Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 20)

Pastor of Circle of Hope stationed at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ

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.

Have you sung together on Zoom yet?

Worship Woes

Have you sung together on Zoom yet?

It’s terrible, impossible, and I love it. I don’t know all the techy bits to tell you why, but Zoom only transmits one audio channel at a time. So if you try to sing together it frenetically bounces from one voice to another trying to figure out who’s speaking. I kind of feel bad for the poor little algorithm or whatever it is that does that math every time we sing on Circle of Hope’s Prayer Team’s meetings for Common Prayer on Tuesday mornings and Saturday afternoons.

Christians sing. It’s what we do. Not everyone has as many opportunities to sing as people who are part of a church. I mean, there’s the shower and the car when you’re by yourself maybe, but singing together all the time is a particularly Christian thing (not exclusively Christian of course, just very Christian in my experience). My mom and dad took my kids and their cousins on vacation together at their place in the Poconos and they wrote two different songs to sing. Charles Wesley wrote 6,500 hymns. I recently saw this lampoon of popular Christian worship music on YouTube and immediately wrote to the Circle of Hope Design Team leaders in gratitude for their innovation and creativity.

Grieving our very real loss

I have been particularly bereft by our inability to sing together very much. I love singing. We unite our whole beings in worship. That is we unite our own, body mind and soul — heart synced up with head through the bond of music and lyrics — body synced up with soul in our very breath. We get lined up in worship, even just in ourselves. But then we also get lined up with each other. A really good worship song, in my opinion, gets you to take a breath at the same time as everyone around you. (A good sound technician for a worship space mixes the sound so you can hear each other breathe). When I was 10 or 11 years old I attended a traditional hymn sing at the Ringgold Meeting House (this year’s event is cancelled but hope with me for Sunday, August 29, 2021, at 5:00 pm) and I will never forget the surreal feeling of sining an old hymn with each line punctuated by a very audible inhale in unison. We smiled at each other as we noticed it. It was so very lovely. Our bodies were completely in sync with each other and with the song which was directed toward God. I’ve read that in such circumstances even heart beats can synchronize!

But of course that might have been your nightmare last night. Singing together is a a great way to endanger a lot of people and yourself in the season of covid-19. Singing together on the  Prayer Call on Tuesdays at 7:15 am could be the upside down version of the Ringgold Meeting House hymn sing. We are painfully out of sync. It really is close to impossible. It’s more of a defiant trudge than a harmonious togetherness. But in that struggle to line up with one another, to follow the ill defined beat and unite with my brothers and sisters across the zoom lines has another kind of power to it. Without the benefit of actual somatic unity we are left with faith, hope and love alone. Faith that this prayer and song matters — to the ways of the world and the people with whom we are connecting, hope that we will be able to sing together again — that we will survive this mess and our community will endure, and love — love which is the easiest to imagine transcending all these barriers.

Resolve to adapt

Worship across the screen is difficult — certainly on the zoom call with our mics unmuted, and also singing along on YouTube live at circleofhope.net/onlinemeeting. I hope you will join me in moving beyond the lament of the loss and embrace the challenge of the new way of being together. It definitely takes more faith, hope and love from you, or directly channeled to you from God. The intangible power of tangible togetherness is no longer on our side. Worship might be becoming more of a discipline, accept it. Accept the challenge to praise. How many of the Psalms, our original worship book, follow the formula of defiant hope after all? We must start with the obstacles, that’s just how we are, but we must move beyond them as well. Let the strong conclusion of Psalm 27 encourage your bones (imagine courage sheathing your bones):

I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord.

— Psalm 27:13-14 (they put it to music in France)

If I Can Remember My Dreams

On vacation in the woods, I am trying to tune into my dreams. It’s working. I always ask my boys each morning if they had an dreams during the night, so I thought I should point that question at myself more seriously. I sleep very soundly and  rarely remember my dreams.  I lament the loss of spiritual spelunking that could be done in my unconscious storytelling.  Here are a few things that have been helping me remember my dreams:

  1. I hate to admit it, but a key to my success is not reaching for the phone first thing when I wake up. The blue light of the screen zaps my brain into another world (and usually I don’t want to be there).
  2. I’m also getting  a bit more sleep which is likely contributing. Going to bed is such a simple way to be healthy.  Don’t watch another episode of Call the Midwife or just hit replay when Hamilton is over for the fourth time (Two real life scenarios).
  3. Walking in the woods or having some other mind clearing bodily activity. Vacation is for vacating — a kind of making empty. Is my head so full of thoughts all the time that the dreams spill out instantly before they even have a chance to be recalled?
  4. Writing them down. I remember more details as I attempt to recreate and order the chaotic tide of images in which dreams come. For example, a dream on Monday night featured a steam powered garage door opener which was unremarkable in the moment (as I dreamed it), and only named as such in the written recitation.

