Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: connection

Why not? A cell with teenagers

There is one teenager in my current cell. It is very interesting to include him in our discussions and find out how he is working with this cell full of adults, and some adults who are a lot older than him. I started participating in cells when I was a teenager and I thought it was the coolest. I was out from under the shadow of my pastor dad’s leadership and free to experience the Circle of Hope community and my own faith for myself. I would describe my teenage discipleship as fairly ambivalent. I had mentally assented to the story of Jesus in the New Testament but I wasn’t very interested in real discipleship-walking in obedience, praying on my own, or sharing my faith as more than an intellectual artifact. However, being in cells allowed me to hang out with people who I thought were cool who were meeting regularly to express their faith. The gravity of those people’s faith and mutuality kept me in orbit long enough for me to have a real encounter with Jesus. I’m hoping that my current cell mate has a similar experience.

I met about 30 teenagers last night who are part of a Christian based service organization who are in need of some more discipleship. They’re in need of some gravity as they are in similar modes of ambivalence about their faith. The culture leads them in a lot of different directions and teenagers, as a matter of their psychological development, identify themselves most strongly by the groups they inhabit. o went to pitch them the idea of a cell as a way to be a group that identifies with Christ. Many of them  interested in forming a cell with me! They were already part of a group that helped them identify as Christians but they wanted more opportunities to get real and go deep – to have faith that was more than ambivalent. They also liked the notion that it would be whatever we wanted it to be. They would be instrumental in inventing this new cell or it wouldn’t happen.

I think, by and large, teenagers are also just bored and lonely. These particular teens live in neighborhoods where the only thing to do is run the streets with unsavory peers. These kids aren’t into that so they sit in the house all day and reach the limits of electronic communion pretty quickly. They want to connect.

So why not? Let’s make a cell of teenagers. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know. It doesn’t exist yet so you could help make it up with them if you want to act now.

Intimacy on screen fuels compassionate hearts

“I always tell them ‘when you hear shots don’t look around to see where it’s coming from- just get down… I never thought I’d be coming out here for my child.”  These are Chris “Quest” Rainey’s words from a short film by Jonathan Olshefski that was screened on Saturday night at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.

Quest-PJs Story About 20 people gathered to watch the premier/rough draft screening of “Quest: PJ’s Story”  PJ is Quest’s daughter who was shot in the eye by a stray bullet in June, 2013.  The story itself is enough to make you cry, but especially so because Jonathan told it in a quiet, unadorned way that brought each person’s humanity and dignity to the forefront and held it there gently with honor.  Tiny details in focus as the bigger story unfolded.  His filmmaking freed the audience to connect with the characters on a deeper level than the sensational surface- a beautiful girl caught in the cross fire in “mean North Philly.”

Those gathered learned afterward in a Q&A session with the Rainey family that this intimacy on screen has its source in the intimacy off screen.  Quest was telling stories of Jon and his friendship over the past 8 years.  Quest welcomed Jon into his world, an underground hip-hop recording studio, and Jon invited Quest into his world, including a wild time at warped tour a few years back when Jon left Quest stranded in New Jersey because Jon left the show in an ambulance to go and get some stitches for his mosh pit injuries.  I was moved by their friendship and hopeful about what God will do in our future.

gun violence prevention sabbath

I put together this film screening with Jon because I had to do something personally to respond to gun violence in our city.  I am torn up about the prevalence of our gun culture and the casual violence it precipitates.  It was a good timing too because Mennonite Central Committee, our international advocacy and development organization, was getting us involved with the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend– a time to focus communities of faith across the country on our increasing culture of violence.

The forming Circle of Hope Gun Violence Prevention Compassion Team hosted the event and I am hopeful that as this group takes shape we will find more ways to share the human stories that stem from easily accessible guns and our country’s idolatrous fascination with firearms.  In the process Circle of Hope will be known for the people of compassion who follow the source of Compassion, Jesus the Christ.  And that is what I am all about.

