Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: May 2021

Unpatriotic Reflections on Immigration for Memorial Day

As we head into Memorial Day, let us consider our stories

When my ancestors immigrated to North America they were called pilgrims, settlers, pioneers. When immigrants today come to North America the most common names are refugee, asylum seeker, alien. Why did the narrative change? My ancestors are heroes, today they would be from another planet. Saulo Padilla of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) pointed this change out to me at the Theological Study Forum of the Brethren in Christ (BIC), our denomination. The stark contrast in storytelling struck me. Saulo is the MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator. I feel very educated with this insight alone.

But Saulo also told the story of walking into a morgue at the US-Mexico border filled with John and Jane Does, people who died in the desert desperate for the opportunities they might have found north of the border, whose families are still looking for them. And Rachel Diaz, Immigration Consultant at MCC, member of La Roca Firme BIC, Hialeah, FL, and member-at-large on the General Conference Board of the BIC, told stories about her work with asylum seekers in South Florida as an attorney. The wait is impossibly long and so many families are suffering from extended separations. Her faith helps her keep hope alive when so much of this seems impossible. Andrew Bodden, also of MCC, told his own family’s immigration story, starting with the slaves who were brought to the Carribean against their will, passing through Honduras, and ending with his two US born citizen children. He ended his presentation saying “There you go, 500 years of immigration history in 20 minutes.”

Not “What are we talking about?” — Better “Who are we talking about?”

“When we talk about immigration we make it an issue… but these are human beings, made in the image of God. How do we deal with this tragedy?” — Saulo Padilla

I’m very grateful to Saulo, Rachel and Andrew for sharing their personal stories and the stories of the people they work with through MCC, because stories are the way of our hearts. Stories shape culture. Stories make us who we are. If we can re-personalize the immigration story in the United States, I think we have the best chance of solving the immigration crisis.

Because it is a crisis y’all. Check out this image of where bodies were found in the desert on the US-Mexico border.

Every president for the past forty years has gone on record saying there was a crisis at the border but none have developed the political will to change much about it. Bill Clinton said in 1994, “We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws” There’s the kicker, I think. The rule of law. When it comes down to it we, as a nation, have been more concerned with the rule of law than any individual. The abstraction is fairness. That’s the story we tell: “I’m fine with those who did it the right way.”

I suspect a hidden motive. “Fairness” is actually counterfeit dignity, which is actually a desperate need for superiority, which is most easily supplied by racism. The reasons my ancestors are “pilgrims” and not “aliens” is that my ancestors were white. The stories we tell about the pilgrims are part of the white mythology developed for our nation to cover over the genocide of all the brown skinned people who were living here when the “pilgrims” arrived. If white people like me couldn’t feel superior, that meant we were humans just like them, and then we couldn’t live with ourselves. Racism is why I am a pilgrim and they are illegal aliens.

Who are we talking about? We are talking about individuals who died in the desert because our government knew they did not need a fence where the desert itself will kill them.  It’s on them. Fair is fair. They shouldn’t have tried to make it. They should have stayed back home. Both they and their families, I’m sure, wish they had. What would have to possess someone that they would be THAT desperate?

Who are we talking about? We’re talking about individuals whose ancestors came from Europe to pursue opportunities from which the US government actively excluded black people. Like the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of free public land to any one who had not taken up arms against the Union. But not you, black men who fought for the Union. (By the way, all the land is stolen already.) We’re talking about descendants of European immigrants who, though many of them were discriminated against, socially and politically, have now successfully become white. Which is to say, not black, brown or ethnic of any kind. We’re talking about me. That story got in me enough that I was still surprised when Saulo pointed out the different stories for our different heritages.

People over policies. Stories over strategies. Feelings over fences.

Who are we talking about? That’s a much better question. For some reason often when we try to address this disaster Christians like me tie ourselves in knots with policy discussions that end in the same stalemate as congress for 40 years. Instead of inventing a master strategy for the “immigration problem” I think we can go with what we know already, and love those who are in need in practical ways. Why are we so responsible for making the empire work? It doesn’t. Instead let us love and serve the Lord simply, with the revelation we already have. The beatitudes are plenty I’d say.

Much of MCC’s work does exactly this. They are on the ground providing tangible support along the migration journey, especially where it is dangerous, They are also working hard to provide economic opportunities in the countries from which many immigrant migrate. Plus, they study immigration law and inform their constituencies, that’s us, about how they can influence lawmakers to best mitigate this ongoing disaster. By the way, don’t forget that the US has been the most destabilizing force in the rule of law in this hemisphere for the past 100 years and more. How can you govern yourselves effectively if the world’s largest superpower (the US) is hovering over your shoulder with its big stick, and frequently intervening secretly. Our government needs our prophecy, because we are connected to these actual people. If you don’t understand it all, you don’t have to. You can even say, “I don’t understand it all, but I don’t want all these people dying, and I feel responsible to them.”

