Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (page 1 of 16)

A Vocabulary of Blessing

It’s the end of Spiritual gifts month in Circle of Hope; what did we learn?

Many of us learned what spiritual gifts were for the first time. There are 23-25 spiritual gifts described explicitly as gifts  in the New Testament (depending on how you slice it). Circle of Hope Daily Prayer gave us plenty of insight into the nature of each gift. You can read them again at circleofhope.net/dailyprayer by searching “spiritual gifts” in the search bar or you can see them on this google doc.

Personality or Gifting?

This paragraph from the July 30th entry was especially revealing to me:

Many people think considering our personalities is the same as considering our spiritual gifts. But the sorting does not come from the same source. Psychology can be practiced in the Spirit and spirituality can be psychologically informed. But, in general, “personality” is thought of as something coming from the inside out and spiritual gifts come from the outside in. Our personalities are the receptacles and vehicles for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us “clay jars”—very humble, everyday dwellings for the glory of God. Be in awe of that miracle.

My personality has historically driven me into much of what I do. I run on high octane conviction about my sense of self and my purpose in the world. Who I am is very important to me. I have submitted my personality in many ways to Jesus over the years. I made Jesus a feature of who I am by becoming a Christian and taking radical discipleship seriously. But this paragraph from the daily prayer hit me at the beginning of the month in that special way. You know what I’m talking about? When you read something and you notice it — maybe you highlight it in a book, read it out loud to your spouse or friend, or post it on your Facebook wall (that’s what I did). I realize, now at the end of the month, how the meaning of this is working itself out for me.

Mariko the Theremin

My lesson is this: Making Jesus a feature of my personality is not the same as receiving Jesus’ Spirit in my heart. I think the latter has happened in my life and the former is not inherently bad, but they are definitely not the same. During spiritual gifts month, that distinction became apparent to me. It happened at 2007 Frankford Ave when Mariko Snook, one of our brilliant Art Directors, was reading our questions.

She had asked us to write down whatever question was resonating with us. My question jumped out of me and felt true when I wrote it down, but when she read it in sequence with the questions of others I was strangely disconnected from what I had asked. This was due in part to the theremin-like vibration of Mariko. She was tremulous in her feeling — in OUR feeling really. It was a communal exercise. The questions of others spoke directly to my own. Our frequencies bounced into harmony. She channeled each person’s heart, reverberating with the vulnerability. Her eyes sparkled with welling tears lit with the great spotlights they have in that space. She brought us with her on that journey, and in the synchronization, I learned that what jumps out of me is not always who I am, even if it feels good coming out.

Later reflecting on the dissonance of that moment, it was the desperation of my question that couldn’t resonate with the deepest part of me. Taking time to pray about it later, I was aware of what had been poured into me. Jesus is firmly seated in my heart. His love did not resonate with the blurted despair of my question, “When is this going to work?!” Which was to say, “When will I get what I want, which i have equated with what You want?” There was no answer to this question, but a clarity about who I really am. Jesus is not a feature of my personality. He is present in my heart in a special way through the gift of faith that the Spirit has poured over me.

Keep asking the right questions

At the Spiritual Gifts Intensive, the Leadership Team formed the core of our mutual discernment. The main agenda at the Saturday morning part of our two day event was group time. We got in a group and they told us what they felt our Spiritual Gifts were, based on their long time understanding of us, or their vague impressions depending on the various pairings of people. Then we did it again with a new group. We were all flexing our discernment and building a common vocabulary of blessing. I hope we keep asking and suggesting, “What has God given you?” and saying “Maybe you have the gift of…” That we might be as pulsing amplifiers of the Spirit for each other.

You can start by answering the 125 questions that make up the sorter we used. Find it here on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Thanks to my friend, Joshua, for turning it into an online format. Which spiritual gift corresponds to HTML?

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Anthem

My friends Dan and Pat McGowan have created a masterpiece. The newest album from their band, The Tea Club (Pat McGowan, Dan McGowan, Jamie Wolff, Dan Monda and Joe Dorsey), is a gift to the world. I can’t stop listening to the almost 28 minute final track, “Creature.” This post is an unauthorized interpretation of that song. One of the cool things about art is that it can speak to me differently than it speaks to you — a multiplying resonance of meaning bouncing through all of our ears, brains and hearts. But I’m telling you, you have to let this album speak to you. I think I’ve picked up some of what Pat and Dan are putting down. I know them well, but my interpretation is based on my own experience of the song, from hearing it live a few months ago to listening to it four or five times in the past three days since the album was released. Buy the album at theteaclub.net.

A new Oracle

Psalm 35 of The Tea Club
A Song of the Sons of Patrick
(with interlinear interpretation from a very minor director of music, Ben White)

“Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Turn with me, stay with me, rich in my blood
Against any reason other than I may fill you again

Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again”

Call God the Pulse, don’t cast God in stone. God is alive and is life. There is no life through which God does not flow. I meet so many people who are struggling with language for God. People in recovery, people burned by the church, people who have been taught that God is just another fairy tale, people who don’t have the prescribed experience with God but are having some kind of experience with Something. We need new language for God because we are having new experiences. Cast God in stone and it will weigh you down. Circumscribe God to only “Jehovah Jireh,” or “King of Kings,” or some other ancient, often unintelligible metaphor and miss out on the richness of God in your blood, heaven-bent on filling you again.

You can keep your white knuckle grip on language and experience that doesn’t work for you, and have a faith that is only as strong as those fingers of yours. This is true, not just for religious people who are steeped in the old language and thus find comfort in it, but also for those who are wandering alone, white knuckling their life as the nexus of their universe, desperately trying to be their own life. They intend to hold their own comfort together by the power of their own invention. You might be either/or. You might be both/and — probably the later,

Call God the Pulse and God will fill your veins. These words and melody flow through the song as a sort of key to the triumph of the anthem. We sing with the band through the journey of this song. There is an explicit drama in the song. Can this Truth prevail? Will the Pulse win our hearts?

