Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: January 2021

We’re VERY human! (And that is a good thing.)

“Forget ‘we are easily misled.’ We are easily led… period.” – Justin Beniston

My friend Justin said this years ago and I wrote it down because it struck me as being so true. We, that is to say, human beings, are very easily led. Labels such as individualist, free-thinker, iconoclast, and innovator to which we are all trained to aspire do not fit humans very naturally. We are so much more communal, collective, traditional, and conservative than most of us care to admit. Though I am not sure why we are so hell-bent on being unique, autonomous creatures when we were actually made for each other.

We are all part of a tribe, whether we know it or not

When Justin quipped his memorable phrase in a cell meeting he was not deriding humanity for just being a bunch of sheeple or something like that. He was describing his experience in church, and celebrating how the cell helped him hold onto his faith in a new way. Many antagonistic atheists, of course, would tell you that anyone who is in a cell meeting or any other Jesus-centered gathering is definitely a sheep with their own wool pulled down over their eyes. This, however, would be another demonstration of Justin’s point. Your antagonistic atheist friend would simply be expressing the views of their tribe, characteristics of which include simplistic arguments that cherish cheap gotcha moments and relish the embarrassment of perceived opponents. It is uncanny how similar my conversations are with folks of that tribe.

I will deride the characteristics of their arguments which focus on hurting others, but I won’t deride their similarity. When they sound so similar they’re only being human. I act like that too. As a leader of a people centered on Jesus I depend on our communal understanding to lead the group. Our commonality is part of our strength. People seek out Christian community because they know they need support in believing in a God whom they cannot see and following the Way of Jesus which is very difficult because it is so distinct from what passes for normal in our society.

So choose a tribe that embraces your doubts

Trust is never easy. Faith is a challenge. Obedience feels nigh on impossible most of the time. We need each other and this is not a weakness. We need each other and that was how we were made.

Here’s something else Justin said: “It is easier to trust in a group when you’re not the only one doubting and needing to trust.” This is a unique hallmark that Circle of Hope can boast. Doubt is ok among us. Despite popular understanding to the contrary, the opposite of faith is not uncertainty. Though it varies from individual to individual, the opposite of doubt is much closer to fear or mistrust. Uncertainty is common in my experience of following Jesus, and Jesus said that’s how it would be way back when his disciple, Thomas, was demanding proof of his resurrection. Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). The author of Hebrews said it, perhaps most famously, “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see ” (Hebrews 11:1). We face this doubt together in Circle of Hope by being honest about it. Our group identity is centered on trust not certainty.

Of course we need to trust! Of course we doubt! We’re only human! Or better: We’re VERY human! (And that is a good thing.)

If everyone in your tribe starts sounding the same; if questioning the agreed upon norms and arguments becomes risky; if you’re lonely in your private doubts; it is really hard to keep the faith. This is true no matter the object of faith. Healthy groups provide a safe place for members to voice their questions, but if the group identity is based on a foundation that is so fragile it needs constant protection from perceived attacks, only the faith of the strongest proponents will survive. A group like that becomes an idea protection society. Faithfulness to the cause becomes recitation of the core principles and antagonism toward other thought systems. Sounds familiar right? Many churches function this way. Circle of Hope is attempting another course.

Jesus’ faithfulness is our example

Jesus demonstrated the human project to be loving faithfulness to God. Jesus was also a human do-ing in relationship with a father, God, not just a human being in relationship to the animating principle of the universe. God designed relationship with humanity to be parental and purposeful. Humanity has directions. Babies aren’t born with instruction manuals, but children are meant to become co-workers in an ongoing construction project with the Creator. Jesus summarized this project as “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22). Almost everyone I know, regardless of tribe, respects the second commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s elsewhere likened to “the Golden Rule.” Too many people think this is basic — as in easy, elementary, common — but I think the Great Commandment, as I like to call it, is really hard to do!

We aren’t very good (really) at the Golden Rule

Most people want to believe they are very good at making moral decisions. Everyone wants to believe they are generally a good person. There is nothing wrong with this desire, unless we are serious about wanting to BE moral and actually DO good. Wanting to believe in our own personal capacity for goodness is a recipe for failure.

In fact, humans are not very good at moral decision making. We do not choose good based on sober-minded judgments. Much more often, we choose whatever presents itself to us. We are products of our environment. It’s not just a cliche. Our environment and tribe is very, very influential in all of our decision making. Justin was saying this in a new way. If we drop the individualism act and embrace this element of our humanity we will be better off.

