Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: November 2017

You Should Read Poetry



A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa

Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

“Venus’s Fly Traps” by Yusef Komunyakaa takes me back to the Southern California of my childhood. I spent most of my time as a child running around the safe sunshiny neighborhood with a tribe of boys of which my brothers and I comprised the better part. I remember my own lot of sunny grass at the corner of Arlington where, once, we found a dead cat. I remember the shortcut through a backyard and over a cinder block wall into the Sears parking lot which I insisted on taking even when I had a broken arm. I remember the stillness of the backyard in the afternoon when, for some reason, I had it to myself. Silence is quite loud. Do you remember that?

The entire universe that existed in our three block kingdom echos in the bravado of the five year old in “Venus’s Fly Traps.” I had that same sort of confidence in my knowledge; that same sort of arrogance in my ignorance. I remember that for a few months “ass” meant “penis”. Yusef Komunyakaa takes me to that part of my life when the world was small enough for me to know it all.

In “Venus’s Fly Traps,” sexuality, fertility and life are juxtaposed with killing, danger and death from the title onward. The Venus Fly Trap is one of “the tall flowers in [his] dreams” that “eat all the people except the ones [he] loves.” They have “women’s names and mouths like where babies come from”—women’s names, like Venus, the fertile one herself. The five year old Komunyakaa doesn’t comprehend the sexual innuendo. His adult self inserted this expression, but I won’t say that the knowing wasn’t there.

In the Spanish language there are two verbs where English has one. Conocer means to have experienced something or someone. Saber means to have knowledge about a subject . Yusef Komunyakaa at five sabe mucho (knows/understands a lot) even if he has not yet conocido mucho (known/experienced much)—he has a knowing that is beyond words. His impressions of the world are technically incorrect in some cases. For example, all bees do not live in domesticated white bee hives. But his impressions are correct in their knowing. For example, fertility and death are inextricably linked. The adult poet who has conocido mucho gives words to the unspoken world that the child sabe. With Komunyakaa I am drawn back to that moment of knowledge and ignorance all wrapped in one. I can never repeat the purity of that mental emptiness, but I can conjure the memory to aid me in centering prayer and meditation, practices I use to perform my own tiny kenosis each day to make room for the real God that wants to fill me.

The remembering of childhood is a great pond for reflection, a collection of meaningful experience that has survived the evaporation of the years. The adult communicates with the child, gives him words, wonders what exacly each of those moments contained, and adds his own existential angst that may have, indeed, been buried in the child or may just be a projection from the adult. This is an invitation to integration, a worthy portal toward wholeness. If your heart is filled with unresolved pain of your own—full of unexamined memories and forgotten feelings—there will not be much space for others, let alone for God. The soul of a leader needs a great deal of tending. Poetry is one way to do that I recommend.

Komunyakaa transported me to an important place within me that needs healing and does not often get the attention that healing requires. Thank you, Yusef. You gave me, an awareness of my weakness, my still unhealed scars, and the simple quietness of my childhood play.

Poems like “Venus’s Fly Traps” are especially useful because they go back so explicitly to forgotten places. They get the reader to the right place in the caves of memory to discover new corridors and passageways that have yet to be explored. This is the poet’s gift. Any leader who accepts these maps and does some spelunking will be great regardless of his or her way with words because of the depth of self they conocen and saben. The union of past and present, that which you knew long before you learned it and that which you thought you knew but at some point learned to forget come together and talk it out. This union is the essence of good poetry about childhood, and a great starting point for any time of prayer—get small, get quiet, go to a place inside you that hopes and dreams better than any other, the part to which belongs the kingdom of God.


Why I Love Jordan Peterson (But He’s Wrong)

Jordan Peterson and Jesus?

Many of my friends are fans of Jordan Peterson. They appreciate his pragmatic and inspiring call, particularly to men, to take responsibility for themselves, and become agents of good. “No matter how bad a situation is, you can make it worse.” This is a good mantra. He speaks passionately, to the point of being choked up. I appreciate his deep desire to speak the truth, and I love some of the archetypal inferences on human psychology that he’s been describing in his examination of Genesis in his current lecture series. But the examination of Biblical morality and human psychology cannot end with Genesis. In fact it ought not to even begin with Genesis. Properly, it begins with Jesus, who IS the Truth. Jesus is the Truth personally revealed. A commitment to Truth is a commitment to a living person. Following him requires daily meditation on who he is, who we are to him, and what he did in the first century as recorded in the New Testament.

