Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: prayer

Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

Many people turn to the Bible when they don’t know where else to turn. Even my friends who haven’t been to a church meeting in years, or maybe ever, often revere the power of this holy book. That’s one benefit of living in a culturally Christian country. The Bible is everywhere, and that’s not such a bad thing. I think God has done amazing things with the Bible. It’s incredible. I love it, and I would love it if all my friends loved it too. If you’re feeling down, depressed, anxious, grieved, hopeless or tired, the Bible is a great tool. But how do you use it? How does God use it? How can you find some comfort or relief in the Bible?

What are these words going to do?

It’s a tool. It’s not just the words that change you it’s what we (us and God) do with them. If you google the title of this post you will get 100’s of sites with lists like this one. I think that’s a pretty great place to start. But it’s not like just reading through 100 verses will make me feel any better. It might actually make me feel even more discouraged. I might be like “Yeah, I know that this is how it’s supposed to be. But it does not feel like that right now!” And what if it hasn’t felt like that for a long time? What if you have never read the Bible? How are these words supposed to mean anything?

We can’t just cram our head with new thoughts and expect the old ones to fade out. There’s no such thing as “believing enough.” When the darkness of our lives seems to crowd out the light we used to love, words alone are weak. It has been easier for me to do something with the Bible. I need to get it into me as a way to relate to God. I don’t need the Bible. I need God. One way God has used  the Bible to good end with me (and many others) is with a meditative prayer.

Bible mantras

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

I suggest taking just a little bite. Whether you are new to this or coming back for forty-thirds, one way to read the Bible is to breathe it. Sure, start at “100 Bible Verses About When You Feel Down and Out” on google. Or some paper Bibles have suggestions like that in the back. A lot of different passages can work, follow whatever you’re drawn to. If it strikes you it might be the right word for you. All that really matters is that it resonates with you.  Maybe whatever you remember from when you were a kid. John 3:16? “For God so loved the world” ? The Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father in Heaven”?

Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.” When I’m feeling down I need something that does not require me just to change my mind. A Bible mantra is something I can just do. When I’m not in such a tough spot, I keep at the mantra, building a foundation to stand on for when the darkness returns. There’s a recording at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net I made that might help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

You’re life is bigger than the Bible

It might seem counter intuitive that taking just a little bite of the Bible actually makes it bigger, but it does. And if you’re like many of the people I know, the Bible needs to be bigger for you. Not like more important but bigger, more expansive, more pervasive. The Bible needs to fill you up and it can’t do that if it’s just a book. It can’t even do that if it’s just better ideas than the ones you have. The Bible is usually too small.

And it’s too small because it’s just a book and you are a human being. You are in possession of a vessel that the creator of the universe chose to use to communicate infinite love to humanity. Jesus had a body a lot like yours. And Jesus’ bodily life couldn’t even fit in any book (John 21:25) let alone his resurrection life that lives to include all of humanity in it. Your bodily life is too big for a book too. It’s hard to even explain everything that happened in one dream you had to anybody else. You feel me?

The quest of the poets is to try to say one true thing about the essence of the human experience, and they’ve spent thousands of years and billions of words trying. One human life is bigger than the Bible. So the Bible needs to be brought into your life to be rightly sized. It fits you by filling you. Breathe it, live it, do it, love it. Then it will be big enough for you when you need it.

This is hard to do of course, especially when your motivation to do anything is sapped, or you’re on the edge, or you’re desperate for relief. Bring the Bible to your breath, or maybe even a song (try out our songs at Circle of Hope Audio Art). Give yourself something to do with the Bible that could be as big as you are.

Just reading, or trying to change your mind by wrestling with the cognitive dissonance doesn’t often do the trick. Try this practice and let me know how it goes. Or if you’re a regular practitioner, fill in what I missed!