… and Memorial Day

We can apply the same posture to Memorial Day. You can say, “No, I do not understand all of the geopolitics of this, but I do not want another US soldier sent to kill in my name! I feel responsible to the people they are sent to kill and to them. War is not a necessary evil. I will never submit to that lie.” And you can ask, “Who are we talking about?” And remember the millions and millions who have died because of war and wonder about another way, and hope for other possibilities and sing songs of deliverance from death.





Hezekiah Walker, Moana and Me Say “We Are Worshippers”

“Every praise is to our God” is the title and refrain of Hezekiah Walker’s do-you-need-a-little-joy-right-now? jam. I love this song! But it does have some weird language that trips me up a little, and I think might trip you up even more if you are not used to church music.

Every praise is to our God
Every word of worship, with one accord
Every praise, Every Praise, is to our God.

This song is my jam

The weird phrasing of this sentence reveals something great about humanity. We have praise. We are all worshippers. What we worship is our choice, but we all do it. So our praises don’t begin happening when we are in our church meetings and it’s “time for worship.” When we gather as a worshipping community, that’s when we start consciously channeling our worship toward God. Every praise is to our God only then, maybe, instead of to all the other things we would or have been worshipping. Only occasionally is every praise to our God. There are lots of words of worship, but in our church meetings we are getting together (that’s the “one accord’ part) and sending our praise in one direction.

I think we’ve been singing “Every Praise” by Hezekiah Walker in Circle of Hope since it came out, because I thought it was a lot older than 2013. I had never seen the video though until my cell mate shared the YouTube video link in our cell WhatsApp.

Please listen and watch this video. It brings me so much joy every time. These people doing the flash mob at Birmingham, Alabama’s Five Points South Fountain are having so much fun; and they are so strange! Why are they dancing? Why are they so happy? I don’t know if the bystanders in the video are planted there or that’s their authentic reaction, but the drama of the reactions adds to my joy. We Christians are peculiar people. Our joy in the face of despair is inexplicable. As a white guy, I’m glad to have brothers and sisters like these to lead me in it. Black triumph over historic oppression and such dehumanizing difficulty is not a novel insight, but it shouldn’t go without saying. However, the people worshipping with one accord in this video are all triumphing over millions of difficulties (and that’s not an exaggeration) to sing and dance together to Jesus.

[Gasp] We are worshippers

But back to this human capacity revealed in this old timey language. “Every praise is to our God.” You are a worshipper!

It reminds me of Disney’s Moana (another joy bomb if you need one), when she realizes that her longing for the water is actually not just her strange self not fitting in to the stay-put-on-the-island sensibility of everyone else she knows, but actually her people were once voyagers. She sings “I’ve been staring at the edge of the water/Long as I can remember/Never really knowing why.” She feels like an odd ball, she can’t please her parents or her village because she has this strange desire to explore out beyond the waves. But then she discovers a hidden history of her people. They were once sea traveling voyagers. She hears in a vision, “We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high/We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze/At night we name every star/We know where we are.” The moment after the vision, she gasps. “We were voyagers!”

That’s the moment Hezekiah Walker is offering us but it’s for worship. That longing inside of you for more? That need to adore, to lift up, to belong to something bigger? Even that obsessive love that you can’t get out of your mind — when you are driven crazy? Yes! It’s because you are a worshipper!

Our praise works best with a decided direction

So is every praise to our God? NOT AT ALL! Our praise is all over the place. This is not surprising since we ARE worshippers. It’s not even necessarily wrong. Dribbling praise all over the place since we are so full of it ought to be expected.

You have experienced your own copious praise when you have fallen in love, when you became obsessed with that band in high school, when your child was born, when your favorite show comes on and you have your ritual snacks ready. Our culture has lots of other examples too. Military sacrifice might be the strongest. How about the innocence of children at Christmas? Then there’s always sex which might produce the most various unhealthy forms of worship.

Worship does not require God. Your devotion and service will happen regardless, but every other thing to which we give our praise will mostly consume it hungrily with little to no reciprocation. God receives your praise and the energy comes back to you. God is the opposite of a black hole, if there were such a cosmic object. As much as black holes suck everything in, God reflects everything out.

Everything that ever was is God’s continuous creation. All of reality as we know received its trajectory from God. It feels good to direct our praise at God, because God gave us this capacity and God gives us back all we give in the only reliably satisfying relationship available to humanity.

