Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: making friends (page 1 of 2)

Giving Thanks for Friends We Don’t See As Much As We Used To

Recently I got a group of people together who had been planting the church together for ten years. Our congregation in South Jersey is ten years old (What a wonder!), and we marked the occasion with a time to remember where we have been and consider where we are going.  The time reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinner — a big long table, family, good food, storytelling… bad memories, tension, irritation. The people we love have so much power over us! And we have so much power together to make light and life in the world.  I’m so grateful these folks stayed together even when everyone didn’t stay. But I’m also grateful that they let me and others in and didn’t stay together in exactly the same way–if they had, I’m not sure they could have stayed together at all.

My Brother and Me

When I was 12, my family moved to a new house and my twin brother, Joel, and I ended up in the same room again after a four year hiatus. Our new room somehow inherited my parents old record player and their old records. That summer The Mamas and the Papas’ album “Deliver” became a permanent part of my neural net. “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, but nothing’s quite as sure as change.” Joel and I share a love that is deeper than some siblings because we are twins. I may be romanticizing our 9 months together in the womb but there’s a comfort that transcends the rearranging of our lives. Joel moved out of our shared room again after a guy that had moved in with us to help plant Circle of Hope moved back to his hometown. Joel found a different friend group in high school, maybe because too many of mine were degenerates and maybe because he just liked video games more than I did. Regardless, our connection persists even if he lives in his own separate house.

I’m sure there are plenty of bad memories, tension and irritation from that moment in our shared history, but they’re not coming to mind right now. We’re brothers, and that doesn’t change.

Being together for a long time means being together in different ways

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a little more tenuous. Of course we are family with all those who call on the name of Jesus around the whole world, but we organize in bands of partners called churches to be and do specific things and  that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood can be lost. It’s better if it can change. One person said that they had been part of several church plants and none of the founding members ever stuck around at all. The fact that so many people who started Circle of Hope in South Jersey are still a part of the mission was pretty amazing to him. I have no frame of reference for this so I’m taking his word for it. I noticed at the dinner that the group was not at all the same as when they started together 10 years ago, but they were still together.

They had gotten married, had children, lived in community, bought and sold houses, and even divorced.  They had planted, multiplied, killed and resurrected dozens of cells. They had fought each other, reconciled, suffered loss and celebrated many milestones in life, mostly associated with young adulthood. But not only had they changed individually, their relationships had changed. They were not as close as they all once were. They were not all at the center of the church leadership. Many others had joined the church and they were dispersed among them in new relationships, carrying their founder fire to the whole body.

Relational Evangelism requires letting go

It was tempting to be sad. Things were not the same. Their togetherness was not the same, but they were together, nonetheless. That togetherness is enough, I think. The alternative is a dissatisfying comparison with the past and a choice for what was. A desire to go back to the way things were, or even a forced fossilization of what is, will grind the wheels of our church planting engine to a halt. It hurts some to keep moving, knowing that your brother is way over there across town rather than right below you on the bottom bunk, but we must trust the binding that God has done. We cannot demand forever intimacy with everyone or no one new will ever be able to enjoy the friendship we offer in Christ.

Relational evangelism brings with it the occupational hazard of having to let go. I don’t think this means we forget the brothers and sisters we have made. We might need to be more intentional about catching up (and I suggest you do that because I need to do it too) but we cannot cozy up in the comfort of what was. We cannot maintain every relationship equally. We cannot demand that our togetherness stay the same. It cannot withstand the weight.  We can be bound by common mission, common history, and a chosen family bond that will play like a pleasant song in your mind and heart–  and last into eternity.

When you go to Thanksgiving Dinner treasure the Togetherness

So at your actual Thanksgiving table, whether you are with blood family, friends family or family in Christ (probably a mix of that). Treasure the togetherness. Marvel that anyone is together at all. Delight in the quirky constellation of people that have gathered to thank God in feast form. It’s not the same as it ever was. Families rearrange and relationships suffer and change. There is heartache and joy all around. Tell the truth. You will be tempted to dwell in the tension, but you might marvel in the longevity of those relationships and wonder what may come next from this foundation.

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

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.

Yes, I will have 320 hot dogs. Please and thank you.

