Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: poetry

New Birds — a poem

New Birds

The low, pink-gold light
of an evening in winter
Made new birds in the tree
Behind my house.

Standing underneath and looking up,
I was astonished by
Their tropical candescence,
Bright bursts of feathers on their breasts
Which glowed like embers
As they flitted westward,
Following the pull of the Brightness
which had lain itself bare
upon their transformed bodies.

A sharing of brilliance,
Unassuming to them and almost
Baffling to me;
Do I know these birds–
Do I know this tree–
How can this be?


(photo and poem by Ben White)

A New Sonnet: Facing the Eternal Word

Channeling Something True

I’m slowly memorizing 1 John 3. Some scholars doubt that the same person who wrote the Gospel of John also wrote the letter of 1 John. They cite Greek grammar differences for this assertion. Pseudopigraphy is the fancy word for false attribution in ancient texts. It was not uncommon in ancient communities. It is conceivable that some disciple of John the apostle wrote on his behalf to some section of the community he founded. Some think that is the case with 1 John, I do not. Because I feel the connection. As I have these words from 1 John swimming through me, the vitality of the connection is undeniable to me. I suppose this channel of electricity could be conducted through another beloved disciple of the Beloved Disciple, after all it is pulsing through me now, though separated by thousands of years.  Yes, my reasoning is completely subjective. I have no more defense.

My Co-Authors: The Mother Delaware, C.S. Lewis, Joy Davidman, and the Apostles John and Paul

This morning I was sitting at the fishing pier in South Camden looking at the Delaware River, and Philadelphia from that eastern bank, and I wrote the sonnet below. Paul made an appearance in my heart song channeled through C.S. Lewis who we remember today on the Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog. C.S. Lewis died on  November 22, 1963. Till We Have Faces is my favorite novel of his (Though I love so many). It speaks so clearly to humanity’s uncanny capacity to deny ourselves as who we really are. Orual, the main character, literally covers her face for its perceived ugliness. The mask gives her a sense of power that cannot coexist with the love her sister, Psyche, has for a god who can only be seen by faith. Orual’s growth into the lie that she does not and cannot know this god or any god is masterfully chronicled in the first person narrative (shout out to Joy Davidman who helped Lewis develop it!)

Turning Away from Facelessness

1 John 3 assures us in verse 7 that we are connected to Jesus inextricably when we love on another. We are united with Jesus in his righteousness. “Beloved, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous.” Nothing about our true nature is irrevocable. Our love matters and it’s our love that makes us who we are. We can only rebel against our true selves; it is very difficult if not impossible to become our false selves, our masked selves, our faceless selves. Like Orual, we are not stuck in who we make ourselves to be. We can always be who we were made to be. We can embrace our facelessness,  or turn to face the one whose face looks like ours. 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” In our seeing the face of Jesus we find our true face. We find the heart of all our unmet longing. We find the forgotten and denied things we lost along the way. We find the foundation of every desire, the pulse of every loving heart. 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Yes!

The Sonnet

Facing the Eternal Word
after 1 John 3 and 1 Corinthians 13

You are the Word on the tip of our tongue.
You are the aim of that longing to say,
That word for which we gasp with raspy lungs.
That thought we can’t recall to light all day,
The thing behind the thing behind the thing.
Your raison d’etre brings forth every quest,
Your at-one-ness at-ones our being-known beings
With him whose heartbeat makes us know what’s best
And chest to chest brings rest to restless hearts.
We didn’t know it all but all we’ll find
In your embrace, to trace every word
We could not say now safely held in mind.
For soon we’ll see you as you are right now
But faceless now, we unknow we know how.


Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback and stories. Blessings to you today.

We Know More Than We Comprehend

I was on retreat trying not to question my instincts too much, because retreats are basically practice for listening to the Spirit and your instincts and the Spirit often sound the same. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” came to mind. I’m a big Gerard Manley Hopkins fan and there are kingfishers on the lake near the place I was retreating. I pulled up the poem and decided to memorize it. I sat in front of a window and watched the sun set into complete darkness as I read and repeated my way through the poem.  By the time I went to sleep that night I had it in my heart.

