Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: October 2020

How Will We Love Through the Election?

“Unreliable Allies”

Karl Barth, a German Theologian who helped organize the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime, once said that the church ought to be an “unreliable ally” to any and every political system. That is to say that our primary allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom will often come into tension with our subordinate allegiances to political parties, ideologies, movements and organizations. In Nazi Germany, non-cooperation with the political system seems a matter of course; are we in such a moment now? The comparisons are commonly made. Many smart people are legitimately concerned that this November’s presidential election is just like Germany in 1934. Interestingly, I have seen comparisons that liken both the “radical left” and the “far right” to the Nazis. That’s the moment we live in. What a mess! I’m not sure the consequences are as dire as the most alarmed alarmists fear, but Donald Trump is undeniably an unprecedented person in U.S. history. His presidency is drawing the worst out of the American people. We are in bad shape. What kind of ally  can the church be right now?

“Ally” is a term that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. I think it started with LGBTQ+ folks looking for solidarity, but historians reading this can correct me. Not too long ago the idea was born that straight folks could be an “ally” to gay folks who were having trouble finding a place in the world (and dying by suicide and hate crimes in droves for the lack of anywhere safe). This ally language was incredibly successful in changing public opinion. A Gallup Poll about support of same-sex marriage, for example, showed that support went from 27% in 1996 to 67% in 2020. I’m not sure that every one in that 67% would consider themselves an “ally”, but we can see the trend.

The term “ally” is also used to describe white people who want to dismantle white supremacy. They are allies to the people of color in their lives, co-laborers in a groundswell of social change that is sweeping the country (and receiving significant reaction), specifically in support of black lives. Michelle Ferrigno Warren of Christian Community Development Association (an organization with which Circle of Hope has long standing ties) recently described herself as a “long standing white ally” in a piece published at ccda.org this June, To My People, the White Ones” (a very succinct and difficult list of suggestions for white folks).

But I have had conversation with folks in Circle of Hope who do not want to accept this language. They are concerned that this is actually a Karl Barth moment when allying with “the Black Lives Matter movement” ought not to be a matter of course. They are suggesting that our church is too reliably allied with this political system, and  is losing the thread of our primary allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom. Some will quickly say, “That’s racism!” Others will quietly wonder if there isn’t some merit to some friendly critique. But friendly critique does not seem possible right now, especially coming from white men like me. I understand this.

Staying at the Table

Reading Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s post, I am convicted by her suggestions, as painful as they appear. My favorite suggestion is this one, “Sit in the back of the proverbial bus, on the floor – this is NOT your Rosa Parks moment.” She can turn a phrase, can’t she?  I’m trying to push through the discomfort of this myself. Kind of like I’m actually sitting on the floor with my legs in a pretzel and my feet are falling asleep, I feel how difficult this is, but I am calling us to persevere. Another thing Michelle Ferrigno Warren suggests is to stay at the table. “At the table you are going to hear new things that hurt your feelings, don’t leave. At the table you are going to have to work alongside people you might not agree with, don’t leave. At the table you are going to be asked to use your voice to help white people understand – do it. At the table you are going to be asked to give up your power by leveraging it, resolve to do that work no matter what it costs.”

I would add more reasons to stay at the table: this is your opportunity to love, to be a minister of reconciliation, to be of one mind and heart despite disagreement, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly. There is so much opportunity for growth in this moment. Being the church is not ignoring our differences, so everyone can feel safe;being the church is seeing our differences and loving each other long enough to make real peace so that everyone can actually BE safe. The difficulty of this task requires all of the gifts we were naturally given and all of the spiritual gifts  the Holy Spirit is supplying for right now. This is how Christ can be all and in all, because the project of being the church at any time, but especially when it is hard, will transform us in every way. We who are part of the church have decided to follow Jesus with our everything. That’s what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” Staying at the table requires us to love long and hard enough to be the new creation in Christ.  And Jesus will be with us, equipping us the whole time. “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philppians 1:6 CEB)

