Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Drawer Full of Sacrificial Love

I was not slated to go to college - neither was my younger brother. In the last decade of my mother's life we talked quite a bit. She told me that in my father's mind the eldest son goes to college. The others were to find work, as he did, in the steel industry or something like that. It is through my mother's storytelling that I learned a bit about sacrifice. She and my father both worked full-time jobs.  We had enough and more. We did not live out beyond our means. We did not have the lives of others we knew. All the boys went to college - it became an expectation for everyone of my friends - almost the way one was to move farther along in life.

The sacrifice was in a long drawer under a built-in china cabinet in our dining room. All I remember of the contents of that drawer was that it was filled with papers and ledgers. On occasion I would see my mother open the drawer and sit down and be busy. She was - I eventually understood - the financial person in the house. She paid the bills and kept an eye on the resources my parents had. She always was good with numbers and every job she held had some connection to bookkeeping and finances.

With my mother's understanding of my father's thoughts about college, that drawer became the roadway that would take all three boys to college. For years - I don't even know how long - she put money aside. My father did not have an understanding of all that activity - or maybe he did but let my mom do whatever she could. I am so glad that I had a dad who was content with what we had and seemed fulfilled serving in hometown politics after he got off from his job at Inland Steel. He would daily go down to the corner store/bar and have one beer and talk politics. That contentment and his self-assured nature made it possible for my mom to move funds - put funds aside - help us have the few pleasures of a few vacations as we grew up.

This brings me to sacrificial love within a family. Sometimes - for the well-being of those we love - we step back and make sure the others are given space to grow and explore and step into  the beginning of their future with whatever tools it will take to go there. Sacrificial love happens. Sacrificial love is different from love that has the means to spread out the wealth without any threat of loss. Sacrificial love understands that there may be consequences to one's own life if this kind of love is manifest. It also understands that there need be no paybacks. There is no need to prove one's worth because the sacrifice that is taking place is already the understanding that the beloved is worthy. That's powerful.

We are expected to love our families - to care for them - to support them - to nurture them. And yet, this is no different from tribalism in which we are taught to protect and conserve the tribe - fight for the tribe - do whatever is needed to secure the well-being of the tribal members. We can be involved in this kind of tribal love and it will make for a good home life and the shaping of a strong future. I must say that it also is the kind of love that leads to wars - to battles - to bias and bigotry - to segregation and separation. We so love those who are in our family that we will do whatever is necessary to make our family - our tribe - have the life we want for ourselves. Again, this is a good love in that it preserves things - it keeps groups of people afloat - it builds that which is seen as necessary to ward off any attempt by others to disturb the life we are building.

Sacrificial love is not tribal. It is quite different. It is the love envisioned in the wilderness of Sinai. This was a love that would take care of the outsider by sharing resources - welcoming the stranger - because that is how this new kind of tribe would define its life. Sacrificial love is able to expand itself beyond the boundaries of my kind and my people and my family. It is not a love that works to establish one group over and against another. It stretches the notion of family or tribe so that the boundaries disappear so that more than my kind or my family or my tribe is given life. There is no need to judge what other have or have not done in order to let this kind of love flow.

That drawer in the dining room is embedded in my mind. From that drawer - at least for me - my dad had the freedom to be a public servant and seek the welfare of people in Ward 2. My mother then - after years of getting us through school, had the freedom to serve on the school board and be a part of the development of a multi-district career center. Both of them sacrificed within their own lives so that our tribe would have enough. Both of them sacrificed their time and energy so that more than our family would have a life possibly better than they had previously.

We must remember that sacrificial love begins right now. It is how we view the lives of others. When we go tribal there is little chance that we will act with love that is willing to sacrifice for those we are often fooled into thinking we must destroy or ignore or punish.

I really find that one is able to take part in sacrificial love for any and all when we are blessed with the gift of humility. For within the acts of sacrificial love we will find the need to bend and bow - we will find ourselves washing the feet  of those we simply do not understand - we will face the name-calling and the threats - we will not care what we are losing but we will be able to see others gaining a new life. This week I rephrased a short part of the letter to the Philippians: The Messiah has humbled himself and become obedient unto death - even death by lynching. Sacrificial love will be a love even when it is hated and despised and misunderstood. But for those who live within that love - there is always a drawer full of more love to be shared and more love to be offered and more love to go around for any and all.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

One Step in Front of the Other - Hope

Wednesday evening Vice President Joe Biden used the image of putting one foot in front of another. That is hope. That is hope. We are invited to embody that which is not yet even when it appears as though despair and fear are winning the day. Hope has to do with movement. Hope is the power that takes us into and through doom and gloom because hope cannot be disrupted by naysayers. Instead, hope allows us to face the doom and gloom and not run from it. We simply keep putting one foot in front of another forging an alternative to the a world some try to paint as the end of all things.

Hope keeps moving - it keeps rising - even when death in all of its voices and faces seems to be the prevailing wind of the day. It is never easy to put that one foot in front of another. It is much easier to become a part of the doom and gloom because from that position we can convince ourselves that we must stage a battle against this prevailing wind. It is here that we must be watchful. This battle is actually nothing more the same prevailing wind of fear. These battles lead only to the same doom and gloom which is now the rallying cry of another hope-less adventure in life.

In many ways, I think it is the poor - the left out - the lowly - the defeated - the disenfranchised - the forgotten who go forward in hope. There is not much they can count on to help them through the day. Notwithstanding the biases and prejudice and violence against them, we hear the endless stories of those who keep on putting one foot in front of the other. Most often we hear the stories of people who once had nothing - faced walls of bias and prejudice - felt the whip of hatred - endured hardship upon hardship. These are the stories of great entrepreneurs and those who have nothing at all. We love the stories of those who have made it. We love the stories of those who seem to have nothing but they are rich in character and vision. Too often though, being rich in character and vision means nothing within the movement of our society. And yet, what a fertile ground for hopefulness to spring eternal.

Hope is aware of the turmoil of the day. Hope looks around and sees brokenness and despair. Hope wakes up in a world that appears to have been won by others. Hope walks into this day to face whatever will take place. All this is done because the present is not the end - the present doesn't rule the lives of the hopeful - the present provides us with the opportunity to  let hope unfold even  as we would simply like to escape - the present becomes the first act of a new way to live one step in front of another. 

I don't know about you, but it is quite an experience to pay attention to how doom and gloom sounds and looks in the world around me. The same can be said for hope. It is as though two worlds are simultaneously present within each moment. Maybe that is why the book of Revelation is such an odd sounding story. That apocalyptic vision is one in which reality is faced - with all of its monsters and death. It is, though, the story of how hope wins the day - cannot be defeated - continues to be a part of a wonder-filled creativity even as some powers are working to destroy all things. We are encouraged to step into that wonder - that creativity - that life that walks through the doom and gloom  one foot in front of another. 

When you are being overcome by the powers of the day that are not able to see the vision of God's peaceable Reign, look around. The only way I am able to carry on putting one foot in front of another is that the lives of others who are all around me - people I know and do not know - keep showing me how to do it. Through their words - through their actions - through what appears to be nonsense - through the death-defying resistance to the way thing have been written in stone, I am given a glimpse of life empowered by hope. And all of this hopefulness into which we are invited to live is nothing more than the time at hand and the next step we take.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fear or Hope - For or Against. Where are you - honestly?

Do you tend to be someone who votes or lives or moves through you life motivated by fear or hope? For me, fear is a gut feeling. I know I react to situations in which I am afraid. That is, I do not put much thought into that reaction. I go. I move. I do not spend much time deliberating because I am living within the notion that something bad or harmful may take place. In the middle of a situation I experience as fear-full I must say I act in that old classic mode of freeze-flee-fight. They are all reactions. They can be self-preserving reactions. So there is nothing wrong with reacting within the realm of fear's influence. 

