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

Seven Memories Rising to the Surface as I Finish Seven Years of Pastoring

It is the eve of the New Year and the eve’s eve of my last day of pastoring Circle of Hope in South Jersey. Tears fill my eyes as I write this sentence. I am sad, but trusting God in what is next. I wanted to offer a remembrance for me and for my congregation. It is just a window into what brought me joy about this role. I did not filter my initial list very much. These really are the very first seven memories rising to the surface as I finish seven years of pastoring and end my service, which means there are many more, many of which likely include many of you, dear readers.

1.  Ashes and Fumes

My first act as pastor was Ash Wednesday, 2015. I thought using an old metal cabinet I had trash picked as a fire pit would be a good idea. We made a bonfire in the snow that blazed green flames from the toxic paint. Oops! This was the first of many over-the-top ideas I had as a pastor which never went exactly according to plan. But they did the trick often enough. Good enough was always the goal anyway. I’m grateful for so many who went along with me through the years. That first night it was CJ, Rob and Jordan. There are too many other names to mention in this post. Those who I name below are attached to certain precious memories and the absence of many more names does not reflect how precious each one is to me.

2. Eating Pizza with Teens

Every Friday for two whole school years, I took over the entire seating area of a pizza  place. First, Penn Pizza in Woodlynne, and then Randazzo’s Pizza (now it has a new name I can’t remember)  in Collingswood. Me and a bunch of high school students had made a cell in which faith was born and nurtured. I look around the tables in my memory and marvel at the crazy fun God got me into. Lifelong friendships began with Dasia, Mashly, Miriam and maybe more. Thanks to Stevie for partnering with me, too.

3. A Tom Waits Rewrite

One year for Advent, Dan and Kendra  wrote a new version of the Tom Waits song “Hold On.” It was brilliant. I loved it so much I made a recording of it which I don’t think I ever shared. Here’s my favorite verse (which you might need for now – I know I do):

Down by a stable in Bethlehem
It’s ten below and falling
By a manger in the shed
She closed her eyes and started praying
But it’s so hard to not be afraid
When it’s cold and he keeps crying
Oh, your old hometown’s so far away
But inside your head there’s a voice that’s saying O-oh, you got to

Hold on, hold on, Yeah you gotta hold on
Take my hand, I’m standing right here, you gotta hold on

Here’s the previously unpublished recording.

4. Walking With People Through it All

Becoming pastor in South Jersey brought us to our little house on Newton Lake, and the lake became my friend. This was a completely unforeseen relocation a year before it happened. Thank you, Gwyneth, for leaving your ancestral Philadelphia. What wonderous wandering God walks us through! And walking around Newton Lake with countless human friends was the most beautiful mobile office I could have imagined. Donna probably has the most laps with me. The cozy room at 3800 Marlton Pike with the leaded glass window, salvaged from an ancestral home of my predecessor was a holy place, too. Many tears shed by myself and others baptized it with the holiness of human connection. I was honored again and again to be welcomed into the interior chambers of many hearts. There I met God as I helped others see how Jesus was walking beside us.

5. Substitute Dreams and Other Fire Hazards

Once we designed a season of Sunday meetings that focused on the dreams of the Magi (Matthew 2:12). We were thinking about the worldly powers, represented in the Gospel story by Herod’s Court, and how those substitute dreams could easily get in the way of the Kingdom imagination for another possible world. We enacted this confrontation by hanging a curtain of 200 or so fabric strips from the ceiling which you had to walk through to get into the worship space (they were not fire retardant fabric because… money #jomar #ifyouknowyouknow). During each meeting we invited worshippers to pull down a strip of fabric and work on a collaborative weaving art project which still hangs in the space at 3800 Marlton Pike.  Many other elaborate fabric installations defied the fire marshal’s best practice, and many hands made them come into their fullness (and thankfully never into flames).

When the pandemic forced us out of our building and we met in Newton Lake Park, we had the whole of creation for our art design. There were several moments that captured my whole consciousness. In a planned or incidental silence a bird would sing the sweetest note and I would be lifted into another level — elevated into the branches with him or even into the cloud-scaped sky. It was a rarified joy. Thanks to  Joel, Tristan, Scott and Jess especially for making those meeting happen.

6. Digging People Out of Their Avoidance

Faith is a muscle. When I broke my arm and wore a cast for six weeks or so, the arm was frighteningly skinny when the cast was removed.  I think the faith muscles can wither as dramatically, so I was quick to track people down when they stopped showing up at cell or Sunday meetings and they didn’t answer my calls or texts. I was amazed at how often they really needed me to just show up — at their job, at their house, wherever I could find them and it wasn’t THAT weird. It was always weird though. I liked being that kind of weirdo.

7. All the Babies

I love all the children of our church. I always have. When I was 13, I was on the first children’s team at 10th and Locust in Philadelphia where Circle of Hope began. During my leadership at 3800 I celebrated the birth of Bear, Irie, Emmy, Dex, Jonah, Owen, Finn, Libby, Francis, Brigette, Drew, Zoey, Wrigley, Naomi, Cathy and Kristin’s to be born babies (3 of them). I tried to put them in age order, but I know I got some wrong.  God bless all of them, even the ones I missed!

