Monday, May 29, 2006

Not So Safe

Ever since I was a child I have heard about "the fear of God." The fear of God I was told was the beginning of wisdom. But what does that mean? And how does it connect with we live out our lives as followers of Jesus Christ? I'm reminded of the title of that famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." Certainly the story of Noah and the Flood paints a picture of that. And there are many other moments throughout scripture when a God that causes us to shake is brought up. But I think the fear of God is less about God's anger towards us -- as it is how scary it is to follow Jesus. Following Jesus -- loving our enemies, giving up our cloak as well as our coat, forgiving seventy times seven...that is tough. It's not easy being a Christian and honestly, it's not all that safe.

In his book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe C.S.Lewis throws some light on the way I think of this. Lucy is about to meet Aslan, the lion (the Christ figure in the story), and she asks, "Is--is he a man?"

"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion--the lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

"Of course he isn't safe." Gosh, do I love that challenges me to remember how to live my faith. It challenges me to remember what is important. It challenges me not to look for the safe way (I'm not talking about looking for the dangerous way - just not shying way from it in following God's call in our lives).

Today I was talking with my mother-in-law and telling her about the Clergy Renewal Grant that Broadway was just awarded that will send our family to South Africa next summer (more on that in a later posting). During that time Broadway will get a chance to hear some great preachers from around the country -- as well as the exceptional leadership around Broadway of Rachel and Jack and Chris and others on our staff. I mentioned to her that in the grant we wrote that their would be a going away party and a welcome back party for our family -- and we wrote in money for a live band in both instances. She asked me why we would do something like that? And I said -- "because we need to party because following Jesus can be tough."

Following Jesus isn't safe. Meeting Jesus isn't safe. It has changed my life -- thrusting me into situations I would have never stepped into if it weren't for his call upon my life. I have stood in crack houses in the middle of the night -- because I've followed Jesus. I have found myself in the middle of fights because of Jesus. I have done things that have upset others around me, and upset my church superiors -- things that could cost me my job -- all because I am trying as best I can to follow Jesus. I have had to give up some things I have longed for because of Jesus. Following Jesus isn't safe. It's scary. And yet nothing in my life has been as rewarding.

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom -- but it looks like foolishness to the world's eyes.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Let this be our revolution

Today I picked up a collection of Alice Walker's poetry that I hadn't looked at in awhile. It's called "Horses Make the Landscape Look More Beautiful." It holds a poem that I like to quote every once in awhile. It is entitled "We Alone"
We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know
and if your chain
is gold
so much the worse
for you.

Feathers, shells
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.

This could be our revolution:
To love what is plentiful
as much as what's scarce.

What is it that is plentiful? When I think of the things that are plentiful, I think of the well I've drunk from this week. I think of the forgiveness that has been offered me from the heart of a friend, the love that is shared with me from Kathy, the laughter that fills my spirit in seeing my children grow, and the grace that is poured out to me in the daily interactions with strangers and friends.

This morning I met with a group of women here at Broadway. Wise women. Women who have seen and known a variety of conditions of the human race. These are women whose ancestries bring them from diverse corners of the globe. Each one of them distinct and powerful and beautiful. Pat and Hertha and Margaret and Barb gather every week to discuss their lives, their faith and the world. And it is a beautiful tale that they tell. They talk of hard things, they laugh a lot, they ask each other probing questions. They don't let each other off the hook. They ask discerning and difficult questions about our faith and the way in which it often throws up roadblocks to the call and claim of God upon our lives. They talk of women, down through the years, locked out from full participation in the life of the church. But mostly they talk about what is plentiful...the depth of faith and hope in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.

I meet later in the evening with Terry and Kenny from a local t-shirt shop. We laugh and talk about education and community. It was a hilarious and raucous and meaningful conversation.

When I was in seminary my friend went off in our second year to work for the United Methodist Church in the Phillippines documenting human rights violations. When she got back we had some long talks at a retreat center in the Pocono Mountains (where Kathy and I were living, and I was working). Meredith told me that the folks who were part of her team were those who would help lead a revolution in this country. I've thought about that a lot. What is the revolution that is called for? What is the one that Jesus called for? For my money it is a revolution like Alice Walker writes about. It is a revolution that sees that even just the tiniest bit of faith can move mountains. It is a revolution that recognizes the blessedness, grace and abundance that is around us at every moment. That's what it looks like tonight, anyway...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Shining Like the Sun

Years ago I read everything I could get my hands on by Thomas Merton. Yesterday in my devotions I came across a quote that I remember reading of his and that I often found myself turning back to read again and again. Merton was a monk (there's a long very interesting story about all of that) -- and a Trappist monk at that. Mostly he lived in community at Gethsamene Abbey in Kentucky. In one of his journals he has the following entry from a trip into Louisville.

