Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: compassion

Let’s actually DO something

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Pat looking awesome and super deep at Cooper River

When my new cell started my apprentice, Pat, was adamant that our cell be about actually doing stuff and not just talking about stuff. Pat is like my canary in the coal mine for toxic church fumes. He’s seen it all and still has to intentionally work to let his instinctual defenses down to move forward with what God is doing next in Circle of Hope. Too much of his experience has been mostly a lot of hot breathed ideas about God and how bad most people are.

Pat is leading me to let down my own defenses about what I will ask people to do. I worry too much about whether people will say yes to my questions. I haven’t yet gotten used to being told no for any reason. This is a problem but it is not my point. When Pat got involved with this project of local non profit called Second Chance Outreach Services at the leading of Pam, another person in our cell who was already connected to this organization, he asked us if we wanted to join in and the overwhelming response from the cell was yes.  Even from the guy who isn’t so sure about Jesus: he was “200% interested in volunteering”

We’re partnering with Convoy of Hope and a bunch of other churches in the Camden area to give out a bunch of food, personal services like haircuts, and social services like access to legal advice to 2-3K residents of Camden on September 19th. It’s a big undertaking and Pat got us in on the ground floor.  I never would have found my way into something like this if it weren’t for my cell.

Now of course you’re remembering my comment in the first paragraph about toxic church fumes. “It seems like there are other churches that are actually DOING things too, Ben? What gives with the church bashing?” I guess I’m repenting right now because I do consider these other churches my brothers and sisters and my partners in this event in September, but I am also grateful that the “doing” of Circle of Hope is a grass roots uprising from Pam and Pat and our cell.  Just because I am the pastor and I’m involved doesn’t mean we should support this event financially. A much better guarantee of that is Pat’s passion and initiative backed by the support of his cell.  We don’t want to rob the cell of it’s response to the gospel by subsuming their passion under the work of the church and not their actually DOING something.

We are guarding our capacity to listen to James 1

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror  and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

Pat has a face and it looks a lot like Jesus (in more ways than one- he looks like a classical rendering of Jesus only wearing glasses, and he wants to DO the word). Right after he committed to this event as the leader of the ad hoc team we are forming he got a call from a friend in Boston who wanted him to do a gig with his band, The Tea Club, and of course it was on September 19th! Pat said no.

To serve or not to serve?

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Here are some servants from our neighborhood cleanup on Saturday

To quote the bard (not that one, Dylan), “You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame, You may be living in another country under another name. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes”

If we listen to Bob the question in the title of this blog may be irrelevant. Bob just wants us to choose who we’re going to serve. His options are “the Devil and the Lord”, and maybe our existence boils down to that dichotomy, but I think it’s more complex and thus worth asking the question.

For most of the Christians I know, especially my partners in Circle of Hope, it’s not really of question of whether or not they will serve but how they might serve. In Circle of Hope there are tons of ways to be involved! Cell leading and hosting, Public Meeting teams, maintaining our building, taking care of kids, counting money, compassion teams… I haven’t listed them all but you could pretty much fill up your whole schedule with “doing stuff.”

Someone who finds themselves in that predicament might ask the question “to serve or not to serve?” I’m not trying to give you an answer but I will give us 4 filtering questions to consider as we answer the question for ourselves.

1) Can anyone else do it? Jesus said “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.” This is a promise as much as it is a prophecy of the inevitable. If you demonstrate your capacity in one thing you will be asked to do other things because others have seen how available and capable you are. You could say yes to every need but you might also consider how you could train someone else to do one of your things. Can you replace yourself? This could be an opportunity for discipleship. If no one else can do it, then you probably should, even if you don’t want to do it that much. Our collective need is an important factor in your decision I hope. Your gifts were not given to you alone. (Romans 12)

2) Do you like doing it? Our desires are not inconsequential. We will do what we love the best just because that’s the way we work. Some tasks are, however, not very lovable. There are those weird people who really enjoy the satisfaction of mopping floors. If that’s you, then you should probably join our cleaning team because you are a rare bird. Figuring out how to like your task even if it isn’t a natural “fit” for you is important too. Choosing to enjoy something is not a popular notion, nor is it an impossible one. You can choose to serve in way that is not ideal for you. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9) The last part of this verse is the most commonly quoted, but I want to highlight the first part. We can decide in our hearts what to give of ourselves and be content with that. This verse implies our active role in the decision. That’s what I’m hoping to stir up in this post.

