Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: public worship (Page 1 of 2)

Hezekiah Walker, Moana and Me Say “We Are Worshippers”

“Every praise is to our God” is the title and refrain of Hezekiah Walker’s do-you-need-a-little-joy-right-now? jam. I love this song! But it does have some weird language that trips me up a little, and I think might trip you up even more if you are not used to church music.

Every praise is to our God
Every word of worship, with one accord
Every praise, Every Praise, is to our God.

This song is my jam

The weird phrasing of this sentence reveals something great about humanity. We have praise. We are all worshippers. What we worship is our choice, but we all do it. So our praises don’t begin happening when we are in our church meetings and it’s “time for worship.” When we gather as a worshipping community, that’s when we start consciously channeling our worship toward God. Every praise is to our God only then, maybe, instead of to all the other things we would or have been worshipping. Only occasionally is every praise to our God. There are lots of words of worship, but in our church meetings we are getting together (that’s the “one accord’ part) and sending our praise in one direction.

I think we’ve been singing “Every Praise” by Hezekiah Walker in Circle of Hope since it came out, because I thought it was a lot older than 2013. I had never seen the video though until my cell mate shared the YouTube video link in our cell WhatsApp.

Please listen and watch this video. It brings me so much joy every time. These people doing the flash mob at Birmingham, Alabama’s Five Points South Fountain are having so much fun; and they are so strange! Why are they dancing? Why are they so happy? I don’t know if the bystanders in the video are planted there or that’s their authentic reaction, but the drama of the reactions adds to my joy. We Christians are peculiar people. Our joy in the face of despair is inexplicable. As a white guy, I’m glad to have brothers and sisters like these to lead me in it. Black triumph over historic oppression and such dehumanizing difficulty is not a novel insight, but it shouldn’t go without saying. However, the people worshipping with one accord in this video are all triumphing over millions of difficulties (and that’s not an exaggeration) to sing and dance together to Jesus.

[Gasp] We are worshippers

But back to this human capacity revealed in this old timey language. “Every praise is to our God.” You are a worshipper!

It reminds me of Disney’s Moana (another joy bomb if you need one), when she realizes that her longing for the water is actually not just her strange self not fitting in to the stay-put-on-the-island sensibility of everyone else she knows, but actually her people were once voyagers. She sings “I’ve been staring at the edge of the water/Long as I can remember/Never really knowing why.” She feels like an odd ball, she can’t please her parents or her village because she has this strange desire to explore out beyond the waves. But then she discovers a hidden history of her people. They were once sea traveling voyagers. She hears in a vision, “We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high/We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze/At night we name every star/We know where we are.” The moment after the vision, she gasps. “We were voyagers!”

That’s the moment Hezekiah Walker is offering us but it’s for worship. That longing inside of you for more? That need to adore, to lift up, to belong to something bigger? Even that obsessive love that you can’t get out of your mind — when you are driven crazy? Yes! It’s because you are a worshipper!

Our praise works best with a decided direction

So is every praise to our God? NOT AT ALL! Our praise is all over the place. This is not surprising since we ARE worshippers. It’s not even necessarily wrong. Dribbling praise all over the place since we are so full of it ought to be expected.

You have experienced your own copious praise when you have fallen in love, when you became obsessed with that band in high school, when your child was born, when your favorite show comes on and you have your ritual snacks ready. Our culture has lots of other examples too. Military sacrifice might be the strongest. How about the innocence of children at Christmas? Then there’s always sex which might produce the most various unhealthy forms of worship.

Worship does not require God. Your devotion and service will happen regardless, but every other thing to which we give our praise will mostly consume it hungrily with little to no reciprocation. God receives your praise and the energy comes back to you. God is the opposite of a black hole, if there were such a cosmic object. As much as black holes suck everything in, God reflects everything out.

Everything that ever was is God’s continuous creation. All of reality as we know received its trajectory from God. It feels good to direct our praise at God, because God gave us this capacity and God gives us back all we give in the only reliably satisfying relationship available to humanity.

There are so many ways to praise

So let every praise be to our God — and here’s the great thing — all those other things I mentioned on to which our praise might have dripped are also ways to praise God. When we direct our praise through them toward God, all things can be praise. The context of our relationship with God in Christ straightens out their bentness as a byproduct of our doing them as praise. Money, sex, dinner, birds, sweat, baby hair, fireplaces, sweet fruit juice, Gm7, the color green, trolleys in the snow, EVERY praise is to our God!

Dancing and singing together in direct worship is the most concentrated form. I need that kind of praise or all these other modes of praise shrink. Giving my praise to God with Hezekiah Walker and his friends is one powerful way to get lined up. Doing it with my piece of the body of Christ, Circle of Hope, is another way. I am so grateful for the vaccine and the way we have been able to begin meeting together in person.  What other opportunities might you share? Put in the comments.

