Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (16 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Out of Control 
(Jesus) also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 
Mark 4:26-29 

There are so many ways I try to maintain some kind of control in my life. It can be quite fun to catch myself in the act of trying to control the universe – at least a part of it. Here‟s an example of a bit of control within the routine of the day...the week...the year. 
Most days I have oatmeal for breakfast. You might simply say, “Hey, that‟s a healthy way to start the day!” It is. And yet, within that window in time that is the start of the day, oh my...what a control-freak I am. Coffee is started – of course! Then there is the daily pattern of putting out the plate for the fruit and the bowl for the oatmeal. The fruit that will go into the bowl of oatmeal is prepared after I have fixed the fresh fruit plate. Milk and orange juice are taken out of the refrigerator. Juice is poured and then the juice glass and the fruit plate are put on my placemat at the table - juice on the far right corner and the fruit just to the left of the juice. The cloth napkin is placed to the right of the placemat – this is where I will place my vitamins and my fork. The oatmeal is put into the bowl with the “oatmeal fruit” and stirred together. Coffee is poured into a mug and I undo the alarm on the house and pick up the paper off the front stoop. Finally, milk is added to the coffee and to the oatmeal. The coffee mug is placed on the right of the placemat right in front of the juice. The bowl of oatmeal is put to rest in the center of the placemat and the vitamins are brought over from their containers on the microwave. By the way, the placemat set up is done so that I can unfold and read the paper while eating without having anything spill or get wet. 
Everything...has to be - just so. No surprises. The day my wife brought home a rice cooker that also cooks oatmeal - I didn’t know what to do. Can I use this thing? How will I have to reorder my morning rituals? This is not merely a moment of anxiety for a person who can be a bit too controlling; this is a part of the spiritual crisis of life that attempts to have its way with me – every morning. 
Knowing that I can be like this from the very get-go of the morning, I also know that I must allow myself to fall into moments of the day that will surprise me. I find that other people will be that surprise time and time again. It may be in what they say or how they look or the unpredictable manner in which our paths cross. This kind of change and surprise stretches me and becomes a source of great joy. The surprises of the day can also be that which creates anxiety. And yet, if anxiety stops us from being surprised, having our heads turn, and entering life we have not yet experienced, then we will miss the joy of God‟s Reign that is eternally available to us. 
One of the routines of the summer is to ride my motor scooter or car over to the church building and close the two basketball courts on the church parking lot. It is a routine. And yet, I never know who will be there or how things will go when I announce to the dozen or two players that the courts must be emptied. Most often the players are very respectful and go along with the closure because they understand the wishes of the neighbors who live right alongside the courts. This is not always the case. 
As you would expect, there can be the one or two players who are new to the courts or do not know that I am the person who does this most days. There have been some challenges and some incidences that I did not anticipate. In other words, there are times when I am out of control. I have a history of avoiding such times. This goes way back. It is part of my growing up history – my family story – my way of coping. Therefore, I have often had to face my controlling demons that prohibit me from being open to experiences of potential joy. 
I have come to see that I often forget to breathe when my routine is interrupted or I am entering a situation over which I am not in control. So, as I have noted previously, I breathe – deeply...fully...inhale and exhale. On my way to the courts, my breathing is a reminder that each person on that blacktop is beloved. I am not there to control anyone. I am there to be a part of a larger community and that means things will not always go my way. So...I breathe. The breathing reshapes my experience and my interactions. Rather than being a rigid and enforcing presence, I’m free to engage the players with the simple question about the score and letting the closing time be stretched to meet the few remaining points. It may also manifest itself in giving a very brief history as to why I show up to do what I do. The breathing also may give space to one of the many players to step up and do the teaching to the new person. So, in real time, in the uncontrollable moment – I breathe. 
I often say that I am not the bravest soul in the world. To be quite honest, I‟m a bit of a coward. Those basketball courts have taught me that when I breathe and enter the moment with some integrity about who I am and honor others, I am willing to invite in and bring up the needs of the larger community, and I am able to walk into that which is not my preferred situation. The well-being of life in something as simple as a basketball court takes place when the need to control passes by like a breath exhaled. It is in those moments that I am free to be surprised by joy. It doesn’t take much to let anxious moments flow through us when we trust that out God is present in those moments we think we can control. Most often, God becomes visible as we face what is at hand and how God’s image of wholeness and shalom takes shape in ways I had not anticipated – in ways I cannot control. 
One night the courts were full and before I left the house I took our camera and thought I would take some pictures of the action on the courts. I went out a bit early so I would have time to mingle before announcing the closing of the courts for the night. There were a number of new players and as I parked my motor scooter I had to remember to breath and let go so that I could more fully take in the moment at hand. To my surprise, that simple camera and a few action shots brought some of the new players within reach...and maybe I came into reach of them. I was freed up to laugh and enjoy the action without spending my time attempting to control my time and theirs. 
Some of the best avenues of contemplation take place when the wind of life moves among us when we are doing nothing more than riding on a scooter or walking out onto the parking lot. It involves an awful lot of letting go and taking hold. When we practice something as simple as intentional breathing it begins to offer us space to let go. Breathing is natural – we’re all doing it right now – no effort for most of us. Then again, as the situations around us change and they conflict or interrupt what we expected to be able to control, it is very easy to give up our breath. It is not easy to notice when our breathing changes, but it can make a big difference as to how we see what is right in front of us. 