I’ve already begun to move into my next congregation of sorts. At Nemours Children’s Hospital, where I have been hired as a Spanish Speaking Chaplain. This congregation is mostly babies and their parents in some of the harder things to imagine in parenting.

An Enduring Blessing

I received this blessing from friends at Proskuneo Ministries this fall and it has not left my heart or lips for long since I learned it. It is my prayer for you, Circle of Hope, and for me, now and always. I love you.

May the love of God
spring up in your soul,
be a healing stream
in the wilderness flowing.

And may the love of God
quench the thirsty soul,
feed the hungry heart;
May the love of God flow through you.

Video here

For the Feast of Stephen — A Bible Story

For the Feast of Stephen

Acts 7:51-8:2
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—  you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.
_________

I tried in vain to hide MY tears from my companions as we lay the body of our friend on the floor of my mother’s home. Many had been crying openly there outside the city walls, where he had died. Where they had killed him. But not many of those who were part of the Way were when it happened like me. The brutality of the moment — rocks flying in a hail of death!  They hadn’t seen the injustice of it — Stephen had only spoken the truth — words rising like mist in the morning up to God. There was no water in my eyes to cry. My sadness lagged second behind a heart-numbing fury. No, I confess, it was third. First came fear — fear that they would do the same to me if they knew for certain that I was with Stephen.

But now, the murderous mob was gone, the difficult and practical work of bringing his body here to be prepared for burial was complete, and I was finally letting go. In that moment of physical relief — in the safety and comfort of the home in which I had once been so small — in the subsiding of my fear and anger — came upon me a profound sadness I could not control.

But I didn’t want to cry. My companions, Nicanor, Nicolas and Philip had shed so many tears already. I didn’t want to start us up again. When they had arrived at the body, they pushed through the crowd and fell upon it, unashamed in their grief. I stood by, incapable of accessing the depth of sorrow they so instantly expressed in wails and tears. It was as if they meant to begin his washing with the water of their own faces. But my face was locked like a gate of iron bars, each muscle flexed in attempt to become iron itself. My teeth clenched, my neck bulged, my brow deeply furrowed, my nostrils permanently flared, my ears twitching and hot. It was the custom to mourn as Nicanor, Nicolas and Philip, but I could not.  Not then. And now it seemed too late, or too far gone. I preferred not to begin another bout of crying among my brethren. Could we pray, or sing a hymn instead, as we washed the body? 

Swallowing those first tears, I suggested a song without betraying my welling emotions. As Nicanor obliged with his beautifully resonant voice, my mother appeared in the door with the water. I looked into her eyes and gave in, crumpling upon Stephen’s body with the sobs that had finally come. Nicolas joined me in the crying, but Nicanor continued to sing, placing his hand upon my back as Philip rose to help my mother with the water.

The dammed emotions burst through me as a torrent from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Tumulting through the hardness of every muscle. What I had felt as iron proved to be only hardened clay, and soon the liquid of grief had softened every part of me which for several hours had been forcefully held solid. The initial burst quickly sloshed me into quiet, and as Niconor finished the hymn I joined him for the final line.

Raising up from the body, I looked at my dear friends. All eyes were wet. I was so far from alone. With a nod, we set about the work of washing the blood and dirt from the body of this blessed man.

My mother tirelessly left and returned, left and returned, fetching more and more water from the cistern a half mile from our home. We wiped away the hate, the anger, the misunderstanding, the violence and the unholy thirst for power that caked Stephen’s body. In basin after basin of red-brown water we wrung out our cloths. Then, dipping them in the fresh clear water my mother provided, returned to the body for more, until it was done.

Other followers of the Way were assembling quietly outside the house for fear of those who had done this to Stephen. They had brought a bier and burial clothes which they passed in to us. We wrapped him in them and placed him on the bier. Nicanor and Philip took the front, Nicolas and I the back. The sun had already set and the moon was rising. We went without torches or lamps through the nearby city gate and out to my family’s grave. Stephen had no family but us.

Nicanor sang again outside the tomb and the small group of us quietly dispersed still wary of what would come upon us if we were discovered in such an assembly. 

“What are we to do now, brothers?” I asked them as we at last also turned away from our friend’s grave.

Nicanor responded, staring up at the moon, “We return to the work we have been given to do, Parmenas. Surely this will make things much worse for our people. There will be even more who will be in need. Peter and the other apostles will know what is next.”

“And we must do as you have told us, Parmenas, that Stephen asked our father before he died, which will indeed be yet more difficult than feeding all within our care,” Nicolas added, “We must not hold this sin against them.”

Philip startled and turned to us, “Did not John say that the Lord said the same when they did this to him? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?”

“Yes, that is what the Lord has told us to do.” I whispered in humble resignation, “And that will be harder than anything we have yet done.”

Nicanor shouted, “But the Lord is with us!”

And none of us urged him to be quiet.  