“Unwinding of the thread
The needle of the curtain
The hour of the glass
The forest of amorphous
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Here is the new anthem: “All your creatures long for the new creation/ where the boundaries of death are ever failing.” The kernel of this wheat is in Romans 8:19-23:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The lofty melody speaks to this aspiration, this desire, as much as the borrowed words from Paul. We need an anthem to hold on to this hope. Ironically the way we hold on is not with an iron grip, but with a loose hand and loose body swaying — swaying to the music — floating and flowing — remembering who God is “Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins” again and again.

“Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again

Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins.”

But can we rest in that? The music fades and gentles us in a deep breath. I will be still and know who you are, God. I will be still and know who you are, Pulse. Breathe. But can I keep breathing? A scratching, technodystopian noise starts to disturb our peace. Dissonant chords lurk at the edges and start to threaten. But breathe, maybe we can stay here even as the other things that grip us whisper.

No, we must face reality, too. This journey is not just a bliss-out. There is another place we can go. It’s where we live most of the time. In minute nine of “Creature” there is a dramatic shift in tone that grew on us like fungus. How long have I heard that knocking?

“How
How long
In the dark?
I close my eyes
I hear that noise
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?

Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
Hey hey hey, No mercy
They’re screaming ‘til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey, what do you say?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
You wanna watch your show about the living dead
well I can introduce you myself”

An intense, caustic struggle with the reality of the hell in which we live bursts in. The option to laugh it all off is real. A death-obsessed culture striving for immortality in eleven different ways at every moment screams at the door of any peace we find till their throats are ripped and raw. Our longing for a New Creation might just be a joke. That Something we felt was just something else. How interesting, your belief in God is. Maybe I’ll make a meme about it. These fucks laugh at everything. Next channel, please. The caustic solution of the hell in which we live will dissolve you.

But   the struggle continues in this song journey.  In minutes eleven and twelve, these forces throw their weight around, quickening their pace and wrapping their tendrils around our hearts. But in minute thirteen they shut up for a second and we can look at the hellscape from a different perspective. The New Creation melody reminds us again of who we are and who the Pulse is. We can sing the same sad, angry words with some more understanding — maybe it’s compassion that saves us from the fray, and thus the infected wounds that come with it.

“Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy
They’re screaming ’til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything”

The words of the third track on the album come in (there are echoes of the whole album in the complex melodies interwoven in “Creature”). There is not enough time to convince the world I’m not crazy.  I don’t have to have every fight. I can be still and know.

“I’m just being realistic, I’m not hoping for a cure
Soon there’ll be no time to laugh away our sorrows anymore
No time to flow like water or lay down in peace.”

The rest comes back in minute fifteen with Dan’s amazing falsetto oo-ooh-ing and Joe’s piano flowing like water underneath him. The Pulse flowing through us again, perhaps. And here the drama is all melody. At minute sixteen, the fungal infection tries to creep back in with dissonant synth sounds. Here is your moment to ponder. Where will I live? In the technodystopian hellscape or in the promised future? Who will I listen to? The Pulse or the whispers of the snickering world?  Hope is now on the doorstep, trumpeting in and ultimately prevailing in a new iteration.

“The Chime of the Age of Gold has called all creatures bold
The seeds in the water have burst
The tentacles reaching out
Arm after arm after arm
Each one a different dance
No longer wound like a thread
They reach for a beckoning stream
Now they flow through it again…”

There is nothing we can do to stop the New Creation. Like thousands of jellyfish in a red tide swarming the shores. The spring has sprung and its unraveling whether we accept it or not. Strange, sometimes dangerous beauty is at hand. Can we dance with it? Creation has accepted the Pulse’s flow and shows us the steps of the new. But will we accept it too?  Will you see the writing on the wall and step into the new age of hope, through death, mind you, into the Age of Gold. The Pulse melody helps us along.

Now, a more devotional, personal assurance. We speak directly to the Pulse with some hesitation. Three lines of “If” but no, this is not IF –“I say if, I mean when.” This swelling confidence in the face of all we have been through (in our lives and in this song) has made me weep every time I’ve listened to this song so far.

“If the time of my age has come
If you’ll call this creature home
If I learn to lift up my eyes
Or If the When tells the Why
If you’ll flow through me again
I say if, I mean when
I say if, I mean when”

The New Creation is coming. Say yes! Then build it up. Make your “yes” loud. The new anthem brings all the promises of Jesus to our lips. This is who we are and this IS who we will be. Thank you, Tea Club! The boundaries of death ARE ever failing.

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

Then as the swell subsides and the melody reverberates into the quiet places inside us, a final threat makes a futile attempt. Minutes 25 and 26 may be my favorite moments of the song. A subtle thing you might miss with out a deep listen or these notes. There comes a static ringing, the musical representative of that knocking that invites me to the other place. It tries to swell back but abruptly stops at 25:30. The anthem melody echoes though slightly unfaithful to the original — just like our faith — like our memory of every swell that uplifted us. How soon they fade! How soon the notes fall! The struggle is always real. The limping melody resolves and at 25:45 and in its aftermath the static ringing builds for a frightening few seconds but does not prevail.

Dan breaks in with the gentle morning song that began the album, “The Way You Call,” giving one more blow to the creeping dissonance at 26:08. The If is defeated by the When, and the When’s song is sweetness — 

“The way you call, as if I don’t already know
The morning sun can share a cup with this child
The way you call and shed a tear with my own
And though it’s far when I believe it’s like Home, Home
And in the heavens there’s a fire returning my friend
Melting away the ruin of another age
We cried at the Lion and swam against the stream
To flow like water and lay down in peace
Hear my prayer, remember it when I am gone.”