To operate within the domain of hope, it seems to me that I must pause - hesitate - deliberate. That appeals to me but that could be because I am an introvert and I need time to process in any situation. Although, frighten me and I know how to move/react  right now! I don't always need time to process. Some of my friends would even say I need to process more before I open my mouth - that's why I love my friends. I find hope arises out of a scenario that is in place already. It is part of a vision beyond that which can be a frightening world. 

I live within the reality of hopefulness and fear. I am an endless coward who counts on the vision of life that is beyond the fear filled present and the threatening future. It is there in that vision that I at least become familiar with the opportunity to be courageous despite the fact that I am a coward. Yet I do not think it is simply about being courageous. Rather, it is more about how one views adversity or threat or  contrary opinions. When I am afraid - it is easy to demonize. When I demonize, I give little room to reflection. When I do not allow myself the time/space to reflect, I react. Hopefulness is diminished as I cling to self-preservation by reacting. When I am hopeful - it is easy to appear foolish. I find that hopefulness calls forth a life that is vulnerable and may not make it to Act two. Yet, through experience in being viewed as foolish, I know that there is an Act two. There is a time beyond this moment. I am also finding that anticipating Act two brings more substance into Act one. 

I am an Uber driver when I have the time. I just completed taking a poll (YaketyYak Poll) with my customers. I wanted to know how people were intending to vote. It was a blast. I heard so many opinions and took part in discussions that pushed and pulled me. I also noticed the air in the car. It quickly was filled with fear or hope - sometimes both at once. People voiced their preference for presidential candidates and those voices were filled with fear no matter who they considered their candidate. At the same time, those voices were also filled with hope. There were those who were going to vote for one candidate because they feared what could happen if the other one was elected. Some of these people also would say they tend to be hopeful but fear was leading their hand. 

So, I will begin a new YaketyYak poll after the Democratic National Convention. I will once again ask folks how they will vote in the presidential election. I also want to ask the next question - but I'm not sure how to ask it. I need some help. Do I simply ask if they are voting out of a sense of fear or hope? Do I ask if their vote is a for or is it an against? I want to make the poll as simple as possible and one that may lead into a discussion in the car. I also want a follow-up discussion to deal with the notion of resignation - but I do not want to move into a Kierkegaardian discussion of fear and trembling.  I would like to hear your thoughts/suggestions.

I long to be a hopeful person. My gut says that will take constant work. To be so nurtured in a vision of hopefulness that I can move through my fears challenges me to shut up - listen - take the risk to speak/act - then do it again no matter how I am perceived or treated. This is hard stuff for a coward and one who tends to be a people-pleaser. This is the point of my life in which I personally pitch my tent within the story of resistance to human fear, anxiety, retaliation, and the violence that so often fills the day. It is a story that demands I stay put and live within hope even when there appears to be no hope. It is also a story that never stops coming into contact with all the various powers of the day but never giving my life over to them. That story involves death and resurrection.

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (12 0f 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Circle of the Blessed 
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak to them. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in hear, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness‟ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the are the light of the world...” (Matthew 5:1-13,14a) 

There‟s something about an old, urban church building. It begins with the obvious – its size. So often the buildings are enormous and marked with additions that make living in the present context of barrier-free buildings next to impossible. But...the building is there holding the dreams of the people who decided that this place in this city will be the place from which we will make a witness to the Lord of new life. Old stones, now covered with soot, have a memory of glory days as we usually define them: many people, even more children, a center for neighborliness, programs...programs...programs. 
Too often congregations who abide in old, urban church buildings enter the new world that is unfolding right in front of them with low expectations. It is as though all that can be done is simply to hang on to memories and the funds still in the bank. Endowment funds once considered a gift to the future have gone up in the smoke of heating costs and building maintenance. It becomes so easy to pull the life of the church into the building - rarely venturing out or letting others venture into the building. 
There are many congregations in urban settings that have been gifted with great resources. Many small cadres of people are wholly involved in being present within the communities in which the saints of old once lived and loved and learned what it was to be called the Beloved of God. These saints, who gather together under the oppression of bills and the grief of dwindling numbers of the followers of Jesus who long to be a part of the vitality of life within such places, do not always see the joy that is at hand. 
If we watch and listen to the life within the wider church, there are many and various voices that speak of another way and another world. The church often follows the flow of people “like us” who move out from urban areas. Just as malls follow the flow of people out of urban areas and leave behind shells of building that are often discarded, the followers of Jesus follow this model of what we are told is success. It is no surprise then that on one of Jesus’ trips to the Temple in Jerusalem in John’s gospel he accuses the folks of turning the Temple grounds into a marketplace. We still have a history of playing to the market and avoiding the much needed real presence of our Lord that is meant to be alive among us. 
In the thirty years I have served in Columbus, Ohio, even though I don’t know anything about how to build homes or building, I have been an observer of buildings. I simply like to watch where things are built and how we make decisions about the buildings in neighborhoods. Too often we are willing to write off, as a loss, whole sections of a city - the places where people live and long for new life. I’ve noticed that these same kinds of decisions are made in the various cities in which I spent time during my life. 
One of my most meaningful journeys through the season of Lent was the year I walked through five very different neighborhoods. I had a friend drive me to some of the neighborhoods and then I would call him to pick me up after three house of walking. I went down every street and prayerfully observed the shape of the homes and business and institutions of the community. I would venture into corner stores for a beverage or a snack I could carry in my pocket as I went along my way. I never saw myself as someone there to interview people or engage in conversation. On occasion conversations did happen – but it was never planned. I needed to intentionally get out of my neighborhood and open my eyes and let myself consider those who share a city with me but do so in so many different kinds of living conditions. 
For the past few years, a number of lay people and clergy have been trying to work in a collaborative manner with a local urban parish. Like so many old urban churches, the “glory” days were referred to as “those days when....” But over time and through the many levels of changes that take place in a metropolitan area, this large facility now is the home parish of just a handful of people. And yet, on a Saturday afternoon there was a meeting of a number of members, collaborators, friends, who were attempting to speak up about how this cadre of saints was making something new in the middle of what was worn by years and tears. 
These folks were not merely trying to say good things in order to receive funding for the upcoming year from the national expression of the church. I heard and I saw joy unfolding. In many ways being a part of that meeting was a time of spiritual renewal for me. Hearing people from a financially well-off congregation taking part in the ministry and mission of First English and also wanting to investigate a way to hold a joint membership in two congregations because of the joy they were experiencing on this journey was overwhelming. 
Joy within an urban church comes through activity and contact with others and bridging that which has caused separation. These folks – all of us – were on a spiritual retreat in that basement. It was a retreat that was grounded in the life and activity of the day to day immersion into a world where people are deliberately crossing the paths of others. That crossing comes in the shape of the service and the listening and learning. Urban spirituality is shaped within a context of joy that is being uncovered in places and with people many others would not associate with such a word as joy. 
Vital to urban spirituality is that we are able to see in these places and times and communities – a vision for life that opens our hearts. It involves an attached contemplation that is able to see the joy of God’s Reign - as it is uncovered among us, right in the middle of what some may call the congestion and speed of ordinary urban life. This is no sugar-coated experience. It is filled with the frustration of poverty and the many layers of social injustice that has, over years, torn apart our urban communities. Joy erupts even when there is the utter disappointment of dreams that are not able to come to fruition. Joy is being a part of the hopefulness that is able to turn us more fully toward that which has just disappointed us and created havoc. 
Sometime, we need to sit down with one another as we contemplate the condition of the day within our cities and we need to say “blessed are you.” Blessed are you when the building is falling apart and you are overwhelmed with the “nothing” that seems to be happening in the middle of a culture in which “something” must always be happening. Blessed are you when you stand or sit alongside others as though we are really one beloved and blessed people. Blessed are you when the life of urban places creates anxiety in the hearts of many but you continue to say this is our home – our future. Blessed are you when, for mere moments in time, the variety of God’s beloved are able to gather as though the promise of one communion is so real and true that we are shaking hands with it. Blessed are you for handing out the food and sitting down to talk and make a feeding program - a living room of fellowship. Blessed are you for not only being a part of the joy of life that is present but for also having the gift to experience joy being uncovered – a spirituality many have not had the opportunity to touch and see. 
During the rite of Holy Baptism, I love to place salt on the lips of infants. This reminder that the followers of Jesus are the salt of the world comes with some strange reactions. Often the wriggling baby, who appears to be ready to call it a day, retracts just a bit and then...the lips move and the tongue comes out and sweeps the salt away. This sweet looking part of the liturgy is seasoned with the contrasting taste of salt. 

