Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 20)

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

We need better imaginations for our social justice movements

Advent is coming

It’s Advent Eve, Eve (this year Advent starts on November 29, four sundays before Christmas Day). I find myself more ready than ever to enter into the yearly practice of communal waiting. I need time to ponder and space to consider. This year turns up all the questions and the tension is killing me except when I let Jesus raise me form the dead. Many of my notions are dropping like flies. In one sense this is wonderful — I’m learning more about who I am and who we are meant to be in Christ; in another sense this is awful — the disorientation of Jesus’ different ways is so frustrating and confusing at times. Once again, Advent welcomes us into the paradox of God-with -us. A King of Kings who comes to serve — an almighty God who is born with a skull you could crush in the palm of your hand (Francis Schaeffer).

Isaiah long expected this surprising Savior.

Isaiah 42:1-9

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
     and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
     he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

The baby Jesus, King of Kings, is a wonderfully strange paradox to consider. “Born Thy people to deliver,/ Born a child and yet a King” as Charles Wesley put it in his poem made song (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus). Isaiah’s imagination captures this paradox long before the Word became flesh. How does someone bring justice without crying out in the streets? What does the gentleness in Isaiah 42 have to do with establishing anything in this messy world?

The Servant who is also King is a grand reversal, a challenge to all our political strategies. Some might take this passage as a call towards quietism. Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” could be received as a prohibition against political involvement of any kind, and some of our faith cousins, even some within Circle of Hope, believe this to be the right interpretation. But if you are called to speak up for justice—to take up the mantle of the prophets as a compassionate response to the unjust world we live in –to love your neighbor as yourself–what do you do? The Servant and King, Jesus, gives us a clue.

The temptation to overcome evil with evil

Otherizing the opposition is a sure fire way to galvanize a movement. The easiest way to organize a group of people is to unite them against a common enemy. Other people who do evil in our eyes are the natural enemies for a movement, but Jesus’ enemy-loving message transcends all notions of “other”, “stranger” and “enemy.” He manages to convict the wrong-doer by imagining a future for them. He tends the smoldering wick in case it might be kindled back to flame. He compassionately sees people in their tenderness and strengthens their will for transformation. He see the wounds we all have and offers us healing.

The Baby King babies us without infantilizing us. He calls us to who we are meant to be while giving us the strength and courage to actually change who we are. We who follow in his way bring that gentleness to our creative action to care for the poor and the oppressed. Elected officials ought to covet our moral message and the love with which we doggedly profess it. Our best advocacy is our alternative community. It is the ground from which we prophesy to those who might be convicted by the truth, even those empowered enough to do great harm to the people we love. If our imagination for their transformation is part of our vision for the future, we are on the right track. 

Take action with Mennonite Central Committee (They need it)

Mennonite Central Committee is Circle of Hope’s most global expression of compassion (but our Compassion Teams ain’t nothing to sneeze at). We share money with MCC through our thrifts stores (when they can be open enough to share — Lord, hear our prayer) and through a portion of our Common Fund (this has not changed in the pandemic year). Our pastors serve on boards of the organization as well. Joining with MCC is one way we lift our voice together in a creative, transformational ways. Go to mcc.org and sign up for action alerts from the Washington Office, or learn something about what they’re doing on their website. Pray for the problems you encounter, for alleviation of suffering and for creative responses from ourselves and all who follow our Servant King. One specific thing to pray for: that they can get in to the places where they are needed. The whole world is gummed up. It’s hard to move people or supplies anywhere to meet the needs of the partners we work with all around the world. Give them a little extra if you have it because their funding is seriously hindered by the pandemic. 

Bring it, Advent

Happy Advent y’all! Let us start the lamentation! The world is not as it should be. We are not as we should be. But let us not descend to shame. The world is not yet what it WILL be. We are not yet who we WILL be.

The world will be.

We will be.

And Jesus will make it so, even as he has begun to do so in us. The desire for transformation of the world and for ourselves that we are feeling right now is evidence of the hope we have in Jesus. Let us trust that hope and trust the Author of Hope to bring our desires to completion.

How Will We Love Through the Election?

