Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: HOPE

Hope Bigger Than Just Hype

jjandeI believe that a coffin sized rectangle of reclaimed lumber in the front yard of Circle of Hope’s repurposed firehouse in Pennsauken will change the world. We put some fresh soil in it and we’re going to grow some food then offer the produce free to passersby. This will destroy the forces of evil. Sounds grandiose, right? It is, and it’s overblown, but it’s our only hope.

It’s our only hope because in order to do anything at all (and the things we do are often small- like planting a raised bed in our yard) we need to have hope that it matters to something bigger. I think transcendence is a basic human need. We are built to desire a connection to something greater than ourselves. We all hope in some way that our tininess contributes to a bigger whole, like when Mother Theresa said “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”

Our 20 or so square feet of garden will change the world because it is a drop in an ocean of goodness that has its source in Jesus’ redemption project for the world. We are participating in a future that has already been promised by the most trustworthy of promisers, God himself. The world is going to change one way or another. My hope is in Jesus’ return and his establishing a new order that blows all our best guesses at heaven out of the water, but in the mean time the world will change because we are not alone in our tiny acts of hope. The inevitability of the peaceable kingdom that is promised to us in the Bible works its way under my fingernails in the dirt of our garden to be and deep into my heart in my practice of hope.

It’s so much easier not to try after all. There are a lot of reasons not to. The impossibility of the task- it seems like it’s the ocean against our little drop. We’re more worried than ever about being consumed because that is what we are most interested in doing collectively as a culture. So even when we are inclined to put our hope into action, we are often defeated by anti-hope forces like our own cynicism, the immensity of the domination system, and fear. Last night at my cell meeting we were kind of overwhelmed by the question “Do we have to change the world?” I think most of us hoped the answer was no. We don’t want that responsibility and we certainly don’t want to be judged for not caring.

These sort of discussions in abstract always seem to devolve into shame and apathy. We think we should be successful at anything we attempt, and if the prospect of success is slim to none we’d usually rather not try. But if we change our ethic from one of success to one of witness we’ll have a much better shot even if the numbers haven’t budged. Our metric for success can be faithfulness to the certain hope of the future of the Kingdom of God. Then it matters what we actually do and how we actually do it. It’s about what is real and not as much about an abstract evaluation of it’s effect.

So I planted a raised bed with my friends. It’s going to change the world- maybe just by maintaining our own capacity to hope, maybe just in sharing some locally grown veggies for no reason but love, maybe just by pointing to a future in God’s Kingdom in which everything has changed.

Why are you doing this?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bench on Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania holding my “tell me your story sign”.  It turns our it was parent’s weekend and I got two stories from proud Penn parents.  One man, D, came up to me and said, “Ok, you’ve piqued my interest.  I’m not going to tell you my story but I would like to know why you want my story.”

logoI answered, “I want to meet people and I think that telling stories is good for us.”  He probed further addressing the Circle of Hope logo I had drawn on my sign, “This ‘circle of hope’ looks rather sinister doesn’t it, with this menacing black circle.”  I got a little defensive, but backed down from the direct conflict, “Well, I didn’t design it.”

“But you did make this sign and you couldn’t change it?  See that’s the sort of thing that religion is always doing.  Obedience is demanded and you’re either in or you’re out depending on whether or not you obey,” D responded.

“Now hold up a minute!” My dander was up, “That’s putting something on me that I did not say.  I want to use this logo because I am Circle of Hope.  This symbol has value to me because it has a history and a cache that I have been a part of and I don’t want to lose.”

D appreciated my push back and we proceeded to have a very interesting discussion about the language of commercialism and the concessions one makes to participate in the system of marketing, logos, etc. D’s claim was that a logo at it’s essence is manipulative.  It may be, but I said I have to speak the language of the culture.  I have to do something to make a relationship, and if that means I have to get my hands dirty in some imperfect communication, so be it–because I must communicate my hope.

benchD seemed to appreciate my passion and he actually went on to tell me his story of life in the church as a boy and his teenage disillusionment.  He said, “Well look at that, you did get me to tell you my story!”  I got to share with him my desire for the promises of Jesus to be true and my experience of living out of that desire as a sort of loop that fueled the desire and my trust in the promise more and more as time goes on.  He liked that and seemed genuinely pensive about the whole conversation which contrasted with his initial aggressive posture.

Why am I holding a sign that says tell me your story?  Because me asking you creates a space in which we can be real with each other.  I’m not responsible for what happens next.  I have hopes.  I am looking for friends, and I am finding them.  I want to share my hope in Jesus with anyone who wants to have it with me, but I also think that the storytelling has its own value whether not I make a friend or Jesus’ story makes its way into the conversation explicitly.

