Dear friends, since the Covid 19 quarantine began, I have spent a lot of time sitting at a little desk I put in my bedroom (now office). My lovely little room has windows which face the lake on which I live. Newton Lake in spring and summer is home to a colony of tree swallows which dart across the water in the morning and evening in dizzying patterns. They make me feel big inside. They “make the water wide” I say in the poem below. Newton Lake is really rather small, and I feel small sometimes too — constricted on the inside; longing for wider spaces, deeper breaths. I find myself wanting more of something specific and external, and everything that is intrinsically me all at the same time. Creating space inside ourselves for such colliding thoughts to hold their own flight patterns is crucial to the spiritual life. I hope this poem helps you feel that even slightly as much as the swallows help me to feel it.
The swallows have returned to Newton Lake To make the water wide from bank to bank And give a show of living for your sake– An iridescent praise, a flight of thanks, A sweeping burst of joy made for your eyes, For narrow squinting eyes. Now ask how do They fly to make all those inches realize Their depth, and the air its true thickness through The circling swim of a dance just above The shimmering below. Making wide, too, Somewhere in you. Some inside dreaming of A flight like these — so close, so quick, so you, So far, so flung, so open with your doors, There’s breath to breathe and sky to fly — there’s more.
I sat down this morning and looked out my bedroom window to the rainy water of Newton Creek and wished with all the melancholy of the gray day to be rid of this virus. “Alas” was the word for the feeling. Almost all sigh with a hint of french pity in it’s roots. The perfect word wanted more than just disappearance, the fantasy wandered to the sea and a beach party it seems. It felt good to imagine the future. In the wake of the reverie about God knows how many tomorrows from now, I had a longing feeling that landed again on “Alas.” However, giving my heart to words made me feel less alone.
Could the spring rain but wash this all away And make a summer feast so full of love It spills its season’s banks right into May! And to pandemic’s fear, a jaunty shove, Or surge of tide to float this out to sea. Can falling rain replace the falling sky? And dancing limbs crowd in again so free — A swirling wash of salty sway and cry Made loud and bright — bass, treble up to thump, Feet, knees and necks, lips , breath and lifted hands, All these abreast in rhythmic wave and bump. I’d give up lots to get down with that band, But May will not be long enough to say, “At last!” So with mournful sigh (with those who mourn) I say, “Alas!”
Heat baking up Through terry cloth towel — Drying me up as the sun dried me down. And red-yellow dancers Amorphously moved Between the backs of my eyelids and eyes. Seal slick hair, Tufting up in the air As I turned back from fish into boy. Sometimes so hot If I lay there too long I’d roll right back into the pool. It must be just right This transforming heat — A boy body needs fine attention. And nothing is new With memories so old — I still need that warm transformation.
The actually physiology of your ears might help you pray in silence. I’m intensifying my contemplative prayer practice during Lent and thinking about how to get above, below or behind the chatter of my churning brain. It has to do with hearing the silence for me. It has to do with tuning in to the sound of quiet, listening to my inhale, listening to my exhale, and letting everything I’ve heard lead me to a state of mind and heart in which I know God is very near. I’m not just trying not to think or speak, I’m trying to listen to things I don’t always hear. I need a daily reminder that I can hear more than I hear and see more than I see. I need to make regular contact with the infinite love that propels my life. The meditation can start with what I’m actually hearing. My experience in contemplative prayer is an occasional sudden woosh of quiet in which the Fullness fills me. Only onomatopoeia serves to describe the sudden sound of silence that precedes my most conscious presence to the Presence. If I remember similar sounds of sudden silence it helps me skip through the initial stage of settling I must pass through every time I sit. Here is a poem to honor those sounds and maybe push my readers through whatever stops them from hearing and seeing more than they yet know they can.
The Sudden Silences
The moment when the starlings start to fly A sudden hush fills ears to empty brims, As trees spill noisy swarms into the sky, Now silenced by their million-feathered wind.
The moment when you surface from the wave– Quick roar and dive replaced by quiet now, This loud emergence from the barrel’s cave, When soundless voice of awe suggests you bow.
The moment when the fading ember tone Of singing bowl’s long resonance goes out, And I am left with silent thoughts alone To snuff, so I can hear the Silence shout.
