Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: community

Starbucks’ Implicit Bias is Our Bias

starbucks implicit biasToday Starbucks closed all of it’s coffee shops in the morning to train their employees on implicit bias. I want to talk about this too, though I think my tiny blog might get lost in the internet noise. I have friends (mostly white) who are interested in this conversation because it seems to highlight a construct that divides people instead of unites them. Why would we dig around in our experience for negativity? Isn’t the world already negative enough?  I was inspired this weekend by John A. Powell’s gentleness in approaching the conversation. I think he’s on to something and I want to run with what he’s given us.

John A. Powell was interviewed by Krista Tippett on her radio show/podcast “On Being” in 2015. You can read the full transcript or listen to it HERE. He spoke about the basic human need of belonging. “The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health. And if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.” This resonated with me deeply 1) because I am a human being and 2) because Circle of Hope, the church of which I am a pastor, believes that belonging is the core of the Good News that Jesus brought us. Belonging to one Body, interconnected and so not alone we are the “anti-alone-ness”, is the destiny of  humanity and the fullness of Creation’s purpose. When that dependence on togetherness becomes part of a public conversation, my ears perk up. Dr. Powell had much to say that I think you needed to hear, but I’ll quote just a few paragraphs.

How do we make [belonging] infectious? How do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to sort of organize around anger and hate. And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions, certainly Gandhi, certainly the Reverend Dr. King — and I always remind people he was a reverend. It wasn’t just Dr. King. Even though he came out of a violent revolution — Nelson Mandela — he just — again, I met him personally — he just exuded love. And as you know, he had a chance to leave prison early. He refused to unless it included structuring the country. He actually tried to actually lean into a notion of beloved community. He actually didn’t want the blacks to control or dominate the whites. He wanted to create — so his aspiration — and he’s loved. Even today, he’s loved in South Africa, and he’s loved around the world.

morgan freeman even though he's sleezyIn Circle of Hope we have received this message. We believe in the power of love, or at least we have declared this when we pledged allegiance to Jesus who, as God, is love. The one who died for all was showing us what love was. 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” We have become not only advocates for this new perspective on love, but also demonstrators of it. Circle of Hope is a living experiment designed to prove the power of love. The way John A. Powell speaks, at least in my earbuds, exudes love too. Later in the conversation he makes it clear that he is not a theist, but his attraction to this love pulls him toward its source. He is a co-conspirator with Christ if not yet an avowed participant in Christ’s resurrection life.

Powell’s approach is inherently generous. Gandhi’s, King’s and Mandela’s love as individuals has been deconstructed. Hero worship is not allowed anymore, which is fine, but leaves us with no champions for love, except for Jesus I guess. I like how Powell steps around Mandela’s violent beginnings. Just watch “Invictus” to get some warm feelings for Nelson Mandela (I hope the warm feelings can transcend the fact that newly exposed Morgan Freeman is the actor). Mandela was incredibly creative and persistent in uniting post-apartheid South Africa. No political conflict of which I am aware has been more creatively transformed.

These political titans, Gandhi, King and Mandela, are good to mention because they are well known. They are well known because they changed the world in big ways. But they were successful because they were able to build a movement. This seems obvious but must be said because, today, it seems hard for any of our conversations to coalesce into anything. Every individual has their own opinion and experience which is infinitely valuable. That is a critique and a statement of my truest belief. Yes, every individual is infinitely valuable and their experience matters. This is true because God loves them, but also because I do. I do not have infinite capacity to demonstrate that love to them or to even know them, but I’m following my leader. To have a movement that transforms the environment as much as it needs to be transformed we will need to follow some sub-God level leaders. This will require the generosity that Powell extends to his heroes. It will require enough of us to follow someone who is close enough–someone whom we can get behind enough to make something happen. They will not reflect every one of our beliefs or speak to every one of our experiences, but if we are to harness our belonging to make a world in which we want our children to live then we must go with someone for the sake of a cause.

Starbucks is not an adequate leader and their training today is mostly a publicity stunt in my opinion. But the writing is on the wall, corporations will be the moral leaders of the future. I can lament this even as I accept that far less than optimal future and find brands to buy from which reflect my values (this may be more valuable political action than most people think). If rich people are running the world, and politicians continue to sell themselves for the privilege to unleash corporations on us, then I would like a corporate leader who might do some good. Thus, implicit bias training is border-line good.

