Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Saintly simplicity - Enduring dependability

For years it would be an indentation in the flowerbed and a pile of rocks near the dug-up plot of ground that now looked like fine, sifted soil. No one would ever notice anything being done along that side of the building - why was someone working there? The rock-filled bed was good-for-nothing. But then, a week later or a month later, there would be another indentation somewhere just yards away from the one I previously noticed. And more fine, sifted soil.  Hmmm. 

For years I would smell paint remover. I'd walk the halls and could not pinpoint any disturbance to the building. But then, there would be other days of that same smell. It took awhile but I started to notice that the many remnants of tape that were left on chalk boards and windows and door jams were slowly disappearing. Oh they would all return during a school year or VBS - but for short periods of time - the ugly remnants were gone. Hmmm.

For years I would walk into a classroom and there would be masking tape around all the windows and door jams and moldings. Later it would become miles and miles of blue painters tape keeping safe everything that should not be painted the same old beige that seemed to reign throughout the building. One week it would be room #2 - weeks later, like a spreading rash, it would be room #3 - then room #4. Was it going to consume the whole place? Yes, eventually it would. Marked-up walls showing the high activity of the people in the building would vanish - for a while. Hmmm.

For years bushes no one seemed to think about - were trimmed and low hanging or fallen limbs taken away. A playground overgrown with weeds - was now green and seemed to be won over by - you guessed it - grass. Amazing. Even, at times, the old Memorial Garden overgrown by bushes and weeds would make an miraculous come back and appear as though someone cared. Hmmm.

Between now and then, the world moves along. Now it could move along in the direction of chaos and disrepair. It also could move along as though no one gave a damn about how the things in our lives are maintained and preserved. It could move along as though all folks care about is their own stuff and how they can have more stuff. Yes, it could move along like that - but there was this work - this devotion - this persistence - this love - this perfectionism - that lingered around the building making it seem new again. Hmmm.

I suppose that is how it could have been with Jesus. He could have simply walked through the day or the town or the countryside and kept walking - going where he wanted to go and doing what he wanted to do. But instead, someone was in need - the village or the banquet would be a better place if the leper was cleansed or the woman was made whole. After time, people came to expect that Jesus would do stuff. And yet, it all really simply started with Jesus digging in - doing something. Yes - doing something. No sermon. No preachy stuff. No revival meeting. Jesus acted as though he was one of God's stewards for life and he entered the day willing to take care of that which was not his - but that which was God's - all things. Hmmm.

Right here in the middle of the days of our lives - we are invited to be stewards of God's stuff - all of it. Within the daily routine of our lives we have the opportunity to take care of that which is not ours - but the which makes the world a better place to be. Stewards of God's Reign don't do those things just for a salary - they simply go about the ordinary stuff of the day with a vision of how it can be better. No matter where we work or live, there are things that need to be done - lives that need to be touched - laughter that needs to be heard - dirt that needs to be moved - anthems that need to be sung - hospitality that needs to be shared - time spent for the welfare of others - family and friends to be loved with a dependable presence.

There is so much I could write here to try to life up for you the fullness of a tapestry of a real, everyday saint. Most of which would demand that I could be witty and bright beyond my abilities. It would also mean I would have to be as in command of details and facts and bits of minutia - so as to come close to painting a picture of the wonder-filled mind of a saint whose presence was marked by soups in Lent, laundry day restrictions to his activities, and financial statements put together in his basement office. I wish I had the mind of the writer of the comic strip Frank and Ernest - for maybe then - I would be able to turn a phrase or a word that would make everyone think of Dave Reinoehl. Hmmm.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Between Now and Then (part 4)

And Then - there’s kale
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdelene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearances like lightening, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him. This is my message for you. So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. (Matthew 28:1-8)

The movement into fall is a slow process when the weather has been mild and the frost that has arrived is not that severe. Thank goodness for carrots and beets - those root vegetables that do not let a cold snap stop them from growing and turning more and more luscious. Slowly the tomatoes came to an end. It seemed as though it was a plant by plant death until not one was left standing. And yet, while everything was dying off there were still weeds - don’t they ever stop busting into the scene!

There is a robust row of peppers along the south side of the garage - five or six plants - five or six varieties. All of the plants are still quite green but the peppers are fading - limited rewards. But then there is the cayenne pepper plant - enough peppers to spice up soup or chili well into next summer. Visitors to the house are offered cayenne peppers - please. But even with the peppers holding their own as they are lined up close to the side of the garage and in full sunlight, the yard still looks like death creeping in and calling for all the attention.