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of separate holy existence is a dream...

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake...

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

There are no strangers!

If only we could see each other [as we really are]...all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed...I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other...

The gate of heaven is everywhere."

This morning I had breakfast with a friend and she was talking about the blessings that were blossoming all around her, in her community and in her life, and how she was so frustrated at the inability of others to recognize that and build on it. She talked about an organization that we are both familiar with that has done a lot of good across the years, but can't quit living in the past, so it's really not doing anything in the present (except spinning its wheels -- and wasting good people). They can't see what is right in their hands -- the energy, the passion, the dedication of themselves and others.

And while that is true, it is also true that there are many who are noticing the abundance and acting on it.

It also made me think of a meeting I had yesterday with Roger and Barb who are helping prepare for the Broadway Homecoming this October 14th and 15th (consider this a shameless plug). There they were talking about the rich history of our congregation and celebrating that -- but also talking about their excitement and good feeling about the present and future of Broadway.

I am grateful every day for the people that I share my life with and the place in which I am. I feel a bit like Merton speaks about. I feel that way about Kathy, and Conor and Jordan...I feel that way about the congregation in which I serve and the neighbors around our home and church building. I feel that my cup runneth over.

I met with my friend Darren today. And to tell the truth I spent some of the time complaining. I was complaining about the bureaucracy of our denominational conference. It seems to me to be so wedded to both incompetence and stupidity that my frustration boiled over. And yet when I think about it I think about what good colleagues I have -- like Darren and others around town and around the country. I think about the good lay folks I know in our own congregation and the many others around our city -- and I realize, again, our cup runneth over. I wish the leaders in our annual conference could see what Merton saw that day -- what the people of Broadway see, what the people of this neighborhood know -- that our cup runneth over, and that each face we pass is shining like the sun.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Improv Everywhere

My friend Crystal stopped by to visit Sunday night on the way to earning a spot on the lung transplant list (she has cystic fibrosis). She's an amazing young woman. She just graduated from Goshen College and will soon start a job as an accountant in her hometown. Very impressive woman.

Before she headed off to the hospital she decided to give her old friend here a little education in some of the wonders on the internet. She introduced me to the improv everywhere website. They describe what they do as causing "scenes of chaos and joy in public places." Now that was very cool. You'll have to check it out yourself to see what they mean.

But it got me to thinking about how that is a wonderful way to what we are called to witness to in the world -- that is to say -- "chaos and joy in public places." I think of all the chaos Jesus created when he sent a spirit that was troubling a man into a herd of pigs and they went flying off a cliff.

Or I think about the joy that Jesus created when he found the lost sheep, or when he told the story about a king who threw open the doors of the wedding feast to anyone and everyone, or who found a pearl buried in a field (you get the picture).

Chaos and joy in public places. What improv everywhere does is take the normal everyday things and makes us see things just a bit differently -- but simply by using what is already available to us - mostly our imagination. It is seeing with new eyes -- and hearing with new ears.

So...perhaps the Christian life is best summed up by the expression "improv everywhere." Whaddaya think?

Monday, May 22, 2006

One Feast at a Time

I John 5 says (among other things): Every God-begotten person conquers the worlds ways. What are the worlds ways? The worlds ways are the ways that divide us one from another because of ethnicity and political persuasion or gender or sexuality or economic status or handicapping condition -- you name it -- those are the ways of the world.

I heard a U.S. representative quote Chairman Mao on the radio a couple of weeks ago (my head is still spinning from that one) -- "power springs from the barrel of a gun." That sounds like the worlds ways to me. Doesn't sound like God's ways. Doesn't sound like Jesus' ways. But it is the way of the world, sure enough.

And so what do we do about it? How do we conquer the worlds ways? Marc and Karen hosted a moveable feast at their home on Saturday night. Today I got an e-mail from Marc saying that they had never done anything like it before. never would have been able to tell. The house was packed with people and the food was great (spectacular pineapple bars and tacos and spicy cheese dip). We all sang happy birthday to an 11 year old. There were people in their 80's in the room as well as a child that I don't think had made it 80 days yet. There were people from the burbs and people from the hood.

I enjoyed talking with Matt -- who lives down the street and just got his nursing degree and is working at Methodist. I enjoyed talking with Marty who lives a couple of blocks north and who is working hard to strengthen this neighborhood through his good work. I met Todd who works with Marc and Bruno who moved here from Brazil (not Brazil, Indiana -- Brazil where they speak Portuguese) and was an Olympic volleyballer for that country. I talked with Marc's dad and with Lonnie about music and Dave about his wife's recent surgery. I watched the children and the animals laugh and play. Gwen and I talked about the Children's Museum where she has applied for work to strengthen their relationship with this neighborhood, and about her garden where she grows very special and amazing tomatoes.

