Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 24)

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

Lost and Found Resurrection – A Sonnet

The necklace in question

I was dumbstruck when I discovered the little resurrection pendant I had lost at least a year earlier in the parking lot of Circle of Hope’s building in South Jersey. I had lost it and looked everywhere in my house but never even began to look elsewhere. Yet, there it was right next to where I always park my car when I’m at the office. Granted, I hadn’t been to the office as much in a quarantine year when death felt so close and thus resurrection reminders seemed especially necessary. There were many reasons to feel dead, as there always are. Our collective proximity to death made communal in ticker tape Covid-19 death tolls, the killing of black people by police in broad daylight, the unavoidable weakening of a tight knit community’s bonds, were foremost for me. This discovery of Jesus, his abundant life shining in the harsh July heat, present for months in a spot in which I had, after returning to an office work flow, habituated for regular sulking, was a confounding dagger driven between my ribs. I think I might still be clutching it, afraid to remove this potent symbol lest I bleed out spiritually. I don’t know what to make of it, but I want to make it mean more than simple happiness. I didn’t sweep the house, dig the field or search in every market, and yet this pendant is fully coin, treasure and pearl. The fact that I wasn’t looking is the best part. Utterly undeserved grace!

Below is my sonnet  celebration à la Luke 15

The Parable of the Lost Coin
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

It is much more than this and much more than these fourteen lines…

Lost and Found Resurrection

Thank God this building makes a shady stoop
To sit on, idly minding more than ought
To be in mind, loop upon loop on loop.
For here one day, down deep into my fraught
With doom filled thoughts and failing hope, I stared
At rubble in a crumbly parking lot;
When from the asphalt past the umbra glared
A silver gleam long-lost upon this spot.
It was the pendant of stone rolled away!
My resurrection reminder misplaced
Had slipped off its chain one similar day;
And empty tomb lay witnessing a waste
Of one year-long, gray weariness, here all along,
When Jesus felt so absent but Lo! I was wrong.

 

You can listen to me read it here

 

I refuse to know everything!

It seems that if I am going to care about anything, I have to care about everything. The message that has flooded the basement and whole house of my imagination is “all or nothing.” How did this happen?

We (maybe humans; definitely North Americans) have a fascination with technique and expertise. Everyone could be an expert if they just practiced the prescribed technique for long enough; or, and this is more often the path that I have seen taken, everyone can be an expert if they convince enough people to call them one. We serve experts with honorifics and we rarely scrutinize their findings, usually because we could not understand their findings very well if we attempted it, but also because no one cares about the details very much, and those who do can’t agree about them anyway.

We prefer allusion and trust. This is because humans were made to be faithful creatures. Our instinct is to believe. Experts are demigods in whom we place our trust. Fortunately or unfortunately, today, there are enough to go around. Each household can place their small figurines of choice in their opinion’s shrine; or you can put in the effort to become divinized yourself.

This potential for godhood puts all of us at the trailhead of an infinitely branched path of knowledge. What’s your excuse for not figuring everything out, if anything is possible? We have the internet, don’t we? TikTok provides us with 30 second sermons by the tens of thousands every day does it not? Apply yourself! Get out of the car and hike the trailhead already. And if you don’t, well then we’re not listening.

Progress, the most worshipped god of the past 200 years, and the one to whom the United States was given in infant sacrifice due to the auspicious moment of that nation’s birth, has many prophets, priests and kings striving for our allegiance in ever more creative ways. Things must be getting better even when they are getting worse. The breakneck speed of science and technology leaves little room for contemplation. We do most things because we can, not because we should. “SHOULD” is a taboo, and I understand why you might avoid it, but without it there is usually only “CAN”. That’s scary.

Progress’s “CAN” demands the everything that arrests my capacity to care. Unless I’m an expert no one will listen to me. My misgivings are meaningless unless I can demonstrate my following. My wonderings about the wisdom of what we’re doing are laughable unless I’m officially notable on Twitter. And certainly, my upside down prophecy from Jesus’ stories and sayings about the kingdom of God are silly unless I can get them through the Senate.

