Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: biblical observations (Page 2 of 3)

The Gospel Must Begin with Love

Where does your gospel start?

The gospel does not begin with condemnation. It begins with God’s love. Why then do I know so many people who really want me to condemn them and the people they know? I have been accused as a pastor of not enforcing the rules effectively. They tell me I let people get away with a lot of stuff. As a pastor I do want to help people see their sins but I do not believe this is my primary purpose as an evangelist. In fact, I think the over emphasis on condemnation among Christians is one of my biggest challenges as an evangelist. Ask an average American who doesn’t regularly attend church what they think of Christians and “condemnation” tops the list. I’ve heard that Christianity’s main tenets are 1) hatred of gay people, 2) hypocrisy and 3) condemnation. Christians make people feel bad way too often (and they take pride in it). Why did we decide it was our job to tell people they are wrong? I take a more, shall we say, patient approach. Like the Mississippi, start small, it’s all downhill to the Gulf of Mexico, if you’ve started flowing with the Spirit. We are going to make it. God is going to move. And that’s not up to us.

Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

There is a strong segment of the Church that spends most of their time being barely saved from their sins. The sweetness of their salvation is mostly confined to Christ’s gruesome death on the cross as their atoning sacrifice. They are unworthy of such a gift, and they are happy that God gave it to them anyway. No falsehood in that narrative — Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” But why must we sing about it ad nauseum every week? Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

I think we find perverse comfort in being incapable. I understand this personally. I really thrive when I’m given an assignment. The threat of a bad grade (now given only in my imagination) motivates me more than I would like. My internal motivation ascends as my need for external confirmation and reassurance descends. Do you feel me on this? Isn’t it comfortable not to have any agency? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again and just do what you’re told? In the Church, when it comes to spiritual matters, this often happens. We are encouraged to get in line behind someone else and think the way he (it’s usually a he) does. Some rebels resist this for their own gratification, but I say we must resist it so we can actually enjoy God.

We don’t have to to be so weak that the best we can do is not go to hell.

Some theologians codified it as “utter depravity.” Even after I have a life altering experience with Jesus and decide to follow him, I cannot help but do evil. Sticking in Romans, Paul describes his experience with sin in Chapter 7. He knows what he really wants to do, but there are other desires in him that also have pull. He is aware of the struggle and spends much of his time in all of his letters trying to help his people turn to their deepest desire to follow Jesus — to live as a new creation, to live out of your love for God.

I think Paul believes that we can do this (with God’s help of course). He does not end his argument in chapter 7. “O wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24) is not the end. Only a few verses later in Romans 8:1-2, he takes it a step further saying “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Paul notices the duality inside himself, as I am sure many of you have noticed inside yourselves, but then goes on to declare that one side of the duality has surely won. Christ has the victory inside you, over your sin and death.

It’s bigger than just that one verse

We have a problem with how we often read the Bible. We might pluck out Romans 7:24 to support our argument for feeling bad about ourselves, when in fact Romans 1-8 is one sweeping argument that culminates in the final verses (which you ought to memorize)

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:37-39

Through Him who loved us

My Gospel starts with God’s love. Yes, I am a sinner, but I am also a saint. Jesus is winning inside of me. I’m getting better. I am not stuck. When I mess up, my friends and partners forgive me and God makes something good out of the best we can muster together. My approach as a pastor is to get people into a relationship with Jesus so he can win in them too. And I trust that he will, as I have seen him do it before, many times! Get into the Body, be with God’s people, use the faith you have and Jesus will help you figure out what to do. I don’t want to be another man you get behind to escape your God given capacity. You can choose what’s best as you listen to the Holy Spirit. I do not want to control your behavior. I want to create an environment in which we have a common project of transformation, and behavior control will inevitably come with that. I give you what I’ve got, my love, and a community that I help keep together which is founded on that love.



What is the Bible IMHO

The Bible is the story of God’s people and how God has related to them for thousands of years. It is a testament to the work of God in the world throughout time but especially of the people of Israel and we who are grafted into it. It is written by witnesses of God’s work. It is not directly God’s work. God took interest in how the Bible was compiled but the evidence of the complex process all of the texts we now consider sacred have been through is compelling enough for me to conclude that God was channeling a flash flood more than filling a pitcher of water.