I am your child. You share your goodness with me. You share my sadness with me as well. Jesus, the fire that consumes this ruinous age, the Lion who gives us courage to persevere against the current, the Pulse who flows through us and helps us flow in peaceful waters, to you I pray, remember me. This is our prayer. Amen.

How do Christians work? Is that even a thing anymore?

This blog post was co-written by Ben White and Jonny Rashid after our church hosted a meeting for theological thinkers and seminarians on developing a theology of work.

The problem of work in the 21st Century United States

France has a law that prohibits an employer from Emailing her employees after hours. They are enforcing “work/life” balance. Amazon warehouse workers are timed for how long they are in the bathroom. Speaking of Amazon, U.S. postal workers are being pushed to-the-max in order to keep up with the market driven by the supercompany. Meanwhile, our politicians keep promising us jobs and telling us how much they value the American worker. Amazingly, despite the flack they get from their parent’s generation, millennials are the hardest working generation—bordering on workaholism.

The meaning of work, it seems, has changed. In the United States, with many manufacturing jobs gone, we have an increasingly “knowledge-based” economy. It requires an education to enter, hence all the hullabaloo about free college and student debt cancellation from the rotating cast of presidential nominees. Work has taken up more of our interior lives by nature of this shift. “What is work?” is more of an internal question, and less of material one. The lessening of the physical materiality of work gives us a new problem. Work isn’t just about labor, it’s not just a means to an end, it’s something more—like religion.

Among our generation, people are trying to find existential fulfillment from their jobs. It’s only natural considering the above mentioned trend. But seeking fulfillment through such a limited medium isn’t working. Not for our friends, anyway. The pull, however, toward such patterns of thought, is present in us too. Our jobs aren’t meant to offer us the sort of vocational fulfillment we seek from them. But convincing serfs that their work for their lords is their ultimate calling is a great way to get good work out of earnest people. This is both true of folks who want to rise fast in their company, and those who serve in a helping profession.

Don’t let the existential dread set in

When thinking is work, it’s hard to think about work

That pursuit, despite being fundamentally flawed, isn’t too far from what Christian vocation may look like. Jordan Burdge recently offered us a reflection on vocation drawn from the inspiration of the Middle Ages in Europe. Check out the whole video here. He summarized vocations for Europeans as the choice between being a priest, nun, monk, or being married. Those where the basic options they had. Today we have so, so many more options. It’s really hard to sort through them all. So when our endless appetites meet the myriad options it’s pretty easy to make unhealthy choices.

Vocation is a popular idea in the United States and the Christian church that lives here. Not only are we sold the lie that we can become anyone we want to be or do anything we want to do, we’re often told we have to figure out that one perfect thing we are meant to do. And Christians are as complicit in this behavior as Americanists are. Our calling from God is much more universal than specific. You aren’t necessarily destined to do the work you do for money. Your satisfaction does not have to be dependent on the perfect fit in your employment. Paul was called to be a missionary, for example, not to be the tent-maker that sustained him. Same with Jesus as a carpenter, and the fisherman who left their family business to have a New Family business. Again, we are working on understanding work in a difficult era for such thinking.

The culture of work in the United States is so messed up, that it may be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work may have been so corrupted by our economic forms that developing a theology of Christian work might be too much to consider. But Miroslav Volf took a shot at a Christian theology of work  and we would like to endorse and propose his core ideas as basis for our Christian understanding.

Volf highlights the challenge to think of these things because work is now by-and-large “knowledge-based,” and so “thinking” is working (as we said above). Space for contemplation, which may be seen as unshackling our minds from thoughts, in order to truly experience God, is taken up by “thinking as work.” There is rarely a moment in the day in which our minds are not fully engaged with work. We have to snatch every moment of mind to rest while our computer loads a file or we’re standing in the grocery line or we get no rest at all. It’s not all or nothing, but it seems like it is⁠—like the only way to get any rest is to unplug and go to Bermuda, and who can afford that with all these student loans, right? Somewhere along the line the only people who could live a life of contemplation became those who left the world and lived as a hermit or something. It was the Ancient Greeks who drew all these lines between things, but it was us who agreed not to cross them. An active life and a contemplative life are not polar opposites. They actually harmonize quite nicely. Though varying in degrees of importance in different times and circumstances, they actually work together to complete the other.

Volf focuses on eschatology and pneumatology as his sources of understanding work. The work of the Christian is known in doing whatever it is that helps to bring about the Kingdom of God or New Creation which will be fully revealed at the eschaton or last day (that’s the eschatology). The work of the Christian is also known through the spiritual gifts, or charisma, we have been given (that’s the pneumatology). Christians, then, need to work to find their gifting in order to cooperate with God’s plan of bringing the Kingdom of God into its fullness. Volf says, “When people work exhibiting the values of the new creation (as expressed in what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the spirit’) then the Spirit works in them and through them.”

Seeing Christian vocation through a glass darkly

We think our work is neither “sacred” or “secular,” but that our cooperation with God is something that happens across our lives and not just in the confines of our “spiritual life.” In fact, we reject the notion of “work/life balance” because it distinguishes work and life, as if you aren’t alive when you are working, nor are you working when you are living the part of your life for which you don’t get paid. These incessant dichotomies belittle our full personhood. We are called to cooperate with God in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us.