“Unreliable Allies”

Karl Barth, a German Theologian who helped organize the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime, once said that the church ought to be an “unreliable ally” to any and every political system. That is to say that our primary allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom will often come into tension with our subordinate allegiances to political parties, ideologies, movements and organizations. In Nazi Germany, non-cooperation with the political system seems a matter of course; are we in such a moment now? The comparisons are commonly made. Many smart people are legitimately concerned that this November’s presidential election is just like Germany in 1934. Interestingly, I have seen comparisons that liken both the “radical left” and the “far right” to the Nazis. That’s the moment we live in. What a mess! I’m not sure the consequences are as dire as the most alarmed alarmists fear, but Donald Trump is undeniably an unprecedented person in U.S. history. His presidency is drawing the worst out of the American people. We are in bad shape. What kind of ally  can the church be right now?

“Ally” is a term that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. I think it started with LGBTQ+ folks looking for solidarity, but historians reading this can correct me. Not too long ago the idea was born that straight folks could be an “ally” to gay folks who were having trouble finding a place in the world (and dying by suicide and hate crimes in droves for the lack of anywhere safe). This ally language was incredibly successful in changing public opinion. A Gallup Poll about support of same-sex marriage, for example, showed that support went from 27% in 1996 to 67% in 2020. I’m not sure that every one in that 67% would consider themselves an “ally”, but we can see the trend.

The term “ally” is also used to describe white people who want to dismantle white supremacy. They are allies to the people of color in their lives, co-laborers in a groundswell of social change that is sweeping the country (and receiving significant reaction), specifically in support of black lives. Michelle Ferrigno Warren of Christian Community Development Association (an organization with which Circle of Hope has long standing ties) recently described herself as a “long standing white ally” in a piece published at ccda.org this June, To My People, the White Ones” (a very succinct and difficult list of suggestions for white folks).

But I have had conversation with folks in Circle of Hope who do not want to accept this language. They are concerned that this is actually a Karl Barth moment when allying with “the Black Lives Matter movement” ought not to be a matter of course. They are suggesting that our church is too reliably allied with this political system, and  is losing the thread of our primary allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom. Some will quickly say, “That’s racism!” Others will quietly wonder if there isn’t some merit to some friendly critique. But friendly critique does not seem possible right now, especially coming from white men like me. I understand this.

Staying at the Table

Reading Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s post, I am convicted by her suggestions, as painful as they appear. My favorite suggestion is this one, “Sit in the back of the proverbial bus, on the floor – this is NOT your Rosa Parks moment.” She can turn a phrase, can’t she?  I’m trying to push through the discomfort of this myself. Kind of like I’m actually sitting on the floor with my legs in a pretzel and my feet are falling asleep, I feel how difficult this is, but I am calling us to persevere. Another thing Michelle Ferrigno Warren suggests is to stay at the table. “At the table you are going to hear new things that hurt your feelings, don’t leave. At the table you are going to have to work alongside people you might not agree with, don’t leave. At the table you are going to be asked to use your voice to help white people understand – do it. At the table you are going to be asked to give up your power by leveraging it, resolve to do that work no matter what it costs.”

I would add more reasons to stay at the table: this is your opportunity to love, to be a minister of reconciliation, to be of one mind and heart despite disagreement, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly. There is so much opportunity for growth in this moment. Being the church is not ignoring our differences, so everyone can feel safe;being the church is seeing our differences and loving each other long enough to make real peace so that everyone can actually BE safe. The difficulty of this task requires all of the gifts we were naturally given and all of the spiritual gifts  the Holy Spirit is supplying for right now. This is how Christ can be all and in all, because the project of being the church at any time, but especially when it is hard, will transform us in every way. We who are part of the church have decided to follow Jesus with our everything. That’s what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” Staying at the table requires us to love long and hard enough to be the new creation in Christ.  And Jesus will be with us, equipping us the whole time. “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philppians 1:6 CEB)

But what then do we do with the friendly critique? What to make of the sneaking suspicion that the church is too reliably allied with a political movement that is not entirely just and pure and good? Well, first I would remind that no political movement is entirely just or good or pure. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Second, I would gently wonder aloud if the discomfort with the black lives matter movement is not indeed connected to the discomfort of the demands the movement is making of white people. Third (and I have been doing a lot of this), I would listen. The current trajectory of social change is not unimpeachable. Of course there are problems. Of course our Kingdom of God project is bigger than Black Lives Matter, but I would argue that it is not oppositional as some of my conversation partners have. Staying at the table is in general an even more difficult task for Black people in our church.  Let us not forget that being at the table uncomfortably is not an option for a Black person in the United States like it is for most White people. White people can leave the table — that’s part of why this is so hard — white people have a very different experience than everyone else. And it is not just.