There are so many ways to praise

So let every praise be to our God — and here’s the great thing — all those other things I mentioned on to which our praise might have dripped are also ways to praise God. When we direct our praise through them toward God, all things can be praise. The context of our relationship with God in Christ straightens out their bentness as a byproduct of our doing them as praise. Money, sex, dinner, birds, sweat, baby hair, fireplaces, sweet fruit juice, Gm7, the color green, trolleys in the snow, EVERY praise is to our God!

Dancing and singing together in direct worship is the most concentrated form. I need that kind of praise or all these other modes of praise shrink. Giving my praise to God with Hezekiah Walker and his friends is one powerful way to get lined up. Doing it with my piece of the body of Christ, Circle of Hope, is another way. I am so grateful for the vaccine and the way we have been able to begin meeting together in person.  What other opportunities might you share? Put in the comments.

How Jesus Says “Woman”

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Every word can mean I love you

Last night in my cell meeting we read John 2:1-11. We were reading with the intention to see what Jesus is like (That’s the best reason to read the Gospels in my opinion). After we read the passage through three times, one brilliant cellmate, who I, immediately after this eloquent, lyrical observation, strongly encouraged to pursue a life as a poet, told the group that every word can be spoken to mean I love you. He listened to us read the word Jesus says to Mary, woman, and the memory of this capacity we have to speak I love you into every word came back to him. Yes, every word can be spoken to mean I love you.

Every word: “potato”, “Nashville”, “kitty cat”, “‘sup?” All these can mean I love you.

It has to do with how the word is said — the amount of breath used in sounding it, the shape of the mouth as it is sent,  the familiar pattern of pitch and intonation — that does this lingual alchemy. It works best to actually communicate I love you in the context of love itself — in relationship (by the way, this is really the only place I love you  means I love you as well). In a love relationship, the shared meaning of potato really can mean so much more than root vegetable. For example: “The potatoes are extra crispy.” “You substituted the potatoes,” “We made potato stamps,” “French fries are made of potatoes.”

John says elsewhere that God is love. And John records Jesus saying in John 14, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Doesn’t it make sense then that, somehow, every word that Love speaks would mean I love you? If we ourselves know just how tenderly we can use these words we have received — how much they can mean — how well they can be wielded for building one another up — how much more must Jesus mean I love you with every word he has ever said? Yes to this, but yes especially to this word here in John 2, woman.

How I said woman

My cellmate heard us read it and heard some kind of rebuke in most of our readings. I know I wasn’t careful to speak love into the word, and so it is likely that anti-love leaked right through my lips. The word woman must be gentled with the utmost tenderness, because it is so often launched as an attack. The very nature of half of humans is so quickly crafted into critique. The personhood of womankind is so easily stolen away. The fact of our existence together has made this un-love meaning of the word automatic, assumed. Womanhood, which requires no apology, is always being apologized.

When Jesus says woman, he must be saying something else. He is not tired, perturbed, frustrated or inconvenienced by Mary’s request. Otherwise, why would he have answered her prayer? He was going to reveal himself soon, why not now? His plan was to make himself widely known as the Son of God who is love, and to train a group of disciples enough to carry on speaking his Father’s love language when his mouth was no longer here on earth to shape words with breath, lip, tooth and tongue. Mary helped him choose the moment. This woman participated in designing the occasion. “Woman!”

If with Jesus, why not also with me?

I am convicted to be more careful with every word belonging to Jesus. His words, every one of them, must mean I love you. Even when he rebukes people harshly, for there are many octaves and melodies that sing the same message. Love can be consuming fire and demand, but Jesus’ words will always mean the same. And if his words, why not also all of mine. You cannot depend on mine so well as his, but I am seeing in this cell-meeting-revelation that I have but barely begun to try.

Jesus, Mother, Please

Jesus, mother me, as your mother mothered you in that moment. Make my moments ready, and me ready in them, to soak every word in love. Anselm, a 12th century Benedictine Monk, makes a nice attempt in this prayer below. He is uplifting a woman-adjacent word: mother.

So many things can be said with this one word as well, mother. I won’t list the seven that fly to the surface of my mind but you might pause again to consider the infinity living inside words like this one. Anselm means Jesus with it, which I believe is one way that he said I love you to every mother ever.  He speaks from many centuries in the past to confirm the always-true nature of Jesus’ forever-gentleness and constant love. Let this prayer shape your heart and words. Send them to your mother this weekend for Mother’s Day, whether she is alive or not, or send your own words, whatever means I love you  in ways that mean for you and her.

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.
In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.


Anselm (1033-1109) More about him on Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog

P.S. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!