Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: repentance

Hey (!), White People (!), We Get to Repent!

What an extraordinary moment in American History! A bunch of my friends are getting the day off for Juneteenth. There’s talk of making it a national holiday and I don’t think that sounds far-fetched.  Confederate monuments are coming down. Christopher Columbus statues are coming down. It seems like the last vestiges of racism in America are just about done and sorted out.


It IS an extraordinary moment in American History but there is tons of racism still hanging around. And I’m pretty sure it will stay. They might try to get us to calm down with national holidays and changing the twenty dollar bill, but racism isn’t going away just like that. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but I need me to tell me this because I’m pretty excitable. I fall for the bells and whistles pretty hard pretty much every time. Oooh, shiny! Amazon gave me a movie for free! Oh wow! Philadelphia changed it’s police budget! Nice! Donald Trump changed his mind for once, what?! But the first thing we get to be excited about is not all these corporate and political high fives to what the powers that be are really hoping is a fad — no, not that, we get to be excited about repentance! (Which might yield the real change we are hoping for, and which, thank God, is not absent from the high-fiving, suspicious as it seems). I’m praying for as many people as possible to learn how good it feels to repent.

If this unique moment in my lifetime ends up NOT being a fad, it will be in large part because white people like me decide to love repentance. This is a tall order because we have individualized and moralized almost all of the grace and redemption out of our public dialogue. Justice, in its poor, worldly definition, is about punishment and we are still learning how to have a better imagination. But as a Christian, the best thing I have to bring to the dialogue is a familiarity with repentance. We can even bring joy to repentance. Of course repentance is often painful, but not at the root. The root of repentance is God’s kindness. And the first things fed by that wonderful root are empowerment to change — a “Yes!” we can change — and hope for transformation — Double “Yes!” We can change. Christians who grow from this root and are nurtured by its fruit can say with not a little gladness, “We get to  change!”

Paul warns us in Romans 2 not to show “contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” For we must realize “that God’s kindness is intended to lead [us] to repentance.” White Christians run the risk of demanding grace and redemption  instead of STANDING ON grace and redemption to face down the power of white supremacy in their lives. Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1 through 8 is a crescendo-ing symphonic plea to believe in and behave from Christ’s love. He is begging us to stand on Christ’s love. Paul’s argument climaxes at the end of chapter 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Racism and white supremacy are demons that shall not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But Paul does not say the demons aren’t real. He does not say the past does not threaten the present. We need this swelling song in our hearts all day long — 24/7, 365 — because we “face death all day long”! The lies we have believed consciously and otherwise are real threats. The reality of racism in the United States is undeniable and it’s pretty great that so many people are agreeing to do something about that right now. The thing I have to offer to what’s happening as one who has spent some time learning to repent is to bring a non-anxious presence to the process of exposing my own internalized white supremacy. Yes, it hurts.  I confess that I have been confused and uncomfortable often in the past few weeks. I haven’t figured it all out, and I really like to figure it all out. The discomfort is real, but I am letting it burn rather than snuffing it out. It feels like it is the  consuming fire of God.

This process of repentance will last my whole life, and the prospect of that would wear me down if I hadn’t already tasted the fruit of that tree whose root is God’s kindness. Repentance can feel good. I am revealing who am in Christ. I am putting to death what was already made dead when Christ died for me on the cross. I am uprooting the sin that entangles the kindness which was planted at the heart of me. My wounding will definitely be touched again and again, both the way I have been wounded and the way I have wounded others. Hopefully, my livelihood will be affected again and again. For our repentance ought to be actual and not relegated to some spiritual sentimentality. Surely, my relationships will be impacted again and again.  For I will need to change my behavior in demonstrable ways. This is all difficult to do, but if I can trust through the pain of all that exposure, I am confident that God will meet me with kindness and lead me through to the repentance which I was made for. I am convinced of this. We get to do this.

This moment in history is an opportunity for repentance to rise. We can get out from under the tininess of our super-individualized understandings of ourselves. We can escape the captivity of our definitions of a counterfeit justice rooted in punishment and experience some more imaginative prophecy for another possible world and another possible self for each of us. We can face the music of our complicity and cooperation with the lie of racism, confess it and be free to sing the new song of the New Jerusalem. We know where history is heading, and there are parts of us that are not going to make it to the end of time — THANK GOD! This is who we are as Christians. Let’s bring our best to it. We get to repent!

Happy Juneteenth, friends. I love you.

Resolving not to suck sucks

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).

And 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 this year.  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.  This year, 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.

Like a Thief in the Night

I was doing something very dangerous yesterday- flying down Pine Street on my bike listening to Rich Mullins with my headphones in.  It was dangerous in 4 ways:

1) The obvious safety hazard of riding a bike without being able to hear 2) The scorn I could receive from my musically cool friends for listening to the often “cheesy” christian recording artist from the eighties 3) The potential embarrassment when people notice the tears that I burst into 4) The crumbling darkness around us as I saw God’s light breaking through.