To the End — A Christmas Story

I’m beginning my time at Nemours Children’s Hospital. Moving into chaplaincy again, this story came to mind. I wrote it about my first experience of death in the hospital one December many years ago. It’s almost all true, but none of the names are. May what needs to be unmade in you die this winter, and may Jesus be born  in its place.

To the End

I had gotten to the cave-like accommodations of the on-call room right next to the emergency room at about 10:30, after blundering my way about trying to figure out how to do rounds and forgetting to do two referrals that my supervisor had given me. It was my first overnight shift at the Hospital as a chaplain intern.  During rounding, my experience with the nursing staff in the ICUs made me feel like an outsider.  Obviously I was new.  Obviously I didn’t know what I was doing. Plus, an encounter with a family whose mother had aspirated earlier that evening had made me feel like an intruder.  They didn’t want me there.  They just wanted their mom to be okay.  But she was not okay.  She was being transferred to the ICU.  I remember her chin was turned up and her mouth was wide open and shrunken closed at the same time (no teeth).  She died that week, I learned later. i also learned later that a chin turned toward what would be the sky if she could stand is a death omen.

“What’s the point of being a chaplain if they don’t want me?”  I thought.    “How do I wiggle my way into this system?  Do I want to?  How does one provide comfort to people in such circumstances?  Can I pretend to provide comfort?”

“Whatever.”  I said aloud as I turned off the light next to the bed.  Sleep wasn’t hard.

I was awakened by the beeping pager at about 12:30.  It was only my second page and I didn’t know what the numbers on the pager meant.  Somewhat drowsily, I called the page operator and she helped me call the number.  It was a nurse from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  They were preparing to take a baby off his ventilator.  Less than shock at this horrible news I felt my sense of obligation.  I wanted to “do it right.”  As I scrubbed up at the entrance to the NICU the thought crossed my mind that it could be a baby I had visited with another intern whom I had shadowed a few weeks earlier.  When I entered the room I discovered that indeed, it was Frankie.  Distracted by this coincidence, I met the nurses, residents and doctors.  I didn’t remember the face of Steph, the nurse who paged me, but I had met her earlier that evening on my seemingly ineffectual rounds.

Steph greeted me, “Hi, thanks for coming.  We thought that you should be here.  To like… say a prayer or something.”  She shook my hand with a child’s wrist.  She was such a tiny woman.

This NICU room was shared by three other babies.  It was dimly lit with fluorescent lighting at the desk.  The parents were not there.  His mother, Sandra, did not want to be there.  Maybe she could not be there.  When I met her the day after Frankie was born, a few weeks earlier, she was a mess.  This was her fifth child.  Her oldest had Down’s syndrome.  She didn’t know why God would do all this to her.  I didn’t either.  She wanted us to pray for a miracle.  I was so glad that on that day my role was to shadow the chaplain.  I half-wished I could be a shadow now.

I walked into the room and a crowd was gathering to witness the death.  Frankie was in a crib, not like Sharod, Madelynne and “Baby Herrison” who shared his room who were all in incubators.  He was a full term baby boy, wearing a blue hat and covered in a hand knit afghan.  He looked like a giant compared to his roommates, but he was less than one month old.  He was motionless except for the rhythmic and oddly mechanical rise and fall of his tiny chest.  Machines were pumping his heart and filling his lungs with air.  On November 6th, he had been born brain dead from lack of oxygen during birth complications.  His brain had never told his body to live.

But the doctors had given his newborn synapses the chance to start firing by keeping him alive artificially.

They hadn’t fired.

Medical arrangements were being made and it seemed like we were waiting for as many people to be present as possible.  Shelly, a resident, gave Frankie some morphine though an IV.  Steph sat in the chair and another nurse named Barb wrapped Frankie up and made it so all his cords could reach her waiting arms.  This was Steph’s room and she would be the loving arms for this child as she had been for much of his life.  The weight of this burden seemed like it should crush her tiny frame.  Once in Steph’s arm, the Doctor; a stern, South Asian man, very much maintaining his scientific objectivity; gave the go ahead and said “Make sure to note the time.”

I noted the time.

It was 1:06 am on December 2nd.  Twenty-six days after he was born. They removed the tubes and everyone stood back.  Steph and a few others were already crying.  I asked Shelly, “Would you like me to say a prayer now?”  She nodded.

I prayed aloud, “Dear One, we’re gathered here at the end of Frankie’s life because we want to honor it and acknowledge it.  We know that you are here with us.  You are with us always and even more so at this moment between life and death.  We thank you for the short time that Frankie was with us.  We praise you for life and the opportunity to know this child.  Frankie’s life was so hard and it’s been hard for us to watch him struggle.  Take him now.  We trust that your love will surround him as it already has.  We pray that you be with us in this time of darkness.  We pray especially for his mother.  Be with her as she grieves.  You know suffering.  You know death.  We know you know Frankie and we know that you are with him.  Be with us now.  Amen.”

After the prayer, most were crying.  My eyes welled but barely teared.  I stood by as we continued to wait for Frankie to die.  Thankfully, Shelly had turned off the monitor and we didn’t have to listen to his heart beat slowly fade.  The room seems so still and silent in memory, but I know that the three living babies probably gurgled, and their machines definitely beeped and whirred.  Yet in those long minutes before Frankie died, my senses were empty save the sight of that dying babe.   Because she had turned off his machines, Shelly had to keep checking his heart with her stethoscope to see when it stopped beating.  It kept beating until 1:19am.