When we remind ourselves of how we are this seasoning within the life of God’s people from day to day, we may be open to enter into the life that is available to us within the cities in which we live. Urban spirituality reminds us that we can turn around and begin to taste and see the fullness of God’s Reign that is within the patterns and routines and spaces of this day that the Lord has made. Tasting that salt of life that is in, with, and under the times at hand has the capacity to bring us back to the font and remember the joy that comes as we move from the water of new life...into the new life that is ours as we are those vulnerable saints right in the middle of our urban neighborhoods. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

living in the mire of fear, anxiety, and self-righteousness - oh my

I'm not hearing mercy. I'm not hearing reconciliation. I'm not hearing steadfast love. I'm not hearing unbounded forgiveness. I'm not hearing a welcome of the stranger. I'm not hearing humility. I'm not hearing self-sacrifice. I'm not hearing love of neighbor. I'm not hearing a concern for the least. I'm not hearing how the left out are brought in. I'm not hearing about peace or freedom - for all.

I am hearing threat. I am hearing blame. I am hearing calls for retaliation. I am hearing distrust. I am hearing fear rolled into hate. I am hearing love for those like us. I am hearing language of warring madness. I am hearing about us and them. I am hearing calls for death in many forms. I am hearing divisiveness made into virtue.

And then, I hear about Jesus pressing on to Jerusalem right in the middle of all that is being heard and not heard. I hear about Jesus touching those who are not to be touched. I hear about Jesus eating with those whose very presence at the table would defile the whole room. I hear about Jesus unveiling words of division and privilege with tales of love and neighborliness even when that is not what the privileged wanted to hear. I hear about Jesus keeping close to him those without power and credentials. I hear about Jesus drawing into question the assumptions of violent systems by speaking and acting in a manner that would not elevate him within the ranks of those systems.

Then, I hear Christians wanting to be among the powerful - the privileged - the in control. I hear them acting like they have just finished a pie made up of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and now wanting to be judge and jury for the world. I hear them riding the high horse of self-righteousness. I hear them more willing to make war than pursue the way of peace. I hear them wanting an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and therefore sustaining the brutality of our culture. I hear them desiring to be in the winner's circle - the places of power - the centers of certitude - the dealerships of death.

I do not want to be a Christian who embodies the death of the powers of the world while dressed up in the clothing of lambs. Yet in our society - it is just too damn easy to do.

I want to be a follower of Jesus who takes the risk to walk to Jerusalem and display the life that the powers of the world - religious and secular - love to put onto banners but never into life. I need to hang out with people who - with fear and trembling - walk a different walk from that of the powers who have a stake in things as they are and listen to those who get trampled by the self-righteous of the world and embrace a promise for new life that is eternally connected to right here and now even when it is not yet fully in place.

But I know I am a coward. I am a Peter who would like us to go another way and avoid the way of new life so as to keep what I have. But that is to maintain and live within the power of a lie that has sustained the world's violence and separation without interruption. So today, after once again hearing the language of fear and division and the promises of a better life for us and a lynching of every one of them - I wonder how I will step forward in the way of the vision of God's Reign. Obviously, I need help. So the old call for help is still the call for this day: Come Spirit of God! Come Breath of Life! Come Spirit of Truth! Come!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Morality - The Grand Weapon of Death for All

Ah, it is simply amazing how morality exhibits just how eager we are to give up our God-given role of being uniquely human. We do this so as to take on the role of playing the part of God. Religious folk fall (ha) so easily for something that is not ours. Over and over again - from this religious movement to that one - from followers of various gods to followers of various gods within a society, there is this earthy need to point out that which is right and - of course - that which is wrong. We do it very easily and we do it very quickly. They have done this - they caused this - they ruined this - they spoiled this - they are the ones who embody that which we cannot allow because it is not what we have deemed good.

It is simply amazing how morality leads the charge toward death. We become so sure of our way of seeing the world and our way of running the world - we will do whatever we must do to halt another perspective or another way of living. Too often we live as though we are constantly screaming 'death to them - death to their kind - death to those whose lives defile us.' Yet we do not understand that without all of them - our lives are limited - we cannot partake in the fullness of God's creation. Instead we live as people afraid of everything we have come to see as other - often calling it evil. When our lives are run by such fear and anxiety we are not alive - we are always dying. We are cutting off the relationships that are meant to be a part of the fullness of our humanity in order that we can fall into the abyss of a humanity we think we are able to create. We know that humanity - it is the right humanity - the good humanity - the blessed humanity - the righteous humanity. Yet, it is death to us all. No one lives as fully as is promised within the Reign of God when we are caught up within the self-adoration and self-righteousness we have mastered so well.

It is simply amazing how morality ruins life - how it puts life under a bushel - how it disables the gift of human vulnerability - how it segregates in order to obliterate - how it blows out the light of God's creativity. As we attempt to walk or ride a moral high ground, we are usually slithering around like the serpent who seems to want us all to pretend we are God by knowing how all things should be. That is all the serpent can do though - trick us into pretending we can be like God. Instead, as we attempt to take the moral high ground by - stepping on the lives of others - taking away the lives of others - discounting the lives of others - condemning the lives of others, we let go of the vision of Creation that honors diversity as a gift into which we have been placed so that our humanity rises to its fullness and we rise within the goodness of the whole creation.

It is simply amazing how morality makes us turn away from the gift of life that is right there in the form of those we choose to destroy. If those people are worthless because we have been able to come up with a storyline that tells us we can make that judgment, then are we also susceptible to being called worthless by others? That is how death rules the world around us. No one is worthy to stand among us unless they are like us. Even then, we find ways to tighten the belt of morality even more so that we can feel good about calling for the death of those who do not fit our precise vision of what is good and what is evil. Unfortunately, our vision is flawed - it is our creation - it is poisoned by our desires - it is blurred by judgments that uses our lives as the rule of law.

It is simply amazing how we have let morality rule the life we say is a gift of God. In my own crude way of saying things, I think we 'break wind' in God's face each time we justify ourselves and simultaneously condemn others. And yet, we religious folks (even the followers of Jesus) are known most within the world as folks who live within the valley of death called morality. Sure we all do good things for others - but for the most part we are seen as ones who condemn - persecute - belittle - boast - and consider ourselves the saviors of the world when we lynch others who do not abide by our vision of what is morally right.

