Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: May 2015

What is the meaning of life and what if there is an answer other than 42?

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the super computer, Deep Thought, takes 7.5 million years to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and the answer is 42. Those who receive the answer aren’t pleased.

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

So when we asked “What does this mean” with the disciples of Jesus in the book of Acts last week as we celebrated Pentecost we were wrestling with what the right question might be.  The story goes that the disciples of Jesus were waiting in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. A wind came through and there were tongues of fire descending on their heads and they were enabled to speak in languages they didn’t understand.  After this experience there were two responses:

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13

The scientists who created Deep Thought didn’t know what question to ask. 42 is the answer to a question that people like those who accused the disciples of drunkenness would ask.  They are looking for an explanation that computes within their understanding of the world.  They are closing themselves off from the possibility of a meaning beyond their experience or understanding.

The best question to ask–and I’m talking about life, the universe and everything– is “what does this mean?” The meaning of life, the universe and everything is being open to asking this question and its precursor being open to amazement and perplexity.

In Circle of Hope we create think tanks, so to speak, for amazement and perplexity–for asking the questions that bubble up and for seeking the answer.  They are cells. We live our lives together enough to have a sense of each other’s lives. Consequently, the question “what does this [experience, feeling, situation, absurdity, fear, doubt, joy, love] mean?” actually has a shared meaning.  Plus, we live in community not only with each other, but with the Holy Spirit, who stokes the amazement, perplexity, questions and then even answers.

But if you’re not open to the question– if meaning is calculation and the universe needs to equal out– the minutia of each human life is inconsequential.  The oppressive demands for a balanced equation weigh us down and squash our spiritual imaginations before they can even emerge. I don’t think it all has to work out.  Not even the stories in the Bible demand some reasoned exactitude provided by a consistent system of thought.  Many Christians have been demanding that of their faith and understanding for a long time and I think that way of being Christian is collapsing under it’s own weight.  That way of living with God gets you answers like “42” and “they’re drunk.”  The living God is unpredictable but reliable to answer when we ask “What does this mean?” when he amazes us again and again.

Why not the Whole Delaware Watershed?

 We live in the megalopolis- the swath of concrete dominated land that stretches from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. In my neck of this urban and suburban mass of human concentration, the boundaries slip and slide like hikers boots on wet, mossy rocks. One minute you’re in Haddon Township, the next minute you’re in Haddon Heights, cross the street and you’re in Haddonfield. I can say now, after 3 months on the job (Monday was my 3 month-a-versary as Pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent- woot!) that I’m getting the hang of how these municipalities work. I’m probably more attuned to the boundaries then most people who have lived here all their lives. It’s kind of like when I learned English grammar by learning Spanish. All the grammatical rules which I had intuited in my mother tongue needed a name and a category when I had to memorize them in a second language. Folks who aren’t so new to the area are often not as interested in where exactly all the borders are. Their lives have their beaten paths and it’s not really important that the coffee shop is in Pennsauken and the Wegman’s is in Cherry Hill.  I’m taking a lesson from this indifference to boundary lines when it comes to Circle of Hope.

Circle of Hope exists over and across a lot of different borders. The one I am most attuned to in my new role is the Delaware River that is a state line and major psychological boundary for a lot of people. Living on the Eastern banks of the Delaware means I do not live on the Western banks; this is an inescapable fact. But Circle of Hope as a movement scoffed at the mighty Delaware’s capacity to divide us when we planted a church in South Jersey 7 years ago.  And this is really great.

A friend of Circle of Hope creates cool maps and I bought the one pictured above last week because I was inspired by the Delaware River.  I had this fun thought. We’re all part of the same movement, AND we’re all part of the same watershed! The Delaware drains our creeks and gutters to the sea. We share a vital resource and the earth channels us together. We have three congregations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, but we have 4 in the Delaware watershed!

This excited me enough to trace the path of the Delaware up to Delaware County, New York where the Eastern Branch of the Delaware and Western Branch of the Delaware flow together to form OUR Delaware River. What if we, as Circle of Hope set our sights on expanding throughout the Delaware Watershed. The Megalopolis is too big and it’s borders are arbitrary. The Delaware has changed but it takes her a lot longer. There’s a stability in her flow that seems more substantial than any of the other borders I know. And if we see her as a point of unity for our movement we could be directed by her. Maybe I’m just geeking out on my new map, but if we want to spread the love of Jesus throughout our watershed, it would take Circle of Hope to Reading and Allentown, and Trenton.  It takes us not to New York City but Binghamton, New York. Then Philadelphia is our biggest city (as it should be!) and Circle of Hope in most of the other towns we make it to looks a lot like what we’re trying to do in Pennsauken- draw people together for Jesus sake across a lot of dividing lines. I think our united watershed would be another fun way to bring us together for our common cause, and to spur us forward in our ambition to see God’s redemption project advancing.