That is what death does - it demands action now. It does not go away - it keeps lurking. It makes itself known - the smell - the browning of the leaves - the bending of the most noble and vibrant looking Hostas as their leaves thin and simply call it quits. Death sits down in the middle of the last days of warm weather and gentle, fall breezes in the ubiquitous presence of brown bags brimful of leaves waiting to go to their last resting place - hopefully the city really does compost all these leaves. As a last farewell to the summers growth that has given its all and the remains of those that made it through the kitchen - the compost bins are unloaded and mixed into the barren beds that need to be prepared for new life next Spring. The darkness of the compost added to the beds that have offered up so much life-giving food to the plants seems to make a statement as to how important it is to recycle wastes for life that is still to come. And then - there’s kale.

I have given kale to visitors. I have taken bags to the church - well after the veggie give-away there. I have delivered bags to friends and relatives who relish the huge bags that seem to have no weight to them. Kale - long after death has its way with the whole yard - even the crabgrass - thrives. I find it odd that even our hungry urban deer - that wander through our streets before sunrise cutting short the lives of other plants - do not take down the kale. In the middle of all this autumnal death, the kale stands tall like mini-palm trees - verdant and robust and laughing at the colder and darker days of fall. I offered kale to two men working on our driveway. They said they wondered what those plants were and how they were still so full of life. 

There is no shortage of death pushing its way into our lives. And then - there is kale. No matter how dead the day feels - no matter how much death is able to cut us down - no matter how often it seems as though we are pushed beyond the realm of hopefulness - there is new life that continues in the face of death. I love seeing those stand-alone kale plants. They are naked to the wind and frost yet they will not let those forces control the day. In the face of death - ha - brilliant life. When death appears with its pall of brownies and brightly colored leaves that amaze us only to turn brown - there is the possibility of defiance. Not warfare - not battles unto death - but defiance. If death persists - so will life persist. Some day the kale will be gone - but for now it keeps surprising everyone. 

We are blessed to be a people who thrive even when death attempts to rule us. When that kale has given up all it has and is a stump with wilted leaves sticking out of the ground like a middle finger in the face of death - I am reminded that between now and then each of us has life to offer - despite all evidence to the contrary. Therefore, in this day - in the midst of the ordinary time of life that too often seems to take life from us - we are invited to make a statement for life again and again and again. We are invited to be a witness that death finds troublesome and uncontrollable. 

I’m not quite sure when the kale will come to an end. I do know that between now and then - there will be kale for any and all who want it. The garden that looks like death rules is really the food for life that continues to grow. I like that. I need that. I want to have a life that faces death yet keeps bringing life to the world. The garden that surrounded the tomb was full of death - at least it was if that is what you expected to see. But then there is always the surprising ways death is made the fool and life persists for another day. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Between Now and Then (part 3)

Backward Down She Goes

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 grand in which we stand; and we boasts in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, be use also body 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 ha been given to us.  
(Romans 5:1-5)

Today I set out to make homemade Kluski noodles. I could do a quick run to the store and buy a bag - it would make the day so easy. Sunday is a day I love to fix a meal for friends. It is always an experiment - a new dish - a twist or expansion of an old dish. Today it was going to be a old ethnic dish - cabbage, noodles, and Slovenian sausage. It is so simple. But then I was sent a YouTube video on how to make your own Kluski noodles. I was thinking of making small potato dumplings or drop dumplings.  The dish would have been a take off on the original one but at least I know how to do dumplings - not Kluski noodles. 

The recipe for the noodles is so simple: flour, eggs, salt, a few tablespoons of water. The woman in the video used her KitchenAid mixer with the dough hook. I didn’t want to take the time for all that. Plus, I have been having neck - back - and shoulder pain lately and a good workout while kneading the dough would do me some good. Dumb thought. The dough was not as pliable as dumpling dough. It was dry. It would not stick together well. It demanded full body weight and intense squeezing. I started regretting the idea of homemade Kluski noodles but there was no way I was going to throw the dough out and pick up packaged noodles. With flour on my hands and things not going as wanted them to go - I thought of Pauline. She was a master of making noodles - all kinds - all shapes - all sizes.

My first call as a pastor was to Truth Lutheran Church in Detroit, Michigan. I was to be the community pastor and my position was funded by the national church for three years. This meant I worked with the congregation and the neighborhood to find ways to bring a bit of hope and new life to a city already in decline. Pauline was a longtime member of the congregation and though she was one of older the senior members of the congregation - she was as active as anyone. When you entered the front doors of the church building - you met stairs. If you wanted to go to worship, you had at least fifteen steps to make it to the level of the sanctuary. If you were coming to an event in the basement you had to go up four stairs and then down fifteen or more to the basement. 

