Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: cherry hill

To the Graduates of 2021

This is to the graduates – college grads, high school grads, other kinds of grads, too. In my neck of the woods I’m talking to Camden, Pennsauken, Collingswood, Cherry Hill East and West, Haddon Township, Gloucester City, Audubon High Schools, and more. I’m talking to Rutgers, Rowan, the community colleges in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties and more at that level, too. (Much love to the universities that made my home turf, “University City”, in Philly as well). To ALL the graduates, I’m sending you love. What a time to start out with something new! What a time to step into your agency! How much you have had to face! How different were your last two years of school than you had ever expected! What is it like to face THIS world into which you are delivered? Note that last sentence has a question mark and all the others were exclamations. These are my reflections for you but I don’t really know what it’s like. I can only imagine. 

Campesinos and Coffee

When I was 18 I won the oratory competition for my senior class. I delivered a very practiced speech on the injustice of the international coffee trade which featured a campesino in Colombia I had completely invented. I vowed to only ever drink fair trade coffee (And this was when fair trade coffee wasn’t even very much of a thing… AND, and I write this while sipping Dunkin Donuts.) I was very idealistic, and I hadn’t had much time for compromises yet. I’m not recommending compromises to you; I think that vow was better than my current convenience, but it happens. And I’m telling you that it happened to me so I don’t come off as just another old guy pontificating (even if that’s unavoidable).

I also bring up the oratory award because way back then, it triggered a nudge from my class’s sponsor to enter another speech competition to determine who would give the “class address” at our graduation ceremony. This was a separate speech from the “valedictory address” given by the valedictorian and the “Parents Acknowledgment” given by the class president (There were a lot of addresses). So I decided to enter that competition at the last minute, but I needed a speech.

Dad Said Get Mad

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool in our basement as my dad cut my hair and asking him what he thought needed to be said. I’m doing the same thing now as I write this blog. My dad said something like, “I think you should acknowledge the anger. There are all kinds of problems you’re inheriting and those in power don’t seem to care at all.” It resonated with me. 

It sounded like a punk anthem my brothers and I were always playing in the car:

KLOVEROur Way (1995)

“We’re the radiation generation
When we was born I wish iId known
Mom and daddy got the meat
And we got the bone”

I felt that jilted. WTF mom and daddy! Punk may be kind of dead so I went looking for a contemporary example, and it wasn’t hard to find.

AJRWay Less Sad (2021)

I wake up and I’m not so mad at Twitter now
Livin’ sucks but it’s suckin’ just a little now
And I don’t wanna cry no more
So I set my bar real low

Don’t you love it, don’t you love it?
No, I ain’t happy yet
But I’m way less sad

Dang! It’s got that same clear-eyed understanding of how jacked up the world is 25 years later, but so much more resignation. AJR is setting the bar real low with a happy vibe that is dripping with irony. I think that irony is a response to the same anger I was vibing with 20 years ago. Yes, I am officially THAT old, but I don’t think my class has organized a 20 year reunion. By the way, a four year old shouted “old man” at me to his mother’s horror today as I left the Dunkin Donuts. It was too fitting because I had already begun this reflection. In response to her apology I said, “It’s ok, he’s right.”

It’s True, I’m an Old Man, but Can I Be Mad with You?

But this old man still feels jilted even though I have fully arrived at the power position our culture bestows upon me. My dad was less than ten years older than I am right now when he advised me in the basement to express my generation’s anger. That’s sitting heavy on me, for sure, but back to the story…

So I slapped a speech together for the selection committee of the class address. It wasn’t nearly as polished as my coffee speech, which I had delivered dozens of times during Academic Decathlon competitions, and I ended up bombing the delivery. I was not selected, but the class sponsor commended me for the honesty. It was not optimistic mountain climbing success delusions expected at such things. I like to think it was a prophecy. I can’t remember if it actually was.

But there are still many reasons to be angry, my graduating friends. I don’t need to tell you that, but I’d like to be another old guy telling you you’re right. I’d like to be another person listening and nodding their head at least. But more than that I would like to be someone who listens to you and follows, someone who hears the perennial prophecy of June for the same damn problems and does something that makes change. At the very least I would like to change. 

Even though… … … …

It might be impossible, but don’t set the bar real low. Even though there’s no certainty a college degree will get you a job. Even though trade careers are hard to find without some piece of paper or a family connection. Even though crippling student debt is still a sound piece of advice. Even though the racial reckoning that began last summer is resulting in ideological bickering that effectively avoids actually doing anything to address racial inequality. Even though climate catastrophe has moved from the prevention phasee into the adaptation phase. Even though gay folks your age still take their own lives rather than face their community’s refusal to help them know that they belong. Even though no, you “ain’t happy yet,” and “Why would I be happy?” seems like a very reasonable retort. Is it possible not to set the bar real low? You can give up on old guys like me, but don’t give up on yourself. There is a future.

And it doesn’t have to be you. 

There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you… but it can be. 

But Also Jesus

I believe the future is inevitable and it is good. Even if we leave the bar on the floor, there’s more than what we hope for, whether it’s low or high. Don’t give up on the future. One way to keep caring, and I would recommend it, is to follow Jesus, who’s got this whether we do or not. Jesus is doing something bigger than mountain climbing optimism or soul crushing acceptance of inevitable disaster. 

