Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (21 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Turn in the Road 
“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made will, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, „Who touched me?‟” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 4:21-35) 

There was a light fog scattered over lawns throughout the neighborhood. It was as though there was not enough weight to the cloud-like formations to let the fog really settle in. I made sure that as I walked on the street I needed to be facing oncoming traffic. I knew that I would need to be very aware of the need to jump up onto the curb and then a lawn as a vehicle approached. The wisps of fog were enough to conceal activity. I’m sure a driver could be surprised by running into a sudden cloud of fog after a bit of morning clarity – and completely miss my presence on the road. That scenario would be amplified by a cup of coffee in hand or a cell phone conversation. I was moving among clouds – we all were. 
I’m not one who likes the images of people up in the clouds. For me, these are the images of cartoons. These are images of angels and the saints-long-gone now overlooking the adventures of those who still are a part of the community of saints – that is, those of us alive and moving from moment to moment wondering about what will come next and who we will be in the mist of what is considered “next.” 
One image that grabs me about those angels and saints looking over the edge of clouds is that they are completely aware of the action “down here.” But down here, where we are walking and living and experiencing both joy and pain - life is unfolding for the first time. We are not spectators ready to see what will come next. Here and now is the unknown that may come about by chance. Here is the quagmire of bias and prejudice. Here is the unbounded laughter. Here is the deep despair that can overwhelm and lead some to go home – forever. Here is the joy of being found and knowing what it means to be welcome and safe. Here is the utter disconnect that happens when we forget about them and those who are not a part of our group. Here is now - without knowing what is about to be. 
The fog reminds me that there is no separation between “up there” and “down here.” The saints of God walk together through all time and every place. We are a part of more than what we are able to call our own little world. And yet, there are no puppeteers steering us toward this and away from that. Rather, when we walk through the fog, we are handed a vision of how the Reign of God is at hand. It is no surprise that deep foggy days must have been quite an experience to ancient civilizations as though the heavens were here at hand. In our biblical storytelling, the clouds that lingered on the mountaintops were so often associated with the presence of God. Those clouds were “up there” and yet “up there” were places we from “down here” could go at times - like Moses at Sinai. Then again, those clouds “up there” often visited with us “down here” - fog changing our ability to see even what is so familiar. 
Great storytelling goes on and on about the mix between “up there” and “down here” or, you could say, the mix between heaven and earth. They can be epic stories or simple stories of daily adventures. In that early morning fog of my walk, I must admit that I wondered about what will come in the middle of my wandering through the early-morning world that looks a bit like the stereotypical notions of a here that also carries with it a bit of there. 
A quick turn around a corner brought me out of my preoccupation with fast-walking, doing my push-ups, and making sure I was safe from passing vehicles. There in the fog - barely visible through the darkness of early morning and the silent movement of those earth hovering clouds – a woman was helping a little boy into the backseat of a car that was parked in a line of other cars outside a small apartment building. 
Let me pause here. It takes me all I can do to get myself out of bed and go out onto the streets of our neighborhood to walk and exercise for forty to fifty minutes. Some days, I blow it off...because I am able to do that. I reset the alarm and rest in bed for another hour. On other days, I make plans to walk at another time or tell myself that the day will be busy enough and I will be doing plenty of moving around within the day’s routine. There are so many different worlds spinning within the fog that covers over us. In the fog of that day I happened to walk through a few moments of a life so different from my own. 
When we are given the opportunity to walk through the times and lives of others, we are given times of prayerful contemplation. This is another part of what I label as urban spirituality. Within the ordinary as I know it – was the ordinary of another world. The simple seeing of that which is not me can be enough to pull me beyond myself and learn to appreciate the wideness of this reality where heaven and earth merge within what often looks as mysterious as fog. 
The woman with her young son was obviously a healthcare worker. We all know the dress. Though the colors and patterns vary it is still a familiar uniform in our society. These are blessed folks who go off to be with the most vulnerable in our society – the ill - the dying - the frightened - the lonely - the recovering - the beloved who are wounded in body or spirit. The first shift would be starting soon and she was on her way in the fog. Sticking in my mind and embedded in my heart was the little boy – waiting patiently as he stood by the car ready to be picked up from the street and put into the car seat already in place for him in the back seat. There is always more to life than that in which I see myself. 
I wanted to speculate about their life. As much as I quite naturally do that, it would have been a luxury. Instead, I carry this encounter with me as a reminder. As we move along in the fog of life, each turn in the road makes available to us the “something more” of life and the diversity within our journeys. Moving along the way, I may have many concerns racing through my head and occupying my mind and actions - but my life is not all of life. Sometimes I think this is how we become more and more aware of that which is beyond us. We may find ourselves hit by oncoming events that we cannot avoid - and they change us. Then again, it will also be those sudden and unexpected glances that pull us out of ourselves so that we may be blessed by the mere presence of the stranger and another part of God’s unfolding presence among us. 
This moment in the fog reminds me of the woman in Mark's gospel who was always nearby but never allowed to be fully present. She was pushed off into a dense fog so no one would see her. But just as the fog moves and we begin to see clearly here and there, we are thrust into more than we anticipated. The woman who came busting onto the scene in order to reach out and touch the opportunity for healing as Jesus was walking though the mass of people pressing in on him, didn’t even get a hearing. Jesus was on his way to saving a young girl and attempting to make his way through the crowd when there was a turn in the road – a surprise - a simple touch. We are not told what happened in and around that scene. We don’t know what was the “word in the crowd” when the movement of the day was turned to take note of this silent woman in the midst of this merging of heaven and earth – the Reign of God. 
In my faithful imagination I wonder about the next days of that woman’s life - healed after twelve years of being hidden away – walked past by others – having to get out of the way of others. I wonder too about the next days of those from that village. How do you continue on the way when you begin to see a part of life that is not your own story - filled with your own concern? How do we make our worlds merge together so that they can be one? Do we simply pass by or can we – in the simple act of passing by – come to see life in a way that changes how we engage the world around us? 

I expect that within my life I will make wrong turns along the way. I expect that when I go around a corner, there may be something I had not anticipated. There is something about turning a corner in life that can be frightening - so frightening it can keep us hanging back rather than moving forward. Just this morning - as I was once again walking through the neighborhood - I found myself caught up in all the action and motion and living that was going on as I turned each corner and pressed on down each street in the middle of the morning darkness. Most of it was predictable...the same house lights turned on - the bends in the roads - the shadows from the streetlights. But then, as I passed through an intersection there appeared to be a pack of dogs gathering as the base of a dip in the road. My heart dropped. With each step my pace slowed until I was at a complete stop. Panic. And then, a head turned – a deer. Urban deer! There were eight to ten deer who calmly but readily trotted off away from me. A turn in the road and there a young family begins the day - a woman reaches out to touch Jesus - a band of deer venture onto the asphalt road and well-mowed lawns. What’s next – the Reign of God!? 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

I will sing as I take a knee and I will bow to the people in the congregation

There are many things in the church that are expected - not necessary - yet still expected. For example it drives me nuts when a pastor tells a group of people to please bow their heads for prayer. Why? A prayer can still be a prayer when I am looking around the room or find a point of focus to still my mind. I remember when I was Roman Catholic as a person was walking down an aisle and reached the pew into which s/he was going to sit - the person would genuflect (sp) - a way to reverence the chancel. That's fine until you are like me going into the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University for Sunday worship. What do I do! I take a knee before entering the pew. It was then - with one knee on the ground - that I noticed this was not what Lutherans do.