Contemplation in the middle of things enables us to transform how we live within the middle of things. I don‟t think we are called out of the world to engage the world that is right at hand. We are invited to be present within that which is forever changing and inviting us to see beyond our own controlling ways. Like the parable of the Kingdom of God in which there is a person who scatters seeds, the Reign of God comes no matter how we breathe. Yet, when we experience the changing of the face of God‟s Reign growing up among us, the discipline of breathing opens us to what way come next – even that which is out of our control. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (15 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Pressing On 
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God‟s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5) 

In the early morning I regularly sit at my computer and use the works of various well- written saints to lead me in devotions and the reflections I write for the weekday devotions on the congregations website. Over the years there has been a woman who passes by the front of the house. She is chugging away. Arms are pumping, her stride is wide, and she is wearing a bright safety vest making sure people driving through the neighborhood before sunrise will see her marching through our streets. Over the years she has dropped quite a bit of weight. That is not the first thing I noted. She remains in my mind because of her perseverance. In any kind of weather – she is there. When it is dark and cold she is wrapped up with her scarf around her mouth and nose and her arms are pumping with every stride. I can be making an early morning hospital call and there she is. She is in this for the long haul...something I am not able to do very often. 
In this same neighborhood we are blessed with another walker who has caught my attention. He too does the early morning routine but just a bit later than the woman noted above. This walker is an older man. This is a man bent over by the years of his life. If he was to simply look straight out where his eyes were pointing, it appears as though all he would see is the ground directly in front of his feet. He does not walk fast...but he walks. Within that glance at that old man, I am a witness to determination and dedication. I don‟t know why he walks. I don‟t know how he has the fortitude to enter the day within this kind of discipline. I simply am there to see him pass by. What a rich and bountiful way for me to begin my day. 
There is another man who walks through the neighborhood to catch a bus. It is his routine. I have been a witness to it for twelve years. He too dresses for whatever the weather will bring his way. He is on his way to work. I don’t know what he does or where he works. One day in the middle of the winter on a brutally cold and windy day I stopped my car and asked if he would like a ride. I learned that offering people a ride these days is not the best idea. He looked a bit frightened as he shook his head. I wondered how many people have stopped and asked if he needed a ride on morning like this or in the middle of summer storms. 
We pass by so many people within our day. Most of the people are anonymous and we never have the opportunity to engage them in conversation. It is important to look again and take the time to honor the way we walk through the various patterns and routines of life that shape so much of what we do and who we become. In that way, we will always stay connected to the common bond we have with one another. For me that translates into a grand parade of God’s beloved people. It is both a parade in which I am living and it is one at which I am looking. Over the years, it is also a wellspring of inspiration helping me to face the day with vivid examples of how we are able to press on or adapt or change the day. 
 Some time ago I ruptured the Achilles tendon in my right leg. Nine years prior to that incident, I ruptured my left Achilles tendon. The recovery time was lengthy and rehabilitation was slow. I’m not a professional athlete so there was no special clinic and no intensive physical therapy that would get me back onto the playing field. I was simply going back into the ordinary flow of my life – always active but never at the level of a “real” athlete. A daily routine of exercise has always been something of a problem for me. If there is an excuse as to why I cannot enter into a new discipline – I’ll take it. 
Within this time of healing and recovery, there was that nameless, old man walking by the window of my office in our home - again and again...and again. I would be inside writing daily devotions and he was out there devotionally moving on down the road. If a person in that physical condition is able to be out there every day walking as though this will be the way he will enter the rest of the day, could I also marshal the courage and discipline to begin my healing? More and more, his regular presence out there on the street became a moment of sheer joy for me. It was a reminder of the substance that makes us people truly human. 
I gained much from noting how he walked. It started to become a symbol for me. With his body curved forward he lifted his eyes to meet the road out ahead of him. Wearing a baseball cap, it was as though he had to force himself to lift up his eyes a bit more. His action reminded me that we do not walk out into the possibilities of the future by staying with that which is so easy to see and that which we already know. The future bids us to come and begin to live within whatever it will offer to us. To enter that part of our lives it is vital for us to lift up our eyes and go. I really don‟t care if this man was told by his doctor that he must do this or if he finds this time alone on the road as a necessary way to stay alive. For me, he is the reminder that I can face this day and do so even when the shape of my life appears to be less-than-able to push on through whatever will come next. 
