Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 23)

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

To the Graduates of 2021

This is to the graduates – college grads, high school grads, other kinds of grads, too. In my neck of the woods I’m talking to Camden, Pennsauken, Collingswood, Cherry Hill East and West, Haddon Township, Gloucester City, Audubon High Schools, and more. I’m talking to Rutgers, Rowan, the community colleges in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties and more at that level, too. (Much love to the universities that made my home turf, “University City”, in Philly as well). To ALL the graduates, I’m sending you love. What a time to start out with something new! What a time to step into your agency! How much you have had to face! How different were your last two years of school than you had ever expected! What is it like to face THIS world into which you are delivered? Note that last sentence has a question mark and all the others were exclamations. These are my reflections for you but I don’t really know what it’s like. I can only imagine. 

Campesinos and Coffee

When I was 18 I won the oratory competition for my senior class. I delivered a very practiced speech on the injustice of the international coffee trade which featured a campesino in Colombia I had completely invented. I vowed to only ever drink fair trade coffee (And this was when fair trade coffee wasn’t even very much of a thing… AND, and I write this while sipping Dunkin Donuts.) I was very idealistic, and I hadn’t had much time for compromises yet. I’m not recommending compromises to you; I think that vow was better than my current convenience, but it happens. And I’m telling you that it happened to me so I don’t come off as just another old guy pontificating (even if that’s unavoidable).

I also bring up the oratory award because way back then, it triggered a nudge from my class’s sponsor to enter another speech competition to determine who would give the “class address” at our graduation ceremony. This was a separate speech from the “valedictory address” given by the valedictorian and the “Parents Acknowledgment” given by the class president (There were a lot of addresses). So I decided to enter that competition at the last minute, but I needed a speech.

Dad Said Get Mad

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool in our basement as my dad cut my hair and asking him what he thought needed to be said. I’m doing the same thing now as I write this blog. My dad said something like, “I think you should acknowledge the anger. There are all kinds of problems you’re inheriting and those in power don’t seem to care at all.” It resonated with me. 

It sounded like a punk anthem my brothers and I were always playing in the car:

KLOVEROur Way (1995)

“We’re the radiation generation
When we was born I wish iId known
Mom and daddy got the meat
And we got the bone”

I felt that jilted. WTF mom and daddy! Punk may be kind of dead so I went looking for a contemporary example, and it wasn’t hard to find.

AJRWay Less Sad (2021)

I wake up and I’m not so mad at Twitter now
Livin’ sucks but it’s suckin’ just a little now
And I don’t wanna cry no more
So I set my bar real low

Don’t you love it, don’t you love it?
No, I ain’t happy yet
But I’m way less sad

Dang! It’s got that same clear-eyed understanding of how jacked up the world is 25 years later, but so much more resignation. AJR is setting the bar real low with a happy vibe that is dripping with irony. I think that irony is a response to the same anger I was vibing with 20 years ago. Yes, I am officially THAT old, but I don’t think my class has organized a 20 year reunion. By the way, a four year old shouted “old man” at me to his mother’s horror today as I left the Dunkin Donuts. It was too fitting because I had already begun this reflection. In response to her apology I said, “It’s ok, he’s right.”

It’s True, I’m an Old Man, but Can I Be Mad with You?

But this old man still feels jilted even though I have fully arrived at the power position our culture bestows upon me. My dad was less than ten years older than I am right now when he advised me in the basement to express my generation’s anger. That’s sitting heavy on me, for sure, but back to the story…

So I slapped a speech together for the selection committee of the class address. It wasn’t nearly as polished as my coffee speech, which I had delivered dozens of times during Academic Decathlon competitions, and I ended up bombing the delivery. I was not selected, but the class sponsor commended me for the honesty. It was not optimistic mountain climbing success delusions expected at such things. I like to think it was a prophecy. I can’t remember if it actually was.

But there are still many reasons to be angry, my graduating friends. I don’t need to tell you that, but I’d like to be another old guy telling you you’re right. I’d like to be another person listening and nodding their head at least. But more than that I would like to be someone who listens to you and follows, someone who hears the perennial prophecy of June for the same damn problems and does something that makes change. At the very least I would like to change. 