Here’s a poem I wrote about the project. It’s in Common Meter because I recently learned that all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of the original Pokemon theme song.  But don’t sing this one to that tune until I’m posthumously famous, k?

If I can remember my dreams

If I can remember my dreams
It seems the day is won,
Nothing more than to shape the scene
To feel the work is done.

The labor of the waking eye
To reach back into sleep,
To grope that inner world of mine
With fingers blind and deep.

There only touch and feel to tell
What lies behind the sun,
What rises under every swell
Of moon and mind begun

Together in their vivid ball,
Unseen but very known,
Each swirl a pirouette of all
My heart could want to show.

To reconstruct this darkened dance
Here on this side of night
Is stuff of vision and of trance.
I’m grateful for what sight

Remains when morning breaks the plane,
And conscious thoughts unfurl
Today with all my senses trained
To know the outer world.

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poetry and images by Ben White

A Vast Inside-Us Sky: A Sonnet

I stayed up late a few nights ago working on a project which included taking some video footage of distant lightning. Only the faintest rumble was able to lurch across the miles to my ears. It had me wondering about the earliest observant humans who had time enough to wonder how lightning worked. Was there ever a thought with traction in ancient science that posited different sources for lightning and thunder? I didn’t look it up, but the thought seemed possible. They often correspond, but could the correlation be common coincidence and separation be the norm? It seemed conceivable. Stretching out my mind to those ancient sages wondering how things worked opened me up.

I need more space inside me these days. How about you? Doesn’t this pandemic demand more space? We are so constricted. I’m feeling so much external pressure. Maybe everything is not so determined. Maybe nothing is so certainly what it seems. May wonder bring you hope and breezy mornings where you can pray and stretch and feel. Here’s my sonnet for you today. It’s been a while!

A Vast Inside-Us Sky

The lightning and – one, two, three – the thunder.
The lightning and – wait for it – the crack!

When did ancient sages start to wonder
Whether that was sound’s shadow on light’s back?

The sound and the fury was one with the flash,
But somehow distance wrought time so immense
It severed fact from fact – light from crash –
Made space inside of oneness – undid dense,
Unquestioned wholeness, and left us more than
Seconds and miles from what passed in the sky.

Something happened in that opened door and
Mind that happens in every watching eye:

A vast inside-us sky between the bolt and peal
Stretched out wide forever from fact to fact and feel

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poem and photograph by Ben White

What to say to fear

Fear is a big part of everyone’s life in normal times, but in these “quarantimes” it is an even bigger part of our lives. We are sharing our fear in a much bigger way because we are all feeling a common threat. In some ways, this is a good thing because it’s not so lonely to feel scared. But the group project of fear can also amplify and intensify our fear until it is completely debilitating. What do we say to fear? How do we speak back to these feelings?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” – Jesus in Luke 12:32

Jesus said this in the middle of a passage all about the many expectations of difficulty he had for his little flock. Worry, anxiety, fear — they were all assumed. Jesus knows us. He knows where we live. That was his mission in joining us in the struggle of human existence here on Earth — God wanted to know humanity and be known as human. Jesus knows what fear is like. It is a daily part of our lives. He sees you and loves you. Receive the tenderness of Jesus calling us his “little flock,” and the promise of something-more beyond our present suffering. Fear must be met with faith — and faith makes us hopeful. Faith makes us courageous. Jesus wants to actually en-courage us. It is from this God-sent courage that we can talk back to fear.

What not to say to fear

You’re wrong.” Fear is not really something we can talk ourselves out of. Don’t you hate it when you are sharing your heart with someone and, even if it’s obvious they are trying to be delicate, they respond by trying to explain away your feelings? It feels terrible. It’s easy to see it when someone else says it to you, so why would you talk like that to yourself? Jesus doesn’t say you’re wrong for being afraid. He sees how afraid you are and loves you. Jesus wants to be with you in you’re fear. It helps to tell him about it, and to tell a Christian friend who can listen without making you feel even more terrible.