 

Palm Sunday at Midnight in Washington DC

Washington DC is not solely responsible for the numbed-out, gotta-buy-my happiness-and-can’t, bickering-by-default, coercive domination we all suffer as 21st century human beings. Our despair about the way the world is going wasn’t born in the Capitol building, but it is a big bright target in the skyline of our thinking and feeling that is worth some of our spiritual energy. (Other targets include Wall Street, wherever the pornography mecca is, and the Executive Offices of Time-Warner)

praying at the capitol in Washington DC

Jerome Stafford, one of our pastors, leads in porayer

When Jesus went to Jerusalem back in 33 AD (or whenever) he was finally showing himself to the authorities after building a movement that he thought could survive what was about to happen next. On Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem to say to that powers, “Here I am!”

We went to one of our seats of powers and made a house of prayer there. Adapting one of our favorites from the Psalters, five us sang on the Capitol steps, “Many are those who pray, crying out at midnight in Your name./And You, Oh Lord, are a shield to all who suffer/Give us our daily bread/Rise up, Lord. Rise up! And deliver us from all that oppresses.”

For me, this tune has always been charged with the full circuit breaker of my conviction, yet somehow, now that it’s been channeled through this experience of praying on the Capitol steps at midnight, it is even more electrifying.

Jane and Scott Clinton were staying with friends near DC, so they were the first to join my cause. One friend who was supposed to come with me wasn’t able to, so I went to 1125 S. Broad Street as their 7pm meeting ended to find a replacement. Gift Koama lived up to his name and said, “I love adventures.” Then Jerome Stafford called me and said, “Don’t leave without me!” It was a bona fide road trip!

MLK Memorial Mountain of despair

The moon from the “mountain of despair” at the MLK memorial

We got to DC in time to make a quick pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, something I’ve wanted to do since they built it 6 years ago. It was like a warm up for my heart. The “mountain of despair” we exited through was very appropriate. Washington is the source of much despair, but we are a circle of hope!

We went to the steps and found Jane and Scott, then we prayed that the people who worked their would find ways toward peace and mutuality. We prayed for impossible things because that’s what hope and prayer are for. It was invigorating.

I bring you back my hope in these words we read from Colossians Remixed

“In the face of the empire
in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty
in the face of the imperial and idolatrous
forces of our lives
Christ is before all things
he is sovereign in life
not pimped dreams of global market
not the idolatrous forces of nationalism
not the insatiable desires of consumerist
culture”

Christ is before all things. Christ is all and is in all. He was in us as we prayed on the steps. He is in you as you read this post. He is in those who work at the Capitol. Yes even in that broken system. But He is sovereign over it. All things have been placed under his feet and he loves us and serves us from that place of power. The powers in Washington will never wield their authority like Christ, but we, as a circle of hope, will. We have power to grasp how wide and deep is the love of Christ, and death has been disempowered over us. So we face the seat of empire with Jesus unafraid and full of hope.

Come to 3800 Marlton Pike tonight at 7pm for the anointing at Bethany! Full details at circleofhope.net/holyweek

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eulogy for the Pinelands

Today I wept tears as I saw the writing on the wall of the Crowne Plaza Ballroom in Cherry Hill. So many of us were there to say “no” to a proposed pipeline conceived to send freshly fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania through the Pinelands to a coastal power plant in Egg Harbor Bay; and yet I knew that the commissioners of the New Jersey Pineland Commission were going to say “yes.” Yes to bottom lines and short term gains. I had my two sons with me. Two boys who I am currently trying to teach how to love the woods. Oliver, 6, asked me when we left before the vote was cast (He had to go to afternoon kindergarten). “What are we going to do if they say “yes.” I told him, “We’ll just have to keep saying ‘no.”

The pipeline is going under a road or in the shoulder for much of it’s 22 mile encroachment in the preserved area. It is likely that much of this landscape of my adopted state will remain preserved during construction, at least until the pipe leaks. I will be able to teach Oliver and Theo how to love the woods there still, but I feel weak against the logic of consumption, and the potential meaninglessness of my “no”– of our “no.” The forest will survive this, but I still feel like something or someone is dead. The foolishness of this vote brings to mind 1 Corinthians 1:18. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I’m smelling some perishing. There is rot in the air. I’m worried it’s in me, terrified it will be in my boys, certain it is in this decision and most of our governments decisions, and slowly becoming resigned to the reality that it is in New Jersey’s Pinelands.

