Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: November 2018

Why Showing Up is Even More Important in Advent

Ordinary Pilgrims

One of the simplest and best reasons to have a Sunday meeting is that we need to show up. We need to do something with our bodies to give substance to the faith we profess or it will shrink. Getting up, dressing the children and piling them into the car on Sunday morning, or missing the evening football game, or scheduling to get off from shift work during the commercial high-gear season are all great acts of faith. The importance of just making it to the meeting should not be underestimated. It does something to us to do something. Getting in your car and driving to the meeting (I live in South Jersey so for many of us that’s the only way to get there) is a pilgrimage worthy of appreciation.

Jesus’ Specifics and Ours

We especially need to do something in Advent, the season of expectation before Jesus finally comes on December 25th. Advent is all about the Incarnation — God made flesh. Jesus is moving into our actual neighborhood — Pennsauken, Collingswood, Oaklyn, Moorestown, Gloucester City, Buena, Haddon Township, Mullica Hill … the list goes on in our wide South Jersey region. Jesus first came to a specific place and time — a little Palestinian town called Bethlehem (where Christ followers have a hard time following Jesus these days).

All the practicalities of his birth were no small feat. His parents were pushed around by a powerful empire even during the very physically delicate moment of pregnancy. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not his home town of Nazareth to fulfill two prophecies about where the Messiah (God’s anointed one) was from (Micah 5 and Matthew 2:23). We know all about the people who were there and the family into which he was born, and even the stars that were in the sky. It’s an incredible amount of detail that Luke discovers in his careful account of Jesus’ birth. From the names of the rulers, to the impromptu crib, it all matters.

Advent Details

Our details matter too. How we schedule our weekends could take on a heightened sense of importance during this season as well. A way to really prepare for the baby Savior would be to show up every Sunday in Advent (10:30 a.m. and/or 6:00 p.m. at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ on December 2, December 9, December 16, and December 23). You can also show up to our Advent Worship Relief events, concentrated times of worship and prayer to welcome this strange baby and embrace our own peculiar selves (7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4 at 5720 Ridge Ave, PHL; Thursday, December 13th at 2007 Frankford Ave, PHL; and Wednesday, December 19th at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ)

The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Anyone at All

When you show up, there will be ways to connect your heart, soul, mind and strength. Our theme is “Welcoming the Stranger.” Jesus is paradoxically the stranger who needs our welcome and the strange one who welcomes us into our own strangeness, ready to meet us there. We want to embrace our own strangeness because we all feel so peculiarly ourselves, which can, at times, feel incredibly lonely. Jesus felt this too and entered into the fullness of human experience (part of that being the sometimes unbearable loneliness of being anyone at all). Being somewhere specific like a Sunday meeting, for a Godward purpose, enunciates that human experience and gives it more meaning. The fact that Jesus crossed time and space to be with us as a human baby (and then man) elevates our own human experience. This strange reality we live in was embraced in all its detail by God as one of us. We need to reenact that every year, at least. It’s too wonderful and strange not to easily lose hold of.

We Need To Practice

We want  to practice overcoming our resistance to who Jesus really is (and who we really are in Christ). He was not everything the people he came to wanted. If we are honest he is not everything we want either, but we believe that deep down we crave the simplicity of his birth, right down to all the specifics of it.

The Design Teams at 3800 Marlton Pike have turned our meeting space into a nursery of sorts which the children will help us deconstruct week by week. All the gadgets and “necessities” of many modern babies need to be stripped away. This will mirror the process of stripping away the expectations, fears and resistance on our insides that we need to acknowledge. Artistically and liturgically externalizing that process is why we need to be there together. That’s hard to do alone. We want to break down the barriers between us and Jesus (and subsequently ourselves and others), so we can better welcome the strangers in our lives (Jesus, refugees, our own hidden parts and more).

So show up! You need the drama. You need the real thing. I know God will be there. Will you?

People are better than ideas

People change people, much more than ideas do. The best way to bridge divides is bringing people who are different form one another together in love. An idea is a powerful tool but it is limited, I think, to political power. Jesus was most interested in people’s allegiance to him as a person not to his ideas. He was not creating a political movement, he was creating a Jesus movement. He himself was at the center of it, and he still is.

