Thursday, June 30, 2016

Imagination is kid's play - NOT

Imagination is kid's play. Not.

Imagination is how we move from the places in which we walk each day and leap into the next steps of life for which we did not expect. Imagination changes our expectations When our expectations change we can become something new - even when the expectations are small.

Imagination can change the story. Rather, imagination can change the way we see or hear the story and therefore it is how we change how the story continues. Imagine being more loving with people we find so easy to hate. Wow, that is a different story line. And yet, it becomes a possibility once we are open to new expectations that are quite out of the box in which we so often choose to stay.

After six months of staying out of the church scene - retirement taken seriously. I am starting to step back into church. Last weekend I was the guest preacher and presider at a local congregation. During the month of July I will be teaching adult education at another congregation on Sundays and Wednesdays. I want to encourage folks to let their imaginations go out beyond the way they have always walked and learned.

Imagination allows the biblical stories to come to life. When I speak of imagination here, I do not mean that we attempt to 'see' or 're-enact' the story as we hear it read. Rather, imagine the whole world around the events - imagine all the parts of the story that may not be visible - imagine the characters who are seen and and those not heard. It may be that we will become aware of new dynamics - new perspectives, and gain a new appreciation for the story being told and the power it can have for new life.

This Sunday, in order to set the stage for the class, I will be singing a song I wrote years ago. It was for the story of the feeding of 5000 in John's gospel. There was a boy who had fish and bread. The scene was set as though it was a ridiculous notion for Jesus to have everyone sit for dinner - 5000! I must admit, I don't always know how to see miracles in the bible. In this story I thought about the boy. I wondered what brought him out there. I wondered about his life before that moment. Who taught him to share - as I don't think the disciples just ripped the bread and fish from him.

I think when we allow ourselves to wonder we begin to imagine a wonder-full life. The song is about the boy's mother. I'm a mama's boy and therefore my imagination took me there. I imagined her teaching her son - day after day - about caring for others. I imagined her reaching into her faithful vision of the Reign of God and offering that vision to her son - in passing - from day to day. The refrain was quite simple: My mama bakes bread each day - she kneads her love in barley loaves. And sends me out the door, with her kiss I hear her pray... The verses are what I imagine she says to her beloved son. Some of what she says reflects the image of shalom - wholeness - the well-being of all. I imagine her telling her son how life is a gift and it is something we share with others. I imagine her painting pictures of self-giving and daily bread for all. It is the life-giving story they would have heard in synagogue as they learned of the Reign of God.

The story has become so important for me. The miracle of sharing is out of the box - revolutionary. One writer noted that folks would never go out into the setting of this story without taking some food.  Everyone had food. Not everyone could imagine sharing it with others. We all know how that goes - we take care of ourselves and our own kind. But Jesus is about the miracle of God's Reign - the miracle of sharing and caring and taking the risk to reach out to strangers.

Imagine Jesus having the attention of all those folks and he offers blessing to the food that has just been handed to him - the bread and fish from that boy. And then - he just starts giving it away to all in reach. Imagine everyone who witnesses the give-away opening up their hearts and letting the bread and other bits of food for the journey flow into the hands of others. Imagine - over and over again - a grand banquet of food being passed around in that wilderness setting. A banquet where banquet are unimaginable. Wow.

Imagine miracles reshaping how we walk through the day. Imagine faithful people passing on faithful stories that open up faithful hearts for a new life we too often cannot imagine possible. Imagine people letting go rather than grasping and taking. Imagine folks making sure that those around them - who may have much or may have little - having enough. Imagine how a desert place becomes a place of abundance - more than enough. That is the reality of our world today - when we imagine it being just like that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (8 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Going the Wrong Way 
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, „Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?‟ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.” Acts 10:44-48 

