Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: August 2019

A Vocabulary of Blessing

It’s the end of Spiritual gifts month in Circle of Hope; what did we learn?

Many of us learned what spiritual gifts were for the first time. There are 23-25 spiritual gifts described explicitly as gifts  in the New Testament (depending on how you slice it). Circle of Hope Daily Prayer gave us plenty of insight into the nature of each gift. You can read them again at circleofhope.net/dailyprayer by searching “spiritual gifts” in the search bar or you can see them on this google doc.

Personality or Gifting?

This paragraph from the July 30th entry was especially revealing to me:

Many people think considering our personalities is the same as considering our spiritual gifts. But the sorting does not come from the same source. Psychology can be practiced in the Spirit and spirituality can be psychologically informed. But, in general, “personality” is thought of as something coming from the inside out and spiritual gifts come from the outside in. Our personalities are the receptacles and vehicles for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us “clay jars”—very humble, everyday dwellings for the glory of God. Be in awe of that miracle.

My personality has historically driven me into much of what I do. I run on high octane conviction about my sense of self and my purpose in the world. Who I am is very important to me. I have submitted my personality in many ways to Jesus over the years. I made Jesus a feature of who I am by becoming a Christian and taking radical discipleship seriously. But this paragraph from the daily prayer hit me at the beginning of the month in that special way. You know what I’m talking about? When you read something and you notice it — maybe you highlight it in a book, read it out loud to your spouse or friend, or post it on your Facebook wall (that’s what I did). I realize, now at the end of the month, how the meaning of this is working itself out for me.

Mariko the Theremin

My lesson is this: Making Jesus a feature of my personality is not the same as receiving Jesus’ Spirit in my heart. I think the latter has happened in my life and the former is not inherently bad, but they are definitely not the same. During spiritual gifts month, that distinction became apparent to me. It happened at 2007 Frankford Ave when Mariko Snook, one of our brilliant Art Directors, was reading our questions.

She had asked us to write down whatever question was resonating with us. My question jumped out of me and felt true when I wrote it down, but when she read it in sequence with the questions of others I was strangely disconnected from what I had asked. This was due in part to the theremin-like vibration of Mariko. She was tremulous in her feeling — in OUR feeling really. It was a communal exercise. The questions of others spoke directly to my own. Our frequencies bounced into harmony. She channeled each person’s heart, reverberating with the vulnerability. Her eyes sparkled with welling tears lit with the great spotlights they have in that space. She brought us with her on that journey, and in the synchronization, I learned that what jumps out of me is not always who I am, even if it feels good coming out.

Later reflecting on the dissonance of that moment, it was the desperation of my question that couldn’t resonate with the deepest part of me. Taking time to pray about it later, I was aware of what had been poured into me. Jesus is firmly seated in my heart. His love did not resonate with the blurted despair of my question, “When is this going to work?!” Which was to say, “When will I get what I want, which i have equated with what You want?” There was no answer to this question, but a clarity about who I really am. Jesus is not a feature of my personality. He is present in my heart in a special way through the gift of faith that the Spirit has poured over me.

Keep asking the right questions

At the Spiritual Gifts Intensive, the Leadership Team formed the core of our mutual discernment. The main agenda at the Saturday morning part of our two day event was group time. We got in a group and they told us what they felt our Spiritual Gifts were, based on their long time understanding of us, or their vague impressions depending on the various pairings of people. Then we did it again with a new group. We were all flexing our discernment and building a common vocabulary of blessing. I hope we keep asking and suggesting, “What has God given you?” and saying “Maybe you have the gift of…” That we might be as pulsing amplifiers of the Spirit for each other.

You can start by answering the 125 questions that make up the sorter we used. Find it here on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Thanks to my friend, Joshua, for turning it into an online format. Which spiritual gift corresponds to HTML?