And that could be a OK if we admit it

We could see the fact that we are easily led  as a positive attribute. Our relational, inherently communal orientation could be beautiful. Accepting this part of ourselves makes choosing our tribe all the more important. What kind of decisions do you want to make? Who do you want to trust? How do you want to be a part of God’s project for the world? (Do you wan to be a part of it?) Your tribe will help you answer these questions, and help you live up to your aspirations. You do not have to go it alone, and in fact, no one ever actually does anyway.

Those who claim preeminent individuality are much less successful at impassivity than they think. They are just covertly influenced. Blindness to what is functionally leading us is foolishness. Insistence on independence when we are naturally dependent creatures is misguided. Refusing to examine what influences us leads to all kind of evil. But awareness of the community that shapes us helps us to be and do what we hope.

Want to choose Circle of Hope (or come and see if you might want to?)

This is the way we are choosing in Circle of Hope. We say we are creating an environment where people can know God and act for redemption. We are seeking active participants who nurture our communally nurtured environment. We are a chosen tribe, a new chance at family. Each of us consciously choosing the influence of others because we know we are not as good as we want to be at making decisions that lead us in our chosen way — the Way of Jesus.

If you’re interested in joining up, let me know, [email protected]. In the pandemic, most of our cells are on zoom, so you can link up from anywhere.

South Jersey Cell Leaders on Zoom

How to Read the Most Brutal Parts of the Old Testament

Getting to Know the Bible (Part 10)

I really like the Bible. I am passionate about helping others get into it, too. It’s pretty intimidating to get started so we created an introduction course called Getting to Know the Bible. It’s 10 sessions given every year to whoever is interested. It is one of our Gifts for Growing.

Last week, I hosted 12 people for a session of dialogue and teaching on the Old Testament Histories. That’s Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 &2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 &2 Chronicles. That’s a big chunk of the Bible , so, of course, this was not an in-depth study. I offered an approach to these texts that I think is really helpful. This part of the Bible includes some of the most brutal passages in scripture. The people of God are constantly at war with their neighbors and the powerful people are often evil. How do we approach THAT?!

Longing for a Place You Have Never Been

Reading these ancient books is like traveling to a very foreign land. Your thinking and your understanding will not fit there. It will be uncomfortable. Why go at all?

One of my top destinations in the world is Aberdeenshire in Scotland. I’m sure it’s beautiful, and there is lots of Scottish history and culture to enjoy, but the main reason I want to go is because George MacDonald is from there. George MacDonald was a Victorian author who basically invented Fantasy as we know it. He was also a brilliant theologian. His wisdom and imagination has captured my heart. He consistently stirs up the most noble, good, pure and honorable in me. And so I want to go to the place he so lovingly describes in his books. Simply put, I want to experience Scotland because I love George MacDonald and he loves it. No other reason.

Likewise, Jesus is enough reason to go to these Old Testament stories. Simply put, I also want to experience the story of the people of God because I love Jesus and he loved these stories. When I read these stories, it is a pilgrimage into the territory of Jesus’ family. It is a sojourn with my ancestors because Jesus is my oldest brother. He is the first born of the New Creation. His faithfulness makes my adoption into the People of Israel possible (Romans 8). Go with Jesus, for Jesus and by Jesus’ power.

Approach them as stories and don’t leave yourself out of the narrative.

Henri Nouwen on story:

“One of the remarkable qualities of the story is that it creates space. We can dwell in a story, walk around, find our own place. The story confronts but does not oppress; the story inspires but does not manipulate. The story invites us to an encounter, a dialog, a mutual sharing.

A story that guides is a story that opens a door and offers us space in which to search and boundaries to help us find what we seek, but it does not tell us what to do or how to do it. The story brings us into touch with the vision and so guides us. Wiesel writes, ‘God made man because he loves stories.’ As long as we have stories to tell to each other there is hope. As long as we can remind each other of the lives of men and women in whom the love of God becomes manifest, there is reason to move forward to new land in which new stories are hidden. ” — Henri Nouwen – The Living Reminder page 28

Unfortunately, much of 20th century biblical scholarship, especially what has made it into popular conversation, has been entirely too oppressive and manipulative. I don’t know why much of the church did this, but they boiled the Bible down to principles and simple morality plays designed to do exactly the opposite of what Nouwen describes as the quality of Story.