Within the mix of the city - within the routine - within the patterns that we often think keep us on track - within the movement of those around us - within the movement of images and ideas whipping along through our heads, comes the Reign of God. We are often taught that the Reign of God will be visibly among us in the shape of justice and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation that is radically present. That is indeed the case. It is a surprising presence. It is also a presence that comes with hard work. Working for justice is a journey that is long and one that is filled with consequences for everyone. Making peace is ongoing. Peace and nonviolence is the life that comes from every breath. It is a life that will not let brokenness prevail but will seek the healing and welfare of all. 
It is always a joy to see people who are profoundly shaped by the character of the Reign of God. They live on an edge and are able to resist the temptation to jump back onto ground that may appear to be more stable – more guarded. We have all had contact with such people. They speak up when a voice is needed to pull a room back to the vision. They are the ones who are able to bring an analytical mind into a situation but do not let the analysis rob the moment of the power of life that comes among us when such a living analysis is able to change our direction and open wide the path of God’s Reign among us. 
I‟m not a wonderful participant in meetings. Too often it takes me so long to process the discussion jumping up around the table that I am continually a few steps behind the movement in the room. Therefore, an opening comment for me tends to be, “Can we return to...” It is as though the Spirit brings together so many gifts it is often difficult to savor them and let them find a place to rest within my heart. Though this can be frustrating it is also a blossoming arena of joy. Sometimes I must simply smile. I’m content to do that. It is as though others in the room are filling my cup and it is overflowing onto the table and making a real mess. The mess is good. This mess is a time of meditation. The meditation is drawn up into the stream of thought - the disagreements – the affirmations – the clarifications – the modifications – the brilliance of others who can see beyond my seeing and place words to their vision. Most often, my smile is inward – a chuckle of joy at how blessed I am to be alongside others on a common adventure. 
I remember being at a meeting at church with a group of our GLBT saints in the congregation. We had been an openly welcoming congregation but it was primarily centered on those who were gay and lesbians. At this meeting, we all agreed that we somehow had not pressed for the sincere and visible welcome of all those letters – G – L – B – T, and the gift of life given to each person who comes into our congregation. If spirituality is an uncovering of joy, I was not able to enter into the depths of that joy – that spirit of life. I immediately tried to be the ‘every-person’ in the congregation. My mind was cluttered with what could not be. I only heard and then I became - the voice of excuses - fears - unstated expectations - responses to others not in that room. I missed the moment by being in another time and place rather than listening to the voices around me in that room. 
In the middle of that room I simply backed down. I said “No.” I didn’t know enough about what it was to be bi-sexual and was anxious about how this move would be received by others in the congregation. I took the protective role of the status quo and said this additional step would never fly. I thought we were moving the congregation beyond their original intention...blah...blah...blah. The meeting came to a close and everyone went home. I wandered back to my house. I realize I was broken-hearted. We had the opportunity to openly consider that which was not yet available to us, and I stopped conversation – drew boundaries on who and what would be a part of the Reign of God in our place and time. I did not take the opportunity to uncover the joy in that room. There was no openness to be drawn beyond myself – no willingness to be surprised by joy. 
The beauty of an urban spirituality is that we can be so connected to one another that our time of meditation and contemplation is extended to include others when wounds are fresh and insights tickle us or pull at our hearts. By the end of the evening I made a phone call and asked for another meeting – next week. I had been an ass. I had given up who I was for what others would say or do - and all of that was the product of an anxious heart. Sometimes it helps to be so close and so within reach of others that we can act now to bring about something new even in the face of anxiety. Confession can take place without waiting. Repentance is able to be a part of the journey of uncovering joy with a simple call or e-mail or visit. 
Most of the people present at our first meeting were present the next week to uncover what was taking place among us. I knew something had to change but was not sure how to deal with my actions and voice of the previous week. In some ways, the room became a confessional. The confessional was a mutual conversation. The conversation unveiled that which was outside my world. My world was transformed by the wisdom in the room and the forthright sharing of those who knew more joy than I did. It is often this kind of wandering through the week of ministry in a city context - with its issues and needs - that continues to tap me on the shoulder so that I will recognize the presence of God’s Reign in the middle of the fears and anxieties and prejudices that we too often call home – a home we never leave. 
Urban spirituality is one in which the Holy Spirit acts - now. The Spirit is so available to us that sitting back and letting things unfold at a later time seems a waste of time. When so many lives are passing around us and walking with us and confronting us throughout the day, the Holy Spirit mixes it up with us. Within the diversity of people with whom we move, we are invited to look again at all things – our own lives – our way of looking at others – those who are not at all like us – the noises that turn our head because they are strange – the sights that contradict what we would expect in life. Urban spirituality involves a degree of utter surprise. Often it reminds me of the old program ‘candid camera.’ We are constantly given the opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of being ourselves. That can be a brutal discovery. It can also be the door that opens us to another way of being who we are. Sometimes it is an in-your-face dilemma that demands our attention or at least the recognition that something has taken place that may have the power to change the day. 
One day I was walking on the indoor track at the Jewish Community Center. The protocol on the track is that the direction of traffic changes from day to day. It not only cuts down on the sense of monotony while walking or running, it also makes your body deal with the tilt in the track around the bends. I was intentionally wired to my headset so that I would walk my way through an album. This frees me up from watching the clock. It also opens up the walk to a bit of surprise - sometimes I’m done with my walking before I expect to be. 
Coming around the bend of the track I noticed that an elderly woman was standing in the area that people use to stretch out or simply take a rest. I thought I needed to be mindful of her because when I am speed-walking, people tend not to hear me coming up behind them. I have had a few people become startled as I pass by. On my next lap around the track she was also walking on the track – but in the wrong direction! 
Internally I laughed and passed by her. We exchanged glances. As I came around on the next lap I slowed down, took off my headset, and asked which way we were to be walking. I wanted to be as polite as possible as I hopefully sent the message that she was going the wrong way. She didn’t catch what I said so I said, “It’s Tuesday, which way are we supposed to be walking?” She said, “It’s Wednesday.” Realizing I was the one going in the wrong direction, I turned around and started walking in her direction. 
On the next lap, she was waiting as though she wanted to talk to me. I slowed down with a big, embarrassed smile on my face and stopped to hear what she wanted to say. In a thick Eastern European accent she said, “You must be in don‟t even know what day it is.” I returned the laughter and then continued on my way. Within moments, what she said cut me to the heart. I must be in heaven. Yes, I was...and she was my guide who was helping me get along the way. My whole day was put in perspective. I am walking in the Reign of God. It is not some time to come and it is not a place we will enter. Heaven – the Reign of God – is this journey in which we will find ourselves going in the wrong direction and laughing about it as we come to see the need to change directions and carry on. 

Several laps later, she was resting by the drinking fountain and I stopped and told her that what she said to me was the most wonderful thing anyone has said to me and it has made my day special. I thought my comment would be easy to share, but my eyes became brimful. She smiled and thanked me because she said she rarely sees a man filled with emotion and willing to share it. There I was going in the wrong direction and yet when the paths of people intersect we are mutually blessed. This is the realm of urban spirituality. We are invited to walk into heaven on the wrong day and going in the wrong direction and being surprised by God‟s laughter in the face and voice of an immigrant who is very aware of the fact that we are all aliens walking through God‟s Reign. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Giving Into Violence - the easy road

Giving into violence: I hate it when I am sucked into its power and I am a part of its witness. Yes, it may happen within words - just words. Yes, it may even stay back - simply an internal flare up - that fuels nothing more than my spinning mind that no one see or hears. It is so easy to be swept up within  the currents of violence that do nothing but keep the world as it is - divided and filled with a fire to keep all things at war.

Giving into violence: It often means I have been sucked into a lie about the other side - or even a half truth that often produces more violence than a full-blown lie that is easily spotted and disregarded. I find that it takes quite a bit of emotional, mental, spiritual, even physical energy to avoid that sucking power. It is so easy to think righteous thoughts that I allow to paint my side as that which defines the goodness of all things. And yet, it is right in the act of that painting that I become a part of the lies that destroy - belittle - demean - devastate - blame - and suck life from everyone.

Giving into violence: Leaves me standing outside the life of the gracious Reign of God unable to witness to what Gil Bailie calls the complete vivaciousness of the God who knows not death. Violence  denies me life. God promises life. Violence against others is not life - it is always death. When I am walking in the ways of death (a walk that is oh so well known), it is as though I am choosing to turn away from hopefulness and joy and peace thinking that I can have something better. Ha!

Giving into violence: Is like not breathing. It is like holding my breath right before I try to push something over. And yet, things really move more easily when we breathe - that burst of wind - that release of energy - that belly grunting sound that cannot be hidden. The world moves when we breathe. When we hold our breath we tend not to engage others - we have no ability to talk - we are consumed with what is in us - we deny ourselves the opportunity to take part in the miracle of dialogue. When I used to lift weights, I was always told not to hold in my breath when I was pushing the weights off my chest. A full body involvement was needed to move the weights without hurting me. I suppose the same thing happens with birthing. I remember being in a birthing class and the instructor was telling the women not to close their eyes for there was a good chance they would push too early and too hard. She did say keep your eyes open and breathe - really breathe. Life will come forth in every day. When we breathe our way in and out of it, we give ourselves time to experience new life no matter how good or bad it might seem. That helps to bring about peace.