NO.

I refuse to know everything. I can’t and I won’t, and I don’t want to be an expert either. Growing in the wisdom of Christ means I aspire to leave behind the fierce child-need to know — to know anything really — let alone everything. The paths of progress, no matter how multitudinous all lead to destruction. That which would make an idol of you or anyone in the guise of expertise; that which would discount your sense of something-more for lack of evidence; that which would make you feel small because you are not gargantuan; all these, and even much of what has been carefully constructed by Christians will be destroyed someday soon.

This is the confounding wisdom of the cross which I am more compelled to cling to today than I have yet been.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”

So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

There’s someone I can worship. I recognize this God with the deepest within me. That in me which so easily slips into worship of lesser deities was made to see itself in the reflection of God’s human face.

The Resurrection is a Whole Vibe

Rachel Sensenig, another Circle of Hope pastor, recently posted one of those billboard type posts on facebook: “Do I have to believe in the resurrection in order to be a Christian?”

It generated some facebook dialogue which might challenge the truth of our Circle of Hope proverb: “Dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity.” Maybe facebook “dialogue” can function as antigravity (???); but I digress. I was struck by how quickly some of her and my pastor friends jumped to answer the question definitively. “YES, of course you have to believe in the resurrection!” they said. One friend wrote a several paragraph facebook comment, which I would never recommend. I think I might sound like the problem is trying to talk sincerely on facebook, but what I really want to try to express is the major difference in vibe between Rachel’s response in her blog post which was linked in this post and the answers our pastor friends were giving.

Rachel had so much generosity and empathy. The facebook answer-ers were dead on arrival if they were going for generosity and empathy. That would be like trying to do brain surgery with a shovel. But here’s some generosity and empathy for them, too: the AI that runs facebook fed this  question to everyone whom it believed it would scandalized. That is what facebook is for and the robots are really good at collision courses. How could our friends resist? Also, I truly believe they were just trying to answer Rachel’s question for anyone who saw her post and might be wondering. It was an opportunity for them to share their conviction They might have even thought that Rachel’s question was a little too open ended. They could have been reacting to a trend in some sections of academia that mostly only seminarians are aware of in which claims about the bodily resurrection of Jesus are regularly called into question, and in which elaborate alternatives are regularly presented.

FWIW I believe that Jesus rose from the dead and so does Rachel. But, “No, you do not HAVE to believe anything.” – Rachel Sensenig. She actually said that!

We’ve been agreeing with questions in our Sunday meetings at Circle of Hope all summer and I am so glad we did. Our “sermon series” has been “Questions (Not Answers) We Agree With.” It has been very refreshing to think and talk on this other wavelength. Each week I say something like “Answers are good for some things but not all things. We want to see if lingering in the questions gives us another kind of revelation.” This little facebook interaction was a parable that helped me understand this difference in vibe that means so much to me. The fact is, many and probably most people really, really want answers. And I don’t. That can be incredibly dissatisfying if you come to me looking for answers, and I’m sorry if I’ve frustrated you. Also, I’m a hypocrite, and just as addicted to answers as the next person, so I betcha I’ve given a few of you some pretty obnoxious answers as well. Sorry for that too.

I am a pretty cerebral person. I have studied a lot. I like talking about answers, and many of my conclusions about God, the Universe and Everything Else are pretty rad. I like them. But, more and more, I am aware of how little love and discipleship of Jesus they produce — and love and discipleship of Jesus is what I REALLY care about.

Rachel agreed with the question for a long time. She demonstrated the validity of the question. She wondered how to help people struggling with cognitive belief.  For Rachel, there was no danger in having that thought because her truest self is hidden in Christ with God. I have a hunch (and a dearest held hope) that my deepest self in Christ will surprise me in many ways, and correct me on several of my rad conclusions. Come, Lord Jesus!