And so I offer this poem as a eulogy and a prayer for the Pinelands:

The sandy soil soaks up sound,
And the needles in the trees don’t shake.
The stillness there is haunting
So bring out your Devil stories.

But the stillness is a welcome cure
To city folk like me
Who need some quiet whispers
And tannin tea stained shorts.

At the summit of a hill named after pie,
Where the sky and trees are endless,
I can smile and in my smaller way can say
That so am I

The Devils live in bottom lines,
Spreadsheets and excellent lies
Of those who should say no
But die instead with yes.

I pray with all the people
Who want more than just what’s theirs;
Who want what’s ours and what’s my sons’:
Trees, water, birds and air!

May your no be no,
And your yes be yes.
You said these words yourself.
Jesus, this time my no is no.

Resolving not to suck sucks

candle I love New Years resolutions.  Any opportunity to change is my favorite, because my whole life is about transformation.  Walking the narrow way that Jesus recommends to us requires some healthy self evaluation on a regular basis.  I spent some time in my twenties “just trying to do better,” constantly plagued by a dissatisfaction I couldn’t shake.  I wanted to live up to my potential.  I wanted to serve God in a big way.  It wasn’t until I got specific about how I needed to change and what I would do to change that I got out of a cycle of self defeating criticism that crippled my capacity.

We can’t just resolve not to suck anymore.  A vague sense of dissatisfaction is deadly for the plans that God has for us.  Feeling bad about ourselves for our sin or our shortcomings usually makes us sin more and come up even shorter.  Shame cycles us into inaction and in our idleness we are rendered inert and evil prevails in us and in the realms that we might have triumphed (I’m sounding really conquistador-ish here). Exposing our darkness and our weakness to God’s healing light is the best way to escape cycles of self -defeating shame and move forward.  This requires identification of specific patterns that we would like to change.  How do you think you suck?  (Saying you suck at anything probably isn’t very self-loving- just for the record).

candle onAnd that’s why I love New Year’s resolutions.  Just making the resolution exposes whatever the opposite pattern may be to the light.  For example, I resolve to not hit the snooze button in 2015.  This reveals my laggardly waking habits and resultant abridgment of prayer time.  I want to change that.  I’m seizing the opportunity to change my behavior.  The Roman calendar is an arbitrary but for some reason very motivating event for me.  In 2015 I will not suck at waking up!  I have a couple of other resolutions because I really like to pile them on.  Luckily, Lent, a much less arbitrary event, comes on February 18th, and if I’ve failed at any of them by then (which I certainly will) I will be ready for a reset.

Why I take pictures of the sky

I took this picture of the sky 2 years ago and I still remember how giddy I was as I raced up Washington Avenue under this shimmering shelf of clouds.  I had a little echo of that joy as I crossed the Grays Ferry Bridge tonight under a slightly less spectacular (in relative terms) evening wonder.  As the sun was setting the sky seemed so big on account of the tiny island clouds that stretched innumerably to the horizon, and the sky/sea was so perfectly fading from a rich blue above to a golden orange below.  As I huffed over the bridge’s crown I gasped aloud, somehow still surprised, “It’s beautiful every day!  Thank you, Lord…thank you… thank you… thank you…” and the Schuylkill shimmered below in countenance.