Here’e the lyric and video of “A Steal at Any Price” from Pictures in the Sky (1987).  If you really want to go with me here, listen though to the first chorus and read along with the lyrics.  Then keep reading more of my experience as rich sings on.

rich mullins

He sees a frozen shadow
Cold in the neon flash

He sees the ghost of a chance in her eyes

He longs to take her away

To a place where love can last
Without all these memories
Of all the emptier loves in her life
‘Cause He knows how bad it can get
And He sees her lose
Though she pays her dues
She still winds up in debt
And the night cracks
Like a whip in her heart
She looks into the light
He takes her out of the darkness
He’s a thief in the night

As Rich hung on the “Heeeeeeee’s” I was bursting across 18th street. (“A thief in the night”)  All of a sudden the world opened up into the light.  I was exhilarated- the unseasonable freshness of the morning, the speed of the bike and the reality of God’s love for me- all of it- coalesced in a revelation.   All of a sudden tears were streaming from my eyes and I remember having the thought as I even surprised myself with a couple of sobs that my sweat was masking the tears and saving me from any undo attention… and yet, at the same time I was glad to be a fool. (“His love is a steal at any price”)  I was so glad to look around and see all these others on Pine Street on whom God could also sneak up to take away from our desperation and darkness.

Rich went on to the second verse and reminded me “‘Cause he knows how bad it can hurt.”  I know how bad it can hurt.  Jesus knows how bad it can hurt.  Do you know how bad it can hurt?  I think you do.  By the time I was crossing Broad Street my moment was passing and I was stunned in gratitude for a minute or so of God’s grace sneaking up on me.  I was thankful to be reminded that Jesus is with me and all the people around me, and I am with Jesus when I am with them.  I felt the longing that Jesus has for us.  I felt my own longing to be made new–to be stolen from the emptier loves in my life–and confident that many others feel it too and might turn with me to the light.

So I share this revelation with you.  Jesus’ love is a steal at any price, and apparently we are too.  The price Jesus paid for us is greater than any other.  No other death has resulted in light.  So, “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3)  Respond to the light that is shining in your darkness and the darkness around you.  Cherish the costly gift you have received.  Give thanks for the thief in the night, because if we had to make this stuff up on our own it would never happen.

What sort of self do you have?

A Balkan born theologian and philosopher, Miroslav Volf, knows how to write a cogent argument!  I’ve copied a rather lengthy quote because it just had to be shared and I think it speaks to our work of inclusion as a community on mission.exlcusion and embrace

“Through faith and baptism the self has been re-made in the image of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul writes.  At the center of the self lies self-giving love.  No “hegemonic centrality” closes the self off, guarding its self-same identity and driving out and away whatever threatens its purity.  To the contrary, the new center opens the self up, makes it capable and willing to give itself for others and to receive others in itself.  In the previous chapter I argued that Paul locates the unity of the church not in the disincarnate transcendence of a pure and universal spirit, but in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah.  Correspondingly, Paul locates the center of the self not in some single and unchangeable–because self enclosed–“essence,” but in self-giving love made possible by and patterned on the suffering Messiah.  For Christians, this “de-centered center” of self giving love–most firmly centered and most radically open–is the doorkeeper deciding about the fate of otherness at the doorstep of the self.  From this center judgments about exclusion must be made and battles against exclusion fought.  And with this kind of self, the opposition to exclusion is nothing  but the flip side of the practice of embrace.” -Miroslav Volf p.71 Exclusion and Embrace

We are prone to exclusion as a way to preserve our identities.  Some post modern people might claim that the self doesn’t have a center.  Volf argues that it most certainly does but that the center of the self is not as important as what sort of self we ought to have.  His argument is that our selves need to be de-centered by the presence of Christ inside us.  The point from this hefty paragraph that most struck me was that pursuit of self enclosed identities “drive[s] out and away whatever threatens its purity.”  Especially in the church, we are with purity.  We want to maintain the good that we have and–mostly unconsciously– exclude those trying to get in.  Much of our identity formation as individuals, and as groups, is in some way violent.  This is as true in Volf’s Balkans as it is in any high school, and even within our church.  We can’t help but keep people out.  Including people then is an expression of Christ inside us and a way to keep the binary star system of our interior universes properly balanced.Binary-stars

Only a de-centered-by-Jesus self can open and include as naturally as we need to in order to grow into the next generation of Circle of Hope.  I am thankful for how God has achieved this in us to a degree and hopeful for how God will proceed.

How do you guard your identity?  How does your self’s center respond to threats against its primacy?  How might we act to be more de-centered?  How will this effect us as a people?  These aren’t rhetorical–let me know what you think!