Within the last years of my tenure as pastor prior to retirement, I decided to change the way I approach the chancel during the opening procession. Weekly, the crucifer (person carrying the cross), Assisting Minister, and I would stand in the rear of the nave and everyone turned toward the cross to in preparation for its movement through the sanctuary. When the first hymn was being played we stayed in place and sang the first verse. Then as the Crucifier carried the cross toward the chancel I would bow my head as the cross passed by me. Some folks do not bow - some folks do a full bow from the waist - most everyone turns as the cross passes on its way up into the chancel. It is what we do - fine. Most often when worship leaders reach the chancel (the place where the communion table and pulpit and leader chairs are positioned) the leaders would bow toward the table/altar - an act of reverence. But in a good conversation with our vicar I wondered why - why do we bow - to what are we bowing - we already bowed as the cross went by us. So I made a decision. No longer would I bow to the table or chancel area. I would turn to the congregation and bow to them - the visible and living body of Christ. My way of reminding me of the identity of the folks in worship.

So much for tradition and practices some call sacred and the do's and don'ts that have been put in place for many and various reasons. Just as I do not think that people need to put on their Sunday best to worship with others - so to are we free to do things in a manner that make things meaningful and yet remain in the bounds of the gathered community.

Now let me address myself to the National ways we bow and bend. One example: protocol calls for placing ones hand over ones heart (national anthem - pledge of allegiance) yet,  if we don't do that, what happens? Nothing. I don't do that. For those who do - fine. Am I less American? No. Even when I say the Pledge of Allegiance, I say the old one - the original - the one prior to the changes made by what I call the fear-filled, anti-communist days of the early '50s that felt the need to put God into the pledge. Looking at another piece of protocol, I was not in the military but I understand that the correct way to salute is with one's right hand. Never knew that - never mattered to me. Even Jesse Ventura slipped that bit of etiquette in a recent youtube post about the recent kneeling during the national anthem.

The church is not the only group of people who hold things sacred - we do that nationally - we do that with sports and other groups that claim our allegiance. Yet, holding something sacred is not necessarily because it is right or good. In fact the which we hold as sacred may be exactly that which causes us to do what is not at all right and not at all good. Wars - fights - riots - all spring from the depth of our devotion to that which we hold sacred.

Allow me to continue. Now that we have someone who started to kneel during the playing of the national anthem - we are witnesses to a religious fire storm. Whenever the sacred - no matter what it is that we hold sacred - is judged or treated in a way other than the manner in which the devotees expect, all hell is likely to break loose. As we have seen in the last few weeks - it surely is doing just that. Which leads me to this rant.

I rarely go to a place where the national anthem is played. When I do - I sing. Yet, an anthem meant to be sung usually goes unsung. Take a look at sports games on television - few folks are singing. Then we have fallen into the laziness of having someone sing the national anthem for us. This is fine when it is sung so as to nurture the rest of us to raise up our voices. But it has become entertainment - music that can only be sung by the one person - doing his/her thing - drawing attention to a voice or style of singing rather than that which is the subject of the song. Interesting. There seems to be no protest when a voice does its own thing with the anthem - when the content is made to be held as less than the voice - when name of the performer trumps character. Hmm.

So one person kneels to protest during the national anthem - then another - then another. In the land of the free and the home of the brave - there is nothing to fear - really. When I turn my back to the chancel and bow to the people of the congregation rather than to a space in the building or a table or the elements of holy communion - that may be distasteful - just outright wrong to some. Yet, how do we go forward - how do we listen to one another - how do we live together in our difference over that which we may hold so dear. I found that a simple gesture led to many teaching and listening moments that have changed my vision of all things. Therefore, when I next find myself at an event in which the national anthem is played and sung - I will sing our national anthem as I take a knee.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Epidemic of drugs - Epidemic of racism and rage - The work of peace and justice

This rant has been brewing.

Yet, before I can even begin to write that which I intend to write - I have to step back and write a lead-up to this posting. This lead-up may be as long as the rant - not sure. Who knows - it may all sound like a rant.

Just over a month ago a group of Columbus clergy and activist met to once again look at how faith can be brought into public life. That can happen in many and various ways - and I am being convinced more and more that it is the character of those who seek peace and justice for all.

A Brief aside: Recently I read that Tony Campolo has pulled away from being called an Evangelical because of how that designation has become associated with too many issues and actions that are quite contrary to the way of Jesus. He noted that he will now be a part of a group that focuses on the 'red letter' things that are ascribed to Jesus in some editions of the New Testament. His long time work for social justice - racial justice - economic justice - gender justice - has always been grounded in what Jesus said and also what Jesus did. I even think that is why he eventually let go of his unwillingness to see and welcome GLBTQ folks into the realm of our faith. Maybe it was because Jesus never said a word against them - he simple followed through with a unbounded love for all. 

This brief aside is my way of moving into the area of race and that which I see as a complete lack of spiritual clarity when we come to consider the worth of others. We all know people who get trashed by others - people who end up  being the ones blamed for the unlikable conditions of the society - people more likely to be cast out and cast off rather than be held tightly - people whose mere appearance condemns them even when there is no reason for the condemnation. If we are honest at all, we all take part in this - spiritual crap. Finger pointing is too often the greatest exercise routine known to people of faith - and yet it degrades life rather than building it up.

Over a month ago in one of our gatherings there was a good effort to racially diversify the group and we entered into a conversation on race - victimization - and the endless pile of words that end up littering the world without bringing about a fresh breath of new life.

One colleague made a short yet powerful comment that reminded me of the a brutality within our society that must not be allowed to move forward without a voice and a life that is willing to say stop the systemic scapegoating that has made some lives worth-less than others and also makes some lives worth-more than others. His example was simple. There is an opiate epidemic in our society the seems to be growing faster than most communities can handle. Yes, it is being treated as an epidemic - a disease for which we must find a cure and provide adequate treatment for those who are drowning under the devilish grasp of a horrible drug culture.

Without raising his voice he presented another picture - a similar reality - a disgusting counter-point to the overwhelming attention being focused on opiate users.  He asked if we remembered a reality when houses - mothers - babies - communities - neighbors - and young men were drowning in the epidemic of crack cocaine. During that time, the press and the general public was content to live with the brutality of an adjective: crack. In that simple use of an adjective in the middle of a long-time war on drugs - we allowed our urban neighborhoods - especially those of color - to become  a war zone from which only some people were able to flee. It was then an epidemic over there - it was an epidemic that needed to be left to its own - there was a population that was again designated as dispensable - there was a method of containment that followed the policy of the great warfare on drugs - it was a systematic eliminate of generations of young men and women of color. At the same time, the white powder of cocaine flowing into white noses - was left untouched. Amazing how our systems and laws and policies made safe zones - safe neighborhoods - in which the war on drugs was not to be fought.

The righteous warfare on drugs drawn up by Democrats and Republicans and carried out by officials across the country was easy. It was directed at a few people - a few groups - this least powerful. It was able to segregate and ghettoize and condemn folks who could be contained and then slowly put away from the rest of us. It was able to eliminate the bonds of families and friends that usually are vital to providing the pathway to wholeness and healing. The righteous warfare on drugs was - in reality - a civil war waged against our African-American neighbors. In this civil war the battlefield was not out in the open so that the warring parties would be visible and civilian populations would be somewhat protected. This war was meant to be fought in civilian neighborhoods - but only some. It was a warfare meant to be hidden - camouflaged by fear and anxiety - characterized as demons at the front door. If you have a somewhat fair complexion as mine - you could move away from the neighborhoods branded as war zones - you could drop verbal bombs of disgust and blame - you could help to carefully cast a net of exclusion without having anyone see you do it.  Ah, words can be such weapons - glances so deadly - mere inferences like precision bombings - inclusivity the propaganda of self-indulgence.

So why this rant? The Columbus Dispatch has been running a very thorough - in depth - and most likely award winning series on the opiate epidemic in Ohio. It must be applauded. The demon of opiates and the demonic possession it causes has spread to every corner of the state. Ah, that may be where my ranting takes off.