Rachel focused on the person of Jesus and the gift that he offers us who would believe without seeing. Jesus blesses us with a blessing for the struggle of believing. For all who would trust Jesus alive without seeing his wounded body with their own eyes like Thomas did at the end of John’s gospel Jesus utters a prayer: “blessed are they!”

In her blog post, Rachel was doing what my spiritual grandfather, George MacDonald, would hope all Christian teachers would do in this quote (BTW I love how she breaks his antiquated “universal” male pronouns).

“I believe that to him who obeys, and thus opens the doors of his heart to receive the eternal gift, God gives the spirit of his son, the spirit of himself, to be in him, and lead him to the understanding of all truth; that the true disciple shall thus always know what he ought to do, though not necessarily what another ought to do; that the spirit of the father and the son enlightens by teaching righteousness. I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth, to the Master himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it. I believe that the inspiration of the Almighty alone gives understanding. I believe that to be the disciple of Christ is the end of being; that to persuade men to be his disciples is the end of teaching.”
— George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons “Justice”

Obedience is what matters. Thoughts come and go, but the heart is shaped by what we do and who we aspire to be. Jesus instructs us to do ridiculous, dangerous, difficult things. To do any of them consistently requires lots of faith, failure, repentance and courage; and it will inevitably stir up not a small amount of doubt in you. Persisting in community, sharing in the struggle, talking about your fear, and walking in spite of your uncertainty, insincerity, hypocrisy and even occasional hopelessness IS faith. And faith in Jesus is trusting a person who was once dead for a while way back in the day. I trust he is alive to us now in a new way. The resurrection is something that we can much better vibe with and obey than we can even adequately describe, let alone always believe. The resurrection is the thing that is too good to be true, and yet is true. That makes Jesus the truest, and trusting him makes us truer.

An Old Sonnet: Facing the Eternal Word

I’m working on a few new poems that are just not quite ready. So here’s an older post that with a poem that came to mind this week. I thought I would share it again.

My Co-Authors: The Mother Delaware, C.S. Lewis, Joy Davidman, and the Apostles John and Paul

This morning I was sitting at the fishing pier in South Camden looking at the Delaware River, and Philadelphia from that eastern bank, and I wrote the sonnet below. Paul made an appearance in my heart song channeled through C.S. Lewis who we remember today on the Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog. C.S. Lewis died on  November 22, 1963. Till We Have Faces is my favorite novel of his (Though I love so many). It speaks so clearly to humanity’s uncanny capacity to deny ourselves as who we really are. Orual, the main character, literally covers her face for its perceived ugliness. The mask gives her a sense of power that cannot coexist with the love her sister, Psyche, has for a god who can only be seen by faith. Orual’s growth into the lie that she does not and cannot know this god or any god is masterfully chronicled in the first person narrative (shout out to Joy Davidman who helped Lewis develop it!)

Turning Away from Facelessness

1 John 3 assures us in verse 7 that we are connected to Jesus inextricably when we love on another. We are united with Jesus in his righteousness. “Beloved, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous.” Nothing about our true nature is irrevocable. Our love matters and it’s our love that makes us who we are. We can only rebel against our true selves; it is very difficult if not impossible to become our false selves, our masked selves, our faceless selves. Like Orual, we are not stuck in who we make ourselves to be. We can always be who we were made to be. We can embrace our facelessness,  or turn to face the one whose face looks like ours. 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” In our seeing the face of Jesus we find our true face. We find the heart of all our unmet longing. We find the forgotten and denied things we lost along the way. We find the foundation of every desire, the pulse of every loving heart. 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Yes!

The Sonnet

Facing the Eternal Word
after 1 John 3 and 1 Corinthians 13

You are the Word on the tip of our tongue.
You are the aim of that longing to say,
That word for which we gasp with raspy lungs —
That thought we can’t recall to light all day —
The thing behind the thing behind the thing.
Your bringing-forth being brings forth every quest,
Your at-one-ness at-ones our brought-forth beings
With him whose heartbeat woos us with what’s best,
And breast to breast brings rest to restless worlds.
We did not know we knew but we will find
In your embrace how we can place the words
We could not find with knowing yon of mind.
For though our sight is dimly lit right now,
Our facelessness will fade and we’ll know how.