Jesus ‘ plan was to be with us

That’s why I hate the term “biblical principles.” It is a reduction of Jesus’ personhood to ideas, and that was not his purpose in becoming a human being as far as I can tell. He wanted a relationship. He wanted us to rely on him for who we are and what we think. he wanted to renew our minds and transform our thinking. He does this as a person. He expected to be with us always, and he is.  When he was with people in a more immediate sense, walking around ancient Palestine, he was always trying to undo ideas that were too concrete. He confounded people on purpose. He refused to weigh in on the established debates. Here’s an example from Mark 12:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

And they were amazed at him

Folks have been wondering what exactly Jesus meant ever since. We are still amazed, confounded, perplexed. Jesus’ inherent answer is, “I am doing something deeper than Caesar and his Empire. I am God’s. You are mine if you are with me. And then we all belong to God.” In John 18, he says to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not of this world” and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus wanted us to know that he is it.  Jesus, himself is the solution. I believe this, but I am still wondering with Pilate, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I think that’s right where Jesus wants me to land.

This amazement points me toward another way. It leads me to reject simple answers and almost every binary. Many of the ideas we still hold dear are at least as old as the gospels, and they have always been unsatisfactory. Jesus thinks we know this, deep down, and he’s still doing everything he can to wake us up to that dissatisfaction. To his disciples in John 14 Jesus says,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The world gives you coins with emperors’ faces on them who deliver “peace” through war, “law and order” through militarized police with not enough accountability. Our money today ironically says “In God we trust” on the back of portraits of our dead emperors. Jesus does not confront these emperors the way the world does. His peace comes through another way. He offers us himself. His resurrected body that was once killed for the kind of peace the world gives.

Jesus undoes our debates

This is a hard teaching still, because we are still afraid. For the most part, conventional wisdom teaches us that to not fear is to be a fool. Paul has something to say about that in 1 Corinthians 3 but you can follow up on that later. Jesus’ peace comes in the form of question marks behind the assumptions that have define who we are. This side or that side. Up or down. Left or right. Safe or in danger. Jesus undoes our debates and asks better questions. Our worldly identities are only as real as the world makes them. Let us let Jesus define us. Let us attempt to answer his questions which will most likely end in amazement. And in our confusion — in our “I don’t know” — in the wonderful wake of another Jesus zinger, let us be content to be next to him. This will change us.

His answers didn’t satisfy many of the established sides of his day. He is the solution, himself, and that looks different for different people in different contexts. We bring that wonder and that expectation of fresh answers to our own time and place, to each of our relationships. the goal is being next to Jesus together. The truth is a person who is available here and now. Paul kept going with this single minded flexibility throughout his evangelical efforts. He would literally say one thing to one group and another thing to another group (This post on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net gets at how we imagine following his footsteps as we do theology in our context). Paul wanted people to get next to Jesus and then see what happens. The presumption is that Holy Spirit is actually alive and active convincing people. Jesus is present and he will make more of a difference if we let him than we often give him credit for.

Let’s be together next to Jesus and see what he does next

So our goal is to keep people together, especially people who are different form one another. Teaching dialogue and speaking the truth in love is the work we must do. You actually have to love the person you disagree with. You have to have a strategy for their transformation, not winning the argument. I am still learning to do this in every situation, but I have already seen it work, so I persist.

The folks who are stuck in a talking point, stirred up to follow their worst instincts by a corporate media machine need to prejudice their togetherness in Christ over their ideas. We die to those allegiances to follow Christ. The most practical way to do it is to love a real person. That media machine, which a friend of mine recently described as a means of demon possession, is designed solely for making money — not for truth or love or even solving the worlds problems. My hope is in creating a viable alternative to those lucrative lies. To do this I trust Jesus among us to do miracles in our relationships. I am banking on his living presence to move people where they need to go. I don’t think we will ever have worldly power over the machines (media, military, politics) but I think we already are an alternative to that power. The church is oriented around a deeper power that we can rest assured will triumph in the end. For now, we are faithful to it — to Him — and persevere even if it often seems to be failing. We lead people to claim the freedom Jesus gives us over those machine powers. It doesn’t always look like it is working. It’s like yeast or a seed — as Jesus said — unseen expansion, underground growth.

Our personal relationships are the foundation of our prophecy

I don’t think this means we ignore those machine powers. This is not a push toward individuality. Our love for neighbor compels us to speak. Those we will never know still matter to us and our voice may help. We address evil in the world with our prophecy in creative ways. We ally with movements that seem to be the best options for the poor and the oppressed. We mock the powers with subversive alternatives. We tell the war machine to stop killing in our name. But we create at least as much as we tear down. We must have a real alternative from which we speak. We must be already doing in micro what we call for in macro. I believe we have that place to stand together with Jesus. We are making an environment where it is safe to lay down the burden of being right all the time. We kindle a fire of bewilderment that opens us up to new possibilities. Our new vision gives us more imagination, offering us insight into better criticism of the powers, asking those better questions that Jesus loves. But our first work is being the alternative, making love and discipleship happen, building a foundation of intimacy with the living Lord that incites those open hearts that can see a different world and bring it closer to fruition with different questions. If we don’t share the best thing we have with those immediately around us, why would we share anything with those beyond?