There is now no one at whom we can point a finger - no one against whom we can go to war. We have found the enemy and - good God Almight - it is right in front of all of us. And yet, have you heard of a fast influx of people who are using and selling opiates filling up our prisons? I doubt it. Have rehab centers been overflowing with clients? You can bet on it. Will there be vast amounts of funds finding their way into the systems that will treat opiate addition? Of course. Will people stay out of some suburbs because opiate use is rising? Not.  Will arrests increase and will families be left to fend for themselves when loved ones are given extended prison time or the family is unable to afford help? I don't think so. Has the war on drugs been cancelled? No, but for too many the war is too close to the homes of the majority - so who are we willing to eliminate?

I hope this horrible epidemic comes to an end. I want the funds to be made available to save lives - reunite families - bring peace and well-being.

Yet, what I want more than anything these days is an end to the epidemic of racism that brews the fear and the anxiety and the hate that creates the disease of bigotry and prejudice and bias - all of which are diseases too many will not even acknowledge. Without that acknowledgment, there will be no healing - no wholeness - no shalom. There will only be warfare - staged right in the middle of our communities. There will continue to be the deadly assumptions that put police on edge - African-American communities on lock down - white folks threatened  by mere diversity at our front door. Such assumptions turn the simple, ordinary acts of life - into ones that will continue to become deadly events for more and more people.

Before things blow up even more than they have, I am putting forth the plea that we all blow up the walls that have so insidiously brought us to the edge of a society ruled by finger-pointing - name-calling - and self-consumption. Yes, this will mean an end to racism and an end to rage - it may mean expanding our circle of friends while diminishing the number of those we call other - it may mean we learn to bow and bend and listen and then find ourselves in a place in which we are able to love even our enemies. It may mean the war on drugs is transformed into plan for healing and the well-being of all. I know, I'm ranting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (20 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – With Laughter 
“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 she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, „Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah who is ninety years old, bear a child.” 

A good laugh is jarring. Most often it is not anticipated. It bursts out. It can become utterly uncontrollable. It can become so deep and thorough it hurts and feels as though we might die. Laughter is a reminder that we are not in control of the day. It is not only a good reminder - it is the truth. It is my opinion that laughter is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has a way of reaching in and tickling us right when we are so sure of ourselves that our lives are being consumed by our certainty. The Spirit breaks our controlled spinning so that our lives become a bit unraveled and we are given the opportunity to re-view our grand plans and wonderful ideas. 
I find it odd that some people try so hard to be in control of what they do and what people around them do. I am also willing to say that I write about myself here as much as I write about others. We all need to be tickled and burst open with life that is so full it expands our lungs as much as it expands our awareness of being alive. The roar of laughter that abruptly fills a room changes the character of the people who are touched by its sound and its chaos and its apparent foolishness. The change is not always for the best. A table full of people unable to contain their laughter while visiting a “nice” restaurant will often bring with it glances of intolerance from others. Then again, laughter ignited at one table can be a trigger event that can lighten up the whole room. Strangers begin to smile at one another and – I would suggest – other people may be set free to let loose. Joy is uncovered. Laughter once isolated to one table may become a common part of the ambiance created throughout the room. 
I remember a regular trip to the confessional on a Saturday afternoon. This was a discipline that went with being Roman Catholic. As I grew older, several of us – all teens – would go to confession together. This was usually as we were on our way to what really mattered to us that day. As you might expect, a bunch of teenage boys streaming out of the confessional and doing our penance was like a hillside of dry brush during the hot, dry, days of summer in southern California. One brisk bit of fuel, and there was a fire ready to be whipped up for all to see and hear. The laugher would become unstoppable. It would be more powerful than the looks of distracted and devotional saints who were probably praying for us to get up and leave the sanctuary. 
In that laughter that split our guts and made us blow streams of snot from our noses and grab our chests because we thought we were about to die - that gathering of obnoxious teens now reminds me of the Spirit of Life that is a gift to all the saints. Laughter that rolls or bursts from our guts is the kind of laughter that is uncontrollable. The more we tried to stop laughing we realized that more laughter would come – any moment. What is remarkable to me as I am writing this is that it would not take much at all for me to burst into laughter. Even now - even so far from the pews of St. Theresa Church - even with strangers around me - once we have been tickled and have erupted into uncontrollable laughter, it is always a present possibility. 
The Spirit of our God delights us and reminds us that anything may drop into our lives and we may quite simply burst wide open with a touch of life – unexpected life. Laugher is downright embarrassing. We laugh and we quickly cover it up. Our mouths are thrown open. Our voices burst forth with sounds that are out of character. Our bodies thrash about. Our eyes appear like sauces brim full with tears. And yet, it comes to an end and the day feels like a day that rises out of a prolong thundershower full of wind and pounding rain. Laugher brings clarity. Sarah and Abraham both had their time to laugh in the presence of God. I think it must have been a roaring sound – embarrassing but uncontrollable. Within their laughter came an understanding of the possibilities within the day that previously would not be considered – at all. 
When I am with groups of pastors and we are attempting to be under some control and in some way be presentable in our conversations, I like to remind myself that laughter is only a breath away. I don’t mean that I’m constantly trying to come up with a “turn of a phrase” or a twisted remark – though I do that at times. Rather, I try to remember the sheer humanity of who we are. It is the time when our shells are cracked open – from the inside. Something may be said or something is done or something is seen and the laughter of years spills forth. It is in this gushing that we become so vulnerable and available to one another that bonds are formed – even if we forget the reason for the laughter or the event that brought forth the laughter. 
At one of our meetings of pastoral colleagues, we shared a bit of the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. We talked about how things were going in our congregations. There are ups and downs in those conversations. Most of us were pastors in smaller urban congregations and amid the joys there were also struggles. It was in that venue that I pulled out something that was given to me by another colleague the day before our meeting. It was called “The Poopie Sheet.” I asked if people wanted me to read the list. I thought some of it was pretty funny and sensed that a little levity would be good for us. 
Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the room cracked. One colleague who was able to pull off a very professional and pastoral image was standing near a table with a cup of coffee in her hand. There was a burst of initial laughter. It was somewhat contained but very present and ready to be released. I read another piece from the sheet and the curtain that attempts to contain us ripped wide open. The professionally dress colleague in a business suit and Episcopal collar roar onto the table – almost rolling off of it. She could not contain herself. None of us were able to breathe because our laughter was so grand we were sucking the air from that room and the only thing left to take in was the air and spirit of more laughter. 
Who knows why things spilled out that day and filled the room with such intensity? It may have been the words on that list we read. Then again, it may have been the need – the deep need – to be free and open and exposed and have that all happen in the middle of a community of trusting people. I would propose that we need to be able to fall off this cliff of laughter and not worry about the free-falling nature of such a time. To fall off that cliff with others expands the experience. It cannot be enforced. It cannot be planned. Then again, we can be prayerfully aware of how we each need to be a part of community that is not too afraid to drift off the edge and have our lungs be filled with a spirit of release that really does set captives free. 
When the Spirit of life spills over into our lives, it may not be in the form of our own laughter. During a recent attempt to focus and write the devotion for our weekday blog, I was reading and writing and trying to make some connection to the offering from the book at hand. That is not always easy. It is a good exercise – a good devotional act for me. In the middle of that time by myself, I heard one of the baristas laugh. It was so full and bright and loud and crisp and over-the-top, I expected that it was a simple outburst that can take place when a joke is told or we see or do something totally inappropriate – a laughter that rushes in and then quickly subsides. I could hear the laughter above the music trickling in through my earplugs and took a deep breath because it was such a wonderful distraction. 
The laughter didn’t stop. The intensity of laughter didn’t stop. I started to wonder what could possibly bring about such a fullness of laughter that the room was completely captivated by the sound. You could not hide in a corner away from could not cover your ears to dampen its could not focus so much on the work at hand that the laughter would go unnoticed. That’s when I took off my earplugs and told myself that this was a gift. She continued to roar. There would be a break and then again, laughter gushed...gushed...and gushed some more. I didn’t join in the laughter, I sat there and listened. I was whisked away to unnamed places and times when this kind of comic relief filled my life and sent me tumbling into moments of vulnerability that were quite uncontrollable. I looked around and others were sitting with faces interrupted by huge smiles. 
In her laughter was a reminder that there can be more to the moment at hand than the work and agenda I place upon myself. The length of her laughter could have been distracting to some. If I needed to “get things done,” I may have moved outside or gone to another place. It is becoming more and more apparent to me that these laughter-filled interruptions remind us to breathe – to hear the explosion and know that there is this Spirit of life that can and will erupt and offer us a package of wonder and a taste of something more – even if we cannot put a name to what that “more” might be. 