A Shirtless Dancing Guy for Your Joy

Min 0:00 Just a shirtless dancing guy

In 2009, on Memorial Day Weekend, there was a music festival in the town of George in the state of Washington. And at this “Sasquatch Festival” a shirtless man started dancing. But his dance solo became an irresistible dance party in a matter of minutes and some blessed person captured it on video for the rest of the world’s much needed inspiration.

I can’t stop watching it because as a Jesus follower I feel a lot like a ridiculous shirtless dancing man when I am doing half of the things I do.  Sometimes that feels good — “Yeah! Take a look at my freak flag flyin’! Sometimes that feels terrible — “This is ridiculous! What am I doing with my hands? Where is my shirt?”

But I think that the almost 22 million people who have watched this YouTube video are attracted to this dancer because they long for that kind of  transformational moment to happen to them. The courage, faith, hope, influence, passion, fun and togetherness we witness when we watch him being himself becoming a raucous throng brings me joy every time I watch it (and I have watched it at last a dozen times.)

The first time I watched it I actually cried. Maybe it was the longing to be together like that. The contrast between then and our Covid-19-isolated now is almost too much to bear. Maybe it was just the longing for a post-Covid-19 future, but I think it was more. I long for this kind of joy to spread in the world. I long for this kind of success, honestly. As I persist in my faithfulness to Jesus, I want the fruit of an uncontrollable party.  Let this video be a parable that inspires us to not give up. Also, let it be to me (and maybe you, too) a reminder not try so dang hard. Please watch the video, I loved it so much, I thought it needed a play by play on my blog.

Min 0:20 Green shirt guy joins in.

Maybe the videographer started a little bit in ridicule? — “Hee, hee, look at this crazy guy!” But the power of the moment quickly transcended any shred of potential ridicule. Because this shirtless dancing guy’s energy spreads.

The first disciple shows up at min 0:20 of the video. Green shirt guy runs the risk of stealing shirtless dancing guy’s spotlight. Is green shirt guy ridiculing him too? No, he can’t be, because shirtless dancing guy welcomes him to the party of one. They clasp hands for a moment. Shirtless dancing guy loves having a partner. We don’t know if his intention was to start something, but he does. I tend to think he was just being himself and then something beautiful happened.

Praise God for green shirt guy and for everyone like him. The ones who will join in on the crazy, the early adopters, the ones who were looking for a party. Bless them. Shirtless dancing guy is not an incredible dancer. He doesn’t care. Green shirt guy is even worse, but that does not matter. he somersaults and cartwheels poorly. He shakes his booty and starts making a movement where a movement may have never happened.

I can think of a couple people in my life who gave me the courage to keep dancing. The little ember of my energy needed someone else to burn. There have been moments when I thought I might just burn out. I needed a green shirt guy and I am forever grateful for all the one’s who have joined me.

Min 0:54 Black shirt guy shows up.

The second disciple arrives. At min 0:54 black shirt guy gets in on the action and now it’s really getting fun.  They dance and fall down together. Praise God for all the black shirt guys of the world. The ones who see what is happening and get happening with it. Now it is apparent that there is a welcome in this group. Green shirt guy was welcome so why shouldn’t I be welcome? That’s all they needed. Green shirt guy opened the door and black shirt guy walks right through it without hesitation.

It reminds me of the first disciples of Jesus in John 1. The first thing Andrew did after joining Jesus in his dance party was to find and include Simon (later named Peter by Jesus). The first thing Philip did after joining the dance troupe was to find Nathanael.  Andrew and Philip are green shirt guys. Simon and Natanael are black shirt guys. I’m so glad they joined the party because it eventually spread to me and now I get to dance too.

Min 1:15 The tipping point.

The avalanche begins at min 1:15. A whole group of people hop into the dancing and then the rest of the video is just a growing joy. What started as just a shirtless guy letting his freak flag fly became something so much more than I imagine he had ever imagined.

I am encouraged by this because as much as I want to make an avalanche of love like this happen among the people around me, I have no idea what little pebble will start the big rocks to rolling. This is much bigger then shirtless dancing guy and the things I do are so much bigger than me. If I controlled the world, my avalanches would regularly be the disasters to which this metaphor owes its origin. Why would I want to burry people in the rubble of what I alone think is best?

And yet that is what I want. I really, really want my proverbial dancing to spread. But I must learn to give my gifts in the humility of shirtless dancing guy. I do not know what is best. And if you have ever been to a music festival you know this: there is always a shirtless dancing guy. Not every freak-flag-flying fest results in an avalanche of joy. “Is that okay?” I ask myself. If I’m honest, my answer is “No,” and I think that “no” is a cap on the outlet of my purest and best energy. Striving for more than enjoying the music of life with God, I know this in my spirit, tamps down my creative and all that might be  planted in me that is as irresistible as shirtless dancing guy’s power.  Sometimes there is an avalanche. Sometimes there’s just a shirtless guy dancing. Keep dancing.