13 minutes of silence.

After Frankie was dead, most people filtered out, and the intricate death ritual began.  Steph and Barb set themselves to filling out paperwork and assembling Frankie’s memory box, a nice padded box with places for pictures and all of the things that Frankie accumulated in his short life—hats, blankets, an Elmo stuffed animal.  I stood in a corner and watched.  As they worked, Steph talked with Barb about how another baby had died in her room on her watch the week before.  “I’m not sure how much of this I can take.”

I said, “This isn’t exactly what you signed up for, huh?”

“No, it is,” she replied.

I responded “Well, for what it’s worth, what you are doing is really something beautiful and so ancient, you know?  I mean, there’s a lot of paperwork but the way you take care of the dead is really beautiful.”

“Thanks,” she squeaked as she took off her glasses and wiped her eyes.

They continued to work and I stood by and commented on a few mundane things, like the quality of the pictures they were taking for his memory box.  Mostly I just stood and watched as they professionally loved the dead body and the absent family through their work.

When they cleaned him I almost had to leave. His naked body was already changing color.  I had a physical reaction to this.  I had been stifling a cough from the moment I walked into the room and I think that sensation coupled with the sight of his decaying body, made me slightly nauseous.  But soon the sweet smell of the baby shampoo and soap filled the room and I stayed by their side—by his side until they finished and he was again covered.

I asked Steph, “Can I touch him.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling better—the safety of routine soothing her some.

It was the first dead body I had ever touched. I brushed his cheek with the top of my index and middle finger, whispering his name, and then I attempted to secretly cross him, but Steph saw me.  She quickly turned away but couldn’t help herself.  She collapsed in the chair and cried.  Barb kneeled beside her and hugged her.

“It’s okay, Steph.  I know,” she said.

I didn’t have that luxury.  I didn’t know.  My experience with death was little.  That was why I had signed up to be an intern as a chaplain.  I wanted to know suffering and death more intimately because in my head I knew it was inevitable for all of us.  I’m not sure I knew it in my heart, but I was learning.

Steph’s ready-to-be-brokenness was killing something in me—something worthy of death.  Her physical and yet living frailty sobbing next to the now dead frailty of Frankie’s body was teaching me the cross.  Touching the dead one with the sign of the cross and seeing her being broken by it was breaking me.  I thought of all the babies I was proud to say that I held on their first day of life.  It was strange to say that I had been with a baby and touched him on his last day of life.

“I touched a dead baby.”  I told my wife the next day.

And he touched me with the holy hand of a once born in a manger, now crucified and resurrected Christ.

I stood by silently and watched the women embrace.  They might as well have been Salome and Mary.

When Steph recovered, they wrapped Frankie in his death shroud and put him in a bag for transport to the morgue.

“I’ll go down with you,” Barb said.

I didn’t go down with them.  I left them at the elevator.  I was exhausted so I went back to the on-call room cave and slept.

I emerged from the hospital that morning, bought a cup of coffee and went to the plaza at 10th and Locust to sit and watch the morning being born.  As I sat on a bench, the people that walked by were so much more alive than usual.  I loved them so much more than I had before.  I loved them because they were all so frail, so easily dead.  I was too.  I was baptized in Frankie’s death.  I died with a dying baby.  I died to the myth of immortality and invulnerability that still lived deep in my heart though denounced in my head.  The Incarnation made a new kind of sense.

God chose the Incarnation and a breakable body to be Emmanuel.  In the failure, death and brokenness of several human bodies at the Hospital in the early morning of December 2, 2009, my reliance on God’s self-revelation in our darkest darkness was not so much reinforced but realized.  It was felt in my heart and it felt like knowing God.  I guess I was poised to be laid low, poised to see us all as the delicate creatures we are.  Who better to show me than a brain-dead baby, a month old, alone, his parents incapable of dealing with his death?

When I finished my coffee sitting on the bench in the plaza, I walked to the trolley underground at 13th and Market.  I descended the steps and heard route 11’s arrival being announced.  I ran to catch it, jumped between the closing doors and found a seat underneath the twinkling lights of the elusive Christmas Trolley.  The driver had decked his halls with Christmas lights and he was playing Christmas music from a boom box on his dash.

Bing Crosby sung in error, “Someday soon our troubles will be out of sight…”

A little boy sat across from me.  He asked his young mother, “Are we getting off here?”

“No,” she said. “We go all the way to the end.”

She was right.

Mary Said “Yes!” — A Bible Story

Mary Said “Yes!”

(This one is actually a play)

——–

Luke 1:26-28 (New Living Translation)

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings,favored woman! The Lord is with you!”

Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel[f] forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

——–

Gabriel: I can’t believe she did it. She actually did it. I need to tell someone. Dina! Dina! Over here! Come here. She’s not coming. Oh no, she is. Let me go to her too. I have to tell her. Let me jog a little. Wait till she hears this! It happened! She said yes! Dina! She said yes! She can’t hear me yet. Don’t you hate that? When is it appropriate to start talking when you see someone from far off? I never know. Oh hey Dina. Guess what?!

