Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 22)

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

Knowing the Good

South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken’s 1000th delivery celebration

When the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team gathered to celebrate their 1000th delivery last week I led them in a ritual of naming the Good. Of course we know the work we are doing is good. We organized with the wider South Jersey Mutual Aid Network at the beginning of the pandemic to offer solidarity not charity. We say that food insecurity is not a just matter of individual scarcity; it is a matter of unbalanced distribution of food abundance. And that is a community problem, not just an individual problem. I say to all the people in our network who I call back from our google voicemail box, “Somos vecinos!”(we are neighbors!)

That little sign-off, “Somos vecinos!”, is the same sort of naming the good that I was leading the team to do at our Zoom celebration. Our relationship needs a name. It is good that we are together in this. We must do what little we can to reshape the narrative about the common good. The more mutuality, the better, but it is hard to move against the current of other stories about what is good like “self-reliance”, “individual responsibility”, “the private pursuit of happiness.” I’m not saying those things are not good in and of themselves, but that they are too loud in my context; they are drowning out alternatives — alternatives which are badly needed in our delivery area, Pennsauken and Camden, NJ.

What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

I’m tying myself in knots trying to describe what is good. There are competing claims, many stories. All have merits but none matter as much as actually doing good. We know what is best by doing, not by saying. This, I think, is an obvious human characteristic; but it’s so obvious it is easily forgotten. We are attracted to the complexity of expertise, the power of a well crafted argument, the boldness of a brilliant speaker. We are bombarded by too many champions of too many causes. Many of us have become adept at ignoring each other — simply for self protection, not apathy. The habit bleeds over into actual relationships until we never answer the phone and rarely read our emails or even texts. Isolation was a pandemic before Covid-19. What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

That’s why the ritual with the Compassion Team was so important. We needed to feel the basic wisdom. We are doing! And there is valuable information in that experience of doing which needs to rise to the top of our experience. We don’t want it to be buried under the noise. The knowledge of doing breeds more peace of mind and longer endurance when it is necessary. The work we do on the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team does, indeed, require endurance. It is constant. Week by week we field phone calls, gather donations, pack boxes and deliver enough food to feed families as big as 11 or 14 for four days.  if we don’t feel the intuitive knowledge of doing we won’t last long.

Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration.

There is a difference between knowing what we are doing IS good and knowing the good as we do it. Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration. Otherwise we get stuck in the argument, or we forget to make the connections between our ideas and our experience. If we don’t savor those moments of knowing the good is good, of participation in the Good, we will burn out.

So name the good, yes, and do the good, and then notice the feeling of the doing. This is a way to BE good in a way that does not require proof. You’ll know and that will fuel more than any claim ABOUT you or what you do.

We’re learning something old.

Jesus put it this way in Matthew 21:28-32 (The Parable of the Two Sons)

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

I am very grateful for a group of passionate people, some of them Jesus followers form Circle of Hope but many of them not. I think we are learning this basic human wisdom alongside each other. You know something when you do it, not when you say it. The sons figured this out. The tax collectors and prostitutes figured this out. It was the religious people whom Jesus was talking to that forgot it. I’m motivated to keep going in what I’ve been given to do because, at least to a degree, I am finding the joy of this wisdom, too, and it is giving me LIFE. I am looking forward to more good, and I am confident because I trust the Source of Goodness, Jesus him-living-self.

WORD-ing

I have successfully kept one of my New Year’s resolutions to my birthday. It feels good. I describe the resolution in this video I shot for Circle of Hope’s midweek reflection #sundaysarenotenough.

WORD-ing makes things more real. It makes my insides more real to me. It makes me more of who I am, and better, it makes me more of who I want to be. My imagination shapes my direction, which points my present. George MacDonald is my literary and spiritual hero. I call him my grandfather, so my New Year’s resolution was to spend the year WORD-ing with him.

Each morning (or afternoon or evening) I write the words of the seven line poem he wrote for every day of the year and published in a collection called A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul.  Then I reflect on what the poem says to me, or just try to give shape to what is happening inside of me or in the life of my community.

George MacDonald’s WORD-ing

Here’s an example from February 19, 2021

Here’s what Grandfather  MacDonald said that day

Lord, in thy spirit’s hurricane, I pray,
Strip my soul naked—dress it then thy way.
Change for me all my rags to cloth of gold.
Who would not poverty for riches yield?
A hovel sell to buy a treasure-field?
Who would a mess of porridge careful hold
Against the universe’s birthright old?

My WORD-ing

And here’s what I had to say. You might notice that the two do not have much to do with each other, but the rhymes and the bowl borne food. Yeah, that’s how it is. This was about feeling kind of sleepy and struggling to remember my dreams in hopes that they were theophanic. It was also about being hungry and wanting to be satisfied by something other than food, as the MacDonald poem clearly suggest — so I guess there is a real connection. You can listen to me read my poem on my soundcloud where I have recorded all the poems that appear on this blog.