Min 2:30 Out of control dance party

By min 2:30 people are running across the lawn to get to the dance party. It is out of control. The spark lit by one shirtless dancing guy’s passion has grown into a wildfire from which I hope you can feel at least some of the heat, across the decade since this was filmed and among the millions who have basked in its warmth across the YouTube screen.

At min 2:52 a person behind the camera says in amazement,  “How did he do that? How did he do that?” Perhaps she was the one who began her video with maybe a little bit of ridicule. Whether the video ended like it did or not, she would have been filming greatness, but she didn’t understand it when she hit record. I haven’t brought any more understanding to it with my play by play. My sole aim is appreciation and inspiration. This is not a “how to spark a revolution or a revival” post. I join her in her amazement — “How did he do that? How did he do that?”

And though I don’t know all the answers (I might not know even one), I am filled up to overflowing by this video so much that I had to share it with you. May it be a blessing for your hope. May it be a spark of joy that gets you through today, through the hesitation that keeps you from your own best kind of dancing, through the darkness of terrors in this benighted world, and through to a glimpse of Jesus dancing, as I am sure he does often.

Watch it again! https://youtu.be/GA8z7f7a2Pk

 

Top 5 Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

I love Christmas Music! I say bring it on Thanksgiving Day, and keep the best ones in your playlist all year long. Jesus is with us! We need the soundtrack of our lives and hearts to celebrate this as much as possible.

In honor of Christmas Music that Doesn’t Suck Part II (this Sunday, December 23rd, 2018, at 6:00 pm at Circle of Hope, 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ) I decided to compile a list of my top five favorite Christmas songs. This list is definitive of course (and subject to change as my heart demands😜).  Some made the list for their novelty, some for their theological brilliance, some because they have a special place in my experience and some just because they are my jam.

In No Particular Order: My Top Five Christmas Songs Ever (Objectively Subjectively)

1. “If You Were Born Today” by Low LISTEN HERE

The song starts “If you were born today/ We’d kill you by age eight/Never get a chance to say… ” And then it lists a whole bunch of incendiary and beautiful things Jesus said.  The haunting harmonies characteristic of Low are perfect for this haunting song about the war torn reality of Jesus’ homeland in the present day. Jesus was dangerous, he lived in a dangerous world, as dangerous as the world we live in, and his words are still dangerous. “Peace on Earth” is an assault on the money making war makers who make our world go ’round. The whole Low Christmas album hits the right notes about who Jesus was and is and how much we need a savior. Waiting for Jesus is dark and definitely stormy. the song is jarring and somehow nostalgic at the same time. It strikes the necessary longing in me for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to be made complete.  Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

2. “Light From Light” by Andrew Yang LISTEN HERE

Andrew Yang is a Circle of Hope member who writes astoundingly beautiful songs. They are clever and catchy and they capture the heart and nuance of Biblical theology in fresh language. He is the Charles Wesley of our century (!), teaching the gospel in song so it can be sung into our hearts. I remember vividly the moment I first heard “Light from Light” on the newest album release form Circle of Hope Audio Art.  I was standing  in the parking lot of our building in Pennsauken looking at the sky, earbuds in my ears, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Wrapped tight in cloth a babe fresh from the womb/One day be bloodied and wrapped for the tomb.” That line broke my heart with gratitude for the reality of Jesus’ love for us — to live that fully human life — birth through death — all for us. I was also overjoyed that my friends could make something so well and so beautifully. The heart breaking gratitude was for them, too — all the musicians, technicians and producers who made us that album just for love.

3. “A Christmas Song (You Are Here)” by Angie Backeus LISTEN HERE

Angie Backeus and Rod White debuted this song at a Christmas Eve Vigil (come to this year’s Christmas Eve Vigil at 1125 S. Broad Street, 2nd Floor, at 10:45 on December 24th) as a duet many years ago. They sang us the first verse and chorus, then the second verse and chorus, then the last verse, and then finally invited us to sing along in the final chorus. Each chorus changes person. The first time they sang it Jesus sang his reassurance “I am here, my love, I am here/I’m the child for the child who lives in fear/and I am here, I am here.” The second time they sang it the angels sang it to us with delight, “He is here, my love, He is here/He’s the child for the child who lives in fear/and he is here, he is here.” By the time we got to the final chorus I was bursting with feelings and choked out through my tears, “You are here, my love, you are here/You’re the child for the child who lives in fear/and you are here, you are here.” I felt him there with me in a special way that night and ever since this song has the power for me to access that sense of connection and comfort with Jesus, who is with me, a big man who is often a scared little child. An added layer of beauty came this year when at the Advent Worship Relief at 2007 Frankford Ave in Philadelphia, the leaders invited us to sing the second chorus to each other. I sang “My love” right into the eyes of another covenant member with whom I do not spend a lot of time, but I meant it. She is my love because we are united in the love of Jesus. In that moment it was not just an idea or a conviction, I felt love for her in a special way then, too. Beautiful. Thanks, Angie!