Giving into violence: Is the easy way out. Just listen to the name-calling going on in the political realm around us. Verbal violence that has no intention of creating a healing and whole reality. It is all about how we can put ourselves into the winner's circle and push others into the losing column. We give up the gift of conversation that can - at times - be long and hard. Instead we pull out the weapons of blame that seem to be able to stop everything - yet, only makes for more of the same. It happens in politics - in sports - in our homes - in our congregations - in our neighborhoods. I was just talking to someone about how some people who do not like an action within a congregation - just leave. So when there is an opportunity for everyone to grow - even beyond our comfort zones - we take the easy way out - we leave. That is the pathway of violence - leaving. Next, we call each other names - declare we will never be like them - go on our own righteous way. Ah, there we go -giving into violence again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (7 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Grove of Fig Trees 
“Most didn’t know they were giving me a fit of insight and support, affirmation and critical acumen, but were simply being who they were and doing what they do.” 
Douglas John Hall, Bound and Free

What does the world look like from under a stretch of scaffolding? When I’m trying to make my way through the web of metal tubing of a scaffold, things simply look tight. We have to move from the usual well-ordered sidewalk where foot traffic naturally follows the rules of the road (walk on the right and no one will be hurt) to a sudden reduction of space. Back on a wide open sidewalk traffic maintains itself, but now, unlike a freeway lined with orange barrels, we have to bob and weave so that everyone makes it through this pedestrian roadwork. 
The passageway through the scaffold can bring us so close to one another the very texture of each face that passes by are like photos that flash on a screen – very clear...very distinct, and then gone. Even smells are so available they pull our senses out and add to the intensity of the moment. With bags and briefcases and purses in hand, room must be made and it does not always happen with the gracefulness we would like. We are all brought a little closer to one another as we move within this temporary structure of time and space. And yet, closeness is often an excuse to be utterly unavailable and anonymous. Strangers exchanging glances and then....we are gone. Sometimes we are simply between here and there and that which happens and is seen and heard and touched is left behind without leaving a mark on the life we have and the life we are entering. 
Not long ago there was a large tunnel of scaffolding across the entrance to a local church. About a year later the scaffold was still in place. In big cities, I usually have a good memory of where I am and what will be coming up next as I move down a street. The memory is usually  associated with other buildings within a block or construction work or even the amount of street activity going on around that place. Under this church scaffolding, I remembered a person. She was young enough to grab my attention but old enough to show that she was not lost. She was trying to stay warm, sitting on one of the steps, and huddled against the stone of the church entrance. This day, she was gone. I don‟t remember the name of the church – only the person sitting under that scaffold. What does the world look like from those steps and within the shoes of that young woman? I’m certain it is different from how I see things. 
I see many homeless people or those who appear to be homeless because they are out in conditions I would never choose to be. I wonder about their stories and their conditions and their future. It all happens within the few moments of a walk-by. Urban areas present us with a stream of such images. At times it can feel like an avalanche of images that are able to overwhelm our senses. That could be why it becomes so easy to pick up the pace of our walk and move by what is so raw and quite visible. 
On a walk between an evening dinner and our evening destination, there was another scaffold. It was dark and we instinctively moved from a group-walk to a single-line of pedestrians making their way through our tight urban channel. In the middle of this little excursion and glancing down to make sure I was staying clear of the ground level pieces of scaffold, I saw a penny. Yes, I’m one of those folks who once heard of picking up a penny as a bit of good luck – especially if Lincoln’s face is looking up at you. Well, I bent down, picked up the penny, and returned to the cadence of our stream of walkers. My daughter asked what I did. I admitted that I picked up a penny and felt a bit like a fool. Joking, she said “Dad you just took that penny from that homeless guy.” Homeless guy! Where! What! 
There wedged into the scaffolding and rolled into a pile of blankets and stuffed into layers of clothing was a body – right where I picked up that penny. I could have been flip and flipped the coin back to the ground or simply went on the way. It is easy to walk by life and keep one’s life secluded and “to one’s self.” But what do we do once we have wondered about how life is seen from under a scaffold and exposed to life in a way that can be harsh and anonymous? Was this penny connected to that person? Was it one of the coins in his exposed hand – coins probably put in place by others who flowed through this tight place before me? 
I once learned how to say a “good” Act of Contrition. “Good” when used to be descriptive of an Act of Contrition meant it was sincere. I can say an Act of Contrition almost as fast as I can say a “good” Hail Mary.You may not catch every word...but I said it...every word. On that street in New York, I felt the need to say a good Act of Contrition. No priest was asking for it. This was not a part of a show. It was a part of a deep stirring that flashed through me and made me realize the life that is outside and foreign to the shoes in which I walk. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a bill, turned around, walked back to this sidewalk, scaffold saint, and bent down and told him that I was the one who just picked up the penny at his side and did not mean to take it from him. I put the bill in his hand and said, “God bless you.” 
The city is a grove of fig trees where people sit to contemplate life as it goes by. To sit under an urban fig tree is to open one‟s self to life we may not want to see or to simply move by without recognizing God’s presence in others. What does life look life under the fig tree of metal tubing when it is your home for the night and people move by as though you are a bag left out on the street? A bill in hand is not going to bring healing. I am not that na├»ve. What it reminded me on that night is that there is so much to which I need to be connected – and yet, I am not. A part of urban spirituality is the utter availability of our own brokenness that sustains a system in which we are honestly aware of the brutality of poverty and the dis-ease of individuality. We are given so many opportunities to turn around and face ourselves even when we do not like what we see. 
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins, because of thy just punishment. But most off all because they offend thee my God who art so good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.” 
A “good” Act of Contrition takes place under the fig trees of urban life when we avail ourselves to moments of vulnerability that help us see the coming of the Lord even as we look on at the ordinary and broken and forgotten. When I recite this old confessional prayer, I hear it with new ears. I am no longer afraid of a God who I once thought was set to punish me for falling short. I am much more sensitive to the utter connectedness that is our humanity and how disconnected we can live. 

A walk on a city sidewalk is like a stroll through fig trees and the vision of a promise that often has turned sour. And yet, we continue to walk and look around and remember our God who is so good. We are pulled in to see and be the goodness of God‟s Reign when brokenness appears to be having its day. There are many fig trees waiting for us to come and rest and watch and come alive again in a way we never may have anticipated. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

It is so hard to not go - Bam. Bam. Bam.

It is so difficult not to be violent. That old saying 'in the twinkling of an eye' really gives some insight into how fast we are able to lean into the violence of action and words and thoughts. Bam - it happens. Bam - they are wrong. Bam - they are weak. Bam - they don't deserve this or that. Bam - we worked hard for what we have. Bam - no way Jose, Abdul, Ishmael, Jimmy. Bam - we deserve this and no way will they take it.   Bam - Bam - Bam - Bam. I catch myself going there all the time. Most often the catch comes after I have pulled the trigger and - Bam - in some way or another - Bam.