What About the Prophets?

Jesus follows in a long line of Hebrew prophets who spoke out against the organization of human sinfulness in unjust power structures. He went around challenging these power structures and creating a new way of thinking and being which he announced as the Kingdom of God. I agree with much of Peterson’s examination of how sin began with Adam and Eve and self-consciousness, but Peterson overemphasizes the role of the individual in the shaping of society in my opinion. The individual speaking truth is his main hope as far as I can tell. I really do appreciate this perspective. When I was younger, heavily influenced by the elite Marxist intelligencia that Peterson thoroughly condemns, I was convinced that I ought to lead the revolution (hopefully nonviolently) in some way, shape or form; but I experienced a conversion. I was converted to a commitment to the Church. I chose a community of transformation over an ideological movement because I realized that no matter what the laws might say, real change is a matter of the human heart. Societal change would only occur with the transformation of millions if not billions of individual hearts, and God’s chosen means of that transformation was the Church—a community committed to the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In this regard I agree with Peterson, however, the heart that Jesus compels me to have is so heavy with compassion and grace for the poor and powerless–the outcast and the stranger–that I cannot help but sympathize and even mobilize with the social justice movements in our society that cry out with the voice of the Hebrew prophets and, dare I say, the voice of the Lord. Peterson would disagree with this conclusion.

These movements have many, many faults. Our participation at various levels with them requires our utmost creativity and resolve. We need daily discernment and much dialogue to effectively maintain our difference as Christ followers in the slough of bitter ideology that dominates the discourse and the practices of many (but certainly not all) who work for justice. I am still convinced, as I was when I was converted (now 15 years ago) from Marx’s revolution to Jesus’ revelation, that the best alternative for the world is the Church. We need to be committed to the reality that Jesus revealed and is revealing in himself. Our calling as the Church is to relate to each other and to our neighbors in a way that condemns and conquers the enmity of the world. This is third way thinking that prejudices peace and justice without using the weapons of the world—violence, coercion and hate. We are empowered to do this by a Holy Spirit who grows in each of us abundant love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Individuals Can’t Get all the Credit (and Blame)

Let us not be convinced by Peterson’s elevation of individual choice and truth as a means of salvation, as if preventing another Pol Pot or Stalin is the only thing we live for. I am not compelled by Peterson’s pragmatism. He assumes that history’s alternatives are limited to what governments and markets have done. The threat of human wickedness is not a new reality. The 20th century provided a horrifyingly powerful accelerant to the fire of human evil with the development of catastrophic technology, but it didn’t reveal a new facet of humanity; it magnified the old. It’s as old as Genesis (I think Peterson and I agree about this too–I love his common refrain in the Genesis lectures, “These people who wrote this [Genesis] were not dumb. They were bloody brilliant!”) But I do disagree that we should believe that individuals are powerful enough to do as much evil as we have done if they were not organized in a system greater than themselves. As early as the age of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, the trend of the rich to organize against the poor was decried justly, and with the authority of God. Our individual evils have the capacity to coalesce and metastasize in unpredictable ways. Individual self reflection is absolutely necessary, yes, but there is more to it than that.

I follow Walter Wink’s thinking in “The Powers that Be” (a good book- I recommend it to you). Wink suggests that societal injustice, though begun by individuals, develops to the point that it takes on a reality and even a will of its own. Wink attributes this to spiritual forces (which Peterson rarely acknowledges). But even if we consider social injustice strictly sociologically and historically, it is reasonable to conclude that the powers are now so complex and endemic that it is nigh on impossible to deconstruct them without years (maybe hundreds of years) of concerted effort by millions if not billions of individuals. Changing the laws will not achieve transformation. Just as changing the laws about discrimination against trans people in Canada will not necessarily make the lives of trans people in Canada better (which is the debate that has gotten Jordan Peterson famous).

I do not have much hope for this hundred year, billion person project, but I do have hope in creating an alternative society in the Church that lives a life in service and discipleship of Christ who goes to the least of these and will judge us by our service to them (Matthew 25). I think Jesus would likely hang out with trans people if he had his first advent in 21st century Canada instead of first century Palestine. I do not demand a grand narrative for why or how people of color, gay people, or trans people are so poorly treated and disproportionately disadvantaged in our society (even if some individuals aren’t and some individuals who are not part of a minority group are equally disadvantaged). I do, however, demand justice from my elected officials, and I will use the tiny power I have to join with the Hebrew prophets of old to speak for those who do not have as much voice as I do. This is not my primary task (that’s building the church which is a grand narrative that lasts into eternity with its Head, Jesus, the risen Christ), but it would be poor discipleship of my Master to not do what I can when I can as often as I can.