4. “White Horse” by Over the Rhine LISTEN HERE

Advent is not just about remembering Jesus’ first Advent (“Advent” means “arrival”) but this wonderful season leading up to Christmas is also about waiting for Jesus’ second Advent — when he comes again. Revelation says that Christ will come on a white horse and set everything right. Everything that is still so painfully wrong in this world will be made right. Creation will be restored, wars will cease to the ends of the earth, every tear and every sigh — all of it will be addressed. “(Hush now, baby) Someday we’re gonna ride (Hush now, baby) Your white horse through the sky.” Yes, baby Jesus, the world into which you are born, the world in which you are God-with-us, Emmanuel, now — the one we all live in and too many die in — is splattered with woe, but you’re coming back. Yes, he’s coming back. Not many Christmas songs get at this hope the way this one does.

5. “Hark the Herald” Angels Sing by Carrie Underwood LISTEN HERE

Of course there are other and probably better versions of this song, but Carrie Underwood stole my heart (or gave me a bigger one) on B101 as I was driving home from the hospital the day after my first son, Oliver was born. It surprised me like an actual host of herald angels were singing to me — Jesus had come for Oliver too. God sent his son for my son. I think it was that moment I actually became a father because it was suddenly true that I was not my own. I felt the weight of my responsibility to Oliver in a way that changed me forever. I had given myself to Jesus in baptism. I had given myself to my wife, Gwyneth, in marriage. I had an idea what it meant to belong to someone, but I didn’t really know what it meant until Oliver was born and Carrie Underwood was singing this song on the radio. Oliver had made no choice as I had when I dedicated myself to Jesus’ Way or a life with Gwyneth. I belonged to him, and Gwyneth and I were responsible for that, not him. I was his in a way I had never been anybody’s, really. The terror of that never fully registered in me because the reality of it struck me in this overwhelming moment of gratitude that Jesus was Oliver’s too. I understood what it meant in another beautiful song found in Philippians “by taking the very nature of a servant,/being made in human likeness./And being found in appearance as a man,/he [Jesus] humbled himself.” Oliver humbled me, and at the same time helped me to take a step closer toward having  “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

 

Well, that’s my list! Thanks for reading (and hopefully listening). Add your favorites in the comments!

 

Why Showing Up is Even More Important in Advent

Ordinary Pilgrims

One of the simplest and best reasons to have a Sunday meeting is that we need to show up. We need to do something with our bodies to give substance to the faith we profess or it will shrink. Getting up, dressing the children and piling them into the car on Sunday morning, or missing the evening football game, or scheduling to get off from shift work during the commercial high-gear season are all great acts of faith. The importance of just making it to the meeting should not be underestimated. It does something to us to do something. Getting in your car and driving to the meeting (I live in South Jersey so for many of us that’s the only way to get there) is a pilgrimage worthy of appreciation.

Jesus’ Specifics and Ours

We especially need to do something in Advent, the season of expectation before Jesus finally comes on December 25th. Advent is all about the Incarnation — God made flesh. Jesus is moving into our actual neighborhood — Pennsauken, Collingswood, Oaklyn, Moorestown, Gloucester City, Buena, Haddon Township, Mullica Hill … the list goes on in our wide South Jersey region. Jesus first came to a specific place and time — a little Palestinian town called Bethlehem (where Christ followers have a hard time following Jesus these days).

All the practicalities of his birth were no small feat. His parents were pushed around by a powerful empire even during the very physically delicate moment of pregnancy. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not his home town of Nazareth to fulfill two prophecies about where the Messiah (God’s anointed one) was from (Micah 5 and Matthew 2:23). We know all about the people who were there and the family into which he was born, and even the stars that were in the sky. It’s an incredible amount of detail that Luke discovers in his careful account of Jesus’ birth. From the names of the rulers, to the impromptu crib, it all matters.

Advent Details

Our details matter too. How we schedule our weekends could take on a heightened sense of importance during this season as well. A way to really prepare for the baby Savior would be to show up every Sunday in Advent (10:30 a.m. and/or 6:00 p.m. at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ on December 2, December 9, December 16, and December 23). You can also show up to our Advent Worship Relief events, concentrated times of worship and prayer to welcome this strange baby and embrace our own peculiar selves (7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4 at 5720 Ridge Ave, PHL; Thursday, December 13th at 2007 Frankford Ave, PHL; and Wednesday, December 19th at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ)

The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Anyone at All

When you show up, there will be ways to connect your heart, soul, mind and strength. Our theme is “Welcoming the Stranger.” Jesus is paradoxically the stranger who needs our welcome and the strange one who welcomes us into our own strangeness, ready to meet us there. We want to embrace our own strangeness because we all feel so peculiarly ourselves, which can, at times, feel incredibly lonely. Jesus felt this too and entered into the fullness of human experience (part of that being the sometimes unbearable loneliness of being anyone at all). Being somewhere specific like a Sunday meeting, for a Godward purpose, enunciates that human experience and gives it more meaning. The fact that Jesus crossed time and space to be with us as a human baby (and then man) elevates our own human experience. This strange reality we live in was embraced in all its detail by God as one of us. We need to reenact that every year, at least. It’s too wonderful and strange not to easily lose hold of.

