Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: spiritual disciplines (page 1 of 2)

How to stay married (at least how John and Sherry did)

333 years of marriageOn Sunday, July 15th, John and Sherry Londres were interviewed at our evening meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike. The title of the interview was “How to stay married for 33 years” but John objected to the title, wisely. “This is what worked for us but I don’t know if it will work for anyone else. In fact I know that if they do exactly what we did they will certainly fail, because every couple is different.” John is exactly right but we have to give some authority to those among us who have made it so far in marriage. John and Sherry are rare birds, so we watch them, holding our breath at their beauty as we peer through the jungle of divorce and disillusionment to behold them. To honor them and learn form them I distilled three lessons they taught us.

Use your whole brain

In 1994, John learned about the concept of right brain and left brain. The right brain is more thinking and reasoning and the left brain is more emoting and intuiting. (This is an oversimplification but John had a simple point). Sherry had put his ring on his left hand when they got married 10 years before. The only reason he had heard for the left hand placement was the left hand’s proximity to the heart. John realized that his left brain love for Sherry would ebb and flow but he could trust it. He didn’t really need a left brain reminder to love her. He needed a right brain reminder. He needed a reminder to be intentional about loving her. He couldn’t forget to feel for her, but he could forget to love her well. He wanted a reminder for all the intentions he had for relating to her. So after 10 years of learning what he needed to remember, John switched his ring to his right hand and has worn it there ever since.

I think this is a great example of how to use our rituals. To stay married for 33 years and longer you will have to reappropriate the symbols you have inherited. You must make them your own and even if the first time you weren’t just going through the motions, you must make new meaning of them as you go along. I love the left to right hand switch that John did. I can imagine many places in my life that need a switch to intention. I can depend too much on passion and conviction for motivation to do a lot of the things I do. Making a plan and reminding myself to stick with it will be good for my marriage and many other parts of my life (including planting the church).

Enjoy becoming

Sherry described herself as steady. I’ve only known her for a third of her marriage but I agree. She might be content to just keep it simple, stay close to home, not surprise anyone. But she surprised John a lot when a few years ago she said, “I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with you!” John is known as the wild adventurer, and Sherry has been content to see him when he gets back. But a couple of years ago they went together to Tanzania and summited the highest point in Africa. Sherry did much better with the oxygen deprivation. If Sherry hadn’t been there to strike out ahead of him when the going got tough, who knows if John would have made it. He would have made it somehow, but Sherry was the somehow this time. When you go together there’s no way of knowing what would have been. Some other how is not necessary.

“John gets me out of my box.” Sherry said. She’s done things she never thought she would do, but it’s kind of silly to make a clear distinction between who she has become with John and who she was before they were married. We become who we are because of who we’re with among other things. This is true for friendships as well as marriages. Deciding to go together and trusting to stay together fundamentally changes who we are. If we accept that becoming as a natural part of life and reject the lie of individuality and self reliance, we can enjoy it. John and Sherry have grown together without significant friction because they weren’t really organized to defend those supposedly essential selves. We are not who we are forever. Thank God, we change. You can enjoy that.

Be a fool

John ended the interview with a song. And John is NOT a good singer. He sang “I Do It for Your Love” by Paul Simon so terribly there weren’t very many dry eyes in the house. And Sherry loved it! Love requires you to make a fool of yourself, and to love the fool you’re with for their foolishness. We need to remember who we are and what better way than to make a scene, damn the consequences, scorn the shame. I love how beautiful John’s bad singing was. He loved the complexity of Paul Simon’s sentiment. “It felt like us,” he said. Sherry loved him for being a fool. No one who is there will forget the moment. People are still talking about the last time he did it!

