Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: cells

More Than a Day of Gratitude

Gratitude is a muscle

Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s arguably the best American holiday. Gratitude makes life better. Everyone agrees. Not everyone agrees that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) but they’re not far off when they give thanks. So at our morning Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ we’re celebrating with a season called “More Than a Day of Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a muscle, it takes practice, and practice makes perfect, right? I’ve been practicing naming all the good in my life as a gift from God for quite some time. It started before my first cell in New Jersey, but that’s where it really took off in community and got bigger than just me. We called it the “God Check.” We asked each other week after week, “What did God do in your life this week? We don’t have to have anything, but we do have to check. Or maybe something happened and you think God might have been doing something but you’re not sure, so let’s check it out.”

It didn’t have to be anything fantastic. We weren’t looking for bona fide miracles. We were looking for moments when we were aware of God’s goodness, or maybe just brave enough to try naming God in our ordinary lives. Gratitude is good for us humans no matter how we do it, but I believe directional gratitude is even better. Giving thanks to God is a place to start a real relationship. Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite poet and the featured artist of our Water Daily Prayer this week) calls God “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

How this works in a real life

A while back, I was meeting regularly with a woman who was having trouble seeing God as a giver of anything. She wanted something very badly, but she hadn’t received it. The complicated emotions that came with this threw everything she had believed into question. Did God care? Who was she to demand anything from God? Why did she want it so much? Why couldn’t she be content with what she had? If God is the giver of good things, why not her, and why not this specific good thing? Why not for her? I was with her in that plea, confusion and subsequent anger. We worked together on the second part of the “God Check”: something was happening but what the heck was God doing? Where was God in this? Was God anywhere?

Part of reestablishing a relationship with God was naming God as “You.” She had never really experienced much intimacy with God, so this resentment was seriously threatening the faith she thought she had. Maybe all the good she had received really was just from “the universe” or just random cause and effect. Many of us can relate. This perspective is a common option in our culture. We can choose to see the world this way, but we don’t have to. It seems that humanity has always had a collective sense that there must be a source. Religion’s pervasiveness throughout time and culture is evidence enough that, at worst, we have a common delusion that we just can’t seem to shake; or, at best (and my preference), we have a common desire that directs us beyond chance and the observable universe.

It’s okay if it’s a choice

I submit that this is, indeed, my preference. I don’t have much beyond my subjective experience to back it up, except for the similarities of so many other subjects. Our desire for good and our hope for a God who gives it is significant evidence (Read The Abolition of Man for a ridiculously thorough and compelling argument for this in a scant 113 pages). My suggestion to my friend was simple: just change your language. Choose “You” over “Universe.” Point your gratitude and wonder purposefully… persistently… preponderously.

My practice of you-ing has greatly enriched my life and the life of my cells. Now, a few generations of cells later, and there are five cells who make the “God check” a regular part of their meetings. More folks are getting into the practice. Their gratitude muscles are growing, and their thank you’s are bending in a personal direction, often for the first time. My friend told God about her bitterness, and God has gotten more you-y as a result. All transformative growth takes time. We need more than just a day of gratitude. We need a life of gratitude.

The ancient Israelites had one big event that they made a whole week about to make sure that they remembered (Passover). God liberated them from captivity and made them a people. Time and time again in their book of poems, songs and prayers; the Psalms; they remember what God did to make them a people. We too can start with the basics that we are anything at all, that hawks are anything at all, that clouds are anything at all, that our families are anything at all, that our church is anything at all, that resurrection is anything at all. Lay the gratitude on thick. Do it again. And do it in God’s direction. It will get you somewhere, and as you are arriving, you’ll realize it’s not very different from where you’ve always been, but you are very different.

Paperboy Dreams (And Acts 2)

Living the paperboy dream

The paperboy dreams planted in the NES soil of my childhood came to fruit last week. A friend of mine in Circle of Hope is in a tough spot financially. Somehow, she fell in with a tribe of paper deliverers who drive the pre-dawn darkness of South Jersey delivering The Philadlephia Inquirer, New York Times, Daily News, Wall Street Journal etc. Her cell organized to help her get the job done more quickly each night so she can snag another hour of sleep before she hits her day job.  A cell is the basic unit of Circle of Hope. We meet in people’s homes, coffee shops and bars all over the region to live a real life of faith together and to include others in the tranformational community God keeps knitting together.

Each night for the past two weeks she has had a wing man or woman to be a temporary member of a very interesting club of early morning paper delivery people. One woman I met had been delivering papers every night/morning for 35 years. Another younger guy had taken my friend under his wing. He delivers three or four routes by 6 a.m. He could definitely make it to Sunday (another NES reference). If everything goes according to plan, a truck delivers freshly printed papers to a warehouse in Marlton by 2 a.m. the paperboys and girls bag them and hit the road. If you’re really good, you bag as you go, but that seems nigh impossible to me and my friend. On our night the delivery was late and there was an weekend insert in the Inquirer so bagging took a little longer. We were delivering papers in Audubon by 3:15 a.m.