These moments come to mind and ear, thank God, To aid my aim to trust Thy staff and rod.
Here’s a sonnet trying to capture a moment and make it more than it was, and exactly what it was. It was with a bird, of course. Happy Friday!
The hawk’s flight flew me as we went along Together for a pair of football fields In perfect flapping union. I’m not wrong To say so even though I had to yield To traffic as he whirled away from view And my quick craning neck could Oh! But catch A fading sense of where he must have flew. But let my mind be forever feather etched, May flying be remembered as my own, May that correlation of car and wing Persist among the things my heart has known, And may whizzing wheels forever sing Of more than locomotion on a road — Of soaring joy and glory overflowed.
I came to the event because I care deeply about this issue as a matter of my Christian discipleship. When Jesus said in Matthew 25 that we would see him when we visit people in prison I think it’s pretty straightforward. “The least of these” clearly include everyone in prison. The hopeless situation so many people find themselves in when they, for whatever reason, find themselves involved with the US criminal justice system, is a place that Christians are called to go. I have only been face-to-face with people while they were incarcerated once, but I know many people who have come out of the system and faced innumerable challenges as a result of their incarceration. This event was a golden opportunity to be face-to-face with people who were willing to tell their story and help us to understand the gravity of the problem we face in this country. For an excellent primer on Mass Incarceration and the Christian mandate, watch the video at mcc.org/stories/mass-incarceration-christian-mandate
The event helped the participants learn about and even feel about this injustice by playing a game that MCC developed called “You Got Booked.” It’s an interactive board game, kind of like monopoly, where each player assumes a character who starts the game with various resources. It is true to reality in that the people of color have a disadvantage, both in the rules that apply to them and the resources with which they begin the game.
I played the game as Professor Patrick, a 43 year old black male with a college degree, who started the game with money, a job, no criminal record and a house. By the end of the game I had gone to jail three times which means I lost. The two white characters, as almost always happens in the game according to ChiChi Oguekwe who has facilitated the game many times, made it all the way around the board, one of them getting paid regularly because of his investments in the private prison industry.
When I went to jail after a traffic stop I lost my job and my house. How often does a life fall apart because of incarceration? Pretty often — you can imagine, right? When I got out the first time I had a criminal record, no job and no housing, which made it almost impossible in the game for me to not go back to jail. Restrictive parole regulations, disadvantages in employment opportunity and the color of my character’s skin all made it very difficult to not go back to jail.
It was incredibly frustrating to say the least. The game functions as a parable of the criminal justice system. It does not focus on the crimes that any of the individuals committed, just on how the system works once you’re in it, and the disproportionate likelihood that you will get in it if you are not white. The dominant narrative in our country about this issue mostly focuses on individual responsibility and the rule of law. Mercy is not at play in policy making or many of the perspectives that even Christians hold in evaluating the decisions of those policy makers. As a people called to reconciliation, we who follow Christ must change our perspective and see people as the beloved ones of God they are, no matter what they have done. Wisdom and an enduring desire for public safety lead me to conclude that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are incarcerated who should not be. Why is punishment paramount in our perspective if we are Christians?
The game is peppered with revealing facts and figures read by the facilitators. ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator, and John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, MCC Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator, were our facilitators. The game can be so frustrating that they are trained in not just helping participants play but also process the intense emotions that often come with it.
Playing the game with Marsha Banks of amiracle4sure.com and Eddie McCreary of friendsoverfences.org made it an even more enriching experience. At one point during the game, Marsha suggested that a person who had lost the game by being sent to jail three times remain standing in jail instead of sitting down. She said that it would be a symbol of how many people feel stuck and without hope. The game offered that kind of visceral connection to the difficulties people face. It was an opportunity to feel it, even in our bodies.
Then we got to learn some first-hand stories from people who lived through it. Marsha Banks and Eddie McCreary told their stories of incarceration and reentry into the community. Holding on to hope was a major struggle. Stephen Sands, the Executive Director of Friends Over Fences, joined them in a panel discussion facilitated by Curtis Book of the BIC Peace and Justice Project, and, until very recently, also of MCC.