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This servant is a personal favorite of mine (my son, Oliver)

3) What is the need? At our Circle of Hope outpost in South Jersey there is plenty of need. We have an awesome building that is well situated in our target area but it takes work to have a big property like ours (snow removal, weeding, roof fixing, litter clean-up). We also have a lot of big ideas about how we want to be the church- artful Public Meetings which require lots of attention and creativity, and cells that all have at least three leaders- cell leader, apprentice and host. You may be in a season in which you feel like you want to hang back–you’re tapped spiritually and emotionally–there’s too much to be involved in–“Do I have to do it all?” You may ask.  The answer is, of course, “No.” There are any number of good things you can do with your time, but I’m banking on the fact that you want Circle of Hope to thrive and you are taking the needs of the community into account along side your own needs. Again, you’re not in this alone.

4) Does God want you to do it? This is probably the most important and probably the hardest to answer. The temptation is to get caught up in our human relationships and the human organization. It’s easier to react to people who are right in front of you than attune our spirit to God’s voice. Our initial reactions to being asked to do something or our consistent resistance to doing what we really want to do could just be the noise that drowns out what God is saying.

Blessings as you discern how you will use your gifts for our common enterprise!

A Week of Being Jesus

In Circle of Hope we say Jesus is best revealed incarnationally- Here’s a little newspaper of how that worked out for me this past week (spoiler- it did!)

photo 4Monday Afternoon–  When the Compassion Core Team heard about the #ReclaimMLK march happening in Philadelphia they mobilized 200 people from Circle of Hope to show up and join the thousands who marched for fully funded, democratically controlled schools; $15/hr minimum wage and the right to form unions; and a fully empowered, independent police review board and an end to “Stop and Frisk.”  We were acting to resist and empower.  We were calling out our national sin of racism on the prophet Martin’s day.  Circle of Hope has resistance and restoration at the heart of our mission and our peeps responded to the call.  It was a joy to be with so many of my comrades.  Let’s keep marching.  Jesus is with us.

Monday Night– We gathered to approve our plan for the first year of our “Second Act.”  Afterward, the coordinators of Circle of Hope offered me the position as pastor at our congregation at Marlton and Crescent, right off of 130 near the old airport circle.  The “interview” was more of a time for affirmation and exhortation.  I was so grateful to be partnered with such an amazing group of people among whom speaking the truth in love is common place.  They knew my number to 2 decimal places!  They knew me for who I was, strengths and growing edges, and they desired with me the New Self I am becoming in Christ.  I attribute this to years of loving each other but also to the discernment in the Spirit to which they had committed themselves.  I was challenged and encouraged, and warned and loved.

photo 5Wednesday- On Wednesday morning i met with a cell leader at 7:00am in Old City (THAT”S RIGHT 7 AM!)  We drank really good pour over coffee at Minagerie and dreamed about what was next for our mission in Collingswood, NJ; and we got to know each other a bit better–because we’re drawn together not by affinity or even proximity (he moved from far away to be with us), but by our mission and our unique expression of Jesus in the Philadelphia metro.  He’s awesome.  The bike ride was cold.

photo 1Thursday- My Cell group was meeting and my car ended up being a bus.  Everyone piled in as we collected folks from around West and South Philly. It was a fun ride.  One of our cell mates led us in considering Judas’ betrayal.  Another worried about the curses he was reading about in Genesis and we encouraged him with the truth that Jesus has broken every curse.  I have a note card in my pocket with a prayer request from another cell mate (we all swapped them as another cell mate led us to do)  He’s traveling across the country and is thinking of his family here in Philly.  He’s on my mind and on my heart.

photo 2Saturday- At the Love Feast this weekend, our uncommon culture of vulnerability and trust was demonstrated as 13 people joined in our covenant.  At the heart of our church is a group of folks who have explicitly agreed to be a people.  We are dedicated to our common mission and strategy and we hold the whole thing together by our bonds of love in Christ.  At the risk of sounding grandiose, we hold the forces of evil at bay with our bonds of love too (check out the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin for an awesome fictional exploration of this truth.)  When the congregation sang together the room was brimming with the Holy Spirit.  My heart was full, my ears were full, my chest was full.  It was powerful.

photo 3Sunday Afternoon-  My cell and I showed up to help our new friends from Cincinnati move into their new home.  Even though most of the crew was too late to help– because the early birds like me were way too strong and fast :)– I was touched by my cell groups readiness to be there for these folks we barely knew.  Seriously though, how much would it suck to move all your stuff by yourself- that does not happen in community- period.