I joined instagram almost 3 years ago and it has greatly increased my joy.  The prospect of sharing my wonder adds a liveliness to each moment of awe.  I am inherently generous in my delight.  I grew up with a twin bother who, whether he wanted it or not, was privy to every ounce of fascination I encountered or mustered; and suffice it to say there was much fascination.  I am accustomed to shared joy to the point where quiet, lonesome joys are disciplines I strive to inhabit–but they are, in my emotional geography, more clearings hacked out of the undergrowth than naturally occurring ecosystems.  And so instagram provides a way for me to share and that sharing heightens and multiplies my own joy.  I keep looking because others will see what I see–others will gain from my growing attention.  Many look to the sky for glory; I don’t presume to be essential.  I claim that in sharing my vision, I create a repeating and intensifying pattern of seeing that happens joy upon me in regular bursts of sweetness.  I keep seeing greatness in what is dangerously close to mundane.  I want more of that joy and I find it in the sharing as much as in the moment of seeing.

Multiply your joy at Circle of Hope

I do the same with the joy I find in Jesus.  My compulsion to share my experience with Jesus stems from Jesus’ command to make disciples, but it snowballs from there.  My experiences with God are intensified, multiplied and repeated in the process of living them, remembering them and sharing them.  I strive to communicate the often unnameable essence of love and hope as it has touched me in a way that actually connects with another.  (I’m trying to do it right now and it’s hard!)  What is it about the joy of life in Christ that I can tell in a relatively intelligible or relatively beautiful way?  The world can crumble as it is wont to do and my hope survives the deterioration. My friends are more whole after we form a group around Jesus and spend time trusting Him and each other.  I find a larger place in me for patience.  And the sky is still beautiful. Thank you.. thank you.. thank you.

Reminder: Do not to snuff out the fire of God burning in your heart (because you can do that)

Dear friends and followers of Jesus (and those listening to me even though you aren’t Christians), you are beloved of God.  Your heart burns within you all the time and you know this.  Jesus is with you exposing the negatives of your experience.  Wait for the picture to emerge.  Don’t despair.  There’s a fire in your eyes, the Lord is fanning into flame the gifts he gave you.  Here’s a prayer I wrote for Fire Day at the Circle of Hope Public Meeting on Sunday.  Here’s a chance to pray it again or for the first time if you weren’t there.

The Lord said on that mountain of fire to his people long ago: Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen

Fan into flame the gifts we received Oh God

Don’t  let the light, the warmth fade from your heart as long as you live.

Fan into flame the gifts we received Oh God

Teach them to your children. Teach them how The Lord spoke to you, yes, you.

Fan into flame the gifts we received Oh God.

Was it in the earthquake? Was it in the fire or the mighty wind. Was it in a whisper- even yours in a child’s ear.

Fan into flame the gifts we received Oh God.

A surprising word spoken so truly you couldn’t say how strong it was in the cell meeting.  A song that sang your heart and a hundred people singing along.  A timely verse delivered to your inbox on the Daily Prayer.

Our God is a consuming fire

A sleepy moment in the morning when you sat to listen.  A hurried prayer in that moment of danger.  A thankful breath before the feast.

Our God is a consuming fire

Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen

Our God is a consuming fire10556258_10152377130006733_3476734518944049798_n

The broken gray of morning clouds, pierced with brilliant light.  A mirror of blue splashed in the gutter reflecting heavenward.  The moon in daylight.

Our God is a consuming fire

The gentle pull of love, gentle and consistent.  Gentle and strong.  Pulling you back to the center.

Our God is a consuming fire

A center of burning love, love for you, love for me.  Love for all.  A never ending, never stopping, center of the universe kind of love that desires us.

Our God is a consuming fire

Gentle fire of Jesus, burning in our hearts and leaping from our hearts to our eyes and mouths, shining out and into the world.

Our God is a consuming fire

Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,

Our God is a consuming fire

What I whisper in your ear, shout from the rooftops

We need to pray more.  Everyone is shouting something from the rooftop and volume will tattoo-designs-for-earnot remedy the situation.  If we’re going to meet the next 50-75 people we need to multiply our congregation at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington,  we’re going to need to make ourselves available for a lot more whispers in our ear from Jesus.  Because in the rooftop noisescape of Philadelphia their is a desperate need for something new.  The next generation that we have designed Circle of Hope to include is closing its ears to rooftop communications of all kinds.  They have been marketed to by so many people, for so long, in so many ways that they are experts at tuning out.  If we’re going to get them to hear what we have to say we’ll need to hear from Jesus first.