We Need To Practice

We want  to practice overcoming our resistance to who Jesus really is (and who we really are in Christ). He was not everything the people he came to wanted. If we are honest he is not everything we want either, but we believe that deep down we crave the simplicity of his birth, right down to all the specifics of it.

The Design Teams at 3800 Marlton Pike have turned our meeting space into a nursery of sorts which the children will help us deconstruct week by week. All the gadgets and “necessities” of many modern babies need to be stripped away. This will mirror the process of stripping away the expectations, fears and resistance on our insides that we need to acknowledge. Artistically and liturgically externalizing that process is why we need to be there together. That’s hard to do alone. We want to break down the barriers between us and Jesus (and subsequently ourselves and others), so we can better welcome the strangers in our lives (Jesus, refugees, our own hidden parts and more).

So show up! You need the drama. You need the real thing. I know God will be there. Will you?

The Dangers of Teeth-Brushing Christianity

Among many other odd and troubling things about the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week was a comparison between church attendance and brushing your teeth. On one hand, I admire the regularity of his devotion, but on the other hand the comparison is dangerously close to just going through the motions.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh, so I’m not really evaluating his faith (and even if I did know him, that’s not really anybody’s job but Jesus). Because he is a public figure now, his story has a magnitude that transcends the individual, and there are other very valuable conversations that he and Dr. Ford are bringing up for all of us. Sin is run amok, and it’s so clear to me again. I’m tempted to despair when I see in Washington what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes saw in his time,

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
    in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Maybe everyone is just brushing their teeth with religious affiliation instead of being cut to the core by the extent of the wickedness all around us.

The world needs better Christians

We need to create an alternative. We need it badly. Brett Kavanaugh, and 82 of the 100 Senators claim Christianity too. We need to do better, and I’m not talking about starting to floss. We don’t need to get better at what is–brush our teeth more often, or use the right toothpaste–get the right people in power and find the scriptural magic bullet for all of the policy debates. If Christianity is what we see in this political fiasco we need something else. If disempowering millions of women in the name of one powerful person’s reputation is brushing your teeth, then we need to grow some baleen and start straining krill from seawater. We need to do something completely different.

Circle of Hope was designed to do and be something different but I am fully aware of how easy it is to not do that. I get how Brett Kavanaugh could describe going to church like brushing his teeth. It easily can be just something you do, and if you’re like me and most of my friends, you don’t really need just another thing to do. We need to know the living God, to breathe the breath of life, to trust tomorrow to tomorrow, to make a way where there was no way before.

Here are a few ways we can avoid teeth brushing Christianity

1) Find out what moves you

Be curious about yourself. We might think we have to have it all figured out, especially ourselves. It’s very easy to quickly codify our experiences as settled law isn’t it? “That’s not my thing.” “I’m not into that.” “I’m not a church person.” “I suck at prayer.” Some of those things might be true at times, but don’t count yourself out of everything. You’re not the same person you were last time that happened. Maybe what didn’t work for you will work this time. Worship, prayer, singing, silence, scripture, dialogue. When were you moved? It doesn’t have to be in a church setting. When did something happen inside? I don’t know how to describe it too clearly without poetry; I hope you know what I mean. Follow that — drop into that gear when you meet with the church — pursue that experience. If you’re not expecting it again, or asking God for something every day, it is less likely to happen. Thankfully you could be moved despite yourself.

2) Say no to your resentment (out loud)

Anything we do regularly becomes routine (that’s the definition). There is a lot of potential growth in keeping at your routines even when you don’t feel like it. But if you dwell on how much you hate what you have to do the whole time you do it, of course it will be miserable. I could hate the dentist every time I brush my teeth for what s/he might say to me if I don’t–as if the dentist were responsible for my dental health. It helps me to say stuff like that out loud (or type it to you because I actually do hate brushing my teeth). Name your resentments. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They aren’t who you are; they are just thoughts. You can put them on loop and let them control you, or you can say “no.” Sometimes I just say (or yell depending on where I am) “NO!” to the thoughts I don’t want. I’m at this meeting with the church because God has done something in me that I can’t deny. Jesus is inviting the whole world into unimaginable newness. I want to keep tasting that and extend that invitation to others.

