It is the eve of the New Year and the eve’s eve of my last day of pastoring Circle of Hope in South Jersey. Tears fill my eyes as I write this sentence. I am sad, but trusting God in what is next. I wanted to offer a remembrance for me and for my congregation. It is just a window into what brought me joy about this role. I did not filter my initial list very much. These really are the very first seven memories rising to the surface as I finish seven years of pastoring and end my service, which means there are many more, many of which likely include many of you, dear readers.
1. Ashes and Fumes
My first act as pastor was Ash Wednesday, 2015. I thought using an old metal cabinet I had trash picked as a fire pit would be a good idea. We made a bonfire in the snow that blazed green flames from the toxic paint. Oops! This was the first of many over-the-top ideas I had as a pastor which never went exactly according to plan. But they did the trick often enough. Good enough was always the goal anyway. I’m grateful for so many who went along with me through the years. That first night it was CJ, Rob and Jordan. There are too many other names to mention in this post. Those who I name below are attached to certain precious memories and the absence of many more names does not reflect how precious each one is to me.
2. Eating Pizza with Teens
Every Friday for two whole school years, I took over the entire seating area of a pizza place. First, Penn Pizza in Woodlynne, and then Randazzo’s Pizza (now it has a new name I can’t remember) in Collingswood. Me and a bunch of high school students had made a cell in which faith was born and nurtured. I look around the tables in my memory and marvel at the crazy fun God got me into. Lifelong friendships began with Dasia, Mashly, Miriam and maybe more. Thanks to Stevie for partnering with me, too.
3. A Tom Waits Rewrite
One year for Advent, Dan and Kendra wrote a new version of the Tom Waits song “Hold On.” It was brilliant. I loved it so much I made a recording of it which I don’t think I ever shared. Here’s my favorite verse (which you might need for now – I know I do):
Down by a stable in Bethlehem
It’s ten below and falling
By a manger in the shed
She closed her eyes and started praying
But it’s so hard to not be afraid
When it’s cold and he keeps crying
Oh, your old hometown’s so far away
But inside your head there’s a voice that’s saying O-oh, you got to
Hold on, hold on, Yeah you gotta hold on
Take my hand, I’m standing right here, you gotta hold on
Here’s the previously unpublished recording.
4. Walking With People Through it All
Becoming pastor in South Jersey brought us to our little house on Newton Lake, and the lake became my friend. This was a completely unforeseen relocation a year before it happened. Thank you, Gwyneth, for leaving your ancestral Philadelphia. What wonderous wandering God walks us through! And walking around Newton Lake with countless human friends was the most beautiful mobile office I could have imagined. Donna probably has the most laps with me. The cozy room at 3800 Marlton Pike with the leaded glass window, salvaged from an ancestral home of my predecessor was a holy place, too. Many tears shed by myself and others baptized it with the holiness of human connection. I was honored again and again to be welcomed into the interior chambers of many hearts. There I met God as I helped others see how Jesus was walking beside us.
5. Substitute Dreams and Other Fire Hazards
Once we designed a season of Sunday meetings that focused on the dreams of the Magi (Matthew 2:12). We were thinking about the worldly powers, represented in the Gospel story by Herod’s Court, and how those substitute dreams could easily get in the way of the Kingdom imagination for another possible world. We enacted this confrontation by hanging a curtain of 200 or so fabric strips from the ceiling which you had to walk through to get into the worship space (they were not fire retardant fabric because… money #jomar #ifyouknowyouknow). During each meeting we invited worshippers to pull down a strip of fabric and work on a collaborative weaving art project which still hangs in the space at 3800 Marlton Pike. Many other elaborate fabric installations defied the fire marshal’s best practice, and many hands made them come into their fullness (and thankfully never into flames).
When the pandemic forced us out of our building and we met in Newton Lake Park, we had the whole of creation for our art design. There were several moments that captured my whole consciousness. In a planned or incidental silence a bird would sing the sweetest note and I would be lifted into another level — elevated into the branches with him or even into the cloud-scaped sky. It was a rarified joy. Thanks to Joel, Tristan, Scott and Jess especially for making those meeting happen.
6. Digging People Out of Their Avoidance
Faith is a muscle. When I broke my arm and wore a cast for six weeks or so, the arm was frighteningly skinny when the cast was removed. I think the faith muscles can wither as dramatically, so I was quick to track people down when they stopped showing up at cell or Sunday meetings and they didn’t answer my calls or texts. I was amazed at how often they really needed me to just show up — at their job, at their house, wherever I could find them and it wasn’t THAT weird. It was always weird though. I liked being that kind of weirdo.
7. All the Babies
I love all the children of our church. I always have. When I was 13, I was on the first children’s team at 10th and Locust in Philadelphia where Circle of Hope began. During my leadership at 3800 I celebrated the birth of Bear, Irie, Emmy, Dex, Jonah, Owen, Finn, Libby, Francis, Brigitte, Drew, Zoey, Wrigley, Naomi, Cathy and Kristin’s to be born babies (3 of them). I tried to put them in age order, but I know I got some wrong. God bless all of them, even the ones I missed!
I’ve already begun to move into my next congregation of sorts. At Nemours Children’s Hospital, where I have been hired as a Spanish Speaking Chaplain. This congregation is mostly babies and their parents in some of the harder things to imagine in parenting.
An Enduring Blessing
I received this blessing from friends at Proskuneo Ministries this fall and it has not left my heart or lips for long since I learned it. It is my prayer for you, Circle of Hope, and for me, now and always. I love you.
May the love of God
spring up in your soul,
be a healing stream
in the wilderness flowing.
And may the love of God
quench the thirsty soul,
feed the hungry heart;
May the love of God flow through you.
6 responses to “Seven Memories Rising to the Surface as I Finish Seven Years of Pastoring”
Thank Ben. I love and miss you.
love you too
Thank you, Ben. Altho I never had the opportunity to be a part of the Marlton Pike Family, I count it a blessing to have been part of the larger Circle family during your tenure there…and I wish you all of God’s best as you head into this new chapter that God has for you.
Wonderful post, Ben. You served God and people well. You always brought your heart, soul, mind, and strength to everything you did. I have countless memories with you over the last 7 years as well. All of them good. None of them bad.
All of God’s best to you as you transition to your next
My favorite memory is of you enrolling in a photography class at Camden County College. This allowed you to have “legal “ access to the students. You set up a card table with I think an ask me about Jesus sign.
This is beautiful, Ben. You led with compassion and gusto. I and my family have been so well-cared for by you these past seven years. Your time as our pastor has marked a distinct period of growth for me personally, and has taught me much about God and about myself. I love you, Gwyneth, Ollie & Theo! Sorry (but also kinda not sorry) you never got to throw paint-filled glass ornaments. 😂