Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

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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 hand 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.

The Drums of War Beat Me into the Bible

When I was a freshman in college, terrorists high-jacked planes and flew them into The World Trade Center buildings in New York City. I was newly baptized and thus minted a new man, and newly immersed in the Christian subculture at Eastern University in St. David’s, PA. I was dismayed by my classmates response to what happened that first month of school. The drums of war beat me into the Bible. I poured through the New and Old Testament with a red ball point pen, underlining and exclamation pointing every call to peacemaking and justice I could find (and there are sooo many). Every amateur just war theologian in my Philosophy class inspired me to get the facts. I was building an argument, sharpening my spear, shouting a lot.

Che of Nazareth

Jesus is much more than Che of Nazareth

I don’t hate the zealotry of that young man in the early aughts. I learned the Bible well. I fell in love with it as my guide for life. Though I often painted Jesus as more Che of Nazareth, I was relating to him and wrestling with how to follow him with my whole life. The struggle led me to Mexico for a year of service with the Mennonite Central Committee. The spiritual intensity of that year has not been rivaled in the decade and a half since, but when I read my journals my immaturity makes me squirm. Or it might just be how glaringly naive I was. I am, to this day, a big proponent of my own naivete. I’ve owned my unswerving optimism as a strength even when it requires more resilience when my big hopes are often dashed. The intervening years of struggle and failure (AKA life) give me a much more nuanced perspective on almost everything. But what I learned in a tiny church on the edge of giant Mexico City holds true. Jesus was a revolutionary and his weapon was love. 

My sojourn in Mexico resulted in, among many other things, my sense of calling to lead the Church. I went knowing that I was a leader, but I was leaning toward leading the nonviolent political revolution that would bring about a new age of peace and justice. I came back from Mexico knowing that the transformation of the world would come person by person, heart by heart. I saw the violence of my own political zealotry as a supposed peacemaker and wanted more for myself. I wanted more for the world. I still do.

The drums of war keep beating. The news from Syria this week is deadening. We need more for ourselves. The “red line” of chemical weapons is such a low bar. I feel beaten back and discouraged. Those underlined red verses are coming back to me. The Bible that made me a Jesus follower is still a real comfort to me. The promises of peace, of life beyond death, of grace are new again. They are new every time I need them; and I need them every time I read the news. THIS is the world we live in. It hasn’t changed much in my entire adult life (which I know is relatively short). Anything better than this will only be slightly better in the hands of those in power.

So I invest in a kingdom that is not of this world. I show the powers that there is a greater power. Some are beating their chests to police the world. Jesus was beaten and killed to save the world. And then God beat back death! The American state won’t save me, only Jesus will. May the drums of war keep beating back to this peace. May you find refuge in THIS promise.

On Palm Sunday, I’m going to Washington DC at midnight to stand on the Capitol steps if the authorities will let me, to be at the source of those war drums and deliver Christ’s message of peace again. I’ve been there before to say no to war, but this time I’ll be saying “yes” to Jesus. I’m going to pray on behalf of Circle of Hope but it’s personal for me as well. I’ll say “This is who I am now, American Power. I’ve changed, but God hasn’t. Jesus’ peace can be yours too. Join us!”

Would you like to join us? I have a few spots in my car. Email me, comment, or sign up here, to be sent to the powers to show them who we are in Christ and that his kingdom is not of this world.

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I whisper in your ear, shout from the rooftops

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

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

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

howard on the roof

Howard on a roof

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

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

Introducing the Circle of Hope Summer Tour

It’s the Circle of Hope Summer Tour ya’ll!  We’re showing up where Philly gathers.  At the Night Market in Old City last night a few of us showed up with like 10,000 other people.    ben taco night marketI waited in line for 15 minutes to get this taco!  But it was a lot of fun.

The whole point of showing up where Philly gathers is that we are putting ourselves out there because we think that God wants to use us to reach all of philadelphia (and beyond).  When there’s a big group of people gathered it’s an opportunity to influence them for their good.