3) Aim for something new

We don’t really need the same old thing, even though that’s very comfortable and effective for some people. We need to aim for something really new, not just the old thing slightly rearranged. We are not called as a Circle of Hope to feel different by comparing ourselves to other churches (something we are prone to if we aren’t careful); no, we are called to be different from the world–a peculiar people that demonstrates the foundation of love in which God establishes us. Our existence puts a question mark behind all of our culture’s conclusions just as Jesus’ did and does. It’s hard to escape the boxes we are put in by others or the ones we build for ourselves, so we must always be aiming to do what is new, what is next. Maintaining an institution is a common motivation for slowly accommodating ourselves to wickedness. Let’s trust God beyond our institutions. If it all comes tumbling down, God will make something new in the rubble. That’s been God’s MO from jump street, hasn’t it?

And… St. Francis

It’s October 4th, so I must conclude with a shout-out to our favorite Friar from Asissi, St. Francis. He exemplified these three things and many more. When the institution of the church was full of wickedness he made something new. I doubt he ever brushed his teeth (it was the middle ages 😉). Learn more about him today if you can.

Why is worship relief?

Encounter with the living God

On Monday night many of the leaders of our Sunday meetings gathered to think together about how we lead people to encounter God. It’s a pretty grandiose endeavor, right? “Now I will lead you to have an encounter with the living God.” Who says stuff like that? A lot of people in Circle of Hope apparently. 134 people in Circle of Hope are on a team that helps make our Sunday meetings happen. Some are musicians, some are artists, some are technicians, some are hosts, some are caregivers for children. Each one matters because together we can say “Now we will lead you to have an encounter with the living God.”

Ain’t it wonderful, how the light shines?

To close our meeting with the leaders, we created an encounter for ourselves. I asked my friend, Jess, what her favorite song we sing was. She said “Walking in the light” (Here’s a bunch of people singing it). Then I asked the group what we should do with the song. It’s a very simple chorus that’s really easy to get into. It seemed right to stand up and walk, so our footfalls on the carpet at 2214 S. Broad made the beat. We sang the song quietly and let the Spirit lead us and something happened to us.

Our bodies moved together. Our breathing synced up. Our hearts got moving in the same direction. We were actually together in God’s light. We were having an encounter with the living God. Folks were free to sing out over the choir we had formed with their heart songs. There was time to proclaim what this light that we were singing about really was. Some just stepped and swayed I/m sure. This good feeling was from God. Our eyes were brightened by the love we were feeling. It was like when you close your eyes for a long time on a sunny day and then open them. The world looks different. Blues are brighter and greens are cooler. Our eyes were receiving that sort of boost. “Ain’t it wonderful, how the light shines?” Yes it is.

Worship relief

We want everyone to experience something like I was feeling in that moment with those leaders. We want to create a space in which people feel free to express their deep desires, embody their pain and celebration, exhale their worries and inhale God’s peace. What we do on Sundays is made for that but we were wanting more. So we designed another time, special for Lent. Rest for Our Weary Souls: Worship Relief was conceived as an extra time for anyone to encounter the living God, see in new light, sing and pray and receive from God whatever they needed.

But why is worship relief? Why does it feel so good? And what if it doesn’t?

We are made for transcendence. Everyone is looking for something worthy of devotion. We all want to be seen and known and free to be ourselves. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But many would disagree that worship is how we get there. It’s actually a big old ball of anxiety. I’m with you. It can definitely be that. There is an incredible pay off on the other side of that anxiety if you can get over, around or through it, though.

I believe you can enjoy the sweetness of connection to others and to God, because I believe it is what humans are meant to do. But even if you can’t right now, there are benefits from just showing up. Breathing the spiritually charged air, feeling the sacred beat, watching others connect — all this will help you connect. You might not feel it like I did on Monday (and I don’t always either) but something is happening that we don’t always see. You can trust that. And when you do, it will be a relief. God, who is bigger than anything (AKA transcendent) wants to connect with you.

The worth of showing up

Worship is about declaring the worth of someone or something (think “worth-ship”). If you want to connect with God, just making the time and showing up is already an act of worship. This connection you seek is worth your time and energy and money (for gas or bus fare). If you come to Worship Relief at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken on Wed. March 7, or at 2309 N. Broad in Philly on Wednesday March 14, or at 5720 Ridge in Philly on Thursday March 22nd, you will already be worshiping when you arrive. Setting your intention for the special time can yield new results. You may be stuck in some groove of which you are unaware. You might need something special. So we made something special. I hope you can try it, because I want you to encounter the living God.

All Hands on Deck

“All hands on deck” is an example of a synecdoche.

Synecdoche : nounRhetoric. 1. a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part.