I won at Quizzo and you can too

The whole "Rhythmic Quiznastics 2016" Team (*name subject to change- every time)

The whole “Rhythmic Quiznastics 2016” Team (*name subject to change- every time)

Last night after literally months of toil, my Quizzo team won a $50 bar tab at New Deck Tavern for our first place finish.  We were very excited.  We were VERY EXCITED.  I was also excited because everyone on the team was a stranger to me a few months ago.  Making friends is hard and it’s at the core of Circle of Hope‘s strategy for making disciples so it’s worth thinking about for a couple of minutes.  We think that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally- as in through our relationships- human to human- flesh to flesh- carne to carne.  But when was the last time you made a new friend?

Some of you will say, “yesterday and last week and this morning.”  Others will say 5 years ago or college or “I don’t really have that many friends.”  I looked at my life about 6 months ago and realized I might have made acquaintances at the “yesterday and last week and this morning” rate but I wasn’t really making very many new actual friends at all.  Whatever the reason for our relative isolations (and they are as numerous as we are), we need to get with Jesus in order to overcome our hang ups to meet the next person and expose them to what God is doing in our life together.  If you can first get over the hang ups you may have about being intentional to share Christ in your relationships then you might want to get down to business and figure out how to make some new friends.

What I’m thinking we have to do is very practical so I made a list (they happen to alliterate so I’m obliged to title them Practical P’s):

1) Prioritize

If you do not make time for new people and new environments you will stay in your rut.  We are creatures of habit, and though many of our habits are very good, we will have to not do some things in order to the other things we have prioritized.  Figuring out how to make time for some new people takes dedication, deal making with family members, and follow through.  Make a plan and do the plan.  Whatever will be what it was before forever.

2) Pray

Making friends is good for anyone regardless of the reasons.  I’m making friends because I want to give people a chance to meet a Christian like me.  I also have a desire to be known and to share who I am with people and for them to share that with me.  We’re wired for it (me especially).  So our prayers are for the fulfillment of our desires as human beings and the fulfillment of our mission as Christians.  It’s neat how there’s no need for compartmentalization.  We pray because we know that we are only scattering seeds, God makes faith grow.  We pray for those who might receive us and we pray that we will have the courage to risk being received and also rejected.

3) Pay attention

Listen to others, see what they are interested in, see where they are hurting and needy.  Bless them with your presence.  By the power of the Holy Spirit we can perceive what many who are consumed in themselves cannot.  I was surprised and subsequently honored by the opportunities I had to listen to my new friends just by making myself available.  I’m convinced that we are all much more isolated than we appear from the outside.  If we listen and look closely, we will find those who are ready.

4) Pursue

It seems we are trained to bounce off of each other.  Hanging out at a bar could easily be ephemeral- a fleeting moment of connection.  But you can look someone up on facebook, or ask them for their number or email.  The tricky part for that for me is that it seems that doing that implicitly expresses a sexual desire in most societal circumstances.  Yeah, it’s just weird- we’re weird and we’ll have to get over it and do the weird thing.  I think that most people feel locked out in that way though.  The opportunities for intimacy are relegated to sexual encounters- and what paltry opportunities most of the time!  It’s hard for a lot of people to connect.  So blurt it out- the worst thing that happens is that you never see them again, and that was going to happen anyway.

How do I escape the stereotype?

I got stuck on the trolley for about 45 minutes last week. I also got stuck being a Christian.

Where much of my conversation occurred- 40th and Woodland

The trolleys were broken down in the tunnel and we were beyond the diversion point. We just had to wait it out.  Instead of being consumed by my fantasy novel I struck up a conversation with the man who sat down next to me. It started with our common inconvenience- a trolley in front of us was broken down in the tunnel and we were stuck behind it and very late for work (we weren’t stressed about it because it was the day after the big snow and we were already heroes for showing up at all). It went deeper when I simply asked him “what are you reading?”

I might have been leery to ask this man this question- he seemed a bit eccentric and I could tell by the titles I spied on his photocopied reading material that his interests were a bit weird too. He was excited to tell me that every clergy person was a charlatan and religion was just a power grab.

