Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: The Tea Club

Top 5 Posts of 2019 on “Today, if You Hear My Voice”

Dear Readers,

The year, of course, is winding down so let’s look back on the past twelve months of “Today, if you hear my voice:” I named my blog after Hebrews 3 in which the author meditates on the necessity to tend our hearts to keep them soft. It seems that hearts harden so quickly. I’m looking for people in South Jersey who have soft hearts — those who have been softened by Jesus already and are looking for ways to stay soft, and those who are softened by their circumstances or their psychologies or by the Holy Spirit before they can even name that. I love telling stories about who I’m meeting and what I’m doing with the softhearted crew at Circle of Hope, 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ. The discipline of reflecting and amplifying my experiences helps me  tend my heart as much as I hope it helps my readers know God and act for redemption.

Here are the top five read posts I wrote in 2019. I’ll give you a little context and a quote if you’re just scanning, but I’d love to hear from you about what has been most stimulating or helpful to you.

“If/When” album cover art by Kendra McGowan

1. Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Album 

A couple of Circle of Hope’s resident musical geniuses (yes we have many), Dan and Pat McGowan released an album in July called “If/When” with their band, The Tea Club. It has been amazing. When they played “Creature,” the almost thirty minute track that this post walks through, at their penultimate show of their US Tour at Underground Arts in Philadelphia, I wept worshipful tears of joy with my hands raised in praise. “All will be revealed/All will see the wisdom/All will be restored/All will know forgiveness/All your creatures long for the new creation/Where boundaries of death are ever failing.” My Advent hope for Jesus’ deliverance and ultimate return to set things right in this ruined age swelled to brimming.

2. Nobody Wants to Deny the Flesh: Audre Lorde and Jesus on the Erotic 

By chance I ended up at a lecture at Uncle Bobbie’s coffee shop in Germantown, Philadelphia. I was struck by Adrienne Maree Brown‘s book-long riff on an essay Audre Lorde wrote in the seventies.  “All that is erotic has been defined as sinful, probably because not enough men gouged out their eyes or cut off their members. Instead they controlled women and denied the potential erotic in themselves because it came less naturally and because it was harder to share the feeling and not just use others.” I have been tuning in to the erotic, rightly defined, as a source of natural revelation. Enjoying pleasure as a gift from God is a better way to master sin that simple abnegation.

They are superimposed together in this image — perfect.

3. Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One 

Remember “I Don’t Care” this summer? “I don’t like nobody but you 🎵”  I’ve always loved the phenomenology of pop music. Pop is our modern day hymnal. We worship unconsciously, but it definitely gets to the core of our cultural desire, every . single. time.  “We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! ”

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

4. Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

I wanted to give some practical advice. I should probably try that more on this blog. If you’re having a problem what do 90% of people do first? They google it. A bunch of the top results for this google search term are terrible, ad riddled, and simplistic. I think scripture is better breathed than brained. We need to feel God’s love. Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.”

Mt. Katahdin’s Knife Edge

5. Yo, Mountains are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A coffee shop date with a friend led to some big insight. “Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We were resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.”

BONUS: A Paean to “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix 

Also, 29,000 people read a post I wrote about my love for “AD: Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix in August, 2018. It got discovered by Google’s algorithm at the beginning of 2019 and by Easter it was being read by thousands each month. Search “AD Kingdom and Empire” and I’m the fourth page. We are all searching for a season two of this show. #BringBackAD ! Lots of love in the comments, too!

Thanks for reading. Again, send me some feedback. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what to write about, tell me how my writing has effected you, tell me your story. tell me what you think. I would SO love any and all of that.

