Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: alternativity (Page 1 of 2)

I refuse to know everything!

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO.

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

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

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Circle of Hope on the Map in OUR Neighborhoods

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

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

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

Introducing the Neighborhood Love Project

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

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

Highlights from July 4 with the West Collingswood Civic Association

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

Hope to hear form you soon!

Unpatriotic Reflections on Immigration for Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and Memorial Day

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

 

 

 

 

Caring About Climate Catastrophe, Like a Chump

Paper or Plastic?

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

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

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

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

Fools for Christ and the Forces of Evil

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

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

Who I Am and Who I Want to Be

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

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

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

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

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER!

ALL CAPS!

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER!!!

I’m excited to FEEL how true this is once again after spending 90 minutes with my Circle of Hope partners last night at a Gifts for Growing event I organized with Jane and Scott Clinton. We had a simple plan: make a space where it was safe enough to ask question, and share resources about money and our relationship with it, and ask the Holy Spirit to make something good in that space. Guess what, it worked!

We were asking, “Is having and generating wealth okay?” Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10,  “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” but it often gets misquoted as “Money is the root of all evil.” And then we think we might get dirty if we use it  wisely. Jesus does make it clear that wealth is a spiritual danger. And the love of money has certainly wreaked havoc on much of human history. Our goal last night  was to simply shine a light on money and the power it has over us. We said, with John in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Our goal was to put money in the light so we could make sure it stays in it’s right place. It will only stay a tool and not make us its tool if we watch it together regularly.

Jane and Scott got us warmed up with stories about their financial upbringing and history. They were very transparent and engaging. Their heart for sharing has grown as their personal resources have increased. At one point not too long ago, Jane realized that if they increased their monthly sharing by about $30 they would be sharing more with their church community than they were paying on their mortgage. Jane loved that upside down comparison and made it happen.

This kind of transparency about money is not at all common. It requires a trust that is beyond human capacity. I saw the Holy Spirit moving in Scott and Jane. Two other people shared about how they had spent several months sharing all of their financial information with a group of people in the church — every dollar of income and every cent of expense –every bit of debt and every hope for the future. It was an astonishing feat of faith and trust. Sharing our resource really does bring freedom and unleash power! It also deepens faith and makes love grow in ways it never would as the world would have it.

We keep pushing money back into its place with conversations like this one, but the general consensus was that we need much more dialogue. Many were inspired to keep stoking the dialogue.

Financial resources forum at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net?

Here is one more concrete vision for what might come from our dialogue

Finances can be such a big and overwhelming topic. Let’s make a website with trusted resources so people can just click and go. Sometimes you just need a push like that, “Here’s a trusted resource, I’ll try that!”

Putting a financial question out there on one of our listservs might just seem too  risky or embarrassing, or maybe too much work, so let’s make another forum for asking financial advice — a place on our Way of Jesus website dedicated to finances with a forum type component. Anybody want to be part of moderating such a dialogue?

Things we need:

  • Making a Will (“I used so-and-so to help with my will”, “Everence has a credit to help pay for the cost of making a will”)
  • List of trusted local banks/lenders
  • How do mortgages work, where does the interest money go?, what banks might be best to bank with in order to keep more money in our local communities?)
  • Who have our trusted partners used  for Financial Planning?
  • What kind of investing is most ethical? Who can I trust?
  • Which locally owned and personally connected small businesses are we supporting, promoting, and encouraging?
  • What kind of debt is good and what kind of debt is bad?
  • How do you understand, build or repair your Credit Score?
    What about Student Loans (for former students and for prospective students and parents) How might we be paying, consolidating and avoiding them (with more access and information about scholarships etc.)
    Giving – Why share? Stories of  blessing/benefits. And stories of receiving (How about a place to post stories of gratitude from the mutuality fund and other sources? Could be anonymous if you want.)
  • Consultations on specific financial opportunities. 

Does this excite you? Talk to Mark Mumbauer. I can help connect you. My email is [email protected]

Circle of Hope’s Proverbs

Here are Circle of Hope’s Proverbs which informed this dialogue. Each is a little poem in itself, and I’ll let you inpack them if you wish.

