Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: April 2021

“Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?”

George MacDonald dreams about heaven a lot. It seems like a good thing to do, especially for the hopeless times. If those dreams draw you into some separating reverie and not into love of thy neighbor, stop. Don’t have a UFO theology. Don’t just wait to get beamed out of here. Here is where you are to love

“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” Oliver Wendell Holmes is the originator of that quip, but I got it from my friend, Shane Claiborne. It rings too true for much of the Christians of the last century, especially. However, many of my friends in Circle of Hope, in reaction to this error, might be subject to the opposite, “Some people are so earthly minded they can’t imagine what good heaven would do.” The tension is real.

So I keep dreaming with George MacDonald, my chosen spiritual grandfather. I need more hope than I have, and my imagination can help, and George MacDonald always helps. I just want to share one of his beautiful visions from his book of sermons called The Hope of the Gospel. I can’t stop thinking of people with “perfect spheres of featureless ivory.” It freaks me out in a good way.

Did not the Lord die that we should love one another, and be one with him and the Father, and is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love? Can there be oneness without difference? harmony without distinction? Are all to have the same face? then why faces at all? If the plains of heaven are to be crowded with the same one face over and over for ever, but one moment will pass ere by monotony bliss shall have grown ghastly. Why not perfect spheres of featureless ivory rather than those multitudinous heads with one face! Or are we to start afresh with countenances all new, each beautiful, each lovable, each a revelation of the infinite father, each distinct from every other, and therefore all blending toward a full revealing—but never more the dear old precious faces, with its whole story in each, which seem, at the very thought of them, to draw our hearts out of our bosoms? Were they created only to become dear, and be destroyed? Is it in wine only that the old is better? Would such a new heaven be a thing to thank God for? Would this be a prospect on which the Son of Man would congratulate the mourner, or at which the mourner for the dead would count himself blessed? It is a shame that such a preposterous, monstrous unbelief should call for argument.

A heaven without human love in it were inhuman, and yet more undivine to desire; it ought not to be desired by any being made in the image of God. The lord of life died that his father’s children might grow perfect in love—might love their brothers and sisters as he loved them: is it to this end that they must cease to know one another?

— George MacDonald The Hope of the Gospel, Chapter 6, “Sorrow the Pledge of Joy” (Read it all here)

Wow! “Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?” Our faces were made for knowing and loving, and it seems preposterous to George (and to me) that God would create the infinity of belovedness that resides in the collection of all human faces and not use it for the bliss of eternal love in the promises of heaven. The key insight I wanted to share was the necessity of diversity for any union to occur. This is simple logic, but it is still blowing my mind. It ignites the potential love in me for so, so many.

MacDonald is here reflecting on this famous prayer from Jesus in John 17.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:20-23

Yep! It seems that Jesus’ greatest desire is that we be united, and how can that union express the union of the Father and the Son with there being some diversity to unite? Joining — making one — bringing together — this is the primary metaphor of love that Jesus chooses, and, as such, I think it reveals the primary reality of love, and of the whole universe.

I need this image of our infinite opportunity for union from heaven to fuel my often ceasing resolution to bridge the divides in my life. To cope with the grating power that our differences create, despite our stated intentions to thwart them. They cannot be erased, and if they were, we might as well not have faces, not have love, not have eternity. And yet, because eternity is, indeed, ours, we will forever have faces.


Caring About Climate Catastrophe, Like a Chump

Paper or Plastic?

I walked  into my local coffee roaster on Earth Day and discovered that they had switched their bean packaging from paper to plastic. I know and love these people so I did not hold back my protest with the barista who rang me up.  “Yo, tell the owner [name redacted because this isn’t really about his decision] that I object to the new plastic packaging. ”

The barista then told me, and he was correct, that the responsibility for climate catastrophe was foisted upon the consumer. The real culprits in this crisis are major corporations. I said, “I know, you’re right, I’m down for advocacy, but I’m going to do my part too. Give your boss my message, I’m serious.”

Later on that day as I was praying through Psalm 24 with Jesus Collective, I reflected on the encounter and the overwhelming cynicism that had already flooded the barista and was well past the banks in me. Can I make a difference? Do my choices matter? Can I get out of caring about paper or plastic? I keep finding myself caring and I was wondering why. Should I take the smart barista’s out, or stay on the hook?

