Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: creativity

Saving our Imaginations from Fortnite

I am reading A Wrinkle in Time to my son, Oliver, who is 7 years old. One of my goals is to teach him to use and develop his imagination. I actually stop as we’re reading to encourage him to be still and actively imagine what he’s hearing. It’s hard for him to not fidget with something or even be drawn to other books and images in his room. I remind him, “We’re being still and practicing seeing the story in our minds. What does Calvin look like?” (I’m really glad he hasn’t seen the movie). On our family vacation this summer we listened to the Chronicles of Narnia in the car and he claimed to be able to read his book about dragons and listen to the story on the car speakers at the same time.

I think I’m a bit like Oliver sometimes. Paying attention is a difficult task. I spend a lot of time on my computer and always have way too many tabs open in Chrome. I am prone to popping between tasks and too often lack the stillness for the clarity of thought I desire. I want to listen to God and engage my own imagination in any number of creative tasks, but I am, as I think most people are, chronically distracted.

fortnite and coopted imaginationA big new distraction the gaming industry recently cooked up is Fortnite. It’s a shooting game where players skydive onto an island and gather resources to kill each other. Some kind of plasma storm forces them into a tighter and tighter circle and they can build platforms and ramps out of the resources they gather (that’s the “fort” part I think).

I found out about Fortnite through my nephews earlier this year but when I heard this incredible episode of On the Media about Twitch, the social media platform for gamers, I took a deep dive to find out why and how so many people are interested. If you are an elementary school kid like Oliver it is one of the top topics of conversation. Millions of people watch professional gamers play this game. There are tournaments with prizes in the millions. The most famous professional gamer in the United States is Ninja AKA Tyler Blevins. He reportedly earns a million dollars a month. He got really, really famous when, in April of this year, he played with Drake. Seven million people have watched the YouTube video of their game so far.

I want to save my son’s imagination from Fortnite. Imagining violence is the biggest reason. I don’t want him to be desensitized to violence by repeated cartoonish head shots and rocket explosions. I don’t want him to dream about how to kill anyone, even if only in a game, but it’s more than that–I fear the overwhelming swell of enthusiasm for this game will steal his imagination. Instead of imagining anything, he can see it all. It’s loud; it’s fast; and everybody loves it. He loves it and he has never even played it. It IS indeed creative, but too complete, I guess. There’s not much room for his brain to do anything because it has all been done for him. The artist who made Fortnite are not giving an invitation into anything. They are as 20th century writer George MacDonald said in his essay, “The Fantastic Imagination“, writing “THIS IS A HORSE” on their art (and on our minds).

Don’t mess with this dude, George MacDonald

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

As admirable as the creatives responsible for Fortnite are (I love their worldwide campaign with the llamas), the main force behind Fortnite is not art but business. Companies are going to great lengths to tap the veins of a generations’ desires as they have with Fortnite. But instead of awakening something in their imaginations, they feed us back their desire like a soon to be foie gras duck. If they find something we want, they slap a “THIS IS A HORSE” label on it and shove it down our throats in every conceivable medium. They took our dreams, made them very real, and then edged out the competition by dominating our imaginations for as long as possible.

Imagination is key to being a Christian. The cooperation of mind and heart with God takes contemplation, stillness and creativity. It is not always so clear what God might do next and we who are committed to following that next thing must have unclaimed space in our heads for the project. Other things crowd it too–worries, earning a living, etc.–but Fortnite is the most recent in a string of increasingly demanding and enticing competitors for our hopes and dreams. You might have a future in professional gaming, son! Maybe Fortnite is your ticket to the big time! Lord, save us.

Lord give us space, rest and real hope. Awaken us to what is already in us and where you already are. Stoke our imaginations and make something new. 

 

 

There is Beauty We Don’t See

Sunday night turned was poetry night at Circle of Hope’s 7pm meeting on Marlton Pike in Pennsauken. Joyce Fazio and a team led us to consider how poetry can tap us into a deeper connection with ourselves and reality.

Words! “Words are a super power,” Scott Sorrentino said. Jesus, in John 1 is named the Word, the Logos. God incarnate was and is the Word–the organizing logic, the naming of all things, the content of everything, the initial act, the speech coming from the Source and the Source spoken–yes, the Word. And we have words. And we too can name, and speak, and reason, and act.

We can word too.
We are word-ing when we meet together with Jesus.
Then for sure, yes,
Certainly then, at least,
If not always, but then, yes,
when we are with Him so purposefully.

I love birds because they can fly. I cannot fly but when I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem, the Windhover, I thought that my ability to word could come closer to flying than I had previously realized. In this poem, Hopkins names the thing I longed for in flight more skillfully than I may ever achieve. He writes about a flying bird and marvels at “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” in a way that made me marvel at his own “achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” His word-ing of flying demonstrated mastery in two directions. I wanted to share it with you (I had to).