 

You’re bad.” Fear has done a lot of good in your life. It is a powerful instinct that has plunged very important messages deep into your brain. Without fear you might take foolish risks. Without fear you might not be able to relate very well. Without fear you would not be human. Your defense mechanisms serve a valuable purpose. They have kept you safe in an unsafe world. Jesus does not condemn your fear. He sees you, he loves you, and he offers himself as an alternative. Whenever Jesus says “Fear not” you can read it like a mother saying to a child awoken by a nightmare, “I know it’s scary but it’s over now.” Jesus doesn’t say, “It was only a dream go back to bed.” You’re part of his little flock. Don’t judge your fear; there is no transformation there.

 

You’re in charge. Fear wants to drive your car (thanks Rob Bell for this metaphor). Fear wants to be in charge . Fear wants you to follow. Maybe the cost of planting those protective messages so deep in our brains is an inability to see fear clearly. Have you ever driven home from work and realized only when you got to the driveway that you have no recollection of the commute? Fear is like that unconscious driving many people have experienced. Occasionally we wake up to the steering wheel and realize, “Oh, I’m driving!” Fear is often driving while you’re unaware. It’s more common to let fear be in charge without knowing it, but happens consciously sometimes too, especially in a pandemic, or other incredible trauma. Sometimes we see fear in charge of our direction and say, “This is fine.” I think this usually comes from exhaustion or despair (which might be two sides of the same coin — one physical, the other spiritual). Jesus knows you’re tired and offers a lighter load. Jesus wants to carry the weight so you can be a dignified agent of his world transformation project. Jesus wants you to drive and he helps you do it.

What to say to fear

Oh, there you are.” Jesus anticipated the fears of his little flock. He saw their unavoidable presence and made accomodations for that. The Peace of Christ is a real thing. Sometimes it comes in a woosh. Sometimes it takes a long time to find it in a dark season like this one. The answer to fear is Jesus himself and he is ever so gentle with us in our struggle. Let’s be gentle with him even when we can’t find his peace. When fear comes up, say “Oh, there you are. I knew you must have been around here somewhere.” Assuming fear is at work in your thinking and feeling wards off the element of surprise. If we can get out from the judgment of “you’re wrong” and “you’re bad” fear could be a bit more neutral. And a couple degrees of turning when responding to fear could make a big difference in your long term trajectory.

 

I see you.” This is incredibly powerful, and surprisingly so. There is something so transformational about naming and describing your fear. Honestly, I don’t completely understand it, but it has proven true for me and countless others. Naming your fear in a safe environment disempowers it. Telling Jesus your fears just works. Living in an environment with Jesus at the center like one of Circle of Hope’s cells makes this a lot easier, and a lot more common. Having a culture of looking fear in the eyes and saying “I see you” will change a person’s life.

 

Back seat.” “Oh, there you are, Fear. I see you. But you are not driving this car. Back seat.” Fear is along for the ride. There is no fear-less life. Fear is part of who we are. Jesus sees that and affirms that. He does not offer us a way out of our relationship with fear. Jesus invites us into a transformation of how we relate to fear. If you spend all your energy trying to eliminate fear, you’ll be fooling yourself and disregarding Jesus’ posture towards it. Why would all the Bible writers be so interested in fear if it were not a given? Here’s an exhaustive list of encouragement from Jesus, God and God’s messengers throughout the whole Bible from catholic-resources.org. Putting fear in the back seat acknowledges its presence in our lives but gives us enough space to realize that fear is not us. The more space we can get between us and our fear the better. Fear has things to teach us still, but with Jesus whispering “Don’t be afraid” in our ear every day, we will see fear for what it is and not for what it isn’t. My personal practice for creating that distance is contemplative prayer, but there are lots of ways to work on this.

 

Therapy can help, too. Check out circlecounseling.com. They are doing online sessions in the pandemic.

Jesus is with you, we are with you

This is a long process, and we never arrive. The best thing for this conversation with fear is community. Cells are working on this every week. Learn more about cells here. Our pastors teach about this regularly. Check out our YouTube channel and/or tune into our Sunday meeting at circleofhope.net/OnlineMeeting every Sunday at 5 pm. Jesus did not come just to correct you, tell you you’re bad or to disempower you. He came to do the opposite of all that and his plan did not include eliminating fear. In our community, we learn to trust him and speak back to fear, “Oh, there you are. I see you. Back seat.”