To do this we have to get over a few things:

1) Our squeamishness about influencing anybody.  We’ve been taught that influence is kin to cultural imperialism and borderline violent.  To influence someone is to trample upon their rights to choose for themselves and create their own ideas and thoughts about the universe or just their own persons.  If God exists he gave each of us the right to decide for ourselves, which God did, but this has come to mean that each individual is supposedly free from influence that might taint their individual process.  Hogwash!  We are all inundated wih influence.  The story of our individually pure volition is a thin veneer over the influence of any number of sources but mostly our families of origin and advertisers.  We are very influenced and if we let those who are unsqueamish about influence (who are primarily interested in getting our money or getting power over us) get all the airplay, then we’re doomed.

flyer nightmarket2) Our fear of being scrutinized.  I put some claims on a flyer that might not hold up under intense scrutiny.  This flyer says: “Cynics and skeptics welcome.  We admit that the last century has made a lot of people skeptical of Christians.  Do you want to try something new with us?”  The skeptical question from anyone who might give this flyer to someone is “Are we really new?  Or are we not that different from whatever burnd people in the past?”  My answer: “We better be!”  Otherwise all is meaningless.  And that is the doubting counterpoint to my entire faith, around which I have organized my life.  The only options are that we are dillusional or that God is indeed making us new.  I’m banking on newness and it keeps proving true even when it isn’t as good as I want it to be.  We’ll have to be good enough with God’s help.

3) Doing something uncomfortable.  I’m a very outgoing guy but I still feel wierd when I’m handing out flyers.  When people say no, or ignore me it gets at me.  When I stop in the middle of the crowd and start doing something that might impose on someone or spoil their good time I’m tempted to feel like a jerk.  When I don’t see francesca and friends at night marketinstant results I wonder why I’m doing it anyway.  It is uncomfortable and I get to pray about that while I’m doing it.  I get loosened up and I get on a roll.  If one person takes it a stream of people behind them take it too.  I don’t know how effective it will be, but last night at least I didn’t see anyone throw it away in the trash can a few yards to my left.  God’s going to have to land that flyer in the exact right hand for the flyer to really make a difference, which is not impossible, but in the meantime Circle of Hope get’s our name out there and maybe more importantly, we get out there and get over this stuff.

Because if we get over this stuff in this fun way with strangers, we might be more ready to do it with our friends.  If we expose ourselves, out ourselves, be ourselves in Christ, we might be more effective in sharing our faith and including people in our community, which is our goal as a people and the work our leader gave us.

 

 

Circle of Hope’s Public Joy

I was driving down the Broad Street on Sunday when all of a sudden I had to pull over abruptly in the center “parking lane.”  My friends, Forest and Ben were playing guitars in front of the library at Broad and Morris!  It was a beautiful morning and these beautiful people were making some beautiful music in Circle of Hope Broad and Washington’s beautiful neighborhood.  I made a video of it.

Happening upon them where I found them was really cool because we had just been there the Sunday before at the AMPM (the morning Public Meeting designed to include children and family.  We played games, ate snacks and told stories in DeSilvestro Playground (behind the libray).  Here’s another video of Tracey and Moses telling a story about peace making goats in English and Runyankole (from Uganda).

Circle of Hope is getting out on the street in new ways.  This is one example of our public joy.  Those who read my blog know that I stand outside of our space at 1125 S. Broad Street a few mornings a week and say “hi” to people.  A couple of weeks ago I met with a guy who was in a tough spot.  I listened to him tell his story of active drug addiction and childhood abuse calmly and also unreservedly.  By unreservedly I mean I didn’t hold my tongue.  When he asked someone if he could buy a cigarette I said, “Are you crazy? You just told me you have $11 to your name and you’re buying cigarettes?”  He laughed.  Later in our conversation he got someone to give him one and as he puffed he asked me, “Man, are you high?”

“What?  Why do you think I’m high?”

“I dunno, you’re just so like peaceful and calm.  You’re funny man.  I’m telling you all this stuff and you keep listening.”

“No man, I’m not high, that’s just the peace of Jesus.”

That’s what we’re doing, friends.  That’s what Jesus is offering: Peace in the midst of crazy, uncomfortable stories and joy all over the place–the kind of peace that get’s noticed if we give Jesus the opportunity to get out in public by getting us on the street, especially right in our neighborhood and it’s “Main Street”, South Broad Street.