I have decided to stay on the hook. But not at all because I think my actions will end the end of the world we humans are so diligently working on.

Fools for Christ and the Forces of Evil

I want to be a fool for Christ. I want to do the thing that does not make sense to the world or to me. By “the world” I mean those organized against the Truth in Jesus Christ in any number of ways — exclusively scientific rationalist philosophers, pocket lining lobbyists, profit driven vaccine executives, anyone who is decidedly unkind, unapologetic white supremacists — just a few examples.

The forces of evil are more organized, I suspect, than we usually give them credit for. The world is actually organized against the truth in many ways. Some of it happened gradually, other parts were decided emphatically. But the way we experience that organization is mostly unobtrusive. It’s the white noise of how we are together as humans, and much of it remains unexamined. One really good way to tune our radio-hearts to these interfering frequencies is to do something that just does not compute. Let us be as discordant with that underlying sound as possible and we will discover where the distinctions are. Let us be fools for Christ.

Who I Am and Who I Want to Be

I rely very much on my own power for any number of things in my life. I’m a big guy, with a big personality. My personal power has achieved much in my life. Add that to my positional power as a white man born in a country grasping to maintain its empire status and you can see how easy it would be for me to trust my own ability more than anything. I often do this, Lord save me. I like getting stuff done. I like believing that my decisions matter. It’s a tempting myth to live by. If we all just get together and push in the same direction, we can make all the changes we need.

Thank God for you,  Greta Thunberg, I will show up again to your Climate Strikes, I will vote for candidates that shake your hand to honor you. Thank God for big ideas like the Green New Deal. Yes, it seems wise to me to do something that drastic to stop this madness, even if it’s risky enough to potentially bankrupt the country . Thank God for the barista who knows his stuff, and can site the historic moment the oil companies began to shirk their responsibility.  Again, you’re right. But in this gratitude i do not find my hope.

I’m turning my cynicism on its head in order to trust the Truth instead of just some truths as far as I can discern them to be true and influence others to think the same. I’m saying, I don’t care if I’m wrong. How could I be right to say, “Unless someone like me cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better, it’s not”? How could I know if enough people will ever care? How could I be right about that? The only thing I can be right about is trusting Jesus. I cannot love my right action so much that I begin to trust it over him. I want a paper bag for my coffee beans because I want to care — when it matters and when it does not matter. I’m not protecting myself anymore from being a chump.

I could be wrong, I could be right. I love Jesus through whom everything was made that has been made. In him is life. And that life is the light of all humankind. It lights me up! And I want to do something diligently to celebrate his beautiful life as i see it in so many wonderful ways. Even if it doesn’t “work” to save the world, it will continue to work to save me.

Board Games: A Doorway to an Inner Life

Going Deeper

This post is mostly for the external processors and the extroverts, I think. But I would love it if it has some purchase for other kinds of folks too. We need to have an inner life to be fully ourselves, and there are all kinds of ways to skip across the surface of life. Fortunately, I think there are all kinds of ways to get down below the surface, too.

Introspection, imagination, spiritual awareness — we have these capacities as human beings — but there are lots of reasons to avoid these places inside us. Pain lives down their too, with trauma, anxiety, heartache, memories we wish we didn’t have. Below the surface is not exactly safe, but if we never go down there, we will never develop essential parts of who we are, and we never get the chance to be freed from all those burdens. An inner life is an essential part of a whole and healed life.

Jesus’ Example

Jesus obviously had an inner life. He was always going away to be by himself. After he was baptized in the Jordan by John and God announced to the world who he really was, the Spirit led him out into the desert to be alone for 40 days (Luke 4). After John was killed he went out to wild places to be alone, but the people followed him. He fed five thousand plus, but then he still needed to be alone. He sent the disciples across the lake ahead of him so he could stay and pray (Matthew 14). When he went to the Mount of Olives for the final time it says in Luke that they went “as usual to … the place.”  He had a prayer spot where he usually went to be alone with God (Luke 22). Encounter with God does not require solitude; I am sure that Jesus was always aware of God’s presence no matter where he was; but if Jesus, God’s beloved son, often went to be alone, why wouldn’t we?