It is simply amazing how we of let the banter and noise of morality distract us from a simple hymn: Christ has humbled himself and become obedient unto death even death on the cross. Day in and day out we are being invited - I would even suggest, pulled by the Holy Spirit - to end our pursuit of goodness and our persecution of that which we see as evil and befriend all who do not fit into what we have come to believe is a morally perfect life but is really a life that is a lie and only brings death for all.

It is simply amazing how God's peaceable Reign is open to us even as we work so damn hard to create our own reigning power of morality that we intend to control - unto death.

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (11 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Unfolding Fear 
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1-2
“„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 went 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 your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Matthew 18:10-14 

Fear can be a power that overwhelms and causes us to turn back or change directions or fold up our lives and stay just as we are or arm ourselves with the understanding that we can destroy that which causes fear or anxiety to well up within us. I remember the basement of our house when I was growing up. It was an old unfinished place that you went to do laundry, work out with weights and pull something out of what we called the fruit locker. At night, I hated going down there. When I did, even a light was not able to stop my anxiety from rising within me. There were also those times when the light was not working and I would have to go down there in the dark. Sometimes I would just go do something else until someone replaced the bulb. At other times, I darted down the stairs and quickly did what needed to be done and ran back to the kitchen. Whew. 
Back then, I knew nothing was really down there waiting to attack me. I had nothing to fear. This is when I first really became aware of the meaning of anxiety. There was a nameless, faceless something-or-other that could be my demise. It was not like seeing a guy with a knife standing in the corner of the basement calling my name. It was a terror within. It was my projection of what could be and what might happen if - like in those horror flicks on Friday night – monsters and demons really did exist and were ready to carry me off to hell. Anxiety about what might be is like the power of fear - it cuts short life - it redefines life. 
For many people, cities and wider urban areas are often trigger moments of anxiety and fear. Watching the news and seeing crime statistics noted for various parts of the city can be a determining factor for people to sell a home or avoid buying a home in some areas. One robbery in an urban neighborhood causes so much anxiety the story spreads like wildfire so that it appears as though every house around me has been robbed. In a suburban area, we somehow keep the lid on such anxious wildfires. At the same time, because of poverty, systemic racism, vicious classism, and a litany of other conditions in much of urban life, some areas of the city do warrant a bit of precaution that makes people anxious and at times, rightly fear-filled. 
I usually tell people that I have always been somewhat of a coward. Anxiety can easily take over my thinking and acting. Faced with a situation of danger, my fear factor rises so quickly I get stuck in one of the parts of flee – freeze – fight. Most often it is! Then again, it has been the city that has turned my head and heart to such words as: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. Trust in God at all times, O People; pour out your heart before God; God is a refuge for us.” (Ps. 62: 6-8). At least, I will allow myself to step into a situation before I go running. 
Urban spirituality takes seriously the brokenness of life within us and that which is all around us. We must be aware of the brutality of the world and we must be aware of what makes for some parts of our world to appear brutal. Like the tough guy who comes off tough because of fears of failure or rejection, the life of the city and its people long for the healing presence of the Truly Human One, as Walter Wink calls the Son of Man. As followers of Jesus within the urban arena of life, we are gifted with many moments in which we are invited to face our anxieties and hold fast to the promises of our God in the middle of our fears. We are also given moments in which we can be the available presence of our God who will risk being vulnerable and thus experience the surprise of new life that is too often buried beneath our anxieties and fears. 
An essential discipline of urban spirituality is breathing. Just like so many spiritual disciplines, breathing is essential. Breathing allows for the promises of God to fill up our lives before we even remember the words of comfort that Scripture holds for us when we are despairing or troubled, filled with anxiety or filled with fear. I breathe - deeply - quite a bit. A coward like me needs to practice such a discipline in order to allow a bit of time to re-view what is before me. 
One night about 3am, the sirens at the church started going off. The parsonage was across the street. In those days when the alarm went off it was part of my routine to get up out of bed, get dressed, and then go outside and walk around the building to check all the doors. I would then go in the building and reset the alarm before zipping through all the parts of the building. Our building did not have a monitored system and our precinct did not have enough police cars to attend to anything beyond the very basic needs. Going in and turning off the alarm was simply a neighborly gesture. 
As I proceeded down the alley, a voice rang out from the upstairs of what was the “crack house” on our street. “Pastor Al, Pastor Al, wait. I’ll be right down.” So here I was standing in the alley in this moment of nighttime anxiety filled with the real presence of someone who could quickly and realistically turn this all into an adventure I had not intended to enter. I breathed - deeply. I was greeted with “You can’t be doing this all by yourself, something could happen.” Hell yes, I thought...and something still could happen! To my surprise, I was gifted with a partner, a protector, a guardian, an advocate. In another time and in another place, he would not be this person. But here, we became a team. I found myself in the strange place of honoring the humanity of this man as he took the time to walk with me through the night. Joy - uncovered.
Unfolding fear and I might add - unfolding anxiety, is the exercise of letting one’s sensibility not be the ruler of life. This all means that during the simple act of taking a breathe, we allow ourselves the space and time to retrace what is causing the anxiety to swell up in us or the fear to run us ragged. In that time – that breath – we can walk around the situation looking at both the data available in the situation at hand and the personal history that is welling up internally. We may be urged to “run like hell” or we may be told to rest in God alone and stay open to what is being presented to us. 
There are many things that can cause us to feel threatened. It may not be an encounter in a dark alley with a siren blasting through the urban night. When we can name those times when we feel threatened or unsure of what may come of our next experience, we become open to take a look at other people and new situations. I find that such threatening moments are best faced with an open heart - for our God is close by in many ways and shapes we often miss. 
Urban spirituality, beyond calling for us to breathe, also nurtures among us a willingness to welcome the stranger. There wrapped in the fa├žade of another person is the child who longs to be upheld and honored and welcomed like Lazarus in the arms of Abraham. The city is a blessed ground filled with the presence of so many of God’s delightful characters that we are given a vision of what the Reign of God, in all its diversity and glory, looks like in terms of everyday life. 
A phone call on a Tuesday afternoon created a little stir within my life. A man named Mark wanted to talk. He heard that our congregation was open to the full inclusion of GLBT people in the life of the congregation. Actually, at that time, our “vote” was primarily focused on gay and lesbian people – as many of us did not know what “bi” meant and word transgender was something beyond any of our conversations. Well, Mark was also known as Marsha. He tried to help me understand who s/he was. He graciously allowed me to ask all my questions in order to give me a deeper understanding of what to expect. We agreed that we would meet the following Tuesday night as it fit with his schedule. Mark asked if he should come as Mark or Marsha – I fumbled and stuttered. In a moment of time – within that breath that gives gracious space to be open to the gifts of God that interrupt our lives – I realized that I was foaming with anxiety. 
It was after that breath that I was able to tell him to come as either Mark or Marsha. I told him that choirs meet on Tuesdays and he could expect to see and be greeted by others. I think he heard the anxiety in my voice along with the welcome. He said he would come as Mark. 
That night I learned about cross-dressing. He tried to explain transsexual, transvestite, and transgender. I know I did not retain all the differences. I heard how Mark had to keep his life hidden from others at work. Most memorable was the story about walking across the large parking lot at a local mall at night when the lot was quite empty and his car was parked out on the rim of what was earlier a full parking lot. He said that he knew this was the exact scenario in which women could be isolated, attacked, raped, and beaten. He was Marsha and she knew the feeling of that fear that can press down upon women in such places. But then Mark said he was brought to the point of trembling fear and anxiety because he realized that if he was attacked as Marsha, they would find out he was Mark. That thought made my office cold. That was his world – our world. 
The bottom line of the conversation was that a support group he attended was looking for a new place to meet. Since our church building was in an accessible part of the city and most of the people who attended the group were in or around the Columbus areas and Redeemer was a Reconciling in Christ (complete inclusion of LGBTQ folks within all levels of the congregation) congregation the group wanted to ask for permission to hold their monthly meeting at Redeemer. Yes, when they gathered for their meetings, they would all come as people identifying as women.
Like any request for building space use I took the request to the church council. In the best way I could, I explained who the group was and what they would be doing in the space we provided if we chose to do so. Again, the graciousness of the saints of God is something to behold as we attempt to follow the faithfulness of Jesus in God’s Reign. There was concern about what members would think if they walked into a meeting in progress. There was concern about the large numbers of young men who play basketball on our parking lot every evening in good weather and how those encounters might go. Yes, most of us were afraid and anxious and we were not sure we were ready to deal with the situations and questions that could cause more anxiety for more us and others.
Then, we became witnesses to urban spirituality in practice. Someone suggested that the members of church council accept an invitation we were given by the requesting group. We were invited to attend their group meeting at their present site so that we might better understand who would be taking part in this new group at Redeemer.  We would also be able to face our fears and anxieties directly. We accepted the invitation. 
Over the next two month members of the council took part in this support group and were amazed at what we saw and learned and, in that, how we were handed a gift of human experience so many people never have. The wonder of humanity and the expansiveness of its glory were amazing. That which may have once been odd and queer and forbidden was given a place within our notion of humanity and the church and the struggles and joys of those who are not at all as I am. 
I remember people being touched to see that some of the older men dressed as older women. One was in a housecoat that fit the grandmothers and mothers we knew as our own. Several were dressed in the best business suits – again fitting their life routine. Most common was the ordinary...the basic clothing in which a woman would feel most comfortable – like me in my jeans and t-shirt. Though the support group eventually decided to meet in another place that would give them better security and privacy than our building, again the life of this urban setting filled many of us with a new sense of joy that we had not anticipated or known previously. 
There is so much room available in God’s Reign. Yet, we often do not let ourselves open the doors and let all the wind blow through so that we can be caught up in a sacred wind that surprises us and takes us up into a greater sense of peace and wholeness that was beyond all that we could see. 