When we laugh, life is born anew - joy is uncovered. The deep breath that must be taken in to help the fullness of our laughter explode into the world is like that first breath at birth. The traditional picture of a doctor slapping the newborn on the butt to pull out that cry that signals that life is at hand is a powerful image for me. For when we laugh, it is that same breath. It can and is the beginning of life that is not ours to control but ours to enter as a gift. It is also a reminder of the breath of life that sustains us even when we are aging like Sarah and Abraham and think that we are at the end rather than another beginning. This Spirit of God never ceases to tickle us and make us look again at whose we are and who we are called to be with at this very moment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Maybe a daily and ordinary iconography - an available sainthood

Baptized and raised as a Roman Catholic in a very Roman Catholic city there is much about that life of that church that I still find compelling. In fact, some of the most stimulating reading I am doing these days is coming from Roman Catholic theologians - radical new visions of the universal faith!

I know I still carry around the baggage of the church that excluded my parents from the Lord's Supper - another instance of traditional hierarchy ruling over love. I know I still find it hard to visit Rome and witness the opulence that cost common people their lives for the sake of creating an empire. Yes, I have baggage.

Let me also acknowledge my difficulty with sainthood. By this I mean the sainthood that must go through the official process that moves a person from that of being an ordinary, beloved, sainted, child of God to one that become shrine-worthy. Though Mother Theresa is the latest one who has been canonized, I have nothing against her work - her dedication - her lifelong vigil at the side of the poorest among us. For me, she has been a saint all along the way. In many ways - unbelievably giving within a world of grasping - eternally touching in a world that seeks separation. To have people who follow the way of Jesus right in the middle of the world in which we live will make us turn our heads so that we can witness that life among us. That is a powerful witness - saints alive!

Saint are those who follow the way of Jesus, yet before that, they are those called beloved - which, for me, means they may not be Christian. It is the name calling that makes saints come to life among us. Therefore, Mother Theresa did not need to be canonized and fulfill a strange system of verifying her sainthood. She was for us a beloved child of God who lived as though it was part of her character - and it was amazing for us to see it. There is no need for her saintly life to be verified by miracles - you know, miracles. The miracles were present with each touch - bam. The miracles were present whenever she showed one of her sisters how to sit and listen and touch - bam. The miracles were present when she wrote of love and service that was being actualized - bam. Don't give me the argument that there needs to be proof of two miracles in her life. She was moved into a miraculous life every day.

I know the importance of saints for the welfare of the larger church. They were and they are an avenue for revenue. I've been to shrines. I seen faithful folks gather around sites that are registered as places of miraculous moments of those beloved who have been enshrined. Often they are sites that contrast greatly from the humility and service and sacrifice of the canonized.

For me, shrines have become lives that remind me of life given and shed for others. Therefore, it is still good and proper to remember folks like Mother Theresa - for as we remember her - our lives may begin to find worth in such a journey as that - even a journey we will enter into this day. Alongside such a saint as her are also the saints unknown - those who have not been officially canonized - those who did not pass a test of miracles - those whose lives did not have worldwide recognition. You know them - you have been touched by them - you have heard their voices - you have seen them bow and bend - you have seen grace in action and love unveiled.

What if we displayed icons of the saints of our lives around us? Seriously. Instead of putting up the picture of ancient ones - as though they are quite different than us - put up the faces of those we know and place them in the middle of works of iconography that show their gifts to us all. Wow. In my mind I have those saints - they are ordinary, everyday folks who have touched me and led me and held me and sent me - they make me smile - they come to light when I need courage - they whisper in my ear when I need to speak words I too often let sit in the back of my head - they shake me up so that I will stand up to resist acts of brutality or injustice or violence. Don't get me wrong - those saints who do this to me are both those of old and those of today.  And for me, their lives have been miraculous gifts to me - and others.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stop referring to rules put up on the wall - live them

So you want the ten commandments put up here and there - courthouse lawns - courtrooms - school hallways - or wherever else your here and there may be. To be quite frank, I'd like them all taken down. They do us no good hanging out in public as another attempt for one group or another to claim that a nation or a town or a city or a courtroom is somehow more religious or holy than another. The only thing religious about hanging the ten commandment out in public is the religious action of putting the ten commandments up in public. It does nothing. Just as sacrificing humans in tribal societies did nothing or sacrificing animals did nothing. Yet more and more - we want to do something - something to somehow make all things right and good - again - as though they were ever right and good. 

I'm not against the ten commandments. In fact, I refer to them quite frequently. I keep them close in mind as I walk through the day. I find the daily discipline of noting their fullest meaning to be inspiring. Within the freshness of a new moment comes the opportunity to live outside the norm of the world with a guiding light that keeps me honest - reveals my shortcomings - lifts up how creative the shalom of God's Reign is when these commandments come alive. No exercise of memorization can make the life that is nurtured in the ten commandments come alive. No posting of the ten commandments will transform the community. They must be made as real as human touch. That was their purpose - to bring forth life - new life - life that will draw the attention of others - like a light. This attention is not grabbed by reciting or reading or posting words and more words and more words about those ten commandments. The life that is revealed in the living of those people who display the ten commandments is that which attracts - grabs - inspires - amazes all who look on at a touchable life.

Where does the fullness of those ten commandments sit in your life? Embedded in the great acts and words of Scripture is the reminder that those words are best embedded in our hearts - our core - the life blood that shapes our actions. It will always be a life of unbounded love. That is easy to say. Just as it is easy to say or memorized a commandment like - you shall not kill. Yet as so many great teachers (read doers) of the commandments have noted and then demonstrated by their lives, this simple commandment - like all of them - draws us into the journey of seeking out the welfare of the lives of others. To obey this commandment - to live as though it is a well-spring of life coming up from our hearts - means the beginning of treating our neighbor - our enemy - the stranger - the outsider in such a way that they are given the opportunity to live again because of our action toward them and with them. All of the sudden, you shall not kill is a life journey - everyday - without condition or restriction. We are not invited to recite simple words like you shall not... We are invited to put to life words that will invite action that heals - creates opportunity - gives a place to all. This commandment draws us into a living creativity even when life has been hard for us - or even when we have been short changed - or even when we have not received what we think we should - even when they seem to have gotten a better break than me and my own. 

