Moving to circleofhope.net!

I’m moving my blog to circleofhope.net/benwhite because we (Circle of Hope) are fancy and much more organized every day in our second act.  My followers should be ported over to the new site too.  Spread the word!

Elephants can swim and other surprises

Swimming elephants in the Andaman Islands

Swimming elephants 

Yeah, elephants can swim. Who knew right? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. It’s incredible that this 4 ton creature is even buoyant, but it’s true.

Some scientists believe that long ago elephants may have swam the 40 miles from the Indian mainland to Sri Lanka. I think this is crazy! What would possess an animal like an elephant to swim for it through the ocean?!

I’m imagining the first group of elephants that came to the edge of India and waded into the surf. Let’s assume that this is how it happened, because the other theory is that a land bridge (called Adam’s Bridge or Rama’s Bridge depending on who you ask) existed into the 15th century. But let’s just say they had to swim. “We know how to swim,” they said, “But we’ve never swam that far. We can see that there is land out there, across the ocean, and this land over here is getting crowded. We need more food.  We need to move on to what is next. But can we swim that far? Will the current be too strong? Will the little ones make it? Will there be food there? Is it impossible?”

This is the type of uncertainty that is par for the course when you start working with God. We say in Circle of Hope  “We are called to move with what the Spirit is doing next.” The next thing is not always easy to do or even easy to see.  It takes a disciplined ear and an openness to the Spirit to discern what is next. It’s often a lot easier to settle into what is. Changing meets a lot of resistance every time.

But God is relentless. Constantly calling us forward into something new. Some new territory, some new cell, some new team, some new experience. God is the opposite of static. I think this is because the world is so complex and God is forever gauging our actions for ways to bring about the future he has promised. We see it time and time again in the Bible- an elephant-swimming-from-India-to-Sri-Lanka type leap in how God is relating to people.

When I read the Bible as if I was one of the people in it I find myself saying “Are you sure that’s what you wanted to do there? Are you sure, God, that this is what you had planned?”  Yep, elephants can swim and God is even more ridiculous sometimes.

The crazy leaps, the surprises, the next-ness of the New Testament is inspiring to me. Nothing is final. Your estimation of yourself is almost certainly undervalued. The world is a crazy place but God is faithful- marvelous in the true sense of the word.

The marvel that I am basking in this week is that my friend Adam is alive. He said it best as quoted in the Inquirer article about his near drowning after having a seizure and driving into the Cooper River, “It didn’t make sense,” said Nicely, … “Maybe it’s a miracle. I can’t imagine dying that way. It seems silly.”

The neighbors, strangers, and Police Officers who played roles in saving his life were incredibly quick to respond. It does seem like a miracle–a great surprise. But the surprises have kept on coming this week.  Adam and his family are flooded with support from the whole region- Collingswood neighbors, to well-wishing strangers- to Inquirer authors.

But all these people are just like the swimming elephants. Elephants have been able to swim for a long time, long before I knew about it. These people were great at loving a needy man and his family, I just didn’t know them. That unveiling of joy and goodness is heartening to me as we move into what is next. If these others are capable such marvels, how much more capable are we? The uncertainty of what is next is lessened by experiencing the faithfulness of God wherever we can find it.

What did you say about sex?

TennantWhat“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.

Getting Out There the Best we Can

us at moorestownLast weekend a few of us got out there.  It was Moorestown Day, a festival on Main Street in Moorestown, and we thought it to be a great opportunity to tell people about Circle of Hope. It was a beautiful day and rain only threatened without delivering. Maybe housands of people showed up and we were there as a conspicuous presence.  we wanted to be known.
The goals were:
1) for people to know that a church called Circle of Hope exists
2) that they know we have a cell in Moorestown
3) make a friend if we can- we’re looking for people who are interested not in forcing our interests on someone
4) we want to do this awkward thing to loosen us up- if I can’t hand out a flyer can I invite a friend to the cell?
flyerI invented a new flyer for the event.  I kind of like it.

WE’VE STOPPED FAKING IT

You don’t have to get it all together before you can be a part of our church. You don’t even have to be a Christian. We are an opportunity to explore. Expect real people, really trying and really failing, but doing so together and with God. That’s the point– we’ve stopped pretending we can get by on our own.

