THIS IS IT: Did I Lie or Prophesy a New Cell Into Being?

The picture above is how it feels to church plant with Julie and the rest of the Northwest crew! Tomorrow is March 28. March 28 is a VERY important date in my life. On March 28, 2015 Darcy and I were married. It was a wonderful day. We’ve journeyed a long way since then. I’ll give more details about that a little later in this post. One year prior was a pretty important day as well. Especially in hindsight. Ben White asked me to be his cell apprentice for a new cell that he was starting in Grays Ferry.

I don’t think I knew much about Ben or Circle of Hope for that matter. We met at Cedar Park Cafe in West Philly. He probably paid for lunch because I was VERY broke at the time. I don’t remember much else of what was said but I do remember Ben saying, “I wanted to discuss a small ministry opportunity with you.” Subsequently, Ben told me that he used those churchy words because he knew that I was a self-described “old school, gutbucket, backwoods, old-timey Negro black Pentecostal.” (Message me if you know what that means. We should be friends if you do.) It worked. Those exact words had been “spoken over me” as a prophecy by a minister in a prophetic meeting in 2012. This minister said that I would be going to school and at “this next level of schooling, there would come a small ministry opportunity.” I moved to Philadelphia in 2014 for seminary. When Ben said those words, I immediately said yes. I was convinced that this was the path God had for me. When we’re pursuing God, things seem to just come together like that.

Last night after our Sunday Meeting, the cell leaders of Ridge Avenue got together to talk about our congregation as a whole. We started the meeting by talking about our journeys through Lent. I told the group that I cut out podcasts and YouTube for Lent and that it has just created some much needed quiet space. I was telling them how I have been saying, “This is it” repeatedly out loud and almost out of my control. The words just come out of my mouth involuntarily. If I’m being honest, I’ll often have something that I repeat a lot to myself that seems kind of involuntary. In prayer, I finally realized that it was a confession to God. “This is it. THIS is God’s good plan for me.” Ya see, I’m still catching up with the fact that in three years, I started seminary, got engaged and married (all within seven months), bought a house in Southwest Philly, began my lifelong dream to pastor (literally I was five years old when I started “play-preaching” with my cousins in ‘Cousin Conventions’), and my wife gave birth to our big handsome son named Ellison Samuel Stafford. Like I said, things come together when we’re on this path with Jesus. The same could be said of the newest cell in the Northwest.

A little over a month ago, my new friend Hannah White came to a Sunday Meeting for the first time. She lives in Manayunk so she was looking for a cell in either Roxborough or Manayunk. Some words came out involuntarily when I talked to her, “I’m starting a cell in Roxborough in three weeks! How cool!” There it goes again. Looking back, I wondered whether I was lying or the Holy Spirit just spoke through me when I otherwise wouldn’t have known what to say. Was it a lie or a prophecy? Judge not. I’m paying attention to those involuntary utterances more and more though. I really wasn’t starting a cell in Roxborough but I said that I was because I wanted her in a cell and she wanted to be in one too. So after I told her that, I got to work on putting one together. I asked a few people if they wanted to join and then met some new people. I asked Megan whom I met in November to be my cell apprentice. She said yes right away. She told me that she discussed me asking her to be my apprentice with her roommate. They were befuddled that I would ask someone I barely knew. Her roommate said, “I know you’re awesome but how does he know that?!” Just like the larger community, I get moved by the Holy Spirit, dream it, say it and then build. I’m excited for this new cell and for the continued journey as we plant this congregation in Northwest Philadelphia. We now have EIGHT cells! To my fellow Northwest church planters, just say it and do it! I think it works sometimes. We meet on Sunday evenings at 5PM at 5720 Ridge Avenue. Email me for more details about this journey: jerome@circleofhope.net.

When we have a need…

Did you all meet Kenny on Sunday at our meeting?  He was playing drums for us!  Well, actually, he was playing his cajon, which worked well with Raleigh on guitar and singing with Sarah.  It was a small team but they sounded great.

I am so thankful that Kenny jumped in to help us.  He is regularly a part of our congregation that meets on North Broad St., but he joined us on Ridge Ave because we needed a drummer this week.  What a gift to be a part a whole movement of cells and congregations across Philadelphia and South Jersey.  We have people backing us up when we need it!  As a new congregation, we are still forming and we don’t have everything all worked out.   After putting out a local call for help, Raleigh looked to our musicians across congregations.

There are no casting calls or auditions around here – we just expect people to express their gifts, talents, art and worship, and we grow into better leaders, lovers and worshipers as we do that.  I know people among us who got connected simply because we needed them!  That is a demonstration of how we do things around here.  We are not vetting people to see if they meet a prescribed set of requirements.  We are not putting on an impressive show or a performance to be viewed.  We are creating an environment where people can connect with God and each other and live in to their life of faith in community, working out what it means to be who they are in Christ and give what they’ve got.