I’m wishing you joy

(Yes, that’s a Whitney Houston reference)

Lastly, I think the best thing we can collectively offer this moment is joy. Miroslav Volf said on the most recent episode of his podcast, For the Life of the World, “Modernity is perfectionism… and perfectionists have no joy.” Unfortunately or not, our difficulties are not unhinged from the country we live in or its rancorous dialogue. So right here, in the messy middle of a pivotal time in our country and subsequently in our church,  we CAN have joy. Because we are freed from the graceless demand of perfectionism, because our project is not solely the “progress” of modernity, we can “laugh though we have considered all the facts” as Wendell Berry says in a poem I love. We can wish joy in the face of despair. We can love one another well despite the assailing rancor, and pray for more grace that we think is possible — more grace than we can rightly bear.  Let us offer joy to the opportunity to have God again knit us together in love. Let us offer joy to the opportunity for justice to flow where it has never flown before. Let us offer joy to the difficulty of starting again when we fail because we are convinced than nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Tear/Tear, Seem/Seam, Knew/New

On shrinking cloth

The heat of a warm water washing or heated tumble dry or, in the image of today’s poem, a flap out on the sunny line, the stretched out fibers of an unshrunken cloth relax. The individual patch of cloth becomes stronger. The individual fibers become relaxed in the heat. That sounds nice — constitutive, formational, good — but of course there is a cost to this new birth. Which one among you is not stitched to a cloth from which you are tearing away? I know I am not blessed with such a condition.  And I am learning to live with that reality and suffer through the seam ripper’s hook.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the racism to which I find myself stitched, but there are many thing from which we must be cut. The goodness of becoming new and shrunk and strong,  does not feel good. Jesus’ is saying something new to me today. Take it for yourself it seems to fit. The new thought is this: His little parables about wineskins and cloth are not cautionary tales. They go beyond categorization of different types of people, cloths and skins. the parables are descriptive and prophetic: You will tear. you will burst.

Seth Martin wrote a beautiful line in a beautiful song that we like to sing in Circle of Hope. (Rob , Jess and friends sang it a couple of weeks ago for #worshipwednesday). “We wear this seamless cloth of joy and loss/Severed roots and limbs/Time to start again/Start with I am Thine.” Yeah, that’s how it feels — sweet joy and bitter sorrow, becoming new and crying as we do. Even though we go where we are led hungrily.

A Poem for the Seamless Cloth of Joy and Loss

Mark 2:21

I’m feeling seamed edges pull,
Unshrunken, out to dry,
The warmth is pleasant with eyes closed —
Face up to the sky.

The tightness of a tear-wet cheek
Will also come to mind,
As heat from distant star allows
My quiet eyes to find

A new expression of the truth
I knew from deep inside,
That cannot help but stretch until
The very last is cried.

More composed myself, binded, bound
To windy dancing sheet,
Conviction tight and resolute,
But union incomplete.

I tear from that to which I’m stitched
Even as I come to life,
The only way to love me seems
To be a sharpened knife.

 

You can listen to me read it here.

 

Image and Poem by Ben White

Some Doubts Ought to Be Trusted

Doubt can be bad but it doesn’t have to be

In the glut of internet facts we swim in like a trash compactor on the Death Star, doubt is not hard to come by. Slogging through the truthiness spectrum of political speech might make you sick. Yes, you could be sick with doubt.