But what then do we do with the friendly critique? What to make of the sneaking suspicion that the church is too reliably allied with a political movement that is not entirely just and pure and good? Well, first I would remind that no political movement is entirely just or good or pure. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Second, I would gently wonder aloud if the discomfort with the black lives matter movement is not indeed connected to the discomfort of the demands the movement is making of white people. Third (and I have been doing a lot of this), I would listen. The current trajectory of social change is not unimpeachable. Of course there are problems. Of course our Kingdom of God project is bigger than Black Lives Matter, but I would argue that it is not oppositional as some of my conversation partners have. Staying at the table is in general an even more difficult task for Black people in our church.  Let us not forget that being at the table uncomfortably is not an option for a Black person in the United States like it is for most White people. White people can leave the table — that’s part of why this is so hard — white people have a very different experience than everyone else. And it is not just.

I’m wishing you joy

(Yes, that’s a Whitney Houston reference)

Lastly, I think the best thing we can collectively offer this moment is joy. Miroslav Volf said on the most recent episode of his podcast, For the Life of the World, “Modernity is perfectionism… and perfectionists have no joy.” Unfortunately or not, our difficulties are not unhinged from the country we live in or its rancorous dialogue. So right here, in the messy middle of a pivotal time in our country and subsequently in our church,  we CAN have joy. Because we are freed from the graceless demand of perfectionism, because our project is not solely the “progress” of modernity, we can “laugh though we have considered all the facts” as Wendell Berry says in a poem I love. We can wish joy in the face of despair. We can love one another well despite the assailing rancor, and pray for more grace that we think is possible — more grace than we can rightly bear.  Let us offer joy to the opportunity to have God again knit us together in love. Let us offer joy to the opportunity for justice to flow where it has never flown before. Let us offer joy to the difficulty of starting again when we fail because we are convinced than nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Tear/Tear, Seem/Seam, Knew/New

On shrinking cloth

The heat of a warm water washing or heated tumble dry or, in the image of today’s poem, a flap out on the sunny line, the stretched out fibers of an unshrunken cloth relax. The individual patch of cloth becomes stronger. The individual fibers become relaxed in the heat. That sounds nice — constitutive, formational, good — but of course there is a cost to this new birth. Which one among you is not stitched to a cloth from which you are tearing away? I know I am not blessed with such a condition.  And I am learning to live with that reality and suffer through the seam ripper’s hook.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the racism to which I find myself stitched, but there are many thing from which we must be cut. The goodness of becoming new and shrunk and strong,  does not feel good. Jesus’ is saying something new to me today. Take it for yourself it seems to fit. The new thought is this: His little parables about wineskins and cloth are not cautionary tales. They go beyond categorization of different types of people, cloths and skins. the parables are descriptive and prophetic: You will tear. you will burst.

Seth Martin wrote a beautiful line in a beautiful song that we like to sing in Circle of Hope. (Rob , Jess and friends sang it a couple of weeks ago for #worshipwednesday). “We wear this seamless cloth of joy and loss/Severed roots and limbs/Time to start again/Start with I am Thine.” Yeah, that’s how it feels — sweet joy and bitter sorrow, becoming new and crying as we do. Even though we go where we are led hungrily.

A Poem for the Seamless Cloth of Joy and Loss

Mark 2:21

I’m feeling seamed edges pull,
Unshrunken, out to dry,
The warmth is pleasant with eyes closed —
Face up to the sky.

The tightness of a tear-wet cheek
Will also come to mind,
As heat from distant star allows
My quiet eyes to find

A new expression of the truth
I knew from deep inside,
That cannot help but stretch until
The very last is cried.

More composed myself, binded, bound
To windy dancing sheet,
Conviction tight and resolute,
But union incomplete.

I tear from that to which I’m stitched
Even as I come to life,
The only way to love me seems
To be a sharpened knife.

 

You can listen to me read it here.

 

Image and Poem by Ben White

Some Doubts Ought to Be Trusted

Doubt can be bad but it doesn’t have to be

In the glut of internet facts we swim in like a trash compactor on the Death Star, doubt is not hard to come by. Slogging through the truthiness spectrum of political speech might make you sick. Yes, you could be sick with doubt.