It is not easy to listen and hear the story of others - to hear the weight of their lives - to honor history not as I know it - to let go of my desires and go that extra distance to see 'them' as I would hope others would see me.

One of the reasons I enjoy being an Uber driver and asking people to take part in my YaketyYak Poll about the presidential election is that I have to listen. I have to honor the voices in the car so that the people will be open to speaking more and more. I must say that there are few with whom I agree completely. There are those who take a side very opposite to my own - but I must simply listen. I do not probe - though at times I ask for clarification. I am finding that although I still hold many of my same opinions, I now can listen a bit more to the other side. I've notice that my usual violent way of referring to the other side has lost much of its edge. But, O My God, it take everything I have to not go - Bam.

Last evening I testified before the Columbus City Council about an ordinance that was calling for a wider perimeter around the Planned Parenthood Clinic where I volunteer as a Greeter. There are deep concerns that some protestors step over the line toward violent words and actions. On my first day at the clinic - even though I was told to expect very vocal protestors - I found myself listening to some 'good Christian folk' spewing out such hate-filled and violent words it was simply jarring. At the same time, there were other protestors who were following through with their protest in a much more peaceable manner. The Planned Parenthood training nurtured in us the need for complete focus on the clients and to avoid any and all interaction with the protestors. This was a good exercise for me. I found it - oddly - meditative. To withhold comment - to stay focused on the needs of the women and men coming into the clinic - made me wonder about what sets any of us off - why do we go Bam?

The gospel for this coming Sunday has brought some things into perspective. There is no need to call down fire on those who do not accept us - honor us - welcome us. There is no need to go Bam. That is the way of the world as it is. We are invited to get closer to any and all - to listen - to hold - to give of ourselves for the sake of the ones to who we would usually just go Bam. The everyday world of the Reign of God in the Christ is one of moment to moment remembrance of a love for all even as our love may be rejected. It is a prayerfulness that is actively involved in all those moments when it is so easy to pull the trigger and go Bam. I am finding - once again - that this peaceable Reign of God is a living reality I am invited to enter from moment to moment for the welfare of all. Geez, that demands so much devotion - yes, devotion - to the way of nonviolent love that refuses to go Bam.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Uncovering Joy - tales of everyday urban spirituality (6 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Voice in the Wilderness 
“And a voice came from heaven,“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11 

Too often the only voice I can hear is my own. When that happens, I know that I need to get out and be a part of some type of community. Even as an introvert, I need other voices. I need to hear something that does not come from the constant stream of me that circulates through my mind attempting to be the only voice I let shape my day. I don‟t even want to train myself to bring to voice self affirmations because that voice is still mine and it is a voice that too often is used to block out other voices. It is not bad to hear those other voices around us – even when those voices may be contrary to what we want to hear 
When joy is uncovered, even silence is full of expression and life and hope. There are so many places in the city that give us the opportunity to hear the subtle and varied voice of joy. When we have people around us we are pulled into conversation even as we sit or stand without entering into the give and take. Within this silence – which I would call an urban solitude - you may hear something that changes how you see the rest of the day. It is quite like letting your mind move through a meditative silence. It may run like wild - but you let it keep running - let the voices and ideas roll by - let the images fly by - let the rest come and the clarity emerge - but don’t try to control the flow or we will be tempted to become fixated and absorbed. 
Urban solitude is like a breath of fresh air that comes when most people only see congestion or hear noise. At that moment, a gathering of seven Saturday “regulars” were making room for one another, covering the games that were played this past week, making a note of a visit to Israel, and being quite at home with one another. There I was - trying to write. Ha! And yet, it is within this kind of space where my silence was enriched and I was taken outside myself in to the world of others – a streaming world of life waiting to be tapped. Again, even as I sat there, this gathering of neighbors stood up as a friend – obviously recovering from an illness – entered with his partner and joy brook out among them. It was like a lost son coming home and the parent welcomes without condition. I pinched myself...was I living in a biblical story or just having coffee?! Yes. 
What I enjoy about such moments of urban solitude is that I am only a twinkling of an eye away from being pulled into conversation or given an opportunity to listen to someone who steps up to the table at which I sit. Sometimes, the visitors into these moments of urban solitude are friends walking by and sharing a greeting. At other times, it is simply a stranger asking to “plug in” to the outlet next to my seat. Then again, even the person asking for change for a cup of coffee draws me into a world I do not always see. I suppose this kind of solitude would drive many people away from an urban setting and out into a wilderness place to be empty of all the noise and voices. That kind of cloistered spirituality is most often affirmed and practiced by people who know much about spirituality. Then again, there must be a voice that is raised up for those of us who daily turn to the mix and mess and movement of the ordinary sounds and lives that appear around us. 
Just the other day I was sitting and reading in a public place in the midst of a cacophony of coffee house sounds. Here and there people were meeting to do work, casually sitting down for conversation, and taking the time to rest and be renewed. I was moving into the beginning of a sermon. It was something for the Baptism of Our Lord. There were several streams of thought about how I would approach the sermon. My notes were in place, my “system” of drawing up a flow of thought was taking shape on the legal pad next to the computer, and I was ready to take off. But then, with the burst of a sneeze and a sigh, there was a voice. It was an ordinary voice – a voice we all have heard, “God bless you.” I know - it is a courtesy, right. We say it almost like a reflex. We are taught it is a nice gesture. By the way, does the heart really stop for just a moment when we that why we say that!?! 
Usually in the brief moment of time that passes around a sneeze and the customary response from friends and strangers, there may be a corresponding “thank you.” We are all accustomed to an exchange like that. On this day, that which passes by without notice changed the day. A woman’s softly spoken “God Bless You” received a response that made much of that which so often passes by without much consideration. Within that moment of silence that comes whenever we are recovering from a big sneeze I heard, “That’s my first blessing of the day.” This was not a simple courteous response. His voice, his demeanor, his tone of appreciation revealed someone who considered a blessing as something life sustaining and necessary. 
Then again, was this another one of my interpretations put onto the life of another person like sticking one’s own world into the world of a biblical text and passing it off as real interpretation? Well, I’m not sure about that. What I do know is that in that exchange of voices in the wilderness of that congested urban setting, came a blessing that was not dismissed or left out in the air like a swirl of congeniality. This man was blessed and he bowed to its announcement and he took it in as something he needed, expected, and longed to hear. I was like a person sitting alongside the River Jordan who was able to hear this blessing that tore open the heaven and was poured over Jesus. 
My heart was torn open. We are a people who are blessed before anything happens. We are people who are brought to life by a word that announces that we are beloved. We are empowered and filled with hope by the simple remembrance of our baptism. We are people who long for a voice to break into that which can be the wilderness of our days so that when we stand to face life as it unfolds around us, we will be exactly who we are – beloved of God. I was a witness to the most powerful word we can hear – a blessing. Common, simple, and yet, profoundly appreciated. It was enough to cause someone to count his blessings - literally. 
I looked at my watch. It was fifteen minutes after noon. It was the first blessing this man heard that day. It did not matter that it was a part of a nice gesture. He held it up and he appeared to rest in that moment of stillness after the storm of his sneeze. For a moment my mind raced through my days. When had I heard a blessing as simple as that? It was most likely at home. It seems as though my wife and I are often dueling sneezers. With that we bless one another quite often. I fall victim to the mere note of courtesy in my voice or the “holy cow” of a blessing that looks over to see if her nose is still attached to her head. But in that holy place where a blessing was offered and it was met with a response that completed a circle of grace, I thought of others, like me, who long to be blessed and who often wait too long between hearing those words spoken to us. Then again, when was the last time I spoke a word of blessing or touched someone and blessed them – for no reason except the fact that I am only bringing to voice what our God is continuously offering to us. 
Out in the wilderness of our lives that may be congested with urban noises and voices, each of us can be the longed for reminder of our place within this day. Blessed are you...and you...and you. Yes, we are surrounded by the strange mix of people that fill our cities and move quickly from here to there amid images that rush by us more quickly than we can truly notice, but there is the time and there is the need to bless – freely. An urban devotional is filled with faces and accents and colors that are constantly beckoning us to open our eyes and let that which God has created be our points of meditation and contemplation. Such a devotional is set in front of the backdrop of the heavens tearing open and heaven and earth resting within the arms of one another. This is cosmic adventure that takes place each time we look, with prayerful eyes, at the blessedness of God’s people who are tossed around us like the pages of a book of prayer – open with the hope of grounding us in God’s grace and mercy. 
What has become very aware to me as I write is the simple fact that I am talking to myself. I am within myself. I am lost in this stream of reflection that is serving to center me and keep me open to God’s blessed diversity and the wonder it creates within me. So, I suppose I am “retreating” just like people who go off to houses of retreat or monasteries. There is also the realization that at any moment the reflection stops and action begins. At any moment, the heavens can tear open and life will be handed to me - life that is blessed and life that blesses. 