Circle of Hope is an Alternative

In Circle of Hope we can do more together as a collective if we can agree about our task—we live in the Truth, with the Truth, including others in the Truth through cells and Sunday meetings, facilitating a 24/7 community that is a viable alternative to the powers that be and the discord which dominates all sides of political discourse. Our mutuality as people of justice has been a distinguishing characteristic since we began. We have participated with many justice movements, but we have always maintained our particularly christocentric stance. We participate as “invasive separatists.” We agree with social justice movements as much as we actually agree with them. We recognize their need for transformation even as we join with them in solidarity. We are not corrupted by their ideologies, though this is a real danger if we don’t maintain a robust dialogue among us.

I love Jordan Peterson because he makes me think, but I am not going to follow him, and I recommend that my friends take his insights with the grains of salt I am suggesting. I love his Jungian analysis of human behavior and the Genesis stories, but I am disagreeing with his political advocacy more and more as I see him engaging with trans people around the C-16 Bill in Canada that passed in May of this year. Regarding his demeanor and some of what he has said, kindness is not weakness, and weakness is not as weak as Peterson thinks. As Christian-esque as he appears with his year-long meditation on Genesis and his frequent quotations form the Sermon on the Mount I wonder about his relationship with Truth, whose name is Jesus the Crucified. I hope, if he hasn’t already, that he can access a personal connection to the Truth himself, through his zealous commitment to personal truth that has made him famous and worthy of conversation on my blog.

More Than a Day of Gratitude

Gratitude is a muscle

Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s arguably the best American holiday. Gratitude makes life better. Everyone agrees. Not everyone agrees that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) but they’re not far off when they give thanks. So at our morning Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ we’re celebrating with a season called “More Than a Day of Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a muscle, it takes practice, and practice makes perfect, right? I’ve been practicing naming all the good in my life as a gift from God for quite some time. It started before my first cell in New Jersey, but that’s where it really took off in community and got bigger than just me. We called it the “God Check.” We asked each other week after week, “What did God do in your life this week? We don’t have to have anything, but we do have to check. Or maybe something happened and you think God might have been doing something but you’re not sure, so let’s check it out.”

It didn’t have to be anything fantastic. We weren’t looking for bona fide miracles. We were looking for moments when we were aware of God’s goodness, or maybe just brave enough to try naming God in our ordinary lives. Gratitude is good for us humans no matter how we do it, but I believe directional gratitude is even better. Giving thanks to God is a place to start a real relationship. Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite poet and the featured artist of our Water Daily Prayer this week) calls God “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

How this works in a real life

A while back, I was meeting regularly with a woman who was having trouble seeing God as a giver of anything. She wanted something very badly, but she hadn’t received it. The complicated emotions that came with this threw everything she had believed into question. Did God care? Who was she to demand anything from God? Why did she want it so much? Why couldn’t she be content with what she had? If God is the giver of good things, why not her, and why not this specific good thing? Why not for her? I was with her in that plea, confusion and subsequent anger. We worked together on the second part of the “God Check”: something was happening but what the heck was God doing? Where was God in this? Was God anywhere?

Part of reestablishing a relationship with God was naming God as “You.” She had never really experienced much intimacy with God, so this resentment was seriously threatening the faith she thought she had. Maybe all the good she had received really was just from “the universe” or just random cause and effect. Many of us can relate. This perspective is a common option in our culture. We can choose to see the world this way, but we don’t have to. It seems that humanity has always had a collective sense that there must be a source. Religion’s pervasiveness throughout time and culture is evidence enough that, at worst, we have a common delusion that we just can’t seem to shake; or, at best (and my preference), we have a common desire that directs us beyond chance and the observable universe.

It’s okay if it’s a choice

I submit that this is, indeed, my preference. I don’t have much beyond my subjective experience to back it up, except for the similarities of so many other subjects. Our desire for good and our hope for a God who gives it is significant evidence (Read The Abolition of Man for a ridiculously thorough and compelling argument for this in a scant 113 pages). My suggestion to my friend was simple: just change your language. Choose “You” over “Universe.” Point your gratitude and wonder purposefully… persistently… preponderously.

