Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: collingswood

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.

 

Why Showing Up is Even More Important in Advent

Ordinary Pilgrims

One of the simplest and best reasons to have a Sunday meeting is that we need to show up. We need to do something with our bodies to give substance to the faith we profess or it will shrink. Getting up, dressing the children and piling them into the car on Sunday morning, or missing the evening football game, or scheduling to get off from shift work during the commercial high-gear season are all great acts of faith. The importance of just making it to the meeting should not be underestimated. It does something to us to do something. Getting in your car and driving to the meeting (I live in South Jersey so for many of us that’s the only way to get there) is a pilgrimage worthy of appreciation.

Jesus’ Specifics and Ours

We especially need to do something in Advent, the season of expectation before Jesus finally comes on December 25th. Advent is all about the Incarnation — God made flesh. Jesus is moving into our actual neighborhood — Pennsauken, Collingswood, Oaklyn, Moorestown, Gloucester City, Buena, Haddon Township, Mullica Hill … the list goes on in our wide South Jersey region. Jesus first came to a specific place and time — a little Palestinian town called Bethlehem (where Christ followers have a hard time following Jesus these days).

All the practicalities of his birth were no small feat. His parents were pushed around by a powerful empire even during the very physically delicate moment of pregnancy. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not his home town of Nazareth to fulfill two prophecies about where the Messiah (God’s anointed one) was from (Micah 5 and Matthew 2:23). We know all about the people who were there and the family into which he was born, and even the stars that were in the sky. It’s an incredible amount of detail that Luke discovers in his careful account of Jesus’ birth. From the names of the rulers, to the impromptu crib, it all matters.

Advent Details

Our details matter too. How we schedule our weekends could take on a heightened sense of importance during this season as well. A way to really prepare for the baby Savior would be to show up every Sunday in Advent (10:30 a.m. and/or 6:00 p.m. at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ on December 2, December 9, December 16, and December 23). You can also show up to our Advent Worship Relief events, concentrated times of worship and prayer to welcome this strange baby and embrace our own peculiar selves (7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4 at 5720 Ridge Ave, PHL; Thursday, December 13th at 2007 Frankford Ave, PHL; and Wednesday, December 19th at 3800 Marlton Pike, Pennsauken, NJ)

The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Anyone at All

When you show up, there will be ways to connect your heart, soul, mind and strength. Our theme is “Welcoming the Stranger.” Jesus is paradoxically the stranger who needs our welcome and the strange one who welcomes us into our own strangeness, ready to meet us there. We want to embrace our own strangeness because we all feel so peculiarly ourselves, which can, at times, feel incredibly lonely. Jesus felt this too and entered into the fullness of human experience (part of that being the sometimes unbearable loneliness of being anyone at all). Being somewhere specific like a Sunday meeting, for a Godward purpose, enunciates that human experience and gives it more meaning. The fact that Jesus crossed time and space to be with us as a human baby (and then man) elevates our own human experience. This strange reality we live in was embraced in all its detail by God as one of us. We need to reenact that every year, at least. It’s too wonderful and strange not to easily lose hold of.

We Need To Practice

We want  to practice overcoming our resistance to who Jesus really is (and who we really are in Christ). He was not everything the people he came to wanted. If we are honest he is not everything we want either, but we believe that deep down we crave the simplicity of his birth, right down to all the specifics of it.

The Design Teams at 3800 Marlton Pike have turned our meeting space into a nursery of sorts which the children will help us deconstruct week by week. All the gadgets and “necessities” of many modern babies need to be stripped away. This will mirror the process of stripping away the expectations, fears and resistance on our insides that we need to acknowledge. Artistically and liturgically externalizing that process is why we need to be there together. That’s hard to do alone. We want to break down the barriers between us and Jesus (and subsequently ourselves and others), so we can better welcome the strangers in our lives (Jesus, refugees, our own hidden parts and more).

So show up! You need the drama. You need the real thing. I know God will be there. Will you?

South Jersey is Different

My Newjerzaversary

Yesterday was the one year mark of my New Jersey home ownership. July 9th will be my residential anniversary (my newjerzaversary). I moved to Haddon Township to get deeper into the region that God called me to as the pastor of Circle of Hope’s South Jersey Congregation. A lot has changed for me and my family in the last two and a half years (since I became pastor)! Our life is very different, because South Jersey is very different from Philly.

One of the things I love about God sending me to South Jersey is that my wife and I are really rather rabid Philadelphians. Moving out of our beloved city of brotherly love reminds us every day that we did something pretty huge for God. It was hard, and how God has brought us through that hardness puts a wondrous grin on my face every time that change hits me.