Pressing on in the face of whatever is pressing in upon us is essential to the shaping of our character. The spirituality of everyday life that I am calling urban spirituality invites us to be wooed by the stream of people that makes the ordinary a parade of hopefulness. The availability of these common aspects of hopefulness has the power to pull us along and open up the vision of who we are capable of being. This does not mean that I must become something great and grand. Rather, it means that I will be given the courage to be me. The spirit of our God whips around and through the community. Whenever I fall short or stumble or become overwhelmed by the questions and doubts of my life, the wind blows by and the lives of others become the tools that are handed to me to re-shape the day. 
I find that this wind of the spirit never stops blowing. No matter where I might be, there is this breeze that can refresh and renew. Within the complexities and diversity of urban living, we are blessed with images of life that can be so different from our own preferred ways of living that we are forever walking at the cusp of surprise. It is within those moments of surprise that we are offered another way of seeing and another way of taking part in what is to come. Therefore, the surprising nature of the common and ordinary bids us to press on and move closer to those around us so that we are able to see more ways of becoming truly human. My way of doing things and seeing things and creating things is often the greatest impediment to becoming more fully human and therefore less likely to appreciate the gifts our humanity that walk so close by us and stand so close at hand. 
The examples I gave of how a few people press on within their daily walking is just a simple image of how moments of joy are ready to be uncovered even when we are being consumed by the issues of our own predicaments. In the life of the Church – when we draw close and take another look at one another within the diversity of the community – there are people who will amaze us with their ability to face each day pressing on as the beloved of God and walking within the amazing grace of the promise of their baptism. For example, I know a woman who has no doubts about her place before God and her part in the saving life of the followers of Jesus. She is beloved by our God who will be eternally present for her and with her. 
At the same time, she has experience parts of the body of the church that will not walk with her or see her as our God sees her. In fact, in many ways the institution of the church has rejected her and then in what tries to be “nice” language, the church attempts to talk about love but the fullness of that love is not available to her just as she is. 
She is not alone. There is a collection of people – of saints – who take a look at all the ways the structures of the church try to limit the utter availability of the life of grace and hopefulness and yet they continue to press on within the sure and certain hope of the fullness of the Reign of God. It is an amazing sign of hope and grace. Like that old man, their sight will not be limited to what is at their feet. They are looking forward into what is coming down the road for they know that down the road is a joy that is already available to them even within the brokenness called the church. 
We are blessed in urban settings because among us there is a greater chance that we will have within our gathering of saints those people who are readily pushed out of many churches. We are blessed because if we simply lift up our eyes and look around, the differences that often divide us become the surprise of how the spirit of God is forever being creative and painting the backdrop of our lives with a word of never-ending hope. 
Having said all this, it is embarrassing to know that for some saints among us - every move and every step within the life of the church must be one of pressing-on-in-spite-of. For people who are being excluded from the full fellowship of the church, the body of Christ acts as though the surprising and creative power of the future and present rule of God is a breath of life that is also being excluded. It is as though the church cannot and will not acknowledge that the Spirit blows where it will. In many ways the church has become afraid of this wind that brings life. In many ways the church has become anxious about who will be brought into the mix of our communities. 
Within the urban church these “out-of-place” saints have a place to sit down and rest and begin to be exactly who they are – God’s beloved. Urban spirituality is a life that sees beyond the limits and guidelines and gate-keeping that is unwilling to experience the fullness of the joy of the Lord’s presence. It is no wonder that so many people who are not within the designated bounds of acceptability leave our communities. It is important to say that it is also wonder-full that we have people who stay and press on and expect that the Reign of God will be here - now - among us. 
I find that in urban settings, people within the GLBT community who are a part of the baptized, beloved of God, and followers of Jesus walk among us as signs of promise. They have little onto which they can grasp to encourage them within the political life of the church...and yet, they sing and praise God and join hands with the whole community. As with all of us, they have is that pearl of great price...and they hold it closely and they press on. As they stand and sit among us and we allow ourselves to see the living presence of our God, the joy of the urban congregation expands. 

