Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: friends

Why are you doing this?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bench on Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania holding my “tell me your story sign”.  It turns our it was parent’s weekend and I got two stories from proud Penn parents.  One man, D, came up to me and said, “Ok, you’ve piqued my interest.  I’m not going to tell you my story but I would like to know why you want my story.”

logoI answered, “I want to meet people and I think that telling stories is good for us.”  He probed further addressing the Circle of Hope logo I had drawn on my sign, “This ‘circle of hope’ looks rather sinister doesn’t it, with this menacing black circle.”  I got a little defensive, but backed down from the direct conflict, “Well, I didn’t design it.”

“But you did make this sign and you couldn’t change it?  See that’s the sort of thing that religion is always doing.  Obedience is demanded and you’re either in or you’re out depending on whether or not you obey,” D responded.

“Now hold up a minute!” My dander was up, “That’s putting something on me that I did not say.  I want to use this logo because I am Circle of Hope.  This symbol has value to me because it has a history and a cache that I have been a part of and I don’t want to lose.”

D appreciated my push back and we proceeded to have a very interesting discussion about the language of commercialism and the concessions one makes to participate in the system of marketing, logos, etc. D’s claim was that a logo at it’s essence is manipulative.  It may be, but I said I have to speak the language of the culture.  I have to do something to make a relationship, and if that means I have to get my hands dirty in some imperfect communication, so be it–because I must communicate my hope.

benchD seemed to appreciate my passion and he actually went on to tell me his story of life in the church as a boy and his teenage disillusionment.  He said, “Well look at that, you did get me to tell you my story!”  I got to share with him my desire for the promises of Jesus to be true and my experience of living out of that desire as a sort of loop that fueled the desire and my trust in the promise more and more as time goes on.  He liked that and seemed genuinely pensive about the whole conversation which contrasted with his initial aggressive posture.

Why am I holding a sign that says tell me your story?  Because me asking you creates a space in which we can be real with each other.  I’m not responsible for what happens next.  I have hopes.  I am looking for friends, and I am finding them.  I want to share my hope in Jesus with anyone who wants to have it with me, but I also think that the storytelling has its own value whether not I make a friend or Jesus’ story makes its way into the conversation explicitly.

To close I give one other story.  I met a woman, R, who was walking up the walk.  She looked at my sign.  I said, “hi” and “how ya’ doing?”

“Not so good,” she replied.

She then tearfully explained to me a difficult conversation she had just had with a dear friend.  This friend had believed a lie about her that a third person had told her.  She thought that their friendship was primary enough to trump any other person’s influence.  She had invested a lot in building that sort of intimacy and trust and based on her friends reaction it seemed that that sense of connection and investment was not mutual.  She was heartbroken.

After telling her story and shedding her tears with me right there in public, she walked away thanking me for listening.  I was so awed, I didn’t even give her my card.

There are many reasons to hold my sign.  I’m grateful for what God is doing with it.

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.

Seizing Opportunities for Joy Sharing

BohnanzaSmash Up and Pig Pen.  Those are the three card games I played on Saturday night at Circle of Hope’s Monthly “2nd Saturday Game Night Extravaganza!!!!”   I won in Bohnanza growing rows of beans-green beans were my cash crop.  I won in Smash Up too with a group of Zombies and Pirates.  I lost in pig pen despite having two buckets of super feed- but 2 out of three ain’t bad.

I only played 3 games because I was more interested in helping people connect and meeting new friends (my favorite thing to do).  I was amazed at the diversity of people who were there.  I was surprised that so many were there at all!  Apparently there aren’t a lot of opportunities in the Philly area to play games, especially weird bean farming games like Bohnanza and unpublished indie games like Pig Pen.  It was fun to make a space for community to be cultivated.

By the time I finished Bohnanza there were about 50 people there.  There weren’t enough tables!  I had to take the opportunity to tell them who we were.  I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say when I called for everyone’s attention but this is essentially what came out.  “Hey everybody I just want to welcome you, my name is Ben White, I’m one of the pastors here at Circle of Broad and Washington, the church that meets here in this space.  We’re glad you’re here because we like to have fun.  We want to share our joy and yeah, that’s it.  Thanks for coming.”