In the morning I made some coffee and went down to the deck on the lake where the kingfishers live and I recited the poem to the waking day.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This guy describes it so well on Youtube

There was an exhileration to preaching this sermon to the lake, trees, stones and birds who stirred in the early morning. I felt like I was really selfing, as the poem proclaims all mortal things are made to do. I might have even been justicing as the just man, or dare I say Christing as the one in whose face Christ plays. It felt true what John said in the beginning of his gospel; that without Christ, nothing was made that has been made. There is a completion of purpose in enjoying the world as it is — with it’s beautiful sounds resounding in wells, and love resounding in faces. Christ plays through it all. I was feeling that as I recited Gerard Manley Hopkins words and it inspired me to fill my heart up with more.

So I decided to memorize the prologue to John. Only the first 14 verses would fit on the piece of paper on which I neatly wrote it out so I stopped at “Full of grace and truth”

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning;
Through him everything was made.
Without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life,
And that life was the light of humankind.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John
Who came as a witness to testify about the light,
So that through him all might believe.
He himself was not the light;
He came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone
Was coming into the world,
And though the world was made through him
The world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own,
And his own did not receive him.

But to those who did receive him —
To those who believed in his name,
He gave the right to become children of God,
Children born not of natural descent
Nor human decision or a man’s will
But born of God!

The word became flesh
And made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
The Glory of the one and only son,
Full of grace and truth.

I learned this poem before the thin paper was completely soaked with sweat, as I was holding it in my hand puffing up Mt. Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap as fast as I could. Maybe the heavy breathing and cardio impressed the words deeper into my heart than usual, but it has had a powerful impact on me. It was like I was full of grace and truth too. It was like the glory I was seeing on that beautiful day was the Glory of the one and only son. It was like my body bounding up the rocks was part of it all.

Getting scripture down into me feels more like communion than regular Bible Study. Choosing a passage like John 1:1-14 was probably a good idea because I’m not sure it is best to comprehend. It is designed for an understanding of a different kind. Want to join me in my memorization project. Let’s fill our heads and hearts with the grace and truth God filled Jesus with!

Here are a few other passages I recommend memorizing

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 15:1-17

Genesis 1:1-31

Psalm 23:1-6

Luke 2:46-55

1 John 3:1-24 (I’m working on this one next)


Epiphany in Not New Words

Washed by Jan L. Richardson

There’s this amazing moment in the gospels when Jesus comes up out of the water after John baptizes him and heaven is torn open. The veil between this world and another world is lifted. Such a glimpse beyond the ordinary is an epiphany — a strike of lightning pulsing with inspiration, clarity or God.  From the ripped seam in the sky above Jesus in the water something like a dove descends to alight upon him. And then a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

Last week when we were celebrating Epiphany I heard another translation of this voice from heaven that struck me as its own epiphany. I caught a glimmer of that shimmering dove and heard the voice afresh in my own ears . “This is my beloved son in whom I delight.”  Not too much of a difference, really, but this new language opened a sort of lock in my heart that let the water flow to a new level. I had probably heard this translation before, but something new happened this time, so I had to write it down.

The various translation of the verb eudokeō εὐδοκέω are the operative elements of my epiphany. Is it “with him I am well pleased” or “in whom I delight”? A beautiful thing about language, and especially Greek, is that it’s both! What we say and what we communicate are two things entirely. That which we hear travels through our hearts and histories before it comes to our comprehension. That which we say can never anticipate the circuitous route between every set of ears and the mind of their owner. Layers and layers of meaning pile up in each individual, and in the collective mind of any one people group. The process of translation brings these often unconscious trails to brighter light.

Malcolm Guite

It was in the words of a poet whom I love, Malcolm Guite (in him I delight), that I had this great experience with an ever so slight shift in linguistic direction. Poets spend their lives searching for new paths of meaning in ordinary words and experiences. They specialize in epiphanies. And though these new words were not his nor really new, I credit his trustworthy tongue (it was his mouth in which the newness of these words were found by me).  At least a few translations of the New Testament land on delight for eudokeō (Weymouth, Darby and Young’s) and Malcolm had found them for me!

“I am well pleased” is but two steps to the left or right of “I delight”, but the difference was significant to me.  I grew up with the New International Version translation of the Bible — not for any particular reason, but for the “Thinline” NIV edition embossed with my name in gold letters that my parents gave me when I was twelve. I had read the story so many times that “in whom I am well pleased” had worked its way into my heart track. Partly thus, “pleasing” and “being pleased” are part of the ground on which I stand whenever I cast my eyes to the sky in search of seams that might shutter with heavenly light from other worlds, and words of love from any heavenly father.