I'm not sure how do we do that -- conquering the worlds ways? Maybe I'd say we do it one feast at a time. One feast at a time.

What imagination the people of Broadway Church have! Why were Marc and Karen having a party? Because the church had encouraged and invited people to do so! Marc and Karen's was the 3rd or 4th of these going on. Sheila is having one next. Mike has had two. Anita is going to have one as are Tim and Jerrilyn and David and Jack. These are becoming wonderful places where we gather together and laugh and talk about important things and learn about one another. That's how we know what the Holy Spirit is up to -- in laughter and stories and over food. The people of Broadway Church know that -- they are busy conquering the worlds ways.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Stealing Weeds, Being a Friend

I went for a walk today. Mrs. Woodard was on the College Street Bridge as I walked across it. She is out in the neighborhood almost every day working. She lives just north of the College Bridge. She is short and moves pretty slowly. I wouldn't have a good idea about her age, but I'm sure it's north of 70. She has the most amazing smile. When you greet her, she smiles and it appears for a moment as if she has just been caught doing something mischievious and she hopes you found out! You can see her out early in the morning or in the heat of the day -- usually with an implement of some kind in her hand. It might be as big as a rake or a broom (the better to pull up weeds, or to clean off the sidewalk), it might be as small as a trowel or a garbage bag (to pull up the toughest weeds around the block, or to pick up the trash that gets discarded by cars driving through our inner city neighborhood). In the winter she often is out with a snow shovel. Her hands are always busy.

She has an amazing spirit...and if you ever walk by her she'll say a word to you and tell you what's going on, what she is doing in particular, or what she has observed. For the 20 plus years that I have been around this neighborhood she has been a constant in good weather and bad. She cares about this community. She loves this neighborhood. She cares about its people. She cares about the way it looks. She cares about the grass, and the weeds, and the flowers, and the trees, and the leaves. She is in love with all of the creation around here.

She once asked a member of our church if she could "steal your weeds." Seems the triangle park just east of the church building was getting a little "weedy." I often see her out in the triangle making sure that the weeds are not taking over that space. It is not "her" space in the sense of ownership. It is "her" space in the sense of community and our shared life together.

Today, she was working on the College Street Bridge because the folks from the city were out cutting the grass along Fall Creek. She told me that years ago, a neighbor who died awhile back, planted some rose bushes along the College Street Bridge. Where we were standing the grass had gotten a little high...and she had a long handled cutting instrument and was hacking down the grass around the rose bushes. She explained to me that she knew that when the fellow from the city got the lawn mower over to this point here, he would just go ahead and mow it all down. Why? Because he's a bad guy? No. Because he truly wouldn't even see it. He wouldn't even know that he was cutting down the rose bushes planted by her neighbor to beautify this part of the inner city. The cars driving by won't notice the roses either, for that matter. It is really for those of us who live and walk around here.

I started to walk away and then I stopped and asked if I could take her photograph. She stood there proudly next to her efforts. Because of her our life will be a little more beautiful. Because of her, there will be a bit more color in our walk, and at least for a brief time a fragrance that will remind us of the rich diversity of our life together.

One of my favorite scriptures can be found in John 15. Jesus says to his disciples, as he is preparing to leave them, "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God." Two verses later he says, "I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." I think of what Mrs. Woodard is doing and I realize that she is showing me that love for one another that Jesus speaks of to his disciples. She and the city worker (the public servant) remind me of the difference between being a servant and being a friend. A friend knows where the rose bushes come from and thinks of that person when they look to see that they can be preserved for another year.

Mrs. Woodard is a living reminder to me for us to love one another. Each day. Without fail.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Real Beauty is My Aim

Above the desk in my study is a poster of Gandhi. Underneath it are the words "Real Beauty is My Aim." I think of that often in my own calling, my own work in the life of the church. The more the years go by the more I feel drawn to that notion. When I sit in my study and talk to someone struggling with an illness, or a disease, when I walk the streets of the neighborhood with people spinning dreams and listening about the lives of gifted people around us, when I sit in meetings with people who are talking about the gifts of the people in our congregation -- and how to encourage them and build them up, when I gather and listen to a family celebrate the life of a dearly loved family member -- the beauty, the real beauty surrounds me.