SHARING OUR RESOURCES BRINGS FREEDOM AND UNLEASHES POWER

  • We share our resources of time, money and love person to person, with the leaders, between congregations.
  • All our money belongs to God; the percentage we share in our Common Fund reflects our mutual commitment to be an authentic church.
  • Minimally, members of our covenant share in our public meeting times, participate in a cell, express themselves in service and contribute to our Common Fund.
  • As part of our obligation to mutually share resources with the poor and lost, we invest at least 20% of our Common Fund income in causes beyond our basic common needs.
  • We live out our goals according to what we have, not what we should have. Don’t try to live off the holes in the Swiss cheese.
  • We are called to owe nothing to anyone but love. We are determined not to be debt slaves and determined to share with abandon and fully participate in the imagination and responsibility of partnership in Christ.

 

We need your shininess! Tell Your Story

Shine Bright!

I wrote this up for peaceandjusticeproject.org but I thought you should see it, too. It was a lot of fun and I am still glowing.

>>>>>>>>>>>

It is Martin Luther King’s Birthday today, January, 15th. So last night was Martin Luther King’s Birthday Eve! We got together to celebrate by sharing stories about our dreams of the Beloved Community King described. Some pastors from the BIC had stories to get us started. The BIC Peace and Justice Project leadership team invites everyone to our every-other-month gathering of people of peace and justice from all over the country (maybe the world!) Our goal is to uplift the stories of generosity, compassion, peacemaking and racial reconciliation that we know is at the heart of the Brethren in Christ, Circle of Hope’s denominational family. Here is video of the presenters and a summary below.

 

Krista DuttThe Dwelling Place, Chicago, IL

Church in a van? She and her friends had an idea to start a church that addressed one of the largest injustices facing their neighborhood, mass incarceration. Eventually she said, what if the church met in the van as we travelled from our neighborhood to the prison an hour and a half away? Krist a said it was “so crazy that it could only come from God … Like from Old Testament times if Old Testament had cars.”

And then community started happening around this trip, this van, this common project. Shiny! Their dream is a bit on hold during the pandemic but we wait with her in hope as they stay connected the best they can.

Hank JohnsonHarrisburg BIC, Harrisburg, PA

Hank started off with repping the historic nature of the Harrisburg BIC congregation, It was founded in 1897. “Most people don’t name us as one of the historic BIC churches but we is.” History moves fast though, and at some point a couple of decades or so ago, the church looked at their neighborhood and realized they were not as connected as they wanted to be with their now rather brown and black neighborhood.

So they started dreaming about ways to connect and somehow they said, “Let’s just build a hospital!” But they weren’t at all sure how to do that. Eventually, two doctors came to them and confirmed that the area really DOES need a clinic, so they said again, “Let’s do it. And they started raising money, looking for millions.

But the church’s visionary, Dr. Gwen, lost her husband and got sick herself. The dream went back on the back burner.

Then they got recruited for hosting a mobile medical clinic in partnership with a Catholic organization who had a similar ethos — Be the kingdom by giving this care in the name of Jesus. Now they have hosted the clinic for three years and the church has spent a grand total of $80 to get a special plu so the mobile bus clinic can easily plug into their building.

Hank said “We thought it was our idea, but it was God’s idea.”

John Grimshaw, Lakeview Community Church, Goodrich, MI

2018 was the worst financial year on record at Lakeview Community Church. So they felt like they didn’t have much to offer, but it was that year rhat a local foodbank recruited them to be one of their distribution centers.

They created a Client choice food pantry, where neighbors get to select their own items almost like a store. It is very dignifying and gives more opportunity for relationships to happen while neighbors shop.

When Covid 19 shut everything down they switched to Curbside Pickup. Folks would drive up and fill out a checklist, which an attendant would then photograph and text inside where other volunteers would quickly pack up their order. meanwhile Jon asked everyone if he could pray for them. of hundreds, only two ever said no.

The numbers: 2019: 149 families, 452 individuals, 294 family visits to the food pantry. 2020: 250 families, 630 individuals, 714 family visits . That’s some exponential growth, which has energized the church and even included a couple new families in their worship service. They just had their 1000th family visit and, in only two years, they have given away the equivalent of $150-250K in food and household items items.

Jon said, “On my own I couldn’t do it, but with God I can.”