John A. Poweel is gentle

John A. Powell

But I have friends who think it is far from good. Again, they believe that this emphasis on bias might actually instill in us the negative biases it intends to address. Which came first, the bias or the bias training? John A. Powell spoke about this with Krista Tippett,

It’s sort of unfortunate we call it “bias” because it’s really — implicit means unconscious or not fully conscious. And the reality is everyone has that. That’s the human nature. And what’s in our implicit biases are social. They’re not individual. So in a society where we treat blacks a certain way — and we’ve done this. We looked at 11 million words that most people use over their lifetime. How frequently do you use “black” with negative? And it’s very high. It’s like 40-50 percent of the time. So all the time. That’s what you hearing, that’s what you’re seeing, that’s what you’re hearing. It’s the air that we breathe. You breathe that until you’re an adult, you’re going to have those associations. Whites will have them. Blacks will have them. Latinos will have them. If you have negative associations in a society about women, men will have them and women will have them. But they’re social. So we have negative associations in this society about Muslims. They don’t have those negative associations in Turkey. So those associations are social. So part of it means that we have to look at what those associations are and where they come from. And we can create some prophylactic thing. But ultimately, we need to change the environment itself.

The question is not “Am I biased?”; the question is “Is there bias?” This is a very important distinction for anyone who reacts negatively to the idea of implicit bias training. This part of Krista Tippett and John A. Powell’s conversation comes after a well made case that human beings not only long to belong but they inherently belong. Our togetherness is automatic, not only psychologically but socially. We are connected whether we like it or not, but luckily most of us do. The narrative of separateness is not as strong as we have made it to be. For 1) it breeds loneliness like the plague, but 2) it tries to erase something un-erasable – our brain’s demand for patterns and our heart’s desire to belong. So when we evaluate something at an individual level, no generalization is true.

Some white person might say “I am not biased about black people” which, ironically, is basically a racist thing to say in some company. And now the conversation is about finding the bias that this bias-denier has. That person is not getting with the neo-orthodoxy so they must be against us (the orthodox). John A. Powell steps around this horrible foundation for a conversation by evaluating the environment, not the individual. This is not about you, this is about the environment. And if you discover you have bias, fine, but we all agree there IS bias, and until there isn’t WE have a problem. It’s a very communitarian way to have this conversation. It saves the individual from guilt which often derails the conversation (Guilt is never good motivation to do anything), and it unites us in the WE of which we are a part already and which we all need to become more aware.

I welcome this direction and I think we Christians are especially well suited for it because we are explicitly connected. Our explicit bias is for connection and welcome, whether we actually achieve our desires is up for debate. Nonetheless, we know what we want and what Jesus wants, to be One body in Christ. The earliest description of the church in Acts 2 (shout out to Pentecost, the most underrated Christian Holiday!) says that they shared everything in common. I don’t see why we can’t hold these biases in common too.

What did you say about sex?

“How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.” I used this proverb from Circle of Hope’s collection in my talk at our Sunday meeting as an example of the type of unity and vulnerability to which we aspire. I was saying, whoa, if we want to go that deep with each other, we’ll have to go pretty deep with God too. The only way to trust each other that much is to trust God.

After the meeting, my cell mates (people who are in my cell) were like, “What were you saying about sex?” I hadn’t really unpacked the proverb. I thought others might be just as mystified by my lack of explanation.

When Jesus said “the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8) he was expressing something about how God designed sex. It’s true because God said so, and because we can see how it is true from our own experience. Harville Hendrix, a psychologist, wrote a book called “Getting the Love You Want,” which describes a way of relating to a spouse that considers the deep emotional nature of sex. His theory is that we are working out some of our basic unmet needs of childhood when we are having sex. Sex is an activity that is so primal it gets down to the core of our pre-conscious selves. Hendrix calls this our “lizard brain” –our primordial selves. Sex gets us into the depths whether we know it or not. This is why most people grow out of random sexual encounters and long for monogamy. They are waking up to the hollowness of meaningless sex. They are learning that sex is a door to a part of themselves that is often untouched. Touching it unconsciously leads to many unpredictable and undesirable results. The best environment for it, says Hendrix (and Jesus), is in a life long commitment because it might take that long to work that stuff out, and the type of safety needed for that intimacy zone is best achieved through marriage.