The captain calls, “All hands on deck!” and, of course, he is not calling the whole crew to lop off their hands and throw them to the deck of the ship. The hands are the part of the person he needs at that moment–he needs hands for pulling ropes and hoisting sails. “Synecdoche” is one of those strange words that got caught in my head via a handmade poster on the wall of Ms. Clock’s freshman English class at Central High School in Philadelphia. Synecdoche–the part and the whole speaking for each other. It sounds like the body of Christ, right?

We’re at an “all hands on deck” moment in the life of Circle of Hope in South Jersey. We’re trying something that we have never done before, and honestly, we have probably just enough hands to pull it off. It’s close. We are starting two new Sunday meetings on August 20th– one at 10:30 a.m. and one at 7 p.m. Each has it’s own flavor; each is going to be awesome.

The best reason to do something like this is precisely the difficulty of it. For me, one of the best reasons to be a Christian is the big project Jesus gives us. The world redemption project into which we are conscripted as Jesus followers is worthy of all my talent and ability. I have a purpose that makes life fun. I’m not just clocking in and clocking out; I’m living a whole life with my whole self and it’s a whole lot of fun.

young people smiling

here are some good hands.

i was telling one of the leaders of the new 7 p.m. meeting that the best things we have going for us are all the people who are making this thing happen. And the best thing we have to give them is an opportunity to make something happen.

We live in a world that makes us feel incredibly small. We’re always getting dinged for something, from parking tickets to hidden fees. We’re always being watched–by our employers, the government and especially the marketers. Things are set in motion by giant institutions that are so complex it seems futile to even understand them, let alone change them. People tell us that pure scientific facts are the only things that are real so we are just molecules in a swirling universe–our fates long set by physics equations in a distant star. Despair grows well in such tiny hearts.

So let’s make something–not because we have to but because we CAN! I told that same leader that we don’t have to do any of this. We could do nothing or anything else. This is incredibly freeing. We are part of something already. That is a fact worth living into. Jesus has included us. We’re not in jeopardy of being out. We can actively exclude ourselves if we choose, and Jesus’ is gentle enough to let us pull away, but let’s not. Our hands are useful. Our hand make stuff. Our hands are part of the whole. We are part of the whole.

Dan McGowan is a Good Bet

Dan McGowan begins on Monday as our New Meetings Launch Coordinator.

We created a position to help us make this daring transition from one meeting to two.  In August we will move our existing 5pm meeting to 10:30am and start a new meeting at 5pm. Today, the Leadership Team Core approved the position. We are taking a risk because we think two meetings will help more folks get to our Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken.  But we don’t have the people right now to pull it all off with only volunteers, especially when the meetings are separated by 5 hours. So Dan will help us do it. We’ve never done anything like this before.  It’s not guaranteed to work, but I think Dan McGowan is a good bet.

We need more opportunities for people to connect

God is doing great stuff in our community. People are finding healing and hope in our cells. We create unique opportunities every Sunday to grow and connect with God and each other. Pray with me that that an extra meeting in the morning means more people connecting to us and to Jesus. Even if you’re not so sure about Jesus, you might like to see what Dan and his team have to offer. It’s better than what you may have experienced before and more accessible than you may have imagined.

Dan’s Unreleased Worship EP

Dan is a gifted musician and he is passionate about Jesus’ work in Circle of Hope. Let this little “EP” of his worship song demos speak to his ability, faith and leadership (all of these songs were work shopped with other members of Circle of Hope design teams).

 

  • “Even if I Fall,” reflecting on Peter’s water walk in Matthew 14 and ours.
  • “The New Old Song,” a reinterpretation of the classic hymn, Be still my Soul.
  • “Then a Wildfire Grew,” a perfect Pentecost anthem.
  • “Resist Our Selves,” a Lenten lullaby.

South Jersey is Different

My Newjerzaversary

Yesterday was the one year mark of my New Jersey home ownership. July 9th will be my residential anniversary (my newjerzaversary). I moved to Haddon Township to get deeper into the region that God called me to as the pastor of Circle of Hope’s South Jersey Congregation. A lot has changed for me and my family in the last two and a half years (since I became pastor)! Our life is very different, because South Jersey is very different from Philly.

One of the things I love about God sending me to South Jersey is that my wife and I are really rather rabid Philadelphians. Moving out of our beloved city of brotherly love reminds us every day that we did something pretty huge for God. It was hard, and how God has brought us through that hardness puts a wondrous grin on my face every time that change hits me.

It hit me again this morning when I read a philly.com article about Philadelphia area fireworks displays. The South Jersey towns were included way down at the bottom of the article below several ads. Pennsylvania was first with a whole bunch of Pennsylvania suburbs listed. Some of them were up to 45 minutes outside of the city, but Jersey was separate, below the digital fold. Audubon, Barrington, Haddon Township, Collingswood, Gloucester City, and more all have pretty decent fireworks displays. You can see a fireworks show in South Jersey within 10 minutes of Philly every night through next Tuesday starting tomorrow. Check out the kids activities blog Kim writes for if you really love fireworks, seriously. After I read the philly.com article I had to call her to commiserate with a South Jersey native to say, “Wow, they really don’t care about us at all, do they?” I have become part of the “us” that is South Jersey. I am Circle of Hope in a very symbolic way. Our “we” crosses the Delaware. We are not respecters of divisions and categories that separate us.