What would Paul say to the Church in the Philadelphia Region Today?

At the Getting to Know the Bible event on July 14th, twenty-five of us gathered to have a group project about understanding Paul as he is described in Acts and how he represents himself in his many letters. It was a 90 minute session so it was obviously just scraping the surface. The best part , arguably, was at the very end when we tried to adopt Paul’s voice in writing a letter to the church in the Philadelphia region (of which Circle of Hope is only a part).  Paul often writes his letter to address a problem. The problem that my co-presenter, Scott Shannon,  and I settled on was how Black Lives Matter is a point of division. People started throwing out phrases and ideas on the Zoom call and in the chat, and I took those notes as inspiration to write the following letter. These ideas are mine as inspired by the group and Paul, as he (and I)  are inspired by the Spirit, though I hope those gathered read it and offer me feedback so this can evolve.

To the Philadelphians and their region

We, Paul and his time-separated friends who gathered at the Getting to Know the Bible Zoom Call on July 14th, 2020, send you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave the city at the center of your region the reason to be and the power to live truly as a city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. We, who are in Christ, and thus New creations in him, send you all of our love without reservation for we know that God’s love is an infinite spring and our ability to love does not end when we reach the limits of our personal depths.

We are thankful for you, Church in the Philadelphia Region, for the way you dedicate yourselves to compassion, loving your neighbors practically in many ways and making a wide space of welcome for hope to grow and the Way of Jesus to be walked by many. You never give up scouting for opportunities for goodness. You see it everywhere and find ways to participate in the movements that aim to make your region and the world a place that looks more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus inaugurated this Kingdom, it has begun; and yet we are still only seeing it dimly — in soft focus through fog or in sharp bursts of clarity that never last very long — but we know it is there and we persevere in our hope that yes, one day soon, the Lord will return to bring all of our broken tries into their fullness, and bring all of the lies to destruction completely. On that day, when we see him face to face as he is, we shall be like him even as now we are becoming when we love and obey him.

Be careful not to lose your namesake of Philadelphia, for it is possible. Brotherly love and sisterly affection takes practice and is easily lost entirely. The lies of the evil one have taken root in your region and I see they are encroaching on you too. Are you too blinded? Have the lies already committed you to their cause? Have you bent the knee to a different story letting yourselves be tangled? Hack away, brothers and sisters, for you must not lose sight of what you have seen and who God has shown you to be in the reflection of Jesus’ eyes. Have you lost sight of those loving eyes. Have you lost your way along his Way?

I don’t care what you call it but you must live like Black Lives Matter. If you can’t find Jesus in this mess you will find him with those who are mourning comforting them with his presence. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with the least among you as he always said. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with all those crying for justice for the oppressed for Jesus, for did not the Lord himself say that he came to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to restore the sight of the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? You are not blind, so I am telling you, “See!”

See the way you value your money and property above the human lives of the poor. Yes, even you who are in the streets at the rally’s, the weeds of the world need your constant vigilance otherwise you will be choked like the Lord’s sower’s seed. Do not be haughty or think you are safe. Only Jesus makes you safe, keep your eyes on him and ask him daily for protection. See the way black and brown people are treated in your society and refuse to be satisfied until this has changed. Do not give up hope! Keep fighting the good fight. But do not fight each other, you need everyone you can get to actually make a dent in the evil of racism that has so ensnared you. See how you are divided? This will not do. You must bear with one another in love even as you continue to take down strongholds of the evil one’s power. This will not be easy but it is not either/or. We must do both.

White people, yield your privilege so you can learn to be subject to one another? White men in particular, as much as possible resolve to be silent in church and talk with your spouses and friends at home. Too long has the conversation been dominated by convenient correspondence with these strongholds of the evil one’s power. Too long has racism been able to take hold of your conversations even when the speakers were unaware of their submission. 

Listen to the people of color in the body; there are many in your region. Your commitment to togetherness will require you to listen longer than you ever have before. But be not afraid, the Lord will help you. The body is strong enough in the Holy Spirit to withstand this transformation. Persevere in your listening that you might see new things.

