Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: Ben White

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

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

1.  Ashes and Fumes

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

2. Eating Pizza with Teens

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

3. A Tom Waits Rewrite

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

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

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

Here’s the previously unpublished recording.

4. Walking With People Through it All

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

5. Substitute Dreams and Other Fire Hazards

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

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

6. Digging People Out of Their Avoidance

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

7. All the Babies

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

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

An Enduring Blessing

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

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

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

Video here

Top 7 Post of 2020

 

Here are the top 7 most read posts in 2020 on Today, If You Hear my Voice. I think they capture the year pretty well. Take a look back with me.

The truck that delivered the problem

7. Laughable Abundance: a story for your bouyancy

One of the best things that happened in 2020 in my life was the formation of the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team. Every week we deliver hundreds of pounds of food to our neighbors. Sometimes the joy is immense. 

Charles Alston “Man Emerging” 1969

6. Hey! White People! We Get to Repent! 

The Racial Reckoning, though very painful, is another great thing coming out of 2020. Christians were made for this moment. I only wish we had been more instrumental in making it,  and more univocal in the opportunity it presents. 

5. How Does a Christian Celebrate Memorial Day?

A video reflection in my front yard. Christians mourn the loss and death of war and pray for the death of war itself. 

4. How Does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Similar question, a little bit more fleshed out answer in essay form with help from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their book, Resident Aliens. Wrestling with how to engage politically and how to engage neighbors who see things differently. 

3. Have You Sung Together on Zoom Yet?

It’s terrible! But it’s also amazing. This year was a revolution in my thinking about what Holy Spirit can do digitally. She must, and she did! 

Me and Anita on International Women’s Day at a woman owned business

2. How do Yoga and Christianity Intersect?

I’ve learned so much about this intersection from my friend Anita Grace Brown. She is realeasing a book about her journey called Kamikaze Yogi. 

1. What if Online Church Sucks?

It sucks a lot less than I though it would, but many of my people just can’t handle it. Thank God for our cells and other means of holding on to each other. It has not been easy but God has been faithful, and God has honored our faithfulness.

Thanks for reading

I write in hopes of leading my people in South Jersey and the Philly Metro connected to Circle of Hope, but I’m glad to share far and wide. I love your comments and feedback always. Happy New Year!

Top 5 Posts of 2019 on “Today, if You Hear My Voice”

Dear Readers,

The year, of course, is winding down so let’s look back on the past twelve months of “Today, if you hear my voice:” I named my blog after Hebrews 3 in which the author meditates on the necessity to tend our hearts to keep them soft. It seems that hearts harden so quickly. I’m looking for people in South Jersey who have soft hearts — those who have been softened by Jesus already and are looking for ways to stay soft, and those who are softened by their circumstances or their psychologies or by the Holy Spirit before they can even name that. I love telling stories about who I’m meeting and what I’m doing with the softhearted crew at Circle of Hope, 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ. The discipline of reflecting and amplifying my experiences helps me  tend my heart as much as I hope it helps my readers know God and act for redemption.

Here are the top five read posts I wrote in 2019. I’ll give you a little context and a quote if you’re just scanning, but I’d love to hear from you about what has been most stimulating or helpful to you.

“If/When” album cover art by Kendra McGowan

1. Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Album 

A couple of Circle of Hope’s resident musical geniuses (yes we have many), Dan and Pat McGowan released an album in July called “If/When” with their band, The Tea Club. It has been amazing. When they played “Creature,” the almost thirty minute track that this post walks through, at their penultimate show of their US Tour at Underground Arts in Philadelphia, I wept worshipful tears of joy with my hands raised in praise. “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.” My Advent hope for Jesus’ deliverance and ultimate return to set things right in this ruined age swelled to brimming.