The little ones who are left out of our circles of fellowship called the church often long to be at home among us. When we are a part of a congregation that is willing to engage itself with the blessed presence of people often left out of the celebration of church life, we find that the celebration is enhanced and joy abounds. It is fine to be anxious and filled with fear. That is a reality of being human. When we face those anxieties and those fears within the routines of urban church life, Jesus is in the room with us - breathing new life along side us.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

There are fools and then there are fools for God's Reign

How does one go about taking God out of schools - religious holidays - our lives? Before the first bell rings in the morning - before the first class begins - before decoration go up for a religious holiday, before the sun came up that morning when the women expected to complete the task of treating Jesus' body with spices, the wholeness of God is present. No one can fuss with that. No one can prove that  God is not there simply by their observations of the world around them. Elie Wiesel was able to remind prisoners of the presence of God even when God was hanging from a noose - struggling and refusing to die even as silence and stillness pressed on.

Oh I suppose we can say anything we want. I suppose we can even accuse others of taking God out of this part of our lives or that part of our lives.  I suppose we can weep and wail about how - some force - some power - some political gangsters - are working their evil ways to remove God from our lives. Yet, we must not listen to such faithless voices that fear the voids or chaos or troubles within the world around us. We must not be fools.

I use fools here not as the church does when we call the followers of Jesus fools for Christ. In this use, we step into and live within the peaceable Reign of God to which Jesus was a witness. By doing that, we look foolish to the ways of the world of violence and separation and division. When we  think God can be taken out of our lives - just like that (snap of fingers) - it simply means we have abandoned the truthfulness of the expansiveness of God and we become fools - knuckleheads - the image of people who do not believe in God. Isn't that odd. We the people of God can somehow be persuaded and then take on the notion that God somehow has been taken from us and we must stop such action.

In our present political/cultural context the language of God being taken away from us and the notion that some power is taking away our religious freedom - is born of fear not faithfulness. When this fear is able to present itself as a anchor for our lives that will keep God with us, we have fallen for a lie - we really do become fools not the faithful. Yet, it sounds so damn powerful to say we are the faithful trying to keep God in our lives - our country - our homes - our future. Have you heard how deafening those voices can be. They call forth their god as though they were WRITING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS - the louder the better.

Truth is, as we come to think that we must holler more loudly about our God - we are witnesses of faithlessness - we become the idolatrous ones who have manufactured a god we must protect - we have just elevated ourselves above the Creator we claim to trust in all times. Kind of like "Don't worry God, we got your back - we will protect you  - we will not let anyone hurt you - we will put you back into your rightful place of honor." In the meantime, the one who was and is and will be, continues to be the one who was and is and will be even as we cannot grasp that reality.

In these days of people trying to save God from a cultural overthrow - from evil powers all around -  we are witnesses to a movement of utter idolatry - wearing as it always does - the mask of devotion and  faithfulness and righteousness as though it deserves a place of distinction in our culture. We must remember that it was fear of those atheistic communist that made folks think we needed to add words to a historical document so that we would not be overcome by those folks. Listen, the followers of Jesus do not us the name of God as a magical incantation. We use the name of God to remind us of the image of peace and healing and love and reconciliation and forgiveness and unbounded hospitality that no nation seems to get - and yet we are invited to be there.

So, let us not be fools who love our culture as we like it to be. Let us be fools for Christ - fools for the vision of God's Reign - fools for life that can be given up for the well-being of others - fools for the wonder-filled diversity of God creation as it was within the primal creation story of our faith. I like to say that those of us who long for freedom of religion - long for something other than - the faithfulness of our God who establishes diversity - nurtures compassion - lifts up the lowly - turns no one away no matter what the cost to us. But I'm ranting.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Even from the compost

We have an old compost bin. We save all our food scraps and dump them into the compost bin on a regular basis. With a bit of stirring now and then and some dirt added here and there - when it is time to take out some of the decaying matter at the bottom of the bin - our gardens receive a real nutrient boost. We also have a bin that spins. That one makes black gold as fast as I can spin it. For several years, I collected something called zoo brew. You guessed correctly - zoo droppings aged in fine piles and ready for home use. All this stuff is quite amazing.

And yet, from this stuff - this shit - this left over garbage - there comes a surprise now and then. In our garden I now have two potato plants. Earlier in the Spring I noticed three hearty plants growing out of the air slots in the compost bin. Every year, tomato plants do this and occasionally I'll gently pull them and give them a space in the real garden. So it was with the potato plants. But with these, I had to dig down into the compost bin to find out the identity of these plants rising up to the sunlight. Sure enough, cut up potatoes we let go too long in the refrigerator were sent to the compost bin and now they were demonstrating that they were still full of life. Even from that which is supposed to be dead comes a surprising take on new life. For a city guy who really knows very little about farming or gardening, this is always thrilling. I don't even know what type of potatoes to expect by summers end.

In a small patch of dirt in our front lawn that was once the site of a magnolia tree, I decided to plant some flowers. Unfortunately, the person who was to ground down the stump of the tree - did not go down very deep at all. That meant that those flowers were not going to have much good soil to feed them. As they barely seemed to be making it, I went to the compost bin that spins. There was black gold in that bin! I shoveled out a bunch of fresh food and wheeled it over to the flowers. I then made holes all around the flower and filled them with the great dirt - so fresh I could still see some egg shells. With some watering and good spring showers; the faltering flowers are coming to life. That is not all. Some sort of squash is also growing - thriving - trying to take over. I didn't see it coming and I was not able to distinguish the plant until the big yellow flowers appeared. We shall see.