……………………………………………………………………………..

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback and stories. Blessings to you today.

Making a splash in my neighborhood (You can too!)

Putting Circle of Hope on the Map in OUR Neighborhoods

This month, Circle of Hope sponsored the West Collingswood Extension Civic Association newsletter. That’s my neighborhood. It’s a wonderful, weird little slice of South Jersey. It is part of Haddon Township, but separated from the largest chunk of this patchwork township by Collingswood. AND my zip code always comes up as “Oaklyn, New Jersey” on my weather app. Very strange. This all goes to show that the lines that cut up the megalopolis are incredibly arbitrary. I’m glad Circle of Hope crosses almost all of them.

And yet, the West Collingswood Extension DOES have a sense of itself. It’s 16 residential square blocks that you can snake your dog through, walking every street, in 30 minutes. The West Collingswood Extension Civic Association has been in existence since 1939. The first Fourth of July Parade took place in 1943, and it has continued every year since! I think it was in the 1950s that everyone in the neighborhood pitched in to DIY-refurbish the old West Collingwood Train Station building which is now the headquarters of all our events and available to rent for parties.

I kind of put my foot in my mouth when I volunteered Circle of Hope to sponsor the printing of our July Newsletter because I had no idea how much color copies cost! It ended up being almost $300. I had to get permission from the other Circle of Hope pastors to foot such a bill out of our Common Fund budget’s outreach line, but thankfully they said yes.

Introducing the Neighborhood Love Project

But let’s keep being a tangible blessing  in every slice of South Jersey we live in. When you have an idea for how Circle of Hope can support you in blessing YOUR neighborhood, it would probably be better to know the cost BEFORE your promise any money on our behalf. I don’t think the $300 was a waste however, because Circle of Hope needs to get into a lot more neighborhoods. We need to literally put ourselves on the map as the West Collingswood Civic Association Vice President did in the July Newsletter.

I am convinced that there are a lot more people looking for the next generation of the church in our region than we yet know. We need to “let our little light shine” a bit more because there are a lot more people “down in the valley trying to get ho-o-o-ome” as our sisters sang at the At-Home Sunday Meeting a few months back (sing along). Let’s find them in our neighborhoods. If you have an idea for how to bless your neighbors with a little bit of money please submit your idea via email at [email protected] and put “Neighborhood Love Project” in the subject. Include a description of the project (and the cost!) Take pictures of whatever happens and I will tell the story on “Today, if You Hear His Voice.”

Highlights from July 4 with the West Collingswood Civic Association

Here are some more pictures from the Fourth of July parade. I got to emcee and host the games rocking my Circle of Hope swag (circleofhope.net/shop). Oliver and Theo were in the bike parade bringing their peacemaker alternatives to the nationalism.

Hope to hear form you soon!

Loosestrife: A Sunday Sonnet

Loosestrife
for Oliver (“peacemaker”), Theodore (“Gift of God”) and Lysimachus (Not the warrior of Third Century Thrace but the proto-botanist physician of minor Fifth Century renown and the first Western identifier of the lythrum salicaria plant commonly known in English as Loosestrife)

An etymological blunder brought
This blood beknighted flow’r upon my banks
Lysimachus who found it, someone thought,
Was not himself a name for English thanks.
“Exotic” Greek’s extracted fools gold ore
Gave name to flow’r it never meant to mean:
Lusís – loosen; makhē – akin to war –
Now “loose-strife” dons our death in purple, green.
And shall their beauty battle other plants,
As noxious weeds along my very creek,
I might decide that all names can incant –
For how else could this naming truth bespeak?
And then a grateful sigh for naming sons
For “peace” and for “receipt of what God’s done.”

