Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: July 2020

What to say to fear

Fear is a big part of everyone’s life in normal times, but in these “quarantimes” it is an even bigger part of our lives. We are sharing our fear in a much bigger way because we are all feeling a common threat. In some ways, this is a good thing because it’s not so lonely to feel scared. But the group project of fear can also amplify and intensify our fear until it is completely debilitating. What do we say to fear? How do we speak back to these feelings?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” – Jesus in Luke 12:32

Jesus said this in the middle of a passage all about the many expectations of difficulty he had for his little flock. Worry, anxiety, fear — they were all assumed. Jesus knows us. He knows where we live. That was his mission in joining us in the struggle of human existence here on Earth — God wanted to know humanity and be known as human. Jesus knows what fear is like. It is a daily part of our lives. He sees you and loves you. Receive the tenderness of Jesus calling us his “little flock,” and the promise of something-more beyond our present suffering. Fear must be met with faith — and faith makes us hopeful. Faith makes us courageous. Jesus wants to actually en-courage us. It is from this God-sent courage that we can talk back to fear.

What not to say to fear

You’re wrong.” Fear is not really something we can talk ourselves out of. Don’t you hate it when you are sharing your heart with someone and, even if it’s obvious they are trying to be delicate, they respond by trying to explain away your feelings? It feels terrible. It’s easy to see it when someone else says it to you, so why would you talk like that to yourself? Jesus doesn’t say you’re wrong for being afraid. He sees how afraid you are and loves you. Jesus wants to be with you in you’re fear. It helps to tell him about it, and to tell a Christian friend who can listen without making you feel even more terrible.

 

You’re bad.” Fear has done a lot of good in your life. It is a powerful instinct that has plunged very important messages deep into your brain. Without fear you might take foolish risks. Without fear you might not be able to relate very well. Without fear you would not be human. Your defense mechanisms serve a valuable purpose. They have kept you safe in an unsafe world. Jesus does not condemn your fear. He sees you, he loves you, and he offers himself as an alternative. Whenever Jesus says “Fear not” you can read it like a mother saying to a child awoken by a nightmare, “I know it’s scary but it’s over now.” Jesus doesn’t say, “It was only a dream go back to bed.” You’re part of his little flock. Don’t judge your fear; there is no transformation there.

 

You’re in charge. Fear wants to drive your car (thanks Rob Bell for this metaphor). Fear wants to be in charge . Fear wants you to follow. Maybe the cost of planting those protective messages so deep in our brains is an inability to see fear clearly. Have you ever driven home from work and realized only when you got to the driveway that you have no recollection of the commute? Fear is like that unconscious driving many people have experienced. Occasionally we wake up to the steering wheel and realize, “Oh, I’m driving!” Fear is often driving while you’re unaware. It’s more common to let fear be in charge without knowing it, but happens consciously sometimes too, especially in a pandemic, or other incredible trauma. Sometimes we see fear in charge of our direction and say, “This is fine.” I think this usually comes from exhaustion or despair (which might be two sides of the same coin — one physical, the other spiritual). Jesus knows you’re tired and offers a lighter load. Jesus wants to carry the weight so you can be a dignified agent of his world transformation project. Jesus wants you to drive and he helps you do it.

What to say to fear

Oh, there you are.” Jesus anticipated the fears of his little flock. He saw their unavoidable presence and made accomodations for that. The Peace of Christ is a real thing. Sometimes it comes in a woosh. Sometimes it takes a long time to find it in a dark season like this one. The answer to fear is Jesus himself and he is ever so gentle with us in our struggle. Let’s be gentle with him even when we can’t find his peace. When fear comes up, say “Oh, there you are. I knew you must have been around here somewhere.” Assuming fear is at work in your thinking and feeling wards off the element of surprise. If we can get out from the judgment of “you’re wrong” and “you’re bad” fear could be a bit more neutral. And a couple degrees of turning when responding to fear could make a big difference in your long term trajectory.

 

I see you.” This is incredibly powerful, and surprisingly so. There is something so transformational about naming and describing your fear. Honestly, I don’t completely understand it, but it has proven true for me and countless others. Naming your fear in a safe environment disempowers it. Telling Jesus your fears just works. Living in an environment with Jesus at the center like one of Circle of Hope’s cells makes this a lot easier, and a lot more common. Having a culture of looking fear in the eyes and saying “I see you” will change a person’s life.