This blog post is brought to you by our generous sponsor, Hatfield Hams.  They’re giving us a case of beef franks for our Summer Block Party on Sunday June 22nd from 2-6pm.  Isn’t that nice?  Why would this vegetarian want 320 hot dogs you ask?  1) Because even I know that hot dogs are actually quite delicious and 2) I’m pulling out all the stops to have a “big thing.”  Nothing brings people together like food- especially free food- and no one is more interested in bringing people together than Jesus.

Every day I hear a story about the great things that God is doing among his people at Circle of Hope.  Yesterday it was a married couple with two small children who had organized the end of their week for them to both go on a 24 hour personal retreat in Aston, PA at the Franciscan Spirituality Center.  Now those are people who are meant to go deep with God!  Both of them have recently taken on new leadership roles among us so it is well timed for them to find some time with God.  Those are the type of Christians that are growing up at Circle of Hope.  Such is the life in Christ that we are calling people together to see.

alter street

Here’s the plan for June 22nd

A block party is not a retreat but it is a great way to love people, and know them and have fun with them.  That’s the first step in them connecting to the power of God at work among us like it is in the family on retreat.  On June 22nd there will be hot dogs, of course, and sodas, and probably other summer treats, but also a moon bounce, face painting, games and music.  I hope at least 150 people come (otherwise we’re going to have a serious hotdog surplus), so I’m telling you now.  Put it on your calendar.  The Circle of Hope Summer Tour stops at the 1300 block of Alter in a few weeks and I want the whole neighborhood and you to be there.

I won at Quizzo and you can too

The whole "Rhythmic Quiznastics 2016" Team (*name subject to change- every time)

The whole “Rhythmic Quiznastics 2016” Team (*name subject to change- every time)

Last night after literally months of toil, my Quizzo team won a $50 bar tab at New Deck Tavern for our first place finish.  We were very excited.  We were VERY EXCITED.  I was also excited because everyone on the team was a stranger to me a few months ago.  Making friends is hard and it’s at the core of Circle of Hope‘s strategy for making disciples so it’s worth thinking about for a couple of minutes.  We think that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally- as in through our relationships- human to human- flesh to flesh- carne to carne.  But when was the last time you made a new friend?

Some of you will say, “yesterday and last week and this morning.”  Others will say 5 years ago or college or “I don’t really have that many friends.”  I looked at my life about 6 months ago and realized I might have made acquaintances at the “yesterday and last week and this morning” rate but I wasn’t really making very many new actual friends at all.  Whatever the reason for our relative isolations (and they are as numerous as we are), we need to get with Jesus in order to overcome our hang ups to meet the next person and expose them to what God is doing in our life together.  If you can first get over the hang ups you may have about being intentional to share Christ in your relationships then you might want to get down to business and figure out how to make some new friends.

What I’m thinking we have to do is very practical so I made a list (they happen to alliterate so I’m obliged to title them Practical P’s):

1) Prioritize

If you do not make time for new people and new environments you will stay in your rut.  We are creatures of habit, and though many of our habits are very good, we will have to not do some things in order to the other things we have prioritized.  Figuring out how to make time for some new people takes dedication, deal making with family members, and follow through.  Make a plan and do the plan.  Whatever will be what it was before forever.

2) Pray

Making friends is good for anyone regardless of the reasons.  I’m making friends because I want to give people a chance to meet a Christian like me.  I also have a desire to be known and to share who I am with people and for them to share that with me.  We’re wired for it (me especially).  So our prayers are for the fulfillment of our desires as human beings and the fulfillment of our mission as Christians.  It’s neat how there’s no need for compartmentalization.  We pray because we know that we are only scattering seeds, God makes faith grow.  We pray for those who might receive us and we pray that we will have the courage to risk being received and also rejected.

3) Pay attention

Listen to others, see what they are interested in, see where they are hurting and needy.  Bless them with your presence.  By the power of the Holy Spirit we can perceive what many who are consumed in themselves cannot.  I was surprised and subsequently honored by the opportunities I had to listen to my new friends just by making myself available.  I’m convinced that we are all much more isolated than we appear from the outside.  If we listen and look closely, we will find those who are ready.