I listened and agreed with some of his points- scientists could now describe the forces at work which caused the sun to rise or the moon to be eclipsed which made ancient stories about gods and their daily celestial responsibilities seem false. Religious people had leveraged their spiritual power throughout history to control unlettered people groups.

My new friend considered himself very lettered and he was sure that if we all just thought about things for ourselves logically we would reach the same conclusions that he had reached. I held my tongue as he insulted all religious people but eventually got a turn to speak. I contended that his evaluation of logic as the utmost criteria for reality was not unassailable- how do you logically describe love? I rejected his overly individualistic approach to truth and pointed out that it was just as much an inheritance of the western philosophical domination system as all the other homogenizing force he decried. And I told him that I trusted my own experience of God and appreciated how the stories that had been passed down to me resonated in my heart and with my desire.

stereotypes

As soon as I expressed my faith I was lumped into a category. I was foolish and beguiled.  I was a bleating sheep.  We danced around our points for a while but I don’t think I swayed him. He did concede to me that I wasn’t stupid, just that I had made a choice based on criteria which he had chosen as less important than his own criteria. We parted ways with a smile and a handshake which I consider a victory. At the very least he met a nice articulate Christian who took him seriously.

But afterward I was discouraged.  Maybe I should have just read my fantasy novel.  I didn’t like being lumped.  At one point I said, “Listen, you don’t know me, you can’t put that on me.”  He was putting all the deceit and power of Christian history on my shoulders, but more so he was insisting that my faith was blind.  The moment I have faith I am deceived.  I don’t think there is a way to win that argument.  If I had the opportunity I would just have to prove to him that I wasn’t what he thought I was.   Arguments won’t win the day- only time, relationship and love.  That’s why Circle of Hope organized ourselves into cell groups- so we could create spaces for someone like him to have that opportunity.  God will have to work with this guy a bit more before he’s ready to get into a cell but if he did, it would be great fun!  Let’s pray for those we know like him and pray for more opportunities to make a way for people to get in or at the very least to have the conversation.

Invitation

 In Circle of Hope we say our vision for fulfilling our mission is this:

“We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption. Responding in love to our thirsty region and fractured society, we are birthing a new generation of the church to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit”

Here's a PM a while back

Here’s a PM a while back

We are the environment.

We are temples of the holy spirit (1 Corinthians 6).  We designed our Public Meetings to be an expression of the gospel by the community that embodies it.  We are inviting people into a relationship with God expressed among us.  We want to respond to Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28).

The people we know may notice our good behavior, but our morality little distinguishes us from a secular humanist, a muslim, a sikh, or a jew.  But really, I don’t think they are paying that much attention to you to even notice that you’re good.  If we want to make disciples we are going to need to do more than just be ourselves among them.  We need to create opportunities for those around us to see our faith embodied.  One of the best ways to communicate our faith to them is to invite them into a cell or a PM.  You may have experience with coercive street preachers, or over-zealous youth group leaders in your past but the overwhelming majority of people do not.  Being invited to a meeting is not as weird as you think, and if you can’t be convinced that it isn’t weird, it’s time for some exposure therapy.  The best way to get over your aversion to inviting people to your cell or our public meeting is to invite them to your cell or our public meeting.

What prevents us from invitation and why we need to stop being prevented

We have acquiesced to the cultural rules about politeness and religion.  We believe that people think Christians are pushy and we shouldn’t be like that.  We believe that religion is a private matter that every one discovers on their own, in their own personal way so we should not impose our process onto someone else’s.  We don’t always have a sense of ourselves as the light of the world and the salt of the earth that Jesus told us we are.  We are not always convinced that everyone needs Jesus or that we are probably the best chance they will get to meet Him.  Finding the words, the story, the way to shine your light, Christ’s light, is the point of Circle of Hope’s existence.  Some of those words are “Will you come with me?”

mouth

Personal invitations work best

Charles Arn, a church growth researcher, asked more than 50,000 people why they came to church, and between 75 and 90 percent of respondents say, “I began attending because someone invited me.”  I have spent some of my time as Development Pastor getting the word out in other ways- internet, stickers, posters, flyers.  Maybe I have prepared the way for some, maybe I have wasted a lot of time.  Either way, I am ready to see how many people I can get to come to our Public Meetings in 2014.