I probably could have thought of something better but I had this sense of urgency that the opportunity needed to be taken.  I wanted us to be known.  I wanted our new friends to know that we liked board games and we liked them.  I had to seize the opportunity to do that.  Being a Jesus follower is kind of like these card games I was playing in that it’s often a lot about opportunity.  The old adage, “You got to play the cards your dealt,” proves true in these newer card games, and in sharing the truth about Jesus.  Having an elaborate long term strategy is a good way to lose, especially if you pass up present opportunities for a better one that only might come.  If you’re with 50 people in a Circle of Hope space, it doesn’t matter that much what you say you got to make yourself known and share your joy.

So I’ll take another opportunity here on this blog:  Jesus brings me great joy.  He gives me a purpose that is hard enough to dedicate my life to it, but easy enough in the end to not be afraid to fail.  He forgives me and provides me with a reason and a way to forgive others which clears the way for unhesitating connection and real community.  He loves me enough down deep to help me be vulnerable in sharing my joy at all.  I get excited about that and I want others to take the opportunity He is and receive all these things and more.

Wiffle Ball, Rainbows, Promise

circleofhopemc

Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent
(In South Jersey)

I went over to Pennsauken last night to be with Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent.  I was sharing with them some of my experience in finding freedom in being limited.  They’re working through Paul’s letter to the Galatians which is all about freedom.  I brought up these verses from Galatians 6.

“If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else”  The insight I had was that we shouldn’t deceive ourselves by comparing ourselves to others and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves by comparing ourselves to the image we have of ourselves–which is sort of a composite of comparisons of others (which are odious).  The American definition of freedom is to have our desires unhindered by any impediment.  Sprint is spending millions to convince us that we ought to be unlimited.

I admit, I can be seduced by being unlimited, but then my church planting mission depends on my being supremely capable and so charismatic as to win everyone I meet over to Christ by sheer force of personality.  This isn’t reality and the desire for it to be true actually makes me more limited than I really am.  If I cling to this image of myself, I deceive myself and my experience has been that that deception saps my energy in a cycle of disappointment.  

I’m choosing to receive the freedom that Christ gives me to be my self as I really am–limited me.  This Lent, Circle of Hope’s daily prayer blog was instructing us to  pay attention to our thoughts and feelings in order to get to the heart of who we really are in Christ.  Following the lead of a 4th Century Monk named Evagrius we were rediscovering “an important secret to help us love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. We can only grow to our fullness in Christ if we do the spiritual work of examining our thoughts so that we can know that our thoughts, feelings, and even our behaviors are not the sum of us; they are not our essence.”  I thought this sounded a lot like the testing that Paul is exhorting us too in Galatians 6:4.  

rainbowwiffleballI have been encouraged through this practice to offer myself as I am to the mission, today.  No need to wait until I’ve got it “figured out” or I’ve achieved some semblance of the self I think I ought to be.  I am empowered by the Holy Spirit and what effect my efforts have is dependent on the Holy Spirit’s action.  I am not responsible for how other’s respond to me and my message.  I am responsible as one of Christ’s witnesses to be an opportunity for someone to respond to God in a new way.

The congregation at Marlton and Crescent is trying a new thing that is akin with this sort of freedom.  They’re throwing a party at the 7 pm in hope’s of meeting some new friends.  Last night was wiffle ball and the Sand Lot.  As if to make the blessing explicit, there was a full rainbow for the first pitch.  Here’s a picture of God’s symbol of promise as it faded and the game got going.  Let’s keep leaning into that promise.

Hoping the rain away

A couple of great ideas got postponed yesterday because of the threat of crazy rain and the reality of some rain.  It seems that new ideas for how we at Circle of Hope might meet people are bubbling up all over the place.  My friend Howard cooked up this great plan for public worship involving fiddles, flash mobs and fun.  That’s happening next Thursday, thank God.

My idea was a public art project.  I cut the word “hope” out of a piece of plywood.  I painted it white and bought a bunch of colorful paints.  The idea was to take it to the Dollar Stroll on  Baltimore Avenue last night and invite people to make their mark on HOPE.

hope

I’ve learned that hope is not an inexhaustible resource.  It is not a quality that a person has.  It is not a matter of will or positive thinking.  It is gift that needs to be tended and maintained.  At Circle of Hope we have organized ourselves to receive that gift from God on the regular and tend it together in our various circles.