Now may the God of hope give everyone of you courage to go beyond your current vision. All of you will learn new things, of this I am sure. Walk by the faith planted firmly in you and watered by everlasting streams. Hold onto the vision of the future Jesus has promised and live from that until he comes again. And once the pandemic is safely behind you, begin again to greet one another with a holy kiss.

Peace,

Ben for Paul and maybe those on the call on Tuesday night

For more Gifts for Growing Events like this one visit wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/giftsforgrowing

Laughable Abundance: A Story for Your Buoyancy

Dear Friend,

Times are tough, right? Sorry, I don’t know how to say anything that doesn’t sound inadequate so I’ll leave that question there. I have a story that really helped me float through a day that started chin deep in the toughness of the times. Spoilers: nothing changes in the times, those of the world or the ongoing narrative of my life, but it seemed like God had a mind to inflate me that day. It all had to do with an abundance of milk that just kept making me laugh. Here’s the story:

The other morning while praying with Circle of Hope’s prayer team on a zoom call I was sitting in front of my house watching a young goose waddle along with its left winging hanging by its side. My heart went out to the gangly goose, black head feathers only just faintly beginning to plume, life expectancy flopping down with the injured wing. I was so moved by the sorry sight that I asked those gathered on the zoom call to pray for this goose. It seemed silly but since the Lord sees every sparrow I am sure this goose is in his care as well. I like to follow those little spurts of compassion no matter where they are splashing. But in my prayer, I was also seeing myself in the all-but-a-goner goose.

Adult Canada Goose with broken wing

I was feeling broken-winged, and I thought that Circle of Hope was looking a little broken-winged, too. I am charged, with the other pastors, to lead our church to discern together about our common direction next year, and that morning, it seemed to me that it wasn’t going that well.  I was fielding disagreement, dissatisfaction with the process, and my own mild despair that I wasn’t up for the task. It is really hard to make a group decision at any time, but especially during a pandemic when our only face time is on a screen. I was feeling separated. Our cultural conversation is co-opted by simplistic ideological purity tests which constantly tempt us. I was feeling divided. My heart was sore from some personal stuff that was weighing on me. I was feeling heavy.  So I prayed.

And this is how God responded:

A few weeks before, I had signed up to receive vegetables, milk, cheese and meat for 50 families through a connection with the Kingdom Builder’s Anabaptist Network and Mennonite Central Committee Philadelphia Program Coordaintor, ChiChi Oguekwe. ChiChi is my friend and I try to do whatever she says. I had a good idea for distributing the food through the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team that folks from my Circle fo Hope congregation had recently started in response to the pandemic, but I did not have a good idea about much else… apparently.

Problem #1 – I showed up to 50 boxes of vegetables and 50 boxes of milk, four gallons in each box (Thank God the cheese and meat was not delivered!). The stack of food was ridiculously too big to fit in my Toyota Prius. I told ChiChi with not a little embarrassment that I could not take all the food and to give some of my allotment to another church that had room to haul it. I bet my friend Juan a dollar that I could fit 75% of the boxes in my hatchback. I would have lost that bet I found out but not before ChiChi solved the problem and cancelled the bet. She produced a new friend named Alex who had come with a minivan that was going unused and he was willing to drive a load of boxes to Pennsauken. God bless Alex! God is good! I laughed out loud as I cruised over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

Problem #2 – I arrived to 3800 Marlton Pike still praising God that Alex was there to help. (Side note: On the way back I listened to the newly discovered podcast of a hero of mine, Miroslav Volf — the day was really turning around). When we arrived, a whole squad from the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team was at the building packing delivery boxes for that evening, people I had never met before included! I had no idea they would be there. They helped unload the boxes from our Prius and minivan and helped to fully assess the immensity of Problem #2. What were we going to do with all this milk? I really just hadn’t thought about all of the implications of accepting this donation. I was expecting 50 gallons total and we got 200 gallons! We have one fridge at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken which was at the moment full of apples (from a previous moment of laughable abundance which could probably be its own tale of buoyancy).