So, what of the ten commandments? Put them to life!  As that unfolds, it may be that the religious bigotry that never inspires the life of these commandments will be silenced and the peaceable Reign of God will become more and more apparent as something really quite alive. Remember, these commandments are not conditions that must be filled in order to get a prize - a place of honor - a reward. These are simply meant to bring life - here - now - with all. Some might say this in a more traditional way like  your kingdom come, your will be done - on earth as it is in heaven. To life!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Uncovering Joy - Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (19 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – Within Darkness 
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, „You shall not murder‟; and „whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.‟ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother of sister, you will be liable to judgment; and it you insult a brother of sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, „You fool,‟ you will be liable to the hell of fire...” (Matthew 4:21 - 22) 
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.‟ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48) 

There are times when darkness prevails. As difficult as it might be to see the underside of life come to the surface and be displayed in the news or on the pages of newspapers, we can push that off onto others. The underbelly of life happens out there – or so we think. We can distance ourselves from evil and its many antics by isolating ourselves in places we think will keep us away from such realities. To do that, we move into other neighborhoods...we avoid that part of the city...we keep our circle of people small and well-groomed to our wants and needs...we do not allow anyone to care for our children unless they are family. The list can go on and on. These are simply some personal ways of dealing with the sides of life we would like to avoid. 
Evil and the power of darkness have ways of spilling over just like unbounded joy and spontaneous laughter. It enters swiftly without much warning. I find the power of such actions to be unbelievably powerful. When we read about one incidence of a robbery in the neighborhood, people begin to take a second look at others passing through or simply by the neighborhood. If another robbery occurs – even months later – people start talking about security systems and block watch. From there, it only takes a news story about the presence of evil in a distant neighborhood or another section of town to make folks consider moving to a place that might not be “this close” to those kinds of people. Remember, nothing terrible or harmful has happened to us - we simply let it have power over us. Just the smell of evil or a comment made about that which could happen here and to us is enough to cause people to recoil and want something else – something more in control. 
When darkness spills over into our lives, it is not always coming from “out there.” The stories and fear and anxieties are often more manufactured from within us than coming from outside. The news of the day or the interpretation of the news of the day gets whipped up and it all too quickly becomes something knocking at our door. Yes, there are some awful things that go on in the world and in our neighborhoods – but we each do quite a bit of spinning. We then must add onto this spin - the spin of the marketplace. One bit of reinforcement to our internal spinning accentuates our spinning. When this comes from an outside person or group that seems to have some authority - our low level fear or anxiety ignites into full-blown panic. This is one way we manufacture the need for warfare. Many times there is no need for war and all its many promises of security. Unfortunately when we sense a threat and that threat is amplified by powers around us - look out. 
I want to step back though. Like that glass of water that spills over at the dinner table and creates a stir in our lives so that we might see the Reign of God around us and experience the joy of its presence, I find that darkness can spill over just as easily. I would suggest that as it spills over, it has the power to subvert any and all desire we have to be people who call ourselves followers of Jesus. Just as quickly as my mind moves from one thought to another, I can be overcome by my own brokenness. As that happens, I act out of that internal reality and let go of hopefulness and compassion and mercy and joy and loving kindness. In some way, you could say that in those instances the darkness that spills out into the room is the darkness within me and not that of the world around me. 
The darkness that spills out into the day may be a part of me I never see. Darkness can be so much a part of me and the life situations from which I come that I don’t even consider the fact that I am a part of the brokenness that perpetuates unrest and fighting among us. It is in these situations that there is the great need for the stories of our faith communities. These are stories that never let us stand alone with the voices of fear and anxiety that seek to turn us onto their path through life. Yes, “love your enemy” is as real as “take up your arms.” And yet, we are more likely to arm ourselves against one another than we are able to extend ourselves as instruments of loving kindness. The stories that have been generated within the community of Jesus’ followers are stories that seek to keep bringing us home. This home is a place where we are out of control - a place of utter freedom, unending security, and joy - a peaceable Reign. 
For me, the notion of urban spirituality is the discipline of knowing that we are constantly being dumped on by the powers of life around us and we do not need to be a part of the darkness that is so readily mixed in with that dumping. And yet, we do not move out or away from this often fear-filled and anxiety producing context. Rather, we stay put and we deliberately bring into our context the gift of the Good News of the Reign of God - the joy that fills the songs of angels. This is easier said than done. Then again, we are not a part of a mere intellectual discipline. Our spirituality is all tied up within a life that is being wooed into the peace of God’s Reign even as we are being urged to go to war with life around us. 
This is not a “get it right” way of moving through the day. That would be impossible and it would produce nothing but frustration and discouragement. As we attempt to “get it right,” and fall short again and again, it is so easy to fall into the trap of speaking more loudly about “getting it right” and yet remaining part of the powers of darkness. Rather, as we face the day and the many ways the darkness of the world spills over onto us or is spilling out of us, the storytelling of our faith allows us room to re-view and re-engage re-form our humanity.
Once darkness has overwhelmed us or we have been an overwhelming presence of darkness for those around us, we can return home to what we often call the way of Jesus. We can explore how the Reign of God is a part of the reality at hand. The exploration happens by doing. In this moment – in the middle of everything going on around us and in us - darkness can be confronted and transformation can take place. We are able to turn around and distance ourselves from the darkness that can so easily become us. That is a part of the promise of the Holy Spirit. 

This power for new life – this Spirit - is always acting...pulling...inviting us to face the promises of our God. Again and again, we are given opportunities to use darkness as a place to be a part of the light that will not stop making itself know among us even when it appear to be a small light. That light, that Good News, is forever available and forever enough to carry us through the darkest days with promises that present us with new ways to see and hear and speak and touch.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Though the boat is upside down - no one falls out

There have been so many opportunities to use the image of a sanctuary as an upside down boat. The congregation is on a journey - always moving with a breath of fresh air sending us off wherever we are to be.

For me today the image of this upside down boat is all about the simple notion that no one falls out of the boat - no one. We get into the boat knowing that it is one place in which all that is and all that will be becomes a part of the motion of life that will become us - as we leave the boat. Worship shapes us for the days we spend walking around in the world. Usually when we turn things upside down - things fall out - things get lost - things break - things roll out of sight. That is not how this upside down boat works.

The boat is upside down to remind us of the manner in which we move through the world. When we hear of violence and hatred and bigotry - we turn it upside down - we create relationships in which the norms of the world are left behind and we move forward making peace - releasing our need to hate - enjoying differences. We are a people who are meant to be reminded of how upside down we are to be. I do not think we do that alone. Oh we may be alone during the week and walk into a situation in which we are living upside down even as everyone around us stays grounded in the ways of the world. That will feel odd. That will also give us an eye and an ear for those others who are also living in a contrary way. I find that I need to know who some of those other upside down people are so that I will be encouraged and inspired to keep my feet up in the air. It can be so easy to come back down to the earth of broken promises - blame games - segregation - self-indulgence - greed - and so many self-servimg desires that I never let my feet leave the ground.

Today, of great importance to me is the reality of the inside of the upside down boat being one in which no one falls out. First, it must be a boat in which we are blessed with the presence of people in the world who are so easily left out - pushed out - or simply forgotten. It is always too easy to fill the boat with those who are like us. Yet, even when we gather with people who dream the same sort of dreams as we do - or hold the same values as we do - or intend to walk in ways we will walk, the upside down boat too easily lets those who are other - fall out. Yes, no matter how brilliantly we have been able to dress up the boat with words and images and sounds that are meant to turn us upside down, look around. Even the most homogeneous communities still have those who are not present and accounted for - they are allowed to simply fall out of the boat.