 

Back seat.” “Oh, there you are, Fear. I see you. But you are not driving this car. Back seat.” Fear is along for the ride. There is no fear-less life. Fear is part of who we are. Jesus sees that and affirms that. He does not offer us a way out of our relationship with fear. Jesus invites us into a transformation of how we relate to fear. If you spend all your energy trying to eliminate fear, you’ll be fooling yourself and disregarding Jesus’ posture towards it. Why would all the Bible writers be so interested in fear if it were not a given? Here’s an exhaustive list of encouragement from Jesus, God and God’s messengers throughout the whole Bible from catholic-resources.org. Putting fear in the back seat acknowledges its presence in our lives but gives us enough space to realize that fear is not us. The more space we can get between us and our fear the better. Fear has things to teach us still, but with Jesus whispering “Don’t be afraid” in our ear every day, we will see fear for what it is and not for what it isn’t. My personal practice for creating that distance is contemplative prayer, but there are lots of ways to work on this.

 

Therapy can help, too. Check out circlecounseling.com. They are doing online sessions in the pandemic.

Jesus is with you, we are with you

This is a long process, and we never arrive. The best thing for this conversation with fear is community. Cells are working on this every week. Learn more about cells here. Our pastors teach about this regularly. Check out our YouTube channel and/or tune into our Sunday meeting at circleofhope.net/OnlineMeeting every Sunday at 5 pm. Jesus did not come just to correct you, tell you you’re bad or to disempower you. He came to do the opposite of all that and his plan did not include eliminating fear. In our community, we learn to trust him and speak back to fear, “Oh, there you are. I see you. Back seat.”

What would Paul say to the Church in the Philadelphia Region Today?

At the Getting to Know the Bible event on July 14th, twenty-five of us gathered to have a group project about understanding Paul as he is described in Acts and how he represents himself in his many letters. It was a 90 minute session so it was obviously just scraping the surface. The best part , arguably, was at the very end when we tried to adopt Paul’s voice in writing a letter to the church in the Philadelphia region (of which Circle of Hope is only a part).  Paul often writes his letter to address a problem. The problem that my co-presenter, Scott Shannon,  and I settled on was how Black Lives Matter is a point of division. People started throwing out phrases and ideas on the Zoom call and in the chat, and I took those notes as inspiration to write the following letter. These ideas are mine as inspired by the group and Paul, as he (and I)  are inspired by the Spirit, though I hope those gathered read it and offer me feedback so this can evolve.

To the Philadelphians and their region

We, Paul and his time-separated friends who gathered at the Getting to Know the Bible Zoom Call on July 14th, 2020, send you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave the city at the center of your region the reason to be and the power to live truly as a city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. We, who are in Christ, and thus New creations in him, send you all of our love without reservation for we know that God’s love is an infinite spring and our ability to love does not end when we reach the limits of our personal depths.

We are thankful for you, Church in the Philadelphia Region, for the way you dedicate yourselves to compassion, loving your neighbors practically in many ways and making a wide space of welcome for hope to grow and the Way of Jesus to be walked by many. You never give up scouting for opportunities for goodness. You see it everywhere and find ways to participate in the movements that aim to make your region and the world a place that looks more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus inaugurated this Kingdom, it has begun; and yet we are still only seeing it dimly — in soft focus through fog or in sharp bursts of clarity that never last very long — but we know it is there and we persevere in our hope that yes, one day soon, the Lord will return to bring all of our broken tries into their fullness, and bring all of the lies to destruction completely. On that day, when we see him face to face as he is, we shall be like him even as now we are becoming when we love and obey him.

Be careful not to lose your namesake of Philadelphia, for it is possible. Brotherly love and sisterly affection takes practice and is easily lost entirely. The lies of the evil one have taken root in your region and I see they are encroaching on you too. Are you too blinded? Have the lies already committed you to their cause? Have you bent the knee to a different story letting yourselves be tangled? Hack away, brothers and sisters, for you must not lose sight of what you have seen and who God has shown you to be in the reflection of Jesus’ eyes. Have you lost sight of those loving eyes. Have you lost your way along his Way?

I don’t care what you call it but you must live like Black Lives Matter. If you can’t find Jesus in this mess you will find him with those who are mourning comforting them with his presence. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with the least among you as he always said. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with all those crying for justice for the oppressed for Jesus, for did not the Lord himself say that he came to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to restore the sight of the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? You are not blind, so I am telling you, “See!”