Lauren Smith, the leader of the team snapped into action. Calling another leader in the church who had his own mini-mutuality network in Gloucester City to which he could distribute some of the milk that would not fit in the fridge, even after we had emptied out the apples and very creatively stacked and shoved the fridge full of gallon jugs. Lauren, strapped her two young children into her Rav 4 and we loaded up her trunk with spoils of milk that would not (not on our watch) go spoiled, but would nourish a family or forty.  God bless Lauren and her team! God is good! I laughed out loud as I stacked full boxes of milk five high and shoved them against the fridge to make sure that the insulating seal wasn’t broken by the bulging milk within. Lauren stood by approvingly. Ha!

Problem #3 – We still had a lot of un-refrigerated milk. We earmarked as many 4 gallon boxes for folks in our mutual aid network who were slated to receive food deliveries that day. We figured the milk would be fine for a couple more hours, but that was only 18 families. It was 72 gallons of milk but that was not enough!

Here’s some more fun: It also happened to be election day, and don’t take our Anabaptist card, but we host the election at 3800 Marlton Pike. The firemen from whom we bought the building always used to do it and I thought it would be a good way to be known in our neighborhood. One of the election poll workers, Dolores, got looped into this problem (It was a super slow voting day since everyone got a mail-in ballot in NJ). She called up her church’s food pantry team leader who definitely wanted some milk. He came an hour or so later with a truck and took 40 gallons with him. God bless Congregación de Yahweh in East Camden. God is good! I laughed at the line-up of need and need, and the new friend, Pastor José Martinez of this Messianic Jewish congregation around the corner.

Problem #4 – We still had about 20 gallons of un-refrigerated milk and I had to leave. This whole debacle had been scheduled for a couple of hours of my day and it was already running at 100% more time than it got budgeted. I told Delores, and her sidekick, Deb, to offer a gallon of milk to everyone who came to vote for the rest of the day. “I’m counting on you for this, okay?” I said with another laugh as I slung my bag over my shoulder and retreated. When I came back five hours of later, all the un-refrigerated milk was gone! God bless Delores and Deb! God is good! I laughed as I gave an air high-five to Dolores from across the room.

And all of this buoyant laughter was essentially precipitated by my broken wings. Either by distraction, or incapacity, or lack of foresight, or any number of deficiencies to which I could assign my name, I had created a problem that ate up more of my day than I had planned. It was my fault. But God brought me through it with so much more joy than seemed possible as I pitied that broken bird in the morning and worried about how painfully apt my prayerful metaphor really was. I still have a lot to learn about team building, and delegation, and appropriate planning, and any number of gracefully describe “growth edges” to which I could assign my name. I still don’t know all the answers to my problems, and I am even more aware of how much I get it wrong sometimes. But God made me lighter that day. And God is enough. And God makes me laugh. And God is good! May you receive the flotation flowing your way today, or tomorrow, or whenever it comes (but it is coming!).

How does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Happy Fourth of July? How does a Christian celebrate the beginning of a nation with such a shaky foundation? Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths that were so abstract they excluded women and black people from their universality. The land the American Revolutionaries fought for was stolen from the First Nations people. But I don’t think calling out the obvious evil at the heart of the American project is a deep enough critique. In fact, critique is not deep enough at all. We must build an alternative which allows us to love the world from an entirely different footing.

Because this is where we live. The people in my neighborhood (whom I LOVE) are having a house decorating competition seeing who can be the most red, white and blue. What am I to do? Must I boycott the fanfare entirely? Must I close my eyes and ears to the fireworks? Must I register my non-participation by draping my house in the black of mourning (I considered that). I’m thinking my “yes” to the kingdom of God is more important than my “no” to empire. I say this in part because I despair at the prospect of making a significant impact. This might just be despair, but it might be the unavoidable truth of history.

From my perspective, human history is not a grand sweep toward progress, but a cycle of violence and collapse. The near future science fiction of Octavia Butler, written in the mid-nineties, seems eerily prophetic. I think that could actually happen! Empires rise and fall. The industrial revolution was less than 150 years ago. An incredibly short period of time! Throughout history, when the state of things ushers in more and more concentration of wealth, the powerful eventually lose. This seems inevitable. How then do I engage?