To close I give one other story.  I met a woman, R, who was walking up the walk.  She looked at my sign.  I said, “hi” and “how ya’ doing?”

“Not so good,” she replied.

She then tearfully explained to me a difficult conversation she had just had with a dear friend.  This friend had believed a lie about her that a third person had told her.  She thought that their friendship was primary enough to trump any other person’s influence.  She had invested a lot in building that sort of intimacy and trust and based on her friends reaction it seemed that that sense of connection and investment was not mutual.  She was heartbroken.

After telling her story and shedding her tears with me right there in public, she walked away thanking me for listening.  I was so awed, I didn’t even give her my card.

There are many reasons to hold my sign.  I’m grateful for what God is doing with it.

Dear Philly University Students : an open letter (it’s about Jesus, ok?)

Dear students,

Welcome to Philadelphia!

I want to be your friend.  What is your name?  Will you escape your own personal zone long enough to connect with me?  Most of you won’t, but that’s okay because I’m pretty sure some of you will.  But really, those people who are ready to connect are the anomalies so don’t feel weird if you think I’m weird.  I am weird.  So I’ll just go for it…

Don’t you think that Circle of Hope is a perfect place to dedicate your energy and creativity to Jesus?  Ok, you’re not that religious or you’re not that religion’s religious, but you do have energy and creativity and you’re looking for a way to use it aren’t you?  Why not Jesus?

  • It’s a real shame that the Church has been co-opted by the institutional passion-sappers of our society.  I don’t blame you for being suspicious, especially if you have a bad experience with the church or some pseudo experience with a pseudo church person (like on TV).
  • It’s a real shame that our prophetic voice has been silenced by things like student loans, international threats and fears of international threats (and threats of fear of international threats).  That which cows us under the pressure just to make it is that which we need to make our lives about unmaking.
  • It’s a real shame too that we’ve made it rude to talk about Jesus anywhere but in a Church’s building.  My private faith is meaningless.  When we trapped it in our heads we cut our own capacity to transform the world right out from under ourselves.

eastern fair

But Jesus is saving me from shame, so I’ve been working on having real experiences, unmaking ungodly powers, and being so rude as to talk about Jesus in public. I went to a bunch of student activities fairs on your campuses this week (Philadelphia University, uArts, Penn and Eastern).  Here’s a picture of me and Jonny at one today.  I was struck at how many of you (students) were interested in Jesus’ mission in the world.  Some asked me what we do in Circle of Hope and I said we resist and restore.  We say “Jesus is living the greatest mutiny ever – we should not waste our rebellion on each other.”  Too many of you have seen us wasting our rebellion on each other.  Let’s turn our focus on those forces which are hellbent on dominating us.  We have a common cause.  I’m offering you a common community and a common hope. 

Someone told me yesterday that they were excited about the revolution I hoped for but that it was a shame that it had to be about Jesus too.  I told him that I couldn’t do it without Jesus.  I’ve learned too much about what humanity is capable of.  I’ve failed to stop wars with the best of them.  My hope in humanity gets dashed even within my own life.  People betray me and lie to me.  I let myself and others down too.  I can’t be as ambitious as I need to be if I don’t have some sure hope–something, or better yet someone, bigger than myself.  “I’m doing this with Jesus,” I told him.  “Because I can’t do it without him.  If you try, you’ll come up against your own limitations too.”

The safest thing to do is to keep your head down and fit into the tiny space the economy has carved out for you.  Life with Jesus is not necessarily safe, but it is worth your life’s devotion– all your energy and creativity.  Circle of Hope is looking for you as a partner.  We will be safe for you to explore while you’re figuring it all out.  But if you get next to Jesus, you can expect an adventure at the least, a life worth living that is a threat to all that oppresses at the most.  Call me back.  I’m on your phone I’m at your door.  Find me, I’m looking for you.

Peace,

Benjamin White
[email protected]
267-825-5348
circleofhope.net
 

Grace says they don’t want to talk to you

A three year old is holding his mother’s hand in one hand and a much too real looking toy handgun in the other.  A well dressed dad and ballet dancer daughter emerge from the subway.  He drops her off at the dance school and returns toward the subway.  A tiny girl, hair dangling what seems like hundreds of white beads, races up the steps alone.  Moments later her probable grandpop follows, almost dies when she’s not there, then sighs in relief, hand on his chest, when she shouts boo from her hiding place.  They hold hands as they cross the street.  A group of six women walk north in a sort of flock headed toward work.  What brought them together, I don’t know, but they’re together every morning.