July 25, 2021

You can listen to my read it here

Are You Compromising for Love? :: A report From Getting to Know the Bible

Getting to Know the Bible

In Circle of Hope we say in our proverbs “The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project” and one of the ways we are doing that is our “Getting to Know the Bible” dialogue series. The pastors and their friends are leading 90 minute zoom sessions to help anyone who wants to join get a few more handholds in their own Bible reading climb. It is one of our many Gifts for Growing. The next Getting to Know the Bible is on Romans and Galatians on August 11th at 8:00 pm.  Sign up now!

This post is a bit of a debrief from our last Getting to Know the Bible event on Paul and his letters to the churches that my friend Scott Shannon and I led. Of the 21 Epistles (fancy word for letters) in the New Testament, Paul wrote 13 of them. Nine of the epistles that Paul wrote were written to churches and four of them were written to individuals. We brought a storytelling approach which put Paul’s letters in the context of the stories Luke tells about him in the book of Acts. We want to interpret not just what Paul said, as has often been the pitfall for many theologians throughout the centuries, but also what he did. We began to wonder why he did and said what he did and said. Who is this guy, and what was he like? Appreciating him as a whole person, a lot like us, helped us relate to him as a brother, and not a dusty old jumble of words and ideas.

All Theology Has an Adjective

To Scott and I, it seems that much of what Paul was doing was very contextual. No surprise there since everything everyone does is contextual. Nothing can be done or said out of context. The fallacy of too much of Western theology in previous centuries was its claim, at least implicitly, to be a-contextual. I love how Pete Enns and Jared Byaz from The Bible for Normal People put it, “All Theology has an adjective.” Two big problems with much of the Bible reading that I have seen is that it 1) doesn’t fully understand Paul’s context and 2) it does not acknowledge its own. But here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone can adequately do number 1 and most people, if they are humble enough, will also admit they can’t do number 2 either. Most of our lives have a “you-had-to-be-there” quality to them. The more we show up to the depth of our own experiences, the better we can empathize with Paul’s who lived in such a different time and place. Our added benefit is that we have Jesus uniting us across that great chasm. Do not be afraid to apply your own understanding.

How Do Paul’s letter and the Book of Acts Line Up?

So here’s how the story about Paul lines up with his letters — what he did and what he said in one neat (and very undetailed) table.

Acts OutlineActs 1:8 Jesus’ map for the church

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1. The Church In Jerusalem (Chapters 1-7)
2. The Church in Judea and Samaria (Chapters 8-12)
3. The Church in Gentile Territories (Chapters 13-21)

1st Missionary Journey.

Then Jerusalem Council in chapter 15,

Then 2nd and 3rd Missionary Journeys.
Paul goes around planting churches and then he writes to them.

Acts 13:13-52 Paul preaches and the Holy Spirit comes down in Antioch. Titus is said to have been from Antioch.

Acts 14:1-7 Paul meets Timothy in Lystra — a kid in one of the first church plants. (1 and 2 Timothy) Later a pastor in Ephesus (Ephesians)

Acts 16:1-5 Paul and Timothy in Galatia (Galatians)

Acts 16:11-40  In Philippi (Philippians)

Acts 17:1-9 In Thessalonica (1 and 2 Thessalonians)

Acts 18:1-17 In Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians)

It is generally assumed that (Philemon) lived in Colossae; in the letter to the (Colossians), Onesimus (the slave who fled from Philemon) and Archippus (whom Paul greets in the letter to Philemon) are described as members of the church there.

Colossians is conspicuously not mentioned in Acts.

Hebrews was traditionally believed to be written by Paul but this is generally assumed to be unlikely. Pseudepigraphy was common in the ancient world (“pseudepigraphy” means writing under someone else’s name — though Hebrews never claims to be written by Paul in the text and lacks any of  Paul’s personal flair.)

4. Paul’s Trials and Voyage to Rome (Chapters 21-28) Back to Jerusalem and the powers-that-be in order to get to Rome.(Romans) Paul writes ahead of his journey there.