Giving Thanks for Friends We Don’t See As Much As We Used To

Recently I got a group of people together who had been planting the church together for ten years. Our congregation in South Jersey is ten years old (What a wonder!), and we marked the occasion with a time to remember where we have been and consider where we are going.  The time reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinner — a big long table, family, good food, storytelling… bad memories, tension, irritation. The people we love have so much power over us! And we have so much power together to make light and life in the world.  I’m so grateful these folks stayed together even when everyone didn’t stay. But I’m also grateful that they let me and others in and didn’t stay together in exactly the same way–if they had, I’m not sure they could have stayed together at all.

My Brother and Me

When I was 12, my family moved to a new house and my twin brother, Joel, and I ended up in the same room again after a four year hiatus. Our new room somehow inherited my parents old record player and their old records. That summer The Mamas and the Papas’ album “Deliver” became a permanent part of my neural net. “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, but nothing’s quite as sure as change.” Joel and I share a love that is deeper than some siblings because we are twins. I may be romanticizing our 9 months together in the womb but there’s a comfort that transcends the rearranging of our lives. Joel moved out of our shared room again after a guy that had moved in with us to help plant Circle of Hope moved back to his hometown. Joel found a different friend group in high school, maybe because too many of mine were degenerates and maybe because he just liked video games more than I did. Regardless, our connection persists even if he lives in his own separate house.

I’m sure there are plenty of bad memories, tension and irritation from that moment in our shared history, but they’re not coming to mind right now. We’re brothers, and that doesn’t change.

Being together for a long time means being together in different ways

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a little more tenuous. Of course we are family with all those who call on the name of Jesus around the whole world, but we organize in bands of partners called churches to be and do specific things and  that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood can be lost. It’s better if it can change. One person said that they had been part of several church plants and none of the founding members ever stuck around at all. The fact that so many people who started Circle of Hope in South Jersey are still a part of the mission was pretty amazing to him. I have no frame of reference for this so I’m taking his word for it. I noticed at the dinner that the group was not at all the same as when they started together 10 years ago, but they were still together.

They had gotten married, had children, lived in community, bought and sold houses, and even divorced.  They had planted, multiplied, killed and resurrected dozens of cells. They had fought each other, reconciled, suffered loss and celebrated many milestones in life, mostly associated with young adulthood. But not only had they changed individually, their relationships had changed. They were not as close as they all once were. They were not all at the center of the church leadership. Many others had joined the church and they were dispersed among them in new relationships, carrying their founder fire to the whole body.

Relational Evangelism requires letting go

It was tempting to be sad. Things were not the same. Their togetherness was not the same, but they were together, nonetheless. That togetherness is enough, I think. The alternative is a dissatisfying comparison with the past and a choice for what was. A desire to go back to the way things were, or even a forced fossilization of what is, will grind the wheels of our church planting engine to a halt. It hurts some to keep moving, knowing that your brother is way over there across town rather than right below you on the bottom bunk, but we must trust the binding that God has done. We cannot demand forever intimacy with everyone or no one new will ever be able to enjoy the friendship we offer in Christ.

Relational evangelism brings with it the occupational hazard of having to let go. I don’t think this means we forget the brothers and sisters we have made. We might need to be more intentional about catching up (and I suggest you do that because I need to do it too) but we cannot cozy up in the comfort of what was. We cannot maintain every relationship equally. We cannot demand that our togetherness stay the same. It cannot withstand the weight.  We can be bound by common mission, common history, and a chosen family bond that will play like a pleasant song in your mind and heart–  and last into eternity.

When you go to Thanksgiving Dinner treasure the Togetherness

So at your actual Thanksgiving table, whether you are with blood family, friends family or family in Christ (probably a mix of that). Treasure the togetherness. Marvel that anyone is together at all. Delight in the quirky constellation of people that have gathered to thank God in feast form. It’s not the same as it ever was. Families rearrange and relationships suffer and change. There is heartache and joy all around. Tell the truth. You will be tempted to dwell in the tension, but you might marvel in the longevity of those relationships and wonder what may come next from this foundation.