Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: relational evangelism

Giving Thanks for Friends We Don’t See As Much As We Used To

Recently I got a group of people together who had been planting the church together for ten years. Our congregation in South Jersey is ten years old (What a wonder!), and we marked the occasion with a time to remember where we have been and consider where we are going.  The time reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinner — a big long table, family, good food, storytelling… bad memories, tension, irritation. The people we love have so much power over us! And we have so much power together to make light and life in the world.  I’m so grateful these folks stayed together even when everyone didn’t stay. But I’m also grateful that they let me and others in and didn’t stay together in exactly the same way–if they had, I’m not sure they could have stayed together at all.

My Brother and Me

When I was 12, my family moved to a new house and my twin brother, Joel, and I ended up in the same room again after a four year hiatus. Our new room somehow inherited my parents old record player and their old records. That summer The Mamas and the Papas’ album “Deliver” became a permanent part of my neural net. “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, but nothing’s quite as sure as change.” Joel and I share a love that is deeper than some siblings because we are twins. I may be romanticizing our 9 months together in the womb but there’s a comfort that transcends the rearranging of our lives. Joel moved out of our shared room again after a guy that had moved in with us to help plant Circle of Hope moved back to his hometown. Joel found a different friend group in high school, maybe because too many of mine were degenerates and maybe because he just liked video games more than I did. Regardless, our connection persists even if he lives in his own separate house.

I’m sure there are plenty of bad memories, tension and irritation from that moment in our shared history, but they’re not coming to mind right now. We’re brothers, and that doesn’t change.

Being together for a long time means being together in different ways

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a little more tenuous. Of course we are family with all those who call on the name of Jesus around the whole world, but we organize in bands of partners called churches to be and do specific things and  that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood can be lost. It’s better if it can change. One person said that they had been part of several church plants and none of the founding members ever stuck around at all. The fact that so many people who started Circle of Hope in South Jersey are still a part of the mission was pretty amazing to him. I have no frame of reference for this so I’m taking his word for it. I noticed at the dinner that the group was not at all the same as when they started together 10 years ago, but they were still together.

They had gotten married, had children, lived in community, bought and sold houses, and even divorced.  They had planted, multiplied, killed and resurrected dozens of cells. They had fought each other, reconciled, suffered loss and celebrated many milestones in life, mostly associated with young adulthood. But not only had they changed individually, their relationships had changed. They were not as close as they all once were. They were not all at the center of the church leadership. Many others had joined the church and they were dispersed among them in new relationships, carrying their founder fire to the whole body.

Relational Evangelism requires letting go

It was tempting to be sad. Things were not the same. Their togetherness was not the same, but they were together, nonetheless. That togetherness is enough, I think. The alternative is a dissatisfying comparison with the past and a choice for what was. A desire to go back to the way things were, or even a forced fossilization of what is, will grind the wheels of our church planting engine to a halt. It hurts some to keep moving, knowing that your brother is way over there across town rather than right below you on the bottom bunk, but we must trust the binding that God has done. We cannot demand forever intimacy with everyone or no one new will ever be able to enjoy the friendship we offer in Christ.

Relational evangelism brings with it the occupational hazard of having to let go. I don’t think this means we forget the brothers and sisters we have made. We might need to be more intentional about catching up (and I suggest you do that because I need to do it too) but we cannot cozy up in the comfort of what was. We cannot maintain every relationship equally. We cannot demand that our togetherness stay the same. It cannot withstand the weight.  We can be bound by common mission, common history, and a chosen family bond that will play like a pleasant song in your mind and heart–  and last into eternity.

When you go to Thanksgiving Dinner treasure the Togetherness

So at your actual Thanksgiving table, whether you are with blood family, friends family or family in Christ (probably a mix of that). Treasure the togetherness. Marvel that anyone is together at all. Delight in the quirky constellation of people that have gathered to thank God in feast form. It’s not the same as it ever was. Families rearrange and relationships suffer and change. There is heartache and joy all around. Tell the truth. You will be tempted to dwell in the tension, but you might marvel in the longevity of those relationships and wonder what may come next from this foundation.

How slow is too slow?

When I was in third grade my music teacher, Ms. Smedley, taught me all kinds of ridiculous songs that I for some reason remember all the words too.  One of them was this little calypso/reggae jam with two verses that had the same melody but two different rhythms that reflected their dichotomous lyrics.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry come on the run/ Hurry, hurry, hurry, no time for fun/ Hurry, hurry, hurry, here comes the sun/ When we are finished there will be time for fun.