February 19 

Still hoping breakfast breaks benighted limbs
So locked in an unconscious grapple hold —
A wrestling rest with someone — could be him
Who wrenched the hip of Jacob so it’s told;
If only trust for dreams uncontrolled
Could pierce the soul of my confusing, dim
And dumb born dawn, here in my breakfast bowl.

I wrote this poem before breakfast but made sure that my breakfast was out of a bowl. It was a grapefruit. Thanks for reading. Maybe you’re inspired.

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER!

ALL CAPS!

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER!!!

I’m excited to FEEL how true this is once again after spending 90 minutes with my Circle of Hope partners last night at a Gifts for Growing event I organized with Jane and Scott Clinton. We had a simple plan: make a space where it was safe enough to ask question, and share resources about money and our relationship with it, and ask the Holy Spirit to make something good in that space. Guess what, it worked!

We were asking, “Is having and generating wealth okay?” Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10,  “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” but it often gets misquoted as “Money is the root of all evil.” And then we think we might get dirty if we use it  wisely. Jesus does make it clear that wealth is a spiritual danger. And the love of money has certainly wreaked havoc on much of human history. Our goal last night  was to simply shine a light on money and the power it has over us. We said, with John in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Our goal was to put money in the light so we could make sure it stays in it’s right place. It will only stay a tool and not make us its tool if we watch it together regularly.

Jane and Scott got us warmed up with stories about their financial upbringing and history. They were very transparent and engaging. Their heart for sharing has grown as their personal resources have increased. At one point not too long ago, Jane realized that if they increased their monthly sharing by about $30 they would be sharing more with their church community than they were paying on their mortgage. Jane loved that upside down comparison and made it happen.

This kind of transparency about money is not at all common. It requires a trust that is beyond human capacity. I saw the Holy Spirit moving in Scott and Jane. Two other people shared about how they had spent several months sharing all of their financial information with a group of people in the church — every dollar of income and every cent of expense –every bit of debt and every hope for the future. It was an astonishing feat of faith and trust. Sharing our resource really does bring freedom and unleash power! It also deepens faith and makes love grow in ways it never would as the world would have it.

We keep pushing money back into its place with conversations like this one, but the general consensus was that we need much more dialogue. Many were inspired to keep stoking the dialogue.

Financial resources forum at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net?

Here is one more concrete vision for what might come from our dialogue

Finances can be such a big and overwhelming topic. Let’s make a website with trusted resources so people can just click and go. Sometimes you just need a push like that, “Here’s a trusted resource, I’ll try that!”

Putting a financial question out there on one of our listservs might just seem too  risky or embarrassing, or maybe too much work, so let’s make another forum for asking financial advice — a place on our Way of Jesus website dedicated to finances with a forum type component. Anybody want to be part of moderating such a dialogue?

Things we need:

  • Making a Will (“I used so-and-so to help with my will”, “Everence has a credit to help pay for the cost of making a will”)
  • List of trusted local banks/lenders
  • How do mortgages work, where does the interest money go?, what banks might be best to bank with in order to keep more money in our local communities?)
  • Who have our trusted partners used  for Financial Planning?
  • What kind of investing is most ethical? Who can I trust?
  • Which locally owned and personally connected small businesses are we supporting, promoting, and encouraging?
  • What kind of debt is good and what kind of debt is bad?
  • How do you understand, build or repair your Credit Score?
    What about Student Loans (for former students and for prospective students and parents) How might we be paying, consolidating and avoiding them (with more access and information about scholarships etc.)
    Giving – Why share? Stories of  blessing/benefits. And stories of receiving (How about a place to post stories of gratitude from the mutuality fund and other sources? Could be anonymous if you want.)
  • Consultations on specific financial opportunities. 

Does this excite you? Talk to Mark Mumbauer. I can help connect you. My email is [email protected]

Circle of Hope’s Proverbs

Here are Circle of Hope’s Proverbs which informed this dialogue. Each is a little poem in itself, and I’ll let you inpack them if you wish.

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER

  • We share our resources of time, money and love person to person, with the leaders, between congregations.
  • All our money belongs to God; the percentage we share in our Common Fund reflects our mutual commitment to be an authentic church.
  • Minimally, members of our covenant share in our public meeting times, participate in a cell, express themselves in service and contribute to our Common Fund.
  • As part of our obligation to mutually share resources with the poor and lost, we invest at least 20% of our Common Fund income in causes beyond our basic common needs.
  • We live out our goals according to what we have, not what we should have. Don’t try to live off the holes in the Swiss cheese.
  • We are called to owe nothing to anyone but love. We are determined not to be debt slaves and determined to share with abandon and fully participate in the imagination and responsibility of partnership in Christ.