4) Pursue

It seems we are trained to bounce off of each other.  Hanging out at a bar could easily be ephemeral- a fleeting moment of connection.  But you can look someone up on facebook, or ask them for their number or email.  The tricky part for that for me is that it seems that doing that implicitly expresses a sexual desire in most societal circumstances.  Yeah, it’s just weird- we’re weird and we’ll have to get over it and do the weird thing.  I think that most people feel locked out in that way though.  The opportunities for intimacy are relegated to sexual encounters- and what paltry opportunities most of the time!  It’s hard for a lot of people to connect.  So blurt it out- the worst thing that happens is that you never see them again, and that was going to happen anyway.

How do I escape the stereotype?

I got stuck on the trolley for about 45 minutes last week. I also got stuck being a Christian.

Where much of my conversation occurred- 40th and Woodland

The trolleys were broken down in the tunnel and we were beyond the diversion point. We just had to wait it out.  Instead of being consumed by my fantasy novel I struck up a conversation with the man who sat down next to me. It started with our common inconvenience- a trolley in front of us was broken down in the tunnel and we were stuck behind it and very late for work (we weren’t stressed about it because it was the day after the big snow and we were already heroes for showing up at all). It went deeper when I simply asked him “what are you reading?”

I might have been leery to ask this man this question- he seemed a bit eccentric and I could tell by the titles I spied on his photocopied reading material that his interests were a bit weird too. He was excited to tell me that every clergy person was a charlatan and religion was just a power grab.

I listened and agreed with some of his points- scientists could now describe the forces at work which caused the sun to rise or the moon to be eclipsed which made ancient stories about gods and their daily celestial responsibilities seem false. Religious people had leveraged their spiritual power throughout history to control unlettered people groups.

My new friend considered himself very lettered and he was sure that if we all just thought about things for ourselves logically we would reach the same conclusions that he had reached. I held my tongue as he insulted all religious people but eventually got a turn to speak. I contended that his evaluation of logic as the utmost criteria for reality was not unassailable- how do you logically describe love? I rejected his overly individualistic approach to truth and pointed out that it was just as much an inheritance of the western philosophical domination system as all the other homogenizing force he decried. And I told him that I trusted my own experience of God and appreciated how the stories that had been passed down to me resonated in my heart and with my desire.

stereotypes

As soon as I expressed my faith I was lumped into a category. I was foolish and beguiled.  I was a bleating sheep.  We danced around our points for a while but I don’t think I swayed him. He did concede to me that I wasn’t stupid, just that I had made a choice based on criteria which he had chosen as less important than his own criteria. We parted ways with a smile and a handshake which I consider a victory. At the very least he met a nice articulate Christian who took him seriously.

But afterward I was discouraged.  Maybe I should have just read my fantasy novel.  I didn’t like being lumped.  At one point I said, “Listen, you don’t know me, you can’t put that on me.”  He was putting all the deceit and power of Christian history on my shoulders, but more so he was insisting that my faith was blind.  The moment I have faith I am deceived.  I don’t think there is a way to win that argument.  If I had the opportunity I would just have to prove to him that I wasn’t what he thought I was.   Arguments won’t win the day- only time, relationship and love.  That’s why Circle of Hope organized ourselves into cell groups- so we could create spaces for someone like him to have that opportunity.  God will have to work with this guy a bit more before he’s ready to get into a cell but if he did, it would be great fun!  Let’s pray for those we know like him and pray for more opportunities to make a way for people to get in or at the very least to have the conversation.

For All the Saints

Tractor battery? Check!  Current inverter?  Check!  Slideshow of awesome Christians?  Check!  Partner in crime?  Check!  Let’s do this!

I got pretty stoked about infiltrating First Friday with some saints–the occasion of First Friday falling on All Saints Day (November 1) won’t happen again until 2024.  I rigged up a tractor battery with an inverter to run a powerpoint of saints on a projector right there on 3rd Street.  ben and vanessa at first fridayI got my church planting partner, Vanessa, to come along.  She brought her baby, Leo.  It was going to be fun.