In its metastasized, cancerous form doubt is debilitating — calling into question every thought you thought you knew, casting a shade of suspicion even on the love from those you love the most. It can feel terrible, so we often run from doubt. Who wants to feel that discomfort?  Instead, we hide in sandcastles of certainty propped up by obvious lies which we accept because we’d rather not deal with it. This conceit codifies our cynicism as a way of life and the longer we go in that direction, the more solid our fantasies seem and the safer we feel. Which is why when these structures inevitably fall, we are so devastated and sometimes close to destroyed.

Doubt can be dangerous like that, but it can also be a step toward salvation. If we see our faulty foundations for what they are before our whole lives fall down on us, we can avoid a lot of pain and and make ourselves stronger to face even greater difficulties. We could choose difficulties for love and the transformation of the world — which is much better than reacting only to what life brings our way. Finding trouble for Jesus sake is what I strive for as much as I can.

Doubt is a door

George MacDonald said in his novel, Sir Gibbie,“To the true heart every doubt is a door.” Think about that for a second.

The first time I heard that read to me on librivox.org I paused the recording. I like the drama of actually pausing the recording as opposed to just looking up from my book. I stopped running (I was out for a jog), dug my phone out of my fanny pack (because fanny packs are very convenient), pressed paused (actually), shaded the phone from the sun (it was summer) and managed to hit rewind 30 seconds (Phew — feel the drama?). Then I listened to the reader say it again, “To the true heart every doubt is a door,” and then I paused it again and I just stood there on the sidewalk.

Whoa! There is a whole universe in there! What if doubt could be trusted? What if I could trust my true heart and learn not just to believe, but learn also to disbelieve. I wish a lot of people would start disbelieving. There is so much we take for granted that could use a lot of skepticism. We are good at skepticism but the things that need our skepticism the most are the least apparent. Often the most damaging lies are surrounded by those sandcastles that can make us feel safe. They might actually be a bit more solid when they are built by a whole cultural narrative, but they are still made of sand and they will still bury you alive when the waves wash in.

Doubt your ability to choose well

Here’s one great thing to doubt: Doubt your autonomy. Yes, you have agency and an ability to choose. This is a blessing but that is not your best feature. Choosing in itself is not freedom. Your God given freedom is for choosing WELL. Jesus got at that choosing when he told those two little stories about the pearl and the treasure in the field.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.  — Matthew 13:44-46

There is one thing that is better than all the other things. I think many of us know this at least in part. We have felt it in our bones. We have seen it in glimmers of recognition. We have heard it on the edge of other sounds. There is a longing we all know that we could trust more if we were better at doubting all our other conclusions. Those conclusions are ordinary pearls, or worse, they are just plastic. We wear the lesser pearls around our necks to help us forget the quest, but it’s still there. There’s doubt in that feeling of satisfaction. Do you feel it? Do you trust it? We found the treasure in the dirt but we didn’t excavate what clanged beneath our shovel for fear of what it would mean about everything else we think we really want. You really could doubt those other desires. I know you could.

But, but, what if ….

And of course you won’t be sure if you start a quest for that fleeting something more. The quest comes with little certainty. How would it be a quest if you knew where the end was? Requiring to know everything about the next step before we even try is another rule for life that could use your doubt. Have you ever known everything about anything? We fool ourselves with all the available knowledge without ever knowing very much of it anyway.

Again, my main man George MacDonald  said, this time in his novel Lilith (which is a hell of a quest BTW) “Doubt may be a poor encouragement to do anything, but it is a bad reason for doing nothing.” This is at once an encouragement for my line of thinking and a caution. Doubt is not incredibly motivating. That’s why it’s so common to ignore what you can plainly see and settle into living in a sandcastle. The path of least resistance often bushwhacks through a thicket of doubt with ease. This is why I’m writing this  blog post. It’s not that your doubts are bad, it’s that you haven’t trusted your doubts long enough to know which doubts are bad. Your doubts could be a door into a richer, fuller faith. They could lead you to riches you have not yet imagined, if only you can get past some of your conclusions. Come on, you can see the tide coming in.

Trust your doubt that this current castle will stand, and strike out on a quest for something more.

 

Hope From a Couple of Poets

Where is Jesus?