 

Two Recent Sonnets

When I go on retreat, which I try to do quarterly, I like to review my journals. This is a common practice for journal keepers. It’s easy to forget where God has been, or to have missed how present God was in a previous moment when you were mired in the vagaries of that moment. In a recent review, I found my New Year’s resolutions from January 2020 . They included having people over to dinner twice a month. Ha! They also included that I would post a poem on this blog once a month. I did not do that. So here is a remedy. Two recent sonnets I wrote;

Seagulls are almost raptors

Could Be a Raptor
A Sonnet for Birders

O fix your eyes on a heavenly host–
Those wind-hovering ecstatics of sky,
Held up by figures of physics and ghosts,
By feathers canting “Wonder!” “How?” and “Why?”

May your own neck ever swivel for wings,
And long gaze ever rest right where you saw
Up there! and right there! something, O! — something
That’s swooping down, talons open towards awe.

May trust in each potential eagle spied;
In every would be hawk that is a crow;
In seagulls, yes, take them, wings open wide,
Half raptor beauties, all gripping air’s flow,

Make hearts rise with all the birds you have dreamed–
And soar on lift of desire’s thermal streams.
__________
Walking on Collings Ave, January 12, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.

 

The bay at Sunset, Margate, NJ 2/4/2021

Earth’s Most Careful Feet
for the Browns

Declaring absolution for shells crushed
Beneath my feet, I walked the glittered sand
Too littered full with shining treasures flushed
From gentle rush and pull of ocean’s hands
For Earth’s most careful feet to miss them all.
It is decided—crushing shells can’t be
A sin, and if it be, then sinner I shall
Go on being—so going by a sea
Now emptied by the cold but golden faced
From sun’s thus angled gilding of the tide
In patterns left like slips of satin, lace
Retreating, leaving fringe on edges’ glides
I wonder again if footprints belong(?)
No, not unless God’s tide had pulled you strong.
__________

Walking in Margate,  February 5, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So choose a tribe that embraces your doubts

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ faithfulness is our example

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

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

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

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

And that could be a OK if we admit it

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

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

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

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

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

South Jersey Cell Leaders on Zoom

How to Read the Most Brutal Parts of the Old Testament

Getting to Know the Bible (Part 10)

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

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

Longing for a Place You Have Never Been

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

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

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

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

Henri Nouwen on story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep at It

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

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

It’s Great to Do This in Community

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

Further Resources

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

 

We need your shininess! Tell Your Story

Shine Bright!

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

>>>>>>>>>>>

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

 

Krista DuttThe Dwelling Place, Chicago, IL

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

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

Hank JohnsonHarrisburg BIC, Harrisburg, PA

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

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

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

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

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

John Grimshaw, Lakeview Community Church, Goodrich, MI

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua Nolt, Lancaster BIC, Lancaster, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your story?

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

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

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

See You Next Time?

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

I Like Listening to James Cone

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

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

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

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

Cone writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 7 Post of 2020

 

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

The truck that delivered the problem

7. Laughable Abundance: a story for your bouyancy

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

Charles Alston “Man Emerging” 1969

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

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

5. How Does a Christian Celebrate Memorial Day?

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

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

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

3. Have You Sung Together on Zoom Yet?

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

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

2. How do Yoga and Christianity Intersect?

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

1. What if Online Church Sucks?

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

Thanks for reading

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

“Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” Verse Four Explained

The Best Verse of Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing Requires Some Explaining

“Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” is my favorite Christmas Carol. It was a family favorite growing up but it became a personal favorite when I was driving home form the hospital after my first son, Oliver was born. Carrie Underwood was singing it on  B101, when it struck me as I made the turn from Spruce Street on to 38th Street in university City, that Jesus also came to be with my son. This life i had chosen to bring into the world was anticipated and provided for by the Newborn Prince of Peace. I had been grateful for this gift of Love for myself but never had I yet been so grateful for the salvation of another. Fatherhood had pulled me out of my self circumscription sufficiently to weep for joy of the Lord’s nearness to another. I think that moment with Carrie Underwood in the car, less than 24 hours after Oliver’s birth, was when I actually became a father.

Baby Oliver

But Carrie Underwood, like many before her, skips the fourth verse. Here it is as I know it.

Come Desire of Nations, come! Fix in us thy humble home.
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed! Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s image now efface, Stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.

I just learned on Wikipedia that this song  features lyrical contributions from Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, two of the founding ministers of Methodism, with music adapted from “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen” by Felix Mendelssohn. This version of verse four is a mash up of Wesley’s original version in 1739 and Whitefield’s adaptation in 1758. The wikipedia article also shows how many hymnals don’t even have a verse four. But verse four is the best verse!