Alright I come now, alright I come/ No need to hurry, no need to run/ It is too early where is the sun?/ I am so tired that I cannot run”

This is exactly like the one I have- they’re still selling it on amazon

She also gave me a plastic bust of Beethoven that I still have, but that’s not really what I want to talk about.  This song came to mind because I’ve been having discussions with some of my partners about evangelism and urgency.  How quickly should we move on from those who are not interested in Jesus and our church?

One of my friends was saying that there is no game but the long game with some people.  They are so burned or so antagonistic that the only way they are ever going to follow Jesus is after a long season of loving by the Christians in their lives.  There’s a hefty hunk of truth in my friend’s discernment, but I’m not ready to settle into that arrangement yet.  I’m singing the first verse of the song.  I have more urgency.

My urgency is rooted in my belief that the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night.  Jesus may come back tomorrow (and I hope he does) and I want as many people as possible to recognize and embrace Him when he does.  I have a sense of responsibility to the charge that Jesus gave us to go and make disciples of all nations, and I am acutely aware of how limited I am in time and capacity.  I want to make my efforts count.

There are hundreds of thousands of people within a couple of miles of me who know very little about who Jesus actually is.  The argument could be made that any Usonian today has heard the story of Jesus so the basic urgency we see in Acts and the rest of the New Testament is not really applicable to our situation.  Our culture is post-Christian as in “totally over Jesus”, which is quite different fro the pre-Christian culture of the 1st Century Mediterranean.

But I don’t think the facts as filtered through modernism, sarcasm and even the dead churches so many of us were exposed to as children are really the Gospel.  That story of Jesus is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is Jesus Himself and Jesus is alive in us in a way that many have not experienced before.  Taking ourselves that seriously may be the hardest step to take, but once we do our evangelism strategy is just a matter of how heavily we lean into that truth.  Peoples’ bad experiences with the Church, or even just their bad impressions of the Church can be overcome.  There is still Good News that is actually news to a lot of people.  Circle of Hope’s strategy to include folks before they make a commitment to follow Jesus allows for this news to be seen and heard.  We need to experience the power of God among us for our doubts and our wounds to be assuaged and healed.

The question “How slow is too slow?” comes down to how insistent I am in trying to include my friends in our community before they are Christians.  How many invitations is too pushy and how quickly will they write me off if I “cross the line”?  I don’t think it’s my job to worry about that.  I want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be in a life giving relationship with Jesus, and God wants that too.  Protecting friends from my deepest fulfillment is crazy.  If they are offended by my joy, so be it.  Of course this attitude could quickly slip into an off-putting arrogance that is typical of many evangelists (and I am probably more prone to that than some), but I think the invitation can be made in a way that actually protects a person’s dignity, especially when they know I’m a Christian and they know it’s really important to me.  Someone may filter me out of their life because I am too “up front” about Jesus, but I prefer that to filtering Jesus out of my life–my life which is nothing more than my relationships and conversations (i.e. If I’m not bringing Jesus into my everyday conversation does He still have a place there at all?)

The classic slow cooker

Patterns of relating around things other than Jesus are quickly established because Jesus is a taboo subject.  It’s hard to break out of those patterns once they are established because the build up to the “reveal” of Jesus brings with it more anxiety.  The more we allow Jesus to remain in the margins of our relationships and the conversations within them the harder it will be to get Him into the center of someone’s life.  All this being said, I have had several long term relationships that have eventually resulted in a person becoming a Christian.  I’m not writing anyone off, I’m just being ready for them to write me off.  I kept Jesus at the center of our relationship (and it wasn’t that hard).  I regularly invited them to Circle of Hope events.  I told them about my relationship with God.  I shared with them the work I was doing.

So I err on the side of “hurry, hurry, hurry” instead of “alright I come” because 1) Jesus is coming back tomorrow, 2) The effect of marginalizing Jesus in my everyday conversation, marginalizes Him in my heart, and 3) It’s okay if someone doesn’t want to be a Christian and doesn’t want to relate to me because I am.

P.S. Bringing it all together – Radiolab did a story on how Beethoven may have wanted his music played much faster than we ever heard it http://www.radiolab.org/story/269783-speedy-beet/

Trying to be question marks on July 4th

ontheparkway When you wear a sandwich sign some people will yell across a crowd to you.  I learned this and a lot of other things at the Party on the Parkway on July 4th, this past Thursday.  The first person to yell across the crowd got my attention by reciting what he had memorized of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (My sign asked, “are any truths self evident?”)  The reciter, whose name was Anthony, felt a little like he was being quizzed when I asked him, “So what does that mean to you?”  I assured him, there wasn’t a right answer and he loosened up a bit.  He gave me his email address later because he was interested in what we were doing as a Circle of Hope.

