Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: discipleship

What if online church sucks?

This is objectively not the same

What if online church sucks? I don’t think there is any question that this sucks. I know, I probably shouldn’t say “sucks”, but if you just want to suck your teeth at the prospect of your next zoom cell meeting, or live stream Sunday meeting, trust me; you are not alone. I think a lot of my friends are feeling the suck, the sap, the drain of church in the Quarantimes.

Quarantimes Church Timeline

The past 50+ days have gone something like this for me:

  1. What, the church is going to meet on YouTube live?! Ew, gross! That goes against the whole point of being the church. How can we be face to face through a screen?
  2. Whoa, that wasn’t as bad as I thought. I actually felt something when we prayed/worshiped/chatted in the comments. I wasn’t expecting that.
    2b. But also whoa, what am I supposed to do with my kids when this thing is happening?
  3.  [Raising fist to the sky defiantly] I ain’t gonna let no virus separate me from my community. How many apps can I download? What is Marco Polo? Oh, this is cool. Hi friends!
  4. It’s Holy Week! Yes! We’re actually doing this thing. #sacredspot is really cool and I am actually doing this breath prayer thing. I feel connected.
  5. Resurrection! Missing out on Easter traditions is a major loss, but Jesus IS still alive, I’m holding on to that.
  6. Ok… now what? This isn’t over yet? Dang.
  7. “Zoom Fatigue,” “The Great Disruption,” “#Classof2020”
  8. I haven’t really “done church” for a while. And I don’t want to.  Lemme just hunker down.

I think there was a flurry of enthusiasm at the beginning (or was that just me and my pastor friends who were animated to meet the challenge?) And now the reality of another month of shelter in place, and maybe going through the end of the year without meeting in large gatherings — this is hitting hard. How can we make it through this?

Let’s just name it and trust God

You don’t really have to overcome your fears. Not everyone is David slaying a giant. You don’t have to become a hero and triumph over all these icky feelings. The way you feel is the way you feel. There is, however, a kind of subtle shift that can happen when we name those feelings and hold them with Jesus. Taking the pause to reflect and describe the feelings clearly makes space between our selves and the feelings themselves. That little gap is big enough for the Holy Spirit to get into. The feelings don’t go away, but the presence of Jesus gets in there, and then — the subtle shift. Then comes the ability to persevere, the extra well of gentleness and kindness for yourself and others, the joy despite your consideration of all the facts, the peace that surpasses all understanding. The Holy Spirit is like a dandelion, only needing that small crack to grow roots in and eventually spread on the wind to ever greener plot of grass on which you cast your eyes.

Because, again, this does suck

I’ve said for years that the pilgrimage we take to show up at our cell meetings, and Sunday meetings is so significant. “You made it!” is such a shout of victory sometimes. That embodied togetherness does so much for us, and those who are part of a church have come to rely on it. I give my one friend a hard time because she always answers my “How ya doing?” with “I’m here.” I always wanted more of an answer — more than just her presence. but now, in the Quarantimes, I am elevating her former “here-ness” for sheer lack of it. In our collective absence from one another, “I’m here” would be great — and not just for me and my need for connection, but for her and all the unconscious ways our togetherness buoys her and her faith.

We have to do everything on purpose now

Much of what happened before our separation could happen implicitly. A gentle shoulder squeeze as I passed by could communicate more than a million zoom calls. Being together on a screen, either at the Sunday meeting or in a cell meeting, now requires a lot of will. We are still creating a new habit, for one, but we are also relating in an environment that demands cognition almost exclusively. We are talking, and listening mostly — tasks which are harder in this context. All of our energy is getting sucked out by the mental processes of this foreign form of communication. Don’t they say that body language is more than half of communication? Well, we’re only half talking then. We’re only half together. Overcoming that limitation is really demanding. if you’re feeling it, I’m feeling it with you. Our bodies aren’t breathing together. Our spirits aren’t feeling each other. There is so much that happens when humans are in the same room.  And now we are not in the same room with anyone but our families. And for those of us who live alone, it’s no one, EVER.

We have to do our relating on purpose. We have to focus so much on just being present when we are relating on a screen. We can’t depend on our physical presence to communicate our love to others. We can’t enjoy the power of just showing up to communicate something about our faith to ourselves.

But it’s worth it. Do it with me, please

I want to have a church when this is over. I am almost positive we will, but the threat is real. Falling out of practice, is falling out of faith. Practice and faith — the two go hand in hand. The new habits required to be the church require a lot from all of us. In the grand scheme of things, though 50 days feels like forever, it is a relatively short period of time. We have not been able to adjust to this way of relating. For most of this thing, we have held out hope that it would soon be over.  For the past few weeks at least, I have been settling into the fact that it will not soon be over. Restrictions may ease, but I do not foresee Circle of Hope meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike for several more months if not through to the beginning of next year. With that immediate future stretching out before us (and praying for the shorter end of the prognosis), we must learn these new ways of being the body. Yes, they are not as good. No, I do not like them either.