The multitude of experiences and perspectives shared in the Bible splash together in a muddy roar. It is not neat. Oral traditions cross with historical revisions for consolidation of power. Theological points subvert chronology. Poetry paints in brush strokes later analyzed with magnifying glasses for new subtext. It’s a mess—but a beautiful mess. The Holy Spirit breathes through it all because those who wrote it were breathing with the Holy Spirit. I choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is satisfied with the finished product as we have codified it, but I have no reason to believe it is complete. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive because the Holy Spirit is still at work in us and we can gain new insight. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will contradict the Bible, however, because God is too invested in this book. It is too useful in binding us together and preserving the wisdom and action of God.

It is rich enough to return to for a lifetime of study and application. But it is a book—the Bible says nothing. God speaks and the Bible testifies. Jesus speaks, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record it. Paul writes. Peter writes. John writes. And so on and so on. The Holy Spirit makes these recorded words alive to us by speaking through them. We don’t have a a dead book that has all the answers. Our book is enlivened by the One who has written the universe. It does not stand alone but God stands by it.

The authorship and compilation of what we call the New Testament is much more reliable as a historical document than what we call the Old Testament, and in their class the New Testament writings are fairly trustworthy even historiographically. This is a nice little feather in our cap of faith because the stories of the New Testament inform our understanding of the Old–the central story being that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because the New Testament is written Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, it carries extra weight for those of us who are reading it to gain insight into our life of discipleship to our Lord. Paul famously said in I Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly; the glass was even darker before Jesus.

This is so because Jesus is the full revelation of God. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14). He redefines and re-centers the whole conversation about God’s action in the world. Behold he is the new thing! And so we read all of scripture with Jesus as our lens. The logic follows: if Jesus and the Old Testament seem to be at odds, then we need to redefine what’s going on in the Old Testament. The narrative needs to be re-interpreted. Terry Brensinger wrote a great analysis of violence in the Old Testament that demonstrates this sort of interpretation brilliantly.

But the interpretation of scripture as a project is important primarily for the personal and communal instruction of the Church. Reading scripture is not about knowing only in the cognitive sense, though that is useful, it is about knowing in the intimate sense. It is a way for us to commune with God and be transformed by the stories that God has helped preserve for us. The Holy Spirit uses scripture to form us into the agents we need to be to continue the story and to include others in the flood.

The Popacalypse, Canon Law and Belonging to Jesus

The Pope is coming to town here in Philadelphia and with it he is bringing a bunch of speculation on canon law and whether the Catholic church will change to reflect our evolving cultural values. Recently he announced a year of mercy that extended the capacity to absolve women of the sin of abortion from bishops and their special designees to all priests all over the world. The media heard the word “abortion” and put it on blast. They thought maybe the Pope was going to come out in favor of Roe v. Wade. In actuality this was a technical expansion of the rights of priests to extend the absolution of God to people more conveniently. Without this measure women still marked with ritual uncleanliness would have to submit a claim of sorts to the bishop whom they didn’t even know. What the what?

As far as Popes go, Francis is a great one. But he is still head of the Catholic church which is built on a system that adjudicates the absolution of people based on 1752 canon laws. The media likes the Pope. They like the frenzy of 4 million people in Philly, but they treat his faith as an artifact. And why shouldn’t they? Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. Building and maintaining a system of laws make’s what Paul says in Romans 7 sound ridiculous. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Do we belong to Jesus, the other who was raised form the dead, or do we belong to the law? I think Francis belongs to Jesus. I think many Catholics do too, but I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law that breeds a lot of law abiding citizens who never get to belong to Jesus.

On Monday night at the cell leader training, Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors, reminded us of Circle of Hope’s proverb, “One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.” We need to say this a lot more because we all seem to be idealists who cannot live up to our own expectations. I certainly am prone to an “all or nothing” mentality that is self-defeating a lot of the time. So hear it again in a different way: We don’t need to live up to a perfect law to belong to Jesus. We need to say this a lot because the Catholics aren’t the only ones who are producing law abiding citizens. My “all or nothing” mentality is another law that often stands in opposition to belonging to Jesus.