Well, as I said, it’s scary down there below the surface, or we just didn’t think to do it, or no one has helped us, or we’ve tried and it doesn’t seem to “work.” Here’s a maybe novel take: play board games, or, at least, notice what happens when you do,

Board Games May Be a Way In

In the pandemic, I’ve been playing a lot of board games with my family. My ten year old son is now capable of playing just about any level of difficulty game, and it’s really fun to have enough people in the household to play a strategy game. However, it has become a constant refrain as we play, “THIS IS A STRATEGY GAME!” Which is a response to his constant revelation of what he plans to do, what cards he needs, and how close or far away he is from winning. He just can’t stop talking.

My mantra, “This is a strategy game,” could be more than just advice for how to win; it could be instructions for having an inner life. Some people come across this interiority naturally. There are children who, as they play by themselves, are happy to invent stories that never need to be shared. Some folks are naturally more content considering the world without outward comment, or more entertained with their own imaginations. I am not one of those people, and neither is my ten year old; so I am always looking for ways to develop the inner life in me, and now in him.

Quietly measuring your strategy in your head, so as to not reveal your plans and not hamper your own goals by giving an advantage to your opponents in a board game is the same muscle you might use to consider the ravens and wild flowers (Luke 12), or to be still and know who God is (Psalm 46), or to grasp how wide and deep and high and long the love of Christ is which surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3). This is not a stretch; it is just a step. I think spiritual disciplines require hundreds and thousands of small steps like this. Yes, “This is a strategy game,” might as well be a prayer.

Life is for THIS

Our whole lives must be appropriated for the spiritual journey

  1. Because that is WHAT LIFE IS FOR, God created us for the purpose of revealing the SOMETHING-MORE of our human experience;
  2. We are not as strong as we think we are, and thus, BABY-STEPS ought to be our comfort zone;
  3. And, because of that tininess, WE MUST USE EVERYTHING that comes our way for our development.

So board games, yes, they are for developing the spiritual muscles to have an inner life. Even in a group, we are waiting and watching as much if not more than we are seeing and saying. There might be more than we are holding now. Hold on a little longer. And, definitely, hold your tongue.

What was Jesus doing up on all those mountainsides? Maybe the best word would be CONNECTING. He was spending dedicated, conscious time being in his Father’s presence. Slowing down,  seeking his next move, considering the options — all while knowing he is not alone. Pausing quietly to seek counsel with yourself is a great step toward pausing quietly to seek counsel from God. When we realize how much is going on inside of us, we will begin to understand our true scale and imagine how much bigger God made us to be. The water beneath the surface might as well be infinitely deep.

“Blessed fact that he hath made us so near him! that the scale of our being is so large, that we are completed only by his presence in it!” — George MacDonald in Hope of the Gospel “The Remission of Sins”

So take all the opportunities you have. Board games is only one, and I hope it is quirky enough to open up the potential for you to consider many other opportunities for growth as the opportunities they are. Nothing is nothing more than meets the eye. Nothing is nothing more than what you have in hand. And almost everything, especial you, IS MORE than what you have already considered.


Writing Through This Holy Week

Catch up on Holy Week with me, or just see if any of the images that came to me so far each morning also are coming to you.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 7 – Holy Saturday

April 3, 2021

Today I read part of the Gospel of Nicodemus, also called the Acts of Pilate. Chapters 12 through 21 are a weird account of “the harrowing of hell” when, some say, Christ descended into hell between his death and resurrection to free those who had died before then. I’m not sure what to think, but in my sonnet I highlighted the redemptive hope that would be part of such a monumental Exodus if it were necessary. The New Testament only has slight allusions to Christ’s descent into hell (or, more likely, Hades, which is simply the realm of the dead), so it’s hard to make heads or tales of it. Many early Church leaders believed it, so, that’s saying something. All that being said, here’s a poem that takes the story at its word (which I do not exactly)