He ends up imprisoned by the Roman Empire. He writes many of these letters while in prison or on house arrest. (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon)

Paul’s Two Tiers

Scott and I had the group considering Paul’s context and our own. It seems that Paul often talks out of both sides of his mouth. What does he really mean? Is he contradicting himself? Which paul is the real one? We have a helpful way to think about that — we call it a two tiered approach. Check out “Paul’s Two Tiers and Social Action” on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Paul’s first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of Christ’s new creation. The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that in their real life, what it means to keep revealing this in the world in our time and place. Paul was empowered to give it a try in his context and many of the things some of my friends bemoan him for were actually more revolutionary in their moment than we can rightly understand in ours. The best way to tell the difference between the two tiers is to relate to Jesus yourself. It’s a vibe. You’ll know it when you know. Sorry, I do think it is really more like a feeling than something I can tell you. And sorry if you think that’s dangerous. 

It was much more dangerous for Paul, whatever our current consequences. Scott and I thought that much of Paul’s second tier teaching was consciously holding back on the throttle of status quo in order to keep a fragile new movement alive. Paul was cautious to not shatter all the conventional wisdom in one fell swoop. Or he might have been scared, too, though that seems unlikely given his unprecedented courage and boldness demonstrated elsewhere. Or he might have just not gotten to it. He had a plan to keep things moving and stretched people only so far as he thought they could go, and then he got killed. Or he just couldn’t see the full-scale societal transformation that the Gospel anticipated because he was too much a man of his own time. I don’t know for certain, of course, if it was any of these things, but I can understand if it were any of them or all of them. But, again, I think Paul was making concessions for a very real existential threat — living past tomorrow might have been the church’s best move which required some preservation of an incomplete social order.

Decadence is Our Existential Threat

But we are not under that same threat. Our choices in the United States are not “do or die,” but our faith may be dying or dead instead. Scott liked the word “decadence” for our own existential threat. We are so accustomed to the hollow husk of Christendom, so in love with the myth of a Christian Nation, so fat and happy on our spiritual junk food, that we have lost our way and our connection to The Way, Jesus himself. Too often we find churches designed to continue instead of to follow Jesus. “Keep calm and carry on,” is not a church slogan, especially not for a church sent into a rapidly changing world.

This moment for the Church in the United States ought to demand the creative thinking and inventive theological compromising that marked Paul’s relentless adaptation to his circumstances, but we are bloated with the demands of the past and of our own comfort and it seems unlikely that the whole Church will change before its already dead on the inside. (Parts of the body are definitely already necrotic.) 

What Would You Compromise for Love?

In the face of the existential threat of decadence we asked our participants, “What would you compromise for love?” Here is some of their wisdom:

  • In Circle of Hope I’ve had to evolve my thinking about LGBTQIA issues. It happened in community with LGBTQIA folks. 
  • My sense of theological purity. Every moment does not demand that i state my objection. I don’t have to set myself apart. I can even participate as who I am in Christ without public caveat, and I have found that beautiful things happen when I do.
  • Giving up conviction as a motivator for action. I desire black and white ideas to feel secure and powerful. I give that up to work in the gray of my real life with the real people I know. 
  • My anger, my vengefulness.
  • My own comfort.
  • Family traditions or rules.

What would you compromise for love? What does your context demand? Do you know your context well enough to discern? These questions are all great places to start. I pray that Jesus, the Way is with you on your way and you know it.

A Christian Pledge of Allegiance

 

I wrote this prayer for our Sunday meetings. I started with this image I found around Memorial Day and kept going from there. It helps me put the holiday in perspective. I’ll be raising money for my local civic association and watching fireworks (my favorite fourth of July activities), but I will not be celebrating the same way everyone is. I think Jesus calls me to something much bigger than American citizenship

Pray with me

We pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ and to God’s kingdom for which he died, one spirit-led people the world over, indivisible, with love and justice for all.

Let freedom ring

We pledge allegiance to God-almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and every beloved creature, especially the siblings we have all over the world, both in Christ and in the whole human family.

