Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: December 2018

Top 5 Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

I love Christmas Music! I say bring it on Thanksgiving Day, and keep the best ones in your playlist all year long. Jesus is with us! We need the soundtrack of our lives and hearts to celebrate this as much as possible.

In honor of Christmas Music that Doesn’t Suck Part II (this Sunday, December 23rd, 2018, at 6:00 pm at Circle of Hope, 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ) I decided to compile a list of my top five favorite Christmas songs. This list is definitive of course (and subject to change as my heart demandsūüėú).¬† Some made the list for their novelty, some for their theological brilliance, some because they have a special place in my experience and some just because they are my jam.

In No Particular Order: My Top Five Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

1. “If You Were Born Today” by Low¬†LISTEN HERE

The song starts “If you were born today/ We’d kill you by age eight/Never get a chance to say… ” And then it lists a whole bunch of incendiary and beautiful things Jesus said.¬† The haunting harmonies characteristic of Low are perfect for this haunting song about the war torn reality of Jesus’ homeland in the present day. Jesus was dangerous, he lived in a dangerous world, as dangerous as the world we live in, and his words are still dangerous. “Peace on Earth” is an assault on the money making war makers who make our world go ’round. The whole Low Christmas album hits the right notes about who Jesus was and is and how much we need a savior. Waiting for Jesus is dark and definitely stormy. the song is jarring and somehow nostalgic at the same time. It strikes the necessary longing in me for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to be made complete.¬† Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

2. “Light From Light” by Andrew Yang¬†LISTEN HERE

Andrew Yang is a Circle of Hope member who writes astoundingly beautiful songs. They are clever and catchy and they capture the heart and nuance of Biblical theology in fresh language. He is the Charles Wesley of our century (!), teaching the gospel in song so it can be sung into our hearts. I remember vividly the moment I first heard “Light from Light” on the newest album release form Circle of Hope Audio Art.¬† I was standing¬† in the parking lot of our building in Pennsauken looking at the sky, earbuds in my ears, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Wrapped tight in cloth a babe fresh from the womb/One day be bloodied and wrapped for the tomb.” That line broke my heart with gratitude for the reality of Jesus’ love for us — to live that fully human life — birth through death — all for us. I was also overjoyed that my friends could make something so well and so beautifully. The heart breaking gratitude was for them, too — all the musicians, technicians and producers who made us that album just for love.

3. “A Christmas Song (You Are Here)” by Angie Backeus LISTEN HERE

Angie Backeus and Rod White debuted this song at a Christmas Eve Vigil (come to this year’s Christmas Eve Vigil at 1125 S. Broad Street, 2nd Floor, at 10:45 on December 24th) as a duet many years ago. They sang us the first verse and chorus, then the second verse and chorus, then the last verse, and then finally invited us to sing along in the final chorus. Each chorus changes person. The first time they sang it Jesus sang his reassurance “I am here, my love, I am here/I’m the child for the child who lives in fear/and I am here, I am here.” The second time they sang it the angels sang it to us with delight, “He is here, my love, He is here/He’s the child for the child who lives in fear/and he is here, he is here.” By the time we got to the final chorus I was bursting with feelings and choked out through my tears, “You are here, my love, you are here/You’re the child for the child who lives in fear/and you are here, you are here.” I felt him there with me in a special way that night and ever since this song has the power for me to access that sense of connection and comfort with Jesus, who is with me, a big man who is often a scared little child. An added layer of beauty came this year when at the Advent Worship Relief at 2007 Frankford Ave in Philadelphia, the leaders invited us to sing the second chorus to each other. I sang “My love” right into the eyes of another covenant member with whom I do not spend a lot of time, but I meant it. She is my love because we are united in the love of Jesus. In that moment it was not just an idea or a conviction, I felt love for her in a special way then, too. Beautiful. Thanks, Angie!

4. “White Horse” by Over the Rhine¬†LISTEN HERE

Advent is not just about remembering Jesus’ first Advent (“Advent” means “arrival”) but this wonderful season leading up to Christmas is also about waiting for Jesus’ second Advent — when he comes again. Revelation says that Christ will come on a white horse and set everything right. Everything that is still so painfully wrong in this world will be made right. Creation will be restored, wars will cease to the ends of the earth, every tear and every sigh — all of it will be addressed. “(Hush now, baby) Someday we’re gonna ride (Hush now, baby) Your white horse through the sky.” Yes, baby Jesus, the world into which you are born, the world in which you are God-with-us, Emmanuel, now — the one we all live in and too many die in — is splattered with woe, but you’re coming back. Yes, he’s coming back. Not many Christmas songs get at this hope the way this one does.