Many of us are just as expert at tuning out at as the rest, and our sensibilities prejudice our actions.  We’ll tune ourselves out before we even say a thing.  If we can convince ourselves that our words are not just our own but they are the words of Jesus to those around us, we’ll make it a lot further toward actually communicating some piece of our hope.  What is Jesus saying to me that he needs others to hear?  Who needs to hear what I have heard?  Am I turning down the volume on myself or is it Jesus I’m tuning out?  It may be Jesus.  To get a handle on Jesus’ words to us we’ll need to get good at listening.

Prayer is a lot of listening you know?  Somehow it got the rep that it was all about asking God for stuff, but it’s much more than that.  Prayer is communion with God.  When I spend time with God in the morning I can tell the difference later in the day.  I don’t go up on the roof very often, but how I am myself feels more purposeful, more directed.  I have never heard an audible whisper myself, but ideas come easier, intentional acts of love seem more natural-it’s like I’m aligned as I should be.  Time spent soaking in God’s presence becomes a keel that keeps me straight in God’s waters.

howard on the roof

Howard on a roof

But being attuned  to God’s whisper is not just a solitary practice.  I can feel God’s presence in community- in my cell meeting on Thursday nights and in our big meetings on Sunday nights too.  Jesus has communicated pretty clearly to me that he is present in our community, and in our embrace many will come to a real encounter with him.  The whisper we need is not always a new revelation; it is more often a renewal of the same deep truths.  “God loves you.  God loves the people you will meet today.  God wants to bring us all together in Christ.  God is with you.”  It’s easy to forget and sometimes hard to believe in our hearts even when we know in our heads that it’s true.  Jesus whispers to us everyday to encourage our rooftop declarations.

So let’s pray more, let’s incline our ears and respond to when they are perked.  If you hear something, say something, at least to your cell if not from some 21st century version of the rooftop.  Censoring yourself may be censoring the very words of Jesus.  Can we have that much seriousness about what we have to say and how Jesus is using us in the world?

Take a look at this again- Circle of Hope Daily Prayer

This past week I’ve been working this post out. Giving words of encouragement and caution to Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors; having a creative dialogue with my coordinating group; and getting in some real conflict with a friend and working to reconcile. This post from Circle of Hope Daily Prayer deserves a repost.

Pray for Campus Deployment

cori and benI really want to have a good idea for a flyer but it’s really hard.  My friend Jonny, who blogs at jonnyrashid.wordpress.com, made these really great flyers based on our conviction that we are part of the trans-historical body of Christ.  Six heroes of the faith have become our poster icons.  Here’s a picture of me and a friend posting them and here’s a link to more about them on our website.  No one is going to come to know Jesus through a flyer but they might be tempted to get to know me, or maybe they’ll be a step closer to knowing me and my people because they’ll know a little bit more about Circle of Hope, or maybe they’ll just know that Circle of Hope is anything at all.

We want people to have that opportunity.  We think we’re a good opportunity too.  Not because we’re all that great on our own (though most of us are really great) but because Jesus is among us.  It’s happened often enough now for me to expect it- if someone spends some time in our community they are likely to meet Jesus.  So we can say with confidence that we are an opportunity to explore and express God’s love.

deploymentLast night a few of us met at my house to figure out how we might use flyers and other means to connect with college students in our area.  We were thinking especially about uArts, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Sciences, Drexel and Philadelphia University.  Our cell groups, these circles of ten that are designed to be points of inclusion, are made for places like university campuses, where folks are looking to connect and become something new.  In the first weeks of school we have the best chance to meet new friends because their schedules and allegiances are still uncluttered (except for classwork).  We are getting ready.

Please pray for us in the coming weeks as we look for our next partners.  I really feel that God wants to do something new.  The fruit is in the bud, so to speak.  May we be there to help it grow.