I’m guessing one of the big motivators was “Getting it Right.” As science began to tell a different story about the beginnings of humanity and the universe, battle lines were drawn. The Church got distracted by defending God’s honor, and then they ended up defending the heinous acts of the characters in these stories as if they were completely true in every regard.  They were completely true in their historicity, in their claims about God’s endorsement of human actions, and in their revelation of what is acceptable for individuals and nations. This approach lent itself to abuse of power and endorsement of violence which was contrary to the revelation of Jesus.

When we approach these books as story we can get out from under the manipulation and oppression and apply them to the realities we live in now. We see our politicians in the mistakes and triumphs of the kings of Israel. We see our family systems in the wounding nature present in all those lines of succession. We see wisdom and foolishness, success and failure, faithfulness and idolatry; and it all ought to seem so very familiar — in our personal lives and in our common life as communities, cities, states and nations.

“America [noun] is always going to America [verb]” – Hank Johnson

My fellow Brethren in Christ Pastor, Hank Johnson, recently said this to me and a group of Christian leaders from around the world.  I think we best see ourselves in these stories. Humans will also keep on humaning, unless, that is, the Human One, Jesus, gets ahold of us and makes New Creation. And, dear friends, that is exactly what he is doing. So we look for signs of life and love and wisdom in the darkness of our life with God — from the beginning all the way through to now.

Keep at It

So, plese, read the Bible. It won’t always be great. It will almost always be difficult in some way, especially this part of it. Sometimes when you are reading the Bible, heaven gets ripped open and you have some great epiphany, but most of the time it’s a slow and steady process. Doing it every day, or as often as you can, is key. The repetition of time spent with Jesus and maybe with his extended family, the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, slowly chips away at your heart.,

And God is not taking a pick axe to your heart. It’s more like a sherbert spoon — delicate and gentle because God is being careful with you. God’s going to dig every time you show up to the Bible, but it will take a lot longer for God to get to your core to gently transform you there where you are tender if you only show up for your digging once a week on Sundays or less.

It’s Great to Do This in Community

The fact that anyone wanted to have this dialogue with me at all was inspiring. One person came because she is reading the Bible cover to cover for the first time since they were in fourth grade. They were amazed at how much easier it is to read because of the hundreds of books she has read in the intervening couple decades. Another person shared a book recommendation: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood, a history of how the nation state has used religion to consolidate power. Their super summary: “Her main point is that it is not all religion’s fault.” I added it to my book list — sounds fascinating. A third person came because their cell decided to come together and they were just along for the ride. lots of reasons to engage.

Further Resources

In Circle of Hope, we think that Bible reading is best done in community so we have a lot of homegrown resources on our wayofjesus.circleofhope.net site which is chock full of resources for spiritual journeying

 

We need your shininess! Tell Your Story

Shine Bright!

I wrote this up for peaceandjusticeproject.org but I thought you should see it, too. It was a lot of fun and I am still glowing.

>>>>>>>>>>>

It is Martin Luther King’s Birthday today, January, 15th. So last night was Martin Luther King’s Birthday Eve! We got together to celebrate by sharing stories about our dreams of the Beloved Community King described. Some pastors from the BIC had stories to get us started. The BIC Peace and Justice Project leadership team invites everyone to our every-other-month gathering of people of peace and justice from all over the country (maybe the world!) Our goal is to uplift the stories of generosity, compassion, peacemaking and racial reconciliation that we know is at the heart of the Brethren in Christ, Circle of Hope’s denominational family. Here is video of the presenters and a summary below.

 

Krista DuttThe Dwelling Place, Chicago, IL

Church in a van? She and her friends had an idea to start a church that addressed one of the largest injustices facing their neighborhood, mass incarceration. Eventually she said, what if the church met in the van as we travelled from our neighborhood to the prison an hour and a half away? Krist a said it was “so crazy that it could only come from God … Like from Old Testament times if Old Testament had cars.”

And then community started happening around this trip, this van, this common project. Shiny! Their dream is a bit on hold during the pandemic but we wait with her in hope as they stay connected the best they can.

Hank JohnsonHarrisburg BIC, Harrisburg, PA

Hank started off with repping the historic nature of the Harrisburg BIC congregation, It was founded in 1897. “Most people don’t name us as one of the historic BIC churches but we is.” History moves fast though, and at some point a couple of decades or so ago, the church looked at their neighborhood and realized they were not as connected as they wanted to be with their now rather brown and black neighborhood.

So they started dreaming about ways to connect and somehow they said, “Let’s just build a hospital!” But they weren’t at all sure how to do that. Eventually, two doctors came to them and confirmed that the area really DOES need a clinic, so they said again, “Let’s do it. And they started raising money, looking for millions.