You can listen to John and Sherry’s full interview with me at circleofhope.net/messages

More Than a Day of Gratitude

Gratitude is a muscle

Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s arguably the best American holiday. Gratitude makes life better. Everyone agrees. Not everyone agrees that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) but they’re not far off when they give thanks. So at our morning Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ we’re celebrating with a season called “More Than a Day of Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a muscle, it takes practice, and practice makes perfect, right? I’ve been practicing naming all the good in my life as a gift from God for quite some time. It started before my first cell in New Jersey, but that’s where it really took off in community and got bigger than just me. We called it the “God Check.” We asked each other week after week, “What did God do in your life this week? We don’t have to have anything, but we do have to check. Or maybe something happened and you think God might have been doing something but you’re not sure, so let’s check it out.”

It didn’t have to be anything fantastic. We weren’t looking for bona fide miracles. We were looking for moments when we were aware of God’s goodness, or maybe just brave enough to try naming God in our ordinary lives. Gratitude is good for us humans no matter how we do it, but I believe directional gratitude is even better. Giving thanks to God is a place to start a real relationship. Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite poet and the featured artist of our Water Daily Prayer this week) calls God “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

How this works in a real life

A while back, I was meeting regularly with a woman who was having trouble seeing God as a giver of anything. She wanted something very badly, but she hadn’t received it. The complicated emotions that came with this threw everything she had believed into question. Did God care? Who was she to demand anything from God? Why did she want it so much? Why couldn’t she be content with what she had? If God is the giver of good things, why not her, and why not this specific good thing? Why not for her? I was with her in that plea, confusion and subsequent anger. We worked together on the second part of the “God Check”: something was happening but what the heck was God doing? Where was God in this? Was God anywhere?

Part of reestablishing a relationship with God was naming God as “You.” She had never really experienced much intimacy with God, so this resentment was seriously threatening the faith she thought she had. Maybe all the good she had received really was just from “the universe” or just random cause and effect. Many of us can relate. This perspective is a common option in our culture. We can choose to see the world this way, but we don’t have to. It seems that humanity has always had a collective sense that there must be a source. Religion’s pervasiveness throughout time and culture is evidence enough that, at worst, we have a common delusion that we just can’t seem to shake; or, at best (and my preference), we have a common desire that directs us beyond chance and the observable universe.

It’s okay if it’s a choice

I submit that this is, indeed, my preference. I don’t have much beyond my subjective experience to back it up, except for the similarities of so many other subjects. Our desire for good and our hope for a God who gives it is significant evidence (Read The Abolition of Man for a ridiculously thorough and compelling argument for this in a scant 113 pages). My suggestion to my friend was simple: just change your language. Choose “You” over “Universe.” Point your gratitude and wonder purposefully… persistently… preponderously.

My practice of you-ing has greatly enriched my life and the life of my cells. Now, a few generations of cells later, and there are five cells who make the “God check” a regular part of their meetings. More folks are getting into the practice. Their gratitude muscles are growing, and their thank you’s are bending in a personal direction, often for the first time. My friend told God about her bitterness, and God has gotten more you-y as a result. All transformative growth takes time. We need more than just a day of gratitude. We need a life of gratitude.

The ancient Israelites had one big event that they made a whole week about to make sure that they remembered (Passover). God liberated them from captivity and made them a people. Time and time again in their book of poems, songs and prayers; the Psalms; they remember what God did to make them a people. We too can start with the basics that we are anything at all, that hawks are anything at all, that clouds are anything at all, that our families are anything at all, that our church is anything at all, that resurrection is anything at all. Lay the gratitude on thick. Do it again. And do it in God’s direction. It will get you somewhere, and as you are arriving, you’ll realize it’s not very different from where you’ve always been, but you are very different.

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.

I actually hit the ground running

  1. It didn’t rain on the 4th day of January (today) so I went for a run. It IS New Year’s resolution time and all. I always take an opportunity to start or renew my discipline because I always need a chance to start again.

You may be like me. I’m an “all in” kind of guy. If I’m not going 100% toward my goal, if I fall off the wagon, if I don’t do what I said I was going to do perfectly, if I miss one day… I might as well just quit. What’s the point if it isn’t perfect? Hopefully you’re not like me, and hopefully I’m not like me this time either.