So at the very least, sex is deeply psychological, but I don’t stop there. When we get into that realm of who we are, we are talking about spiritual matters as well. It is in these deeper parts of ourselves that God needs to heal us most and where God often connects with us. “Deep calls to deep,” says the psalmist. Sex is spiritual. I think that most people believe this, even folks who aren’t Christian. Perhaps sex is overly spiritualized by some, and it is definitely worshiped by others (Like Wild Beasts in their song Mecca), but the fact that it is spiritual remains. (Do you agree?)

And who we are spiritually matters to the spiritual community. Our collective body is driven by the Holy Spirit and our connection and submission to the Holy Spirit effects the spiritual health of the body. “If one part suffers, we all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Our cultural tendency to keep our sex private is not misguided. Certain traditions of modesty help maintain the special relationship spouses have in their love making which I think needs to be protected. However, our brotherhood and sisterhood ought to make room for relationships that help make those relationships healthy and strong. That’s hard to do in isolation. Sex needs to be discussed at times, especially when there are problems in the relationship or the sex is occurring outside of marriage.

Reducing sex to a matter of individual rights is not deep enough. It does not acknowledge the depth of human experience, and the depth of God’s design for sex. Some groups have, because of oppression, responded to the powers by demanding their rights related to human sexuality (I’m thinking women and homosexuals). This was an understandable (and life saving in some cases) response that has begun quite a bit of societal change, however I don’t think it needs to re-categorize sex within the realm of rights forever. I hope it doesn’t. I understand historically why that has occurred but I’m praying that a couple more decades will reveal a society in which sex can escape the polemics of rights it has occupied in our cultural consciousness and get back down to the deep place God designed it for.

In the mean time Circle of Hope will continue to wade through the messy, God-inspired vulnerability of life in the Body of Christ, where how we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced to a discussion of private expression or individual rights. It’s difficult but God will help us.

Let’s actually DO something

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Pat looking awesome and super deep at Cooper River

When my new cell started my apprentice, Pat, was adamant that our cell be about actually doing stuff and not just talking about stuff. Pat is like my canary in the coal mine for toxic church fumes. He’s seen it all and still has to intentionally work to let his instinctual defenses down to move forward with what God is doing next in Circle of Hope. Too much of his experience has been mostly a lot of hot breathed ideas about God and how bad most people are.

Pat is leading me to let down my own defenses about what I will ask people to do. I worry too much about whether people will say yes to my questions. I haven’t yet gotten used to being told no for any reason. This is a problem but it is not my point. When Pat got involved with this project of local non profit called Second Chance Outreach Services at the leading of Pam, another person in our cell who was already connected to this organization, he asked us if we wanted to join in and the overwhelming response from the cell was yes.  Even from the guy who isn’t so sure about Jesus: he was “200% interested in volunteering”

We’re partnering with Convoy of Hope and a bunch of other churches in the Camden area to give out a bunch of food, personal services like haircuts, and social services like access to legal advice to 2-3K residents of Camden on September 19th. It’s a big undertaking and Pat got us in on the ground floor.  I never would have found my way into something like this if it weren’t for my cell.

Now of course you’re remembering my comment in the first paragraph about toxic church fumes. “It seems like there are other churches that are actually DOING things too, Ben? What gives with the church bashing?” I guess I’m repenting right now because I do consider these other churches my brothers and sisters and my partners in this event in September, but I am also grateful that the “doing” of Circle of Hope is a grass roots uprising from Pam and Pat and our cell.  Just because I am the pastor and I’m involved doesn’t mean we should support this event financially. A much better guarantee of that is Pat’s passion and initiative backed by the support of his cell.  We don’t want to rob the cell of it’s response to the gospel by subsuming their passion under the work of the church and not their actually DOING something.

We are guarding our capacity to listen to James 1

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror  and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

Pat has a face and it looks a lot like Jesus (in more ways than one- he looks like a classical rendering of Jesus only wearing glasses, and he wants to DO the word). Right after he committed to this event as the leader of the ad hoc team we are forming he got a call from a friend in Boston who wanted him to do a gig with his band, The Tea Club, and of course it was on September 19th! Pat said no.