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Anthem

My friends Dan and Pat McGowan have created a masterpiece. The newest album from their band, The Tea Club (Pat McGowan, Dan McGowan, Jamie Wolff, Dan Monda and Joe Dorsey), is a gift to the world. I can’t stop listening to the almost 28 minute final track, “Creature.” This post is an unauthorized interpretation of that song. One of the cool things about art is that it can speak to me differently than it speaks to you — a multiplying resonance of meaning bouncing through all of our ears, brains and hearts. But I’m telling you, you have to let this album speak to you. I think I’ve picked up some of what Pat and Dan are putting down. I know them well, but my interpretation is based on my own experience of the song, from hearing it live a few months ago to listening to it four or five times in the past three days since the album was released. Buy the album at theteaclub.net.

A new Oracle

Psalm 35 of The Tea Club
A Song of the Sons of Patrick
(with interlinear interpretation from a very minor director of music, Ben White)

“Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Turn with me, stay with me, rich in my blood
Against any reason other than I may fill you again

Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again”

Call God the Pulse, don’t cast God in stone. God is alive and is life. There is no life through which God does not flow. I meet so many people who are struggling with language for God. People in recovery, people burned by the church, people who have been taught that God is just another fairy tale, people who don’t have the prescribed experience with God but are having some kind of experience with Something. We need new language for God because we are having new experiences. Cast God in stone and it will weigh you down. Circumscribe God to only “Jehovah Jireh,” or “King of Kings,” or some other ancient, often unintelligible metaphor and miss out on the richness of God in your blood, heaven-bent on filling you again.

You can keep your white knuckle grip on language and experience that doesn’t work for you, and have a faith that is only as strong as those fingers of yours. This is true, not just for religious people who are steeped in the old language and thus find comfort in it, but also for those who are wandering alone, white knuckling their life as the nexus of their universe, desperately trying to be their own life. They intend to hold their own comfort together by the power of their own invention. You might be either/or. You might be both/and — probably the later,

Call God the Pulse and God will fill your veins. These words and melody flow through the song as a sort of key to the triumph of the anthem. We sing with the band through the journey of this song. There is an explicit drama in the song. Can this Truth prevail? Will the Pulse win our hearts?

“Unwinding of the thread
The needle of the curtain
The hour of the glass
The forest of amorphous
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Here is the new anthem: “All your creatures long for the new creation/ where the boundaries of death are ever failing.” The kernel of this wheat is in Romans 8:19-23:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The lofty melody speaks to this aspiration, this desire, as much as the borrowed words from Paul. We need an anthem to hold on to this hope. Ironically the way we hold on is not with an iron grip, but with a loose hand and loose body swaying — swaying to the music — floating and flowing — remembering who God is “Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins” again and again.

“Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again

Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins.”

But can we rest in that? The music fades and gentles us in a deep breath. I will be still and know who you are, God. I will be still and know who you are, Pulse. Breathe. But can I keep breathing? A scratching, technodystopian noise starts to disturb our peace. Dissonant chords lurk at the edges and start to threaten. But breathe, maybe we can stay here even as the other things that grip us whisper.

No, we must face reality, too. This journey is not just a bliss-out. There is another place we can go. It’s where we live most of the time. In minute nine of “Creature” there is a dramatic shift in tone that grew on us like fungus. How long have I heard that knocking?

“How
How long
In the dark?
I close my eyes
I hear that noise
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?

Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
Hey hey hey, No mercy
They’re screaming ‘til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey, what do you say?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
You wanna watch your show about the living dead
well I can introduce you myself”

An intense, caustic struggle with the reality of the hell in which we live bursts in. The option to laugh it all off is real. A death-obsessed culture striving for immortality in eleven different ways at every moment screams at the door of any peace we find till their throats are ripped and raw. Our longing for a New Creation might just be a joke. That Something we felt was just something else. How interesting, your belief in God is. Maybe I’ll make a meme about it. These fucks laugh at everything. Next channel, please. The caustic solution of the hell in which we live will dissolve you.