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

By chance I ended up at a lecture at Uncle Bobbie’s coffee shop in Germantown, Philadelphia. I was struck by Adrienne Maree Brown‘s book-long riff on an essay Audre Lorde wrote in the seventies.  “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.” I have been tuning in to the erotic, rightly defined, as a source of natural revelation. Enjoying pleasure as a gift from God is a better way to master sin that simple abnegation.

They are superimposed together in this image — perfect.

3. Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One 

Remember “I Don’t Care” this summer? “I don’t like nobody but you 🎵”  I’ve always loved the phenomenology of pop music. Pop is our modern day hymnal. We worship unconsciously, but it definitely gets to the core of our cultural desire, every . single. time.  “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! ”

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

4. Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

I wanted to give some practical advice. I should probably try that more on this blog. If you’re having a problem what do 90% of people do first? They google it. A bunch of the top results for this google search term are terrible, ad riddled, and simplistic. I think scripture is better breathed than brained. We need to feel God’s love. Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.”

Mt. Katahdin’s Knife Edge

5. Yo, Mountains are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A coffee shop date with a friend led to some big insight. “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 were resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.”

BONUS: A Paean to “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix 

Also, 29,000 people read a post I wrote about my love for “AD: Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix in August, 2018. It got discovered by Google’s algorithm at the beginning of 2019 and by Easter it was being read by thousands each month. Search “AD Kingdom and Empire” and I’m the fourth page. We are all searching for a season two of this show. #BringBackAD ! Lots of love in the comments, too!

Thanks for reading. Again, send me some feedback. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what to write about, tell me how my writing has effected you, tell me your story. tell me what you think. I would SO love any and all of that.

 

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

Holy, Holy Geese

I don’t think I can tell people enough that in Celtic iconography the Holy Spirit is often represented as a wild goose. To the Celts of ancient Ireland and Scotland, Ah Geadh-Glas (Wild Goose) was a more apt description of their experience of the Holy Spirit. How caged and docile is your experience with the Holy Spirit, how unlike a dove?

I’m sure if I studied the mourning doves that come to the feeder in my back yard I could find the appropriate mystery and wildness in them too, but geese have just spoken to me more in my life.

I started my early rising prayer life at Eastern University with the Canada Geese on the pond there. I trained the ducks to eat out of my hand, but the geese would have nothing to do with me. Only the nesting mothers would allow me near them and they scared me with their violent hisses. I’ve come back to the morning geese this fall because, again, I live by a pond (though this one calls itself a lake).

The geese are there waiting for me when I rise and then I wait for them to leave. And watching them go is the most wondrous part of them, and the thing about them that for me makes them best to tell the Holy Spirit’s story. They talk about going for a while and it’s not always at the same time. At first I thought it must be the angle of the sun–they usually leave soon after the sun crests whatever treeline it rises behind, but as I paid attention I could tell that it wasn’t nearly so exact.

geese-take-flightThe fun of it is I can tell when they are leaving but I’m never sure of the moment they will go. They flick their heads and grunt at each other, seemingly consulting one another about the every day revelation that it is time to fly to the best grass nearby. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and measured it. One study reported that this period of consultation lasted anywhere from nine to twenty-two minutes.

The wild goose then is a perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit because they are common enough (in Ireland and Scotland and Haddon Township, NJ where I live at least) but unpredictable and elusive. They can even bite you. Following the Holy Spirit can feel like an actual wild goose chase, yes, but if we give up trying to catch Her and instead be contented in watching and listening when She happens to be there in the morning (and who knows for how long?), we will love Her and She will shape us. And in many, many mornings She will still be wild but we may just be tamed.

Here’s a poem I wrote for Her.

Ah Geadh-Glas

O Holy Sprit, Ah Geadh-Glas,
I am familiar with your leavings,
Though uncertain of your path.

I could tire of the finding–
Leave your joy here in the grass,
But I’ll marvel at your going,
Walking water in noisy splash.

And I’ll wonder at your flying.
Flocked with kin above me, pass!
Make me happy, wild and singing,
O Holy Spirit, Ah Geadh-Glas!