Poetry helps me reach into and beyond reality. The news out of Louisville, Kentucky this week hit hard for me and my friends. Breonna Taylor’s murderers are not held accountable and it is all very legal. The worst part for me was that so many Christians I know were  running to defend the rule of law as if it were any kind of legitimate justice. It made me cry. What is religion if it produces “law and order” acolytes alone? What is religion if hearts and bodies are far from free? Where is Jesus?

Here is One of Isaiah’s Poetic Answers

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

— Isaiah 58:6-9

Here is One of My Poetic Answers

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day and a night at the Villa Pauline Retreat and Spiritual Center of the Sisters of Christian Charity in  Mendenham, NJ. I rambled all over their property which was a grand estate in a neighborhood of grand estates. In response to the question that came up in my heart as I walked and later wrote in the poem below, I have a strong sense that many of the sisters who live there would definitely want Jesus, hidden in the children of the neighborhood, to use their snowy hills for wintry fun, but I doubt it ever happens. There are definitely litigious obstacles — liabilities and lack of indemnities. There are also communal obstacles — more exactly  the lack of it. In a land of gated estates, I wonder if any child would ever wander to the sister’s perfect hill and try to sled. This poetic vision helps me meditate on the deeper, beyonder realities of Mendenham and my current despair. There is a way-it-could-be better than the limits of our religious devotions, civil and otherwise. In this poem I am digging for hope. I need to rend the veil of our reality and its many, many obstacles. I need answer for “Where is Jesus?” And on this day, on retreat I saw him in snow pants.

The Convent Hill

The truest mark of true religion’s trust
Is whether children are allowed to sled
The convent’s perfect hill. Forget those musts
And shoulds and oughts, and all those clanging dead,
And tell me if there’s cocoa on the porch.

What else could that steep green slope be for
But Jesus wearing snow pants launching forth
And at the bottom sure there’s time for more?
“Again!” Toboggans full of windy tears,
“Again!” A downward rush of icy spray,
“Again!” Wet laughter’s leap right over fear,
Until the darkness overtakes the day.

So can this be or will my vision fail?
May children use your hill to rend the veil?

—–

You can listen to me read it here.

Photo and poetry by Ben White

 

Don’t Forget, Jesus is the Lord of History

Is the Church Just Following Culture?

Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from the influences that have shaped us personally and the greater forces that have shaped our context. Our ongoing, and longstanding dialogue about antiracism in Circle of Hope has been dialed up in recent months in the wake of police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When we wrote a map that was decidedly antiracist some folks wondered if we weren’t just following the tide of the culture.  Is it just popular to be antiracist now and that is why we are doing this? Are we caving to philosophy that is not from Jesus?

No! We were here first. Circle of Hope has had antiracism written into our DNA since we began. How would we do our original goal to “bring hope to 20th century urban life” without addressing the evil powers of racism in the Philadelphia region? Our antiracist map does not make Circle of Hope cool, or ahead of our time. it doesn’t give us points for being into the right thing before everyone else was. No, this is not about our own righteousness, individually or communally. This is about chipping away for decades and often feeling like we are making no progress at all. But we refuse to give up, and I am grateful that the cultural tide is giving us a boost for once.  I do wish we had galvanized a mass movement without so many black people being killed. That’s for sure. Lord, have mercy.

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

But let’s face it, it’s hard to stay in touch with reality. It’s hard to keep our fingers and hearts together enough to catch the slippery sands of time. Western culture dishes up an individualism that might divorce you from any connection to anything, especially not those backward ancestors that didn’t know everything like we do. Dislocation, disorientation, disassociation, these are all the underside of our culture catered diet of self-awareness, self-definition, self-help.  We all woke up fully formed this morning with no dependence on anything or anyone. Only our choices today matter. It sounds terrible but you kinda want it, right?

It’s fun to see my kid learn to relate to time. By fun I mean it’s also terrible sometimes, but you have to laugh. Not too long ago he asked me how long he would have to wait for something. I said “Twenty minutes.” He responded, shrieking in horror, “Twenty minutes?! That’s like 100 hours!!!” No bud, in fact that is finally one thing I can say is undeniably false. He only recently stopped saying “A long time ago,” or “When I was a baby” as blanket descriptors of anything that happened in the past, including something that happened last week.