Hope will not disappoint us. The promise of God’s Reign cannot be cut short or held back. It has been thrown out into the world with a freedom that cannot be contained. In the meantime, there are many opportunities to see living parables – stories and images of how, within the gathering of ordinary people, the Reign of God opens up all around us and surprises us with a fullness of life we did not think we would ever see – joy. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (14 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Sounds of Silence 
“When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, „Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, „Why are you untying it” just say this, „The Lord needs it.‟ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying. „Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!‟ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, „Teacher, order your disciples to stop.‟ He answered, „I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.‟” Luke 19:29-40 

Silence is a gift filled with insight and openness and the potential for the renewal of one’s heart. Silence cannot be grasped or owned or manufactured. One of the best bits of advice I received in regard to meditation was to not be afraid to let my thoughts run freely. Usually, whenever I would try to meditate, I always tried to bring about a blank slate or completely immerse myself in a focal point. To be quite frank, meditation felt like another job that had to be done. Therefore, I realized that I did not have the gift of contemplation that comes to some who are able to - and even must – be alone and be silent in the midst of a setting that provides utter silence. 
Spirituality and the practice of spiritual renewal and spiritual retreats are most often lifted up by the faithful who have greatly appreciated the discipline of silence and retreat away from what might be considered the confines and clutter of the everyday walk through life. The common and the ordinary can be exhausting. The patterns and routines of our day can become so overwhelming that some kind of retreat is necessary in order to simply open up one’s lungs to a full breath of fresh air and then another and another and another. 
Not everyone can get away - go to a place other than their everyday world. Not everyone finds a time of retreat from the mundane to be a time of renewal and refreshment. Over the years I have found that I may not be gifted like others who uncover joy in moments and places of solitude. This does not mean that I cannot live within silence. Rather, it is as though my mind and heart and spirit do not find such practices to be the way in which God’s Reign is opened up for me to see and hear. More and more I find that God really never waits for the right time and the right moment and the right setting to shout out a promise or unveil a path of renewal of life. More and more I find that I have a personal history in which I am pulled aside within the rush of the day and God is able to crack open my heart and carry me into a profound moment of peace that changes how I see myself and the world that is continually coming into bloom around me. 
Within the confines of our everyday lives, we are given so much time to look up and breathe and be silent. Some days, that doesn’t happen. The moments are skipped in pursuit of that which we are convinced is the real agenda of the day. There is always something that can consume my attention and my time. The noise of the day that I let lead me and shape me and take away my breath is most often a part of my own creation. The score of my life that I attempt to write while I am moving through my life often forbids me from taking note of what God is placing in front of me even as I move through the schedule on my desktop or in my mind. 
A wise woman was once counseling me during a time in my life when I was feeling scattered and unbalanced and unsure of my next step. She told me to put my feet on the ground. She suggested that when I am in the middle of a meeting when my mind was running along trying to keep up with that which was being said and I am simultaneously attempting to build an argument while also making mental connections to related information, simply put both feet on the ground. That simple action came with a simple discovery – I rested. There was a pause that took me out of my running screenplay. It let me experience the silence of my heart. That silence gave me time to see and hear the actions and voices from a new place. I found that I was much more engaged in the dynamics of the room and felt a freedom to simply be me – child of God. That is sometimes lost in the passing of the ordinary times of our lives. 
This breathing and this silence and this simple act of looking up at that which is circling around us are vital parts to the discipline of urban spirituality. There is time to see God’s presence and be moved into the new life that God’s presence always brings to us. Between here and there within our daily schedule can be the simple observation of both the wholeness and the brokenness of our world. This reality must always be seen within the embrace of God’s unreserved and eternal connection to each of us – right now and right here. The peaceable Reign of God comes even as we are going about other things. It is not something that must be planned. It is a gift handed to us. Can we let ourselves take notice of how a room filled with strangers becomes a voice of invitation to step beyond ourselves? Can we let ourselves look up and see a group of teens going about their conversations and antics and experience our child who longs to laugh and be utterly free? 
The stones of our lives are waiting to talk to us. Along a beach in Mexico I would start my day with a long walk. A friend asked me to pick up any interesting shells I might see and bring them back to Ohio. While I walked, I noticed I had an agenda. I also noticed that it altered the way that I walked. I was on the lookout. It was as though I might miss something if I went too fast or I might pass something by if I didn’t keep my eyes to the sand. 
On my second day of walking, I had no luck finding any special shells and decided to walk without that agenda dogging me. It was then that I started to notice the wonderful array of stones sprinkled on the beach each morning. I thought about picking up some stones. Then I realized that I would never have the opportunity to walk. There were so many stones – so many colors – so many textures – so much variety I would spend all my time on my knees trying to get a better look at each cluster of stones. 
In the great expanse of stones cluttering the beach I did take note of a stone here and a stone there. Each one caught my eye and seemed to cry out to me. It is important to note that I was walking with my headset on listening to my album pick for the day. So there I was, singing and moving to the music, looking out over the water, taking note of the people on the beach, and glancing at homes and businesses at beachside. In some ways, it was as though I am walking along any neighborhood street back home. To avoid stopping for a special looking stones, I would leave it there and take note of a marker on the beach and I told myself I would catch it on the way back. This was done with the realization that I was probably never going to see that stone again. Truth was, every time I did that, the stone was still calling out to me on my return trip. Each day I came back to the condo with a few stones. 
On a late afternoon trip back to the condo with several stones in my hand I looked up to see a most precious stone. A woman was sitting on the beach at the point where the waves would wash around her. The tide was already pulling back into the ocean but these last waves rolling over the sand cooled her and let a bit of water trickle into the basin of sand she made at the edge of the wet and dry sand on the beach. There in that basin rocking back and forth in a small pool of water was an infant within reach of his mother. On the dry sand was the father watching the two playing in the cool water and sand. It was a beachside manger scene. These were local folks – not tourists. Tourists collect stones – locals care for their precious stones with long hours of work and then find a bit of time at the end of the work day (or the beginning of another shift) to take in the joy of their child. This was not a family of means. 
I walked up to the mother and asked how old her boy was - only a handful of months was the reply – a hearty stone! They let me simply stand there and watch him play in that basin for few moments. I thanked them and left them with a simple blessing. In the silence of that moment with wave crashing, birds screeching, and children playing, this precious stone called out to remind me of the reality of the world in which I was walking. It was not a world of shells and leisurely walks and a collection of stones. It was a walk within the depths of our human predicament. A walk in which some seem to have much and some seem to have so little. 
Each day I would go back to rest at the pool or on the couch in the condo. The people I met would go back to their daily routine that I walked by each day but now considered with a different eye. At first I experienced a moment of utter melancholy. But then, looking back and seeing that precious stone rocking in that sand basin of water, I realized that this is the joy to the world that is promised to all of us no matter what our place of life may be. 