Joshua Nolt, Lancaster BIC, Lancaster, PA

Joshua Nolt said, “I fall into stuff… so this is a micro story”

After the death of George Floyd and the swell of response across the nation, Joshua wrote “a word of encouragement and challenge” to his white friends:

“…If you have feelings of sorrow over George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, Brianna Taylor, or the host of other fallen people of color, I encourage you to allow them to be an invitation to do more than just feel – but to do the work and then contribute an informed voice to help bring about justice. This is a way to honor and love our brothers and sisters of color for whom this is daily, lived experience.”

Then he recommended some resources. People were quite interested so Joshua said to himself, “Facebook is not really a community. So who is going to take this somewhere… I guess it’s me.” So he organized a reading group of Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise” (and here is his new book How to Fight Racism)

For some in the group, the things that they were reading were shocking — eye opening. Others had done some work already and were not so surprised. The various levels of exposure was part of the triumph, because the resulting dialogue was real and rich.

Leaning into difficult, potential shame-leden conversations such as the book helped to create is often avoided. But Joshua concluded, “Leaning in with brothers and sisters is a lot easier than doing it ourselves.

What’s your story?

Then we broke out into breakout groups. Here is a picture of mine, with Curtis, Chris, Nancy and Drew. These were our instructions.

  • Introduce yourself to each other
  • Did you or someone in your community have a dream that came to some fruit?
  • Do you have a dream forming now?
  • Do you need encouragement? Advice? Resources?

Want to add to the conversation in the comments on his blog, or on our facebook group (which is like a 24/7 Shine Bright Event — share your story any time). We need each other to be shiny because each of us feels bright dull by ourselves.

See You Next Time?

Next Shine Bright is March 11th at 8:30 EST, 7:30 CST, 5:30 PST on Zoom

We need better imaginations for our social justice movements

Advent is coming

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

Isaiah long expected this surprising Savior.

Isaiah 42:1-9

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

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

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

The temptation to overcome evil with evil

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

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

Take action with Mennonite Central Committee (They need it)

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

Bring it, Advent

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

The world will be.

We will be.

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

How Will We Love Through the Election?

“Unreliable Allies”

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

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

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

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

Staying at the Table

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

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

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

I’m wishing you joy

(Yes, that’s a Whitney Houston reference)

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

 

 

Don’t Forget, Jesus is the Lord of History

Is the Church Just Following Culture?

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

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

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

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

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

The Past is Not Just in the Past

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

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

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

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

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

Pray with me?

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

How does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Happy Fourth of July? How does a Christian celebrate the beginning of a nation with such a shaky foundation? Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths that were so abstract they excluded women and black people from their universality. The land the American Revolutionaries fought for was stolen from the First Nations people. But I don’t think calling out the obvious evil at the heart of the American project is a deep enough critique. In fact, critique is not deep enough at all. We must build an alternative which allows us to love the world from an entirely different footing.

Because this is where we live. The people in my neighborhood (whom I LOVE) are having a house decorating competition seeing who can be the most red, white and blue. What am I to do? Must I boycott the fanfare entirely? Must I close my eyes and ears to the fireworks? Must I register my non-participation by draping my house in the black of mourning (I considered that). I’m thinking my “yes” to the kingdom of God is more important than my “no” to empire. I say this in part because I despair at the prospect of making a significant impact. This might just be despair, but it might be the unavoidable truth of history.

From my perspective, human history is not a grand sweep toward progress, but a cycle of violence and collapse. The near future science fiction of Octavia Butler, written in the mid-nineties, seems eerily prophetic. I think that could actually happen! Empires rise and fall. The industrial revolution was less than 150 years ago. An incredibly short period of time! Throughout history, when the state of things ushers in more and more concentration of wealth, the powerful eventually lose. This seems inevitable. How then do I engage?

