Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: spiritual health

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

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, 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 or 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 at our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body of Christ page.

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

Three Ways to Find Refuge and Safety

When we live out of the promises like this one, we will be a part of creating the refuge and safety for others, even if it’s in very tiny ways.

Source: Three Ways to Find Refuge and Safety

I think I might be putting God to the test

Remember when Jesus was out in the desert chilling with Satan? There’s this epic showdown in Matthew 4 when Jesus get’s tempted by Satan to do these three things that would betray his relationship with God and Jesus stands firm. In his second temptation Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the top of a high building to prove that he is the Son of God. Jesus says “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus knows who he is. He doesn’t need to prove it to his naysayer.

I’m not sure what to do with this but I think I am putting the Lord my God to the test. I’m not jumping off of buildings expecting God to catch me but I do often find myself looking for some more confirmation for my faith. I think a lot of people are in the same spot. Either we don’t feel confident enough in the faith we profess to refuse an alleged opportunity to “know for sure”, or we can’t profess any faith at all until we think we “know for sure.” We’re looking for some more faith and it seems like it would just be a lot easier if some kind of crazy miracle happened that was undeniable.

But undeniable crazy miracles happen occasionally and they prove to be, no matter the facts, super-deniable! We are really good at denying. If Jesus jumped off a building right in front of us and a bunch of angels appeared out of nowhere to catch him, some would never be the same and others would find a way to think it never happened, doubt their own sensory inputs even, or just forget. Jesus rose from the dead and it was immediately denied and covered up by the authorities. The disciple Thomas denied his friends’ assurances that Jesus was resurrected and Thomas refused to believe them until he saw Jesus himself. Jesus later told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What does he mean by that? I think it’s related to his refusal to put God to the test when he was on top of that building with Satan. Jesus wasn’t just having a Bible verse quiz off with Satan. He wasn’t just following the rules. He was demonstrating a different kind of relationship with God and exposing the inadequacy of Satan’s demand for a sign. Jesus tells Thomas that those of us who believe in Jesus’ resurrection without “undeniable” proof are more blessed. I think this is because the way we confirm our faith in God today is similar to the way Jesus did in the desert. He relates to God. He loves God. He connects to God person to person and spirit to spirit. This deeper connection is preferable to the sensory connection of “well that happened.”

Events and facts have a pretty high cache in our construction of reality. Some would say that the only things that can be described as believable are events and facts that are independently verifiable. Whether we would say that or not, this perspective sways us to some degree because it has won the day in our collective cultural mindset. You have to be an expert to say anything about anything and experts are quickly deconstructed as soon as enough people look at them. We live in a world of scrutiny. So much information, so much expectation, so much power. It easy to think that we have to figure it all out, or just say nothing, maybe believe nothing.

I’ve been a Christian for a while now and I’ve dedicated my life to extending to others the opportunity to know and be known by a God who loves them and to be saved by the connection to Jesus I have found. I say a lot. But, believe it or not, I still find this desire for a sign bouncing around inside me. I’m like a duckling quacking my head off because I need to hear that reassuring quack of my mother reminding me she’s there. I’ve never heard the voice of God like a few people did in the Bible. That would be believing because I have seen (or because I’ve heard, I guess). Instead, I believe because I am known. I believe because I know myself and I know how I have changed. I believe because my desires are shaped toward building God’s kingdom. I believe because I feel it inside. I find that faith in the quiet moments alone with God that I carve out of the morning hours before my children wake. I feel the absence when I don’t. It’s not very undeniable.

So I’m excited for the Love Feast this weekend, where we in Circle of Hope express our covenant love in Jesus and hear the stories of those led by God to partner with us in our local expression of the Body of Christ. The Love Feast is the place where I get to be a baby duckling in a sense. It’s not a booming quack from heaven, but it is a lot of words from my human brothers and sisters confirming the good news I have also received–confirming from the outside what I have known on the inside. And I guess if people stopped doing that I would indeed be in trouble, because this communal expression of our connection to Jesus and to each other is vital to my faith. I am not Jesus and my doubts are there whether I like it or not, so I’ll take the both and of my quiet interior journey and the shared stories of my community as enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Let Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark: How to keep caring when bad stuff keeps happening

The attack that killed 14 people, injured 17 and resulted in the death of 2 suspects, began yesterday morning, at an office holiday party in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The center is called “Inland Regional” because it is located in the “Inland Empire” of Southern California where I was born and spent my early childhood. My home town, Riverside is 15 miles south of San Bernardino. This attack literally hit close to home, and I feel it that way too.

The big statistic rolling around the internet today is that there have been more mass shootings in the US than days so far in 2015. 355! NPR.org reports that  “Gun sales are going up. There were more gun background checks on this year’s Black Friday than any other single day on record: 185,345, according to the FBI. That’s up five percent from Black Friday last year, when there were 175,754 background checks.” Are we going insane? Do we really think that fire will fight this fire? It’s very easy to despair. It’s very easy to close your eyes. It’s very easy to accept this scary reality and try to cope.

The Circle of Hope Pastors were talking yesterday on their videocast, Someone Asked, about climate change and whether we can actually make a difference when corporations, the main polluters, have effectively bought the US political system. Obama was in Paris encouraging us to believe we can change the world. I was admitting my cynicism and Joshua was encouraging me to apply my faith in Jesus to the hope for the world. If I am certain that God cares for the earth, I must act as if what I do and say to preserve it matters.