But   the struggle continues in this song journey.  In minutes eleven and twelve, these forces throw their weight around, quickening their pace and wrapping their tendrils around our hearts. But in minute thirteen they shut up for a second and we can look at the hellscape from a different perspective. The New Creation melody reminds us again of who we are and who the Pulse is. We can sing the same sad, angry words with some more understanding — maybe it’s compassion that saves us from the fray, and thus the infected wounds that come with it.

“Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy
They’re screaming ’til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything”

The words of the third track on the album come in (there are echoes of the whole album in the complex melodies interwoven in “Creature”). There is not enough time to convince the world I’m not crazy.  I don’t have to have every fight. I can be still and know.

“I’m just being realistic, I’m not hoping for a cure
Soon there’ll be no time to laugh away our sorrows anymore
No time to flow like water or lay down in peace.”

The rest comes back in minute fifteen with Dan’s amazing falsetto oo-ooh-ing and Joe’s piano flowing like water underneath him. The Pulse flowing through us again, perhaps. And here the drama is all melody. At minute sixteen, the fungal infection tries to creep back in with dissonant synth sounds. Here is your moment to ponder. Where will I live? In the technodystopian hellscape or in the promised future? Who will I listen to? The Pulse or the whispers of the snickering world?  Hope is now on the doorstep, trumpeting in and ultimately prevailing in a new iteration.

“The Chime of the Age of Gold has called all creatures bold
The seeds in the water have burst
The tentacles reaching out
Arm after arm after arm
Each one a different dance
No longer wound like a thread
They reach for a beckoning stream
Now they flow through it again…”

There is nothing we can do to stop the New Creation. Like thousands of jellyfish in a red tide swarming the shores. The spring has sprung and its unraveling whether we accept it or not. Strange, sometimes dangerous beauty is at hand. Can we dance with it? Creation has accepted the Pulse’s flow and shows us the steps of the new. But will we accept it too?  Will you see the writing on the wall and step into the new age of hope, through death, mind you, into the Age of Gold. The Pulse melody helps us along.

Now, a more devotional, personal assurance. We speak directly to the Pulse with some hesitation. Three lines of “If” but no, this is not IF –“I say if, I mean when.” This swelling confidence in the face of all we have been through (in our lives and in this song) has made me weep every time I’ve listened to this song so far.

“If the time of my age has come
If you’ll call this creature home
If I learn to lift up my eyes
Or If the When tells the Why
If you’ll flow through me again
I say if, I mean when
I say if, I mean when”

The New Creation is coming. Say yes! Then build it up. Make your “yes” loud. The new anthem brings all the promises of Jesus to our lips. This is who we are and this IS who we will be. Thank you, Tea Club! The boundaries of death ARE ever failing.

“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Then as the swell subsides and the melody reverberates into the quiet places inside us, a final threat makes a futile attempt. Minutes 25 and 26 may be my favorite moments of the song. A subtle thing you might miss with out a deep listen or these notes. There comes a static ringing, the musical representative of that knocking that invites me to the other place. It tries to swell back but abruptly stops at 25:30. The anthem melody echoes though slightly unfaithful to the original — just like our faith — like our memory of every swell that uplifted us. How soon they fade! How soon the notes fall! The struggle is always real. The limping melody resolves and at 25:45 and in its aftermath the static ringing builds for a frightening few seconds but does not prevail.

Dan breaks in with the gentle morning song that began the album, “The Way You Call,” giving one more blow to the creeping dissonance at 26:08. The If is defeated by the When, and the When’s song is sweetness — 

“The way you call, as if I don’t already know
The morning sun can share a cup with this child
The way you call and shed a tear with my own
And though it’s far when I believe it’s like Home, Home
And in the heavens there’s a fire returning my friend
Melting away the ruin of another age
We cried at the Lion and swam against the stream
To flow like water and lay down in peace
Hear my prayer, remember it when I am gone.”

I am your child. You share your goodness with me. You share my sadness with me as well. Jesus, the fire that consumes this ruinous age, the Lion who gives us courage to persevere against the current, the Pulse who flows through us and helps us flow in peaceful waters, to you I pray, remember me. This is our prayer. Amen.