The Past is Not Just in the Past

Every honest adult, however, understands my six year old’s dilemma.  Time may not be  relative (except in some cosmic equation I don’t totally understand), but our experience of time is very relative. My favorite elucidator of this is the “return trip effect.” Scientists have studied the phenomenon of perceived duration of time when coming back on the same route from an unfamiliar destination. You know this, going there always feels like it takes longer than coming back. Yes, our experience of time is very relative, so much so that it might seem like time is subject to our perception only and thus eligible for exclusion in our analyses, but let us not pretend that our lives began only when we were born. The past is not in just in the past. The past is right here with us in the present.

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

Good or bad, the past makes us who we are in many ways. I want to highlight one good thing I see coming out of this that helps us when we’re wondering about the tide of culture and our push for antiracism in Circle of Hope. The culture might try to erase God from it’s narrative but the Western/European thoughtscape was and is highly influenced by Jesus. There is no escaping the moral influence of the Church on all of our thinking. But especially when it comes to racial justice. The Church planted the seeds of transformation that grew into a vine. It was Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the least of these that empowered so many to stand up and demand justice. The list is too long to even begin. Even if some of their activist descendents are not so interested in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If only in the path they walk which is so clearly paved by the legacy of those faithful women and men who stood up for freedom in Jesus’ name. They might try to pretend that the project is distinct from Jesus, but they can’t escape the past. The tide of culture is not so distinct from Jesus because the Church has been shaping the Western project from its beginnings.

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

One final note: a big reason an activist today might want to separate themselves from the Christian legacy of their ancestors, or the whole Jesus soaked Western project is that accepting the influence of the past is not just a hero story. With the past comes many legitimate reasons to be disgusted with Jesus followers and their thinking. It’s a big mess, but it’s part of our mess now. I’m not surprised by the mess. I don’t think we need a hero other than Jesus, but we have many to choose from if we are willing to accept their human frailty as another measure of their heroism. We will not, however, find a whole group of people who were unimpeachable, or completely above reproach, or even right, let alone righteous. We will find reasons to hope, practical examples of bravery and perseverance, and creative expressions of Jesus’ love in public, but we will also find  reasons for despair right next to them.

Pray with me?

Jesus, you will have to give us eyes to see. Thank you for the good of the past, help us to receive it and sort it. This is not an easy task. But you are with us in it.
You are the Lord of History. You are reliable. Your promises can be trusted. Bring history to its rightful ends.
Shape it now through your church and otherwise, help us to see you at work, even in unexpected places.
May your glory be made known through miracles large and small, and may your light be found where the darkness seems to make that impossible.
We pray for all those who are suffering. We know you are with them. Help us see how we can be with y’all. And help us to stay.

What Do I Do With My Kids and the Bible?

Let’s Have a Bible Class

Since we’re all basically part time teachers this school year my friend Bryce had the idea that one of the subjects he ought to teach would be the Bible. I was quite taken by the idea. It hit me when I was washing my hands the other day that I better help them know some Bible by heart.

We all wash our hands so often during the pandemic that I have had this amplifying memory that I keep talking about. Whenever I wash my hands at the kitchen sink and the water is running while I sing the ABC’s twice like the good virucidal citizen I am, I remember to turn it off because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles told me to when I was about seven. I grew up in Southern California where human life is basically unsustainable without great feats of engineering to pipe water hundreds of miles. So water is a premium that we ought to conserve. The Ninja Turtles taught me in a PSA that would come on at the end of the show to turn off the tap. I know this by heart. How do i know I know this by heart? Because I remember it daily!

We are influenced by so much, wouldn’t it be a nice gift to my kids to plant some words of comfort and truth from the book that testifies to the Word of Life right there in their hearts next to the cartoons?  If we are too laisez faire about this, the Ninja Turtles and their media ilk will plant some less beneficial messages that will win the day. Raising kids who grow into an adult faith is super difficult in this day and age. Maybe a Bible Class during Pandemic School 2020 is what they need?