Sunday Night- The Public Meeting, our weekly party, was full of love too.  The band led us in singing songs, 6 out of 8 of which written by one of our musicians or one of our close allies.  The creativity among us is evidence of Jesus’ Spirit enlivening us, as was the artful presentation and ways to engage that the team designed for us.  Epaphroditus gave us reason to consider what really being uncomfortable might be like (Check out Philippians 4).  And lots of connections were made with new and old friends.

This may be my longest post to date, which is evidence of how much God is doing among us–and this is just my experience!  What’s yours?

It’s Dr. King’s Birthday- Man, do I wish they hadn’t murdered him

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My old pal, John Francis, got it so right when he wrote this song “Kill the Dreamer” back in 2007.

“Oh, say can you see

things are not as they seem

from sea to shining sea

Dr. King, Dr. King I know you’re listening.

they can kill the dreamer but they cannot kill the dream

there was a great proud nations

there was a great proud nations

100 years from now they’ll be thumbing through the page

the history books will tell of our mistakes

She fell asleep and watched the people bleed

She fell asleep and watched the people bleed

And on that day on her headstone the epitaph will read

She died of lust and greed.”

I’m not sure if there ever was a great proud nation called the states but I think Dr. King thought so.  He often revered the constitution as a great document which ought to live up to its true potential.  I’ll go with him on that, as Wendell Berry said “Denounce the government and embrace the flag.  Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.”  But at the rate we’ve been going for the past 47 years since they killed him, I’m not sure our history books will be as insightful as John Francis believed they would be by 2107.

We’ve domesticated Dr. King. In death he has not been able to defend his legacy. I was reminded by the Circle of Hope pastors today in there “Someone Asked” vlog Continue reading

Intimacy on screen fuels compassionate hearts

“I always tell them ‘when you hear shots don’t look around to see where it’s coming from- just get down… I never thought I’d be coming out here for my child.”  These are Chris “Quest” Rainey’s words from a short film by Jonathan Olshefski that was screened on Saturday night at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.

Quest-PJs Story About 20 people gathered to watch the premier/rough draft screening of “Quest: PJ’s Story”  PJ is Quest’s daughter who was shot in the eye by a stray bullet in June, 2013.  The story itself is enough to make you cry, but especially so because Jonathan told it in a quiet, unadorned way that brought each person’s humanity and dignity to the forefront and held it there gently with honor.  Tiny details in focus as the bigger story unfolded.  His filmmaking freed the audience to connect with the characters on a deeper level than the sensational surface- a beautiful girl caught in the cross fire in “mean North Philly.”

Those gathered learned afterward in a Q&A session with the Rainey family that this intimacy on screen has its source in the intimacy off screen.  Quest was telling stories of Jon and his friendship over the past 8 years.  Quest welcomed Jon into his world, an underground hip-hop recording studio, and Jon invited Quest into his world, including a wild time at warped tour a few years back when Jon left Quest stranded in New Jersey because Jon left the show in an ambulance to go and get some stitches for his mosh pit injuries.  I was moved by their friendship and hopeful about what God will do in our future.

gun violence prevention sabbath

I put together this film screening with Jon because I had to do something personally to respond to gun violence in our city.  I am torn up about the prevalence of our gun culture and the casual violence it precipitates.  It was a good timing too because Mennonite Central Committee, our international advocacy and development organization, was getting us involved with the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend– a time to focus communities of faith across the country on our increasing culture of violence.

The forming Circle of Hope Gun Violence Prevention Compassion Team hosted the event and I am hopeful that as this group takes shape we will find more ways to share the human stories that stem from easily accessible guns and our country’s idolatrous fascination with firearms.  In the process Circle of Hope will be known for the people of compassion who follow the source of Compassion, Jesus the Christ.  And that is what I am all about.