See the way you value your money and property above the human lives of the poor. Yes, even you who are in the streets at the rally’s, the weeds of the world need your constant vigilance otherwise you will be choked like the Lord’s sower’s seed. Do not be haughty or think you are safe. Only Jesus makes you safe, keep your eyes on him and ask him daily for protection. See the way black and brown people are treated in your society and refuse to be satisfied until this has changed. Do not give up hope! Keep fighting the good fight. But do not fight each other, you need everyone you can get to actually make a dent in the evil of racism that has so ensnared you. See how you are divided? This will not do. You must bear with one another in love even as you continue to take down strongholds of the evil one’s power. This will not be easy but it is not either/or. We must do both.

White people, yield your privilege so you can learn to be subject to one another? White men in particular, as much as possible resolve to be silent in church and talk with your spouses and friends at home. Too long has the conversation been dominated by convenient correspondence with these strongholds of the evil one’s power. Too long has racism been able to take hold of your conversations even when the speakers were unaware of their submission. 

Listen to the people of color in the body; there are many in your region. Your commitment to togetherness will require you to listen longer than you ever have before. But be not afraid, the Lord will help you. The body is strong enough in the Holy Spirit to withstand this transformation. Persevere in your listening that you might see new things.

Now may the God of hope give everyone of you courage to go beyond your current vision. All of you will learn new things, of this I am sure. Walk by the faith planted firmly in you and watered by everlasting streams. Hold onto the vision of the future Jesus has promised and live from that until he comes again. And once the pandemic is safely behind you, begin again to greet one another with a holy kiss.

Peace,

Ben for Paul and maybe those on the call on Tuesday night

For more Gifts for Growing Events like this one visit wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/giftsforgrowing

Laughable Abundance: A Story for Your Buoyancy

Dear Friend,

Times are tough, right? Sorry, I don’t know how to say anything that doesn’t sound inadequate so I’ll leave that question there. I have a story that really helped me float through a day that started chin deep in the toughness of the times. Spoilers: nothing changes in the times, those of the world or the ongoing narrative of my life, but it seemed like God had a mind to inflate me that day. It all had to do with an abundance of milk that just kept making me laugh. Here’s the story:

The other morning while praying with Circle of Hope’s prayer team on a zoom call I was sitting in front of my house watching a young goose waddle along with its left winging hanging by its side. My heart went out to the gangly goose, black head feathers only just faintly beginning to plume, life expectancy flopping down with the injured wing. I was so moved by the sorry sight that I asked those gathered on the zoom call to pray for this goose. It seemed silly but since the Lord sees every sparrow I am sure this goose is in his care as well. I like to follow those little spurts of compassion no matter where they are splashing. But in my prayer, I was also seeing myself in the all-but-a-goner goose.

Adult Canada Goose with broken wing

I was feeling broken-winged, and I thought that Circle of Hope was looking a little broken-winged, too. I am charged, with the other pastors, to lead our church to discern together about our common direction next year, and that morning, it seemed to me that it wasn’t going that well.  I was fielding disagreement, dissatisfaction with the process, and my own mild despair that I wasn’t up for the task. It is really hard to make a group decision at any time, but especially during a pandemic when our only face time is on a screen. I was feeling separated. Our cultural conversation is co-opted by simplistic ideological purity tests which constantly tempt us. I was feeling divided. My heart was sore from some personal stuff that was weighing on me. I was feeling heavy.  So I prayed.

And this is how God responded:

A few weeks before, I had signed up to receive vegetables, milk, cheese and meat for 50 families through a connection with the Kingdom Builder’s Anabaptist Network and Mennonite Central Committee Philadelphia Program Coordaintor, ChiChi Oguekwe. ChiChi is my friend and I try to do whatever she says. I had a good idea for distributing the food through the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team that folks from my Circle fo Hope congregation had recently started in response to the pandemic, but I did not have a good idea about much else… apparently.

Problem #1 – I showed up to 50 boxes of vegetables and 50 boxes of milk, four gallons in each box (Thank God the cheese and meat was not delivered!). The stack of food was ridiculously too big to fit in my Toyota Prius. I told ChiChi with not a little embarrassment that I could not take all the food and to give some of my allotment to another church that had room to haul it. I bet my friend Juan a dollar that I could fit 75% of the boxes in my hatchback. I would have lost that bet I found out but not before ChiChi solved the problem and cancelled the bet. She produced a new friend named Alex who had come with a minivan that was going unused and he was willing to drive a load of boxes to Pennsauken. God bless Alex! God is good! I laughed out loud as I cruised over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

Problem #2 – I arrived to 3800 Marlton Pike still praising God that Alex was there to help. (Side note: On the way back I listened to the newly discovered podcast of a hero of mine, Miroslav Volf — the day was really turning around). When we arrived, a whole squad from the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team was at the building packing delivery boxes for that evening, people I had never met before included! I had no idea they would be there. They helped unload the boxes from our Prius and minivan and helped to fully assess the immensity of Problem #2. What were we going to do with all this milk? I really just hadn’t thought about all of the implications of accepting this donation. I was expecting 50 gallons total and we got 200 gallons! We have one fridge at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken which was at the moment full of apples (from a previous moment of laughable abundance which could probably be its own tale of buoyancy).