I want to create some excitement around our Public Meetings because I think they are really great.  A lot of us put a lot of work into them and I am often very aware of God’s presence among us.  Everyone I know who has become a Christian in Circle of Hope has come around us and been among us for a while before they made an explicit decision to follow Jesus.  I want to invite more people into that process.  Some of us are thick into this struggle and this is not a new challenge.  Others of us could benefit from a reboot or a group of people who are dedicated to this task together.  I thought it would be a good idea to gather a group to pay attention to the PMs.  Are you one of them?  Are you one who wants to join me in the invitation? Call me.  Or are you one who wants to receive this blog post as your invitation?  See you at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington, 1125 S. Broad Street on Sunday at 7pm!

Tell Me Your Story, Penn

My friend, Howard Pinder, came up with this great idea.  The “Tell Me Your Story” sign.  I’ve been emulating him at the University of Pennsylvania this week.  It’s pretty fun! People look at me when I’m holding the sign, many look away when I meet their gaze, they look away and smile.  Many give a thumbs up or say they like my sign, only a few tell me their story but enough people do for me to be excited about doing it again.

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours.  How rad!

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours. How rad!

I’m breaking down the barrier between us.  I’m inviting people to escape their cynicism and fear for a moment.  I’m doing something weird that breaks the monotony of those who are just passing by.  Those who stop to talk are interested in why I’m doing this.  “What is this for?”, “Is this for a class?”  Nope, I’m just a local pastor looking for friends.  I think everyone has a story worth telling because everyone is valuable in God’s eyes.  You’re important so what happens to you is important.  I want to listen because I think it’s good for me to honor your importance and give you my ears as gifts.  I usually tell people about Circle of Hope because they want to know what sort of church has a pastor that does this sort of thing.  It’s a great opportunity to meet the next partner.

5 stories I’ve heard:

1) A man from India is here visiting his niece.  He runs a green technology company in India that makes less money than his old company but he is more satisfied with the more meaningful work.  His Hindu faith influenced him passively by instilling in him a reverence for nature that he wants to protect with his business.  He told me how he decided to change his vocation after a conversation with a friend.

2) A first generation immigrant from Afghanistan lost her dad to cancer 2 years ago when she was a freshman.  She realized then that there is more to life than economic success and being “the best.”  She wishes more of her peers at Penn would learn this because she is sick of the elitism she perceives among them.

3) A woman grew up on a farm in South Dakota with her 10 younger siblings.  She was sort of Mom #2 to her youngest siblings.  One morning, one of her brothers busted a gash in her other brother’s forehead with a golf club.  The whole clan climbed into the van and went into town to get him stitched up.  It wasn’t a big deal to her–a real pioneer!

4) At his senior show, a guy got a few friends to sing “I get by with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles with him.  Thy all sang to another friend who was part of the show too.  It sounded like an episode of “Glee”

5) A woman waxed nostalgic about watching boys play football on her street in Detroit.  She misses the strong sense of community she experienced as a kid. She feels a bit isolated in her current circumstance.

People are looking for connection.  People have a story to tell.  I make the cell group I lead about telling our stories all the time.  In telling our stories we get to listen to ourselves tell it.  Our fears often feel less frightening once externalized.  Our hopes often feel more real when shared.  Taking the risk to connect, especially with people we don’t know or with whom we don’t have an automatic affinity is one way that we can experience Jesus’ love.  Uncanny bonds and unexpected discoveries are made on a regular basis in places where Jesus is at the center.  A sense of belonging comes quickly and a warmth that defies easy explanation.  That’s the “safe place” we say we are.  That’s the “safe place” next to Jesus.  I felt some of that even with strangers on Locust walk this week.  I wonder how deep this will go.

[Check out tellmeyourstoryphilly.com for some of Howard Pinder’s collected stories]

Divided Diversity Defied

August 18, 2007Last time I went to Sacks Playground I think it was my friend Zack’s 8th birthday party (but that was only a couple of years ago).  A woman I talked to at this playground on Monday hadn’t been there in a while either.  Our similarly aged boys were playing with each other so we were chatting.  She said, “I think I see my family over there, but I’m not sure they’ll even recognize me because I don’t come down here like that, you know?”