Even though… … … …

It might be impossible, but don’t set the bar real low. Even though there’s no certainty a college degree will get you a job. Even though trade careers are hard to find without some piece of paper or a family connection. Even though crippling student debt is still a sound piece of advice. Even though the racial reckoning that began last summer is resulting in ideological bickering that effectively avoids actually doing anything to address racial inequality. Even though climate catastrophe has moved from the prevention phasee into the adaptation phase. Even though gay folks your age still take their own lives rather than face their community’s refusal to help them know that they belong. Even though no, you “ain’t happy yet,” and “Why would I be happy?” seems like a very reasonable retort. Is it possible not to set the bar real low? You can give up on old guys like me, but don’t give up on yourself. There is a future.

And it doesn’t have to be you. 

There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you… but it can be. 

But Also Jesus

I believe the future is inevitable and it is good. Even if we leave the bar on the floor, there’s more than what we hope for, whether it’s low or high. Don’t give up on the future. One way to keep caring, and I would recommend it, is to follow Jesus, who’s got this whether we do or not. Jesus is doing something bigger than mountain climbing optimism or soul crushing acceptance of inevitable disaster. 

I think Jesus can help you become old and still love it when the young people are mad. Maybe you won’t compromise on fair trade coffee, or whatever else you care about. Maybe you will. But a better “maybe” would be that you get bigger than whether you get it right or not. Maybe that.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye, especially your eyes in the mirror. I can assure you the world is not getting better, but you might be. There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you all by yourself. But the world could use you just as you are right now — whether you care a lot or a little, whether your bar is low or high. I’ve found it works best with Jesus and his people. With them I have made it 20 years without giving up, and hoping for 20 more.

God bless you, graduates. Congratulations on living through impossible times. I think you’re doing great. And I’m listening.

 

Unpatriotic Reflections on Immigration for Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and Memorial Day

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

This song is my jam

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

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

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

[Gasp] We are worshippers

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

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

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

Our praise works best with a decided direction

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

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

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

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

There are so many ways to praise

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

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

How Jesus Says “Woman”

John 2:1-11

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

Every word can mean I love you

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

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

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

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

How I said woman

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

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

If with Jesus, why not also with me?

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

Jesus, Mother, Please

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

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

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

Amen

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

P.S. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Caring About Climate Catastrophe, Like a Chump

Paper or Plastic?

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

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

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

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

Fools for Christ and the Forces of Evil

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

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

Who I Am and Who I Want to Be

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

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

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

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

Board Games: A Doorway to an Inner Life

Going Deeper

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

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

Jesus’ Example

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

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

Board Games May Be a Way In

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

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

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

Life is for THIS

Our whole lives must be appropriated for the spiritual journey

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

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

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

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

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

 

Writing Through This Holy Week

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

Holy Week Sonnet Number 7 – Holy Saturday

April 3, 2021

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

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

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

Holy Week Sonnet Number 5 – Maundy Thursday

April 1, 2021
Luke 22:7–71

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

Holy Week Sonnet Number 4 – Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Week Sonnet Number 2 – Monday

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

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

Holy Week Sonnet Number 1 – Palm Sunday

March 28, 2021
Luke 19:28-44

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

 

Luke Learns to Listen — A Bible Story

Luke Learns to Listen

———–

Acts 16:6-10 (The Message)
They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas.

That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.

———–

Paul stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. I was walking  a few paces ahead with Silas and didn’t realize it until Timothy called to us, “Wait, he’s doing it again!” 

We were headed north on the road to Bithynia. The hills around us were just greening with spring and the cyprus trees on the ridge we climbed were swaying in a stiff but pleasant breeze. It seemed to me a beautiful day to be walking through the countryside with such a purpose as ours. I had travelled a lot more than many men I knew but never with this pulsing sense of importance. Each step we took seemed like a dream. The days were long, and some of the hills quite steep, but my body flexed and stretched with joy to carry me and the hope I had in me to those who had never heard the name of Jesus. It felt good to be on the road with Paul and Silas, and now, with Timothy whom we had met in Derbe.

Timothy’s shout woke me from my pleasant body meditation. We turned around, walking some hundred paces back to where Paul was standing with his eyes closed as if carefully listening — straining to hear some delicate melody or whisper in the cyprus that meant something more than just the turn of the season.

We stood there in a small circle around him for a moment until Silas asked, “What is it Paul?”

“It’s not right,” he muttered. “This isn’t the way.”