Lauren Smith, the leader of the team snapped into action. Calling another leader in the church who had his own mini-mutuality network in Gloucester City to which he could distribute some of the milk that would not fit in the fridge, even after we had emptied out the apples and very creatively stacked and shoved the fridge full of gallon jugs. Lauren, strapped her two young children into her Rav 4 and we loaded up her trunk with spoils of milk that would not (not on our watch) go spoiled, but would nourish a family or forty.  God bless Lauren and her team! God is good! I laughed out loud as I stacked full boxes of milk five high and shoved them against the fridge to make sure that the insulating seal wasn’t broken by the bulging milk within. Lauren stood by approvingly. Ha!

Problem #3 – We still had a lot of un-refrigerated milk. We earmarked as many 4 gallon boxes for folks in our mutual aid network who were slated to receive food deliveries that day. We figured the milk would be fine for a couple more hours, but that was only 18 families. It was 72 gallons of milk but that was not enough!

Here’s some more fun: It also happened to be election day, and don’t take our Anabaptist card, but we host the election at 3800 Marlton Pike. The firemen from whom we bought the building always used to do it and I thought it would be a good way to be known in our neighborhood. One of the election poll workers, Dolores, got looped into this problem (It was a super slow voting day since everyone got a mail-in ballot in NJ). She called up her church’s food pantry team leader who definitely wanted some milk. He came an hour or so later with a truck and took 40 gallons with him. God bless Congregación de Yahweh in East Camden. God is good! I laughed at the line-up of need and need, and the new friend, Pastor José Martinez of this Messianic Jewish congregation around the corner.

Problem #4 – We still had about 20 gallons of un-refrigerated milk and I had to leave. This whole debacle had been scheduled for a couple of hours of my day and it was already running at 100% more time than it got budgeted. I told Delores, and her sidekick, Deb, to offer a gallon of milk to everyone who came to vote for the rest of the day. “I’m counting on you for this, okay?” I said with another laugh as I slung my bag over my shoulder and retreated. When I came back five hours of later, all the un-refrigerated milk was gone! God bless Delores and Deb! God is good! I laughed as I gave an air high-five to Dolores from across the room.

And all of this buoyant laughter was essentially precipitated by my broken wings. Either by distraction, or incapacity, or lack of foresight, or any number of deficiencies to which I could assign my name, I had created a problem that ate up more of my day than I had planned. It was my fault. But God brought me through it with so much more joy than seemed possible as I pitied that broken bird in the morning and worried about how painfully apt my prayerful metaphor really was. I still have a lot to learn about team building, and delegation, and appropriate planning, and any number of gracefully describe “growth edges” to which I could assign my name. I still don’t know all the answers to my problems, and I am even more aware of how much I get it wrong sometimes. But God made me lighter that day. And God is enough. And God makes me laugh. And God is good! May you receive the flotation flowing your way today, or tomorrow, or whenever it comes (but it is coming!).

How does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Happy Fourth of July? How does a Christian celebrate the beginning of a nation with such a shaky foundation? Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths that were so abstract they excluded women and black people from their universality. The land the American Revolutionaries fought for was stolen from the First Nations people. But I don’t think calling out the obvious evil at the heart of the American project is a deep enough critique. In fact, critique is not deep enough at all. We must build an alternative which allows us to love the world from an entirely different footing.

Because this is where we live. The people in my neighborhood (whom I LOVE) are having a house decorating competition seeing who can be the most red, white and blue. What am I to do? Must I boycott the fanfare entirely? Must I close my eyes and ears to the fireworks? Must I register my non-participation by draping my house in the black of mourning (I considered that). I’m thinking my “yes” to the kingdom of God is more important than my “no” to empire. I say this in part because I despair at the prospect of making a significant impact. This might just be despair, but it might be the unavoidable truth of history.

From my perspective, human history is not a grand sweep toward progress, but a cycle of violence and collapse. The near future science fiction of Octavia Butler, written in the mid-nineties, seems eerily prophetic. I think that could actually happen! Empires rise and fall. The industrial revolution was less than 150 years ago. An incredibly short period of time! Throughout history, when the state of things ushers in more and more concentration of wealth, the powerful eventually lose. This seems inevitable. How then do I engage?