My “all or nothing” process isn’t unique either. I don’t know how often I hear my friends say that they are uncomfortable telling someone about their belonging to Jesus because they fear that they don’t live up to Jesus’ standards. I think they don’t live up to their own vague ideas of what they think Jesus might be thinking of them. The legacy of canon law mixes in our collective understanding with all the other laws of the land- from Roe v. Wade, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. There are so many laws and rules and regulations! A result of this is what our pastor, Rod White, described in his dissertation as “The Great Other.” We all live an atmosphere dominated by huge unknown forces that seem to demand huge responses. There is a glut of information about the calamities of our age, and the shortcomings of the church and its leaders over the years. Many individual Christians take this collection of sins on the chin. Everyone knows how much you suck and the “Great Other” threatens to highlight that fact yet again. One of the patent responses to the hugeness of this problem is staying in your lane and finding very specific places in which we can claim some level of expertise. For example I might say, “I can’t deal with all that big stuff, but if you want to know about 21st century cat memes I have a blog about them and I think I’ve seen all the ones that have legitimately achieved viral status.”

The problem is that Jesus is not interested in expertise. We can’t use that method of security. Expertise is just another law that is thrown in the mix. But one does not become an expert in Jesus. One can become an expert on canon law which is why it is so comforting for so many people. It is manageable. It stands up to the vagueness that plagues us. But Jesus wants us to belong to him. Our faith is not quantifiable. It is story. It is heart song. It is relationship. It doesn’t match up to the law that many people use to protect themselves from this big threat that we have internalized and live by without really knowing it. Jesus, save us from the power of that law. I’m praying that Francis’ big show awakens the region to Jesus despite the interwoven law and that many people end up belonging to Jesus anyway, and hopefully partnering with Circle of Hope.

The Acts of Circle of Hope

“We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom…goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.” -NT Wright in Surprised by Hope

We’ve been reading through the book of Acts at our Circle of Hope congregation in South Jersey and this time through I am struck by how ordinary these people are. The Body of Christ is not full of supernatural healers. There are some of those but most of the people in Acts are “regular” folks with no miracles attached to them, and there are at least 60 individual believers identified by Luke in the book of Acts and countless others who get lumped in as “the brothers”, “those who believed”, or “the churches.” Only a few are identified as performing miracles or hearing directly from God in a vision or audible voice, and yet they all became part of the movement.

The movement is the biggest miracle of them all. The body of Christ despite it’s vulnerability, suffering, misunderstanding and misjudgment (as NT Wright so eloquently describes it) is a thriving, growing thing. The fact that it transcended those boundaries so rapidly then and continued to exist throughout centuries of abuse and mud dragging by counterfeit leaders is a marvel.

And Circle of Hope is a marvel too. We can say with confidence that our method matches our message. If you get into our meetings, either on Sundays or in cells throughout the week, you will be around Jesus because Jesus is alive among us.

“Wait a second!” you might say, “I’m not so sure your confidence is warranted. I don’t feel like I’m that great of a Christian. I doubt. I sin. I’m not putting myself out there like that.”

“Agreed,” I would respond. You’re not being put out there. Jesus is.

“Yeah, but if Jesus were really alive among us like you say, shouldn’t we see the fruit of that? I don’t see anyone getting healed. Where’s our Peter? Where’s our Paul?”

“We have our own miracles! Comparisons are odious! Peter and Paul were two of 60+. That’s 3% healers on the record. We narrow our focus and we miss the wonder around us. God is alive. There is new faith. Others will find new faith among us too.”

Putting ourselves out there like that is strangely difficult. Because we are involved, we super-impose our modesty on Jesus. God chose us for the task of revealing his love to the world and we know how poorly we love, and how poorly we are loved by others. Can God really use us? The answer is yes. As ordinary as we are (and our movement has always been)–as broken as we are (and our people have always been)–as needy as we are (which has always been the point of it all)– God uses us. God is with us. We are the Body of Christ and Jesus lives in us.

Say that out loud. Say it to someone else if you dare. Practice that sincerity and trust. I think Jesus will prove himself to you.

What is the meaning of life and what if there is an answer other than 42?

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the super computer, Deep Thought, takes 7.5 million years to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and the answer is 42. Those who receive the answer aren’t pleased.

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

So when we asked “What does this mean” with the disciples of Jesus in the book of Acts last week as we celebrated Pentecost we were wrestling with what the right question might be.  The story goes that the disciples of Jesus were waiting in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. A wind came through and there were tongues of fire descending on their heads and they were enabled to speak in languages they didn’t understand.  After this experience there were two responses:

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13

The scientists who created Deep Thought didn’t know what question to ask. 42 is the answer to a question that people like those who accused the disciples of drunkenness would ask.  They are looking for an explanation that computes within their understanding of the world.  They are closing themselves off from the possibility of a meaning beyond their experience or understanding.