I rarely give myself the opportunity to wait and see what comes of the events taking place in my life. I might do well to let myself work like a compost bin - make room - let it rest - toss it around a bit - be surprised by that which I did not see coming. And yet, I also know that from that bin is to come life - new life - new life out of the throwaway stuff of our lives - new life hidden at first but ready to make itself known. There will not be new life if the compost is left in the bin. It must come out. It must be put to use. It must become a part of the future that cannot be seen just yet.

I find that within the ordinary stuff of the day - the stuff that can easily be thrown out - the encounters that I may simply pass by - the people I have judged as other or out of place - may spring life I really never intended to enter. That which I do anticipate or for which I plan does not always come to life. And yet, my life becomes involved and filled up with the unanticipated things that simply spring up despite my inattention. Taking time to stir up the compost pile now and then may stir up some life in me that I did not see. But sometime that stirring is messy and it can smell to high heaven. I am amazed that when the garbage is stirred up more regularly - it tends not to smell so bad and the earth is enriched. I hope I am also. Fresh life - even from the compost

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (10 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Available promise 
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous. Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you... God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her, I will bless her, and shell shall give rise to nations: kings of peoples shall come from her.” Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 

It is good to “get away.” It is good to take time off from the routine of our days. It is good to experience solitude. It is good to be really alone – for time beyond that which is comfortable. It is good to go to a place and time that is outside of that in which we walk day after day. It is exciting to see things out of the ordinary and take in scenes of life and nature that make us contemplate the profound wonder of being a part of God‟s creation. 
Urban spirituality does not deny those experiences. Like Jesus taking time out and away from the “everydayishness” of walking within the Reign of God, we all need to step back and even step out. I find that urban spirituality is what happens while we are in the midst of things. Sometimes, it may be when we are deep within the midst of things – when we are up to our necks with everyday life – that we enter into a place of solitude and reflection that rips open the heavens. I would have to say that most often the heavens are torn apart and then visible to the person who is caught up in the experience at hand. 
Whenever I read the various stories that involve the journey of Abraham and Sarah – I chuckle. Sometimes I simply cry. I cry because promise is so real – so available – so present – so thoroughly embedded in the context in which it is offered. Interrupting life, God speaks a promise. Right alongside all the information and attitudes and realities of everyday life – the things that really shape what we do next – God interrupts and promise is announced. 
At Evening Prayer one night I told the gathered congregation that I was not sure if Abram fell on his face before God because he was in awe of God or he was trying to hide the fact that his eyes were rolling in disbelief. I know I was reading myself into that scene. I know that I resist how God makes the day into something other than what I intend and what I perceive. As you might expect, I roll my eyes quite a bit whenever the new or the promise or the out-of-the-ordinary knocks at the door of my life – right now. 
What touched me most about this wonderful covenant story is the action that is not really noted in the story after Abram has his face buried in the ground. It is simply this - Abraham got up. There is no separation between life as it is – and promise as it shapes life. In the middle of things, promise is available as life. It is quite safe to say that  all of life becomes the stage for the unfolding of God’s promise for life. That means as we lift up our eyes to see that which is before us, we are viewing all things through promise – as part of promise. Therefore, it is here and now that we are gifted with the opportunity to re-view the ordinary and common as the sacred. That changes everything and everyone. 
As a young pastor in Detroit and even as an older one in Columbus, there were many times when I tripped over and fell into the presence of God announcing a promise for life. The shapes of those adventures were many. The ways in which I walked through them were varied. One thing in common with all of these experiences is that I remember them as moments of divine presence that came my way within the complexities of urban life. By complexities I suppose I’m speaking of the many levels of life that are placed right in front of our eyes and ears. There in the midst of it all – is promise already available without even having to move out to another place to see it. 
A family in the parish once pulled me aside to talk. I was asked if I would make a visit on the wife’s brother who was in the hospital. They wanted me to go because they thought a pastoral visit would be important for her brother. That concern showed deeply on this sister’s face. In the conversation, it sounded like her brother was not being visited by any other pastor. The conversation was brief but it was full of a sense of urgency. I was also moved by a sense of embarrassment within the voices of this couple with whom I had been through many travails. At that time I didn’t quite understand what all that meant while I was talking to them. 
It was a regular hospital call. The normal routine pastor’s go through as a part of the work we do within an ordinary week in the parish. My personal pattern is to only move right into a room if the door is open. Even then, I do that knock on the opened door and ask, “Can I come in. It’s Pastor Al.” In those moments of approaching a patient‟s room, there are often directions such as “oxygen in use.” A quick glance and you’re a bit aware of some of what some of the atmosphere will be in the room. 
It was a regular hospital call until I found the room. The door was closed and the window in the door was covered over with yellow paper with a sign that read, “Precaution: Visit Nurses Station before entering.” This was not too out of the ordinary. Sometimes, patients have made some restrictions on who visits – understood. Sometimes there are some bits of advice about washing before and after the visit – understood. At the nurse’s station I was made to put on a protective gown, asked to put on gloves, and given a mask to wear over my mouth and nose. Wow. I took all this in stride and continued on with the visit. 
Once inside the room I turned to face the single bed that appeared to be so far back in the room the young man in the bed looked to be even smaller than he really was. I greeted him with my name and that I was his sister’s pastor. I will never forget the look - the feel - the fear - the terror - the sense of a world crashing in – a world I had never entered before that moment. It was either 1982 or 1983. I mention this because though I had heard of AIDS, it was distant and unrelated to me or those around me. 
As I look back at that time, I know that people were still thinking this stuff was “catchy” with a simple touch - if not breathing the same air. With his bed now at my side and his eyes looking all the more filled with terror and tears, all I could remember is that the God who is the Almighty God, who brings life and oversees death, and comforts all of us along this journey was in the room at that moment. The divine presence was looking at me through those wet eyes trying to put some words behind a breath of life that only was able to bring forth a little sound through a mouth full of sores. 
I must have looked confused and dazed – I was. I repeated who sent me and there was the hint of a smile. I asked if could pray and he cried. I took off my rubber gloves placed my hands on his head and prayed. I don’t remember the words – only the presence of the whole cosmos. Walking out the door, I took off my robe and the mask and, as the nurse instructed, washed my hands. From that moment on, I have come to realize that joy – the fullness of life together – the healing of our lives – comes when we do not wash our hands of anyone – ever. We are people who rise up within promise and hand it on to others – by word, by presence, by touch. 
This is what urban spirituality is all about. It is all about taking in the moments at hand that can move us beyond the worlds in which we choose to live. It is then that we are brought alongside other worlds. Yes, this can happen anywhere. And yet, within the urban areas of our lives, there is the constant availability of the new – the different – the strange – the familiar – the parade of God’s Reign from which we so often find it easy to hide. Urban spirituality asks that we allow our eyes to be open and our ears to be open by our God who will open our hearts to find life and be a part of the life that God promises to ignite. 
Let me continue with a connecting story. This takes place years down the road. I was trying to volunteer as an AIDS buddy and with that was connected to a man about ten years older than me. We were at a doctor’s appointment for my buddy. During a long wait in the waiting room and the presence of an older couple also waiting for their appointment, I realized that the couple across the room was talking about us. When the nurse called, I took my buddy’s arm helped him along with his walker and kept my hand on his back as I transferred him into the waiting arms of the nurse whose greeting was warm and encouraging. 
As I sat back on the couch I heard the woman say in a sheltered voice to her husband, “I think it is disgusting....” It hit me. To that couple I was gay and my buddy was my partner. Wow. I realized then and there that I could not refute that story. I could not get mad at them and say, “Wait a minute. I’m not gay. I’m just trying to help this man.” I realized that there was no way to distance myself and not fall under the condemnation of these people. When I was in Detroit, I could walk away from our neighborhood and not be a part of that community. I had the distinction of being white and having the privilege that comes with being white in our society. Here in that waiting room, I was being type-cast as being a gay man and there really was no way to “test out” of that ruling. 
Even people who live within the domain of promise live within the simultaneous domain of the powers of this world. With all of that comes the prejudice that denies people the right to be who they are and to live as one of God’s Beloved. Within the promise there will always be contrary voices that say that the promise is not for all and life within promise is something one must earn. Therefore, the way you earn your part within the promise depends on the various voices that demand a certain life that fits within the well-defined life that so many people try to impose on others. 
The joy that is uncovered when opposites collide and differences becomes walls of division is the reminder that we all fall down and fall short and fall away from the fact that God’s promise for new life is available to all. Therefore, we are invited, as people of promise, to engage those who speak and live in worlds not like our own. We are provided with the tools of dialogue that serve as the arena in which miracles take place and we begin to see and hear things anew. 