Giving out this flyer requires me to put my community on the line. I trust them to be the sort of people I describe them to be in this short statement.  I trust God to make us the safe place we claim to be because I love God and I have seen God at work among us. Telling that story, even in a flyer, helps me believe it again too. It’s audacious, but it’s inadequate too.

A friend pointed out the weakness of our strategy from his own perspective:
“Flyer advertising–for churches, for home repairs, for comedy shows–I just don’t like it. If I get a flyer from someone, you can be sure I’ll never do business with them. But there’s lots of advertising that does work for me (man, I love those free samples from Panda Express they give out at the mall.)
Couple that with the connection that I have with the kinds of churches that advertise that way and the whole thing leaves me a little freaked out. I’m sure a church could read encouraging messages of God’s love by using a bullhorn on a street corner, but I suspect most people wouldn’t receive the message that way, regardless of the words being said. Flyers aren’t that, but they are close for me.”
I think my friend is pushing us in the right direction. Flyers are flimsy.  Flyers could turn some people off. Flyers are an easy stop gap- a provisional measure- a cheap response to our desire to get out there- the best we can do with the little time we have yet invested- We need to get more creative.  The message is real, the urgency is real, our community is real, but let’s get real about our story telling to those who are yet to know us.
Of course our most creative and effective avenues into our community are the personal relationships we have already and the open chairs we hold for them in our cells and Public Meetings. These extra measures I am imagining are just that, extra. There are more people out there that we don’t yet know.  i want to meet them. Let’s pray and dream about how to do it well.

Why Curb Appeal and Everything Else Matters

front yardSo we bought a building.  I think it was 2011. Now it matters. It matters because it is ours, and we matter because we are God’s. And we are God’s not in a generic sense–because we were created by God like everyone else–but because we are God’s chosen people being built like living stones into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). It’s pretty grandiose. Being a Christian is pretty grandiose. Many Christians are just grandiose and not very christian. That’s what Christians may be best known for- saying they are something they really aren’t- being concerned with what is on the outside and not really experiencing any transformation on the inside.

Jesus had a couple of things to say about that. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean… You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.(Matthew 23:26-28)

I know for a fact that the inside of 3800 Marlton Pike is clean–not just because the cleaning team is awesome 🙂 but because our Public Meetings are a place for Jesus’ transformation. They are a place where people encounter Christians who are not whitewashed. We know what dead bones we carry around inside of us and we are free to name them and continue to let Jesus clean us out. We’ve got the no faking thing down even if we hide our true selves from time to time when our fear rises up.

It seems that part and parcel to that sort of honesty is a scrutiny which can be detrimental to our mission. We are working with what’s on the inside. We are sometimes very aware of how far we are falling short and we are okay with that.  We’re in process. And focus on that process keeps us from putting very much out there. We aren’t “there” yet so we won’t put ourselves out there either.

But Jesus is there and Jesus is here. Let’s not forget that our house that used to be akin to a Hoarders episode is now a livable space and there are just dirty dishes in the sink and the carpet needs to be vacuumed. Jesus has brought us a long way and we want to let as many people as possible get into this house, so to speak.

This requires some curb appeal. We need to put ourselves out there, be aware of our appearance and how the world receives us. Folks don’t know us or love us before they do, and before they do they will know about us or know what we look like. So trying to make ourselves look a little better on Marlton Pike this week, I got us a new sign.  It’s a small way to put ourselves out there, but I think a great improvement to what was there. What other improvements to our curb appeal could we do?  how could we make ourselves known and make room for the next person at 3800 Marlton Pike?

A brainstorm (that could be continued by you in the comments)

  1. Paint a mural along the whole front of the buiiding just below the roof line
  2. Mow the lawn regularly
  3. Park on the street at the Public Meeting so there’s room in the parking lot for guests
  4. Get a directional sign on 130
  5. ……

What is the meaning of life and what if there is an answer other than 42?

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the super computer, Deep Thought, takes 7.5 million years to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and the answer is 42. Those who receive the answer aren’t pleased.

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

So when we asked “What does this mean” with the disciples of Jesus in the book of Acts last week as we celebrated Pentecost we were wrestling with what the right question might be.  The story goes that the disciples of Jesus were waiting in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. A wind came through and there were tongues of fire descending on their heads and they were enabled to speak in languages they didn’t understand.  After this experience there were two responses:

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13

The scientists who created Deep Thought didn’t know what question to ask. 42 is the answer to a question that people like those who accused the disciples of drunkenness would ask.  They are looking for an explanation that computes within their understanding of the world.  They are closing themselves off from the possibility of a meaning beyond their experience or understanding.