Now, we must also remember that many folks don't fall out of the boat - they jump. When we tell the story of an unbounded love and it comes alive - some folk will jump ship in order to put their feet back onto a ground that can be divided - claimed - restricted. So, in the upside down boat - we must always keep things turned on their head as we also hold the hands of those who may suffer from a fear of being upside down - out of control. Therefore, we are meant to touch strangers and new comers as though we have been waiting for them - we are meant to guide and direct and assist as the reality of an upside down life begins to be unveiled in worship - we are meant to bow and bend to one another rather than an order or an object or a unbending tradition. When I visit a congregation, I find that I need someone to help show me how to walk upside down among those people. It is my hope that there will be people so caught up in the vision of being an upside down people that they will do whatever is possible to lead me and guide me - so that I don't fall out of the boat. Hospitality in this boat is never oppressive - it is patient and kind - gentle and forgiving - maybe even a bit thrilling for everyone.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (18 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – A Touch 
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is the commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” 1 John 3:18-24 

When God‟s Reign spills over into our day, it may not be within a grand avalanche of experiences that simply overwhelms us. One of the reasons some people venture out of the ordinary flow of the day – a flow that can appear and feel quite hectic and filled to the point of boiling over – is the need for space. This space and the quiet gives us time to settle in and reacquaint ourselves with ourselves. 
A walk in the woods can help our eyes heal. We begin to see the trees with all their diversity...the leaves and how they shout out with distinct faces...the ground and how it is firm under foot as we go along the path but soft and spring-like as we move away from the path. That same walk – out away from the movement of the ordinary and common – reminds us of how our world blossoms with textures that so often go unnoticed and are often unrecognizable. Out there, away from the pavement and that building and the other people, it is like we begin to appreciate the smell of nothing-at-all. Then again, we are realizing that there is a smell to this nothing-at- all. It can change from one turn in the path to another. It can be sweet to our senses and then downright repulsive. The smells are simply not what embrace us as we move through the spaces we already know so well. 
I’m not an outdoors person at all. I love being outside but I’m not a great camper. Having said that, one of my most sensuous experiences in my life came on a camping trip I took with a handful of students back in college. There was a small river, canoes, and no pressure to be anywhere. At one point of our weekend, I laid down in the water. It was just barely deep enough and moving enough to keep me afloat as floated down stream. I was lost. Lost is really, really, good sometimes. I was lost in the soundlessness of having my ears under the water and the fullness of the sky as clouds went by and branches were reaching across the water from both sides of the river. 
When I need to relax and want to find a way to pick myself up and be put down into another place and time that might help me to that, I go back to the river – I float. And yet, as I think back to that time of being a floatation device along that small river, it is a time spilling over with stimulation. On so many fronts of that contemplative moment, stuff is going on and on and on. It could be that the stimulation was so intense and varied that for a short time I was knocked senseless. For a moment in time there was no time and there was no need and there was no urgent work that was attempting to pull me back to the real world and there was nothing that I judged as being out of place. I know my wife, Karen, wonders how I can fall asleep so quickly. Sometimes...I‟m just floating. 
I don’t often have experiences of floating along a stream...really floating – wet, chilled, and weightless. Most often, I am moving within a stream of life within the city. There are rapids and bends and straight sections – but I’m moving...always moving. From one task within the day to the next, there is purpose to the movements and a need to be deliberate about where I go, how long I stop, and what will take place when I do stop. Out in the woods and back in that river I was being touched again and again by a life giving movement that would not let me go. It was like many newborn children who never have to worry about whether or not someone is nearby within arm’s reach. There is touch after precious touch, ready to be given and always ready to be received. 
In a society that is very worried about touch, it can be difficult to be drenched in touch that helps to bring a sense of security and warmth and peace. There are plenty of handshakes. That is part of a ritual. Most often touch like that is almost as though there is no touch. It is mandated. It is such a commonplace action that it often is more of an expectation than an act of bringing people together for a time of conversation and fellowship. Even the “passing of the peace” in worship is often less than the kind of touch that is able to help us re-create and re-image. Sometimes it seems as though the most hand-shaking congregations share more of an agenda of what must be done than a simple, wide-open, greeting of peace. 
As an adult I have not had to stay in the hospital for any extended time. For a number of years, I would go to the emergency room for what seemed to be heart problems. Over three years, we discovered it was something completely unrelated to my heart. At most I would spend a night in a holding area of the emergency room. Even when each of my Achilles tendons ruptured over a nine year span of time, I was in and out. Like the linens and the folded back- less garb that we are handed as patients, everything is usually quite crisp and hygienic. Touch takes place with purpose behind it. This needle must be put in that arm. The nurse’s hand on the wrist is to catch a pulse. This is not meant to be critical of hospital procedures. I actually find it quite comforting to know that things are being done and someone is keeping watch. This, I guess, is institutional care that seeks to heal and make whole. 
In the mix of hospital protocol where curtains are pulled open and pulled closed and staff is darting from here to there to make sure that everyone is receiving appropriate care, I try to go back to that stream of water – retreating away from all the hospital movement. That simple retreat can really work to calm some of my anxieties and thus some of the physical aspects produced by being in the hospital as a patient. During one of my brief hospital stays I found something quite available and powerful. As I was on the bed waiting for whatever was to come next, the nurse who was there to follow through on one of the tasks of her day put her hand on my shoulder, rested it there for a moment, and told me that “everything is going to be alright.” I went limp. I was in the river. I was floating. A simple touch and a word of promise were delivered by the stream of life that was moving by me. I did not remember who she was. There was no name that I could recall. There was that touch – a touch without a hospital agenda or a liturgical rite – a touch that is able to wash away the cares of the world. 
This can happen here - joy uncovered and utterly present. Spilling over into our lives come the opportunities in which we are soothed by the touch of other and we also may become that touch for the welfare of another. Within the days we think move along under our own power and influence and control, we face opportunities to be connected. The time at hand is always open to the Reign of God to be made known. The love that bridges our differences and our divisions and our structures and our patterns is able to make itself known. No - it must make itself known - and it will. The nurse’s touch was more than likely something she did with every patient under her care. But in that moment of fear and anxiety that I know I don’t let out enough so that it can be readily seen by others, she took the risk to touch and speak and – beyond her knowledge – calm me so that I could float. Without her, I would not be writing this. 
Too often we do not let ourselves spill over into the lives of those passing around us. What a mistake! What an abuse of our presence! Have you ever hand someone take your hand with both of their greet emphasize a offer a deeper thanks or more deliberate peace? Or what of an intentional reach of a hand that moves through the spaces between us that usually serve to keep us separate and yet this hand comes to rest on your shoulder to offer thanks or offer support or share in a moment of grief – joy – surprise? 
Could it be that the stream is among us? Rather than retreating to another place to find rest and security and peace, we become a part of the engaging manner of peace that seeks to open up the wideness of God’s love that is eternally communal? I’m an introvert and I like my space away and alone. In the meantime, though, I whither and begin to die when I am not liberated to float under the touch of others who may not even know that they can make people like me float and rest and come alive and be assured of and here. 

As a pastor, when I make hospital calls and calls at home, I have been taught that touch is a vital part of the way we share the abiding peace and love that is available among us. Hands placed on the head of a person in a hospital bed. The prayer doesn’t have to be well-crafted. It is the touch. It is the action of separate ones becoming one within a touch and a word that reminds us of the peaceable Reign of our God. The touch of others need not be threatening. It can be a gift that amazes and liberates and spills out into the rest of the day. Within the Rite of Healing, hands placed on heads and shoulders can seem manufactured. Then again, it is a deliberate touch that is sustained and directed and without condition. One of the blessed parts about being touched even in such a ritualized moment is that we can never be sure of how that touch will drench us again with a love that is swirling around us and is now, quite literally, at hand. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Urban Oddity

We've all heard of the adventure of the Space Odyssey. Once again, I have been thinking quite a bit about something I will call an Urban Oddity. I think I always have been holding onto such a dream/vision - but have always stumbled along the way.  Let me explain - even if offends or delights - the rant goes on.