Within promise we are not turned into people who judge others. Rather we are people who are called to announce a judgment that is eternally for all of God’s children. When that happens, the promise – the announcement – is the power that shapes and reshapes us. Urban spirituality is the daily discipline of hearing the announcement within the context of confusion and fear and the many ways we stayed turned-in-on-ourselves. It is then that we rise up, like Abram, and move according to a promise that is as available as our next breath...and the one after that.... 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Stop the Vigils - Go to Worship - Over There

The time for a one night vigil is over. The time for an extra - even well written and heart wrenching - petition in the Sunday Prayers  is over. The time for the disconnected Facebook response of "praying" is over. The time for endless emoticons is over. The time for simply writing like this - is over.

As a follower of Jesus, I need to address this Rant to all of us who I consider in house - the Church. It may simply be to say it is time to get out of the house and worship - over there. Get out of the house and stay for the fellowship time - over there. Yes, do not go to church at our usual spot - our place - within our comfort zone - within that which is expected and predictable - sitting or standing or kneeling alongside those who look and act and dress just like us. Even those congregation that have preachers who are often considered prophetic - still remain within the domain that is destroying us. The bubble is maintained - stretched a bit - but maintained. The time for telling the pastor 'good sermon' is over. The time for teaching about that which Jesus did and leaving at that - is over.

My proposal is simple and it may be quite naive. Go to worship - over there. Yes, if we are European-American go worship at an African-American congregation - and vice-versa. Even if we say we are in a welcoming congregation get out of there and worship with folks who are not at all like us. It is most likely that the welcome we treasure is that which is still within our realm of comfort. Go over there and be with them in their place and time. Even if we are not received well. Consider this, most congregations do not even receive strangers of the same race or ethnic background very well n (this drives outreach teams crazy). When we leave the place that is just like home and go over there it involves some risk. It may simply be that we do not know the hymns - or we clap when no one else does - or we try to clap but we can not get the rhythm right - or we say Amen as the preacher is preaching or the choir is singing and no one else does. It may also mean we will be going into a context we have considered to be hostile to us.

Go to worship - over there. Think of Jesus going over there to sit and eat and worship with those not within the same box he was from. Jesus was brought up in a box like all of us. The box was a gift that could never be contained. The gift was a love for all that kept sending him - over there. The over there was not to convert anyone. It was to live in, with, and under the ones who were created as brother and sister without partiality. This love was the food that brings people into the presence of God's peaceable Reign. When we go over there we may find that we know so little about the truth of others and they may come to see the same thing. Think of it as a journey into that which is not yet - but is promised.

Go to worship - over there. If we have a hard time worshipping in a place that does not fit our worship style, then find one that is within that style - or even just close to it - but one that does not have the same face as we have. There are too many excuses to prevent us from going over there. We are not the followers of Jesus because of our altar calls - gospel processions - long or short sermons - worship instrumentation - how we bow - whether we sit or stand or kneel - how pretty the sanctuary looks. Maybe the way we learn that is to go over there and see Jesus in another setting - with a face not like ours - in something we would never wear - worshipping as we never do.

Go to worship - over there. It may be one of the ways we let go of life as we want it and lose control of that which we long to control. Whenever we cross over to another place and enter into the lives of those not like us we may never see things the same - we may begin to question that which we have been assuming for so long - we may find that some of our prejudices are right-on-target - we may witness pain and joy in ways we do not express those same feeling. I find that all that discovery will be challenging. That is why we cannot simply worship over there once. We must do it again and again. We must learn names - have our names become known. I'm also suggesting that we stay in our home congregations - don't stop the support to our home congregations - work in the various ministries of our own congregations, but for the sake of us all get out and go over there on a regular basis. It may be the action that brings the body of Christ more fully into our midst.

Go to worship - over there. The greatest mission trip for our youth and all of us is not to go to a distant land or a distant place. It may be to drive into that neighborhood over there. It may be to go over there and be served and be recipients of the hospitality of strangers. It may be to see the worth of those from whom we often choose to walk away to be with others - like us. So many of us do good things for others. We extend ourselves to serve those in need. We volunteer to serve at food give-aways and build housing. All of that is find and good and must be continued. And yet, it seems that none of that has been able to end the divisions - the racial tensions - the economic biases - the fear and anxiety - the blaming games - the acts of violence that happen in the twinkling of an eye.

Go to worship - over there. The wars and fighting among us must stop. The hatred that brews within us and is fed by those around us must stop. The excuses must stop. The meaningless religious words meant to bring about the peaceable Reign of God must rattle our hearts so that the Christ is not a distant notion for another day. When we go to worship over there we may find ourselves out on streets or at meetings or serving alongside strangers or extending a hand or offering a loving embrace that we would never have anticipated we would be doing.

Go to worship - over there. I know, I may be a dreamer. Or, I may just have a faithful imagination that sounds quite ridiculous - dangerous - out of place - messes with what is - needs to be set aside - should be dismissed. I do know that I do not know how to end the violence that we seem to love so much. Therefore I have to turn to Jesus who keeps inviting me to go over there.  At times, when my heart is broken and I know not what to do - I Rant. Then I wonder if Jesus' actions were the way he ranted within his day. Rather than keep things as they were - he invited his friends to go with him over there and everyone witnessed words becoming flesh - a rant made real.  That is still the life of the follower of Jesus today.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (9 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Wilderness 
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:12-13 