On this site some of his arcane language has easy footnotes: poetryfoundation.org/poems/44402/the-windhover
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
     
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Hopkins gets to the title of this blog post in the last three lines. He describes in great detail the moment that stirred his heart; when he noticed the Windhover, or kestrel, and intensely enjoyed it for what it was. The naming of its beauty intensified it. Realy experiencing beauty may be as much naming it as perceiving it. Words make reality more real, if only because they are shared, and maybe only with your self-same ears is enough. Like praying out loud when you’re alone. Word-ing is worth the time and energy (maybe all time and energy). There is so much hidden, unnamed beauty. We could spend our lives looking for it and never find it all (thank God). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” Hopkins says in another of his famous poems .The stirring of our hearts is just the occasion of our knowing and engaging fully with what is always infinitely present. It’s “no wonder” this bird so enchants him, because even dirt is shiny beautiful when turned out of the packed field (sillion is a very rare, old word for the mound made by dirt turned up by a plow). And because even wood turning to ash dies in flamboyant brightness. There is so much beauty to see and to name.
We gather on Sundays to see it and name it together, among other things. Hope to see you there soon.

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

At the Lent retreat this weekend we were led to practice prayer of imagination. Here’s a story I wrote about my experience:

I’m on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes tourist into the clouds at the base of Niagara Falls. If the light is right, there are rainbows everywhere. The light wasn’t right. It was a gray day. I am seven years old and not too old to pout a little. But I am still captivated by the thundering water. Who wouldn’t be?

Everyone is wearing Maid of the Mist branded blue ponchos. As we motor out toward the thunder I lean against a familiar pair of jeans. I look down at the wet deck of the boat and I am startled by the fact that the shoes on these legs are wrong. I jump back and I can’t meet the eyes on the face of the strange man looking down at me. I think he smiles but I’m swiveling away to find my Dad who is not the guy in these jeans. Dad is three feet behind me. He saw the whole thing. He widens his eyes to say, “Here I am.” I retreat to the correct jeans for a moment.

But now Jesus’ story from Matthew 19:13-15 is at play here too. I’m reading the account of Jesus telling the disciples to “Let the little children come to me.” The guide for my prayer retreat asks, “What do you see? … People’s legs?”

“Yes,” my imagination answers with the flashing memory of those mistaken pants. And now I’m on the Maid of the Mist jostling on deck to get close to Jesus. I’m on a pillow breathing deeply, swaying a little in Circle of Hope’s building in Fishtown, but I’m on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls thinking, “Jesus is here.”

My Dad gives me a flip of his hand on the back of my blond head, suggestively flinging me forward through the legs in front of me. “Go,” he says silently, and I trust him. I weave past the wrong jeans, also sandals, bare skin, skirts and shorts. I get to the prow of the boat and Jesus isn’t here. The magnetism I feel in the crowd is focused on the falls so I figure he must be there. I strip off my Maid of the Mist branded blue poncho and climb up onto the first rail. I look over my shoulder. Dad is three or four rows back giving me a smile and a wave. He switches to a thumbs up. I grin back. With one foot up now on the top rail, I wait one more moment so as not to be surprised by the roll of the water beneath the boat and slip. When the time is right I duck out of my Donald Duck T-Shirt and dive off the boat and into the churn below.

Underwater, I don’t need to breath so I can dedicate my full attention without limitation to getting behind the waterfall. That must be where Jesus is. My thinking is I have to go really deep–way down deep below the power, and the clouds, even below the current that penetrates the surface. So down I go until I think this must be deep enough. I back up like a cartoon rearing to run and dart at the curtain of current that is still there this far down, but hopefully weak enough to penetrate. But it tumbles me back like a crashing wave. After tumbling backward I try again with the same result. Again and again, but it’s always the same.

Back on my pillow in Fishtown my sway has a gentle tumble to it. Again and again, head nodding in a gentle whip remembering summers at Huntington Beach getting tossed by the surf and loving it. But I don’t love this.

“Why is it always like this?” I cry in a soundless underwater shout. “Why are you so hard to get to, Jesus?! You’re supposed to be here.”

I’m still in the tumble and sway in Fishtown. “How does this story end? How does this little child get to Jesus?”

I slowly stop my subtle pillow dancing and I am still. And the Niagara river is suddenly still as well. Turning away from the tumbling current, I look up. The surface of the water, far above me is now calm and I can see by the gilding around the Maid of the Mist’s silhouette that the sun has begun to shine. I look over my shoulder at the impassable barrier, then back up to the boat eclipse. I am still in the water, floating in the depths without effort. My eyes fall slowly from the surface tracing the steady fade from a blue that’s almost white to a deep, deep blue at my eye level. I stare into this darkness, “How does it end?”

classic 70's snorkel maskThen something touches my shoulder and I wiggle away. Kicking madly toward the surface in fear, I look down and there is Jesus waving to me in the deep blue. He’s wearing one of those snorkel masks that’s just an oval from the 70’s, big fins on his feet, and a speedo. Yes, with the classic hippie hair and beard, but also hair all over his body. I swim down toward him and he darts away, though not too far this time. He lets me catch him and now it’s my turn to be pursued. We circle round beneath the Maid of the Mist ascending through the shades of blue and I am so happy. Jesus and I are playing tag beneath the Maid of the Mist in the Niagara River. “And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”

Why not the Whole Delaware Watershed?