There are many reasons “pleasing” and “being pleased” are elemental to my psychological make up, and I haven’t identified all of them yet, but I have definitely observed this pattern of thought and heart when I relate to God. Are you pleased with me, father? Am I pleased with what you have given me, Dad? Have I done all that is required of me? Am I satisfied with this moment? These questions often come to mind when I try to settle into God’s presence, or whenever I am prompted to consider the state of my soul (Every time we gather, following after Wesley and his Holy Club, the pastors in Circle of Hope ask each other “What is the state of your soul?”). It seems I always aim to please and I’m always hoping to please myself and for my life to please me. My mind and heart are stuck on a hook of evaluation. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? I know some of you feel me on this.

But delight! “Delight” is different than “please.” I mean, not really too much though. “Please” and “delight” both have to do with pleasure or desire, but for the twists and turns that “please” took through the English language and the tiny part my life played in the meaning of the word, “please” has acquired an air of approbation resultant from evaluation. That gets me on that same evaluative hook. Please, no.

“Delight” is more effusive — more joyous. Jesus himself delights the Father. I, myself, delight the Father. Something about Jesus and me (and you) is so beautiful and lovely that just the sight of us brings a smile to heaven’s lips. God really likes Jesus, not for what he has done (which by the way is nothing of much import at least to the gospel writers at this point in their stories save being born and maybe learning scripture), but for who he is. I’m sure “I please God” could be trying to get at the same thing, but “God delights in me” is so much better. Plus it is something God is doing, not me, which sounds right. God’s delight is not dependent on me. That frees me up to be and do my best even more than the striving for satisfaction that often drives me.

May you have an epiphany today — in a poem, a new reading of the gospel, a pile of snowflakes, a shimmering sky, a fantastic melody, a good cry, a sincere prayer, your child’s tears, a winter landscape, a soapy dish, the perfect bite, a warm bed.  Pay attention. Look again. See. Hear. Delight.

You Should Read Poetry



A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa

Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

“Venus’s Fly Traps” by Yusef Komunyakaa takes me back to the Southern California of my childhood. I spent most of my time as a child running around the safe sunshiny neighborhood with a tribe of boys of which my brothers and I comprised the better part. I remember my own lot of sunny grass at the corner of Arlington where, once, we found a dead cat. I remember the shortcut through a backyard and over a cinder block wall into the Sears parking lot which I insisted on taking even when I had a broken arm. I remember the stillness of the backyard in the afternoon when, for some reason, I had it to myself. Silence is quite loud. Do you remember that?

The entire universe that existed in our three block kingdom echos in the bravado of the five year old in “Venus’s Fly Traps.” I had that same sort of confidence in my knowledge; that same sort of arrogance in my ignorance. I remember that for a few months “ass” meant “penis”. Yusef Komunyakaa takes me to that part of my life when the world was small enough for me to know it all.

In “Venus’s Fly Traps,” sexuality, fertility and life are juxtaposed with killing, danger and death from the title onward. The Venus Fly Trap is one of “the tall flowers in [his] dreams” that “eat all the people except the ones [he] loves.” They have “women’s names and mouths like where babies come from”—women’s names, like Venus, the fertile one herself. The five year old Komunyakaa doesn’t comprehend the sexual innuendo. His adult self inserted this expression, but I won’t say that the knowing wasn’t there.

In the Spanish language there are two verbs where English has one. Conocer means to have experienced something or someone. Saber means to have knowledge about a subject . Yusef Komunyakaa at five sabe mucho (knows/understands a lot) even if he has not yet conocido mucho (known/experienced much)—he has a knowing that is beyond words. His impressions of the world are technically incorrect in some cases. For example, all bees do not live in domesticated white bee hives. But his impressions are correct in their knowing. For example, fertility and death are inextricably linked. The adult poet who has conocido mucho gives words to the unspoken world that the child sabe. With Komunyakaa I am drawn back to that moment of knowledge and ignorance all wrapped in one. I can never repeat the purity of that mental emptiness, but I can conjure the memory to aid me in centering prayer and meditation, practices I use to perform my own tiny kenosis each day to make room for the real God that wants to fill me.