How did the love grow?

This love for South Jersey did not happen because I love jug handles, or tiny municipalities piled on top of each other, or high property taxes, or even a great neighborhood school for my kindergartner. It happened because I love the people. I love Circle fo Hope and I love the people to whom God has called us to express his love.  Becoming a “we” and maintaining the “we-ness” is a big part of what I do as the pastor of Circle of Hope because we really think that it’s how we love each other that best shows the world who Jesus is and what his life among us does. I am grateful to God that he has included me in a “we” even bigger than our expression of the Church. The contrast is still very stark for my Philly-boy eyes and I’d rather it never fade, because it motivates me to get out there into all these tiny towns and the intricacies of the beautiful lives of the people who live there.

Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting in Pensauken is moving too (in August)

We’re on the move as a congregation too. We’re still meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike on Sundays but soon we will be meeting at two different times. 10:30 am and 5pm. We think that more of those lovely people will be able to connect with these opportunities than two evening meetings like Circle of Hope’s Philly congregations have always done. The dry run of the newly designed evening meeting was this past Sunday. I was so excited to see a group of people who are mostly younger than 25 getting serious about how to make church something in which their friends actually want to participate. Take it from me, the change ends up to be very fun, even if it doesn’t seem like it will be at the outset. God moves with us when we move and we see him in new ways when our routines and daily routes change. Moving our meeting to 10:30 am and making way for a new group gathering at 5 :00 is an opportunity for God to move in a bunch of new ways among us. I’m praying that in the near future we will look back together on the hardness of this big change with a wondrous smile.

Time for Problems

At 3800 Marlton Pike, we’ve decided to move our current Sunday meeting from the evening to the morning. This is causing a lot of problems. I love problems and I think some people find this a little annoying. If there’s a problem, at least then we know for sure what needs to be done! If you know me (and most of the people reading this know me) I like to DO stuff; so having a ton of stuff to do is comforting to me. But not everyone is like me (thank God!), and thus there are a lot of different ways we are responding to the problem of starting a second Sunday meeting.

Some are ambivalent, we haven’t talked about it enough yet for them to have an opinion. Some don’t like it at all because they have shaped their life around an evening meeting for years and changing is a lot of work. Some are enthusiastic, they’ve been trying for years to get that one friend to come to a meeting but they can’t make it work with their schedule. Some are worried, we don’t have enough people on the teams that pull off the existing meeting. Some are suspicious, what makes you so sure changing the meetings will make room for new people?

All these responses are totally legit. We don’t need to have our feelings validated because they are inherently valid, but I want to acknowledge them just the same. I want to acknowledge these feelings I’ve mentioned, the ones that I am aware of through conversations with you, but also the ones of which I am unaware. This change is arbitrary. it’s mostly an excuse to have some new problems instead of our old ones, and an excuse to be new in how we are expressing what God has given us to give to the world. I think this will be very good for us and our plan to be an environment where people can know God and act for redemption.

Here’s an adorable grumpy toddler

The biggest problem that we solve with a morning meeting is the proliferation of grumpy toddlers in South Jersey. I just don’t think the world needs any more of those. But there are tons of them in all the parks I go to and all the preschools that are everywhere around here. Their parents might want to know Jesus and we’re a really good place fo them to do that. But no one I know is going to mess up their toddler’s bed time routine to check out a Sunday meeting. The reasons the parents of toddlers among us are a part of our Sunday meetings is because A) they were part of us before said toddlers existed or B) they were looking for a church just like Circle of Hope for a long time and then they made it work. Our evening time frame screens out any casually interested people. You have to really want to do it to do it at 5 if you have young kids.

Fortunately we will still be doing it at 5, just also at 10 (or 10:30- what do you think?). Dan and Pat McGowan are leading a team of folks who want to connect a whole new group of people to our Sunday meetings. They have an innovative plan that they are going to try out this Sunday (June 25th at 7pm). Invite your friends to it. It’s an open meeting even if it’s a dry run. Everyone who shows up is a founder! If you won’t be there, pray for them (I guess you should pray for them if/while you’re there too).

Prayer is the best thing to do with your problems in general (that sounds like a cliche and it is) but a common byproduct of my prayers is dialogue. If I talk to God about them, I’m more likely to talk to others about them. Once I articulate them to myself and to God I can better work them out on the team or with the person who might be the source of the problem. We’re not making this big change yet. We’re thinking August, so we have time to face all the problems. Let’s sort them out together with God and each other.

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