Here in this place the followers of Jesus become people who are aware of the closeness of God‟s Reign even as we meander through the mundane spaces and times within the city. To abide in these common places and yet be aware of heaven and earth dancing as one around us, brings with it a sense of being an alien and a resident – simultaneously. In one way, we are passing through this space and time and yet, it is all that is. We are invited to be available to see beyond our own space and uncover the joy and grace and surprise that come in the form of those around us. For here in the middle of that which we so often miss come the voices and actions that keep us grounded within a blessedness that is the power to shape life. God bless you. 

Radical Crusader Christians - terrorists in the making?

Last evening I did not have the opportunity to present my support for an ordinance that would move protestors farther away from the Planned Parenthood Clinic so that they would not be right in the faces of clients and staff as they attempt to go about the choices of their lives. Here is my pitch.

Before I begin let me say two things: I respect the blessed task of protest. I count on the freedom of speech given to all in the First Amendment.

It is my hope that the Columbus City Council passes this ordinance unanimously for the safety of the patient greeters, the patients themselves, and the people who provide care for them every day, the staff.

As a new ‘Greeter’ at the Eastside Planned Parenthood facility, I found some of the rhetoric by the protestors to be frightening and simply vile. For example, because of the physical appearance of the other ‘Greeter’ training me that day, she was labeled a Lesbian and then that was reason to constantly demonize her. When African-America clients came to the facility, I was shocked by the level and intensity of the racist comments by some protestors. Young women and men coming to the facility for a number of reasons were reprimanded, patronized, scolded, and belittled. That day I experienced what I have come to call Radical Crusader Christians quite like how some people use the words Radical Jihadist Muslims. This labels the actions of a very, small group of people who do not reflect the wonder-filled fullness of their faith - but it is active and alive. It is not creative - it is not loving - it is not redemptive.

I have no problem with folks who are radical in their faith - in fact, I expect that - and hope I am one of them. I think of the radical antics of Jesus - the Great Prophets - Gandhi - Martin Luther King,Jr. - Harvey Milk - Harriet Tubman - Bishop Oscar Romero - all radical in their embodiment of a belief that never ceases to honor others - even those called enemies. But when radical antics seek to scapegoat and threaten and even take the step to kill others - as in the massacre in Orlando  or the murder of Dr. George Tiller inside his Lutheran Church as he attended worship  - religious radicals become - religious terrorist - we must name those actions as they manifest themselves among us - even when they become Radical Christian Terrorists.

There is a thin line between radical people of faith and those who become radical terrorist who use their faith to perpetrate violence. The former - no matter what the faith system - act from a center of love. The latter find ways to trust in violence in order to hold up their vision of how the world should be. Terrorism is - in religious terms - idolatry. It is the point in our lives when we simply give up on the goodness of creation and demand that we have the right and duty to re-create all things in our own image - to make ourselves gods.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Blessed Redundancy

A Blessed Redundancy 

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord: you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him,”Yes, Lord you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will faster a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  (John 21:15 - 19)

A child can never hear “I love you” too much. Quite frankly, neither can I. I suppose I would prefer to hear it with some firmness - some sense of truthfulness - some depth of conviction that calls forth a feeling of security. And yet, I have never been a good judge in regard to the sincerity of someone who has uttered those words to me. 

I want this love to be a word that takes me as I am - not what I could be - not because of something I’ve just done. I think we all want the love someone shares with us to be a word or act of acceptance for who we are - a willingness to take hold of us - a intentional presence with us. It is the power to rescue us from moments of abandonment. It is the salve that heals the wounds of exclusion. It is a touch that cuts through the loneliness of the day when we feel utterly alone or forgotten. It is act of solidarity that overthrows moments of despair and rejection. It is like having someone so for us and with us it creates moments of chaos among those who despise us.

Therefore we tell children we love them - over and over again. Saying it once will not be enough. Demonstrating that love through infrequent or erratic action doesn’t always have the weight to carry them through life. We are invited to take part in a redundant love that is meant to shape who we are and how we see others and how we enter into the relationships of our lives. As a follower of Jesus - as people who are created in the image of the Creator of all life - we participate and share in that creative power as we love one another. It means we must be willing to live within that strange space of being accused of being redundant - saying and acting and living within a realm of love again and then once again - even when it may seem unnecessary or without just cause. 