A New Cell is Born

cell1Out of nowhere, we were sharing our struggles and gathering around Jesus!  A couple of weeks ago I met up with my friend Pat and convinced him we should have a cell in his house.  Last night we met for the first time–seven of us in his comfy living room, eating and not eating cookies (Lent!) and forming a cell.

A cell is the basic building block of Circle of Hope’s body, just like a human cell is the basic building block of our bodies.  For many of you that’s old hat.  But for quite a few people at the meeting last night it was news.  It was wonderful to try to express the beauty of what some of us had experienced and present this way of being the church to a new audience.

We believe that in relationships that form in cell groups we actually get to be Christians.  Anonymity is impossible in a circle so small and people get known.  People’s loveliness gets known and their not so loveliness.  We get the opportunity to speak the truth in love and not just wait for someone to change on their own, or go away if they’re bothering us or if they’re damaging themselves.

One woman told a recent horror story of a family member’s experience with a church.  When she was in a very delicate state the leader blasted her and talked badly about her behind her back.  I blurted out in response, “This is why people aren’t Christians!”  Again and again I hear stories of people being side by side in a church and they never get to know each other, they never have a conflict, they never love each other until some precipitating factor ignites the tinder and hearts are broken–sometimes faith is lost.

I keep coming back to Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Phil. 2:1-2)

If we are actually connected to the living Jesus then we need to do what it takes to be connected to each other.  We have to listen and feel each other out so that we can say with certainty that yes, we are of one mind and one spirit.  The equation can be turned around too.  If we are not of one mind and one spirit are we united with Christ?  I know that Jesus can reach out to us in our isolation–that’s what he has been doing since he was born–but once we become Christians we bear a hefty responsibility to work this stuff out in love.  It takes work.  The cell is a great vehicle for that–it is a weekly discipline that we can build into our lives.  It is costly to our schedules, no doubt, but worth the cost by far.

Last night we were just sharing something about our days and another woman shared what was happening with her and it was instantly recognized as “heavy”.  Her pain was acknowledged and the isolation that she might have felt (because we all feel isolated to a degree- even in a group) melted and started to drip.  God was doing something.  We gathered around Jesus and good things happened.  I’m excited for next week and who we will include in that love.

A Week of Being Jesus

In Circle of Hope we say Jesus is best revealed incarnationally- Here’s a little newspaper of how that worked out for me this past week (spoiler- it did!)

photo 4Monday Afternoon–  When the Compassion Core Team heard about the #ReclaimMLK march happening in Philadelphia they mobilized 200 people from Circle of Hope to show up and join the thousands who marched for fully funded, democratically controlled schools; $15/hr minimum wage and the right to form unions; and a fully empowered, independent police review board and an end to “Stop and Frisk.”  We were acting to resist and empower.  We were calling out our national sin of racism on the prophet Martin’s day.  Circle of Hope has resistance and restoration at the heart of our mission and our peeps responded to the call.  It was a joy to be with so many of my comrades.  Let’s keep marching.  Jesus is with us.

Monday Night– We gathered to approve our plan for the first year of our “Second Act.”  Afterward, the coordinators of Circle of Hope offered me the position as pastor at our congregation at Marlton and Crescent, right off of 130 near the old airport circle.  The “interview” was more of a time for affirmation and exhortation.  I was so grateful to be partnered with such an amazing group of people among whom speaking the truth in love is common place.  They knew my number to 2 decimal places!  They knew me for who I was, strengths and growing edges, and they desired with me the New Self I am becoming in Christ.  I attribute this to years of loving each other but also to the discernment in the Spirit to which they had committed themselves.  I was challenged and encouraged, and warned and loved.

photo 5Wednesday- On Wednesday morning i met with a cell leader at 7:00am in Old City (THAT”S RIGHT 7 AM!)  We drank really good pour over coffee at Minagerie and dreamed about what was next for our mission in Collingswood, NJ; and we got to know each other a bit better–because we’re drawn together not by affinity or even proximity (he moved from far away to be with us), but by our mission and our unique expression of Jesus in the Philadelphia metro.  He’s awesome.  The bike ride was cold.

