Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: October 2017

Marriage Architecture in Verse

I recently had the chance to officiate a marriage ceremony of Circle of Hope people (the first time I have done this as a pastor). These words are based on what I shared with Scott and Anneliese and their guests. Scott discovered this poem for me. I am very grateful to him for that. May their union be blessed, protected and deep.
“Most Like an Arch This Marriage”
by John Ciardi 1958
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.
This poem struck me so truly with truth and wisdom I decided we need to walk through it again after Anneliese’s friend had just read it.

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.

This marriage began a long time ago, but we pause now at the entrance of its new era. The two of you have been becoming married for quite some time, learning each other and in the process better learning yourselves. You’ve become geologists intensely interested in the formation of each stone that makes the column standing there across from you. Each glint and divot; every smooth and rough edge wants to be known and so many of them are between you two. You come to other, in many ways fully formed. Pressed into somethingness by outside forces, made from nothingness maybe, and since then, hewn by previous hammers, crushed before by lives lived in joy and sorrow. You come to the other as you are. This whole ceremony is designed to give you that moment to see your beloved as who they are. To love them in their fantastic intricacy and beauty. To wonder about what more will be made. We stand at the entrance, and pause. It’s time to secure this arch.

Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Stepping in to these vows, you make real the idea of firmness that has sprouted in your minds. The dreams of partners idealized or otherwise, get set aside. The stones are set. Now we make it real. You make it real, and heaven gets made with you.

You know Paul when he was talking about marriage in the letter he wrote to the New Testament letter to the Ephesians seemed to think that marriage was tied up in the redemption of all things. A great mystery he said. I don’t claim to know how it will be, but I do believe that what you two are doing has something to do with heaven unfolding.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

And its power is in weakness? What?

Yes!

Accepting your falling and planning to fail, but doing it together will lead to marital success. And to do that together, today you resolve to set much aside. Do we all know this word, abeyance? The force of the weight above the arch is abeyed to the side and channeled firmly into the ground. Each side putting the weight to its side. The weight of your life together will come from within and without. Life will continue to crush from above, and your common weakness will perennially hurt your beloved. The abeyance for that inevitability will be forgiveness or this arch will not stand forever. You will set to one side your hurt out of love for the other and your common purpose: this marriage, most like an arch.

And the poet knows that this type of relating is at the heart of meaning itself. That expectation, that trust, that hope, says something about the nature of meaning—a term naming the fact that teaches fact to mean. It is foundational truth, not just to your marriage, but to the truth itself.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

“All I do at piling stone on stone apart from you is roofless around nothing. Until we kiss I am no more than upright and upset.” I love this poem! This is where the particular becomes essential. It is not just any column, This specific one is the one on whom you lean. The one you chose, the one who chose you. The one you choose, the one who chooses you. The threat of rooflessness is specific to THIS one. Without her you have no home. Without him you have no home. This is clear to you now, but it might not be as clear in the years to come. And so we make a big deal about the promises, the vows, you make today. We make a memory that cannot be forgotten and we tie it to these promises. To love, to forgive, to lean, to be one. We’re all here to remember this with you, and help hold you up when the geometry gets shifted, and your own weight doesn’t hold you up as well as it does today.

 

Paperboy Dreams (And Acts 2)

Living the paperboy dream

The paperboy dreams planted in the NES soil of my childhood came to fruit last week. A friend of mine in Circle of Hope is in a tough spot financially. Somehow, she fell in with a tribe of paper deliverers who drive the pre-dawn darkness of South Jersey delivering The Philadlephia Inquirer, New York Times, Daily News, Wall Street Journal etc. Her cell organized to help her get the job done more quickly each night so she can snag another hour of sleep before she hits her day job.  A cell is the basic unit of Circle of Hope. We meet in people’s homes, coffee shops and bars all over the region to live a real life of faith together and to include others in the tranformational community God keeps knitting together.

Each night for the past two weeks she has had a wing man or woman to be a temporary member of a very interesting club of early morning paper delivery people. One woman I met had been delivering papers every night/morning for 35 years. Another younger guy had taken my friend under his wing. He delivers three or four routes by 6 a.m. He could definitely make it to Sunday (another NES reference). If everything goes according to plan, a truck delivers freshly printed papers to a warehouse in Marlton by 2 a.m. the paperboys and girls bag them and hit the road. If you’re really good, you bag as you go, but that seems nigh impossible to me and my friend. On our night the delivery was late and there was an weekend insert in the Inquirer so bagging took a little longer. We were delivering papers in Audubon by 3:15 a.m.

You gotta aim for the mailbox–Fun being the church for real.

Because I am the way I am, I imposed some fun on the dawn. My friend was already much better at throwing papers from her driver’s seat. But some people on the route ask for special deliveries. They would like it on their porch, or just so on the top step of their stoop. You really must get out of the car to accommodate this requests, but I convinced my friend that we had to try to throw the paper to the porch, no matter how long the walk was. Pro-tip: Wall Street Journals and USA Todays are way too light to get any distance. Pro-Tip #2: If you lose papers in the bushes, you have to pay for them.