Of course, this is hard too. Especially in the United States. The guiding philosophy we described above is imposed on us with strident force. Work is imposed upon us as a source of meaning, whether we like it or not. If we are not actively examining our lives it will almost certainly happen automatically without our consent. But we believe that we cannot find meaning in our work apart from the Holy Spirit and cooperation with God. This isn’t just a problem in our neoliberal political economy. It’s a problem in any competing economic form. The Kingdom of God, as demonstrated by the church of Jerusalem in Acts, and all over the Bible, really, is showing us another way to live and to work no matter where or when in world history we seek some understanding.

It is hard to remember who we are and what we believe unless we are living it out in some kind of new environment. Our attempt in Circle of Hope has been to create an environment where people can discern their own spiritual gifts and apply them in service to the church, and use them in every arena of their life. Your spiritual gifts are not just for the church, and your education is not just for your job. Your natural talents and proclivities are good signposts for what God has for you to do, but there are many ways to express our gifts, and one might be your ability to not get exactly what you want. You might give more from your understanding of what the community needs. Keep discerning what is best in community and hold your opportunities for service lightly, and you will be fine.

Paul is plain about how important the different parts of the body are. Unfortunately, our stratified society has made a sort of preference for certain roles and not others. Our job is to honor everyone in the body so that they are rewarded with gratitude and love for their service, no matter what they are bringing. Monetizing work may be a necessity, and sometimes may be a good incentive to work, but we admit it’s not the ideal way to honor work. Instead, love, respect, and appreciation are more in line with our kingdom aspirations.

You can see the environment we are creating best by being in our community. Sunday meetings and cells are our primary places to do this work. Serving and worshiping in these meetings is the best chance we have to offer for you to exhibit the values of the new creation and experience the Spirit working in you and through you. They might be the invitation to a life of cooperation with God. Check one out on our website. But if you’re far away, get connected somewhere where the demands of your life don’t end at your own, and the people you love have space to earn your trust and help you see your gifts.

“West Pennsauken South” is the best

I’m a transplant to South Jersey so I look at maps often. (Or maybe I just like maps) This means I might know the contours and boundary lines of all our municipalities more than many native South jersey folks. All the towns seem to blend together as you drive up or down Rt. 130 or Kings Highway or Delsea Drive. or either of the Horse Pikes. My attention has yielded an awareness of one of the most oddly shaped municipal boundaries I have yet seen: the tiny strip of town between West End Ave and 42nd Street at Federal Street that connects the lower part of Pennsauken to the upper part.

Circle of Hope’s building at 3800 Marlton Pike is in that lower part of Pennsauken, On the east side of Rt. 130 is a neighborhood called Bloomfield which has Browning Rd and Lexington Ave as it’s thoroughfares. On the West side of 130 is a little slice of Pennsauken that many people is part of Camden. I think we should call this neighborhood “Pennsauken South” or “West Pennsauken South.” Neighborhood names are often the schemes of real estate developers, which I am certainly not, but wouldn’t a church be a much better instigator of community than somebody just looking to make a buck?

West Pennsauken South is a distinct little community with well kept lawns, narrow streets and tons of charm. When Gwyneth and I were moving to South Jersey we looked at a few houses in the neighborhood, but couldn’t find the perfect one available (though I’m sure the perfect one might still be here, but whoever owns it knows how perfect it is and won’t let it go).

Marlton Pike has promise

We’ve got great neighbors like The Work Group who run a job training and educational program taht gives young people a chance to earn their high school diploma and launch them into achieving their professional goals. They do their induction ceremony in our space, and it is always so inspiring!  Plus they mow our lawn 😉 We’ve got a bunch of small business owners like Francello’s Pizzeria, who just donated all the pizza for the “School’s Out” party we threw for all the kid’s getting out of school. We’ve got tons of diversity (at least five native languages on our block that I know of and probably more). We’ve got a bunch of people who care when caring is hard. We’ve got a bunch of people who love where they live and Circle of Hope is happy to “live” here too!

Plus we are right at the heart of the region across which our cells are scattered. All roads lead to the Airport Circle (where 38, 70, 130 and Admiral Wilson Blvd converge). This is good for our church planting efforts because we want to be a regional force for transformation. Our cells allow us to be local right here in West Pennsauken South (one of our cells meets right here at 3800 Marlton Pike — Shout out to Donna!), and we can be local in a lot of other places at the same time. However, Circle of Hope’s South Jersey Headquarters is in West Pennsauken South (let’s make that a thing! … maybe even start an official neighborhood association — I’m talking to people about it).

So let’s be neighbors! We’re glad we are, let’s do it well.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Nobody Wants to Deny the Flesh: Audre Lorde and Jesus on the Erotic

Learning new things at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books

I went to a book reading at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown, Philadelphia last month. Adrienne Maree Brown was reading from her new book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.  It was a fascinating time with a very diverse crowd of people. I kind of stumbled into the crowd, having not planned on going to the event, but I’m very glad I went because I have been stimulated by it ever since. Brown attributed the thesis of her book to Audre Lorde’s paper presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978 that was later published as a chapter in Sister Outsider, 1984 Audre Lorde and The Crossing Press. Brown got permission to reprint the entirety of the essay as the prologue to her book. Her book is essentially a creative elaboration on Lorde’s thesis in a series of essays.

In many ways (though not exclusively), Lorde and Brown  work to deconstruct the religious hold on sexual expression in American society. This deconstruction is what culture warriors who dominate Evangelical Christian discourse have been defending against since the sexual revolution began in the sixties (and maybe before). Today, the established sexual norms and mores of one hundred years ago and earlier have almost completely lost their potency. Many Evangelicals and other traditionalists (often labeled “Conservative” by themselves or others) lament this loss. I can see why they might lament, but I am not interested in the power they had or perceived to have, which allows me to consider this shift with a little less subjectivity.