The powerpoint was pulled from Circle of Hope’s blog celebrating the transhistorical body of Christ [link]. The flyer I made for the event said, “Circle of Hope looks to the great ones of the Church throughout history to inspire us and lead us to acts of great love and resistance.  We are part of the transhistorical body of Christ.  We are convinced that Jesus has always found ways to move His redemption project forward in all kinds of circumstances.”

When we got there I learned First Friday has attracted a lot of street vendors, most of which are as unsanctioned as my slideshow.  So my subversive sense of what I was doing was a little undermined.  Nonetheless we set up shop, made friends with our neighbors and as it was getting dark we fired up the projector.  Subsequently the bulb blew out and our whole big thing became a much smaller thing.

I was disappointed but being there with Vanessa, intrepid mother and effusive optimist, salvaged the fun.  We made some more friends, talked about the great saints in our slideshow and passed out a bunch of flyers.  It was a good learning experience.  I learned what First Friday was like these days–who comes, when do they come where they go.  I learned how to use an inverter and a battery to power electronics.  I learned how to fail.

I had spent a lot of time and energy making this idea work- probably too much.  To not get to see if it was even somewhat fantastic was a real bummer.  However, Vanessa and I agreed that it was better to dream big and do something than to think small or to do nothing.  Trying and failing unlocks me from a pattern of high expectations for myself.  I can be stuck in a desire to achieve something great and do nothing for fear of not meeting my own expectations.  Not doing anything fails to meet those same expectations but in a way that allows me to believe in the hypothetical success of my ideas.

resist

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our saints, and author of “The Cost of Discipleship”

Talk is cheap.  It doesn’t cost anything to have an idea.  Doing something in this case cost me some of my most valued currency- my sense of my own capacity.  Fortunately my valuing something and its being valuable are two different things.  Messing up, or burning out bulbs or whatever other perceived failures we experience can be rich investment in heavenly treasure.  Receiving the good gifts that occurred despite my unmet need for fantastic success was a good thing to learn to do.  It frees me up to try with lower stakes.  By God’s grace it loosens me up to be more creative.  It’s not an act of my will or my power.  Nothing works but God.

And of course I’m praying along with all of you for those I did meet–for the cool flyers sitting in their car, or on their kitchen table, or in their pants pocket–to be noticed again and reconsidered. Pray with me that they would join this part of the transhistorical body of Christ and be saints (holy people) with us.

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.

I’m that guy with the sign

At one point this week I was having a conversation with 3 new acquaintances simultaneously about 1) good and evil 2) greek tragedies, 3) vampires and 4) the broken Democratic machine in Philadelphia.  My “Tell Me Your Story” bench kind of blossomed on Monday afternoon.  That wasn’t the only multi-person conversation I had either.  I’m trying to be “that guy with the sign” and it seems to be working.

I’m trying to make some new friends at the University of Pennsylvania.  I’ve still got my toes in the water at University of the Sciences and Drexel, but I’m hanging out mostly at Penn.  I think that among the 11,000 undergraduates there are some who want to explore relationship with Jesus.  The problem I had when I had this idea is that I didn’t really know anyone at Penn.  I had to break the seal between me and the thousands of people walking down Locust Walk.

So I found a bench on the walk, held up a sign that says “Tell Me Your Story”, and waited. (I’ve told you some of this before)  Today I have a strategy about the waiting that I wanted to articulate.

Not only is the sign itself with its unexpected invitation disarming enough to stop someone in their tracks upon first seeing it, but it also has a cumulative effect.  Someone came up to me last week and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”  Yes!  I want the people walking down Locust Walk to gain a sense of familiarity with me.  Why would they come and talk to me?  Hopefully because they’ve seen me so many times and they’ve seen other people talking to me.  They always liked the idea but they would never just, like, talk to a stranger.  But I’m not a stranger anymore–I’m that guy with the sign!

I think Jesus held up a similar sign of sorts when he told his parables-those amazing word pictures he was always painting.  My favorite definition of a parable is C.H. Dodd’s “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I’m teasing the minds of those who see me into active thought.  I’m arresting them with my strangeness.

And yes I’m doing it for a reason.  That’s the first thing people ask me when they come to my bench.  I tell them “I’m a pastor at Circle of Hope and I want to know you and be known.  I’m looking for friends.” (Also, a pretty arresting thing to say).  Usually people who have already come over won’t walk away after I’ve told them what I’m doing, but it has happened.  I’m offering them myself, and that is a little too intimate for some.