The Urban part of this adventure for life has to do with moving in, with, and under a congregation that is situated in a major city. By its very placement, such a congregation is out-of-place within the mainstream of congregational life. For far too long, Urban was a place that people left - if not physically - at least mentally - and, I might add - spiritually. Urban includes a wide variety of people and yet the variety of people rarely are engaged with one another in a common worship space. Some folks stay within a 'family-owned congregation' in which a few folks hold onto a past when the life in the congregation and the neighborhood was as they wanted it. Others are drawn to the pillars of denominations - the monied - the wealthy - the influential - the historical. Usually programs here are numerous and diverse - endowments growing - some have well-known, well-supported, and well-intentioned social ministry projects - clergy are sought out for preaching skills or name recognition or denominational influence. There are also many smaller congregations that may be primarily African-American or European but have not been able to fit in as the communities change. They easily become drive-in congregations run by obligation to the past - family - historical presence. Some congregations are simply small shops set up here and there with only a handful of participants - storefronts or rental spaces suit them well. Still others are sign-sealed-delivered into the hands of a wide list of denominations who are too often afraid of closing shop yet let the elements of the day in those congregations lead them into congregational hospice - but it usually isn't with the beloved care hospice offers. Here and there, the Urban church is made up of corporate models that move in and work to be the show stopper - the mega-of-everything-available. They seem to work well and they capture the imagination of younger families and singles while still attracting those middle age folks who like the clean finish of things and the opportunity to support a growing project.

The Urban part of this adventure for life also knows about segregation of people. Some areas of the city are those through which many folks do not drive and will not visit. Some neighborhoods have become historical havens for GLBTQ folks that often are havens for liberals of all kind - yet primarily European. There are communities that have a long history of being somewhat mixed -racially. Folks who live there seem to count it mixed even when only a small percentage of those folks (you pick) have lived there for years. There are well-to-do communities made up of people who are committed to live in the city or have lived there for so long - they cannot afford to move. There are the old mansion areas that once claimed the wealthiest of the city - then were abandoned and left to decay - then resurrected for the benefit of a younger monied group who also are proud to claim the city as home. The segregation is also amplified when urban centers are converted into domains for the young professionals and empty-nesters who are now able to move into the city and into an area that delivers the kinds of goods that attract and please and make life secure. I also find large tracks of land that were once quite rural/suburban but were overrun by urban sprawl and have become enclaves often impossible to label.

The Urban part of this adventure for life includes spaces left unattended. Like the food deserts - the vast expanses of land in which all major food chains have left for more fruitful communities. These are the same areas that city official and well-meaning folks like to point to and say there is a growing urban garden movement going on there. And yet, no urban garden will feed the people like a well-stocked chain that brings in variety and quality. In addition, there are the neighborhoods overrun with landlords who have long given up on those neighborhoods and yet keep their properties just within the limit of acceptability - but barely. It is here that it can take years to get rid of ill attended houses and buildings that still benefit owners but devastate  neighborhoods by the disease that infects such abandonment and neglect.

The Oddity part of this adventure for life takes me back go Corinth - in a way. A gathering of people who come from different ends of the economic spectrum and yet come together to be a part of one body. As we know so well from Paul's letters, it was no easy adventure. The rich will be rich and the poor will be poor - and for some strange reason the gathering together did not seem to bring the two together very well - thus the letter. Those-kind-of-people and those-other-kind-of-people just do not seem to want to be with each other. Both sides are considered odd - to the other. Only the one Lord - one Baptism - one Body seemed to be able to hold folks together for the time being. It is also the realization that we - though one - are too damn different to be willing to sit - eat - live - love - worship with one another. That is who we have become in the Church - just what we were when letters had to be written to help stop the nonsense. As we face this reality with open hearts and lives, we will appear odd - things will appear upside down.

The Oddity part of this adventure for life consists of the work necessary to be an urban congregation in which there is a place for me and you and them and those. Not just a place, but an expectation that we will not be able to be the image of God in the city unless the whole bunch of us make up the one presence by which we claim to live - the God who so loved the world. I will call this life together an act of conscientious objection. The urban church is one that needs to invite into our life together - all those who are objectionable to us. This will be - by its very meaning - an invitation to everyone. This will also mean that we are  to risk taking on the life that we say offers promise - resurrection - peace - compassion - forgiveness - nonviolence - mercy - even as the life around us is already too familiar and too comfortable with just the antithesis of such a life. It will be odd - it always has been odd - maybe that is why this life - this adventure - rarely is seen among us.

I think many of us have seen glimpses of an Urban Oddity - a moment - a spoken word - an act of self-sacrifice that leads to new life - a unimaginable diversity at peace with itself. The word to myself today is that I must become odd and take advantage of the opportunity to walk in the New Jerusalem that is a promise - not for another time - but rather for all time.

Next comes a vision for the theological foundation for such a odd and expansive people living within the fullness of promise as it unfolds as God's Reign even now.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Breathing When the Wind is Swirling and Out of Our Control

We all have time on our hands. Yes, even when we are the busiest people in the world - or at least in our own mind. Yet, there is time to breathe. There is time to redefine or reshape how the times of our lives will become the embodiment of the Spirit of God - the breath of life - the opening of possibility - the beginning of our entry into God's peaceable Reign. And yet, there are times when the time at hand and the time about to be is filled with expectations and demands that are able to take the breath out of us. Rather than breathe and relax - breathe and act with purpose - we breathe with hesitation - we take in anxious air and it never seems to leave. We breathe on top of our last breath - our breath does not create new life, it merely swirls around inside us without bringing refreshment and joy.

I too often want to control my very breath - even when my intention is to fall into the peacemaking ebb and flow of the very breath that is meant to sustain me. Sometimes there is no rest - no peacefulness. Inevitably though, I come to the realization that I do not control my breathing. For once I forget about breathing or begin to be blessed by a wandering mind, I realize that my breath never ceases. If it did - there would be no remembering - no life - no writing. Forgetting about having to breathe - having no control over that which is a gift - gives us a moment to experience the life that is breathing all around us. In looking up and looking around - in listening and taking note of the hymns being written by the everyday life around us, there is an abundance of peace. In looking up and ending our focus on our every breath, the time at hand is not about us - it becomes something more.

I think of Jesus on his way to a retreat - on his way to some intentional breathing space - he looks up and his life becomes full of the lives of others. There in the mess of things - seeing that which is and that which is not yet - miracles take place - the tightest places become wide open. The breath of God - the Spirit of God - the Spirit of life - never ceases. It is never reserved for a special place or time. It is the wind that is unstoppable - unseen - always nourishing. - even as we see ourselves losing control of our breath - our life.

Today I'm writing to myself. Actually, I always do. I try to remind myself of the presence of the holy - the life handed to each of us - the wonder of our humanity. But today, I know that I toss and turn because I am anxious about that which I cannot see - tomorrow - next week - next month - the next time I must consider opportunities and make choices. I know that I lay on those moments a subtle - maybe unknown - scale of evaluation. That scale is deadly. When used, I forget about breathing and taking in the day as it comes and I think more of taking control of the day. How will I be perceived? Who will take note of me - and how will they take note of me? Will there be success or failure? Will my life be recognized like the life of others? Note: I did not breathe while writing that last flash of ideas.

I know that I am afraid of saying Yes and then saying No - beginning to go in one direction and then turning and going in another. I want to know what is the right way - the healthy way - the most meaningful way. But the breath of God - the Spirit of Life - the wind of creation never ceases to change direct. That breath swirls and cuts through life and it is creative and refreshing. Yet as it swirls and cuts through life it can seem to be destructive - ruining everything. Therefore, I realize that I am to breathe in the moment - for we cannot breathe in a wind that is not yet at hand. Maybe for now I must let myself breath in the moment - enter it and let it be the time of peace that is eternally promised to all of us. And then, in the next breath - there will be more peace - though it may take the shape of another road - an unanticipated gust of life that I am free to claim - enjoy - and then, exhale so that I can be ready to breathe again. Come! Breath of God - Spirit of Life! Come - and blow me over with new life.