I stifled the urge to say, “Of course it is, there is only one road to Bithynia.” I had learned from the last time he stopped in the road at the previous northward fork into the Province of Asia. He wasn’t listening to just any wind. 

“Come on, we’re going back. We have to keep heading East.” Paul said as he suddenly about-faced and trotted back down the hill.

“I guess we’re heading to Troas, then?” Silas yelled his honest question after him.

“Maybe,” Paul yelled without turning around. I could tell by the way he said it that he was smiling. We hurried after him. Timothy hoisted the pack and brought up the rear. The Spirit of Jesus was leading us somewhere, but I had no idea where.

It was good not to know for a while. I had spent so much of my life discovering, deducing and deciding, that this life of surprises was exhilarating. Having no idea was a new experience for me and it felt good. Like my muscles on the road, I was using parts of me I didn’t know existed until then.

“Seems right to me, too.” Silas said, clapping my back, “Eastward it is!”  

A couple weeks later we were in Troas where I had some decent connections to offer the party and the mission. I found us lodging and we set up for a few days in the atrium of the Neandria Gate. We had only just begun the work of spreading the Good News in the rich port city before it was time to leave again.

Paul came to us on our fourth morning in Troas advising us to pack our bags. “We have to go to Macedonia.” he said.

This time I didn’t stifle my objection, “But Paul, I’ve already paid our rent for the week. We still have three more days.”

“We’ll have to take the loss. I had a dream last night.”

Then he told us of the Macedonian man begging him to come across the sea to help them. It was further than I had expected to go, but something about the way he told the story of his dream compelled me to go along with them. It was so plain — matter of fact. The dream was not a fanciful fleeting thought of unconsciousness; it was a message. And Paul did not doubt it. So neither did we.

I actually managed to get a refund on the room and put the money towards our fare on a trade vessel slated to sail for Neapolis in Macedonia the very next morning. Timothy and Silas had never sailed before and I tried to settle their apprehension. Odd that none of us was afraid of following this almost wild man’s dreams and feelings on the road. We were growing accustomed to that, I guess.  

It was a scramble to get everything ready that day, but we managed it so easily. In less than 24 hours after Paul told us about his dream, we were on a ship crossing the Aegean. After the bustle of the harbor we turned north across the wide water. I went to the stern of the boat and breathed the salty breeze. Steadying myself as the boat bounded over the dancing sea, I began to dream of who we would meet in Macedonia and wondered if I too would hear from God as Paul had. Nothing seemed impossible. 

How Psalm 23 Came to Be — A Bible Story

How Psalm 23 Came to Be

An imagined moment with the poet king

The King sat on his throne, harp in hand, looking out the window from his palace on the hill called Zion. The hills around him were green with spring and across the valley a huge flock of his own sheep grazed happily, not a shepherd in sight. He imagined himself as their shepherd, though in his herding days he had never tended a flock so big. His chief husbandman employed dozens of men to care for the royal flock, but either because of the distance or because they happened to be on the other side of the hill at that moment he could see none of them. And though he could do nothing for them now, nor did they need anything from him or anyone else, he half started from his royal seat to strike out across the valley to go to them. But they wouldn’t know him and he thought better of it. 

All Israel was his flock now and the business of the city he had built and the empire he dreamed it to be had many more needs that only he could address. The tenuous peace he now enjoyed, after so many years of struggle could  only be maintained by great wisdom. The path forward was barely a sheep path of matted grass, and he must pay careful attention to move his people forward through the winding way they must go. Delicate diplomacy, shrewd action and just the right measure of force required constant consultation and discernment. From without and within, Jerusalem’s peace was threatened by many dangers. All this needed his attention. 

Though not just yet. He knew that he also needed the songs he wrote in the afternoons if he was going to keep up with the demands of his dreams. There was always too much to do, and though he loved the doing, he knew his afternoon solitude gave him more strength for more doing. Each afternoon he dismissed all his officials and picked up his harp to see if there were any tunes in his heart that needed to be born as songs for his people, and sometimes just for him.

His shepherd-self of so many years ago would have never recognized him now. As to the sheep across the valley on the hill, he would be a stranger. But though the shepherd boy never knew the king, the king still knew the boy, and his thumb struck a chord that the boy, too, had loved to hear. And up from the green hills of spring sprang a new song:

A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

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