Pauline climbed those stairs regularly and slowly. If you caught her during her ascent, there would be a warm greeting and a smile. Her legs were so bowed from arthritis it was hard for me to see how she managed those stairs - let alone walk - but she did - swaying from side to side. Then the day came when I saw her going down the stairs from the sanctuary and then down the stairs to the basement. She held onto the handrail and went down backwards.  She wasn’t the only one. Several others did it. I was told it was the safest way for older folks with walking issues to go down stairs. If you stumbled - you simple stumbled upward without a major tumble. If you went down face first and stumbled - that could be the end of it all. Pauline and the others never wanted any help - they had it. 

On my first visit to Pauline house, she had baked goods and coffee ready. The conversation was light-hearted and she told me stories of her life. On the kitchen counter she had a cloth spread out and homemade noodles covered the cloth. These were long noodles cut like they had gone through a pasta machine - but these were hand-rolled and hand-cut. My grandmother made dumplings and noodles and my babysitter would also make homemade noodles so I was familiar with the workspace and the smell. 

After coffee and treats and good conversation she wanted to show me something she thought I would like. We wandered into a back room and she directed my attention to a chest of drawers. Then, she pulled open the top drawer. There were boxes - shoe boxes and gift boxes - covered with either saran wrap or parchment paper and then a cloth. She then uncovered the boxes. Each box was a different type of pasta/noodle. Each shape had a name. I remember some of them being cut in diamond shapes - small ones - very small ones. Some were being saved for special occasions - others were simply dry and ready to use as needed.

Pauline then asked if I wanted to see her backyard and garden. To be quite truthful, this  postage-stamp-size backyard was simply a garden - the whole thing. After she went backward down the few porch steps to the garden she said that this is what kept her going. With what could easily be considered crippling arthritis and more, she said she came out every morning to work in the garden so that she would be able to make it into and through the rest of the day. Yes, with cane in hand she would get down on her knees or have a small, low stool or would work with the longer garden tools in order to keep the garden tended. 

There I was this morning - complaining about how difficult it was to knead and turn that dough. There I was this morning - wondering about what I could do to stop some of the pains in my back and neck and shoulders. There I was thinking of Pauline - backward down she went into everyday of her life. Backward down she went living within the reality of her aching body. Backward down she went so that she could live. Backward down she went with a full smile, a hearty voice, enduring . Maybe it is because I cannot see myself having such gusto - such courage - such determination in the face of - well - the pains and disappointments of everyday life. 

Backward down she went into all that was ordinary about the day - all that was holy about the day - all that was to be a step-by-step journey of hope. Between now and then we are invited to make the day full with lives that see more than that which might be able to hold us back. There is instead, a fullness of life that may be as simple as getting out to be with friends making quilts in a church basement or lunch after a Lenten worship. There are so many opportunities for life to be full and meaningful right within the fabric of the day we use to stitch together a pattern for our everyday life. 

Every morning I attempt to wake up early and walk and exercise and move. Somedays I don’t make it out of bed as I would like. I need to remember all the adjustments Pauline must have made in her life in order to face pain again - endure whatever the pain would throw at her - build her loving and bright character, and then, in hope, meet the day no matter what might come between now and then.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

So Then - in the meantime - We Hope

We cannot be sure how life will unfold - how we will trust again - how nightmares will stop and dreams will soar - how we will be a part of the wonder of this day as it moves toward peace and wholeness and justice for all people.

So then - in the meantime - we hope.
We must never stopped hoping. Hope is the wind that carries us into the life of God's Reign that is so close we too often look past it expecting hope to blossom elsewhere. Ha - hoping beyond hope when hope is already giving birth to new life even as we sit wondering when and how it will arrive.

Societies despair - they raise up demons to destroy - they wait for the right time to attack - they restock weapons for the wars to come - they put down plans to rise above others and at the cost of others. Societies do not hope - they seek to control like addicts who must have more and more of that to which their are addicted. Societies wish for that which they can score - no matter what the price may be to others.

So then - in the meantime - we hope.
It is how we live. It is the very breath of us. It is how we will shake off the dust of the day - wipe from our feet whatever we just stepped in - face the bully who has threaten to keep threatening us - bear open our hearts even though they have been broken and exposed - forgive so that violence does not rule us - love without regard for how we will emerge from our loving.

So then, when we are dazed and confused - left high and dry - pushed too far and pressed beyond our breaking point - we hope. There is no waiting involved. Hope comes to life - it is life - it is already at hand. It reaches in from the realm of God's endless creativity and stirs up lives we have let become disconnected from others and self-concerned without end. Hope tickles us - makes us squirm a bit - gets us up from our chairs - turns our eyes to look into the eyes of others - transforms ropes that bind us into ropes that help to tie us all together as one.