Our art piece is a symbolic working out of who we’re trying to be.  We’ll be reaching out and touching hope.  We’ll be making our mark on hope.  We’ll be identifying ourselves in hope (our finger prints and all). We’ll be receiving hope in different ways as we smile at new faces and have fun while the new thing is created. We want people to know who we are and how we relate to Jesus.  We believe that God might lead us toward those who are looking for us.

And now, because of the rain, we’re waiting in hope to do the whole thing…

Making Friends on Passyunk Avenue

Passyunk and Tasker (a photo I did take)

Passyunk and Tasker
(a photo I did take)

So, I’m discovering the skills I’ve gained as a hospital chaplain over the past few years are really helpful (not surprising but refreshing).  I spent Saturday afternoon on Passyunk Avenue seeing if I could make some friends and I think I did… wow!  It felt a lot like I was on the 3rd floor of the hospital meeting all the new patients and keeping up with those who had been there.  I’ve spent a good chunk of my time striking up conversations with strangers and going deep.  I wasn’t sure if that could work on the street, but essentially, I’m deploying the same strategy.

While I worked at the hospital I developed my thinking about  myself and my work at the hospital.  Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE requires you to do this and I’m glad because the theory is mapping onto my new calling.

I wrote:

“I have developed my own theory of pastoral care, or at least my own image of pastoral care. Robert Dykstra wrote, “Having access to a variety of metaphors for ministry provided a modicum of courage and guidance when … I could not possibly have known what I was doing.” (Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, 2005 p.8) To the many of the metaphors he compiles in this book, I have added the image of myself as friend.

I connect it with Jesus’ command to his disciples in John 15. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:15-17)

I have taken my needed “modicum of courage and guidance” from Jesus himself. This image lines up exactly with my values, basic assumptions and personhood. I value Jesus above all else and I live out of his love to the best of my ability. Psychologically, it seems I am especially wired for relationship and much of my motivation for a lot of what I do stems out of my desire to be accepted and loved by others. I desire to do with those I encounter what I most deeply desire to receive.”

I went out and did this on Saturday afternoon.  Looking for people who wanted someone to listen and offering my love and friendship to them.  There were several who wanted to connect.  The best story was this guy who collects old bottles.  He digs most of them out of the ground and knows tons about Philadelphia history and the history of bottle manufacturing.  We talked for a while and I was completely fascinated.  Eventually I shared that my grandfather owned a bottling company in Southern California called Bireley’s… and then BAM!  Dude pulls out two Bireley’s bottles and straight up gives them to me.  Talk about receiving!  This is the sort of blessing that needs to be told far and wide.  I love this guy now!  I love Passyunk Ave. (such a cool place with lots of cool people)!  I love Philadelphia and all the potential friends she offers me!

“Good Morning” means something… I hope

I stood outside in the rain today for an hour to see who would talk to me.  Between 8 and 9 in the morning, especially when it isn’t raining but even when it is, South Broad Street’s sidewalk is a river of people streaming to work.  This morning, the bells of St. Rita’s started and ended my morning discipline with bright sense of determination that contrasted with the gray day.

I just started my work as the Development Pastor at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.  I’ve been charged to lead the charge in our next era of church planting.  Circle of Hope is one of the best kept secrets in town.  We need to get out there to find the next 100 people who want to partner with us  and Jesus in our mission.

It was not an ideal day to hit the street, but I had a good umbrella.  I had to use the time I had while I have it.  I stood in front of our building at 1125 S. Broad Street and I said “good morning” to people.  This is already an act of revolution unfortunately, but I wanted to go deeper.  I wanted to see if anyone would actually talk to me.  I wanted to see if any of those 100 partners were walking down Broad Street this morning.  I started out the hour thinking it would be great if people were interested in the flyers I was holding in my hand but by the end it dawned on me that these people would be back on Monday.  I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we created this sort of morning community  right here.  I could be that guy who smiles and says hello.  I might even be more intriguing than my brightly colored flyers, and certainly less disposable.”

This strategy comes from our proverb: “Our deliberate attempts to make disciples are “incarnational,” friend to friend, so we accept that what we do will almost never be instant.” (link)  I’m making friends on South Broad Street.  I pray that Jesus be here with us.