Thanks, Kenny, for responding to the need.  I look forward to meeting the next drummer in the northwest who wants to help us do this (I know Raleigh does too!).

Philadelphia is full of great people, doing great things

I met a few today…

We made a quick connection over laughing at ourselves in a public space and then we started chatting.  In our short conversation, this spunky, full-time student and employee made an impression on me.  We talked about what each of us does for work and I gave her a quick summary of Circle of Hope and our new congregation.  Her interest was piqued.  She had never heard of a cell church and was attracted to the idea.  I told her we are still new and are looking for people who want to do this with us.  She said she would come check it out.  I wondered out loud how she would fit it in to her full schedule.  She laughed and said she would make time, admitting that she fights boredom and believes there needs to be more good in the world.  Neither she or I are waiting on the government to fix things.  We have work to do.  I got her number and she got mine.

This afternoon I met two more people at the rec center where my kids go to afterschool.  I went over to say hi to Kim, who was chatting with someone and Kim introduced me as her pastor.  I learned that Kim’s friend is basically stepping up to do the job of about 4 people in order to care for a whole lot of kids in Philadelphia who are trying to get an education.   And with all that, was at the rec center with someone else’s kids!  She and her husband (who joined the conversation) were genuinely interested in what Kim and I are doing as we start a new congregation.  They already had ideas about future possibilities for the congregation and a ton of connections in the northwest.  I invited them to join us on Sunday, hoping they might feel inspired to share more of their ideas and connections with us.

We are still growing this congregation!  Five months in and we are doing great.  But in some ways we are just getting rolling.  We won’t really know who we are until we find the next partners to join us.  We started this congregation so that we could ‘expand the surface area’ to connect with more people who are looking for hope and willing to be a part of a community that expresses hope in practical ways.  I am excited about finding more great people who will shape the character of this congregation and help us express our life in Christ, at this time, in this place.

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Come do what you love, with us.  We need you!  Are you a drummer?   Like hosting or tech? You don’t have to be a professional around here.  We are who we are, and we appreciate that each person has something to contribute.

Are you are a student doing cool stuff that could help expand our creativity?  Or social action?

Do you organize the sledding parties when the snow comes? (Come on, not everyone hates it.)

Are you a business person? Urban farmer?   Yo-Yo expert?  (Fair warning:  We have a national competitor among us).

Help us find you!  Shoot me an email so we can connect.  julie@circleofhope.net  Jerome and I would love to take you out for coffee.   See?

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No More Waiting at the Pool

On Sunday at our meeting on 5720 Ridge Avenue, I gave a talk about a man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda. The story is told in John 5. The man was physically disabled in some way and wanted to be healed. He hung around the Pool of Bethesda because the belief at that time was that an angel would go to the Pool of Bethesda and “stir” up the waters.

When Jesus met the man, he asked him if he wanted to be healed. The man didn’t say yes. Not because he didn’t want to be healed but because he felt he needed to explain his problem to Jesus. He responded that he did not have any way to put himself into the water. That was how he expected to be healed. He was convinced that getting into the pool was the only way that he could be healed. It’s a pretty common thought pattern. For years, many of us have thought that the way to be healed and feel whole was to pull ourselves up with our bootstraps or numb ourselves from reality. There are self-help gurus and books, belief in  our civil religion, and of course the ever present belief in consumerism as a way to fix all ills. Jesus told the man to get up and healed him on the spot. The man was one of many that Jesus healed. No questions asked. The man didn’t even get Jesus’ name as it’s told in the passage that when people asked him who healed him he didn’t know.

One of my favorite aspects of this story is that Jesus shatters the myth of a zero-sum approach to life. The man was so focused on this one method of healing where only one person could be healed at a time. That one person would have to push someone out of the way, be the least lame or maybe, just maybe a friend would happen to be there to put him in the water. Jesus’s life was about healing everyone who would accept it. I think of our cells that way. They are unconventional ways of people being healed. All at the same time and together. It is also completely unconventional for a group of people who may not know each other well to make time to meet face-to-face once a week. On top of that, the group as a whole but especially the hosts welcome strangers into their homes and hearts. Remember that we live in a culture where it’s considered rude if you don’t send warning texts to your friends that you’re going to drop by. I think we all have been waiting at the pool at some point in our lives. We don’t have to though. Jesus invites us to a new reality. Our cells meet throughout the week in various neighborhoods in the Northwest. Contact me at jerome@circleofhope.net to connect.

They may steal my packages, but they can’t steal my joy!

Last night I checked the status of three gifts I had ordered on-line, and my fears were confirmed – they had already been delivered.  I can only assume they were promptly removed and have joined my neighbors’ other missing packages.  Major bummer.