But the church’s visionary, Dr. Gwen, lost her husband and got sick herself. The dream went back on the back burner.

Then they got recruited for hosting a mobile medical clinic in partnership with a Catholic organization who had a similar ethos — Be the kingdom by giving this care in the name of Jesus. Now they have hosted the clinic for three years and the church has spent a grand total of $80 to get a special plu so the mobile bus clinic can easily plug into their building.

Hank said “We thought it was our idea, but it was God’s idea.”

John Grimshaw, Lakeview Community Church, Goodrich, MI

2018 was the worst financial year on record at Lakeview Community Church. So they felt like they didn’t have much to offer, but it was that year rhat a local foodbank recruited them to be one of their distribution centers.

They created a Client choice food pantry, where neighbors get to select their own items almost like a store. It is very dignifying and gives more opportunity for relationships to happen while neighbors shop.

When Covid 19 shut everything down they switched to Curbside Pickup. Folks would drive up and fill out a checklist, which an attendant would then photograph and text inside where other volunteers would quickly pack up their order. meanwhile Jon asked everyone if he could pray for them. of hundreds, only two ever said no.

The numbers: 2019: 149 families, 452 individuals, 294 family visits to the food pantry. 2020: 250 families, 630 individuals, 714 family visits . That’s some exponential growth, which has energized the church and even included a couple new families in their worship service. They just had their 1000th family visit and, in only two years, they have given away the equivalent of $150-250K in food and household items items.

Jon said, “On my own I couldn’t do it, but with God I can.”

Joshua Nolt, Lancaster BIC, Lancaster, PA

Joshua Nolt said, “I fall into stuff… so this is a micro story”

After the death of George Floyd and the swell of response across the nation, Joshua wrote “a word of encouragement and challenge” to his white friends:

“…If you have feelings of sorrow over George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, Brianna Taylor, or the host of other fallen people of color, I encourage you to allow them to be an invitation to do more than just feel – but to do the work and then contribute an informed voice to help bring about justice. This is a way to honor and love our brothers and sisters of color for whom this is daily, lived experience.”

Then he recommended some resources. People were quite interested so Joshua said to himself, “Facebook is not really a community. So who is going to take this somewhere… I guess it’s me.” So he organized a reading group of Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise” (and here is his new book How to Fight Racism)

For some in the group, the things that they were reading were shocking — eye opening. Others had done some work already and were not so surprised. The various levels of exposure was part of the triumph, because the resulting dialogue was real and rich.

Leaning into difficult, potential shame-leden conversations such as the book helped to create is often avoided. But Joshua concluded, “Leaning in with brothers and sisters is a lot easier than doing it ourselves.

What’s your story?

Then we broke out into breakout groups. Here is a picture of mine, with Curtis, Chris, Nancy and Drew. These were our instructions.

  • Introduce yourself to each other
  • Did you or someone in your community have a dream that came to some fruit?
  • Do you have a dream forming now?
  • Do you need encouragement? Advice? Resources?

Want to add to the conversation in the comments on his blog, or on our facebook group (which is like a 24/7 Shine Bright Event — share your story any time). We need each other to be shiny because each of us feels bright dull by ourselves.

See You Next Time?

Next Shine Bright is March 11th at 8:30 EST, 7:30 CST, 5:30 PST on Zoom

I Like Listening to James Cone

I just began reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone and I am instantly amazed by the comprehensive description of the pervasive and pernicious power of the lynching tree in American History. I love Cone’s lyricism, and his love for the blues as a means of painting that terrible picture — how did it feel to be Black in the Jim Crow South with the very real threat of torture and death swaying over your head at all times? How did it feel (does it feel elsewhere and now?) I also love Cone’s affinity for Richard Wright, the Harlem Renaissance author who I read and loved in college. The prose in Black Boy and Native Son is absolutely gorgeous. Wright’s description of becoming a writer and his attraction to the joy of well placed words has often inspired me as a writer. This is a total tangent but I must put this quote here:

“I would write:
“The soft melting hunk of butter trickled in gold down the stringy grooves of the split yam.”
Or:
“The child’s clumsy fingers fumbled in sleep, feeling vainly for the wish of its dream.”
“The old man huddled in the dark doorway, his bony face lit by the burning yellow in the windows of distant skycrapers.”
My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative.”