I think that is what Jesus is doing in his parables.  He’s not serving it up to us in some very concrete way, maybe because it cannot be expressed concretely or at least should not be, but I think also because he wants to offer himself to his listeners.  He’ begging their questions.  He doesn’t want them to just get his ideas, he wants them to get him and relationship with him.  Too often Christians have sold Jesus as an idea.  They react to me that way.  One woman actually said, “Oh, is this the part where you try to sell me something” when I mentioned Jesus.  But I’m looking for people to share a life with me in Christ.  I want t be known as Jesus wants to be known.  To get there with the people of Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania I’m being that guy with the sign.

tell me your story

I’m expanding the idea with a group tonight at 8:30pm in Houston Hall (3417 Spruce).  Please pray for me and my new partner, Saul, as we seek those who want to connect with us and Jesus.  At the very least tonight will be a good time of prayer for me and Saul.  At the very most God will start something new that impacts Penn in astounding ways.

Tell Me Your Story, Penn

My friend, Howard Pinder, came up with this great idea.  The “Tell Me Your Story” sign.  I’ve been emulating him at the University of Pennsylvania this week.  It’s pretty fun! People look at me when I’m holding the sign, many look away when I meet their gaze, they look away and smile.  Many give a thumbs up or say they like my sign, only a few tell me their story but enough people do for me to be excited about doing it again.

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours.  How rad!

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours. How rad!

I’m breaking down the barrier between us.  I’m inviting people to escape their cynicism and fear for a moment.  I’m doing something weird that breaks the monotony of those who are just passing by.  Those who stop to talk are interested in why I’m doing this.  “What is this for?”, “Is this for a class?”  Nope, I’m just a local pastor looking for friends.  I think everyone has a story worth telling because everyone is valuable in God’s eyes.  You’re important so what happens to you is important.  I want to listen because I think it’s good for me to honor your importance and give you my ears as gifts.  I usually tell people about Circle of Hope because they want to know what sort of church has a pastor that does this sort of thing.  It’s a great opportunity to meet the next partner.

5 stories I’ve heard:

1) A man from India is here visiting his niece.  He runs a green technology company in India that makes less money than his old company but he is more satisfied with the more meaningful work.  His Hindu faith influenced him passively by instilling in him a reverence for nature that he wants to protect with his business.  He told me how he decided to change his vocation after a conversation with a friend.

2) A first generation immigrant from Afghanistan lost her dad to cancer 2 years ago when she was a freshman.  She realized then that there is more to life than economic success and being “the best.”  She wishes more of her peers at Penn would learn this because she is sick of the elitism she perceives among them.

3) A woman grew up on a farm in South Dakota with her 10 younger siblings.  She was sort of Mom #2 to her youngest siblings.  One morning, one of her brothers busted a gash in her other brother’s forehead with a golf club.  The whole clan climbed into the van and went into town to get him stitched up.  It wasn’t a big deal to her–a real pioneer!

4) At his senior show, a guy got a few friends to sing “I get by with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles with him.  Thy all sang to another friend who was part of the show too.  It sounded like an episode of “Glee”

5) A woman waxed nostalgic about watching boys play football on her street in Detroit.  She misses the strong sense of community she experienced as a kid. She feels a bit isolated in her current circumstance.

People are looking for connection.  People have a story to tell.  I make the cell group I lead about telling our stories all the time.  In telling our stories we get to listen to ourselves tell it.  Our fears often feel less frightening once externalized.  Our hopes often feel more real when shared.  Taking the risk to connect, especially with people we don’t know or with whom we don’t have an automatic affinity is one way that we can experience Jesus’ love.  Uncanny bonds and unexpected discoveries are made on a regular basis in places where Jesus is at the center.  A sense of belonging comes quickly and a warmth that defies easy explanation.  That’s the “safe place” we say we are.  That’s the “safe place” next to Jesus.  I felt some of that even with strangers on Locust walk this week.  I wonder how deep this will go.

[Check out tellmeyourstoryphilly.com for some of Howard Pinder’s collected stories]

« Older posts