Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: August 2015

Love them? I don’t even have to acknowledge the existence of my enemies

I’m a pastor in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing”…and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out a Taco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.

I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between me and my fellow Taco Bell customers? What would it take to bring us together in one body?

There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation.  These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than me; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably, that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.

Of course this was all speculation—an exercise in missionary imagination.  I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”

I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.

“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them.” One said,

Well that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.

“Wow, thanks! Yes!”

Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.”  He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.

What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.

There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and wham! I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!

I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”

After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism? I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?

It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos. We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are further and further apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.

But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. The generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.

The Acts of Circle of Hope

“We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom…goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.” -NT Wright in Surprised by Hope

We’ve been reading through the book of Acts at our Circle of Hope congregation in South Jersey and this time through I am struck by how ordinary these people are. The Body of Christ is not full of supernatural healers. There are some of those but most of the people in Acts are “regular” folks with no miracles attached to them, and there are at least 60 individual believers identified by Luke in the book of Acts and countless others who get lumped in as “the brothers”, “those who believed”, or “the churches.” Only a few are identified as performing miracles or hearing directly from God in a vision or audible voice, and yet they all became part of the movement.

The movement is the biggest miracle of them all. The body of Christ despite it’s vulnerability, suffering, misunderstanding and misjudgment (as NT Wright so eloquently describes it) is a thriving, growing thing. The fact that it transcended those boundaries so rapidly then and continued to exist throughout centuries of abuse and mud dragging by counterfeit leaders is a marvel.

And Circle of Hope is a marvel too. We can say with confidence that our method matches our message. If you get into our meetings, either on Sundays or in cells throughout the week, you will be around Jesus because Jesus is alive among us.

“Wait a second!” you might say, “I’m not so sure your confidence is warranted. I don’t feel like I’m that great of a Christian. I doubt. I sin. I’m not putting myself out there like that.”

“Agreed,” I would respond. You’re not being put out there. Jesus is.

“Yeah, but if Jesus were really alive among us like you say, shouldn’t we see the fruit of that? I don’t see anyone getting healed. Where’s our Peter? Where’s our Paul?”

“We have our own miracles! Comparisons are odious! Peter and Paul were two of 60+. That’s 3% healers on the record. We narrow our focus and we miss the wonder around us. God is alive. There is new faith. Others will find new faith among us too.”

Putting ourselves out there like that is strangely difficult. Because we are involved, we super-impose our modesty on Jesus. God chose us for the task of revealing his love to the world and we know how poorly we love, and how poorly we are loved by others. Can God really use us? The answer is yes. As ordinary as we are (and our movement has always been)–as broken as we are (and our people have always been)–as needy as we are (which has always been the point of it all)– God uses us. God is with us. We are the Body of Christ and Jesus lives in us.

Say that out loud. Say it to someone else if you dare. Practice that sincerity and trust. I think Jesus will prove himself to you.

Hitchbot is Dead. Long Live Humanity!

I made a vow to pick up every hitchhiker I  ever find after receiving a number of rides from strangers when I really needed it.

When I was 19 I drove with my brother and  a couple of friends up to Mount Desert Island in Maine to spend a week camping in Acadia National Park. Unfortunately our transmission fluid was leaking all twelve hours of our drive and the transmission died just outside the park. Fortunately, one friend had AAA which could tow our 1991 Toyota Camry the 40 miles to the nearest Toyota dealership to replace the transmission (Ka-ching!) and we broke down directly outside of a private campground. We were in Maine without a car for at least 5 days. It was only a few miles in to Bar Harbor, the town on Mount Desert Island, so the next day we decided to walk it. Not long after we started walking it started to pour. There was some debate about it before we did it, but not long after it began to pour we had our thumbs out. We were hitchhiking!

It was astonishing how easy it was to get rides on Mount Desert Island. My friends and I had met in a Philadelphia public high school which taught us geometry and street smarts in disproportion favoring the later. How was this happening? We explored a lot of the park and even went into town one evening expecting to get a ride out of town when we were ready to go back to our camp. We carried a notebook with us and scribbled our desired destinations in bold lettering on the pages counting on someone to take us there. AND THEY DID!

I didn’t hear about hitchBOT until he was “destroyed by Philadelphia” but when I learned about it I was equally ashamed and proud of my Philadelphia brethren. I have a soft spot in my heart for hitchhikers, even semi artificially intelligent hitchhiking robots, and I didn’t like the bad press that was being heaped on the city I love with loads of references to the irony that this could happen in the city of Brotherly Love.

The hitchBOT website reported:

“Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.  We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over. For now we will focus on the question “what can be learned from this?” and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

I was struck by the existential flare of the post. “Bad things happen to good robots” and “Explore future adventures for robots and humans.” It seems that this robot was going to teach us something about ourselves as a human race. “Kindness” was presumably the most attractive element to the fans of the experiment designed by a couple of social scientists, but that kindness, in my opinion, was wasted on a robot. The kindness I received on Mount Desert Island was real, and random, and beautiful because it was human to human. HitchBOT lacks that connective capacity because it was a machine.

HitchBOT is a symbol for the increasingly virtual way humans relate. It was yet another digitized triangulation of human connection. Yes, it was cute, and mostly fun, but for the sake of Philadelphia and for the human race, I choose to praise the vandals that unwittingly prophesied against the technocracy, and helped Philly live up to it’s name. It is the City of Brotherly Love- brother to brother- human to human- an art that is conceivably in danger and in need of no digitized competition. If an out-of-towner asks me what I love about Philly, I always say, “It’s the f*** you attitude.” It’s strangely charming, maybe because it’s so real and raw.  It’s human at the other end of the spectrum from kindness, but, nonetheless, very human.

HitchBOT is dead. Long live the humans. In Circle of Hope we are creating a space for anyone and everyone, from people who give rides to strangers to people who give middle fingers to strangers. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are at, with God, yourself or whatever. There’s room in the car. We’ve been on the side of the road too.  We’re driving the car, but we didn’t buy it. Jesus gave us the keys. Get in… if you’re human.