Quoting Richard Wright in Black Boy, James Cone draws out the power of the lynching tree on every Black person living under its influence “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.” (Cone, 15)

In his first chapter, Cone quotes a whole bunch of spirituals and blues songs and artists. He really communicates his love for the medium. Cone wrote a whole other book about the blues, The Spirituals and the Blues, 1992, by the way. I can feel the investment in the brief summary found at the beginning of The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 

Cone writes:

The Blues expressed a feeling, an existential affirmation of joy in the midst of suffering,  especially the ever-present threat of death by lynching. B.B. King, who saw  a lynching as a child in Mississippi, gave a powerful interview on the meaning of the Blues:

“If you live under that system for so long, then it don’t bother you openly, but mentally, way back in your mind, it bugs you… Later on you sometimes will think about this and you wonder why, so that’s where your blues come in, you really bluesy then, y’see, because you hurt deep down, believe me, I lived through it, I know, I’m still trying to say what the Blues mean to me. So I sing about it.” (Cone, 17-18)

I cannot know how that feels not having experienced it myself which is why I am so grateful for Cone’s evocative, if difficult to read, description.  I’m sitting with it.

And this was not a long time ago (the Jim Crow South).

And this is not a long time ago (Washington DC, yesterday, January 6).

One of several nooses used by demonstrators at the “Save America” Rally in Washington DC that resulted in insurrectionists storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2020

I keep confessing how shocked I am by this sort of appallingly blatant hatred. This symbol of a lynching rope is impossible to separate from this legacy described so well by Cone. My surprise is surprising me. How often do I just look away? I can totally look away from this. I am a white man who can forget about this stuff. I don’t have the conditioning Wright describes– it doesn’t bug me way back in my mind all the time like B.B. King. I recognize that drastic difference and I mourn it. I and we need to keep turning toward it because this is not “back then” this is right now. The legacy would be real even if it weren’t erected on the national mall on Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

Another wonderful writer, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, led his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, to create The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. According to eji.org , “[It] is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” I’m convicted that I need to go to Montgomery to see it.

Cone goes on in the book to demonstrate that just as we are not separated from the lynching tree by time or location, the lynching tree is not separated from the cross. I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but I might write about it again when I’m done. I just had to put this appreciation out there now to whomever is reading this today, in the wake of what happened yesterday in Washington DC. This is what I am gleaning from Dr. Cone: the signs of the times and the signs of Cone’s writings are matching up. May we keep listening to him in his writing (may he rest in peace), and to those who take up his challenge to create a liberation theology that is “black and Christian — at the same time and in one voice” (Cone, xvii). When American Christians who are white look away from the cross and the lynching tree for too long, as I am confessing I could conceivably do, they lose their way and come up with terrible news for everyone instead of the Good News that Jesus offers us all.

Top 7 Post of 2020

 

Here are the top 7 most read posts in 2020 on Today, If You Hear my Voice. I think they capture the year pretty well. Take a look back with me.

The truck that delivered the problem

7. Laughable Abundance: a story for your bouyancy

One of the best things that happened in 2020 in my life was the formation of the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team. Every week we deliver hundreds of pounds of food to our neighbors. Sometimes the joy is immense. 

Charles Alston “Man Emerging” 1969

6. Hey! White People! We Get to Repent! 

The Racial Reckoning, though very painful, is another great thing coming out of 2020. Christians were made for this moment. I only wish we had been more instrumental in making it,  and more univocal in the opportunity it presents. 

5. How Does a Christian Celebrate Memorial Day?

A video reflection in my front yard. Christians mourn the loss and death of war and pray for the death of war itself. 

4. How Does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Similar question, a little bit more fleshed out answer in essay form with help from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their book, Resident Aliens. Wrestling with how to engage politically and how to engage neighbors who see things differently. 

3. Have You Sung Together on Zoom Yet?

It’s terrible! But it’s also amazing. This year was a revolution in my thinking about what Holy Spirit can do digitally. She must, and she did! 

Me and Anita on International Women’s Day at a woman owned business

2. How do Yoga and Christianity Intersect?

I’ve learned so much about this intersection from my friend Anita Grace Brown. She is realeasing a book about her journey called Kamikaze Yogi. 

1. What if Online Church Sucks?

It sucks a lot less than I though it would, but many of my people just can’t handle it. Thank God for our cells and other means of holding on to each other. It has not been easy but God has been faithful, and God has honored our faithfulness.

Thanks for reading

I write in hopes of leading my people in South Jersey and the Philly Metro connected to Circle of Hope, but I’m glad to share far and wide. I love your comments and feedback always. Happy New Year!