 We live in the megalopolis- the swath of concrete dominated land that stretches from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. In my neck of this urban and suburban mass of human concentration, the boundaries slip and slide like hikers boots on wet, mossy rocks. One minute you’re in Haddon Township, the next minute you’re in Haddon Heights, cross the street and you’re in Haddonfield. I can say now, after 3 months on the job (Monday was my 3 month-a-versary as Pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent- woot!) that I’m getting the hang of how these municipalities work. I’m probably more attuned to the boundaries then most people who have lived here all their lives. It’s kind of like when I learned English grammar by learning Spanish. All the grammatical rules which I had intuited in my mother tongue needed a name and a category when I had to memorize them in a second language. Folks who aren’t so new to the area are often not as interested in where exactly all the borders are. Their lives have their beaten paths and it’s not really important that the coffee shop is in Pennsauken and the Wegman’s is in Cherry Hill.  I’m taking a lesson from this indifference to boundary lines when it comes to Circle of Hope.

Circle of Hope exists over and across a lot of different borders. The one I am most attuned to in my new role is the Delaware River that is a state line and major psychological boundary for a lot of people. Living on the Eastern banks of the Delaware means I do not live on the Western banks; this is an inescapable fact. But Circle of Hope as a movement scoffed at the mighty Delaware’s capacity to divide us when we planted a church in South Jersey 7 years ago.  And this is really great.

A friend of Circle of Hope creates cool maps and I bought the one pictured above last week because I was inspired by the Delaware River.  I had this fun thought. We’re all part of the same movement, AND we’re all part of the same watershed! The Delaware drains our creeks and gutters to the sea. We share a vital resource and the earth channels us together. We have three congregations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, but we have 4 in the Delaware watershed!

This excited me enough to trace the path of the Delaware up to Delaware County, New York where the Eastern Branch of the Delaware and Western Branch of the Delaware flow together to form OUR Delaware River. What if we, as Circle of Hope set our sights on expanding throughout the Delaware Watershed. The Megalopolis is too big and it’s borders are arbitrary. The Delaware has changed but it takes her a lot longer. There’s a stability in her flow that seems more substantial than any of the other borders I know. And if we see her as a point of unity for our movement we could be directed by her. Maybe I’m just geeking out on my new map, but if we want to spread the love of Jesus throughout our watershed, it would take Circle of Hope to Reading and Allentown, and Trenton.  It takes us not to New York City but Binghamton, New York. Then Philadelphia is our biggest city (as it should be!) and Circle of Hope in most of the other towns we make it to looks a lot like what we’re trying to do in Pennsauken- draw people together for Jesus sake across a lot of dividing lines. I think our united watershed would be another fun way to bring us together for our common cause, and to spur us forward in our ambition to see God’s redemption project advancing.

Creativity, the Holy Spirit and Everything in Between

In my job as Development Pastor at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington I am always on the hunt for a good idea- a new flyer idea, an idea for an event that could attract some new friends, a new idea for how to engage someone at an event in the city.  Doing so much brainstorming and so much listening to God has me thinking about the creative process.  What’s me and what’s God and does it matter?

A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Robert Dykstra, said that in writing a sermon a pastor ought to plan to reach the edge of him or her self–the limits of his or her capacity for boredom–and in that place he or she would experience the best environment for God to speak.  I still remember what Chris Falson said at a worship conference at Circle of Hope more than a year ago: when he writes a song it’s a meditative experience.  He’s just jamming for a long time, almost turning off his mind, waiting for the song to emerge (he probably said more than that, but that’s what I remember).

I think what Dykstra and Falson are describing is an emptying process.  The Christian artist is not interested in filling up the world with self expression, but in filling up the self with God.  This is what we mean when we of Circle of Hope say in our proverbs, “Since we are each and all temples of the Holy Spirit, art among us is never merely a matter of “self-expression.”  This is not only a commentary on the prevailing philosophy in the art world, but a proclamation of freedom for those who wish to create.  I’m hearing it as good news today.

I know I’m not reaching the limits of boredom or meditating my way to many of my ideas these days.  I wish I had enough time to do that, but usually I’m just going with whatever idea comes up first.  I guess this blog post could become a lament for how my creative process is less developed than it should be, but I’m not going there.  I am receiving the free gift of the ideas that I do get blessed with, and even more so I am praising God for the good work he has done with my under developed ideas.  I am free from the demand to produce for my own glory and the subsequent burden of scrutiny that the creative process  inevitably yields when the work is shared.

My creativity is all about sharing.  I am trying to find new ways to connect with people, so everything I do is designed for someone to see.  It has me feeling vulnerable and pretty used up.  When I find myself in that condition–begging for some new ideas, I’m really begging for God to fill me up.  So pray with me today for time to spend being filled by God.  I pray that for you too.