I was telling folks at our Sunday meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike this past Sunday, that we often aim for the wrong thing when we’re making resolutions. If we aim to BE something that we are not, we will probably never hit the mark, and we will probably quit quickly. But if we aim to DO something and get good at doing it we will be in better shape. BUT… the real spiritual genius is the person who aims to get good at not quitting. When we don’t do the thing we resolved to do and return to the discipline anyway. This is an area in which I need improvement. You might, too.

Didn’t make it this far (Cuthbert Blvd.) Tomorrow is another day!

Today I went running and, confession time, it totally sucked. I’ve been too long out of the habit. Mind you, I’ve run the 10 mile Broad Street Run in the past. I might have told you in the past that I actually like to run. Well I didn’t like it today. I ran to the Cooper River from my office in Pennsauken and back. It was two miles and I had to walk a couple times. I could be tempted to call this a total failure, not because it was, but because that’s the kind of guy I am (see above). But in those moments when I decided to throw my pasty legs back into a trot from a walk I felt a tiny triumph. I need to remember that triumph for next time so I’m writing a blog about it. I hope you can relate.

Rob Bell likes to talk about Hebrew words a lot. One of them he mentioned on his podcast again this week was T’Shuvah. Which often gets translated as “Repent” in English. But T’Shuvah comes from the Hebrew root that has to do with turning. It’s more like “come back!” than “Repent!” (i.e. “Stop sinning” or “Change your mind”). Returning is the key to spiritual discipline and discipline of any kind. You don’t need to succeed at your discipline every time. Be good at straying from your plan and returning to it. We need as many New Year’s days as we can get.

Remember (which is another way to return), you don’t need to become someone you are not, you need to return to who you really are. This body of mine can run, and I am returning to that. What can you do that you would like to return to? God is saying, “come back!”

Holy, Holy Geese

I don’t think I can tell people enough that in Celtic iconography the Holy Spirit is often represented as a wild goose. To the Celts of ancient Ireland and Scotland, Ah Geadh-Glas (Wild Goose) was a more apt description of their experience of the Holy Spirit. How caged and docile is your experience with the Holy Spirit, how unlike a dove?

I’m sure if I studied the mourning doves that come to the feeder in my back yard I could find the appropriate mystery and wildness in them too, but geese have just spoken to me more in my life.

I started my early rising prayer life at Eastern University with the Canada Geese on the pond there. I trained the ducks to eat out of my hand, but the geese would have nothing to do with me. Only the nesting mothers would allow me near them and they scared me with their violent hisses. I’ve come back to the morning geese this fall because, again, I live by a pond (though this one calls itself a lake).

The geese are there waiting for me when I rise and then I wait for them to leave. And watching them go is the most wondrous part of them, and the thing about them that for me makes them best to tell the Holy Spirit’s story. They talk about going for a while and it’s not always at the same time. At first I thought it must be the angle of the sun–they usually leave soon after the sun crests whatever treeline it rises behind, but as I paid attention I could tell that it wasn’t nearly so exact.

geese-take-flightThe fun of it is I can tell when they are leaving but I’m never sure of the moment they will go. They flick their heads and grunt at each other, seemingly consulting one another about the every day revelation that it is time to fly to the best grass nearby. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and measured it. One study reported that this period of consultation lasted anywhere from nine to twenty-two minutes.

The wild goose then is a perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit because they are common enough (in Ireland and Scotland and Haddon Township, NJ where I live at least) but unpredictable and elusive. They can even bite you. Following the Holy Spirit can feel like an actual wild goose chase, yes, but if we give up trying to catch Her and instead be contented in watching and listening when She happens to be there in the morning (and who knows for how long?), we will love Her and She will shape us. And in many, many mornings She will still be wild but we may just be tamed.

Here’s a poem I wrote for Her.