For both Marsha and Eddie their faith played an important role in their hope conservation as they struggled in prison and when they were released. Marsha gave birth in prison and had to fight to get custody of all of her children, which she did, and she got a masters degree! Eddie was incarcerated for 36 years and experienced several incredible miracles to fuel his faith in Jesus and his hope for his future. One of my favorite things he said had to do with something that happened recently. After losing a job he said “It was God’s math. I put out two resumes and I got four jobs!” The network he was connected to via Friends Over Fences before he was released played an important role in the multiplicative math of the Kingdom community,
Obviously, Marsha’s and Eddie’s experience with God and God’s people helped them, which I think ought to encourage us who follow Jesus to find ways to participate in community with people like Marsha and Eddie. Looking for hope in a hopeless situation is a community project that should not be left to just those afflicted by the injustice of our criminal justice system. This is our issue, too, and these are our people.
If you wish to bring some of your hope to this situation, check out Friends Over Fences. They write letters to people who are incarcerated and have resources for them when they are released; like job leads, furniture and temporary housing (housing is a major impediment to many potential parolees). A Miracle 4 Sure, the organization that Marsha Banks started, provides housing and other resources to people in Dauphin, Lancaster, York, Mifflin, Juniata, Franklin and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to Mechanicsburg BIC Church for hosting the event, MCC for sending John-Michael and ChiChi and all of the participants. Curtis Book, Harriet Sider Bicksler and I (Ben White) count it a joy to help instigate this dialogue. Let us know if you would like to bring the “You Got Booked” game to your congregation, youth group, small group or other organization. Email [email protected] or just leave us a comment. You can also join the BIC Peace and Justice Project group on Facebook.
When darkness burns a hole in all our views, And knowledge-ash-curled edges seed dismay, Can we know anything we know we knew? Will you show us all and call this today? We see few truths with heartless, burned out eyes; Twice-seared with every disappointment first, And second by the fire’s condemning lies. These leave us twice blind with nothing but thirst To guide us stumbling on dark wisdom’s feet; We’re senselessly grasping all with death’s grip, Our sockets sooted, our hearts incomplete, Mistakenly naming as oceans each drip. Dawn bright, O Dayspring, name this as night– Shine on and show us our shadowy sight.
Poem and photo by Ben White (Thanks to Gwyneth White for her assistance)
Talking about Yoga with Some Christian Yogis (#kamikazeyogi)
I’ve been looking for someone like the Reverend Kevin Flynn, an Anglican priest from Canada who practices yoga and writes about it. Yoga is a major part of the life of many people I love, and many people in the region to which God has sent me. I need help developing the theology of the intersection between Yoga and Christianity. I have tried yoga some, especially through the influence of my friend Anita Grace Brown. For Lent one year I listened most mornings to her podcast It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere in which she offers guided meditations with body movement suggestions. I liked the physical submission of doing what I was told in my earbuds and the variation of prayer, which was both distinct and similar to my usual practice of stillness and contemplation. It was a great way to focus.
Not surprisingly, Anita and I talk about this intersection all of the time. This week, she shared this post with me from Flynn, World religions: Christian Approaches and Reflections on his website christianspracticingyoga.com. Anita is writing a book about her experience with Jesus and yoga called Kamikaze Yogi. I can’t wait to read it. It seems like she and Flynn are on the same wavelength, so I appreciate premeditating with this post.
How Inclusive is Jesus? (and How Exclusive are we?)
Flynn wants Christian to consider their posture toward other religions. He offers some common perspectives to help us identify. Anita and I are essentially always dancing around the divide between what Flynn calls the “Exclusivist View” and the “Inclusivist View.” Personally, for right now, I think I am closer to Flynn’s more generous subset of the “exclusivist” view, but I share his generosity and posture, or try to, toward other holy people. This is Flynn’s paragraph that gets close to my perspective:
“A variant of [the exclusivist] view sees value in the human search for God but holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ fulfils and perfects these aspirations. This approach often speaks of non-Christian religions as “natural religions” and Christianity as “revealed religion.” While this variant ascribes real value to the natural religions, Christianity remains nevertheless inherently superior.” — Reverend Kevin Flynn
The language of superior or inferior is not quite right. I would say salvific or not salvific. The aim of Jesus is not well-being or holy living of his followers, though they are by-products of relationship with him. I don’t know how God will judge on the last day, so I don’t have to make any conclusions. In fact, Jesus tells me not to (Matthew 7:1-6); but I do know what Jesus said about himself and the great lengths that he went to in order to center himself as the means of salvation for all people. He seems to frustrate other paths intentionally, especially those which try to center religious practice. In the Gospels he seems like he really wants people to connect with him for who he is, not for what he offers. He wants a love connection, not a subscription to a system.