Our character springs from actions that are able to be noted by others because we seem to be saying and doing the same thing again and again - even when some may say it is too damn predictable. Imagine having people know that we will love them because our life with them has been a ceaseless demonstration of our love. Imagine being a real fool - a grand buffoon - an ass - and yet there are these odd or maybe even strange people who continue to treat you as one beloved. Imagine meeting one of these  loving folks and though you only throw blame, ridicule, and curses at them - they persist in their acts of love for you. That consistency - that character - that love - is the creative power meant to never end. It was in the beginning and it will be - eternally available. It is a blessed redundancy into which we are invited and empowered to enter as the image of God becomes us. 

There are many ways to read the Scriptures. Fill a room with folks who have read the stories within the Bible and we will hear many varied tales from those are doing the reading. Some will grasp on to stories of a God who is a stern figure who is always on the watch to see if we are living in the right way. I always say this is the Santa Claus god who is going to find out who is naughty or nice - a god ready to crack the whip or deny us entrance into the party or refuse us goodies. Some see a God who is all loving as long as we live in a way that earns that love. Some will see a God who is love - endless love - a love that will not be limited by anything we do. In all of these examples, folks will say that ‘God is good.’ And yet, I would submit that too often we let ourselves live with a god only as good as who we are able to be. Fortunately, the God of the Scriptures is endlessly loving not merely good. That changes life.

I need and want to hear a story that engages me and transforms me simply by the love it extends both now and forevermore. It does not have anything to do with that which I have done or that which I have left undone. It is a story that unveils the same God - an endlessly loving God - even when I expect to see or hear another story or I am being told another story. I consider myself lucky to have had Pastor Herb Brokering as the Christian Education teacher while I was in seminary. He was filling in until that position could be filled permanently. First, I learned that the Good News - the abundant and ceaseless love of God  - could be found anywhere - in anything - in any one. To understand that, we were shown that we have to listen to that which is not being said - that which is not obvious - that which could so easily be overlooked. I also learned how to say: ‘And then…’  it is a storytelling technique. It keeps the story moving beyond the point in which we might find ourselves. It pops up in order to help us lean beyond that which is and begin to experience more of the story being made available to us. 

As I read Scripture there are always these kind of transitional stories - ones that make us pick up and think or act as though we are are entering an ‘and then’ moment. As Christians we often turn to the Cross or the Resurrection and the Ascension as a few of those ‘and then’ tales that are meant to carry us more deeply into the blessed redundancy of God’s love. Once we begin to see such a continuation of this one story line, we are able to see how often it cracks open the day and we learn how consistently the power of God’s love is made available as the power of our love - our lives. Now as I read the various stories throughout the Scriptures - the stories that appear to be harsh or ruled by a set morality or setting up a privileged or exclusive community - I find that all of these types of tales often hide the redundancy of God’s love. Whenever that happens it can be very easy to trust in something other than a love that is always ready to say, ‘And then’. 

When a storyline bids us to continue on the way, it is an invitation to take up the action and become the next scene. That is how the love of God works. It is present without failure - it is present without hesitation - it is present as the beloved people we have been told we are without condition. The next steps we take become the same steps as the ones who loved us. We are endlessly being fed and we endlessly feed others. To be the beloved is not all about me - it is about you - it is about me being the love that will feed your life - it is about God’s redundant love being the love that comes alive through me and you so that others will be fed for new life. It is about a love that is so redundant, some folks will want to see the end of it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A diversity of friends and acquaintances

When we do not have a diversity of friends or acquaintances it is too easy to become stagnant - stuck - satisfied. Today I once again realized that our urban neighborhoods have been left to die. It is a slow death. It is so slow it looks as though the people who presently are living in those neighborhoods are the reason they are dying. It is so slow the damage is done and folks look around wondering how everything has turned out the way it has. It is so slow too many folks cannot see that if we all do not work together to address the situation in urban neighborhoods - if we do not intentionally bridge the gap between races and economics - if we do not make each of our lives a mixture of peoples - we will all miss the wonder of our humanity as it is present among us.

Years ago an urban planner introduced a bunch of pastors to the pattern of neighborhood decay. You may have heard people talk about 'how nice this neighborhood used to be' when we lived there - or when our grandparents lived there. Most often the comments are directed at the condition of the housing. Well, we learned that years prior to the notice of a change - probably a decade or so - the decay was already in the works. Older residents stayed in the homes they loved. As years went on, it was more and more difficult to keep things up. In addition - and this is something I have heard so often it is painful to write it again - 'some of them are beginning to move into the neighborhood' or 'they're moving in on the other side of the freeway' or 'it may be time for mom or dad to move out'. Therefore, the roof did not get the necessary repairs - gutters were left to go bad - bushes grew into facade covering monsters.

But years go on and yes, the neighborhood changes. That is because neighborhoods always change. Yet when the change is one of race or economics, the change is accompanied with fear and judgment and isolation. We were told that often the new people who move into an older neighborhood that was made up of affordable housing were first-time home owners. That often means they may not know how one becomes a homeowner. Let me use myself as an example. I cannot fix a thing - never had to. When I moved into our first home, I did not know I was to clean our gutters - when the gutters were going bad, I did not have the funds to simply fix them. I didn't have a lawn mower - they are not cheap. I didn't know people trimmed the lawn. The lack of all the lawn tools overwhelmed me. The minor repairs to the inside of the house were beyond me - I was embarrassed and things did not get done. I was lucky though. I had neighbors who helped me. I had neighbors who were quite like me. Change was happening but I was not - well - that kind of change.

When we do have a diversity of friends and acquaintances we do not know just how different life can be so close to home. We make our moves so as to be in places just as we would like them to be - just like me. I've made those moves. It is hard to admit. Yet, I know that we need to keep in mind the dynamics of life that create the divisions around us so that we will more readily step over lines and boundaries to take part in life that is not like our own. This does not mean we have to go over there to help them. It means we must simply be willing to expand our lives as they are. Increasing our circle of friends and acquaintances - who may not be like us - who make us live differently in the places we now reside - who have little in common with us - whose very existence can show us a bit more of the wealth of God's humanity - and make us a bit more human.