“Where do you live?”  I asked.

“Oh, I live up on 17th Street,”  she answered.

She lived 12 to 15 blocks away- a 25 minute walk – a 9 minute bike ride – an 8 minute car ride – a 23 minute bus ride (thanks, Google maps)… And yet that distance had separated her from her extended family.  Certainly there is more going on in her family than I know, but I thought this anecdote illustrative of the division that Philly is unfortunately famous for and the way that division was being defied at this interestingly diverse event.

sacksI went to the kick off event for National Month Out, an expansion of the national event, National Night Out.  The focus is safety and “taking back the night” from unsavory characters.  I heard about it from Passyunk Square Civic Association so I thought I would be a good neighbor and show up.  City council people, and firemen and police officers were there.  Mayor Nutter mad an appearance and there were representatives from crime prevention and youth engagement organizations–but I was most impressed by the diversity I encountered.

I was invited by a mostly white organization (though I’m sure they would object to that classification justly) and they were there, the playground was full of children shouting in Spanish, the black kids were on the basketball court, a rapper was singing a duet with his son (very sweet), a drug prevention program called Shalom Inc. was represented by a middle aged Jewish woman, the mostly white fire engine crew was showing off their shiny rig… It was fascinating!

philip-and-the-eumuchOne of our pastors at Circle of Hope was talking at our Public Meeting on Sunday reassuring us that the Holy Spirit has gone before us and is at work before we get to where we are going.  He told some stories, among them the story of Phillip in Acts 8, who was moved by the Holy Spirit to go and stand by a chariot that just so happened to be occupied by someone who was interested in the meaning of Isaiah 53– which is a very powerful prophecy pointing to Jesus.  Great things ensued- receptivity, boundary crossing, baptism and more.

I went to Sacks playground to be a good neighbor and to stand by a chariot so to speak.  Nothing so dramatic as Acts 8 occurred but I did see the Holy Spirit at work before me in the way our incredibly diverse neighborhood came together in an uncommon way.  I pray that our divided city would continue to come together and that the Holy Spirit will continue to be a part of making that happen.

Praise for Random Connection

loveparkphotoLast week before I went on vacation I was in Love Park in that blistering heat that Philly was suffering through.  Kids were playing in the fountain and tons of people were still stopping by the LOVE statue to snap a photo.  Here’s a photo of photo taking.  Even in the disgusting heat I couldn’t help but be content in my city of brotherly love.  When I went to live in Mexico for a year between my sophomore and junior years of college I was advised to take gifts to my host families that represented my culture.  I was so glad when I realized I could give them a little replica of the LOVE statue instead of the Liberty Bell.  The Liberty Bell was too patriotic even though it was very Philly.  Being known for love is pretty cool.

I was at Love Park that Thursday at noon because we were creating missional space.  We meet in Love Park every Thursday at noon to see if there is anyone we need to meet, and to practice our connecting skills.  My friends and I were looking around at those braving the heat and wondering how we might make friends (something I am often doing now).  Just then a woman walked into the park who I “knew” from my morning disciplines on Broad Street.

cohsignbroadstreetA few mornings a week I stand in front of Circle of Hope’s building at 1125 S. Broad Street and I say good morning to those walking up and down the street, and I pray.  I had said good morning to this woman for several weeks.  She was one of the people who did not ignore me.  I asked my friends if that was enough reason to go and talk to her.  They said, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  I agreed and I went up and talked to her.  It turned out we had some mutual acquaintances and she lived around the corner from Circle of Hope’s meeting space.  She might be interested in checking out one of our Public Meetings and she gave me some contact information.

I was excited by how my two very random exercises, standing on Broad Street and hanging out in Love Park, coalesced and I made a new friend.  I see God at work in that.  I pray that God continues to work though me both randomly as he did in this instance, and more according to plan as I hone my church planting strategy to focus my efforts.