5. “Hark the Herald” Angels Sing by Carrie Underwood¬†LISTEN HERE

Of course there are other and probably better versions of this song, but Carrie Underwood stole my heart (or gave me a bigger one) on B101 as I was driving home from the hospital the day after my first son, Oliver was born. It surprised me like an actual host of herald angels were singing to me — Jesus had come for Oliver too. God sent his son for my son. I think it was that moment I actually became a father because it was suddenly true that I was not my own. I felt the weight of my responsibility to Oliver in a way that changed me forever. I had given myself to Jesus in baptism. I had given myself to my wife, Gwyneth, in marriage. I had an idea what it meant to belong to someone, but I didn’t really know what it meant until Oliver was born and Carrie Underwood was singing this song on the radio. Oliver had made no choice as I had when I dedicated myself to Jesus’ Way or a life with Gwyneth. I belonged to him, and Gwyneth and I were responsible for that, not him. I was his in a way I had never been anybody’s, really. The terror of that never fully registered in me because the reality of it struck me in this overwhelming moment of gratitude that Jesus was Oliver’s too. I understood what it meant in another beautiful song found in Philippians “by taking the very nature of a servant,/being made in human likeness./And being found in appearance as a man,/he [Jesus] humbled himself.” Oliver humbled me, and at the same time helped me to take a step closer toward¬†having¬† “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

 

Well, that’s my list! Thanks for reading (and hopefully listening). Add your favorites in the comments!

 

Why Bother Being One Church in Four Locations?

One of the most ambitious things Circle of Hope does is stick together across our wide region. We are one church in four locations. From Suburban New Jersey, all over Philadelphia, and into the Pennsylvania suburbs. We are not multi-site in the way that many churches have been trending. No pastors get beamed from one site to another. We aren’t expanding a brand. We are curiously not uniform, but we are doggedly united. It’s ambitious because our region is very diverse and our congregations reflect that diversity. However, we believe that we are better together, especially because we are different.

The limits of orthodoxy

Establishing a unique orthodoxy¬†is a common way to be a cohesive people. Most church websites feature their “Statements of Beliefs” as their defining characteristics. “Orthodoxy” etymology: from Greek orthos “right, true, straight” + doxa “opinion, praise,” from Greek dokein “to seem,” from Proto-Indo-European root *dek- “to take, accept.” Uniformity of thought creates definite boundaries around who is in and who is out. Christianity has often been reduced to a series of yes or no questions about the nature of the universe and God. What you believe makes you a Christian or not. Since the Reformation (and even before) very specific thoughts about God have divided the church into ever sharper and smaller splinters of “correct thoughts” about God, Jesus and the Bible.

I am interested in orthodoxy. I’ve studied and continue to study theology and the Bible, but it is not the tool we choose to use to bind us together most. We choose a dialogue of love and a common mission for that. Instead of a “Statement of Beliefs” on our website we have “proverbs”, the communally gathered convictions that drive us. Our proverbs are dialogical. They do not spell out everything you have to believe, they are more focused on how we express our beliefs in our context than what those beliefs are, and they themselves are subject to change as we continue the dialogue.

We must love each other for real

Learning how to be included in communal decision making seems elemental to being a Christian (or maybe better, doing Christianity). Paul’s appeal to the Philippians to be of one mind is a brilliant mechanism for actually loving one another. Agreement about what we think does not necessarily yield love, and nothing matters more than faith working itself out in love. Participating in a dialogue of love requires setting aside personal opinion to a degree. Listening to understand is better than speaking to be understood. That simple distinction takes all kinds of real faith to enact. How can we learn not only to defend our position as a means of identity formation? This question is at the center of Jesus’ call for us to die to ourselves. Luke 9:23 “And he said to all, ‚ÄúIf anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

The covenant at the center of Circle of Hope is the place where this dialogue of love occurs. Each person who makes a covenant commits to this unity, even if they’re not sure how they will achieve it or if they are sure of everything. They want to move with the body our communal mission and we don’t demand they sign a belief statement on some dotted line. They commit to love us, be loved by us and love the next person. They commit to Jesus as Lord, because nothing works without Jesus at the head of it (a very orthodox statement), and we want to do Jesus’ work together. That has a lot of different expressions even within our church.

Covenant Party 2018

Julie honors the new covenant members

Last Friday the Coordinators and Pastors invited all the new covenant members from 2018 to a party to more firmly establish that love between us. The unity we aspire to requires us to be face to face often because that’s how love works. It is not an abstraction. We spread out across the region into dozens of cells gathered into four unique congregations, but return often to the dialogue of love to keep us from diffusing into nothingness. We do not have the concrete creed to abstractly unite us, but we do have a common mission emanating from a common love. That love needs to be tended as often as possible. As we grow, we will continue to need creative ways to be together. It might seem easier to splinter off, but we are too committed to the fruit of our ambitious togetherness. Each of gets the chance to love across real and perceived boundaries (rivers, municipalities, states, political affiliation, theology, and sensibility). We think that people are looking for a people like us in all of the nooks and crannies of the region, and we think that the gospel is expressed in our together. We are the content, right down to the way we hang in there together despite our diversity.