Let freedom ring

We pledge allegiance to forgiveness, love for enemies, the weak and the oppressed, the outcast and the despised, the powers-forsaken but God-remembered, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and imprisoned.

Let freedom ring

We pledge ourselves to others, casting off the self-centered cares that would try to bind us only to I, me and mine. Our freedom is connected with many more than those to whom the powers-that-be have bound us. We reach out beyond the boundaries of  blood, country, tribe, language, ideology, race and all other separating powers and principalities.

Let freedom ring

We pledge allegiance to the way of Jesus, to his abundance and not our scarcity, to his power and not our own, to his impossible way of resurrection made possible in his victory over death.

Let freedom ring

We pledge that we will continue to give ourselves to others, for we did not create these persons we call “I”. We receive our lives as gifts and not as rights. We receive the rights the powers give us for others. We pledge allegiance to interdependence.

Let freedom ring

Amen

 

The Holy Spirit Helped Me Write This Poem

When something wonderful happens I often write it down so I can remember to write a poem about it. I love writing poetry. I draw my inspiration from those epiphanies that happen often enough in a life lived with open eyes. “Open eyelids and open hearts” I should say. Because sometimes what you see is beyond sight, and that’s definitely poetry territory. Good poetry transports you beyond the realm of thought. It uses words to express those things to which words cannot be applied. It tries and fails beautifully. And as it fails it invites you into your own understanding. In the faint outline the words approximate, it feels you. Like a sparkler writing someones name in the dark when there is no long-exposure camera in your eyes to see what they have written.

However you have said something — with your life, with your heart, with your deepest down things — a poem that speaks it back to you rhymes with what all words fail to say. I don’t know if my poem will share unspoken words with you or not, truthfully, I’m not sure I have given enough time to poetry to expect that it would, but here’s a story that adds more words to a sonnet bellow. The extra words  might spoil it, but here goes anyway.

Connie Starzinski’s died on March 7, 2019. She was my dear friend’s MomMom , so I went to the funeral to support her and her family. The funeral was in a Catholic church building with high transom windows all around the almost circular polygon room. The transom light was the key ingredient to the mesmeric effect of incense smoke dancing high above our heads. All throughout the ritual mass the incense snaked into the transom light and collected in ribbons until the priest went to fetch the censor and flood the room with the scented smoke, he simultaneously flooded my eyes with tears. He honored the body, and all of us . We were witnesses to something deeper than that moment. At the doorway to death we all stood in in awe – full-bodied awe.

I wrote it down, “Write a poem about the incense at MomMom Starzinski’s funeral.” It stayed on the list for two whole years — 730 days exactly. Because on March 7, 2021 I wrote this poem. I don’t know why I chose that day, and I did not know it was the same day as her death. I can only attribute this to the Holy Spirit and some purpose beyond my own musings for this poem. It’s kind of spooky. I was flabbergasted when I looked up her obituary to make sure I spelled MomMom Starzinski’s name correctly in the dedication of the poem. My attribution to the Holy Spirit is the reason I share it with you now. It is Pentecost season in Circle of Hope, and we keep looking for a life in the Spirit in all the mundane and fantastic of our own lives.

The “purpose of noses” line is in homage to a Rich Mullins song I like, “The Maker of Noses“. It’s a good song, but far less profound than this strange discovery and amplified awe of the moment and its anniversary telling.

The Purpose of Noses
for MomMom Starzinski and Rich Mullins

The incense smoke rose high above the pews,
And of its bitter sweetness we were
At first unaware, though it’s presence grew.
And whether the ascending scent was myrrh
Was not a question on our minds, for grief
Already filled the room. It gathered us ‘round
The shroud with our beloved underneath.

The words of the priest cannot now be found,
But we’ll not soon forget the piled up cloud
Of incense as it fell down on us all,
The moment he honored her for the crowd,
Surrounding her with that perfuming pall.

Thrice ‘round the casket he swung the brass chord,
Reminding us just what noses are for.

________

 

You can listen to me read it here

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.

 

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