I wondered about the fullness of life that comes to each of us when we are reminded of how we are so connected to one another even as we are so separated. I wondered about the welfare of that family living within the routines of their ordinary life that is so different from mine. Sometimes, as we walk along the way, the stones cry out to us to remind us of the wonderful beauty of God’s people. As we continue to walk and pick up stones and find an occasional shell of some worth we also are handed insights that will continue to bring us back to the joy that comes to each of us when we see and hear the beauty of our humanity in that which is not us. Cluttered spaces and times in which we uncover joy are available to us each day for these stones of God’s creation will cry out to us no matter where we are. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

On Earth as it is in Heaven - shaping the day at hand

Many folks put heaven out there - in the future - in another time - in another place. It is so often the place to which people will go when we die. It is out there - that far. As we put ourselves into that kind of vision, heaven can easily become something that belongs to a reward system for folks who have lived and acted in a right way. Heaven, in many ways, is a way to connect folks to that which is not like the world in which we live right now. It will be better. It will be the place in which we will be able to reunited with those who have died before us. It is up there in the clouds somewhere - somewhere other than here. Therefore, it can easily become a game some folks hear as: If you do this and not that - if you live in this way and not that way - you will become a part of that promised adventure that will take place after you die. Heaven becomes that which we try to control - because folks really like to be in control of the whole story.