Dina: She said yes?

Gabriel: Oh, you heard that? Well, why didn’t you say anything? I’m freaking out over here and you’re just walking toward me like it’s nothing. She said yes! Can you believe this?

Dina: Of course, I can believe this, Gabriel. Have you looked in the mirror lately? You’re beyond impressive. We all are, really. You glow, you’re nine feet tall, your wings probably barely fit in Mary’s room, am I right?

Gabriel: How’d you know?

Dina: I know stuff. But more so, he knows stuff. Would the creator of the universe, the promiser of every promise, the rainbow rider, Leviathan slayer, salvation supplier, way-through-the-sea maker, zebra stripe artist, head-hair enumerator…

Gabriel: I got it.

Dina: [Ignoring him] Wildfire whipper, earthquake inhibitor, hurricane humbler, whale-song interpreter, mountain mover, canyon crevice consultant, well of every gladness, joy architect, stream of healthy bones and blood, quick of everything that has breath…

Gabriel: [Overtop of her] I got it

Dina: Almighty God send you to a woman who would say no. Of course she said yes.

Gabriel: Dina, don’t do this.

Dina: Don’t do what?

Gabriel: Don’t rain on my parade. Our parade. Everyone’s parade.

Dina: Does everyone have to be as excited about everything as you are?

Gabriel: Yes! Yes! Yes! She said yes! Yes! This is not an ordinary yes. Mary is not an ordinary woman. This was not an ordinary mission. Do you know how many times we’ve been this close [holds fingers close to thumb] to finding someone like her. By the way, “zebra-stripe artist,” that’s a nice one, hadn’t heard it before.

Dina: I decided I’m never going to repeat myself again.

Gabriel: What about the “Almighty God” part.

Dina: Well that’s the punch line, it’s like my signature sign-off, that one’s different. That’s how I end every list. That’s my thing.

Gabriel: Ok, ok, but seriously, that’s really great. Are you writing any of them down? You totally should.

Dina: But isn’t that kind of cheating? I’m trying to hold all the goodness in my mind. I’m clearing out space for these. It’s going to be all God in here. [Points to head]

Gabriel: Love it. So, as I was saying, do you know how many times the Zebra Stripe Artist has been this close to sending me to another woman? How many years have we been waiting for her? God told Isaiah about this 700 years ago, but he told me a couple hundred years before that.

Dina: I don’t get into time as often as you do, Gabriel. Which one is longer, a day or a year?

Gabriel: A year, so 900 years is a long time, ok?

Dina: Ok.

Gabriel: So we’ve been waiting a really, really long time to find someone like Mary. I’ve been scouting them out for a few hundred years now at least. … What?

Dina: Nothing.

Gabriel: You’re still not impressed?

Dina: …

Gabriel: This isn’t impressive?

Dina: I live as an impression of the Divine Will. I am impression personified. I am because he is.

Gabriel: No, but Mary. She said yes. It was a really long time. You’re not at all moved by her movement?

Let me try. I’ve been up and down the Jordan looking for her, waiting, listening, watching. This has been my major assignment for close to a millennia… and I know you don’t get the whole time thing very much, but go with me here. This is big. This is the biggest. Dina, as my friend, at least, celebrate with me. She said yes!

Ok, at least now you’re smiling.

Sometimes God would send me to check someone out, sometimes I would find someone on my own and think, she has to be the one, and I’d tell God about her, and he’d be like, you think I don’t know about her? And I’d be like, oh, yeah, oh, yeah, you’re God. But I really like her. And then he’d laugh. “I like her too” he’d say, but not yet. It’s not now, it’s not her. Ask Uriel, he went on a couple trips with me. There was this one woman in Bethlehem—we almost always looked in Bethlehem, because you know, that’s what the prophecy said. I can tell you the name of every child bearing woman alive in Bethlehem right now, as a matter of fact—anyway, this one woman in Bethlehem that Uriel and I were watching this one time was so perfect for the job. Faithful, engaged to be married to a temperate man, a priest—she had this spark to her. Other women looked up to her, even married women, older than her. She was a leader. She organized a merchant guild of sorts among the weavers in town. She would have been excellent. So we came back to God and told him all about her.

We did the “you-don’t-think-I-know-about-her” gag. He laughed but then he listened to us gush about her. God was patient. He heard us out but then he was like “Of course I love her for all the reasons you mention, and many more you don’t even know about, but she’s not the one for us. The man will never go along with it. Let’s wait.”