photo 1Thursday- My Cell group was meeting and my car ended up being a bus.  Everyone piled in as we collected folks from around West and South Philly. It was a fun ride.  One of our cell mates led us in considering Judas’ betrayal.  Another worried about the curses he was reading about in Genesis and we encouraged him with the truth that Jesus has broken every curse.  I have a note card in my pocket with a prayer request from another cell mate (we all swapped them as another cell mate led us to do)  He’s traveling across the country and is thinking of his family here in Philly.  He’s on my mind and on my heart.

photo 2Saturday- At the Love Feast this weekend, our uncommon culture of vulnerability and trust was demonstrated as 13 people joined in our covenant.  At the heart of our church is a group of folks who have explicitly agreed to be a people.  We are dedicated to our common mission and strategy and we hold the whole thing together by our bonds of love in Christ.  At the risk of sounding grandiose, we hold the forces of evil at bay with our bonds of love too (check out the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin for an awesome fictional exploration of this truth.)  When the congregation sang together the room was brimming with the Holy Spirit.  My heart was full, my ears were full, my chest was full.  It was powerful.

photo 3Sunday Afternoon-  My cell and I showed up to help our new friends from Cincinnati move into their new home.  Even though most of the crew was too late to help– because the early birds like me were way too strong and fast :)– I was touched by my cell groups readiness to be there for these folks we barely knew.  Seriously though, how much would it suck to move all your stuff by yourself- that does not happen in community- period.

Sunday Night- The Public Meeting, our weekly party, was full of love too.  The band led us in singing songs, 6 out of 8 of which written by one of our musicians or one of our close allies.  The creativity among us is evidence of Jesus’ Spirit enlivening us, as was the artful presentation and ways to engage that the team designed for us.  Epaphroditus gave us reason to consider what really being uncomfortable might be like (Check out Philippians 4).  And lots of connections were made with new and old friends.

This may be my longest post to date, which is evidence of how much God is doing among us–and this is just my experience!  What’s yours?

What sort of self do you have?

A Balkan born theologian and philosopher, Miroslav Volf, knows how to write a cogent argument!  I’ve copied a rather lengthy quote because it just had to be shared and I think it speaks to our work of inclusion as a community on mission.exlcusion and embrace

“Through faith and baptism the self has been re-made in the image of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul writes.  At the center of the self lies self-giving love.  No “hegemonic centrality” closes the self off, guarding its self-same identity and driving out and away whatever threatens its purity.  To the contrary, the new center opens the self up, makes it capable and willing to give itself for others and to receive others in itself.  In the previous chapter I argued that Paul locates the unity of the church not in the disincarnate transcendence of a pure and universal spirit, but in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah.  Correspondingly, Paul locates the center of the self not in some single and unchangeable–because self enclosed–“essence,” but in self-giving love made possible by and patterned on the suffering Messiah.  For Christians, this “de-centered center” of self giving love–most firmly centered and most radically open–is the doorkeeper deciding about the fate of otherness at the doorstep of the self.  From this center judgments about exclusion must be made and battles against exclusion fought.  And with this kind of self, the opposition to exclusion is nothing  but the flip side of the practice of embrace.” -Miroslav Volf p.71 Exclusion and Embrace

We are prone to exclusion as a way to preserve our identities.  Some post modern people might claim that the self doesn’t have a center.  Volf argues that it most certainly does but that the center of the self is not as important as what sort of self we ought to have.  His argument is that our selves need to be de-centered by the presence of Christ inside us.  The point from this hefty paragraph that most struck me was that pursuit of self enclosed identities “drive[s] out and away whatever threatens its purity.”  Especially in the church, we are with purity.  We want to maintain the good that we have and–mostly unconsciously– exclude those trying to get in.  Much of our identity formation as individuals, and as groups, is in some way violent.  This is as true in Volf’s Balkans as it is in any high school, and even within our church.  We can’t help but keep people out.  Including people then is an expression of Christ inside us and a way to keep the binary star system of our interior universes properly balanced.Binary-stars

Only a de-centered-by-Jesus self can open and include as naturally as we need to in order to grow into the next generation of Circle of Hope.  I am thankful for how God has achieved this in us to a degree and hopeful for how God will proceed.

How do you guard your identity?  How does your self’s center respond to threats against its primacy?  How might we act to be more de-centered?  How will this effect us as a people?  These aren’t rhetorical–let me know what you think!