So, is today lived in order to be able to live in another place and time? Is today a testing ground? Is today a time in which we must meet up to some standards - laws - commands that have been deemed the highway to heaven. Get on board - do this and not that and your chances at a heavenly rendezvous greatly increase. Having said all that, there is another story line that promises to get you to heaven without being the perfect person some may expect. Instead, simply trust that God loves you and will want you to have a place in a heavenly eternity. No game playing - no fabricated morality that fits within the likes of our tribe or group - we simply get in. In this kind of storytelling, the outcome is still to be in another place and time. Out there somewhere - we will spend eternity that is not as life is here. 

As I was reading in preparation for a short stint of teaching at a local congregation I highlighted this thought. God is committed to heaven being a human story which will forever include the story of the human overcoming of death by Jesus. In the middle of our own storytelling, does heaven become our home - our life - our beginning and our ending. The eternal Reign of God - heaven as some may call it - is fully available even as we appear to be stuck within the intolerable spirals of death that we simply cannot shake. In the Jesus story, we can say that today is open to the ever-present power of God to make love - not death - the pattern of heaven on earth. This is a pattern of life - for now - for always.

When I think about heaven being a human story - the Reign of God at hand - the complexion of the moment changes - my vision changes - my actions may even change. For in this moment I am graced with the opportunity to imitate life within God's Reign - a heavenly life - even when no one is looking on to judge me. Since my bit of the human story resides in that which is not yet fully present, I need not worry about my next step - I can simply act as though heaven is at hand. That vision is what changes me. That reality changes me. That ceaseless power to establish peace and justice and wholeness and forgiveness and mercy changes me.

I think people long to be changed - in the twinkling of an eye. So why be duped into believing that heaven is a reward - a stop at the end of the tracks - a carrot dangling out at the end of a stick? I find that the stories of the very first followers of Jesus were attempts to help others see that now is the time -now is the fullness of God available - now is the point in which the doubts and fears that always pull us into the mud of despair lose their grip on us. And then, by some sort of miracle, we entertain a life full of unbounded grace and love that comes upon us and pulls us beyond fears and threats and the endless questions of our worthiness.

As we walk within the promise of heaven coming among us - even as there is no evidence of its arrival - we will experience moments of it glory. This will be glory as it shines in the ordinary life of self-giving love - open hearts leading to open minds - courage to lose at the games of power and control and deadly competition. These may only be in moments of the day. These may be moments that we see in the lives of others. These may be witnessed in those we often cast off as enemies. You see, heaven being a human story - is full of surprises so that we will never insist that we control the day and all the days to come. Each day is open to God's presence coming to life among us no matter how much we try to make gods of our own ways and opinions. Heaven is always a surprise to us as it unfolds with this day in a way that we can see - touch - enter.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (13 02 25)

Uncovering Joy: Whole World 
“While the Day of Pentecost was running its course they were all together in one place, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began talking in other tongues, as the spirit gave them power of utterance.” Acts 2:1-4 NEB 

