Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: September 2020

Hope From a Couple of Poets

Where is Jesus?

Poetry helps me reach into and beyond reality. The news out of Louisville, Kentucky this week hit hard for me and my friends. Breonna Taylor’s murderers are not held accountable and it is all very legal. The worst part for me was that so many Christians I know were  running to defend the rule of law as if it were any kind of legitimate justice. It made me cry. What is religion if it produces “law and order” acolytes alone? What is religion if hearts and bodies are far from free? Where is Jesus?

Here is One of Isaiah’s Poetic Answers

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

— Isaiah 58:6-9

Here is One of My Poetic Answers

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day and a night at the Villa Pauline Retreat and Spiritual Center of the Sisters of Christian Charity in  Mendenham, NJ. I rambled all over their property which was a grand estate in a neighborhood of grand estates. In response to the question that came up in my heart as I walked and later wrote in the poem below, I have a strong sense that many of the sisters who live there would definitely want Jesus, hidden in the children of the neighborhood, to use their snowy hills for wintry fun, but I doubt it ever happens. There are definitely litigious obstacles — liabilities and lack of indemnities. There are also communal obstacles — more exactly  the lack of it. In a land of gated estates, I wonder if any child would ever wander to the sister’s perfect hill and try to sled. This poetic vision helps me meditate on the deeper, beyonder realities of Mendenham and my current despair. There is a way-it-could-be better than the limits of our religious devotions, civil and otherwise. In this poem I am digging for hope. I need to rend the veil of our reality and its many, many obstacles. I need answer for “Where is Jesus?” And on this day, on retreat I saw him in snow pants.

The Convent Hill

The truest mark of true religion’s trust
Is whether children are allowed to sled
The convent’s perfect hill. Forget those musts
And shoulds and oughts, and all those clanging dead,
And tell me if there’s cocoa on the porch.

What else could that steep green slope be for
But Jesus wearing snow pants launching forth
And at the bottom sure there’s time for more?
“Again!” Toboggans full of windy tears,
“Again!” A downward rush of icy spray,
“Again!” Wet laughter’s leap right over fear,
Until the darkness overtakes the day.

So can this be or will my vision fail?
May children use your hill to rend the veil?

—–

You can listen to me read it here.

Photo and poetry by Ben White

 

Don’t Forget, Jesus is the Lord of History

Is the Church Just Following Culture?

Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from the influences that have shaped us personally and the greater forces that have shaped our context. Our ongoing, and longstanding dialogue about antiracism in Circle of Hope has been dialed up in recent months in the wake of police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When we wrote a map that was decidedly antiracist some folks wondered if we weren’t just following the tide of the culture.  Is it just popular to be antiracist now and that is why we are doing this? Are we caving to philosophy that is not from Jesus?

No! We were here first. Circle of Hope has had antiracism written into our DNA since we began. How would we do our original goal to “bring hope to 20th century urban life” without addressing the evil powers of racism in the Philadelphia region? Our antiracist map does not make Circle of Hope cool, or ahead of our time. it doesn’t give us points for being into the right thing before everyone else was. No, this is not about our own righteousness, individually or communally. This is about chipping away for decades and often feeling like we are making no progress at all. But we refuse to give up, and I am grateful that the cultural tide is giving us a boost for once.  I do wish we had galvanized a mass movement without so many black people being killed. That’s for sure. Lord, have mercy.

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

But let’s face it, it’s hard to stay in touch with reality. It’s hard to keep our fingers and hearts together enough to catch the slippery sands of time. Western culture dishes up an individualism that might divorce you from any connection to anything, especially not those backward ancestors that didn’t know everything like we do. Dislocation, disorientation, disassociation, these are all the underside of our culture catered diet of self-awareness, self-definition, self-help.  We all woke up fully formed this morning with no dependence on anything or anyone. Only our choices today matter. It sounds terrible but you kinda want it, right?