And how much important are we than the birds! Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds and the lilies but cares for humans even more, even by becoming one of us in Jesus. So when 14 people die in San Bernardino and 355 die across the country to gun violence God grieves. It comforts me that God is with us in our sorrow. It even encourages me to engage my own grief. The alternative would be to let my eyes adjust to the dark. To accept the wickedness of the world–to drink and be merry for tomorrow we die (Isaiah 22:13).

We were talking about this in my cell meeting last night. There is such big, scary stuff happening in the world. Our default is to distract ourselves. To avoid the small feeling that comes with paying attention to the glut of bad news we can so easily access. Isn’t their enough bad news in my own life? It’s a good question. I’m with you in it if you are asking it.

But the results of being as small as the fear makes us is slavery. We cannot control our future no matter how much money we save, how many guns we have, or how much we read up on what to do in an active shooter situation. Being human in an uncertain universe is a fact. We must be saved. We cannot save ourselves. If we live into the promise of Jesus’ future coming, when he will come and fully bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and a new humanity with it, we will have the hope we need to confront the fear of this dark world. Because Jesus saved us by coming as a tiny baby and living a fully human life and died the death of an oppressed person, and was raised form the dead because he was the Son of God–because of all this–we can believe that our tiny lives make a difference in the darkness. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9) and one day “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light” (Isaiah 60). We are those people. This has begun.

So we can pray. We can trust that God is bringing about his promises even though the world is against him, and the forces of evil with it. So we can offer the comfort we have–a church that is an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption. So we can have an active relationship with Jesus that transforms us and the people around us.

I’m not sure that the world will get much better, but I think that God will preserve us as a people until Jesus comes again- the Second Advent. And in the mean time we will be a sign pointing to the realest Reality that is breaking through the darkness–God is with us.

 

 

 

Your spiritual nerve endings may be shot

synapseAt a couple different stages in childhood, our brain pruned neurons that were underused.  It was creating clearer pathways, concentrating energy, codifying regular patterns.  It’s called synaptic pruning (How crazy wonderful is the human brain?!  I’m imagining a lumpy gardener with tiny shears.)

What’s done is done.  We can’t grow those neurons back.  New pathways can still be created with the existing neurons—detours can be made—we can probably get to a lot of the same places in our brains but it becomes definitively slower as possible pathways are limited.  The endless possibilities of a child’s brain find their ends.  Our conditioning matters for how our brain works for the rest of our lives.

I think this is the same with our spiritual nerve endings.  Our hearts are permanently changed by our conditioning.  I believe that the tightknit Christian community I lived in as a young child conditioned me for an abiding sense of safety in the faith.  If I was born with a special proclivity toward trusting God it was amplified in the security of my formative years.  I feel safe with God.  That safety allows me to risk more easily in ways that are harder for others.

Others have experienced such an intense breach of trust or such a consistent disappointment from the Church that they are forever damaged.  Their spiritual nerve endings were mangled in the difficult relationship and the poor relating of the ones who claimed Christ as Lord.  A common reaction to a conflict in the church is to cut and run, and in so doing many have cut themselves—maybe even leaving the part of themselves that was best at connecting with God behind.  And now not only are they cut off from that community, they are cut off from God.  The isolation that this scenario brings about is the predicament in which many Americans find themselves.

HBOgo.com recently released the Spike Jonez film, “Her”, for streaming.  I watched it and was delighted by the parable of modern interaction with technology.  Without too many spoilers, because I think it is worth watching, the premise is that in a not too distant future a company produces a computer/phone operating system that can relate and learn.  The main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix and named Theodore (which means Gift of God), falls in love with his operating system who names herself Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson.  His profession is writing love letters on behalf of others for beautifulhandwrittenloveletters.com.  He wonders aloud if he has lost the ability to feel or to relate to anything but a machine.  He is separated from his wife who he tried to love but from whom he kept his full self.  He is resisting the divorce proceedings in a depressed state.  On the way home from work before the OS saves him he tells his phone to play a melancholy song and when it doesn’t suit him he says “play a different melancholy song.”

Her-insideHe is crafting an emotional experience with the technology.  His job is manufacturing emotional connection for others.  His life’s love is an operating system.  His emotional and spiritual nerve endings are shot.  His heart is pruned like a 6 year old’s brain.

Do you feel this way sometimes?  Does your heart get hard at the sight of the other with whom you have unresolved conflict?  Are you waiting for it to get hard and flake off?  We’re probably not aware of all the things which fry our capacity to love and trust, but I bet we’re aware of some.  Let’s look at them full in the face, feel the pain they cause us, and awaken to the remaining working parts of ourselves.

Lent is a time for this sort of waking up.  We flex our spiritual muscles and give our spiritual nerve endings a few laps around the track.  We find out what’s dead and we put it to death. We find out what’s still alive and we nurse it back to health.  Of course this is the life of a Christian all year, except when it isn’t.  I always seem to need something to train for to keep at my disciplines, to keep my eyes open, to keep my heart soft.  What better event to train for than resurrection and Easter sunrise?