I think Jesus can help you become old and still love it when the young people are mad. Maybe you won’t compromise on fair trade coffee, or whatever else you care about. Maybe you will. But a better “maybe” would be that you get bigger than whether you get it right or not. Maybe that.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye, especially your eyes in the mirror. I can assure you the world is not getting better, but you might be. There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you all by yourself. But the world could use you just as you are right now — whether you care a lot or a little, whether your bar is low or high. I’ve found it works best with Jesus and his people. With them I have made it 20 years without giving up, and hoping for 20 more.

God bless you, graduates. Congratulations on living through impossible times. I think you’re doing great. And I’m listening.

 

Eulogy for the Pinelands

Today I wept tears as I saw the writing on the wall of the Crowne Plaza Ballroom in Cherry Hill. So many of us were there to say “no” to a proposed pipeline conceived to send freshly fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania through the Pinelands to a coastal power plant in Egg Harbor Bay; and yet I knew that the commissioners of the New Jersey Pineland Commission were going to say “yes.” Yes to bottom lines and short term gains. I had my two sons with me. Two boys who I am currently trying to teach how to love the woods. Oliver, 6, asked me when we left before the vote was cast (He had to go to afternoon kindergarten). “What are we going to do if they say “yes.” I told him, “We’ll just have to keep saying ‘no.”

The pipeline is going under a road or in the shoulder for much of it’s 22 mile encroachment in the preserved area. It is likely that much of this landscape of my adopted state will remain preserved during construction, at least until the pipe leaks. I will be able to teach Oliver and Theo how to love the woods there still, but I feel weak against the logic of consumption, and the potential meaninglessness of my “no”– of our “no.” The forest will survive this, but I still feel like something or someone is dead. The foolishness of this vote brings to mind 1 Corinthians 1:18. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I’m smelling some perishing. There is rot in the air. I’m worried it’s in me, terrified it will be in my boys, certain it is in this decision and most of our governments decisions, and slowly becoming resigned to the reality that it is in New Jersey’s Pinelands.

And so I offer this poem as a eulogy and a prayer for the Pinelands:

The sandy soil soaks up sound,
And the needles in the trees don’t shake.
The stillness there is haunting
So bring out your Devil stories.

But the stillness is a welcome cure
To city folk like me
Who need some quiet whispers
And tannin tea stained shorts.

At the summit of a hill named after pie,
Where the sky and trees are endless,
I can smile and in my smaller way can say
That so am I

The Devils live in bottom lines,
Spreadsheets and excellent lies
Of those who should say no
But die instead with yes.

I pray with all the people
Who want more than just what’s theirs;
Who want what’s ours and what’s my sons’:
Trees, water, birds and air!

May your no be no,
And your yes be yes.
You said these words yourself.
Jesus, this time my no is no.

Why not the Whole Delaware Watershed?

 We live in the megalopolis- the swath of concrete dominated land that stretches from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. In my neck of this urban and suburban mass of human concentration, the boundaries slip and slide like hikers boots on wet, mossy rocks. One minute you’re in Haddon Township, the next minute you’re in Haddon Heights, cross the street and you’re in Haddonfield. I can say now, after 3 months on the job (Monday was my 3 month-a-versary as Pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent- woot!) that I’m getting the hang of how these municipalities work. I’m probably more attuned to the boundaries then most people who have lived here all their lives. It’s kind of like when I learned English grammar by learning Spanish. All the grammatical rules which I had intuited in my mother tongue needed a name and a category when I had to memorize them in a second language. Folks who aren’t so new to the area are often not as interested in where exactly all the borders are. Their lives have their beaten paths and it’s not really important that the coffee shop is in Pennsauken and the Wegman’s is in Cherry Hill.  I’m taking a lesson from this indifference to boundary lines when it comes to Circle of Hope.

Circle of Hope exists over and across a lot of different borders. The one I am most attuned to in my new role is the Delaware River that is a state line and major psychological boundary for a lot of people. Living on the Eastern banks of the Delaware means I do not live on the Western banks; this is an inescapable fact. But Circle of Hope as a movement scoffed at the mighty Delaware’s capacity to divide us when we planted a church in South Jersey 7 years ago.  And this is really great.

A friend of Circle of Hope creates cool maps and I bought the one pictured above last week because I was inspired by the Delaware River.  I had this fun thought. We’re all part of the same movement, AND we’re all part of the same watershed! The Delaware drains our creeks and gutters to the sea. We share a vital resource and the earth channels us together. We have three congregations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, but we have 4 in the Delaware watershed!

This excited me enough to trace the path of the Delaware up to Delaware County, New York where the Eastern Branch of the Delaware and Western Branch of the Delaware flow together to form OUR Delaware River. What if we, as Circle of Hope set our sights on expanding throughout the Delaware Watershed. The Megalopolis is too big and it’s borders are arbitrary. The Delaware has changed but it takes her a lot longer. There’s a stability in her flow that seems more substantial than any of the other borders I know. And if we see her as a point of unity for our movement we could be directed by her. Maybe I’m just geeking out on my new map, but if we want to spread the love of Jesus throughout our watershed, it would take Circle of Hope to Reading and Allentown, and Trenton.  It takes us not to New York City but Binghamton, New York. Then Philadelphia is our biggest city (as it should be!) and Circle of Hope in most of the other towns we make it to looks a lot like what we’re trying to do in Pennsauken- draw people together for Jesus sake across a lot of dividing lines. I think our united watershed would be another fun way to bring us together for our common cause, and to spur us forward in our ambition to see God’s redemption project advancing.