It’s fun to see my kid learn to relate to time. By fun I mean it’s also terrible sometimes, but you have to laugh. Not too long ago he asked me how long he would have to wait for something. I said “Twenty minutes.” He responded, shrieking in horror, “Twenty minutes?! That’s like 100 hours!!!” No bud, in fact that is finally one thing I can say is undeniably false. He only recently stopped saying “A long time ago,” or “When I was a baby” as blanket descriptors of anything that happened in the past, including something that happened last week.

The Past is Not Just in the Past

Every honest adult, however, understands my six year old’s dilemma.  Time may not be  relative (except in some cosmic equation I don’t totally understand), but our experience of time is very relative. My favorite elucidator of this is the “return trip effect.” Scientists have studied the phenomenon of perceived duration of time when coming back on the same route from an unfamiliar destination. You know this, going there always feels like it takes longer than coming back. Yes, our experience of time is very relative, so much so that it might seem like time is subject to our perception only and thus eligible for exclusion in our analyses, but let us not pretend that our lives began only when we were born. The past is not in just in the past. The past is right here with us in the present.

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

Good or bad, the past makes us who we are in many ways. I want to highlight one good thing I see coming out of this that helps us when we’re wondering about the tide of culture and our push for antiracism in Circle of Hope. The culture might try to erase God from it’s narrative but the Western/European thoughtscape was and is highly influenced by Jesus. There is no escaping the moral influence of the Church on all of our thinking. But especially when it comes to racial justice. The Church planted the seeds of transformation that grew into a vine. It was Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the least of these that empowered so many to stand up and demand justice. The list is too long to even begin. Even if some of their activist descendents are not so interested in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If only in the path they walk which is so clearly paved by the legacy of those faithful women and men who stood up for freedom in Jesus’ name. They might try to pretend that the project is distinct from Jesus, but they can’t escape the past. The tide of culture is not so distinct from Jesus because the Church has been shaping the Western project from its beginnings.

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

One final note: a big reason an activist today might want to separate themselves from the Christian legacy of their ancestors, or the whole Jesus soaked Western project is that accepting the influence of the past is not just a hero story. With the past comes many legitimate reasons to be disgusted with Jesus followers and their thinking. It’s a big mess, but it’s part of our mess now. I’m not surprised by the mess. I don’t think we need a hero other than Jesus, but we have many to choose from if we are willing to accept their human frailty as another measure of their heroism. We will not, however, find a whole group of people who were unimpeachable, or completely above reproach, or even right, let alone righteous. We will find reasons to hope, practical examples of bravery and perseverance, and creative expressions of Jesus’ love in public, but we will also find  reasons for despair right next to them.

Pray with me?

Jesus, you will have to give us eyes to see. Thank you for the good of the past, help us to receive it and sort it. This is not an easy task. But you are with us in it.
You are the Lord of History. You are reliable. Your promises can be trusted. Bring history to its rightful ends.
Shape it now through your church and otherwise, help us to see you at work, even in unexpected places.
May your glory be made known through miracles large and small, and may your light be found where the darkness seems to make that impossible.
We pray for all those who are suffering. We know you are with them. Help us see how we can be with y’all. And help us to stay.

What Do I Do With My Kids and the Bible?

Let’s Have a Bible Class

Since we’re all basically part time teachers this school year my friend Bryce had the idea that one of the subjects he ought to teach would be the Bible. I was quite taken by the idea. It hit me when I was washing my hands the other day that I better help them know some Bible by heart.

We all wash our hands so often during the pandemic that I have had this amplifying memory that I keep talking about. Whenever I wash my hands at the kitchen sink and the water is running while I sing the ABC’s twice like the good virucidal citizen I am, I remember to turn it off because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles told me to when I was about seven. I grew up in Southern California where human life is basically unsustainable without great feats of engineering to pipe water hundreds of miles. So water is a premium that we ought to conserve. The Ninja Turtles taught me in a PSA that would come on at the end of the show to turn off the tap. I know this by heart. How do i know I know this by heart? Because I remember it daily!