God was waiting for something I didn’t totally understand. His picks were always surprising me. And Mary was no exception. First of all she lives in Galilee, but apparently God has a plan for that, he’s so nonchalant about it too—he’s blowing my mind with this non-Bethlehem woman—she’s like 100 miles off my list—and he’s like “yeah, I said Nazareth, just go with it. Just go with it, Gabe.” So I go. I go to Nazareth and come to find out she’s super young. Way younger than I was thinking. How could she have enough courage, wisdom, heart? But as I watched her my heart stirred with whatever it was God saw in her and I began to see her the way I had seen the others. She is kind. She is so kind. When people weren’t looking she fed the birds. She sang to them too. One morning she was out at the edge of town and I promise you the birds were singing with her. Harmonies and all. Have you heard a bird-human duet? Beautiful. She is gentle with her little sister, doing the lion’s share of caretaking during the day while her mother works. She loves the scriptures. Her uncle is a priest and he lets her listen in on his lessons at the synagogue. Before she goes to bed, she recites what she learned that day. I haven’t heard her miss a beat yet. There is a wisdom in her ready to bubble out any minute, I’m sure. Even brighter than the yes that made me run you down today, Dina. [abruptly interrupting himself] I’ve gone on long enough. I just had to tell someone about what just happened.

Dina: Did you tell Snowflake Geometry Innovator?

Gabriel: God? Yes, I just came from there. [Aside] That one was alright.

Dina: Yeah?

Gabriel: [Nods head] God’s overjoyed. But he didn’t have time to celebrate. Something serious is happening, even right now. I wasn’t sure if she was going to go for it. I mean I said all the things I was told to say, but you never know with humans. They can disobey. They can say no.

Dina: Isn’t that crazy?

Gabriel: Yeah, I don’t get it. But I think it’s kind of the point of it all.

….

Gabriel: [Staring off, whispering at first then louder with his eyes closed] “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you! Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!

Dina: Ok, now you’re getting to me. Is that what he told you to say?

Gabriel: Mmhm. And Mary answered, and it wasn’t doubt. No, not like Zechariah last month. It was curiosity when she said “How can this be?” How can this be? How can this be? How can this be? Those words are like honey in my mouth when I think of her saying them.

Dina: So what’d you say?

Gabriel: God told me how it would happen. I’ve been waiting to explain this to one who would agree for so long. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”

Dina: The word of God will never fail.

Gabriel: The word of God will never fail. I think it’s not failing right now. Mary’s yes has made something happen. I imagine that, by now, she must be with child. Jesus is knit in Mary’s virgin womb.

Dina: There’s a whole new set of names for him now. Baby Becomer, Time Traveler, Emmanuel, Human Being and Uncontained God!

Gabriel: Yes, yes, yes.

Dina: And Mary’s got a couple of new names too. First one is Mother of God.

Gabriel: Is Yeser a word?

Dina: Consenter?

Gabriel: She called herself “The Lord’s Servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

Dina: And it shall be as you have said — as he has said. But she can’t know that like we do. She has seen so little, I’ve had breakfasts that are longer than her life.

Gabriel: Now you’re getting why this is such a big deal?

Dina: I never said it wasn’t a big deal. I just didn’t get why this was anything new. We live in miracles. We’re angels. The Glorious One’s glory isn’t a surprise.

Gabriel: You haven’t used “Glorious One” yet?

Dina: Not since I started this new thing.

Gabriel: The Glorious One’s glory is steady, but I’d hate to never be surprised by it. Now his glory is human, and his human mother agreed to it. That’s, that’s, that’s … too much for words.

Dina: I think you’re right. Even if it was always the plan, it doesn’t make the results any less astounding. Mary has no idea what she’s getting into, her human mind cannot comprehend the magnitude of what she now contains. But she knows enough to be terrified, and in the tremendous moment, she prays a yes, “May it be to me as you have said.” The Courageous One should be her name.

Gabriel: Because she said yes.

Dina: Yes.

Gabriel: Mary said yes!

Dina: Yes!

Gabriel: Mary said yes!!!

Dina: Yes!!!!

Imaginative Prayer: Am I a cosmic dolphin?

“I was kind of like a cosmic dolphin,” I said to my friend as I described the waking dream I had while meditating. Angela Lam of Jesus Collective had led us in a time of imaginative prayer. She had painted us a scene in which Jesus was present in some way that I forget, but I did not forget this very strange vision that is steadily sinking into a long-term meaning-giving moment.

I had this vision many months ago now, and since I can’t shake the image I am asking myself and God, “Am I that cosmic dolphin?”

“Was this vision more than a strange coalescence of associations?” I am leaning towards answering “Yes,” which is why I am writing this blog post.  Jesus said in Matthew 10:27 “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.” This blog is kind of my roof.

I hate the financial metaphor, but I am taking this vision to the bank because I am an inheritor of Morton Kelsey’s legacy. Here’s a taste of his wisdom to help you listen under him with me for a minute:

“God, the very creative power at the center of the universe, is loving and caring like a truly devoted parent. This love is not one aspect of God….but the very organizing reality at the heart of things. God is love. — Morton T. Kelsey

Morton Kelsey influenced my parents, and me through them. I actually haven’t read The Other Side of Silence, but I ought to, and probably will soon. My dad wrote this helpful summary on his blog a few years back.