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (5 of 25)

Uncovering Joy - Making Much of Avery 
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that when astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of you Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:10-14) 
Imagine a party thrown for you – a party in which everyone is thrilled - especially that you are there in the middle of things. We must remember that this party already is being thrown and it is being thrown with you as the one right in the middle of all the joy. That is a promise. There is no other reality among the saints of God than to be in that celebration. We are both guests and participants in the celebration. Even as we are the focus of the party, we are just as much ones who enter into the joy of the presence of other guests. The Reign of God is a real community that gathers and makes much of all who come to the party. As that is the case among us there is no one that is outside or far off. 
We are a people who know when one is missing. We are not whole when you are not in the midst of us. This is even when people have tried to say you are not welcome or you are not to be one of us. When you are not here at the party – there is no real party like the Reign of God taking shape. In some ways, we are always moving toward wholeness – we will not be complete until all are welcome and joy-filled. This is not a call to a one time action – a task – a demand. Rather, it is a reminder that our life within the Reign of God is an ongoing journey in which joy will continue to be found as those who are not with us are brought into the circle of God’s peaceable Reign. 
What is it to be found when lost? To some degree, we probably all have a grasp on that feeling. We may not know when we are in the midst of being lost. Often, we feel it when we are told of others who have been found or when we see it happen right in front of us. Just look around when such stories are told or when a scene in a movie shows the lost - found. Eyes are full...we know that lost-and-found feeling. In those moments, we can put on a veneer of indifference or appear to be disconnected and unconcerned about how lost we have felt or are feeling. The reality of being lost is quite at hand and very real. Sometimes we would rather hide how lost we are feeling than acknowledge our need to be found in the middle of reunions filled with joy. 
Each Sunday we place into the liturgy a time with the children who are in worship or down the hall in the nursery. During the sharing of the peace, the children are called forward. Parents leave the sanctuary bringing in the youngest children from the nursery - some of the older children are already in place up front on the stairs leading to the chancel - a more hesitant young one walks hand-in-hand with an older sibling or a parent. As the offering is being taken and the adults are busy with that part of our worship, those of us up front around the chancel steps conspire about the Reign of God. 
Most often, the congregation doesn’t know what I am saying to our young saints. They can only see the expressions on the faces of our children and hear some of their responses and comments. We make time at the beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy so that even the youngest saints will be a part of the celebration of joy that is the Lord’s Supper. It sets the tone for the feast just like children who break through the doors of a home during the holidays as family and friends gather for a banquet. 
At our early liturgy there are some Sundays when there are no children who feel young enough to come forward – although there have been times when a few adults have come forward. I don’t know if adults come up so much to make me “do a children‟s lesson” or to let them fully hear and experience being the recipients of a word of welcome and joy. 
One day at the early liturgy it was just Avery up on the chancel steps. He was brought forward by an older sister. His other sister, Emma, his usual companion, decided to stay in the nursery. I think the lesson that day was something as simple as: Go and give someone you know a big hug and say I love you and then ask them, “What are you going to do now!?!” This worked at the later liturgy but at this first liturgy of the day - Avery took control of the day even before I could assume that I had control. From the time of his first eye contact with me I saw nothing but amazing joy. Avery was up front. Avery with pacifier in mouth and sister in hand was nothing less than a bright light – a bit shy but shining bright. 
After a simple greeting and taking a seat next to him to try to engage him in a bit of conversation, he realized that he was in front of everyone. His pacifier came out of his mouth and he pointed out each of sisters back in their pew. Their laughter and waving was contageous. Avery gave his version of their names...and even gave a shout-out to his sister in the nursery - more laughter and big bright smiles. All I could do was smile and point out the other people who were sitting out in the sanctuary. Avery was delighted - so were all the people. 
When time came for him to go back to his family I stood up and motioned to the congregation to stand for the singing of the Offertory. As I turned to face them I was a witness to utter joy – smiles – tears – laughter – and a bold singing of “All Are Welcome” as the gifts were brought forward for the Lord’s Supper. What joy at seeing the least among us given a place and to see what that attention and welcome can do to any of us! 
Even though it wasn’t planned, making much of Avery placed all of us in that space we all long to be – beloved, shining, thrilled to be present. We never really forget what it is to be found. We never forget what it is to be lost and wandering without a place in which we are a vital part of a whole. Avery’s smile and appearance of utter amazement melted the house. We all know that shine and sense of wonder and thrill of being found and celebrated. 
Making much of Avery is not something that must be out of the ordinary. It does not need to be done in a special place and in a special time. It takes place each and every time we make much ado of those around us. The opportunity for joy to be uncovered is presently at hand. We walk within an endless unfolding of joy for we are always surrounded by folks who long to be found and celebrated. Rather than retreat from the world to gain an appreciation of the Reign of God we are already present at the wellspring of joy that awaits us. Such joy is in the thrill of moments where we make much of one another simply by being present and taking note of others. 
I remember watching the movie “Milk” and being moved by the sense of being forgotten or forbidden or left outside of the party. I was also moved by the amount of work it takes to overcome what becomes an internal sense of being forgotten, forbidden, and left out. Harvey Milk seemed to have a great sense of being found and welcome and at home even when the world around him would rather have him stay lost in a closet. 

The movement in San Francisco to bring the gay and lesbian community out into the light as a vital part of the whole community was an uphill fight. And yet, it was powerful to see that once a person finds that life is a joyous celebration for everyone to experience, joy – as fullness of life – overcomes the powers of darkness that so often attempt to put restrictions on joy – something which is actually quite impossible to do! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Holy Shit! Now What?

Yes, Holy Shit. Sometimes the stuff we hear being said by folks who like to consider themselves to be 'holy' people is - in my opinion - nothing  but Holy Shit. That is, they make the notion of holy stink. It is the kind of stuff that divides - blames - persecutes - demeans - ridicules - belittles - condemns - and it is all done under the language of the blessed and eternal love of God. So, that which is really Holy - that which is in the image of God - that life that reflects a love for any and all even to the point of suffering for them - is made to sound and look cheap and quite the antithesis of Holy.

It is my opinion that whenever the language of Scripture is used to mark folks as defiled or be the ground from which some folks can label others as evil - dirty - demonic - etc., - shit flies. The Good News of the Eternal Reign of God is left behind and we are all left standing in the foul smell of our own notion of what is good and right and 'godlike'. Usually 'holy' folks - at least those who really get off on being considering themselves 'holy' - cannot stand being in the same room with the Jesus who intentionally eats and visits and heals and touches the refuse of the world.

So, I suppose, Holy Shit can be those words and actions that are full of violence - bigotry - fear - hatred - exclusion. It is the stuff that some people have told me has turned them away from being followers of Jesus. They hear and see nothing more than a reflection of a horribly broken world that has simply covered itself with the pious words - the perfume of religious language. Yet, such Holy Shit doesn't lose its smell and therefore, folks stay away.