We are influenced by so much, wouldn’t it be a nice gift to my kids to plant some words of comfort and truth from the book that testifies to the Word of Life right there in their hearts next to the cartoons?  If we are too laisez faire about this, the Ninja Turtles and their media ilk will plant some less beneficial messages that will win the day. Raising kids who grow into an adult faith is super difficult in this day and age. Maybe a Bible Class during Pandemic School 2020 is what they need?

Oh But Wait, Maybe We Shouldn’t

We say in Circle of Hope that the Gospel is better caught than taught. That is to say, teaching the Bible is not the best way to reveal the person of Jesus to people. That’s why we organized our church around this organic metaphor of cells. We want people to be a part of a living body that does the Bible. We are Bible people in that we organize our common life around the life and teaching of Jesus who showed us what it means to be human. Teaching a class to my kids could rip all of that up, right? Well, yeah… maybe.

We say in our Children’s Plan:

The difference between school and cell-like groups of children [which we try to create in our non-pandemic Sunday meetings].

  • A cell is the church. Sunday school is a program the church does.
  • People are a cell. People go to a Bible study.
  • Cell Leaders facilitate the life of the cell. School teachers help people learn the subject.
  • Jesus is the agenda of a cell. The Bible tends to be the agenda of a Sunday school.

Even though children have less capacity to engage in adult conversation, we still do not intend to create a classroom atmosphere for them to experience.”

Is there a way to give my kids some content without abandoning this novel project? Is it clear what we’re going for in making these distinctions? Let me know in the comments.

Owning the Project But Still Trusting the Spirit

Really I just want to try something since my normal means of helping my kids connect, life in the community, is a little tattered at the moment. I hope that my partners rely on the community connection as much as I do in their project of raising kids who know they are loved by God so they can respond to Jesus’ call on their life when they are ready. I think they do. But let me say it for everyone: making your family’s life around a local expression of the gospel is the best way for your kids to grow into adult faith. Your faith, your action because of it; your disciplines, and how you talk about Jesus; your rituals, and God’s presence in them — these are the best ways for kids to see what faith really is and receive it themselves. BUT it’s not just your faith and etc. It’s OUR faith. Humbly recognizing the need your child has for more than you can offer is a reason to regularly include them in the life of the body. Relying on that body for your life of faith and for your child is what I desire for all of us.  (And that’s what we call Village Parenting)

But that is harder to do right now when most of our relating is mediated through screens. This makes our ownership of the project all the more important. Doing what we do with our kids on purpose is the moral of the story. Having a plan and adapting the plan — that’s the trick. I think that if you have a plan adapting the plan is not as hard. It’s having a conscious plan that might be a bigger hurdle. Those who are recovering from an overly dogmatic experience or a brittle fundamentalism might have the hardest time. I feel you, but don’t give up. The faith you have is worth sharing, and that takes a lot of intention, and a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit. Remember, nothing works, only God works.

It seems that the most common outcome from that desire to have a plan is to make a class. And now I am thinking about doing just that. Am I just as uncreative as my spiritual ancestors who thought it was best to boil down the Bible into third grade mouth sized bites and hope the information magically transformed into faith?  I admit that it could so easily go that way, but I want to do a class mostly in name only. Really I’m just adapting my plan and finding ways to engage my kids in the thing I have set my life up to do.

Some Idea That I Am Going to Try

It’s not really a class. It’s YouTube videos. I’m going to watch youtube.com/thebibleproject everyday and talk about it with them. my kids are six and nine years old and they love learning things. They love stories about history (Thanks Hamilton) and really anything that is a cartoon. They also love taxonomies like the various types of dragons they can spawn on their phone app and, of course, the perennial Pokémon (gotta catch’em all). Why not get the Tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples up in there too?  We’re also going to memorize some scripture as we are able. We are starting with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s it.

I don’t think it is really a class. It’s more some concerted energy toward this 18 year project I have with them. I want to show them who Jesus is to me and what a life with God is like in real life. If I reduced it down to just the class, I think I would be in trouble, and much of my siblings in Christ have done that to some degree (I probably have too), but I’m hoping it can be done. Want to join me and Bryce?  Let’s talk about it. Shoot me an email.