In The Other Side of Silence (and elsewhere), Morton Kelsey pointed out that when we are still, images will appear naturally, as they do in our dreams. There is a vast, mostly unexplored territory in our unconscious, that impacts us deeply. It is a territory where God is much needed and very available. We can follow the revelations in our literal dreams or our waking dreams, listen to them, and find meaning in what they reveal about our deep places where God is relating to us Spirit to spirit. On the way to being quiet, we will need to dismiss many distractions. But we can recognize deeper images that arise from a place where we are communing with God. — Rod White

So I think this cosmic dolphin arose from a place I was communing with God. Here’s the full vision.

In a sudden flash I was swimming in a stream — rushing with a current not terribly unlike the Bifrost in the Marvel movies but much more watery. I was so fast I could speed up in the lightning current which jetted through a cosmic landscape — a multicolor milky way bursting with laser show like anomalies, but just as vast and void as infinite space might be. I didn’t have a tail  but I kicked as if I did and breached as if a pointed nose and dorsal fin sliced the water with each smooth splash.

The cosmic stream  didn’t have a bottom. there was no bed to channel it, and  thus it was inherently fathomless. Instead of a bottom, it had two tops — an above surface of the water that rippled beneath the laser light show sky, and a below surface of the water which can also be called above since it rippled just as its counterpart. There was no under or over, but I was certainly in, except when I launched myself into the cosmic air, dripping rainbow droplets in slow motion flight that could have been free fall but for the gravity seemingly centered in the core of the stream.

A crystalized moment of realization occurred as I skimmed the underside of the surface looking up (or down) through the water into the rushing light from without, when suddenly switching focal lengths as one often does when looking out of a window, I saw my own startling face reflected back at me from the underside surface of the water.

Renewal is unfathomable reorientation.

Peacemakers Observing Veteran’s Day

My friend from the Jesus Collective, Keith Smith, shared this today on Facebook:

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
Praying for shalom in our veterans and in our world.

That’s pretty much it, I think. How do Peacemakers who follow Jesus observe Veteran’s day? Praying for shalom in our veterans  and in our world.

The ancient Hebrew concept of peace, rooted in the word “shalom,” meant wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety and prosperity, carrying with it the implication of permanence.

Praying for shalom in the world is a huge prayer; it will build your faith to read the news and keep praying for shalom, or to encounter the real scars of war, physical and emotional, in the real lives of your neighbors who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and all our countries previous conflicts. Wholeness, completeness, soundness, health safety and prosperity with an implication of permanence! It’s easy to think that’s impossible. But today is a good day to not give up. Today we pray for shalom.

My prayers today have me hoping that our community of peacemakers in Circle of Hope would not loose the thread of connection between the ordinary loving that we do and this big picture transformation that so many of us long for. I pray that there would be shalom and I pray that we would be a part of it in new ways and in the same old ways. Gandhi was very right when he said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.” May the peace we make in our cells, congregations, love feasts and families be a consciously walkable path for us who aspire to be like Jesus. May our tiny shalom contribute to the bigger shalom we seek.

Osheta Moore, author of Dear White Peacemakers,  paints a good picture of shalom by drawing the important distinction between peacekeeping and peacemaking.

Sometimes I forget we’re not called to be peace-keepers—the children of God are made of sterner stuff than to merely keep the peace—no, Jesus challenges us to be peacemakers.

The difference is subtle, but subversive.

Peacekeeping maintains the unjust status quo by preferring the powerful.

Peacemaking flips over a few tables and breaks out a whip when the poor are exploited.

Peacekeeping does everything to secure a place at the table.

Peacemaking says all are welcome to the table, then extends the table with leaves of inclusive love.

Fear drives Peacekeeping.

Love powers Peacemaking.

Peacekeeping is for districts and factions and empires.

Peacemaking is the Kingdom of God. (source)

When Jesus sent out 72 people  to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” in Luke 10, he gave them an uncanny peace to pass around the places they went. He told them to look for the “people of peace” which I take to mean the people who were eager to receive  peace. Moore’s beautiful declaration for peacemakers gives me lots of ideas about where to find people who are longing for peace… for shalom.

My final prayer for Veteran’s Day is that as we go out, because we too are similarly sent by Jesus, that we would not lose track of the way of peace that we were given to share in the first place; may we demonstrate peace in that holistic way that the Hebrew word shalom encompasses. May we pray for shalom in the hearts of wounded people and in the halls of power, and may we walk the way of peace in our cells, Sunday meetings and families… in all our relationships, trusting how we are all of us together caught up in an inevitable future of shalom in Jesus Christ.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace  (shalom) was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Amen and amen.

With Days Getting Shorter Here Are Seven Ways To De-Funk

The sun sets today at 6:09 pm. In two months it will set at 4:39 pm. With the spookiest weekend of the year in a couple of days, the biggest ghost haunting me right now is the actual darkness.  For many of my friends and neighbors, with November and December in the Northern Hemisphere come seasonal affective disorder, holidays highlighting our loneliness and/or family disconnection, and just a lot of demanding expectations. Though I wouldn’t say I have seasonal affective disorder, the lengthening nights can usually amplify my anxiety and worsen my darker moods. It often feels like the dark is actually closing in on me. Do you feel me on that?