Then again, I also wonder if Jesus was considered to be full of Holy Shit - in a very different way. So here, Holy Shit would be that which is the embodiment of God's love that is quite contrary to religious controls. The unbounded love of God manifest in the humanity of Jesus really repulsed the 'holy' people who could not and would not extend the love of God to any and all. Therefore, Jesus was peddling Holy Shit - something that needed to be cleaned up - rejected - exposed. It happens very quickly in religious circles. That which is over there - done by them - done like that - cannot be part of the Holy. In the Jesus story we see the Holy present and available in, with, and under all that the world labels as  shit - dirty - vulgar - despicable. It then reveals itself as part of that pile of dung.

Rather than label others as nothing more than shit, we may do well to go stand in the shit and begin to understand how God is revealed there. This unbounded love will always insist that we get our lives into it - our hands into it - our feet into it - rather than use it as a weapon we throw at one another. It is then that we may experience with one another - something Holy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Urban Spirituality - Looking Up (5 of 25)

Here's the Wednesday blog series from Uncovering Joy: tales of everyday urban spirituality
Urban Spirituality – Looking up 
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries.” (Isaiah 64: 1-3) 
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying „The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.‟” (Mark 1:14-15) 

If we would just look up - if we would pull ourselves away from ourselves for just a moment - if we would come to see the center of our own lives is in the midst of the people around us, we may be surprised at how present and available are images of the Reign of God that are able to awaken in all of us hearts that are stirred up for the life within that Reign. 
It does not take much to become self-absorbed. We live in a society that encourages self- absorbing behavior. We are easily absorbed in our schedules, our work, our families, or simply building a world around us that we can control and manage. We even do this when we are attempting to nurture our spirituality. We can be so focused on “me” that the concept of “we” is alien to an experience of God‟s presence. Therefore, only some places and some worship experiences and some groups of people must be in place for us to be at rest with our world. 
It is so easy to become self-absorbed and never look up to see what is taking place in God’s Reign as we move through it. We know of the blessedness of God’s Reign – right? We have heard of the lion and the lamb – together. We have envisioned enemies at peace. We have wondered about the welfare of all being upheld as though it was the New Jerusalem - the Reign of God - coming so very near -as it was and is and will be. But we also know that we can be so close to that which is quite foreign to the Reign of God that we lose sight of God‟s working presence. We look to other things to save us or rule us or provide for us. We all know the signs of the coming of the Reign of God as well as we know what it means to see fresh buds on a tree. Then again, we all forget to look up and visit what is at hand. 
In a bookstore in New York City I was sitting and having a cup of coffee. Okay, it was a latte and I was completely absorbed in Slavoj Zezek‟s book Violence. My wife was out and about in the store amid the stacks of books. I was so absorbed in my little coffee table life and my conversation with this book, I was not concerned where she might be and I was quite unaware of the time. I looked up for a moment to relax my eyes. In reality, I was really only looking up into my thoughts – how I can use what he had written – how I could assimilate some of his radical ideas into my thought processes. In reality, I was not looking up at all...I was looking within – self-absorbed. 
When I did actually look up and took notice of those people around me, I was given the opportunity to witness the heavens being torn open and the Reign of God settling in so very, very near. There were two women sitting at the table right in front of me. One woman was reading a book and drinking coffee. The other woman (let’s call her Mary) was working with a few different cleaning solutions and a roll of paper towels as she cleaned the covers on children‟s books. She worked meticulously while wearing a smile of complete satisfaction. She not only did the work with passion, she handled each book like it was a precious item to be savored. She also was talking softly to herself. It appeared as though she was talking to the books and going over what she was doing and how much more work would be needed to complete the task. 
I went back to reading and contemplating the place of violence in our world the need for more disciplined peace-making and conversation in this warring world of ours. Just then, the woman who was reading moved her chair, stood up, told Mary she would be right back and she left to go the rest room. Within moments, another woman approached Mary and greeted her.The approaching woman worked at the bookstore and as she came close and greeted Mary, Mary’s face brightened and in a child-like manner joyfully pointed out the work she was doing on the books. The bookstore woman held out her hand and put a small pile of coins into Mary’s hand. It was as though a treasure had been passed on. Mary hugged her and said, “This is like getting paid for doing work.” Mary’s eyes grew wet with tears of appreciation while across a growing smile came words of thanks that could not quite express everything in her heart. 
Mary sat down glowing so brightly I could not pay attention to my book. It was then that I notice the tag at the very end of a chain necklace that was around Mary’s neck – an identification tag. Her friend now returned to their table and it was then that I realized that this other person was the guardian or caretaker of this wonder-filled star that pulled me out of myself to witness the heavens opening up all around me. Mary exclaimed about the coins and made sure her friend saw the whole pile. And then, she went back to work...paper towels, cleaners, books being made ready to be put up on the shelves of the store in anticipation of bringing a child a bit of joy. 
Later as we were leaving the store, I interrupted the woman who worked at the bookstore and confessed that I was a witness to their exchange and was completely awestruck at what I saw. She said Mary is brought to the store twice a week to volunteer and usually cleans the donated children‟s books. The staff person said that Mary did\n’t understand the concept of volunteer work so they offer her a small amount of change each time she comes to clean books.  Mary is brought to the store by a person who cares for her. 
I then realized a heavenly connection that I almost missed. Mary was brought by one who cares for her so that Mary can care for those books so that the books, once sold, will care for the people with HIV/AIDS who benefit from the sale of all the books in that store. Without looking up I would have missed the Reign of God coming so near I was literally sitting right next to it and surrounded by its power and life. 
Looking up can change us. It can pull us out of ourselves and place the world right within reach of us. That is the essence of urban spirituality. Coming to grip with the fact that the joy of the Reign of God is utterly available without having to go someplace else to find or see a piece of it. All around us we are present at a festival of life that will help to bring shape and color and texture to each of the journeys we enter. Looking up can take us out of the world in which we like to stay – a world of our making and arranging and controlling. Joy has a way of springing forth and pulling us into its expansive glow and life. I have yet to finish that book on “Violence” but I remember it so well because it was with me when I looked up and saw the heavens opened and the moment at hand full of God’s glory. 

Looking up can be dangerous. Once we have taken our eyes off of that which we want for ourselves, we may uncover joy that helps to liberate us from ourselves. In, with, and under the people around us and the dialogues that whips around us like the Spirit filling in the spaces of our lives, our hearts are made available to visions grand and simple – treasures in earthen vessels. When that takes place, there is the danger that we may be exposed to so much life and joy within the passing of the moments of our lives that we will be reminded to forever witness the presence of our God tearing open our lives. To be in the presence of God-with-us is to be open to a story line we did not know we would be entering. It may mean we will change direction and go in a new way. It may mean we will never underestimate the joy that can be brought into our lives by simply looking up and being drawn away from the lives we so readily try to control. Moses looked up...and there was a burning bush – holy ground – liberation – new life – joy. Imagine that!