Audre Lorde and the erotic

I have a different subject. I am looking for the Holy Spirit’s movement in all things and can see it in this loss of power. Getting the Christian  Church of the hook of morality policing is a potential opportunity for us who would share the Good News with a post Christian world. Audre Lorde is helping me see a better way to continue our conversation about human sexuality that departs from much of how the conversation has been framed. Her words resonate deeply with my experience of my self, my life, my art and my relationship with God (something I wish I could talk to her about because I have a feeling she might have objections. Alas, she died in 1992.) Her observation that the slanderous conflation of the “erotic” and the “pornographic” was a ploy of the domination system designed to relegate an inherently feminine power to the realm of the obscene was like a lightbulb in a dark room for me. Lorde defines pornography as “a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Yes! Uncovering the good that has been subsumed by bad is resurrection. There is life in these words even if I don’t follow Lorde to all of her conclusions.

Lorde further defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various source of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. ” This is true. She doesn’t need my affirmation, but I give it. She was speaking to a group of women but I believe this is true for men as well. I may not be able to access the same female plane she describes, but it makes sense to me that the overlapping space of the sensual and the spiritual is at the heart of all human flourishing. And, yes, that space she calls the erotic, has been erroneously buried under another source of knowing and power that is much more male, intellectual and sterile (as in not fruitful, not fecund, not capable of creating life or speaking to the deepest parts of life).

Again, Lorde writes “we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self discipline but of self-abnegation.” This distinction between self discipline and self abnegation is what shines brightest for me in Lorde’s paper and brings me to Jesus. who had some things to say about self discipline and self abnegation.

What should we cut off? What should we grow back?

“If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”?  I think it has something to do with what Lorde describes as the proper use of erotic power. “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. ..[And it underlines] my capacity for joy.” She later adds, “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. ” Jesus might say that it is that type of using that needs to be denied. The self that cannot be shared because it belongs too much to its owner is only capable of using and thus incapable of the real joy God made us for. Listening to Audre Lorde or Adrienne Maree Brown I felt like they had accessed some of that joy.  And that joy is very attractive.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”  (Matthew 5:29-30) This is not as attractive to modern readers. Jesus was serious about mastering our sin. And we who follow him cannot just  embrace all of our desires as if they are good by nature of them being our desires (I think this might be Brown’s perspective and the new orthodoxy of American society). The tension between satisfaction and denial of our desires needs to be more active than it is. It seems their are two poles of action: deny the flesh and all the joy it might bring or embrace it as the best source of meaning in a Godless world. Neither option is satisfactory but the seeming dichotomy comes from this denial of the erotic which Lorde so well defines. But we have poorly defined sin and cut off a part of our humanity in the imposition of the bad definition.

All that is erotic has been defined as sinful, probably because not enough men gouged out their eyes or cut off their members. Instead they controlled women and denied the potential erotic in themselves because it came less naturally and because it was harder to share the feeling and not just use others. St. Augustine of Hippo will go down in history as the reformed womanizer whose personal process of self abnegation became cosmological fact and defined hundreds of years of theology and subsequent societal views on the erotic. He was awesome in a lot of ways, if only he hadn’t been so influential in this regard! Disastrous!

The erotic within us can be redeemed and this is not just a matter of sexual ethics. Again, Audre Lorde: “the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone… [because] once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” This sounds a lot like picking up your cross and following Jesus to me.  We must deny the part of ourselves that is so hell bent on using others. But we do not need to deny the erotic itself. Previous generations, in their zeal, cut it off, but it can grow back.

Free to consider the erotic with Jesus

I think we need to listen to Adrienne Maree Brown and Audre Lorde because they are excavating a part of us that we need for the abundant life Jesus offers us. But I don’t want to follow them where they lead. I think Adrienne Maree Brown exercises another kind of imprudent zeal in her pendulum swing away from the erotic’s encasement in traditional sexual morality and the power structures that enforced it.  I am not cutting off sexual morality as if it were a member or an eye that caused me to stumble. I want to follow Jesus .When Paul says in Galatians 5:24 “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” I can’t believe he means all pleasure, but I can’t deny that he means some pleasure. Not all desires are good.  And not all good is always good. But the source of good, the Father of Jesus Christ gives good gifts to those who ask.

With the door to the erotic, which had been slammed shut and bolted, successfully propped open, we can consider our potential for shared feeling and joy it affords. I think we need to evaluate our desires more in line with this rubric of sharing joy that Audre Lorde describes than with legislation, religious or governmental.  This requires the Holy Spirit in community. We say in Circle of Hope, “How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.”  This is a needed addition to Lorde’s rubric, but not a negation of her beautiful reflection on what it means to be a human being. Jesus’ project is to make us become fully human as he was. And yes, Jesus was erotic, even if not sexually. We are being made perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. All parts of us are subject to that perfection if we allow them to be. So smell a flower, write a poem, make something, make love (to your spouse!) — enjoy what God is giving you and practice sharing that joy in community.

 

 

So I Started Writing Sonnets

“As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist.  Which is what the sonnet is, first and foremost: a small square poem. It presents both poet and reader with a vivid symmetry that is the perfect emblem of the meaning a sonnet seeks to embody… so a sonnet is a paradox, a little squared circle, a mandala that invites our meditation.”

— Don Patterson
via Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

The beginning of my sonnet craft will forever be inextricable with the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He is my muse and my mother, feeding me inspiration and strong food. Publishing these sonnets here is an invitation to you into my mandala, and a prayer for improvement for me. Please give me feedback if you are so inclined.

I enjoy the order of it, the game of saying something just so while striving to say something more than fun. Am I just clever or have a dug a little deeper than rhyme and rhythm? Have I said something worth saying? I’m still unsure, but it IS fun! And often it is revealing to me. The meditation of the making is more than enough to keep going. I hope you enjoy.