It hit me again this morning when I read a philly.com article about Philadelphia area fireworks displays. The South Jersey towns were included way down at the bottom of the article below several ads. Pennsylvania was first with a whole bunch of Pennsylvania suburbs listed. Some of them were up to 45 minutes outside of the city, but Jersey was separate, below the digital fold. Audubon, Barrington, Haddon Township, Collingswood, Gloucester City, and more all have pretty decent fireworks displays. You can see a fireworks show in South Jersey within 10 minutes of Philly every night through next Tuesday starting tomorrow. Check out the kids activities blog Kim writes for if you really love fireworks, seriously. After I read the philly.com article I had to call her to commiserate with a South Jersey native to say, “Wow, they really don’t care about us at all, do they?” I have become part of the “us” that is South Jersey. I am Circle of Hope in a very symbolic way. Our “we” crosses the Delaware. We are not respecters of divisions and categories that separate us.

How did the love grow?

This love for South Jersey did not happen because I love jug handles, or tiny municipalities piled on top of each other, or high property taxes, or even a great neighborhood school for my kindergartner. It happened because I love the people. I love Circle fo Hope and I love the people to whom God has called us to express his love.  Becoming a “we” and maintaining the “we-ness” is a big part of what I do as the pastor of Circle of Hope because we really think that it’s how we love each other that best shows the world who Jesus is and what his life among us does. I am grateful to God that he has included me in a “we” even bigger than our expression of the Church. The contrast is still very stark for my Philly-boy eyes and I’d rather it never fade, because it motivates me to get out there into all these tiny towns and the intricacies of the beautiful lives of the people who live there.

Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting in Pensauken is moving too (in August)

We’re on the move as a congregation too. We’re still meeting at 3800 Marlton Pike on Sundays but soon we will be meeting at two different times. 10:30 am and 5pm. We think that more of those lovely people will be able to connect with these opportunities than two evening meetings like Circle of Hope’s Philly congregations have always done. The dry run of the newly designed evening meeting was this past Sunday. I was so excited to see a group of people who are mostly younger than 25 getting serious about how to make church something in which their friends actually want to participate. Take it from me, the change ends up to be very fun, even if it doesn’t seem like it will be at the outset. God moves with us when we move and we see him in new ways when our routines and daily routes change. Moving our meeting to 10:30 am and making way for a new group gathering at 5 :00 is an opportunity for God to move in a bunch of new ways among us. I’m praying that in the near future we will look back together on the hardness of this big change with a wondrous smile.

Elephants can swim and other surprises

Yeah, elephants can swim. Who knew right? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. It’s incredible that this 4 ton creature is even buoyant, but it’s true.

Some scientists believe that long ago elephants may have swam the 40 miles from the Indian mainland to Sri Lanka. I think this is crazy! What would possess an animal like an elephant to swim for it through the ocean?!

I’m imagining the first group of elephants that came to the edge of India and waded into the surf. Let’s assume that this is how it happened, because the other theory is that a land bridge (called Adam’s Bridge or Rama’s Bridge depending on who you ask) existed into the 15th century. But let’s just say they had to swim. “We know how to swim,” they said, “But we’ve never swam that far. We can see that there is land out there, across the ocean, and this land over here is getting crowded. We need more food.  We need to move on to what is next. But can we swim that far? Will the current be too strong? Will the little ones make it? Will there be food there? Is it impossible?”

This is the type of uncertainty that is par for the course when you start working with God. We say in Circle of Hope  “We are called to move with what the Spirit is doing next.” The next thing is not always easy to do or even easy to see.  It takes a disciplined ear and an openness to the Spirit to discern what is next. It’s often a lot easier to settle into what is. Changing meets a lot of resistance every time.

But God is relentless. Constantly calling us forward into something new. Some new territory, some new cell, some new team, some new experience. God is the opposite of static. I think this is because the world is so complex and God is forever gauging our actions for ways to bring about the future he has promised. We see it time and time again in the Bible- an elephant-swimming-from-India-to-Sri-Lanka type leap in how God is relating to people.

When I read the Bible as if I was one of the people in it I find myself saying “Are you sure that’s what you wanted to do there? Are you sure, God, that this is what you had planned?”  Yep, elephants can swim and God is even more ridiculous sometimes.

The crazy leaps, the surprises, the next-ness of the New Testament is inspiring to me. Nothing is final. Your estimation of yourself is almost certainly undervalued. The world is a crazy place but God is faithful- marvelous in the true sense of the word.

The marvel that I am basking in this week is that my friend Adam is alive. He said it best as quoted in the Inquirer article about his near drowning after having a seizure and driving into the Cooper River, “It didn’t make sense,” said Nicely, … “Maybe it’s a miracle. I can’t imagine dying that way. It seems silly.”

The neighbors, strangers, and Police Officers who played roles in saving his life were incredibly quick to respond. It does seem like a miracle–a great surprise. But the surprises have kept on coming this week.  Adam and his family are flooded with support from the whole region- Collingswood neighbors, to well-wishing strangers- to Inquirer authors.

But aren’t all these people are just like the swimming elephants. Elephants have been able to swim for a long time — long before I knew about it. These people were already great at loving a needy man and his family — I just didn’t know them. That unveiling of joy and goodness is heartening to me as we move into what is next. If these other people are capable such marvels, how capable then must we be as well? The uncertainty of what is next is lessened by experiencing the faithfulness of God wherever we can find it. You can count on being amazed.