My practice of you-ing has greatly enriched my life and the life of my cells. Now, a few generations of cells later, and there are five cells who make the “God check” a regular part of their meetings. More folks are getting into the practice. Their gratitude muscles are growing, and their thank you’s are bending in a personal direction, often for the first time. My friend told God about her bitterness, and God has gotten more you-y as a result. All transformative growth takes time. We need more than just a day of gratitude. We need a life of gratitude.

The ancient Israelites had one big event that they made a whole week about to make sure that they remembered (Passover). God liberated them from captivity and made them a people. Time and time again in their book of poems, songs and prayers; the Psalms; they remember what God did to make them a people. We too can start with the basics that we are anything at all, that hawks are anything at all, that clouds are anything at all, that our families are anything at all, that our church is anything at all, that resurrection is anything at all. Lay the gratitude on thick. Do it again. And do it in God’s direction. It will get you somewhere, and as you are arriving, you’ll realize it’s not very different from where you’ve always been, but you are very different.

What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much?

What if Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter That Much?

The Circle of Hope Pastors were wondering about this question indirectly on the most recent episode of their videocast, “Someone Asked.” What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much? Or, maybe, what if your opinion shouldn’t matter as much as it does. My opinions matter to me a lot, or so it would seem. I have a lot of opinions. Opinions might be my favorite thing. I grew up around a dinner table of intelectual brothers who were well-read and very opinionated. Having urbane conversation might be my love language as a result.

So I surprised myself when I told my buddy as we were biking today that, at least in the church, unity needs to trump authenticity. Being correct about anything is not as important as being connected to other members of the body. This does not mean we don’t have opinions–remember I love opinions; t means that it’s better to hold your opinions loosely than to commit strongly to your own thoughts and instincts. What do we gain by being right, after all?

Our culture gains a lot of entrenched power systems that change little about the every day lives of regular folks. We get sold binary opinions as commodities. It seems like everything is pepsi vs. coke, red vs blue, left vs. right, black vs. white. The division serves its real purpose, to divide us against each other and ensure the status quo. But if we want to change anything it seems we must choose to throw our lot in with one side or the other. We must choose a side. The opinion that comes most naturally is to be against. Saying no is so easy. And then we are reduced to deconstructionists. We spend much of our energy in what passes as conversation telling the other side how they’re wrong.

Is Conversation War?

And if the supposed conversation gets heated enough, or loud enough or long enough, we become so invested in defending ourselves against the threat of being the wrong one, that our  choice becomes who we are. Our opinion about the available options becomes a central part of our identity. We carry the wounds of previous attacks into new conversations. Our defenses are up before the person we are listening to says anything at all. Opponents seem to pop up everywhere. Once we’ve been in war, our minds have trouble experiencing any safety. Hyper-vigilance exhausts us and we don’t function at our highest level anymore. Are we good for only one thing; for being against?

From a natural perspective, I would say yes. Our ancient ancestors survived out of fear, tribalism and suspicion. Our more recent ancestors have been dominated, duped and discarded enough to know the contemporary stakes. Choosing the better of two evils is as good as it’s going to get. It’s not going to get better but we better fight like hell so that it doesn’t get any worse. And yet it does. The current discourse in the United States seems worse than it has ever been. I believe this is because we have been sold our choice as our salvation. In general, we have been convinced that our opinion, our preference, our desire is who we are. And now being right is a matter of life and death.

What Happens When Jesus Blows It All Up?

Jesus said something that blows all this up. He said it a long time ago and we aren’t very practiced at hearing it or applying it. He said, ” Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 6) If most of our opinions are as linked to life and death as I think they are, than we need to lose our opinions to find our lives in Christ. Our opinions do not matter as much as we have been conditioned to think they do. Our safety is not built on our capacity to defend ourselves, or any righteousness we produce. It is built on Jesus Christ, his victory over death and his promise of a future. This applies to everything, not just what happens when we do. It means a lot for how we talk to one another and even how we think.

The benefits of the demotion of our opinions is unity and probably better solutions to the problems of the world, but definitely a better alternative to the problems of the world. As Christians, we break the binaries starting with the ultimate binary between life and death. Let’s break the ones that exist in our minds and conversations as well. Use your intellect, yes. Puzzle through the troubles of this world, yes. Have a debate too, yes. But do it with charity, generosity, deep empathy for your partners. This will build the presence of the future here and now. We will be the best thing the world has going for it, not by getting the right answers, and having the right opinion, but by being a people, united from many perspectives, loving across many boundaries and losing many lives to share a new one in Christ.