 

Blue Whale Buffet
(For Rod)

Blue whale, biggest ever born behemoth,
Whose bite’s much softer than all those who prey,
Whose song sends echoes far below green froth,
And whose serenity seems to us say,
“Can you have trust as one so big as I
Must have to grow so large off tiny krill?”
You, whale, so massive, look me eye-to-eye,
And share with me a portion of that which will
From remnants grow beyond the dinosaurs.
Give me heart beats for miles that thrum with hope–
Mine and ours, as we float and one day soar.
For now, receiving with more “thanks” than “nope”
All that’s given from your creator’s hand,
And not despising when we can’t or can.

 

Moo-oo-oon, God
(January 21, 2019 After the Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse)

Did you realize you made this pink moon trick?
And is it blasphemy to wonder if
The God of all the universe might pick
The constants, hold their decimals from shift,
Then let the rest unwind so unimpinged?
Are you allowed to be surprised by all
You’ve made? Like this moon now shown blood tinged?
Would that offend someone who couldn’t call
Themselves a Christian, or do only those
Self-proclaimed comprehenders really know
Why you designed eclipses white or rose?
Creation made but un-enjoyed — a show
That could be pure delight but willed by most
To be dumb fact or some machine-god’s ghost.

 

Being Seen Seeing

I caught your eyes on me when my own eyes
Were curiously cast and caught on you,
There seated by whoever was that guy
In whose car you o’er the river flew.
And two lanes to your right I glanced across
To see your pretty brake light tinted face,
That’s when perhaps you knew and so you tossed
Your own inquiring look that shrank my grace.
But not before we shared a second locked
As one in two, disarmed and not unsure
Of being seen seeing and yet un-shocked.
I know because you looked again once more.
On eastward slopes of Whitman’s river span,
We knew in silence what no mind could plan.

 

Prohurus’ Pen
(Prohurus is the legendary assistant to John the Revelator)

His words came slowly from a twisted face,
Shaped not by pain but by un-quenched desire.
With all his might he fought to find the space
In which the words and visions would conspire
To full reveal the depth of what he saw
When darkness burst with shining and he went
With Him who called him by his very awe,
On up to where the veil between was rent.
But how to say it well when now was here
And then was all of it in instant blast?
The seals, the lamps, the bowls and holy fear
The beast, the fire and all the crowns off-cast.
John wrung the words from dreaming, shaped them hour
By hour, and we, the channel of this pow’r.

 

Beside Interstate 90 Outside of Sioux Falls Almost Twenty Years Ago

I’m going back to South Dakota soon,
To see the prairie’s amber waving grain,
To stand beside the road and sing a tune
Of ocean’s swirling down history’s drain
But leaving here these waves, this roar and span
For eyes to cast across and somewhere lose
Their place to find it ‘neath their feet again—
Where Earth is solid but she wants to choose
A much more liquid state – to come alive
And shake me off my feet. Do you want to dance?
Shall I fall down on my knees? Should I strive
For footing in these waves or lose my stance
To swim in wonder and Dakota soil –
To dive down deep below this standing’s toil?

 

Haddonfield is Flooded

A geyser of the sweetest joy had built
And built the pressure under their school floor
Until it burst at three oh three and spilt
Across the street and into all the stores.
The flood of smiling children gushing out
Undid whatever dams or dikes inside
Me still intact to hold it back – my spout.
So when their Friday faces were untied
My own resistance too was overcome.
Surprised by joy again with old C.S,
Surprised this could amount to such a sum,
Suburban streets could yield from me excess.
A single tear enough for evidence
That life was better than my darkened lens.

 

I Guess It Was the Spirit

“Why did you talk to me?” Ty asked my friend Tre over text later that afternoon.

Tre answered, “We prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide us and that’s what happened.”

Well, Tre, that’s not exactly what it felt like.  But why wouldn’t it be true? What does my feeling have to do with the reality? Why am I praying for that (because I definitely did pray for that) if I don’t think it will happen? Why do I wonder if it did happen the way I asked for when it happened? Tre was teaching me something about life in the Spirit.

Thanks, Tre

Tre is 25 (more than 10 years younger than me) and he is my teacher. He is on staff with Intervarsity, a parachurch college ministry that wants to help evangelize campuses across the country. He was heavily influenced by Intervarsity’s work when he was a college student (not that long ago) and now he has dedicated his life to starting new chapters in our South Jersey Region. He started one at Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC). I’m helping him start one at Rowan College at Gloucester County College (RCGC) . And he has designs to start one at Camden County College in the fall. I love this guy!

He recently wrote, “A question for us to bring to the Lord is ‘Lord, what is it you want to do at RCGC? What do you want to do through us? God, give us a authoritative vision for how to mark your campus. Give us courage to act, the power to love, and unity in purpose.” That’s a good prayer! Have you ever prayed anything like that?

Our confidence does not come from our confidence. Our courage does not come from our courage. The places we inhabit are not our places. It’s all God’s.

When I walked up to Ty in the cafeteria I didn’t think about it too much. He was sitting by himself and did not have earbuds in or even a phone out. He seemed available and approachable so I gravitated toward him. We kind of freaked him out because it seemed so timely. He had been thinking (even dreaming) about his relationship with God a lot recently and he wasn’t sure what all that meant. Ty (whose name I changed for this story) didn’t really connect to the Bible Study that Tre and I  started, but his response to our invitation has me thinking about the stories I tell and the possibilities of the Spirit that I might be missing.