I had a lot of fun with my friend, who’s really more like a sister because she is part of my Circle of Hope family. Who else is going to go out in the middle of the night with you to deliver papers? This was not my friend’s idea. In fact, she objected, but her cell was already on the move. One of them made a spread sheet and sent it out to people who loved her. In less than 12 hours a dozen people had signed up. That’s real love. It’s like a 21st century version of the description of the first church in Jerusalem in Acts 2

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Cells are a real way to replicate this life, and you get to be a paperboy in the middle of the night and live your paperboy dreams. People need this extended family. They always have. Even before the screens came in to isolate us and virtualize our togetherness, humans needed a tribe. They needed an extended family system to be healthy, let alone world changing agents of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

Togetherness is a recent casualty

Cultures throughout history have consistently formed means for this type of togetherness. Even in the first century there were other groups, often religious, who took care of each other like the early Christians did. But our movement survived by the power of the Holy Spirit and today it’s expressed in the shared burden of a paper route for a cash strapped mom, and in many other ways. Other movements are passing away, ours is worth the sleep deprivation because it will last forever.

The counter narrative that we need to go it alone, the rise of the individual as a self contained responsible unit of society is a relatively new phenomenon. On the scale of human history, it was not too long ago that going it alone meant death. I’m sure even then, our selfishness threatened the selflessness necessary for community to thrive. The extreme nature of the sharing in Acts 2 is a testament to the special nature of their togetherness. Can you imagine liquidating your assets to feed the poor people in your cell? This togetherness was an essential part of their witness. It was not just the teaching of the apostles.

We’re doing Acts 2

Today, we are better positioned to help one another but I’m not ruling out selling my house when disaster strikes. My smaller act of radical togetherness organized by my friend’s cell is a worthy reenactment of the original Acts. It’s probably Acts Chapter (M-bar)(M-bar)(M-bar)DCLXIII at least! (BTW that’s Latin!) Cells destroy isolation and properly relocate our responsibility for everyone’s needs in the community and not the individual. Jumping through bushes and diving through jeep windows after my stray paperboy shots is how I celebrated that last week. Got any other stories about your cell?

Four Reasons Not to Make Rules for Your Kids

Oliver and TheodoreMy sons are six and three years old. They are now both old enough to cause considerable damage (to each other, their mother and our house). But they  are not old enough to have the requisite impulse control and self-regulation to refrain from doing so most of the time. They are in constant need of discipline because they are human three and six year-olds. I don’t hold it against them (most of the time). Deciding how to discipline our children is something most parents are thinking about, but we don’t always do it together. I think I have something novel to add to the discussion: aim for obedience instead of compliance.

Depending on which dictionary you check, you might conclude that obedience and compliance are synonyms, but they’re not. I asked my facebook friends and the general consensus agreed with me. They are different, and how they are different is the essence of what I have to say. Compliance is about the rule of law, and obedience is about the rule of love. It’s regulation verse relationship. One complies with the law, while one obeys a person. I want every time I discipline my children to be about relationship not rules.

I want my children to obey me. I don’t want them to follow the rules. Here’s four reasons why.

1) I want them to have a relationship with me.

Theo (3) insists on removing his pants and underwear completely when he goes to the bathroom but then does not want to be bothered to put them back on. He wants his mother or me to do it for him. He claims that he does not know how to do this arduous task. Instead of making a rule about putting on your own dang pants (which would be completely reasonable) I say, “I don’t want to put on your pants because I know you can do it and you’re practicing taking care of yourself.” I am committed to saying this because when I am rushing to get him into bed after keeping him up too late I want to be able to put his pants on for him quickly so we don’t have to have the same old fight right before bed. As I help him I say, “I’m putting on your pants for you because I know you have a hard time with it and I love you.” If I made a rule about pants, I would be ruled by it too and Theo would learn to follow the rules and not me. Obedience is about relationship, it saves everyone from legislation.

2) I want them to disobey when necessary

Oliver (6) would prefer to eat cookies for breakfast lunch and dinner (who wouldn’t?) but I tell him, “I want you to grow up to be strong and healthy so you cannot have a cookie for breakfast.” But the world is also fun and full of surprises. Occasionally we get to celebrate that with cookies at 7:00 am. If I completely block the hopeful road of an unhealthy breakfast I think I hurt his hope muscles a little bit. I need his hope muscle to be strong because he may need to disobey the unending rules of our culture that will sweep him into despair. Disobedience to unjust laws and anti-christ ways of thinking will be an essential part of his adulthood, if he becomes the man I am praying he will be. He will need a lot of hope to believe that anything he does in the face of such great forces will mean anything at all.