The best question to ask–and I’m talking about life, the universe and everything– is “what does this mean?” The meaning of life, the universe and everything is being open to asking this question and its precursor being open to amazement and perplexity.

In Circle of Hope we create think tanks, so to speak, for amazement and perplexity–for asking the questions that bubble up and for seeking the answer.  They are cells. We live our lives together enough to have a sense of each other’s lives. Consequently, the question “what does this [experience, feeling, situation, absurdity, fear, doubt, joy, love] mean?” actually has a shared meaning.  Plus, we live in community not only with each other, but with the Holy Spirit, who stokes the amazement, perplexity, questions and then even answers.

But if you’re not open to the question– if meaning is calculation and the universe needs to equal out– the minutia of each human life is inconsequential.  The oppressive demands for a balanced equation weigh us down and squash our spiritual imaginations before they can even emerge. I don’t think it all has to work out.  Not even the stories in the Bible demand some reasoned exactitude provided by a consistent system of thought.  Many Christians have been demanding that of their faith and understanding for a long time and I think that way of being Christian is collapsing under it’s own weight.  That way of living with God gets you answers like “42” and “they’re drunk.”  The living God is unpredictable but reliable to answer when we ask “What does this mean?” when he amazes us again and again.

Why not the Whole Delaware Watershed?

 We live in the megalopolis- the swath of concrete dominated land that stretches from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. In my neck of this urban and suburban mass of human concentration, the boundaries slip and slide like hikers boots on wet, mossy rocks. One minute you’re in Haddon Township, the next minute you’re in Haddon Heights, cross the street and you’re in Haddonfield. I can say now, after 3 months on the job (Monday was my 3 month-a-versary as Pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent- woot!) that I’m getting the hang of how these municipalities work. I’m probably more attuned to the boundaries then most people who have lived here all their lives. It’s kind of like when I learned English grammar by learning Spanish. All the grammatical rules which I had intuited in my mother tongue needed a name and a category when I had to memorize them in a second language. Folks who aren’t so new to the area are often not as interested in where exactly all the borders are. Their lives have their beaten paths and it’s not really important that the coffee shop is in Pennsauken and the Wegman’s is in Cherry Hill.  I’m taking a lesson from this indifference to boundary lines when it comes to Circle of Hope.

Circle of Hope exists over and across a lot of different borders. The one I am most attuned to in my new role is the Delaware River that is a state line and major psychological boundary for a lot of people. Living on the Eastern banks of the Delaware means I do not live on the Western banks; this is an inescapable fact. But Circle of Hope as a movement scoffed at the mighty Delaware’s capacity to divide us when we planted a church in South Jersey 7 years ago.  And this is really great.

A friend of Circle of Hope creates cool maps and I bought the one pictured above last week because I was inspired by the Delaware River.  I had this fun thought. We’re all part of the same movement, AND we’re all part of the same watershed! The Delaware drains our creeks and gutters to the sea. We share a vital resource and the earth channels us together. We have three congregations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, but we have 4 in the Delaware watershed!

This excited me enough to trace the path of the Delaware up to Delaware County, New York where the Eastern Branch of the Delaware and Western Branch of the Delaware flow together to form OUR Delaware River. What if we, as Circle of Hope set our sights on expanding throughout the Delaware Watershed. The Megalopolis is too big and it’s borders are arbitrary. The Delaware has changed but it takes her a lot longer. There’s a stability in her flow that seems more substantial than any of the other borders I know. And if we see her as a point of unity for our movement we could be directed by her. Maybe I’m just geeking out on my new map, but if we want to spread the love of Jesus throughout our watershed, it would take Circle of Hope to Reading and Allentown, and Trenton.  It takes us not to New York City but Binghamton, New York. Then Philadelphia is our biggest city (as it should be!) and Circle of Hope in most of the other towns we make it to looks a lot like what we’re trying to do in Pennsauken- draw people together for Jesus sake across a lot of dividing lines. I think our united watershed would be another fun way to bring us together for our common cause, and to spur us forward in our ambition to see God’s redemption project advancing.