Let’s name the problems and get practical about solving them. Let’s lament the loss and allow the Holy Spirit to get between us and our sorrow to make something new. Let’s tune into the joy of our community’s creativity and perseverance. Let’s do our purpose on purpose, because that’s how we have to do it now. There are so many ways we are being the church in spite of this separation. Tell me a story in the comments or email me. How are you seeing the church be the church in the Quarantimes?

 

The je ne sais quoi of following Jesus (and Tyra Banks)

My wife, Gwyneth, is recently on an early 2000’s nostalgia trip watching America’s Next Top Model on Hulu. Because, why not? And, we’re getting old. There is not a pair of skinny jeans in sight! She usually shows me great love by turning it off when I come home. I occasionally sit down and watch a bit with her, reciprocating her great love.  We do love watching elimination competitions  together because the drama of Tyra Banks (or whoever the judge may be) saying “Sorry, you have to go,” and the subsequent tears and loving farewells is at the same time heart warming and heart wrenching. Don’t @ us! I cannot even come close to understanding the criteria of fashion model judges. All the women are tall, lanky beauties but Tyra seems to have strong feeling about who is a model and who isn’t.  The other day I heard her say  something like, “You’re being pretty, you aren’t modeling.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!? I cannot even begin to try to explain what makes a fashion model photo good and what makes it bad. I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the eye. How do you learn something you don’t understand?

My first Instagram post in 2011

I have taken some photography classes and I’ve been loving me some Instagram for almost 8 years now. So I do think I have an eye for photography, but I don’t think I could explain that to you either. You can study composition and contrast and all kinds of other techniques but there does seem to be something else going on with photography.  There is a je ne sais quoi (french for “I don’t know what”). I think the best way to learn would be to start taking pictures.

As it is in fashion photography and probably every kind of art, the learning is experiential. Some might be better at finding language for it, but most artists I know settle into trusting the je ne sais quoi. It is instinctual, intuitive and mysterious. Most of my Instagram art has to do with noticing the light and the clouds (like my first post in 2011). My discipline is just looking up and not taking it for granted. I’m sure I could learn more technique, but it won’t be the technique that gets me to the je ne sais quoi. I really don’t know what that is.

And so it is with Jesus. We don’t know him in abstraction, we know him as he is. We know him person to person. But so much Christian talk is about him, that the depth of his je ne sais quoi might get lost in the propositions and theories that get so much airtime. I think any talk about Jesus is pretty boring if you aren’t really interested in doing what he said. Something special happens when you get beneath your skepticism and try to live as he lived and taught his disciples to live in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). If you want to really know Jesus, you must try out doing what he said.

I was struck by this again as I read John 7 with some college students at Rowan College of South Jersey.  In John 7, Jesus secretly goes to Jerusalem for a religious festival. He is not sure it is the right time to present himself to the authorities in the seat of power because he is not ready to hand himself over to be killed. He knows they have it out for him so he is cautious. But half way through the festival he goes up to the temple and begins to preach. I imagine him throwing off his cloak and hood in dramatic slow-mo and stepping up onto whatever the first century version of a soapbox is, saying “Ok, fine. I’ll do it!” There is great danger in this.

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. (John 7:14-18)

Jesus is saying something like this: “What you’re feeling from me — that astonishment — that’s the je ne sais quoi from my father. There is something about me that is attractive, but it’s not me; it’s God. If you want to really test it out. Do what I’m teaching you to do. Try it out. God sent me, and you will know this is true only by doing the same sort of things that God sent me to do. And that’s all I am teaching. You won’t figure it out before you get into it. Everyone has an opinion about me, but the only way to test your opinion is to see how it feels when you follow my lead.”

You don’t need some monumental faith to do it. You only need enough faith to try. Try loving your neighbor. Try feeding the poor. Try forgiving those who hurt you. Try speaking truth to power. And you don’t have to do it alone! Try singing a worship song with the congregation at a Sunday meeting. Try praying with a cell. Try trusting someone with the trouble you are feeling. Try loving someone who is hard for you to love. You’re going to feel it. That is Jesus’ invitation. You’re going to get the je ne sais quoi .

Jesus is advocating for another kind of knowing — one to which the question “Qu’estce que c’est?”/“What is it?” does not really apply.  Like Tyra Banks knows something about fashion photography that I do not, Christians who follow Jesus by actually trying what he says know something about Jesus that others who haven’t tried do not. In fact, they know him personally. If you want to have a relationship with Jesus, it might seem elementary but I say it nonetheless, you have to do what Jesus says. And when you do, you will love him, and you will experience him in ways that I cannot predict — probably in ways I haven’t yet. This mode of knowing is a comfort to me, and may clear some of the obstacles you or the people you know are having when your doubts are at their strongest. You won’t be able to think your way into relationship, you will have to DO your way into it. Which is already true for many of the things we value. To know the je ne sais quoi of following Jesus, you might be tempted to start with “What is it?” But I suggest you begin with “What can I do now?”

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.