Between here and there was Whole Foods. I was alone after a conference on internet law and wanted a quick bite to eat before I started running around and through the city. Back in Columbus, I do not live in the right area to have a Whole Foods. I soon found that it was close to some of the notions that had been passed on to me. The food selection is wonderful – the best of best of best. The prices were as people have said on occasion – whole paycheck. There was an upscale feel to the place that catered to people on the move – great place for singles to meet other singles. 
So here at the edge of Central Park and across the street from the Trump Hotel I was meandering through a long line in a place that was filled with a Pentecostal host of flavors and colors and sounds and wonder. I found myself walking through a whirlwind of activity blessed with the presence of the unique diversity of our humanity. Not only was there a bountiful display of people winding through the store and toward an enormous bank of cash registers, the food was just as bountiful, colorful, and embracing the wide-expanse of our worldwide tastes. 
There were booths filled with families and tables over-stuffed with high school students in various uniforms. I took my food to a long snake-like table that was already quite full of people. It reminded me of the first time I was in a restaurant in Cambridge, England. While a few of us were eating, a man simply made himself at home at a vacant chair at our table and he started to eat and read his newspaper. No conversation was expected. We were there to eat. 
On this day in New York not only did we share tables – the tables were filled with a global expression. The women to my right and across the table - were Japanese. The two women across the table and to my left were Muslims. The woman and her young daughter to my immediate left were African-American. In the booth near our table was an older white woman sitting with what appeared to be a daughter and granddaughter. Here in the middle of what seemed to be chaos was the whole world acting as though we truly were a whole – a united – a healed – a gifted world. I came to eat and I was being fed by what was in front of me at my place at the table and what was in front of me and around me in the likes of the textures and colors of God’s people. 
We are not made to walk around and avoid such gifts. We are created to be a part of a divine wholeness that is so close to us. And yet, it can be missed if we do not pause and look up. Urban spirituality takes seriously that “strong driving wind” that will be the power to open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to the wild, freshness of life that cannot be contained within my mere experience of life as I might want it to be. To look up and see what is not me is to be filled with a Spirit of life that brings together that which was thought to be separated. In one glance, there was the whole world –an amazing bit of grace. What an opportunity for transformation and liberation and utter praise. It is quite real that such a picture can bring up within us all the biases and bigotry and prejudices and stories that would remind us to keep away from those unlike us. And yet, the Spirit of Wholeness will not be held back from putting in our pathways the reality of God’s whole world in God’s hands. 
There are times in all of our lives when we long to be somewhere other than the place in which we live and walk and breathe every day. Urban spirituality is made up of the fleeting moments when we lift up of our heads and behold God‟s presence abiding with us. Maybe nothing more is needed than that. Maybe this is enough. In those simple, regular, plentiful moments we can either look away, thinking nothing of the moment, or we can become a people who have flames of new life dancing on our heads and awakening vision and hope and life that stretches our imagination and then leads us to new life.
In the biblical picture of a packed upper room in Jerusalem, there may have been some people who decided to walk out of that room of flames and wind and familiar tongues coming forth from strange people on the Day of Pentecost. Then again, in the storytelling of the Church enough stayed and listened and were amazed. Those who stayed found the great joy of life that is handed to us from our God. It is a joy that moves like a brush fire that fills the spaces and times of our lives - a now that is full of wind and fire and life. 
We live in a day not unlike others. Too often differences among us become that which creates the separation that so quickly moves toward violence directed at those who we identify as other. It is not easy to live alongside the strangeness that can be our neighbors. Many times I find that we can be quick to label this strangeness in negative terms. Rather than being drawn toward those who are different from us, this can easily become our reason to stay off to ourselves and never come close to the rest of our humanity. It becomes easy to label and even easier to make the labels stick. We can do this labeling no matter where we live. Part of urban spirituality is to give ourselves the breathing space to ask questions. These questions may be those which we direct toward ourselves so that we become critical of our need to label. At other times it means taking on the discipline of asking questions when we do not understand what the Spirit is whipping up around us. 
It may sound like urban spirituality demands that we all be extroverts who are able and ready to strike up conversations with everyone we meet. I must say that I admire people who are gifted with the ability to readily engage strangers and do so with a sense of grace and amazement. For some people, the wind of the Spirit quite literally comes to shape in words and conversation and real dialogue. For others, the simple experience of walking alongside others and within rooms and streets and neighborhoods presents an opportunity to be lifted up and to take notice of the bountiful strangeness that is a portrait of our humanity. Being present in places where the many facets of God's image are readily available can draw us out of ourselves and into a moment of fiery insight that begins to open up our world view. 
Urban spirituality has a place for the extroverts and the introverts to be transformed. If my wife would have been with me at that Whole Foods and we would have sat at that same winding table, she – the extrovert – would have engaged everyone in conversation. Within that conversation, she would have experienced the wonder that is intended to take place when God's children step onto common ground for just a moment in time. There is a good chance that we would have both found that experience delightfully filled with joy. And yet, we would have uncovered that joy in different ways. Joy-filled, we would have been swept up by this incidental revelation of the wholeness of God‟s Reign. 
I would be neglectful if I did not mention the fact that such adventures among the diversity of God’s people will also uncover the sides of life we would rather not experience. Sometimes, we must face violence in the presence of others. Sometimes, we will be frightened to be near others. Sometimes, stereotypes that have found a resting place in the cracks of our lives will come alive and show themselves to be quite real. Sometimes, we will want to turn away and stay to ourselves and leave this diversity and variety to others. And yet, it is within those moments that we are handed a time for contemplation that is vital to our spiritual growth. For in those moments, we must come to grips with the power that seeks to divide. This power is very real and it permeates all of our lives. Within the sacred wholeness of God’s Reign the powers of our sin – our brokenness – will find ways to pervert that which is “good.” We must not walk away from such truthfulness. 