How The Bible Tells Me So

Here’s a favorite story about evangelism in the Bible:

Acts 8:26-38 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

These fantastic things get told in such a matter of fact way. There isn’t much editorializing. Luke (the writer of Acts) doesn’t say, “And Philip was freaking out” or “He wasn’t sure what to make of this strange urge to go stand by a chariot on the side of the road.” It is simply “The Spirit told.” That’s how Tre tells stories, too!

How I Tell Me So

I want to believe that Philip’s experience with the Spirit is very similar to mine. My experience is fairly ordinary — I prayed with Tre, then I walked up to the first person who seemed approachable and talked to them about this Bible study I wanted to start and we got into a pretty cool spiritual conversation that the person really needed to have. If I were in Philip’s place I might of told the story like this:

Best version of Philip yet from “AD Kingdom and Empire” #bringbackAD

Ok, so the Angel thing was undeniable. I can’t describe him to you, but he was like a man, but obviously not. When he spoke his lips didn’t move but it felt like the words spoke me. So I knew what I had to do.  I went where I was sent. (Having a sense of our sent-ness is really important, right?). When I got to the Gaza Road I had barely been walking for 20 minutes when this whole entourage of important people came rolling out of the city. I figured this is what I had been sent for so I walked beside the chariot as close as I could and when he started reading Isaiah out loud I was like, “Of course!” And then bing, bang, boom — first non-Jewish follower of Jesus. Whaaat?!

That’s how it feels for me. When two of the eight or so people who came to our Bible Study this semester decided to follow Jesus for the first time, I’m like “Whaaat?!” It shouldn’t have “worked.” It wasn’t that good. I didn’t have this dynamite sense of God’s power rushing through me the whole time. (BTW Have I ever felt that?) It doesn’t all make sense, so it must be the Spirit.

Be Sent

I got sent to RCGC. Tre really just pulled me all the way in before I could really talk myself out of it. And I’m so glad he did because I got to participate in some real Spirit stuff. RCGC is God’s. People there are looking to make a relationship with God. I don’t know what is going to happen next. This is fun! Pray for what happens there next semester.

And pray that you might feel sent somewhere yourself. Not just to start Bible Studies or one of Circle of Hope’s Cells but to bring whatever you’ve been given to where you find yourself. It is your sense of sent-ness that I desire most. Your home with your kids all day, your lunch break at the falafel truck, your early morning weeding at the community garden Wherever you are, be sent.

Hope for the Darkness in Story Form

Here’s a short story I wrote.

John the Baptist Died in Hope

a story by Ben White imagined from Luke 7:18-25 and  Mark 6:14-29

Tonight there was a torch in the hall. So, as had become his custom, he lay his cheek against the cold stone floor of the cell to watch under the door. It was like his eyes needed the light that danced on the other side. Some nights there was no torch and he stayed in the dark. He slept and woke as if the two were the same.

There were no contours to the dim light of day. The grayness that penetrated this deep into this giant stone building came and went with no edge. He had carefully watched the smooth passage several times through his threshold crack, but as much as he tried, the growth and fade of day did not occur strongly enough to be conceived as action. The long interval did little more than remind him that he was still there in this prison.

What seemed like miles of stone above his head bore down on him. He was oppressed by the solidity of the structure over him. He longed for the desert sky, the swirls and shouts of all those starry friends, all together telling infinite stories. Their lights seemed loud in his eyes somehow. This torch was a whisper, but a welcome one. He would listen to what she danced to say. He pressed his forehead against the thick wood of the door and opened wide his left eye — enough to feel the draft of the hall on the sensitive wet skin inside his eyelid. Trying not to blink too much he watched every moment of the torch’s burning. The crack did not give him an angle to see her directly so it was her echo only that he watched. In his mind’s eye, he saw her gripped maybe by a bolt in the wall, but free to sway and shutter in her fireyness, fixed but moving, circumscribed but still not safe, she bounced off the stones of the wall and floor, cutting jagged shadows now toward him then away.

He could not figure out why the passage was lit only some nights and not all. Perhaps the servant boy was negligent most of the time? The presence of light seemed to mean nothing consistently. Nothing always happened in the light. A lit hall could yield a jingling tromp of soldiers, or not. A visitor or not. A new prisoner in the cell next to him, or not. The last neighbor had left days ago and despite his best efforts, he had not gotten him to answer, not even to his loudest whisper. He sang to him anyway, as he had sung to the stars and snakes in the desert those many nights alone.

He laughed now at how he used to curse the sun for being too hot at noon, or being too absent at midnight. When you live alone that long, you need someone with whom you can squabble. He loved to hate the sun, but now, he would do anything to feel the familiar sting of sweat in his eyes. Not enough water or food to sweat down here. He knew he wouldn’t last. He had begun to hope that Herod would kill him, but he wouldn’t admit that to himself.

As the light approached and retreated from his single eye, he remembered the big comings and goings of his life. There were the angels, of course. They came to his family when he was a baby, but went so long ago. He had no memory of them really, but for his parents’ stories. His father still had the writing tablet on which he had written, “His name is John.” In his father’s old age, it was the only story he told. God bless him. He was still alive, somehow, at least he had heard news not long before he had been put in this place that, yes, Zachariah of Bethzaith was among the living. His mother was gone, she had never really recovered from his own leaving, but Elizabeth lived a good many years after he left home.

He was her baby boy, her truest joy, the one God had given her. There was no bitterness in her grief, but he felt it nonetheless, stretching through the valleys and over the hills, to the roofless home God had called him to there by the Jordan. She knew he had to go; she did not protest. Her promise was true, but how could she let him go, the baby who leapt for joy in her belly? He felt the pain of her goodbye, smiling tears and too many blessings. He was young. Too young, but just young enough to go to the wilderness with nothing but longing.  He didn’t know it at fifteen, but someone had to become the one they now called the Baptizer. And then all the people who began coming to him in the Jordan! They needed the fire he had kindled inside him over years of cold desert nights. He knew the words of the prophets of old like they were his, and some of them became his as much as theirs. The people listened. They heard God in his voice.