I was tempted to add this to a list of reasons I don’t feel ready for the end of this week but then I got a call from a friend in my cell.  She wanted to talk about how she is feeling a lot like Mary and Joseph.  They were poor, had traveled far, and ended up having to flee to another country to save their child from being slaughtered.  She, too, has traveled far, without many resources and has had to run to Jesus for her life in order to not be killed by the things that threaten her.  As we talked, I remembered the words the angel spoke to Mary: Blessed art thou among women.  The Lord is with you.

The Lord is with me.  The Lord is with you.  The Lord is with us – Emmanuel.

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I have so many examples of God with us – just from this past week.

– People in our new congregation are taking practical steps to share their money with regularity because they know their participation matters and they want to live out their trust in God and connect their heart to the future and grow what we have.

– Our Children’s team met this week because they are compelled to lead us in creating an environment where children can receive what they need to grow up as people of faith, hope and love.

– Our cell leaders and some apprentices shared stories about how God is moving among our cells and throughout the northwest neighborhoods.

– People among us are sharing the love of Jesus with the person next to them – by sending encouraging texts, reconciling, moving, making meals, giving rides, wrapping gifts, listening, praying and reaching out.

– We are buying gifts on behalf of incarcerated parents so their children can open something from them this week.  We are purchasing personal care items for prisoners who can’t get what they need.

There are many other ways God is revealing Love in the world, too.

My packages may disappear, but my joy will not!  I may not have all of my preparations complete, but I am ready for the miracle of God to be revealed – in the birth of Christ and in the Body of Christ.  What a gift to be among people who are a part of the miracle!

Shepherds Leaving Sheep

We are nearing the end of our journey of Advent. I hope it has been meaningful for you and even though we are only days away from Christmas, there’s still time to try to do something meaningful in the season. Check my friend Rod’s blog here for some ideas. Though we are still in celebratory mood from being a new church plant and place for people to meet Jesus(!), we are not unaware of the pain of others. That’s why we would even take the risk to start something new as a young, vulnerable congregation. Advent is a spiritual discipline along with a season in the Christian year. I think of Advent as a time where our waiting for the hope of Jesus’ coming the first time and our hope for his return are done in solidarity. We are all consciously together in our longing for the Messiah to be born and to return. Our hope for his return is tied to our need for the justice that He did and will bring.

During Advent, we’ve gotten to consider a different person(s) each week in our Sunday meetings. We’ve also matched each person with a song. This week we considered the shepherds who were the first public witnesses to the birth of Jesus.

One of the things I was struck by when reading their story was how available to God they were. The shepherds were able to leave their sheep which was their livelihood to see what God was doing. During the holiday season when so many things have to get done, it’s especially relevant to think about what letting go of the expectations the culture has of us. The shepherds let themselves be open to what God was doing. They got to witness the birth of the savior because of their availability. Then, they got to tell the world about what God had done. It was all about them seeing what God did and then telling that good news to someone who had not heard it yet. I feel that way about Circle of Hope and the work God is doing through us. Letting go of our duties that we think makes the world go round opens us to what God is doing. There’s more to say but let’s keep the dialog going in our cells and in the comments. Peace to you.

A John Baptist Christmas and Calling

On Sunday, I had the distinct pleasure of talking to our congregation about John the Baptist who happens to be one of my favorite people in the Bible. John’s life demonstrates that God not only accepts wildness but invites us into it. John was a violent invasion of the status quo. His call for repentance leveled the playing field. The common people, religious leaders and political elites alike all were told how to make themselves ready for the coming of God’s anointed one.

John was a prophet whose coming was prophesied. He spent time in the wilderness before his public ministry. He baptized people to make them ready to receive the coming Messiah. Then, he baptized the Messiah himself.

In my talk, I mentioned that Jesus seemed to be following the wild pattern that John the Baptist had set forth. For instance, Jesus was obviously prophesied. Jesus went into the wilderness before he began his public ministry. And it was at his baptism by John that God the Father declared that Jesus was the Son of God.

I think we can take heart in the fact that despite being the singular prophet preaching repentance to make the way for the Lord, John still had his doubts. When jailed, he sent word to ask Jesus whether Jesus really was the anointed One. As a congregation, we are very much like John the Baptist. As a congregation, we were prophesied by the Circle of Hope community to be a presence in the Northwest part of Philadelphia. We are willing to do unorthodox things to make Jesus known like cells where anyone can join or multiplying congregations. We make the explicit invitation for people from all walks of life to know who Jesus is and to follow him.

During Advent, we decided to allow people in the Sunday meetings to take a prayer walk around the building and not have talk-back as we normally would. Comments on this post are a great place to hear what the Spirit said to you on your walk. Peace.