A few mornings a week I stand in front of the building where Circle of Hope Broad and Washington meets and I say “good morning” to everyone who walks by.  After a few weeks of this discipline I’m noticing the regulars, I’m noticing these scenes of connection, and I’m noticing some stuff in me.

It’s interesting how people respond to me.  A few expect me to say hello at this point and preempt me.  A man today responded to my “Good Morning, Sir” with an aggressive “What do you want?”   I smiled and said, “Just saying hi.”  Then he said “Nobody just says hi.  you want something.” and he walked away. He was right; I did want something–connection.  He scared me a little bit though and I wasn’t sure I wanted to connect with him.  God forgive me, maybe.

However, the majority of people don’t respond to me at all.  So many passersby are completely plugged in and I’m unable to even get their attention.  The other day I had made a friend while she waited for our landlords to open their check cashing place.  Her name was Grace.  She was either a little bit crazy or too old to care about decorum.  She witnessed me saying hello to several people who did not respond to me at all, either because they couldn’t hear me or didn’t want to be bothered.  Each time Grace guffawed.  She thought it was ridiculous that people wouldn’t even acknowledge me.  She said, “They don’t want to talk to you.”

I’m glad Grace is there with me to back me up because this is a really good illustration of what we are up against as a church.  We’re trying to make a connection with people who, intentionally or not, live in isolation, even walking down a busy street.  But I am encouraged by these scenes of human connection that I see.  People are not completely isolated.  Many do find their allies, many do touch, and I am hopeful that many still want to connect with Jesus through us.

My morning discipline on Broad Street is a nice prayer exercise for impatient, action-oriented me.  I have to spend an hour waiting, watching and praying.  I say hello and try to be in a way that is open to the next person.  People look at me then they look at our sign–I think they are noticing us more than they may have before.  I am making friends.  I have met a dozen or so people who actually stopped to talk to me.  And some good stuff is happening for me too.

  1. I have a discipline- which gets me to work on time (I am largely self-supervised)
  2. It grounds me in the Holy Spirit- the hour is very passive- it’s an exercise in waiting for God to drop someone into my lap.  Without the work of the Holy Spirit I am lost.  I need to start my days in recognition of that.
  3. It opens my eyes to the beautiful, lovable people of our neighborhood.  As I watch them and pray for them I learn to love them.

God, please bless Broad Street and her people.  May Circle of Hope be a place for them to connect.

Cultivating HOPE

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 002

The Hope sign hit the streets this Saturday.

I had this idea that I wanted to try because I thought it was fun and because I wanted to make new friends.  Plywood in my basement, a jigsaw from my local tool library and presto I had HOPE! (It was a pretty hopeful thing to do so I guess I had hope in my heart and a plywood manifestation of it on my lawn)

I took my sign to the Uhuru Flea Market in Clark Park with Shalom House.  The Shalomers asked people what we should do with $10,000,000 to help our community.  They were asking people to dream up some better ideas than the US Government’s $10,000,000 idea to build a drone command center in Horsham, PA. (This Fox report hails it as good news).

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 011

I asked people to participate in my communal art project.  Pick a color (or 6) and make your mark on HOPE.  We were cultivating hope right there in our communal garden of Clark Park.  My friend said he just liked how big the sign was.  It yelled “HOPE!”  And he wanted to hope.

I was pleased with how many people wanted to know what we as a Circle of Hope were all about and how many people were willing to get messy for a minute and make something beautiful together.  Jesus offers us that messy sort of hope.  He came into our midst and offered us himself to us in our messy humanity and now he sends us his Spirit to keep the hope within us alive and growing in the midst of our still very messy humanity.

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 006

Hope springs up from beyond our capacity.    It is best when it gets pollinated and hybridized through mutual sharing.  Following that metaphor, maybe my work as a pastor is to be the bee of hope–listening to many stories, making many friends, sharing in many lives as I buzz from flower to flower spreading hope.  In our modern era we’ve figured all this out.  We have super high speed high resolution digital cameras that can document the pollination that bees do but in Jesus’ day the growing of seeds and their plants’ fruit was more of a mystery.  In Mark 4 Jesus tells this parable:

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 020

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Bees aren’t really aware of how important they are to the life cycle of many plants.  I am a bit more aware, but I still can’t dissect hope and tell you how it grows.  It seems I can participate in it, but I do a lot of sleeping, and yet this newness seems to grow.  Many new things happened on Saturday.  I met new people.  I heard new ideas and I got a new sense of what God is doing through me now–and my hope got bigger.