In its metastasized, cancerous form doubt is debilitating — calling into question every thought you thought you knew, casting a shade of suspicion even on the love from those you love the most. It can feel terrible, so we often run from doubt. Who wants to feel that discomfort?  Instead, we hide in sandcastles of certainty propped up by obvious lies which we accept because we’d rather not deal with it. This conceit codifies our cynicism as a way of life and the longer we go in that direction, the more solid our fantasies seem and the safer we feel. Which is why when these structures inevitably fall, we are so devastated and sometimes close to destroyed.

Doubt can be dangerous like that, but it can also be a step toward salvation. If we see our faulty foundations for what they are before our whole lives fall down on us, we can avoid a lot of pain and and make ourselves stronger to face even greater difficulties. We could choose difficulties for love and the transformation of the world — which is much better than reacting only to what life brings our way. Finding trouble for Jesus sake is what I strive for as much as I can.

Doubt is a door

George MacDonald said in his novel, Sir Gibbie,“To the true heart every doubt is a door.” Think about that for a second.

The first time I heard that read to me on librivox.org I paused the recording. I like the drama of actually pausing the recording as opposed to just looking up from my book. I stopped running (I was out for a jog), dug my phone out of my fanny pack (because fanny packs are very convenient), pressed paused (actually), shaded the phone from the sun (it was summer) and managed to hit rewind 30 seconds (Phew — feel the drama?). Then I listened to the reader say it again, “To the true heart every doubt is a door,” and then I paused it again and I just stood there on the sidewalk.

Whoa! There is a whole universe in there! What if doubt could be trusted? What if I could trust my true heart and learn not just to believe, but learn also to disbelieve. I wish a lot of people would start disbelieving. There is so much we take for granted that could use a lot of skepticism. We are good at skepticism but the things that need our skepticism the most are the least apparent. Often the most damaging lies are surrounded by those sandcastles that can make us feel safe. They might actually be a bit more solid when they are built by a whole cultural narrative, but they are still made of sand and they will still bury you alive when the waves wash in.

Doubt your ability to choose well

Here’s one great thing to doubt: Doubt your autonomy. Yes, you have agency and an ability to choose. This is a blessing but that is not your best feature. Choosing in itself is not freedom. Your God given freedom is for choosing WELL. Jesus got at that choosing when he told those two little stories about the pearl and the treasure in the field.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.  — Matthew 13:44-46

There is one thing that is better than all the other things. I think many of us know this at least in part. We have felt it in our bones. We have seen it in glimmers of recognition. We have heard it on the edge of other sounds. There is a longing we all know that we could trust more if we were better at doubting all our other conclusions. Those conclusions are ordinary pearls, or worse, they are just plastic. We wear the lesser pearls around our necks to help us forget the quest, but it’s still there. There’s doubt in that feeling of satisfaction. Do you feel it? Do you trust it? We found the treasure in the dirt but we didn’t excavate what clanged beneath our shovel for fear of what it would mean about everything else we think we really want. You really could doubt those other desires. I know you could.

But, but, what if ….

And of course you won’t be sure if you start a quest for that fleeting something more. The quest comes with little certainty. How would it be a quest if you knew where the end was? Requiring to know everything about the next step before we even try is another rule for life that could use your doubt. Have you ever known everything about anything? We fool ourselves with all the available knowledge without ever knowing very much of it anyway.

Again, my main man George MacDonald  said, this time in his novel Lilith (which is a hell of a quest BTW) “Doubt may be a poor encouragement to do anything, but it is a bad reason for doing nothing.” This is at once an encouragement for my line of thinking and a caution. Doubt is not incredibly motivating. That’s why it’s so common to ignore what you can plainly see and settle into living in a sandcastle. The path of least resistance often bushwhacks through a thicket of doubt with ease. This is why I’m writing this  blog post. It’s not that your doubts are bad, it’s that you haven’t trusted your doubts long enough to know which doubts are bad. Your doubts could be a door into a richer, fuller faith. They could lead you to riches you have not yet imagined, if only you can get past some of your conclusions. Come on, you can see the tide coming in.

Trust your doubt that this current castle will stand, and strike out on a quest for something more.