The best question to ask–and I’m talking about life, the universe and everything– is “what does this mean?” The meaning of life, the universe and everything is being open to asking this question and its precursor being open to amazement and perplexity.

In Circle of Hope we create think tanks, so to speak, for amazement and perplexity–for asking the questions that bubble up and for seeking the answer.  They are cells. We live our lives together enough to have a sense of each other’s lives. Consequently, the question “what does this [experience, feeling, situation, absurdity, fear, doubt, joy, love] mean?” actually has a shared meaning.  Plus, we live in community not only with each other, but with the Holy Spirit, who stokes the amazement, perplexity, questions and then even answers.

But if you’re not open to the question– if meaning is calculation and the universe needs to equal out– the minutia of each human life is inconsequential.  The oppressive demands for a balanced equation weigh us down and squash our spiritual imaginations before they can even emerge. I don’t think it all has to work out.  Not even the stories in the Bible demand some reasoned exactitude provided by a consistent system of thought.  Many Christians have been demanding that of their faith and understanding for a long time and I think that way of being Christian is collapsing under it’s own weight.  That way of living with God gets you answers like “42” and “they’re drunk.”  The living God is unpredictable but reliable to answer when we ask “What does this mean?” when he amazes us again and again.

Jesus is Still Best Revealed Incarnationally

IMG_4867You’re the best Bible most folks are ever going to read.  That’s true if you are a follower of Jesus, even a “bad” one in your own estimation, because most people are NEVER going to read the Bible.  Even though a majority of Americans believe in God and even though there’s still a “Bible-Belt” where most people do go to church every Sunday, a Christian doing the things that are recommended, commanded or described in the Bible is still a much better for someone to meet Jesus than most other ways.

In Circle of Hope we say we must be doers of the word because we want our community to be an environment in which people get to know Jesus in the flesh- our flesh.  So we are serious about all the stuff that’s in the Bible, especially the stuff Jesus said- even the hard stuff like loving our enemies, confessing our sins to one another, forgiving 70X7.  Of course we don’t do this perfectly–we don’t even do it well sometimes, but we have created a system that consistently engenders people to try.  Jesus responds to our intention by giving us the Holy Spirit when we come up short.

There was evidence of this on Monday night when 35 people came to Pennsauken to study our Cell Plan together.  I was inspired by the amount of interest in creating little discovery zones for people in our region, and hopeful for what God might do with the group of people who gathered.  During the training, I gave a little explanation of this chart.

presentation evangelism vs incarnational mission

There is room for you before you “get it” or even “get with it.”  It’s not our job to judge you.  We are not even supposed to judge ourselves if we follow the example of Paul (1 Corinthians 4:3) and John (1 John 3:20).  I don’t know how you can follow the presentation evangelism model and not judge people before they can get in.  Some folks are trying to do something different but end up doing the same thing only now without a tie.  Coming at evangelism like the collumn on the left is like putting up a wall.  Jesus is a stumbling block for a lot of people!  Their hearts are hard and often for good reason.  Demanding allegiance before they can feel it is just a bad idea, and the proof is in the pudding as the Bible Belt cinches smaller and smaller so to speak and the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation) grow.

So yes, Jesus is still best revealed incarnationally.  Circle of Hope is proof of that.  I’m trusting he will be revealed in my cell tonight.  It’s in Barrington, NJ, want to explore?

God Chooses You

Here’s a little window into my thought process as I re-hashed some old biblical interpretation battles from seminary:

I was reading Ephesians the other day and I had to deal with this word “predestination” again.  In Ephesians 1:3-6 Paul writes

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

And 1:11-14

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.  And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

local-family-businesses_-work-and-life-balanceThere’s been a debate among Christians about predestination for a long time.  How exhaustive is God’s foreknowledge? How capable are we to choose to believe?  What is the math?  How do we calculate salvation?  Some folks read these verses and argue in favor of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s sinfulness, concluding that everything is part of God’s plan.  Others read these verses and lean heavily into the “when you believed” in verse 13, concluding that our decision to follow is a result of our free will as influenced by the Holy Spirit.  In seminary I was encouraged to join a camp because seminary is a lot about choosing sides in ancient fights.  I made my decision based on what I thought would motivate me and those I told the message of truth to continue the mission of telling our Story about the One God loves.  What did it matter if I spoke the truth or not if those who heard it were going to believe or not regardless of what I did or said?  It seemed to me that my experience in deciding to follow Jesus was indeed, a decision.  How did describing it otherwise further the cause that Christ gave us?  It seemed debilitating, even if the categories of God’s power and humanity’s power were neatly separated and correctly identified.  Their proper taxonomy (def. a scheme of classification) yielded a Church ready for taxidermy (you know what that means).