Ah Geadh-Glas

O Holy Sprit, Ah Geadh-Glas,
I am familiar with your leavings,
Though uncertain of your path.

I could tire of the finding–
Leave your joy here in the grass,
But I’ll marvel at your going,
Walking water in noisy splash.

And I’ll wonder at your flying.
Flocked with kin above me, pass!
Make me happy, wild and singing,
O Holy Spirit, Ah Geadh-Glas!

Passion might be overrated

When we don’t feel like it, when we’re bored, when it’s not the same as it used to be, when the passion isn’t there, plodding forward is perfectly fine.

Source: Passion might be overrated

What if I didn’t have to be myself all the time?

Your self is hidden in Christ with God. You are not done yet. I hope you find freedom in that today—I hope you find a lightness in knowing that.

Source: What if I didn’t have to be myself all the time?

Love them? I don’t even have to acknowledge the existence of my enemies

I’m a pastor in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing”…and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out a Taco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.

I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between me and my fellow Taco Bell customers? What would it take to bring us together in one body?

There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation.  These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than me; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably, that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.

Of course this was all speculation—an exercise in missionary imagination.  I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”

I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.

“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them.” One said,

Well that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.

“Wow, thanks! Yes!”

Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.”  He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.

What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.

There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and wham! I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!

I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”

After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism? I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?

It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos. We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are further and further apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.

But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. The generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.

Energy Teleportation and New Life in Christ

A few months ago scientists were able to transfer information stored in a photon across a distance of 25 kilometers. I can’t totally understand what the science communicators are trying to tell me despite some significant head scratching. Here’s a link to one of the articles I read [link]. Just the idea that information is regularly transmitted via photon is mind blowing to me. This is the basic of quantum computing research.

The quantum computer, following the laws of quantum physics, would gain enormous processing power through the ability to be in multiple states, and to perform tasks using all possible permutations simultaneously. Current centers of research in quantum computing include MIT, IBM, Oxford University, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Source [http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/quantum-computing] 

Oliver in his Bike Parade splendor

Oliver in his Bike Parade splendor

This is probably just a very over-wrought metaphor I’m spinning here, but I felt like a quantum computer on Sunday, in a good way. It was Easter and we were celebrating the Resurrection. We get up early on Resurrection Sunday in Circle of Hope to greet the Risen Lord at the break of dawn just like the women did in the gospel accounts. I rode my bike with my friends in our annual “Jesus is Risen Bike Parade.” Oliver came along.

After a feastly feast for brunch the only predictable thing to do would be to take a glorious Lord’s Day nap. Instead I went to our Public Meeting space at 3800 Marlton Pike and tore the whole place up in a flourish of creativity. I hadn’t planned to redesign our meeting space.  I had wanted to do it but had done little to make it a practical reality. Nonetheless I felt crazy enough to go for it and with the help of some unsuspecting friends who just happened to be there we made a big change in our meeting space and added some much needed extra space in our meeting room for the 30 people we plan to include this year. It was tons of fun! A bit of a mad dash, but all the more exhilarating for it.

Now I am a naturally energetic person, but this was uncanny even for me. I felt the New Life of the Resurrection making me giddy with my hair-brained scheme. There was no immediate need for this change, but it was such perfect timing with our liturgical season that it felt like it had to be done- and it was done.

It’s easy to depend upon our own meager resources in this crazy hair-brained scheme called the Kingdom of God. We can be discouraged, or limit ourselves based on the evidence of our previous experience or just our tiny faith. That’s not an insult, it’s just a fact. Our faith is tiny. Our hearts are weak. Our bodies are even weaker. So be it and so it is. Jesus’ faithfulness survived death. Jesus’ love is greater than our hearts. And Jesus’ body is resurrected! He is all we need.

There were no quantum physics involved in the energy transfer I experienced on Sunday but the feeling of extra juice was more than a sugar rush. Our joy is in Jesus and he does make himself known–and across a much greater distance than a mere 25 kilometers.

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.

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