I want people to experience that connection with Jesus and I think anyone can through an explicit relationship with the real, living person Jesus is. He may be up to other things he didn’t talk about in scripture but these other ways are speculative. I’m a Bible guy, so I offer what I have been given without much sense of responsibility to codify things happening beyond that. Though I am intrigued and interested in the actual yogis I know, especially my friend, Anita, but also her friends and the others folks I’m always meeting. There are A TON of people interested in yoga, so I am interested too.
Following Paul in Athens (Acts 17 is the G.O.A.T.)
When it comes relating to World Religions I think a “yes, and” posture is the best. Like Paul in the Areopagus in Athens.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
I would liken the technique of yoga to the gold or silver or stone in Paul’s speech, but not in a dismissive way (I don’t think Paul is being dismissive either). I see yoga as an amazing means for personal well-being made by human design and skill. At its best it brings people very near to an understanding of themselves as people who are in God — living and moving and having their beings. But the means of salvation which is Paul’s proclamation, and, according to Paul, God’s command, is that we need to repent — turn around. I think among the plurality of yogis I know, this repentance is turning from trusting the technique that they can control to trusting the living God that gives them the breath that leads their focused movement. Unfortunately, yoga in the United States is more often than not a commodity to be sold. The product is self-control, which when submitted to the Body of Christ as a gift from the Holy Spirit is incredibly fruitful, but when wielded for purely personal well-being it ends up being another source of misery. It’s even worse when it is as a means of wealth generation alone. The maintenance of the tyranny of self that separates so many from God can be found as ubiquitously as the God who is “not far from any one of us.”
Thank God for Christian Yogis like Anita (and Kevin Flynn)
That’s why I’m so glad Anita is doing what she does. Yoga needs Jesus. But yes, the church also needs yoga, because the Western Church has been so dominated by Enlightenment rationality that many are divorced from their bodies completely and miss out on the wholeness of human experience that yoga undeniably affords many who practice it. Anita always says, “It’s East meets West.” God is doing a new thing. What Paul did in Athens was shocking then, so we must listen now to the Spirit and move with where God is moving next. Because God is not done calling all nations to himself, and humanity is still reaching out and finding him in surprising ways.
Will the simplicity of loving my neighbor communicate everything I want to tell the world about Jesus? Will it communicate the same to me? It seems too small, and my particular love seems especially too small. Can love be enough? Jesus says so, but wondering never hurt. This is a bit of a ditty with all it’s “rhymes with cheer” and “enoughs.” I wrote it at Camp Men-O-Lan on a retreat with the Leadership Team of Circle of Hope. Our agenda was loving each other as we enter our next era of leadership, and Circle of Hope’s Daily Prayer that morning had a quote from Teresa of Avila that I wanted to be true:
The surest way to determine whether one possesses the love of God is to see whether he or she loves his or her neighbor. These two loves are never separated. Rest assured, the more you progress in love of neighbor the more your love of God will increase.” — Teresa of Avila
You can hear me reading the poem on Soundcloud here.
Enough of Love?
Wondering if love can be enough– Real enough, in-gear enough To make the Presence clear enough– Of God’s Come-Near-Us-Son?
If my little love coheres enough? Have I made him our dear enough? Do I revere enough To heed my Peerless-One?
Wondering if I’m sincere enough, When loving all those near enough, To my expanding sphere enough, To please my Dearest-One?
And will those I love have ear enough? See him as premier enough? Escape the cavalier enough To open up and hear The-One?
Wondering if my heart appears enough To see his eyes come clear enough– Lifting us from drear enough. To glimpse the Eyes-of-Care
Can I allow this love to steer enough? Can I persevere enough? Can he cast out my fear enough For me to trust the Prize We Share?