The remembering of childhood is a great pond for reflection, a collection of meaningful experience that has survived the evaporation of the years. The adult communicates with the child, gives him words, wonders what exacly each of those moments contained, and adds his own existential angst that may have, indeed, been buried in the child or may just be a projection from the adult. This is an invitation to integration, a worthy portal toward wholeness. If your heart is filled with unresolved pain of your own—full of unexamined memories and forgotten feelings—there will not be much space for others, let alone for God. The soul of a leader needs a great deal of tending. Poetry is one way to do that I recommend.

Komunyakaa transported me to an important place within me that needs healing and does not often get the attention that healing requires. Thank you, Yusef. You gave me, an awareness of my weakness, my still unhealed scars, and the simple quietness of my childhood play.

Poems like “Venus’s Fly Traps” are especially useful because they go back so explicitly to forgotten places. They get the reader to the right place in the caves of memory to discover new corridors and passageways that have yet to be explored. This is the poet’s gift. Any leader who accepts these maps and does some spelunking will be great regardless of his or her way with words because of the depth of self they conocen and saben. The union of past and present, that which you knew long before you learned it and that which you thought you knew but at some point learned to forget come together and talk it out. This union is the essence of good poetry about childhood, and a great starting point for any time of prayer—get small, get quiet, go to a place inside you that hopes and dreams better than any other, the part to which belongs the kingdom of God.


Marriage Architecture in Verse

I recently had the chance to officiate a marriage ceremony of Circle of Hope people (the first time I have done this as a pastor). These words are based on what I shared with Scott and Anneliese and their guests. Scott discovered this poem for me. I am very grateful to him for that. May their union be blessed, protected and deep.
“Most Like an Arch This Marriage”
by John Ciardi 1958
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.
This poem struck me so truly with truth and wisdom I decided we need to walk through it again after Anneliese’s friend had just read it.

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.

This marriage began a long time ago, but we pause now at the entrance of its new era. The two of you have been becoming married for quite some time, learning each other and in the process better learning yourselves. You’ve become geologists intensely interested in the formation of each stone that makes the column standing there across from you. Each glint and divot; every smooth and rough edge wants to be known and so many of them are between you two. You come to other, in many ways fully formed. Pressed into somethingness by outside forces, made from nothingness maybe, and since then, hewn by previous hammers, crushed before by lives lived in joy and sorrow. You come to the other as you are. This whole ceremony is designed to give you that moment to see your beloved as who they are. To love them in their fantastic intricacy and beauty. To wonder about what more will be made. We stand at the entrance, and pause. It’s time to secure this arch.

Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Stepping in to these vows, you make real the idea of firmness that has sprouted in your minds. The dreams of partners idealized or otherwise, get set aside. The stones are set. Now we make it real. You make it real, and heaven gets made with you.

You know Paul when he was talking about marriage in the letter he wrote to the New Testament letter to the Ephesians seemed to think that marriage was tied up in the redemption of all things. A great mystery he said. I don’t claim to know how it will be, but I do believe that what you two are doing has something to do with heaven unfolding.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

And its power is in weakness? What?


Accepting your falling and planning to fail, but doing it together will lead to marital success. And to do that together, today you resolve to set much aside. Do we all know this word, abeyance? The force of the weight above the arch is abeyed to the side and channeled firmly into the ground. Each side putting the weight to its side. The weight of your life together will come from within and without. Life will continue to crush from above, and your common weakness will perennially hurt your beloved. The abeyance for that inevitability will be forgiveness or this arch will not stand forever. You will set to one side your hurt out of love for the other and your common purpose: this marriage, most like an arch.

And the poet knows that this type of relating is at the heart of meaning itself. That expectation, that trust, that hope, says something about the nature of meaning—a term naming the fact that teaches fact to mean. It is foundational truth, not just to your marriage, but to the truth itself.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

“All I do at piling stone on stone apart from you is roofless around nothing. Until we kiss I am no more than upright and upset.” I love this poem! This is where the particular becomes essential. It is not just any column, This specific one is the one on whom you lean. The one you chose, the one who chose you. The one you choose, the one who chooses you. The threat of rooflessness is specific to THIS one. Without her you have no home. Without him you have no home. This is clear to you now, but it might not be as clear in the years to come. And so we make a big deal about the promises, the vows, you make today. We make a memory that cannot be forgotten and we tie it to these promises. To love, to forgive, to lean, to be one. We’re all here to remember this with you, and help hold you up when the geometry gets shifted, and your own weight doesn’t hold you up as well as it does today.