You gotta aim for the mailbox–Fun being the church for real.

Because I am the way I am, I imposed some fun on the dawn. My friend was already much better at throwing papers from her driver’s seat. But some people on the route ask for special deliveries. They would like it on their porch, or just so on the top step of their stoop. You really must get out of the car to accommodate this requests, but I convinced my friend that we had to try to throw the paper to the porch, no matter how long the walk was. Pro-tip: Wall Street Journals and USA Todays are way too light to get any distance. Pro-Tip #2: If you lose papers in the bushes, you have to pay for them.

I had a lot of fun with my friend, who’s really more like a sister because she is part of my Circle of Hope family. Who else is going to go out in the middle of the night with you to deliver papers? This was not my friend’s idea. In fact, she objected, but her cell was already on the move. One of them made a spread sheet and sent it out to people who loved her. In less than 12 hours a dozen people had signed up. That’s real love. It’s like a 21st century version of the description of the first church in Jerusalem in Acts 2

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Cells are a real way to replicate this life, and you get to be a paperboy in the middle of the night and live your paperboy dreams. People need this extended family. They always have. Even before the screens came in to isolate us and virtualize our togetherness, humans needed a tribe. They needed an extended family system to be healthy, let alone world changing agents of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

Togetherness is a recent casualty

Cultures throughout history have consistently formed means for this type of togetherness. Even in the first century there were other groups, often religious, who took care of each other like the early Christians did. But our movement survived by the power of the Holy Spirit and today it’s expressed in the shared burden of a paper route for a cash strapped mom, and in many other ways. Other movements are passing away, ours is worth the sleep deprivation because it will last forever.

The counter narrative that we need to go it alone, the rise of the individual as a self contained responsible unit of society is a relatively new phenomenon. On the scale of human history, it was not too long ago that going it alone meant death. I’m sure even then, our selfishness threatened the selflessness necessary for community to thrive. The extreme nature of the sharing in Acts 2 is a testament to the special nature of their togetherness. Can you imagine liquidating your assets to feed the poor people in your cell? This togetherness was an essential part of their witness. It was not just the teaching of the apostles.

We’re doing Acts 2

Today, we are better positioned to help one another but I’m not ruling out selling my house when disaster strikes. My smaller act of radical togetherness organized by my friend’s cell is a worthy reenactment of the original Acts. It’s probably Acts Chapter (M-bar)(M-bar)(M-bar)DCLXIII at least! (BTW that’s Latin!) Cells destroy isolation and properly relocate our responsibility for everyone’s needs in the community and not the individual. Jumping through bushes and diving through jeep windows after my stray paperboy shots is how I celebrated that last week. Got any other stories about your cell?

Cells are Resistance

Cells are my resistance movement. And this moment in time demands resistance. I’m pretty sure I would be in utter despair if I didn’t have a cell. Circle of Hope organizes into circles of ten we call “cells” where we do the actual work of being Christians together- loving, laughing, lamenting and including the next person. Cells teach me how diverse people can actually love each other. Loving across boundaries is something I witness and practice, not just something I believe in. If this were all just an intellectual exercise, fueled by the power of my own conviction, I would be depressed. Many people I know are depressed. I think they need a cell. They need a place where God does the miraculous work of knitting us together in love. We participate, mind you; our mutuality is hard won. We have to trust each other with our guard down long enough to acclimate to our togetherness. Humans are tempted to default to separation, self-protection, bald categorization… but in cells we resist that temptation and our resistance can transform the world.

Everyone is talking about xenophobia this week. Some are on the defensive against the accusation.  Others are on the attack, accusing someone else. It seems we’re all thinking about our fear of strangers (xenos=stranger in Greek). Donald Trump’s executive order has suspended immigration from countries said to be full of dangerous strangers. And it has pushed the country’s conversation from seething disagreement to shouting freak-out.

I am amazed at how foreign many of my neighbors have become to me in the short aftermath. How did YOU get caught up in the wisdom of “America First”? Really, YOU’RE into this too? Why does Trump’s rhetoric appeal to YOU? I’m trying to nurture surprise and curiosity rather than outrage. If I plan on loviing someone long enough for them to trust me, I can’t start with outrage (but I do understand why some folks are leaning in to that anger right now.) I’m trying to live out the reality that our common humanity unites us. Jesus came to teach us exactly what that looks like, which is love for people who are radically different. He crossed boundaries, included strangers, and told us to do the same, explicitly. So I’m practicing loving refugees and people who are scared of refugees.

The goal is loving well. We do not need to have a refugee live in our home to be obedient, though that would be a sure-fire way to ace the test (if it were a test). We can love the people we are actually with. We can hold our hands at our sides even when our instincts are telling us in error that we are certainly going to get punched in the face. We need to be saved form our certainty that the other wishes to do us harm. We need to resist the division in our hearts that is getting built into massive walls. Cells are a place to do that for real. Our cells are a resistance movement. Yes, go to the marches if you need to, but don’t think your normal togetherness is not revolutionary. Let’s not get divided up. I defy the empire that wishes to divide and conquer us. I will love and be loved even when it’s hard to do that. Jesus will help. This is my primary form of resistance.