I recently read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, which is another prophetic book from the mid-nineties.  Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church has accommodated the political concerns of the State for most of its history. We have entered into the fray in many disastrous ways. They call this “Constantinianism” after the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, who co-opted the church for the unity of his empire. His empire fell but the arrangement between Church and State persisted and the modern Church in America has not repented even if separation of Church and State is part of the founding documents.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that both contemporary conservative and liberal churches in the United States have basically capitulated to the State. We have surrendered our imaginations to the limited options provided to us by the myth of American progress. Our prophecy is bound by two options: 1) “America is bad” and 2) “America is good.” The locus of change is in, and by, and for the State. William Cavanaugh wrote an excellent book called Migrations of the Holy which charts this development through time. Hauerwas and Willimon say that both conservative and liberal churches have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31).

Their alternative resonates with me. “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a ‘supportive institution’ and our clergy as members of a ‘helping profession.’ The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

But when the streets flood in the middle of a pandemic with people calling for a drastic reevaluation of how we ensure public safety for all people, I am stirred. I have gone to a few marches myself. I joined up with other faith leaders in New Jersey to consider what can actually be done to reimagine policing (faithinnewjersey.org). I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my window. I have dug deeper into the personal work of understanding my own deformation by this pernicious power of white supremacy in our culture.

All of these tactics coming out of the movement have been met by some suspicion from some folks in our church. They have read Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, or they have at least adopted its posture because we have been teaching it as Anabaptists for a long time. Are we conforming to the way of the world, and in so doing are we abandoning the Church’s alternative mandate? Are we standing on a side just because of our political persuasion? I have definitely heard this from the body, and I sympathize with that concern.

However, I see in the Gospels a decided sidedness to Jesus’ Way. God has forever been on the side of the poor and the oppressed. From the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the inauguration of the People of God, the scripture has reminded us again and again to be a peculiar people who does not cooperate with empire. And yet we have undoubtedly cooperated with empire and must be on guard against doing so now. Jesus’ teaching made an alternative abundantly clear. He was not creating a new morality, or a new ethic, or new means of righteousness. He was himself our righteousness and his teaching aimed to awaken us to a new way of seeing the world.  He called into question the foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and practice, and he ought to do the same to every generation and every nation.

The kingdom of God is a new way of seeing and being in the world. Jesus gave us a new place to stand. Jesus created a new humanity belonging to a new kingdom which allows us to speak to the empires, like America, or the G20, or Netflix, without centering ourselves on the outcomes of their worldly projects. We have a new identity in Christ which provides us the freedom to do more than critique and repent (though Jesus calls us to that as well). We can build on a foundation that will not be shaken because our Kingdom is eternal and is not subject to the course of empire.

But the people I love, especially the poor and the oppressed – especially the descendants of Black slaves who were not considered equal by the declaration that is celebrated this weekend –  especially the descendants of the First Nations people who have been systematically impoverished and killed via government sponsored genocide and ongoing marginalization – especially the descendants of the women who are still fighting for recognition of their full humanity and unmeasurable contribution to our communal wellbeing – these people whom I love, and whom Jesus leads me to love, require my partnership. I feel compelled to submit to the movements that seem viable to change the outcomes for these people.

When I join in these movements, when I am even led by them, am I abandoning the place Jesus has given us to stand? It’s possible. There is a real tension here. And I think Circle of Hope is feeling it. We must prioritize our togetherness as we figure this out together. If we let the confusion and disorientation of our incredibly polarized national conversation divide us, I am sure we will then be abandoning our God given new humanity. The bond of peace between us must persist or we will have nothing left to offer the world. The faith, hope and love that fuels Circle of Hope’s compassion and action on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (which is considerable!) will crumble if we cannot love one another through these difficult days.

I want to have something more to offer my neighbors than my objection to their celebration, and I think it is the Church. I think Circle of Hope really does create an excellent environment for people to connect with God and act for redemption. That redemption includes our prophetic voice to the evils of the world, but it also creates a protective container of grace which makes personal transformation possible.

This grace permeates my relationships with me red, white and blue addressed neighbors. I have spent years in the spiritual gym of Circle of Hope, learning to love people who disagree with me, irritate me and even attack me at times. The Church is a place where grace muscles are grown – where we become more than the limited imaginations given to us by the world.

We grow from the certainty of a future declared to us by Jesus, inaugurated by his death on the cross, confirmed in his resurrection from the dead, and manifested daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by all this promise and power from God, I believe we can stand together, love one another and offer an alternative, even as we diverge in how we engage in the struggles to which we are called.   

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