One of the most important bible verses for me, especially when the darkness has felt oppressive, has been John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Looking deep into the eyes of our immediate astronomic future, and well aware of how depleted our resilience is by almost two years of Covid related stress, lets tune up our tool kit to lean into Jesus’ never-to-be-overcome light.

Here are some ideas for how to de-funk when you are seriously in a funk. They are very practical, designed to let the Light in, not to manufacture it.

1. Create your own “de-funk” playlist

What songs bring you joy? What’s your jam? Nostalgia seems to help me. I go to the songs that are connected with happy memories or seasons of safety in my life. It seems that new music began to matter less and less since 2001. So the “Things Fall Apart” album by The Roots often gets in there, but also a bunch of James Taylor and Rich Mullins. I always love it when my friend, Audrey, sends me new worship songs because I have very little idea about new music.

2. Welcome (certain) distractions

Tik Tok does not qualify! At least not for me. I deleted the TikTok app from my phone but now everything gets reposted on Instagram reels and I’m all the way back in. But distraction is not always a bad thing. When you are feeling in a funk, your ruminating thoughts need something to interrupt them. I think distractions are especially helpful when we are conscious of them. Say to yourself, “I need a distraction,” and then go get distracted.

3. Be creative

Creativity might be the best distraction, but for the creatives who practice some form of art creation to make a living or to fulfill their calling this one might not work exactly the same. You don’t have to be an artist or think you have very much artistic talent to be creative. There is something very therapeutic in the time warp you can sometimes experience when you last long enough in a creative task. If you can get past the initial frustration and/or self consciousness there’s deep freedom on the other side. You can just be self directed if that’s you, but you don’t have to do it alone. There are tons of tutorials for free or cheap online, and there are lots of art centers where you can sign up for classes. Why not?

4. Make someone else’s day

It feels counterintuitive every time. Enough people have said it that it might even sound cliché, but I still think I need to say it to you because I still need to hear it: GIVING FEELS GOOD. When you yourself are depleted it doesn’t make that much sense, but giving to someone else helps. I hope that someone else’s blessing lands on you often, but we can’t control that. We can, however decide to do something for someone else.

5. Connect with friends and family 

Just reach out. Forget having a reason to call. Impose yourself on them. Depending on how safe it feels, you could say, “I’m feeling down and I need some company, can I come over?” I honestly wish more of my friends would do that. I think it would be fun. Especially when they’re just feeling a little funky and not in full blown crisis mode. Most of these ideas work best as preventative measures. There are a bunch of resources available if you need more support for your mental health. Here’s some resources wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/wind/mentalhealth

6. Go for a walk or other form of exercise

We carry a lot of stress in our bodies. Interrupting what’s happening inside sometimes takes going outside. On some days this is a monumental effort and walking around the block would be justly celebrated with much rejoicing. The scientific data makes the benefits clear. For me it’s the victory over my will not to get up and do anything that is most attractive. Just doing the dang thing you didn’t want to do lightens things up.

7. Make a list and do something on it

I love lists. I live on Trello. Checking boxes legit releases endorphins. But just creating the list helps put things in perspective too. In my head, all the swirling anxiety about what needs to be done feels huge. It usually looks a lot smaller on paper, even if some of the items on the list still feel impossible. Do the one thing you can do now. I think this is one way to actually do what Jesus directed us to when he said in Matthew 6:34, “Do not worry about tomorrow, each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Just some ideas for you and me, my friends. May Christ’s light shine on you. If you have any more ideas, use the comments below!

Fullfill All Righteousness: a meditation on Matthew 3

Jesus changes the direction of all our religious quests. We had convinced ourselves that by our careful observation we could be righteous, but we had only just begun. We hade barely gotten to the beginning when we thought we had arrived at the end.

“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”

John helped the people realize they could begin. Clean off the old and embrace a new beginning! You better at least try since God’s Chosen One is going to show up any minute, and his baptism will be of fire. And his baptism will not just change you; it will change the whole world. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

We still spend most of our time getting ready to begin. There’s a lot of repentance needed in this world, yes; but what we too often don’t remember is that righteousness starts only after repentance. Feeling bad that we were bad. Feeling hopeless that we could ever be good. These pass for righteousness in a world as crooked as ours. But Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness.

“Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”

I like the old language here which captures the insult to John’s sensibilities. John must suffer this reversal of roles. Jesus the one for whom he prepared the way would come to be baptized by him? Yes, suffer this cousin. Permit it to be so. Allow me to show you what my Father really means.

Jesus enters the waters of sin and makes them clean. The ritual that most would use to begin again, again; Jesus uses to fulfill ALL righteousness. After this beginning with John, he went around our world completing things, making them whole, healing broken things, making them sound, finding lost pieces, replacing them to their proper places.

Baptism is a beginning, yes, but for Jesus it was already the end. “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

To fulfill all righteousness was to be revealed as who he was. Repentance was more than turning away from sin, something Jesus could not do since he had no sin to turn from; for Jesus repentance was turning to the Father and his love. And so it is with the Son and so it is with us, his younger siblings.

Don’t turn only to let sin see your back; turn to let God see your face. Give yourself to God’s love. Be beloved. Fulfill all righteousness.

 

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

 

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