So does my logic of experience trump their logic of categories?  I think so, but I still had to deal with this word again.  It needed to be taken seriously if I was going to keep taking the Bible seriously.  When I read it, I choked on the word a little because it brought up the old debate and with it some of the unsettled feelings I have about it.  I can’t just ignore the word even if those in the other camp use it to perpetuate a theology that is killing the Church.

This is a reason not to engage in such debates because my feelings were more about how small I felt when engaging brilliant people who disagreed with me and the inadequacy that comes with that than about the actual content of our discussion.  I was freed from that feeling when I had a new little spark of insight:  Of course we are predestined– because God knew that we, an ever growing number of us who have heard the message of truth and believed, would respond to his call to participate in the redemption of the world.  God chooses you to participate in the family business.  Your adoption brings with it the inheritance which you get to use now for the further growth of this family.  God chose this way to do it.  He chose us to be the agents to achieve his purposes.  He doesn’t want to do it any other way.  That’s a much better feeling to have.  

I hope you can receive that inheritance and respond to those around you.  You are essential.


Like a Thief in the Night

I was doing something very dangerous yesterday- flying down Pine Street on my bike listening to Rich Mullins with my headphones in.  It was dangerous in 4 ways:

1) The obvious safety hazard of riding a bike without being able to hear 2) The scorn I could receive from my musically cool friends for listening to the often “cheesy” christian recording artist from the eighties 3) The potential embarrassment when people notice the tears that I burst into 4) The crumbling darkness around us as I saw God’s light breaking through.

Here’e the lyric and video of “A Steal at Any Price” from Pictures in the Sky (1987).  If you really want to go with me here, listen though to the first chorus and read along with the lyrics.  Then keep reading more of my experience as rich sings on.

rich mullins

He sees a frozen shadow
Cold in the neon flash

He sees the ghost of a chance in her eyes

He longs to take her away

To a place where love can last
Without all these memories
Of all the emptier loves in her life
‘Cause He knows how bad it can get
And He sees her lose
Though she pays her dues
She still winds up in debt
And the night cracks
Like a whip in her heart
She looks into the light
He takes her out of the darkness
He’s a thief in the night

As Rich hung on the “Heeeeeeee’s” I was bursting across 18th street. (“A thief in the night”)  All of a sudden the world opened up into the light.  I was exhilarated- the unseasonable freshness of the morning, the speed of the bike and the reality of God’s love for me- all of it- coalesced in a revelation.   All of a sudden tears were streaming from my eyes and I remember having the thought as I even surprised myself with a couple of sobs that my sweat was masking the tears and saving me from any undo attention… and yet, at the same time I was glad to be a fool. (“His love is a steal at any price”)  I was so glad to look around and see all these others on Pine Street on whom God could also sneak up to take away from our desperation and darkness.

Rich went on to the second verse and reminded me “‘Cause he knows how bad it can hurt.”  I know how bad it can hurt.  Jesus knows how bad it can hurt.  Do you know how bad it can hurt?  I think you do.  By the time I was crossing Broad Street my moment was passing and I was stunned in gratitude for a minute or so of God’s grace sneaking up on me.  I was thankful to be reminded that Jesus is with me and all the people around me, and I am with Jesus when I am with them.  I felt the longing that Jesus has for us.  I felt my own longing to be made new–to be stolen from the emptier loves in my life–and confident that many others feel it too and might turn with me to the light.

So I share this revelation with you.  Jesus’ love is a steal at any price, and apparently we are too.  The price Jesus paid for us is greater than any other.  No other death has resulted in light.  So, “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3)  Respond to the light that is shining in your darkness and the darkness around you.  Cherish the costly gift you have received.  Give thanks for the thief in the night, because if we had to make this stuff up on our own it would never happen.

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