I recently read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, which is another prophetic book from the mid-nineties.  Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church has accommodated the political concerns of the State for most of its history. We have entered into the fray in many disastrous ways. They call this “Constantinianism” after the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, who co-opted the church for the unity of his empire. His empire fell but the arrangement between Church and State persisted and the modern Church in America has not repented even if separation of Church and State is part of the founding documents.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that both contemporary conservative and liberal churches in the United States have basically capitulated to the State. We have surrendered our imaginations to the limited options provided to us by the myth of American progress. Our prophecy is bound by two options: 1) “America is bad” and 2) “America is good.” The locus of change is in, and by, and for the State. William Cavanaugh wrote an excellent book called Migrations of the Holy which charts this development through time. Hauerwas and Willimon say that both conservative and liberal churches have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31).

Their alternative resonates with me. “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a ‘supportive institution’ and our clergy as members of a ‘helping profession.’ The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

But when the streets flood in the middle of a pandemic with people calling for a drastic reevaluation of how we ensure public safety for all people, I am stirred. I have gone to a few marches myself. I joined up with other faith leaders in New Jersey to consider what can actually be done to reimagine policing (faithinnewjersey.org). I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my window. I have dug deeper into the personal work of understanding my own deformation by this pernicious power of white supremacy in our culture.

All of these tactics coming out of the movement have been met by some suspicion from some folks in our church. They have read Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, or they have at least adopted its posture because we have been teaching it as Anabaptists for a long time. Are we conforming to the way of the world, and in so doing are we abandoning the Church’s alternative mandate? Are we standing on a side just because of our political persuasion? I have definitely heard this from the body, and I sympathize with that concern.

However, I see in the Gospels a decided sidedness to Jesus’ Way. God has forever been on the side of the poor and the oppressed. From the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the inauguration of the People of God, the scripture has reminded us again and again to be a peculiar people who does not cooperate with empire. And yet we have undoubtedly cooperated with empire and must be on guard against doing so now. Jesus’ teaching made an alternative abundantly clear. He was not creating a new morality, or a new ethic, or new means of righteousness. He was himself our righteousness and his teaching aimed to awaken us to a new way of seeing the world.  He called into question the foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and practice, and he ought to do the same to every generation and every nation.

The kingdom of God is a new way of seeing and being in the world. Jesus gave us a new place to stand. Jesus created a new humanity belonging to a new kingdom which allows us to speak to the empires, like America, or the G20, or Netflix, without centering ourselves on the outcomes of their worldly projects. We have a new identity in Christ which provides us the freedom to do more than critique and repent (though Jesus calls us to that as well). We can build on a foundation that will not be shaken because our Kingdom is eternal and is not subject to the course of empire.

But the people I love, especially the poor and the oppressed – especially the descendants of Black slaves who were not considered equal by the declaration that is celebrated this weekend –  especially the descendants of the First Nations people who have been systematically impoverished and killed via government sponsored genocide and ongoing marginalization – especially the descendants of the women who are still fighting for recognition of their full humanity and unmeasurable contribution to our communal wellbeing – these people whom I love, and whom Jesus leads me to love, require my partnership. I feel compelled to submit to the movements that seem viable to change the outcomes for these people.

When I join in these movements, when I am even led by them, am I abandoning the place Jesus has given us to stand? It’s possible. There is a real tension here. And I think Circle of Hope is feeling it. We must prioritize our togetherness as we figure this out together. If we let the confusion and disorientation of our incredibly polarized national conversation divide us, I am sure we will then be abandoning our God given new humanity. The bond of peace between us must persist or we will have nothing left to offer the world. The faith, hope and love that fuels Circle of Hope’s compassion and action on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (which is considerable!) will crumble if we cannot love one another through these difficult days.

I want to have something more to offer my neighbors than my objection to their celebration, and I think it is the Church. I think Circle of Hope really does create an excellent environment for people to connect with God and act for redemption. That redemption includes our prophetic voice to the evils of the world, but it also creates a protective container of grace which makes personal transformation possible.

This grace permeates my relationships with me red, white and blue addressed neighbors. I have spent years in the spiritual gym of Circle of Hope, learning to love people who disagree with me, irritate me and even attack me at times. The Church is a place where grace muscles are grown – where we become more than the limited imaginations given to us by the world.

We grow from the certainty of a future declared to us by Jesus, inaugurated by his death on the cross, confirmed in his resurrection from the dead, and manifested daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by all this promise and power from God, I believe we can stand together, love one another and offer an alternative, even as we diverge in how we engage in the struggles to which we are called.