My cell meets on Thursdays in Gloucester City, NJ. HMU if you want to get in on it.

Why not? A cell with teenagers

There is one teenager in my current cell. It is very interesting to include him in our discussions and find out how he is working with this cell full of adults, and some adults who are a lot older than him. I started participating in cells when I was a teenager and I thought it was the coolest. I was out from under the shadow of my pastor dad’s leadership and free to experience the Circle of Hope community and my own faith for myself. I would describe my teenage discipleship as fairly ambivalent. I had mentally assented to the story of Jesus in the New Testament but I wasn’t very interested in real discipleship-walking in obedience, praying on my own, or sharing my faith as more than an intellectual artifact. However, being in cells allowed me to hang out with people who I thought were cool who were meeting regularly to express their faith. The gravity of those people’s faith and mutuality kept me in orbit long enough for me to have a real encounter with Jesus. I’m hoping that my current cell mate has a similar experience.

I met about 30 teenagers last night who are part of a Christian based service organization who are in need of some more discipleship. They’re in need of some gravity as they are in similar modes of ambivalence about their faith. The culture leads them in a lot of different directions and teenagers, as a matter of their psychological development, identify themselves most strongly by the groups they inhabit. o went to pitch them the idea of a cell as a way to be a group that identifies with Christ. Many of them  interested in forming a cell with me! They were already part of a group that helped them identify as Christians but they wanted more opportunities to get real and go deep – to have faith that was more than ambivalent. They also liked the notion that it would be whatever we wanted it to be. They would be instrumental in inventing this new cell or it wouldn’t happen.

I think, by and large, teenagers are also just bored and lonely. These particular teens live in neighborhoods where the only thing to do is run the streets with unsavory peers. These kids aren’t into that so they sit in the house all day and reach the limits of electronic communion pretty quickly. They want to connect.

So why not? Let’s make a cell of teenagers. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know. It doesn’t exist yet so you could help make it up with them if you want to act now.

Yes and yes and yes: Partners old and new are to be found

I asked God, “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?”

diego rivera

Note her hands

I breathed deep and felt the room beyond my closed eyelids expand with my diaphragm.  The people seated in a circle with me withdrew.  In my mind’s eye, the distance grew between me and Kim who sat cross legged on the couch across the rug from me.  Like a balloon filling with air, like an eternally exploding universe, like rising dough—the space between us got bigger—not in an isolating way, not in an outstretched hand and slow motion “noooo”, but in a long sigh of contentment as we became supple clay in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I got bigger too as I breathed deep again.  My closed eyes saw my hands had inflated too.  They were Diego Rivera paintings- comically thick and stubby.  It was as if my cells were making room for God.  I breathed again, spread wide and open to hear the “yes.”

Bryce led us to ask God our question again.  “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?  Does anyone want to plant and multiply cell groups that include new people in circles like this one where God stretches us out and pours himself in with sweet soul honey that makes your lips curl as you breathe love deep, drink love down and melt into it a little more each time?”

The answer was still yes.

A third time, Brother Bryce, instructed us to ask God our question.  A third time I asked, “Does anyone want to do this in South Jersey?” … and I hesitantly, meekly added a quiet “with me?”  A third time, “Yes.”

It was a deep down in between my cells affirmative.  A beautiful exercise from Bryce led me down into a sorely needed confidence as I teeter on the rim of a new canyon adventure, crossing borders and finding fresh places for the Spirit to move.  The movement started its freshening in me, splashing through the narrows of my heart in that tiny moment of perception in a circle with the partners I already have.  Their yes readied the next.  Their dedicated leadership is a foundational yes for our cell movement, which stands to expand this year as we as a Circle of Hope are entering our Second Act as a church.  Bryce, Kim, Nate, Joel, Sara and Donna.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Many of them joined in the raucous chorus of yes we celebrated at the Love Feast a few weeks ago.  Again I was asking the questions, this time after the words of Brother Paul in Philippians 2.

The Love Feast

The Love Feast

“Do we have any encouragement from being united with Christ?” I asked.

“Yes, we are encouraged” the reply was a boom that shook my heart.

“Any comfort from his love?” I asked them

“Yes, we are comforted” even more joined in with emphatic enthusiasm.

“Any common sharing in the Spirit, any tenderness and compassion?” third ask.

“Yes, and yes, and yes” 200 or more sang three yeses back.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been getting a lot of yeses from partners new and old.  I’m running around the camp finding out for sure who is with me and I am encouraged.  The answer is yes!  People aren’t just saying yes to me, though it does feel good on a personal level to receive that yes.  They are saying yes to Jesus and his mission here.  There are people we don’t even know yet who will say yes if we ask them.

“Do you want to do this?  Do you want to create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.? Do you want to be an opportunity to explore and express God’s love?  Do you want to be a circle of Hope?”


And God says to their yes, “But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”  (2 Corinthians 1:18-22)