Oh But Wait, Maybe We Shouldn’t

We say in Circle of Hope that the Gospel is better caught than taught. That is to say, teaching the Bible is not the best way to reveal the person of Jesus to people. That’s why we organized our church around this organic metaphor of cells. We want people to be a part of a living body that does the Bible. We are Bible people in that we organize our common life around the life and teaching of Jesus who showed us what it means to be human. Teaching a class to my kids could rip all of that up, right? Well, yeah… maybe.

We say in our Children’s Plan:

The difference between school and cell-like groups of children [which we try to create in our non-pandemic Sunday meetings].

  • A cell is the church. Sunday school is a program the church does.
  • People are a cell. People go to a Bible study.
  • Cell Leaders facilitate the life of the cell. School teachers help people learn the subject.
  • Jesus is the agenda of a cell. The Bible tends to be the agenda of a Sunday school.

Even though children have less capacity to engage in adult conversation, we still do not intend to create a classroom atmosphere for them to experience.”

Is there a way to give my kids some content without abandoning this novel project? Is it clear what we’re going for in making these distinctions? Let me know in the comments.

Owning the Project But Still Trusting the Spirit

Really I just want to try something since my normal means of helping my kids connect, life in the community, is a little tattered at the moment. I hope that my partners rely on the community connection as much as I do in their project of raising kids who know they are loved by God so they can respond to Jesus’ call on their life when they are ready. I think they do. But let me say it for everyone: making your family’s life around a local expression of the gospel is the best way for your kids to grow into adult faith. Your faith, your action because of it; your disciplines, and how you talk about Jesus; your rituals, and God’s presence in them — these are the best ways for kids to see what faith really is and receive it themselves. BUT it’s not just your faith and etc. It’s OUR faith. Humbly recognizing the need your child has for more than you can offer is a reason to regularly include them in the life of the body. Relying on that body for your life of faith and for your child is what I desire for all of us.  (And that’s what we call Village Parenting)

But that is harder to do right now when most of our relating is mediated through screens. This makes our ownership of the project all the more important. Doing what we do with our kids on purpose is the moral of the story. Having a plan and adapting the plan — that’s the trick. I think that if you have a plan adapting the plan is not as hard. It’s having a conscious plan that might be a bigger hurdle. Those who are recovering from an overly dogmatic experience or a brittle fundamentalism might have the hardest time. I feel you, but don’t give up. The faith you have is worth sharing, and that takes a lot of intention, and a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit. Remember, nothing works, only God works.

It seems that the most common outcome from that desire to have a plan is to make a class. And now I am thinking about doing just that. Am I just as uncreative as my spiritual ancestors who thought it was best to boil down the Bible into third grade mouth sized bites and hope the information magically transformed into faith?  I admit that it could so easily go that way, but I want to do a class mostly in name only. Really I’m just adapting my plan and finding ways to engage my kids in the thing I have set my life up to do.

Some Idea That I Am Going to Try

It’s not really a class. It’s YouTube videos. I’m going to watch youtube.com/thebibleproject everyday and talk about it with them. my kids are six and nine years old and they love learning things. They love stories about history (Thanks Hamilton) and really anything that is a cartoon. They also love taxonomies like the various types of dragons they can spawn on their phone app and, of course, the perennial Pokémon (gotta catch’em all). Why not get the Tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples up in there too?  We’re also going to memorize some scripture as we are able. We are starting with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s it.

I don’t think it is really a class. It’s more some concerted energy toward this 18 year project I have with them. I want to show them who Jesus is to me and what a life with God is like in real life. If I reduced it down to just the class, I think I would be in trouble, and much of my siblings in Christ have done that to some degree (I probably have too), but I’m hoping it can be done. Want to join me and Bryce?  Let’s talk about it. Shoot me an email.

Have you sung together on Zoom yet?

Worship Woes

Have you sung together on Zoom yet?

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

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

Grieving our very real loss

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

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

Resolve to adapt

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

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

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

If I Can Remember My Dreams

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

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

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

If I can remember my dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poetry and images by Ben White

A Vast Inside-Us Sky: A Sonnet

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

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

A Vast Inside-Us Sky

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poem and photograph by Ben White

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