We hope not for another day. We hope for a today that is shaped by the promise of a tomorrow that leaves the doors wide open to party. So then - in the meantime - we act - we sacrifice - we protest - we affirm - we stand up with and for and alongside others - we question - we listen - we bend down to serve - we heal - we leave no one behind - we learn to say No and Yes - we open doors - we make ourselves available to hold the vulnerable no matter what the cost. Yes, we hope.

Hope - I find it to be the only power that moves me off my self-centered, self-consuming, self-concerned butt and makes me fly into the makings of a whole new day.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Go ahead - get up on stage and dance

I was only one of a couple of white folks at an event last evening. I make a note of that because I felt as though I stuck out in the audience. I suppose it was also because of my gray hair and beard and ponytail and the fact that I have trouble telling the age of young people. It is nice when you swing low - in regard to guessing an age - with an older person. But I asked the two women next to me if they went to Eastmoor High School. No - one taught at OSU and both worked at a local production company. Duh. In what has become a common way of running a high school theater, Seth Harms - the director - brings up onto stage the drama of the day that makes the audience look at events of the day at hand. Once again, he placed the whole audience up on stage. Up there, we are close to the actions - the movement - the emotions - the cultural upheaval. In some ways, there was no way to sit back and be detached from the six short plays that dealt with racism, privilege, perception, violence, sexism - quite a mix for just over an hour of acting.

As I sat there in this audience up on the stage I wondered about how important it is for all of us to move onto the stage. We may not be the primary characters - but our lives our there in front of us. We are a part of the life being portrayed by the few who have all the lines and movements. Though the whole evening used the Trayvon Martin killing as a springboard to expose issues facing our society in this time in our country, so much more was laid open for us to witness. Over and over again, innocence was arrested - put to death - because of perceptions. At the same time, families of color work to prepare sons and daughters for the injustice of a culture full of fear - a culture that will ask questions after fear and anxiety has produced itchy trigger-fingers that always seem to be justified within the domain of a so-called - law and order society.

In my fanciful imagination I wonder how our communities in a metropolitan area would change if every high school student had to spend at least a year in a school outside of their neighborhood and  inside one of those neighborhoods. No matter what direction the students would go there would be life experiences that very few of us are able to incorporate into our lives. Imagine how a whole group of African-American students from my neighborhood would be received in a primarily European school system in a suburb. Imagine how a European group of students from a well-positioned suburban school would be received in a city school that usually services a poorer population. Imagine if some - just some - of these students stayed put in their new school - saw it out through graduation. Imagine how parents would deal with the changes. Imagine a prominent sports figure who leaves one school and stars on the team of another school. Imagine how both sides of this mixed up school system would be changed by the academic differences that all need attention for each student to thrive.

I know - I try to imagine too much. Though what about this. I know that when we want to face diversity, people in the church too often send or travel to a place far away. Why is it that over there - in that distant setting - beyond the diversity and segregation within walking distance or a short commute of our homes or congregations, there is a world we are willing to enter- a world from which we claim we will encounter a life-changing moment in time. And yet, we are too afraid to walk within - stand alongside - exchange conversations with - a whole world that is all around us everyday. No wonder things at home never change. No wonder racism and rage are flourishing so close to home. No wonder the structures of our metropolitan areas - we call home - have nurtured segregation and racism rather than using our imagination to dismantle their control over us.

The hospitable community of the followers of Jesus must be a people who will take a seat up on the stage of life within our own society and face the reality of violence, hatred, fear, bias, and privilege that keeps the Reign of God at arms length away from us. Up on stage last evening within the movement of the actors and dancers and the movement and sounds from the audience there was a breeze that I could feel. I know, it is just my imagination. Yet, it was like a breath of new life - a spirit of hopefulness - a wind of change that we too often do not let ourselves experience right in the middle of our ordinary lives.  Maybe it is too easy to live life as we have it and want it - no matter what it may cost those around us. For when we turn others into mere others - to hell with them - to hell with their neighborhoods - to hell with their lives. That - is simply demonic and we let ourselves be a part of that rule whenever we resist getting up on stage and dancing with the likes of God's children - all of them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Between Now and Then (Tale 2 of 2)

Even When the Road is Spinning

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip when down to Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. (Acts 8:4-5)
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, (this is the wilderness road). So he got up and went. (Acts 8:26-27a)

The days at hand were days of severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem and the folks who followed Jesus were scattered far and wide. It is no fun to find oneself scattered about the place when we would rather have things falling into place as we know them and like them. Anxiety can scatter our minds and disturb our hearts. Fear can make us turn right around and go in another direction. Feeling lost makes us spin and spin and spin. 

