning along all these years had been involved in a cell group.

Nonetheless, Russell said the pastors “weren’t that into them” (cell groups, or “community practice groups,” as they later called them), and that’s something that I’ve struggled with. Let me be clear and say that it’s not that I want House of Mercy’s pastors to be anything other than who they are. I love who they are, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. They officiated at our 5 year vow renewal, for example, and were kind enough to do it again as Kirsten and I celebrated 20 years of marriage recently. I hope it’s clear from all I’ve said above that I have deep respect for them. No, what I struggle with is cell groups or “community practice” or whatever you want to call it as something of an “add-on” to a congregation’s “DNA,” and it may well be that I’m the only one having this conflict. This may just be my problem; it may not be a problem in its own right. As one of my Circle of Hope pastors recently reminded me, “I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you.” I’m sure that’s true. Still, I suppose I yearn to really work at “being the church” with others who are just as “into it” as I am, and part 5 of this blog series will reveal where that yearning has brought my family and I, at least for now.

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