I recently read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, which is another prophetic book from the mid-nineties.  Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church has accommodated the political concerns of the State for most of its history. We have entered into the fray in many disastrous ways. They call this “Constantinianism” after the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, who co-opted the church for the unity of his empire. His empire fell but the arrangement between Church and State persisted and the modern Church in America has not repented even if separation of Church and State is part of the founding documents.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that both contemporary conservative and liberal churches in the United States have basically capitulated to the State. We have surrendered our imaginations to the limited options provided to us by the myth of American progress. Our prophecy is bound by two options: 1) “America is bad” and 2) “America is good.” The locus of change is in, and by, and for the State. William Cavanaugh wrote an excellent book called Migrations of the Holy which charts this development through time. Hauerwas and Willimon say that both conservative and liberal churches have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31).

Their alternative resonates with me. “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a ‘supportive institution’ and our clergy as members of a ‘helping profession.’ The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

But when the streets flood in the middle of a pandemic with people calling for a drastic reevaluation of how we ensure public safety for all people, I am stirred. I have gone to a few marches myself. I joined up with other faith leaders in New Jersey to consider what can actually be done to reimagine policing (faithinnewjersey.org). I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my window. I have dug deeper into the personal work of understanding my own deformation by this pernicious power of white supremacy in our culture.

All of these tactics coming out of the movement have been met by some suspicion from some folks in our church. They have read Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, or they have at least adopted its posture because we have been teaching it as Anabaptists for a long time. Are we conforming to the way of the world, and in so doing are we abandoning the Church’s alternative mandate? Are we standing on a side just because of our political persuasion? I have definitely heard this from the body, and I sympathize with that concern.

However, I see in the Gospels a decided sidedness to Jesus’ Way. God has forever been on the side of the poor and the oppressed. From the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the inauguration of the People of God, the scripture has reminded us again and again to be a peculiar people who does not cooperate with empire. And yet we have undoubtedly cooperated with empire and must be on guard against doing so now. Jesus’ teaching made an alternative abundantly clear. He was not creating a new morality, or a new ethic, or new means of righteousness. He was himself our righteousness and his teaching aimed to awaken us to a new way of seeing the world.  He called into question the foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and practice, and he ought to do the same to every generation and every nation.

The kingdom of God is a new way of seeing and being in the world. Jesus gave us a new place to stand. Jesus created a new humanity belonging to a new kingdom which allows us to speak to the empires, like America, or the G20, or Netflix, without centering ourselves on the outcomes of their worldly projects. We have a new identity in Christ which provides us the freedom to do more than critique and repent (though Jesus calls us to that as well). We can build on a foundation that will not be shaken because our Kingdom is eternal and is not subject to the course of empire.

But the people I love, especially the poor and the oppressed – especially the descendants of Black slaves who were not considered equal by the declaration that is celebrated this weekend –  especially the descendants of the First Nations people who have been systematically impoverished and killed via government sponsored genocide and ongoing marginalization – especially the descendants of the women who are still fighting for recognition of their full humanity and unmeasurable contribution to our communal wellbeing – these people whom I love, and whom Jesus leads me to love, require my partnership. I feel compelled to submit to the movements that seem viable to change the outcomes for these people.

When I join in these movements, when I am even led by them, am I abandoning the place Jesus has given us to stand? It’s possible. There is a real tension here. And I think Circle of Hope is feeling it. We must prioritize our togetherness as we figure this out together. If we let the confusion and disorientation of our incredibly polarized national conversation divide us, I am sure we will then be abandoning our God given new humanity. The bond of peace between us must persist or we will have nothing left to offer the world. The faith, hope and love that fuels Circle of Hope’s compassion and action on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (which is considerable!) will crumble if we cannot love one another through these difficult days.

I want to have something more to offer my neighbors than my objection to their celebration, and I think it is the Church. I think Circle of Hope really does create an excellent environment for people to connect with God and act for redemption. That redemption includes our prophetic voice to the evils of the world, but it also creates a protective container of grace which makes personal transformation possible.

This grace permeates my relationships with me red, white and blue addressed neighbors. I have spent years in the spiritual gym of Circle of Hope, learning to love people who disagree with me, irritate me and even attack me at times. The Church is a place where grace muscles are grown – where we become more than the limited imaginations given to us by the world.

We grow from the certainty of a future declared to us by Jesus, inaugurated by his death on the cross, confirmed in his resurrection from the dead, and manifested daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by all this promise and power from God, I believe we can stand together, love one another and offer an alternative, even as we diverge in how we engage in the struggles to which we are called.   

Hey (!), White People (!), We Get to Repent!