There are many ways to resist the anxieties of the day - ignore our fears - always act as though we know the way. I find that many people are quite proficient at living a life like this. They appear to be in control and able to self-secure their lives. They often occupy positions of influence and speak with sure-footed, authority. The world around us admires such people. They seem to know how things are to run. They come across as having the skill set to make the world around them work for them. They speak and act in such a way that other folks are willing to follow them - for at least they appear as though they are not lost or wandering or standing still. 

Having the knowledge as to how to live in our world and make things come out just as we want - is quite amazing. To be able to take life by the ‘whatever’ and make sure things will go as we like - attracts other people. To be able to never show that one is full of fear, anxiously wondering about the day, or simply lost, looks like strength and such strength is seductive. It is - in some way - messianic in appearance. I did not capitalize messianic here because it is a false image of the vision of the Messiah or the Christ. In every aspect of our lives, there are messianic people who are able to appear as though they know all that is to be known or they can do whatever is necessary to shape life according to their own vision - a vision they then slap with the sticker Holy or The Best or Better Than Ever Before.

When I drive my car to the coffee shop where I regularly read and write, I often take the freeway. Well, some years ago the state and city reconfigured how the traffic was to move into and through downtown. One of those changes involved setting up a new exit that placed traffic going downtown up and over the existing intersection of two freeways and then down onto a downtown street. The GPS in my car never got the memo - even after all these years. 

The first time I started to exit, the map twirled - I was flying above the map as it once depicted this part of the city: No exit - No road - No hope - No direction. If I was new to the city and didn’t know the roads in and around downtown there would be a good chance that I would have been freaking out. This GPS was worthless for the moment. During this time, the calming voice of the directional assistant repeated over and over again: recalculating. There I was - flying in space somewhere - and the voice was say: recalculating. I knew that I was on a road. I could see that I was moving closer into downtown and yet my placement in the world was confusing the voice that was suppose to know where I was and how I was to make it to my destination - recalculating - recalculating!

It is at this point in the freeway system and one other new, large, freeway interchange that I have come to see that the map - the way things are to be - how they are to appear - the route we are to trust - the voice of assurance and confidence I expect - may be quite useless. I now press on in confidence that this spinning will come to an end and between now and then I will land and the journey will continue even if I am thrown off course a bit. There is no need to pull over in the midst of the spinning. There is no need to grasp for control. There is no need to turn around. There is no need to hire a consultant.

I enjoy the stories of Philip in the Book of Acts in those days when the followers of Jesus were being persecuted. For just as the map in my car was spinning and the next steps in life were in question - there was no well thought out plan - no map as to how one could survive and make through the time of persecution. People fled - people ran - people stumbled - people wet their pants - people lost all hope. There is no story of a great leader rising up and settling the followers of Jesus with a plan to secure the future - stabilize the foundations of their lives - present a plan that would empower them to win the day. Instead, there was a breeze that brought forth a knowledge that moved people beyond the expectations of the broken world around them. Ordinary stories of folks moving out into life.

Philip finds himself in Samaria. No, it was not magic. When the world is spinning and fear abounds and anxiety festers in our minds, there is a knowledge that does not make sense to the knowledge of the world. Samaria? What did Philip think when he was moved into the middle of those folk? Geez. First Jesus is lynched and now he’s in the middle of folks who really want nothing to do with a person coming from Jerusalem. Yet, he tells a story - he shares a vision - he brings to mind how the powers of the world and all their great ways of knowing how things should be run are nothing more than a lie - a self-serving force that cannot survive unless they control the lives of others. Whew. A victim speaks to the victimized about how there is one who did not let the spin of the world rule the day. And - they understood and embraced the story.

Yet, that was not enough. Right when there could have been a place to settle down and make a new life, Philip is blown off course. He is moved into the path of one more of the despised of a world. Everything was spinning - the road was not straight - the encounter was all wrong - the GPS was malfunctioning, but Philip alongside a Eunuch unfolds the knowledge of the Reign of God. It is a ridiculous story and it will take thousands of years for people to accept it as a gift that brings the availability of God’s love into and through all the spinning and confusing times of our well-order and well-run world. 

For too long the church has been stuck to a map and it was the way things had to be. And yet, I find that the church is a breath of fresh air that is able to live within the spinning of a new world in which the goal is not to control the world  - but to be free to live out a new direction for life even when no one else seems to be going there.