If God created humankind in God’s own image, then it is within the full span of our humanity that we will come to understand a bit more of whose we are and who we are able to become. We all know that it takes less effort to be with those who are like us. We all know that those who share our values or our goals or our opinions are those with whom we find ourselves spending the days of our lives. And yet, each time we are pushed by a spirited wind into a situation that is not at all like we would like it to be, we are being pushed to see more of ourselves – that which is acceptable to us and that which we would sooner reject. Urban spirituality becomes a life of pushing and pulling that is available to us even as we are simply sitting down for a quick lunch.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Infected by Affluenza: Trump - Clinton - All of Us

A long time ago I picked up a VHS tape series called Affluenza. The primary producer of the series was Tony Campolo. Whenever I would use it in the congregation to help us look at the wealth we have as Americans, I could always count on the discussion to be lively. Campolo was helping the wider church deal with how we - the follower of Jesus in the USA - are afflicted with this disease and how we must be willing to look at and treat the psychological and social (I would add spiritualeffects of affluence. Like other diseases or infections or viruses, they happen - they come upon us - and then - bam - they can kill us.

Affluenza hit the news in 2013 when a wealthy teenage young man was involved in a deadly accident. He pleaded that he was suffering from affluenza - he could not be held responsible because he was a pampered soul (my language) who was not able to be in control of his life because he had everything handed to him as the child of parents who were well situated financially. Really?! During that time I wondered how many poor folks whose environment impacts their choices and actions would be given a break or a lesser penalty. I will say it - had a young, black, man in a high-poverty neighborhood been in the same situation as this Texas teen - his butt would be in a jail cell for a long time - there would be no environmental excuse to save him.

I know I suffer from affluenza. I read the Scriptures - especially parts like the Sermon on the Mount - and I am far from being well or free from such a disease. The sad part is that I can and do make all kinds of excuses as to why I don't think I suffer from affluenza. As I wrote that it sounds a bit like an addict - doesn't it? This one aspect of a definition of affluenza rings in my ears: The unhealthy and unwelcome psychological social effects of affluence regarded especially as a wide spread social problem such as: feeling of guilt, lack of motivation and social isolation experienced by wealthy people - can be a chronic and pervasive condition in families where riches extend through generations.

But like racism - of which I also suffer at times - most folks deny that we suffer from either racism or affluenza because it is so much of our lives or so subtle and accepted of a disease that we cannot see it and we do not feel it. That is why both diseases go undetected - undiagnosed - untreated - and they not only infect us - they infect the lives of those around us. But for now, I want to stick with affluenza. 

The more I hear Donald Trump the more I think he is within the consumptive grip of affluenza. Some people call him narcissistic or self-consumed. I even hear words like psychopath or sociopath. But as I listen to his life story, it is more the story of someone who has everything he would ever want and - even more. And yet, we have many examples of people with wealth accumulated through generations and they are not so gripped by affluenza.  Affluenza is for me - a disease of the spirit of our humanity. It pulls us apart. It makes it easy for us to separate one from another. Rather than creating a clean heart that draws us to others with a sense of loving kindness, affluenza creates an attacking heart that cannot see the worth of others - unless others will help feed the need for self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. This is not a pleasant disease - this disease kills - this disease makes us into everything Scripture tells us to avoid and resist.

None of us who suffer from it can relax and act as though we are untouched. We all need to face the lies that help affluenza spread to those who, quite honestly, do not have - but are still pulled by the sweet-but-poisonous venom of affluence. I could not leave this rant without also drawing into question Hillary Clinton as one also moving within the consumptive grip of affluence. She may not be a billionaire who is unable to feel empathy or be self-critical or to show humility, but she has been seduced by the wealth of others in order to gain the power that comes with affluence. What do we gain when we sell our soul to have the world as we want it - or think we deserve it?

Affluenza is not a Democratic or Republican disease. We need only look around. We are quite an ill society and seem to want to fight our way to wellness. Well - hostility and hatred is never the path to healing and wholeness. In fact, I would suggest that our affluenza is doing us in.

When we are willing and able to see the symptoms of affluenza in the lives of those around us and others can see them in us, there is hope that we can build a healing/recovering society. In love, we must help one another face this disease and find ways to treat it. I know that there are people around us who - though in an affluenza riddled society - are able to be immune to its contagious nature. I bet we all have people who have been gifted or empowered to face this disease and live as ones who are willing to give ourselves away for the sake of others. I think recovery will take humility - the pursuit of justice - the release of our violent actions and words - the unbounded welcome of all others - mercy and loving kindness. These are not actions of a one time conversion - they must be a part of the ritual of our lives for each and every day. I wonder if a walk or run or bike ride against affluenza will ever be staged in order to begin the healing?