What an extraordinary moment in American History! A bunch of my friends are getting the day off for Juneteenth. There’s talk of making it a national holiday and I don’t think that sounds far-fetched.  Confederate monuments are coming down. Christopher Columbus statues are coming down. It seems like the last vestiges of racism in America are just about done and sorted out.

Syke!

It IS an extraordinary moment in American History but there is tons of racism still hanging around. And I’m pretty sure it will stay. They might try to get us to calm down with national holidays and changing the twenty dollar bill, but racism isn’t going away just like that. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but I need me to tell me this because I’m pretty excitable. I fall for the bells and whistles pretty hard pretty much every time. Oooh, shiny! Amazon gave me a movie for free! Oh wow! Philadelphia changed it’s police budget! Nice! Donald Trump changed his mind for once, what?! But the first thing we get to be excited about is not all these corporate and political high fives to what the powers that be are really hoping is a fad — no, not that, we get to be excited about repentance! (Which might yield the real change we are hoping for, and which, thank God, is not absent from the high-fiving, suspicious as it seems). I’m praying for as many people as possible to learn how good it feels to repent.

If this unique moment in my lifetime ends up NOT being a fad, it will be in large part because white people like me decide to love repentance. This is a tall order because we have individualized and moralized almost all of the grace and redemption out of our public dialogue. Justice, in its poor, worldly definition, is about punishment and we are still learning how to have a better imagination. But as a Christian, the best thing I have to bring to the dialogue is a familiarity with repentance. We can even bring joy to repentance. Of course repentance is often painful, but not at the root. The root of repentance is God’s kindness. And the first things fed by that wonderful root are empowerment to change — a “Yes!” we can change — and hope for transformation — Double “Yes!” We can change. Christians who grow from this root and are nurtured by its fruit can say with not a little gladness, “We get to  change!”

Paul warns us in Romans 2 not to show “contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” For we must realize “that God’s kindness is intended to lead [us] to repentance.” White Christians run the risk of demanding grace and redemption  instead of STANDING ON grace and redemption to face down the power of white supremacy in their lives. Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1 through 8 is a crescendo-ing symphonic plea to believe in and behave from Christ’s love. He is begging us to stand on Christ’s love. Paul’s argument climaxes at the end of chapter 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Racism and white supremacy are demons that shall not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But Paul does not say the demons aren’t real. He does not say the past does not threaten the present. We need this swelling song in our hearts all day long — 24/7, 365 — because we “face death all day long”! The lies we have believed consciously and otherwise are real threats. The reality of racism in the United States is undeniable and it’s pretty great that so many people are agreeing to do something about that right now. The thing I have to offer to what’s happening as one who has spent some time learning to repent is to bring a non-anxious presence to the process of exposing my own internalized white supremacy. Yes, it hurts.  I confess that I have been confused and uncomfortable often in the past few weeks. I haven’t figured it all out, and I really like to figure it all out. The discomfort is real, but I am letting it burn rather than snuffing it out. It feels like it is the  consuming fire of God.

This process of repentance will last my whole life, and the prospect of that would wear me down if I hadn’t already tasted the fruit of that tree whose root is God’s kindness. Repentance can feel good. I am revealing who am in Christ. I am putting to death what was already made dead when Christ died for me on the cross. I am uprooting the sin that entangles the kindness which was planted at the heart of me. My wounding will definitely be touched again and again, both the way I have been wounded and the way I have wounded others. Hopefully, my livelihood will be affected again and again. For our repentance ought to be actual and not relegated to some spiritual sentimentality. Surely, my relationships will be impacted again and again.  For I will need to change my behavior in demonstrable ways. This is all difficult to do, but if I can trust through the pain of all that exposure, I am confident that God will meet me with kindness and lead me through to the repentance which I was made for. I am convinced of this. We get to do this.

This moment in history is an opportunity for repentance to rise. We can get out from under the tininess of our super-individualized understandings of ourselves. We can escape the captivity of our definitions of a counterfeit justice rooted in punishment and experience some more imaginative prophecy for another possible world and another possible self for each of us. We can face the music of our complicity and cooperation with the lie of racism, confess it and be free to sing the new song of the New Jerusalem. We know where history is heading, and there are parts of us that are not going to make it to the end of time — THANK GOD! This is who we are as Christians. Let’s bring our best to it. We get to repent!

Happy Juneteenth, friends. I love you.

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