Some say Pilate soon repented when
He saw what he had done. Centurion
Reports were strange, undoing him, and then
He set himself to searching, hurrying
To know the Truth, and not just what it is.
He learned stranger tales -‘ sages in hell
Who met the Truth come claiming what was his —
And sons of dead men who were dead themselves
Recounted Satan’s failing Hope that Christ
Could never come to hell — alive as light
To burgle darkness — brilliance come to heist —
He walked right in, not needing any fight,
Took Adam by the hand, and all then came
Behind, and hoped that Pilate do the same.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 6Good Friday
April 2, 2021
Not many anymore have had to lift
A body. This sacred duty resides
In institutions staffed by those on shift.
When loved ones die, we call, and stand aside,
And others feel their weight. We have our own,
In head and heart, the pain is very hard.
We feel, but rarely in our limbs and bones;
And so our death may stay abstract and far
Away from facts like pounds and cubic feet.
I’d guess Christ weighed one hundred fifty pounds
At least when Joseph got him off that tree,
By setting ladder from the cross to ground,
Could he, up there, receive on shoulder’s heft
The burden of that body life had left?

Holy Week Sonnet Number 5 – Maundy Thursday

April 1, 2021
Luke 22:7–71

“I have desired this moment eagerly,
And here, at last, we are together, friends.
Sit at my table now to eat with me;
It is the last of our beginning’s end,
Until it’s finished I will not partake
Of food, or drink, or any comfort’s kind.
My ends lie far beyond what fills or slakes;
My purpose for this body, heart and mind
Lies on the other side of human being.
I, too, shall be an empty cup and plate,
And yet, my poured-out, famished, vanished seeing
Will nurture newness from your soles to pates.
I’ll fill you far above your love cup’s brim,
And much more than five thousand up again.”

Holy Week Sonnet Number 4 – Wednesday

March 31, 2021
Matthew 26:6-13 and Luke 7:36-50

“In memory of her,” the Lord declared,
That all will call to mind her act of love,
Whenever his own life and love are shared.
The best disciple’s name’s not spoken of
How strange! I want so much to know her name —
To right the wrongs against all womankind,
And honor she who honored through the shame
Uncorked upon her broken beauty’s glass
With jeers and judgment made from keeping-score.
Aware of this, he took those men to task.
She knew that death was knocking at their door
Because she listened unlike those to whom
He had revealed the most his path through doom.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 3
I learned today that the oboe is the instrument to which the whole orchestra tunes.

March 30, 2021
Luke 20:5-22:2

Lord, all the things you warned us all about
Have now begun to sound in string and throat,
Discordant tuning strengthens towards a shout,
Of oboe-started-harmonizing notes.
The band is struck and so are all of us,
The world is over, as we knew it was,
All rumors, famines, earthquakes, lawlessness —
They catch us in a culminating buzz.
Again, again, you tell us not to fear,
And ever always we are terrified,
The music far too awful not to hear
Pleads us trust in only what we’ve eyed.
“But this is but the warm-up, my dear friends,”
You say, “I will be with you through the end.”

Holy Week Sonnet Number 2 – Monday

March 29, 2021
Luke 19:48-21:4

If all this weren’t so deadly serious,
We might hear all he said and have a laugh.
Because there’s almost nothing clear to us,
We’ll rush to easy insults as a raft.
They’re wrong, he’s right, so, as big winners, we
Ride on down river with our muscles slack —
Our ease resting nicely in enmity,
We gleefully watch him splash back attacks,
And float through temple talks, taking his quips
To Sadducee, Scribe, Pharisee alike
For borrowed buoyancy to leaky ships
That now careen toward the stone soon to strike —
The stone we boat builders gladly reject
Built wreckage as the vessel for us to connect.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 1 – Palm Sunday

March 28, 2021
Luke 19:28-44

You’ll do everything short of making us,
But, no, you won’t sort broken hearts by force;
Refusing to coerce, forsaking thus
The automatic lovers you could source,
You choose dramatic tragedy to show
Us who you are and whom you know —
It’s us, it’s me, and all our half-bent knees.
Before time till now, you’ve seen everything,
And so you know how most could know you now:
You would have us see you in your suffering —
A bleeding love from hands, feet, side and brow.
And as you die we ask if we must too,
“Do as I say, and also as I do.”