 

Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Anthem

My friends Dan and Pat McGowan have created a masterpiece. The newest album from their band, The Tea Club (Pat McGowan, Dan McGowan, Jamie Wolff, Dan Monda and Joe Dorsey), is a gift to the world. I can’t stop listening to the almost 28 minute final track, “Creature.” This post is an unauthorized interpretation of that song. One of the cool things about art is that it can speak to me differently than it speaks to you — a multiplying resonance of meaning bouncing through all of our ears, brains and hearts. But I’m telling you, you have to let this album speak to you. I think I’ve picked up some of what Pat and Dan are putting down. I know them well, but my interpretation is based on my own experience of the song, from hearing it live a few months ago to listening to it four or five times in the past three days since the album was released. Buy the album at theteaclub.net.

A new Oracle

Psalm 35 of The Tea Club
A Song of the Sons of Patrick
(with interlinear interpretation from a very minor director of music, Ben White)

“Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Turn with me, stay with me, rich in my blood
Against any reason other than I may fill you again

Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again”

Call God the Pulse, don’t cast God in stone. God is alive and is life. There is no life through which God does not flow. I meet so many people who are struggling with language for God. People in recovery, people burned by the church, people who have been taught that God is just another fairy tale, people who don’t have the prescribed experience with God but are having some kind of experience with Something. We need new language for God because we are having new experiences. Cast God in stone and it will weigh you down. Circumscribe God to only “Jehovah Jireh,” or “King of Kings,” or some other ancient, often unintelligible metaphor and miss out on the richness of God in your blood, heaven-bent on filling you again.

You can keep your white knuckle grip on language and experience that doesn’t work for you, and have a faith that is only as strong as those fingers of yours. This is true, not just for religious people who are steeped in the old language and thus find comfort in it, but also for those who are wandering alone, white knuckling their life as the nexus of their universe, desperately trying to be their own life. They intend to hold their own comfort together by the power of their own invention. You might be either/or. You might be both/and — probably the later,

Call God the Pulse and God will fill your veins. These words and melody flow through the song as a sort of key to the triumph of the anthem. We sing with the band through the journey of this song. There is an explicit drama in the song. Can this Truth prevail? Will the Pulse win our hearts?

“Unwinding of the thread
The needle of the curtain
The hour of the glass
The forest of amorphous
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Here is the new anthem: “All your creatures long for the new creation/ where the boundaries of death are ever failing.” The kernel of this wheat is in Romans 8:19-23:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The lofty melody speaks to this aspiration, this desire, as much as the borrowed words from Paul. We need an anthem to hold on to this hope. Ironically the way we hold on is not with an iron grip, but with a loose hand and loose body swaying — swaying to the music — floating and flowing — remembering who God is “Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins” again and again.

“Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again

Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins.”

But can we rest in that? The music fades and gentles us in a deep breath. I will be still and know who you are, God. I will be still and know who you are, Pulse. Breathe. But can I keep breathing? A scratching, technodystopian noise starts to disturb our peace. Dissonant chords lurk at the edges and start to threaten. But breathe, maybe we can stay here even as the other things that grip us whisper.

No, we must face reality, too. This journey is not just a bliss-out. There is another place we can go. It’s where we live most of the time. In minute nine of “Creature” there is a dramatic shift in tone that grew on us like fungus. How long have I heard that knocking?

“How
How long
In the dark?
I close my eyes
I hear that noise
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?

Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
Hey hey hey, No mercy
They’re screaming ‘til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey, what do you say?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
You wanna watch your show about the living dead
well I can introduce you myself”

An intense, caustic struggle with the reality of the hell in which we live bursts in. The option to laugh it all off is real. A death-obsessed culture striving for immortality in eleven different ways at every moment screams at the door of any peace we find till their throats are ripped and raw. Our longing for a New Creation might just be a joke. That Something we felt was just something else. How interesting, your belief in God is. Maybe I’ll make a meme about it. These fucks laugh at everything. Next channel, please. The caustic solution of the hell in which we live will dissolve you.

But   the struggle continues in this song journey.  In minutes eleven and twelve, these forces throw their weight around, quickening their pace and wrapping their tendrils around our hearts. But in minute thirteen they shut up for a second and we can look at the hellscape from a different perspective. The New Creation melody reminds us again of who we are and who the Pulse is. We can sing the same sad, angry words with some more understanding — maybe it’s compassion that saves us from the fray, and thus the infected wounds that come with it.

“Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy
They’re screaming ’til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything”

The words of the third track on the album come in (there are echoes of the whole album in the complex melodies interwoven in “Creature”). There is not enough time to convince the world I’m not crazy.  I don’t have to have every fight. I can be still and know.

“I’m just being realistic, I’m not hoping for a cure
Soon there’ll be no time to laugh away our sorrows anymore
No time to flow like water or lay down in peace.”

The rest comes back in minute fifteen with Dan’s amazing falsetto oo-ooh-ing and Joe’s piano flowing like water underneath him. The Pulse flowing through us again, perhaps. And here the drama is all melody. At minute sixteen, the fungal infection tries to creep back in with dissonant synth sounds. Here is your moment to ponder. Where will I live? In the technodystopian hellscape or in the promised future? Who will I listen to? The Pulse or the whispers of the snickering world?  Hope is now on the doorstep, trumpeting in and ultimately prevailing in a new iteration.

“The Chime of the Age of Gold has called all creatures bold
The seeds in the water have burst
The tentacles reaching out
Arm after arm after arm
Each one a different dance
No longer wound like a thread
They reach for a beckoning stream
Now they flow through it again…”

There is nothing we can do to stop the New Creation. Like thousands of jellyfish in a red tide swarming the shores. The spring has sprung and its unraveling whether we accept it or not. Strange, sometimes dangerous beauty is at hand. Can we dance with it? Creation has accepted the Pulse’s flow and shows us the steps of the new. But will we accept it too?  Will you see the writing on the wall and step into the new age of hope, through death, mind you, into the Age of Gold. The Pulse melody helps us along.

Now, a more devotional, personal assurance. We speak directly to the Pulse with some hesitation. Three lines of “If” but no, this is not IF –“I say if, I mean when.” This swelling confidence in the face of all we have been through (in our lives and in this song) has made me weep every time I’ve listened to this song so far.

“If the time of my age has come
If you’ll call this creature home
If I learn to lift up my eyes
Or If the When tells the Why
If you’ll flow through me again
I say if, I mean when
I say if, I mean when”

The New Creation is coming. Say yes! Then build it up. Make your “yes” loud. The new anthem brings all the promises of Jesus to our lips. This is who we are and this IS who we will be. Thank you, Tea Club! The boundaries of death ARE ever failing.

“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Then as the swell subsides and the melody reverberates into the quiet places inside us, a final threat makes a futile attempt. Minutes 25 and 26 may be my favorite moments of the song. A subtle thing you might miss with out a deep listen or these notes. There comes a static ringing, the musical representative of that knocking that invites me to the other place. It tries to swell back but abruptly stops at 25:30. The anthem melody echoes though slightly unfaithful to the original — just like our faith — like our memory of every swell that uplifted us. How soon they fade! How soon the notes fall! The struggle is always real. The limping melody resolves and at 25:45 and in its aftermath the static ringing builds for a frightening few seconds but does not prevail.

Dan breaks in with the gentle morning song that began the album, “The Way You Call,” giving one more blow to the creeping dissonance at 26:08. The If is defeated by the When, and the When’s song is sweetness — 

“The way you call, as if I don’t already know
The morning sun can share a cup with this child
The way you call and shed a tear with my own
And though it’s far when I believe it’s like Home, Home
And in the heavens there’s a fire returning my friend
Melting away the ruin of another age
We cried at the Lion and swam against the stream
To flow like water and lay down in peace
Hear my prayer, remember it when I am gone.”

I am your child. You share your goodness with me. You share my sadness with me as well. Jesus, the fire that consumes this ruinous age, the Lion who gives us courage to persevere against the current, the Pulse who flows through us and helps us flow in peaceful waters, to you I pray, remember me. This is our prayer. Amen.

Let’s actually DO something

FullSizeRender (2)

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.