He hadn’t been alone for all those years. People came to him in the desert. Most came and went, but some stayed. Young men, 18, 16, 15. Men just like him, who felt the longing stronger than those who came just to be baptized. They built huts, but John refused to sleep in them. He needed to sing to the stars, quieter now, because in their presence, privacy had begun to matter. Community was the reward of his success as a prophet, but it cost him the naked joy of unbridled midnight songs. He kept his singing to himself, until desperate, there in the cell, he coaxed his silent neighbor with as many hymns as he could remember to no avail.

His light continued to lunge and lean away. He could tell by her sputtering that she would not last long. In preparation for the darkness, he turned his mind to Jesus. The One who had come to take away the sins of the world, the One for whom John was born, and for whom Baby John had leapt. Of course he couldn’t remember it, but he had done more conscious leaping since. His own insides leapt when God told him, that it was him, Jesus, Mary’s son, for whom he had been longing all those years. John chuckled, He wasn’t even wearing sandals when he showed up that day to be baptized–when he came “to fulfill all righteousness,” he said. His objection was mostly for show. It was clear to him that God’s lamb would humble himself like this, and then God made it clear to everyone who was there. Heaven opened up, brighter than any star, and they heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Nonetheless, he felt his mother’s pain when he told his disciples to go and follow Jesus. “He must increase but I must decrease.” That’s what he told the Pharisees when they came to him at Aenon near Salim, and he still knew it was the right thing to say, but the loss was real. How long had those men stayed with him? Jonathan, Gideon and Samson; the judges; Simeon, John, the younger, Seth and Eliel. They were all following Jesus now. He didn’t even want them to stay when they first came, but they had broken his resistance. They had penetrated his solitude. How many times must I be made and unmade, Lord?

He feared this was the last time. Herod would let him rot in this cell, and it wouldn’t take forever for his body to do so. He tried to accept that, but regret crept into his confidence. When he had shouted those words at Herod about his brother’s wife he felt nothing but confidence. That charlatan! King of the Jews?  Leave your Mediterranean morality across the sea. “It is not lawful for you to have her,” he said. And he was right, but did he have to say it? Was this how God wanted it all to end?

But “the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” John said that himself. Did he believe it? Did he believe in the Son? Is this the life he was meant to see? In the darkness, it was hard to see anything clearly. Jesus had not done what John had expected. He went back to Galilee. He said little of Herod. He spoke almost nothing of the Romans. It seemed like he didn’t care. When would Israel be delivered, and how in the world would this deliverer ever deliver them?

But tonight, with the torch dancing in his eyes, he was swinging away from his questions. He was even a little embarrassed that he had sent that message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Not long after he was arrested he got the chance to send word. The torch was lit one night and it happened to mean visitors–for him. Jonathan and Simeon, his old friends, had come to see him.  Simeon’s father was not Jewish, a Roman Guard Commander in Joppa, but his Father’s brother, a man named Atilius, was a guard in the prison. It was Atilius who had arranged for his nephew, Simeon, to come with Jonathan.

They couldn’t stay long. Atilius stood guard at the door and preferred not to be seen. Their chance of discovery was low, but not impossible. At that point in his captivity, John’s light-longing desperation had not yet grown to the point where he watched under the door when the torch was lit, but he did hear the shuffle of their feet when they came. He was frightened when the bar of light beneath his door didn’t flicker with shadows of passing feet, but was steadily eclipsed by people standing on the other side.

And then the click of the lock.

When Jonathan and Simeon came into the cell the fear subsided only when they spoke. They were faceless silhouettes and his eyes hadn’t focused on anything for too long. “Master!” They said in unison, and they hugged him in a clump in his corner. What had he mastered, though? They told him of all the things Jesus was doing. The healings, the signs and wonders, but also the things he had said. John had heard tell of some of these things too, when he was free.

Forgiveness of sins? Breaking the Sabbath? “Could such a man really be the One?” Jonathan asked. There was an urgency in his voice. John wondered too, even worried. Atilius rapped the door three times. Their conversation was over.

“You will ask him,” John said. He stood feebly on his weakened knees, “Send this message to Jesus the Nazarene, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” And they were gone.

That could have been months ago. How could he tell? However long it had been, that question had eaten a hollowness in him that only the thought of Jesus could fill. Only the warmth of that light from heaven by the Jordan could satisfy this hunger, this need, this lack… The joy that was completed in that task was overwhelming in the moment, but had faded to a glimmer in the dark.

“Of course, he is the one,” he whispered aloud to the light in the hall. At that very moment she went out. Her dance was done and with her went some of his hope. “Of course he is the one,” he repeated to the darkness, and immediately it felt less true.

Several hours later, maybe, he awoke to footsteps in the hall. He had slept with his face still pressed against the wood of the door. He rubbed his forehead and felt the wood’s ridges printed in his skin. He smiled about that, eyes closed as he greeted whoever it was that was opening his door. “John the Baptizer, your time has come.” It was Atilius. He walked John by the arm down the hall and up a flight of shallow stairs. John stumbled, but Atilius’ strong arm held him up, almost gently. Sensing compassion, John looked the soldier in the face, and there were tears in his eyes. As he led him around a corner and into a larger room where other soldiers were waiting, he whispered in John’s ear. This message from Simeon your disciple, from Jesus the Nazarene.

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Then Atilius added his own “I’m sorry.”

Those who waited for John took him from Atilius without a shred of gentleness. As they tied his hands behind his back, a man sharpened an axe. John chuckled. Fitting that they would use an axe.

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