 

questions

Four friends and I decided that since our fair city was throwing a party on the Ben Franklin Parkway and thousands of people were going to be there, we ought to be there too.  But how do you engage with people in a crowd?  How do you break the wall of isolation between strangers?  We thought we’d try a sandwich sign.  I made three signs with three questions lifted from the language of the Declaration of Independence.  “What is liberty?”  “Who is deaf to the voice of Justice?” and “Are any truths self evident?”  The back of the sandwich sign said “#declareyourself” (our tweet hashtag that we thought we invented but was already in use by this organization).

The questions turned out to be way too deep or esoteric for many people to engage with.  One young lady just wanted to sign the Declaration of Independence.  A lot of people were ready to declare themselves in some way and we were ready to listen to them.  That was what we wanted to share: We are Circle of Hope and we want to listen to you because as one of flyers said “You Matter“.  signingdeclarationWe also wanted to be known as a people who want to do something about the systems of injustice.  Putting question marks after “liberty” and “justice” and “self-evident truth?” is a subversive act.  Many people felt this and immediately wanted to know what we were protesting.  I had to refrain from my ready diatribes and answer, “We’re here to meet people and hear what you have to say–what do you think we should protest?  Oh, and hi, my name’s Ben, what’s yours?”

I got yelled at across the crowd two other times.  Once by a group of girls I had met earlier, who yelled my name in celebration when they saw me again.  That was fun.  The last time was by a woman who applauded our question mark after “liberty.”  She went on about how the 4th of July was a sham and we aren’t really free, and neither were the original declarers even after they won the Revolutionary War and certainly not oppressed people of that time.  I enthusiastically agreed with her.  She was having fun with this.  Then I told her we were Circle of Hope, a church that was trying to help people get really free.  She let out a sigh of disgust and said, “Nope, I don’t do religion.  I’m free from religion too.”  I agreed that religious people had done a lot of oppressing but I could not convince her that Circle of Hope might be different.

Disappointing as that exchange was, she did confirm why we were there.  We needed to put a question mark after a lot of things, most importantly, after the preconceptions people have about the Church.  We’re working with a legacy of oppression.  She’s not the only one who thinks she needs to be free from religion.  I’m working to be the sort of religious person who challenges people’s notions of what it means to follow Jesus, who can be in and who can’t, and what Jesus is really up to in the world.  I’m praying that our question marks erode the resistance that is hardening the hearts of many.

 

Cultivating HOPE

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 002

The Hope sign hit the streets this Saturday.

I had this idea that I wanted to try because I thought it was fun and because I wanted to make new friends.  Plywood in my basement, a jigsaw from my local tool library and presto I had HOPE! (It was a pretty hopeful thing to do so I guess I had hope in my heart and a plywood manifestation of it on my lawn)

I took my sign to the Uhuru Flea Market in Clark Park with Shalom House.  The Shalomers asked people what we should do with $10,000,000 to help our community.  They were asking people to dream up some better ideas than the US Government’s $10,000,000 idea to build a drone command center in Horsham, PA. (This Fox report hails it as good news).

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 011

I asked people to participate in my communal art project.  Pick a color (or 6) and make your mark on HOPE.  We were cultivating hope right there in our communal garden of Clark Park.  My friend said he just liked how big the sign was.  It yelled “HOPE!”  And he wanted to hope.

I was pleased with how many people wanted to know what we as a Circle of Hope were all about and how many people were willing to get messy for a minute and make something beautiful together.  Jesus offers us that messy sort of hope.  He came into our midst and offered us himself to us in our messy humanity and now he sends us his Spirit to keep the hope within us alive and growing in the midst of our still very messy humanity.

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 006

Hope springs up from beyond our capacity.    It is best when it gets pollinated and hybridized through mutual sharing.  Following that metaphor, maybe my work as a pastor is to be the bee of hope–listening to many stories, making many friends, sharing in many lives as I buzz from flower to flower spreading hope.  In our modern era we’ve figured all this out.  We have super high speed high resolution digital cameras that can document the pollination that bees do but in Jesus’ day the growing of seeds and their plants’ fruit was more of a mystery.  In Mark 4 Jesus tells this parable:

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 020

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Bees aren’t really aware of how important they are to the life cycle of many plants.  I am a bit more aware, but I still can’t dissect hope and tell you how it grows.  It seems I can participate in it, but I do a lot of sleeping, and yet this newness seems to grow.  Many new things happened on Saturday.  I met new people.  I heard new ideas and I got a new sense of what God is doing through me now–and my hope got bigger.