When we are called stewards of God’s creation, we are given the responsibility to be caretakers of all that is. We become caretakers by being the ones created in the image of our God – who creates all things. This image defines how we are to take care and nurture and oversee the balance and interconnectedness of every part of the world around us. It can sound like a task too great for us. Who can be these people? 
The stewardship of the Reign of God need not be overwhelming. When we are confounded about how much we think we must do as stewards, we would do well to simply open our eyes and watch for signs of God’s gracious Reign. Most often, in the mix of all the passing bodies and the fast movement of time as we move from one place to another, we do not let ourselves see how God’s Reign is already breaking in around us. It can all look like a wilderness rather than a blessed creation. As God’s Reign unfolds around us, it is too easy to be seduced and tempted by the agendas we have placed on the day. When this happens, we miss the sheer simplicity of grace that is the shaping force of our care taking. When we see graciousness bending down to foster a domain of care in times and places that appear to give no room to such acts, we are exposed to the joy of God’s Reign that really does transform life. 
After two crowded bus rides into Puerto Vallarta, we took to the streets ready for the adventures of new food, new sights, new works of art, and the mass of crowded sidewalks and roadways. As you would expect in a port city on a day when two cruise ships pulled into the bay before dawn, there were people everywhere. Lines of people followed tour guides, small groups of tourists wearing identifying wristbands moved in and out of stores, and the usual fast-paced local traffic moved without hesitation. When it was time to cross the street, I had to make a mental note to be careful. It would be my instinct to dart across between cars and buses but with a healing Achilles tendon, I had to make sure I thought ahead and planned for every street crossing. 
In all of this mix and movement, the bus that was about to zip by us just stopped in the middle of the road. As you would expect, a few horns honked and the road became an instant bottle neck. There just to our right we witnessed the simplicity of an act of stewardship and grace. A small man, bent over and carrying a large, cloth bag had stepped off the curb on the other side of the road. I’m sure this was not the first time the old man had marched out into traffic with only the other side of the street in his sights. His frail frame did not cover the deliberateness with which he stepped off into the roaring river of traffic that could have swept him under its rushing flow. 
In that moment, though, the bus came to an abrupt stop. A bus filled with people who have places to go and people to see – stops. A bus driver who, like other drivers, does his job with a sense of passion and urgency – stops. The river...the flood of traffic like the River Jordan – stops so this old man could cross over to the other side. 
In most places, the shouting would begin. We would expect that. In most places, the heat of the day, the late hour of the workday, and the press of time would make enough excuses for the old man to be the center of a foul exchange or a reprimand by driver and riders. Not so. The young driver did not shout out a word. There was no visible sense of dismay at having to hold up traffic. In this potentially restless place, the driver simply leaned forward, rested his arms on his steering wheel, took a breath, and waited. The safety of this old man was more foundational to this driver‟s day than the schedule at hand. The well-being of an anonymous soul was more to consider than the destination that many wanted to reach. 
In those moments, though filled with the slowness of the old man‟s steps, the patience and grace of the young driver, and the intensity of this city street, I thought of these words “honor your father and mother.” It was a simple act of being a steward of life within the Reign of God. We care for the creation with simple gestures that honor those around us. We honor those around us by making sure there will be room for those who need room. We honor and care for the elders among us by keeping our eyes open so that the most vulnerable will be safe in our presence. 
All this takes place within the wilderness of our lives that often tempts us to live a different way. But then, right when life moves too quickly to notice the needs of others and we are tempted to act according to our own desires and needs, the bus stopped and God‟s creation was honored and we were all blessed. Joy breaks out when within the wilderness of our world people entertain moments of wholeness and loving kindness - shalom. 
Moving along urban streets can seduce us into a life of separation and indifference. Too many people can become an excuse to limit our vision. Heavy traffic and the pressures of having to negotiate this street and that sidewalk and all those vehicles and all those people can be an arena in our lives that we choose to flee. It is easy to become one more piece of the mass of life that is simply on its way to some place other than right here. Urban spirituality blossoms within such fertile ground. In what can be a wilderness of intensity, we are graced with visions of God‟s stewards making moments and places safe and secure – like an oasis that serves to refresh all who are present. 
Later that day it was time to return to the small town in which we were spending our vacation. The day was bending toward dinner time, the heat was peaking, and I wanted to get in the water. The bus was brimmed full with local folks and a few gringos like my wife and me. The ride out of the city is always an adventure because each bus has its very own character. 
Drivers decorate the front of the bus with everything from devotional pictures to displays of their own heritage. This is not just a place to work. There is a sense of ownership and pride as we meander through the streets together and each driver exhibits their own sense of stewardship as they carry us to our destinations. 
On this day within the stewardship of this bus, a middle-aged woman entered the bus and offered her twenty pesos to the driver and received her ticket. As she turned to walk down the aisle, she noticed that the very first set of two seats was occupied by one older woman. The older woman had a small bag resting at her feet and the seat next to the window was empty. She was bent over, resting, and did not seem to be paying attention to the people who were getting on the bus. This middle-aged woman took a step toward the older woman and asked if she could move over into the seat next to the window to make room for another person to sit down. I may not have caught the inflection of her voice and therefore did not know if it was a polite request or a word of direction filled with the expectation that this younger woman would be given the aisle seat she wanted
Within a breath of this request, there was a thundering “No!” from the bus driver. The “No” was a rebuke. It was a warning that this younger woman should move back in the bus and not attempt to make this woman move from her seat. I didn’t know if this was the driver‟s mother, or grandmother. I did not know if this was a person in special care of the driver. I did not know if there was any personal tie between the two. With that “No,” all of us on the bus understood that this old woman was under the care of this driver. The reason for the relationship did not matter. The driver was going to see to her place of rest and comfort and peace even if he had to put forward the booming voice of a dictator. 
After the initial shock of the encounter and watching the younger woman walk to a seat in the rear of the bus, the commandment calling for honoring father and mother filled the front of the bus. Twice in one day I was a witness to the embodiment of stewardship in the Reign of God. Within the same breath as the driver‟s pointed directive, he was right back into the rush of traffic that made all of us – seated and standing – hold on. 
Even within the rush of events that can appear to be congested and rushed and chaotic, a vision of shalom and care and honor can be realized. We can be truly human and see to the care of the least among us within the hustle and bustle of the most common places where people interact without great contemplation. Could it be that as we move through our days with the stories of our faith, we are given the opportunity to put those stories to life? 
The bus continued to fill up as a handful of school children paid their fare and stood in the aisle. A woman carrying an infant entered the bus and there again within God’s Reign upon a bus, a woman sitting across from the older woman stood up gave her seat to the young mother. This woman who gave up her seat gently bent down to speak to the older woman and explained that she was going to step past her to sit in the seat next to her at the window. It was a smooth movement. It was done with care and honor. This time, the bus driver said nothing at all. The older woman maintained her place – she was now being honored by two people – first the bus driver and then this woman who understood something about how stewardship within the Reign of God operated on this bus. What a moment of joy was being uncovered in a place that is usually too full and too chaotic to allow for anything but self-centered preservation. 
I often wonder about how often we fear the wilderness moments of our everyday life rather than enter them as the stewards of life within God’s Reign that we are. For some reason, we have decided that we can best contemplate the wonders of God’s creation and the way our lives are being directed by going away from the presence of this river of life that moves all around us within the ordinary moments of life within the city. Retreating “from” the everyday clutter of activity and voices can be a wonderful experience but it is creative only when that time away has an impact on how we receive and interact with the life and energy and motion of the ordinary. 
Urban spirituality is a retreating “into” that in which we are moving - like that rush of traffic and the rule of order on that bus. Within the wilderness of the dynamics of everyday, we are gifted to see God’s Reign, being uncovered and be taken up with joy. Too often we walk by the action around us as though we are not connected to all the waves of life that wash around us. The temptations to be “turned-in-on-ourselves” are great. 

Without taking note of simple gifts where people bend and bow to honor life, we miss the glory of God’s Reign that makes the ordinary shine with new life. When Jesus is out in the wilderness being tempted, he is being tempted to be – in the ordinary and everyday rush of life – someone other than the beloved of God. Taking with us the vision of God’s shalom as we drive through the chaos of this day is meant to keep us open to being a part of that shalom. Sometimes that means we stop the way things are moving. At other times it may mean we speak up in order to make a place in time safe for all. On or off the bus we are invited to stop and re-view with creative eyes, all that God has placed before us.