Let’s actually DO something

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Pat looking awesome and super deep at Cooper River

When my new cell started my apprentice, Pat, was adamant that our cell be about actually doing stuff and not just talking about stuff. Pat is like my canary in the coal mine for toxic church fumes. He’s seen it all and still has to intentionally work to let his instinctual defenses down to move forward with what God is doing next in Circle of Hope. Too much of his experience has been mostly a lot of hot breathed ideas about God and how bad most people are.

Pat is leading me to let down my own defenses about what I will ask people to do. I worry too much about whether people will say yes to my questions. I haven’t yet gotten used to being told no for any reason. This is a problem but it is not my point. When Pat got involved with this project of local non profit called Second Chance Outreach Services at the leading of Pam, another person in our cell who was already connected to this organization, he asked us if we wanted to join in and the overwhelming response from the cell was yes.  Even from the guy who isn’t so sure about Jesus: he was “200% interested in volunteering”

We’re partnering with Convoy of Hope and a bunch of other churches in the Camden area to give out a bunch of food, personal services like haircuts, and social services like access to legal advice to 2-3K residents of Camden on September 19th. It’s a big undertaking and Pat got us in on the ground floor.  I never would have found my way into something like this if it weren’t for my cell.

Now of course you’re remembering my comment in the first paragraph about toxic church fumes. “It seems like there are other churches that are actually DOING things too, Ben? What gives with the church bashing?” I guess I’m repenting right now because I do consider these other churches my brothers and sisters and my partners in this event in September, but I am also grateful that the “doing” of Circle of Hope is a grass roots uprising from Pam and Pat and our cell.  Just because I am the pastor and I’m involved doesn’t mean we should support this event financially. A much better guarantee of that is Pat’s passion and initiative backed by the support of his cell.  We don’t want to rob the cell of it’s response to the gospel by subsuming their passion under the work of the church and not their actually DOING something.

We are guarding our capacity to listen to James 1

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror  and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

Pat has a face and it looks a lot like Jesus (in more ways than one- he looks like a classical rendering of Jesus only wearing glasses, and he wants to DO the word). Right after he committed to this event as the leader of the ad hoc team we are forming he got a call from a friend in Boston who wanted him to do a gig with his band, The Tea Club, and of course it was on September 19th! Pat said no.

Relating with Jesus is Contagious

Cells 5.1.15One of the most exciting things I did this week was create this map of our cells in South Jersey. I circled the area we want to impact in a brave flourish of hope and probably a bit of foolishness.  There are 571,192 people living in the towns inside my circle. I’m praying for every single one of them, but especially those who are lonely or searching for meaning (which could be the majority of them at this point). I know that our cells would be a great place for them. I have seen the power of even casual connection to a micro-community gathered around Jesus. We call our micro-communities cells because we want to be an organically growing movement of Jesus followers.

We are inviting people to be a part of something small and real. God grows us into relationship with each other and with Jesus. I tell my cell every week that Jesus has shown up. He is here and we can actually experience his presence in our relating. And that relating is contagious.

Here are four examples from the cell I just started in Barrington NJ.

  1. A couple decided together to be a part of the cell and it came at a perfect time for them to express their partnership as husband and wife. They were coming out of a rough season in their marriage and this common mission united them in some really great ways.
  2. One guy came to our first meeting pretty ambivalent about his faith, not sure if he would ever make cell a part of his life, he said on that first night, “Yeah, I’ll probably come when I have time for it.” A couple months later he was noticing the change. “I went to church last week, I haven’t done that in years. It’s pretty cool how I just want people to be a part of this cell. I was telling the Frito Lays guy about it at work yesterday, and afterward I was like ‘What is happening?’”
  3. A friend reported to another mutual friend that the cell has inspired him to explore his spirituality in art. The mutual friend who has known this guy for years said “I had no idea this guy would be interested in a cell.”
  4. church shitOur cell has an idea for another Circle of Hope T-Shirt. “Circle of Hope, pulling Church Sh*t since 1996.” That’s what one my cell mates’ friends call it when she is kind, or has a real conflict, or intercedes to bring about peace. “Oh come on with the church sh*t all the time!”  They tell her. Among her friends, who she’s known since before she became a Christian in a Circle of Hope cell a few years ago, she is known for her connection to Jesus. She told us how she recently pulled some “church sh*t” on her friend who was kind of becoming a frenemy- she had her over for coffee and said “Listen, you got beef with me that’s fine. Whatever I did, I’m sorry, but I am not going tit for tat with you. I’m gonna love you even if you decide to keep hating me so deal with it.” That’s some serious church sh*t. One person in our cell is not a huge fun of cuss words so we get to work that out too. It’s great fun. It’s alive because Jesus is actually alive among us.

I’m super encouraged by these tiny transformations I get to witness in the cell, and I am confident that many of those 571,192 people inside the circle on the map want to do that too. Our cells will include them, because that’s what cells do and then they will multiply and we’ll get to put new little blue arrows on the map.  I can’t wait!