3) I want them to have a sense of agency

Rules beget drudgery and performance. There are enough forces in this world preparing to steal my sons’ sense of their own agency. I don’t need to be a part of it. In moments of despair I do wish that these tiny ones would just do as they’re told and stop bothering me, but when I’m writing a blog, that despair is not part of the manifesto. My heart’s desire is that they have a healthy sense of agency. Capitalism will try to reduce them into a cog in whatever system they participate, a consumer or a product to be sold. The One Percent will figure out how to trick them into slavery, virtual or actual (depending on how dystopian our future is). They will need to have a sense of themselves that is quite separate from what we in Circle of Hope have deemed the Great Other, the amalgamation of surveillance state bureaucracy, globalized economies and incredibly entrenched injustices. The problems are so big and the system so inscrutable and esoteric that attempting to do anything more than survive with your head down is only for dreamers and fools. Obey specific individuals whom you have agreed to respect,  O my sons, not institutions that are lost in themselves and given over to the principalities and powers of the air. We’ll start now by using a pencil on our homework not because “you’re not allowed to use pen,” but because “the pencil is the best tool for the job when you’re learning which direction to write a lower case “p.”

4) I want them to have a healthy image of God

Our images of God are intrinsically linked to our images of our parents. Jesus taught us to relate to God as a parent, and so our parents are the source material for our language about God and our associations with the words mother and father. As children, the grooves in our brains are literally being formed. So when we arrive to adulthood trying to relate to God as a parent, we bring with us some patterns of relating that are hard to get around. I want my sons to have an image of me that is relational because that is the type of fatherhood that best corresponds with the type of parent God is. God is not the overbearing father or the bad cop mom. God loves us and treats each of us differently according to our specific needs. God’s care for us can not be reduced to a set of rules or principles (though many continue to try to do so). God can’t be tied up by the rules we make about God, and on his best days, neither can Dad. “Theo, your unintelligible whining is irritating but i care about what you have to say. Can you talk to me so I can understand?” I care about you more than the rules I am tempted to make about whining.

Obedience > Compliance

If I just get my children to comply with the rules I design for them, I will have the semblance of obedience. If I relate to them and get them to obey me because I have demonstrated the goodness of my love and the boundaries a set for them, I will have actual obedience. Rich Mullins wrote in one of his songs “Surrender don’t come natural to me/I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than take what you give and I need.” Many of us have that fight built into us. I know I do when I’m ready to dig trenches in my living room to defeat my children. God, give me (and us) strength to give and receive with discernment and trust. May we receive the love we need to love our children more than just keeping them in line.

 

 

 

What is the Bible IMHO

The Bible is the story of God’s people and how God has related to them for thousands of years. It is a testament to the work of God in the world throughout time but especially of the people of Israel and we who are grafted into it. It is written by witnesses of God’s work. It is not directly God’s work. God took interest in how the Bible was compiled but the evidence of the complex process all of the texts we now consider sacred have been through is compelling enough for me to conclude that God was channeling a flash flood more than filling a pitcher of water.

The multitude of experiences and perspectives shared in the Bible splash together in a muddy roar. It is not neat. Oral traditions cross with historical revisions for consolidation of power. Theological points subvert chronology. Poetry paints in brush strokes later analyzed with magnifying glasses for new subtext. It’s a mess—but a beautiful mess. The Holy Spirit breathes through it all because those who wrote it were breathing with the Holy Spirit. I choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is satisfied with the finished product as we have codified it, but I have no reason to believe it is complete. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive because the Holy Spirit is still at work in us and we can gain new insight. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will contradict the Bible, however, because God is too invested in this book. It is too useful in binding us together and preserving the wisdom and action of God.

It is rich enough to return to for a lifetime of study and application. But it is a book—the Bible says nothing. God speaks and the Bible testifies. Jesus speaks, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record it. Paul writes. Peter writes. John writes. And so on and so on. The Holy Spirit makes these recorded words alive to us by speaking through them. We don’t have a a dead book that has all the answers. Our book is enlivened by the One who has written the universe. It does not stand alone but God stands by it.

The authorship and compilation of what we call the New Testament is much more reliable as a historical document than what we call the Old Testament, and in their class the New Testament writings are fairly trustworthy even historiographically. This is a nice little feather in our cap of faith because the stories of the New Testament inform our understanding of the Old–the central story being that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because the New Testament is written Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, it carries extra weight for those of us who are reading it to gain insight into our life of discipleship to our Lord. Paul famously said in I Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly; the glass was even darker before Jesus.

This is so because Jesus is the full revelation of God. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14). He redefines and re-centers the whole conversation about God’s action in the world. Behold he is the new thing! And so we read all of scripture with Jesus as our lens. The logic follows: if Jesus and the Old Testament seem to be at odds, then we need to redefine what’s going on in the Old Testament. The narrative needs to be re-interpreted. Terry Brensinger wrote a great analysis of violence in the Old Testament that demonstrates this sort of interpretation brilliantly.

But the interpretation of scripture as a project is important primarily for the personal and communal instruction of the Church. Reading scripture is not about knowing only in the cognitive sense, though that is useful, it is about knowing in the intimate sense. It is a way for us to commune with God and be transformed by the stories that God has helped preserve for us. The Holy Spirit uses scripture to form us into the agents we need to be to continue the story and to include others in the flood.