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (17 of 25)

Uncovering Joy – The Face of What Will Come 
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:1-9) 

When we gather as a congregation to celebrate and take part in the baptism of an infant or a young child, the faces of the congregation tends to brighten. Everyone in the room knows what will take place. Soon, the infant’s head will be gently supported as the baby is held over the large, ceramic bowl. Soon the baptized who stand around the font watching will hear the water being poured over the baby’s head and splashing back into the bowl. Soon the words that shape the water and the moment will envelope the whole gathering. Soon the fullness of our God - the Trinitarian language that reminds us of the fullness of God’s eagerness to be with us and for us - will be answered with the Amen of the congregation. Soon there will be wailing or simple fascination or wild squirming. Soon there will be oil and a cross traced on the child‟s forehead. Soon the baptismal candle will be handed to the sponsors or parents. Soon a bit of salt will tickle the lips of the baptized. Soon and very soon, the reality of our world will touch the wonder of this blessed moment in time. 
When it comes to the children of our congregation, it doesn’t take much to move me. It doesn’t take much to bring a smile that pulls at my lips and cheeks. It doesn’t take much to remind me how to be foolish and free. It doesn’t take much for me to let loose with a roaring bit of laughter. I am always convinced that nothing can go wrong when we bring a sister or brother into the baptized community. I have skipped the Prayers of the Congregation as I was caught up in the thrill and water of the moment. I have stumbled over a name. I have forgotten to address sponsors. I have stumbled over the prayer over the water in that grand storytelling of God’s work in, with, and under the waters of history. And yet, the story of our life within God’s Reign presses on. 
In the middle of all this action at the font there are two parts of this rite that will often overwhelm me. When we turn to the parents and remind them of their responsibilities, I realize that we have no control over what will happen next. We must take the parents at their word. We must know the importance of letting go. We must also remember that the whole community is now responsible to the newly baptized and these parents. They will be the future of what we hold so dearly in the present. We are insisting that everyone take part in the shaping of the future that is in front of us as this babe. This kind of promise is made even when the toddler about to be baptized is so engaged by what is happening and so ready to go running about the nave that she steps her foot into the font and then finding that it brings a chuckle from the people in the pew – does it again...just to make her presence know. Oh my...what will the future be – sheer joy, I bet. 
Then again, we also pray over our children. We pray for God’s Spirit to come – just as promised. It is a prayer for wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. It is a prayer with such potential we may not want it to be fulfilled. It is a calling forth of the promises of God upon God’s people. It is general and it is specific. Do we understand what we are calling forth upon this child? The face of innocence looks at me or looks around or writhes about wondering what is happening. Well, our beloved, you are being handed over to death and new life. 
Within the cascading movement of the day, when life seems to move by more quickly than we would like, it is easy to miss that which can ignite our hearts with hopefulness. That does not mean they are not there bidding us good day. After a long day of what seemed to be busy work that leaves me unfulfilled and wondering what it is that I bring to the world, I was riding my scooter through the neighborhood. All I wanted for now was to sit and have a glass of wine and let the day come to its end. I try to be very aware of my surroundings when I’m on the scooter. People in cars don’t often pay attention to motor bikes and every intersection can carry a bit of danger. Glancing to the left to check out the roadway a few blocks from home, I noticed a family of three coming toward me. The girl was riding a small bike with training wheels, the boy was pushing along on a traditional scooter, and the father was walking right behind them. I was ready for wine and home. And then, as I drew closer, the boy stopped his movement and pointed at me, smiled, and seemed quite enthralled with the scooter. 
Joy breaks into small moments...moments that can pass by without notice...moments that often receive nothing more than a nod or a minor gesture. But that boy...that boy was thrilled at what he was seeing. The joy that he triggered was a bright sky. He introduced me to an opening into the joy that surrounds us all when life in all of its simplicity touches us. I slowed my scooter, pulled back my visor, pointed at him, and as I passed by said, “Wow, what a neat scooter.” I don't know who was more empowered by that moment...I didn’t know which scooter rider was more playfully joyous. It was enough. It was enough to turn the end of the day into a reminder of how we are always being guided into the beginning of the joy of God’s Reign. 
I must have been having a couple of difficult days because the very next day in the cool of the evening I turned onto our street with only a hundred feet before scooting up our driveway and calling it a day. Again, a family of three interrupted the last moments of my ride. Facing oncoming traffic, the mother was walking at the curb, the father was walking closest to the traffic, and their little girl with helmet secure and training wheels allowing just enough of a wiggle to keep her from tumbling was between them. Moments before I was to pass by, there came a tinkling sound. In the middle of her pedal pushing and under the guide of her parents, she was ringing her bicycle bell to grab my attention. O my, little are like a bright sun to ring with smile and I am healed. How do you ride past such joy being announced even though you are not ready for joyous ringing? Again, visor went up, the gas was released, and I could only sing out to her about the beauty of her bell and add a simple “thank you.” 
At the end of the driveway as I dismounted the scooter that evening and before I entered my routine of opening the garage door and pushing the scooter into place, I paused and the smile that broke across my face as I passed by that child became a wonder-filled moment of joy wrapped in a few tears and a passing fresh pulse of life. Good grief, is this stuff – this joy – always present within the mix of down days and rigid routines? I think it is - a stream of life that is continuously washing over us. Joy doesn’t always wait to be uncovered - it simply gushes. 
God is constantly pulling back the veil that appears to cover the joy of life even as we drive by on our way to shape the world as we want it. It is not magic. It is not miraculous in the sense that God is right now intervening out there on the street. Rather it is that our God continues to invite us into God’s Reign even as we walk by or drive by or attempt to make our plans rule our lives. We need only open our eyes and ears and give thanks – again and again. 
Contemplation is a living adventure that is the life of the day at hand. When what we see and hear becomes, at that moment, the profound experience of the meaning of life within God's Reign – joy uncovered – there is no more profound contemplation. We are instantly brought within the grand tent where promise and hopefulness and refreshment will abound. 
On another scooter ride in the neighborhood, I noticed that the parking lot at church was unusually crowded. Not only were both of the church's basketball courts full; there were others standing alongside the courts waiting to play. In addition, folks were standing and sitting on and around the parked cars. I was there with my camera so that I could catch some action shots of the players before I had to close the courts for the night. I was darting between the games and completely absorbed in the images I was catching. Now and then I would greet some of the people who were watching the games and simply enjoying a night out. 
I must admit, these courts can become burdensome as I am put in the position of bringing the activity on the courts to an end each night. That burden was beginning to press in on me even as I was interacting with the players and showing them some of the photos I had taken of their action and play. It is wonderful to see the joy in the player’s eyes when they see themselves on film. A still picture of a shot taken or a move made can bring out a smile from the face of someone who usually doesn’t let that show. 
All of a sudden at my side was a boy about six years old. He had his shirt off and wanted to make sure that I took a picture of him. He didn’t need it to be an action shot. He simply wanted me to turn the camera to him and shoot. I did. I then showed him the picture and it was as though the sun was shining down on this precious stone. His smile stretched across to his ears and his eyes filled the rest of his face. I stepped back to take another picture. He leaned against the blue plastic recycling can and let the smile stream. 
We are one people caught up in this constant stream of joy that will not stop or be diverted to another place. It burst into the day right now as we sit in the middle of other things and our agendas and our fears. That smile not only remains in my camera and on the computer, it is here as I write so that I can bring it to mind and smile onto what is about to come. 

The faces of our children shall lead us. They have the power to uncover the hopefulness of the Reign of God, deliver us into that which we cannot anticipate, walk us through that which may be bringing us down, and offer us joy as we see the image of God sparkling in unknown faces. Most of all, these faces of infants and children present us with a promise that need not wait until we have time to consider it. Available in the next passing glance is a reminder of whose we are and how we are a people called to engage the world as though God is utterly apparent and present.