The “desire of the nations” is the prophesied coming Messiah (Hag 2:7).  God wants to dwell in us. We are God’s home. The “woman’s conquering seed” comes from Genesis. After Adam and Eve sinned, God promises that the seed of the Woman will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15).  This child, born of a virgin (Isa 7:14), will make all things right that was broken in the Garden. As Jesus rises, we ask him to bruise in us the serpent’s head.  Jesus is coming into the world in the drama of Advent and again in his Second Advent (“advent” means coming) to  undo the sting of sin and death. The source of it will will be crushed!  We sing to Jesus, this conquering seed, “Efface the image of Adam, the first Adam, and stamp a new image in it’s place, your image, Jesus, the “Second Adam from above” (“efface” means to scratch out or erase.)

Here’s the scripture from Corinthians that gives us this language:

“So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.  The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” – 1 Corinthians 15:44b-49

I love the future orientation of this fourth verse. Christmas is not just about something that happened in the past. It is happening here and now in us and is going to happen even more , for every child that is born until Jesus returns. (Here’s some love to travisagnew.org for the Bible references compilation.)

But who is Adam?

Pete Enns

Pette Enns is releasing a new edition of his 2012 book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins and on a recent episode of his podcast, The Bible for Normal People (Episode 148: Adam, Evangelicalism, & the Metanarrative of Evolution  November 22, 2020), he walked through some of his argument in the book. His most noteworthy claim is there was not a historical Adam and Eve. Evangelical attempts to maintain a belief in a historical Adam  and incorporate what we have learned through scientific discovery will inevitably fail. “You can’t pin the scientific tail on the evangelical donkey” he says in the podcast, “We can’t simply merge the ancient world and the modern scientific one.”

I love the imagery he uses of trying to solder on the new information from science to the traditional theological reading of the Genesis account of human origins. Enns says we need a synthesis of theology and science and this means that the basic theology musty be impacted by the science.

His soldering image called to mind a time when I was trying to solder the fitting of the pipe that went from my basement under the porch and out to the spigot in the front yard. The pipe had frozen and I was replacing it with my minimal plumbing skills and with minimal time. I didn’t wait for the pipe to adequately dry after turning off the water, so their was still water in the pipe. I do not know how plumbers who know how to do this deal with this problem, but my solution was just to not wait and put a ton of solder on the joint. It did not work very well. The water inside the pipe kept bubbling through the liquid metal I was trying to melt onto the joint. I got it water tight after several attempts and I imagine the globby mess is still on that pipe in that basement in West Philly which I no longer own.

It’s ok for our ideas about God, the origins of the cosmos and our own thoughts about it not to work. Properly done, the job will take time and it won’t be pretty. Because we are “in the pipe” so to speak. Life is a constant flow of water and we might not ever be able to shut off the water at all. Pete Enns says, and with this I heartily agree , “To claim that God doesn’t change doesn’t mean that our understanding of God should never change.”

Enns’ example: What does it mean to say with the iron age poet who wrote Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God”? when the known universe is 546 sixtillion miles wide. In the podcast, Enns demonstrates how incomprehensibly big this is by talking about how long  it would take to count “1, 2, 3 … all the way up to 546 sixtillion,

“This is were my calculator just gives up . It punts it spits out 1.75 followed by  sixteen zeros which is just south of twenty quadrillion years to count the size of the universe and that number quadrillion  means nothing to us. These are incomprehensible numbers….The thought of it all should be unsettling to all who are paying attention…The staggering dimensions and vast age of the universe coupled with the revolutions of relativity and quantum physics are psychologically and spiritually disorienting.” – Pete Enns

… Wow.

Whoever the First Adam is or Was. The Second Adam is on His Way

There isn’t much comfort in that disorientation. I feel grateful that I don’t have a lot of anxiety about what it all means. I am confident that all will be revealed by the Second Adam, when he comes to raise us from the dead and bestow upon us the inheritance of his resurrection life in our renewed bodies.

“If/When” by the Tea Club — Cover Art by Kendra McGowan

 

On Christmas Day, when I sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” I won’t be focused on the incomprehensible past but the incomprehensible future. There is just as much disorienting mystery in that new reality we are promised. The immensity of time and space, for me, are a lovely amplification of the staggering mercy of God, that God would be with us in this tiny, seemingly insignificant, but apparently very significant pale blue dot in an effectively infinite cosmos. Yes, God came to be with us. God came to be with me and with you, and with my son. And God’s plan does not end in the current mystery of my unknowing.

To quote my favorite band and my brothers in Christ, Dan and Pat McGowan of The Tea Club in their anthem, Creature,

“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing.”

“Adam’s image now efface!/Stamp thine image in its place!/Second Adam from above,/Reinstate us in thy love.” (This choir just posted the “full” version)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

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