This morning I got an e-mail from Rachel out in New Zealand who was talking about the wonderful beauty of that place and her delight in being there. Real Beauty is her aim. Yesterday I stood and talked with Troy for a few minutes in the church office and listened as he talked about the exhibition he is putting together celebrating the rich diversity of families in the larger Indianapolis community. Today in the Indianapolis Star there were a couple of letters to the editor on the subject of "gay adoption" -- I assume when people are writing those words that they don't mean "adopting gay people" -- but who knows. What really struck me is that you get what you are seeking. I can't help think of that scripture that says "Seek and ye will find." The problem in this whole debate and conversation about so-called "gay adoption" is that we are more concerned about the sexuality of our "adopt-ors" then we are concerned about whether they are good excuses for human beings and should be allowed the privilege of caring for kids, who in many cases, are in crisis. I'm not saying that it isn't important what quality the potential adoptor is to those who are charged with making decisions about who can adopt. What I am saying is that if one of the criteria you are considering is the sexuality then that does -- in real and practical terms pull you away from considering what is most important. Real Beauty needs to be our aim. If it isn't -- if we are more concerned with the type of beauty than real beauty -- we will get exactly what we have been seeking. And people will suffer because of it. In a state where we have one of the highest rates in the county of child deaths from abuse, can we afford to pay attention to the type of adoptive parents we are getting, rather than the quality of them? And in the midst of a state with enormous problems and issues to resolve in education and health care and criminal justice -- do we need to spend time focusing our attention on whether someone qualifies to be a parent based on their love for another person of the same sex? To even have to type these words seems crazy to me.

Charles stopped by to see me on Monday. He has been coming to church for the last few months. He lives in the same block as the church. He has a disability which has limited the use of one arm. And he has a pronounced limp. But he heard me announce that one of our long time members -- Clone -- had died early on Sunday morning after 99 years of life. He said that he had noticed that my black shoes weren't looking to hot and he knew I would be doing Clone's funeral and he wondered if he could shine those shoes as a gift to the church in honor and memory of Clone's life. You bet he could I said. The next day he brought them back and they hadn't looked this good since I brought them back from the store, 20 years ago (I don't wear them very often -- they are my funeral and sometimes Sunday morning shoes, only). He had stuffed paper inside of them to get them to hold their shape because (he pointed out to me) I don't have shoe trees, so he improvised. But his gift, simple and elegant -- matched the woman he was honoring and was a reminder all over again of the real beauty that surrounds me every day.

Monday, May 15, 2006

My Mother Clothed Me

I'm sure it's happening all over the blogosphere, but that doesn't matter to me. Many of us are writing about our mothers. Mom...was born in Macon, Georgia. I really didn't know or understand that she was southern until I was older...I just knew that Macon seemed such a new and different places than the little communities in Southern Indiana where I was growing up. And it was pretty different from Dad's Minnesota farm home. The other thing, and I didn't know why I didn't think it was strange, was that there was only grandma. I don't remember ever asking where grandpa was. It wasn't until I was in high school, I think, that I found out that mom's dad had died when she was five years old (oh, I'm sure I heard it before but it didn't matter). Mom and grandma survived by grandma's hands. Grandma made and fixed clothes and her daughter would sit right next to her on the sewing bench and grandma would work and sing "I'm only a bird in a gilded cage." A sad song, but also a defiant song, as I discovered when I looked at the words later.

Mom learned well. She made all our clothes. I didn't know that you could buy clothes in a store. When I was in college she came to visit and said "let's go out to the store and buy you a suit." I was confused...I didn't think you could buy a suit...I thought all suits were homemade.

She made our clothes from necessity. Dad's salary at small rural congregations didn't go far. I can remember when we lived in French Lick finding mom crying (I was around 6 years old) and finding out that she was crying because she couldn't afford shoes for us (the man who owned the shoe factory down the street gave us some, until the place burned down shortly before we moved away).

Mom was fiery and passionate. As calm as Dad seemed to me, Mom seemed to be a whirlwind. She would express her emotions, her happiness or unhappiness without thinking about it twice. You always knew where you stood with her. I've always thought that of my brothers and sister I'm the most like her. The feelings she seemed to have about things were the things I felt. Which was why we were probably most often at loggerheads. She let people get under her skin. I let people get under my skin. I think that as both of us grew older we both learned to handle that a little better (Thank God).

Mom was very entrepreneurial. She created her own business -- Lil's Heddles and Treddles. She wove clothing and tapestries on looms that Dad built. She made candles from beeswax. She did needlepoint. Later she would become a real estate agent and that seemed to fit her very well.

About four years before she died Mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was quite a shock to all of us. And I would say that over those last four years I grew closer to her than I had the previous forty. We got along better -- the old arguments didn't seem to matter nearly as much anymore. She was still herself. In fact, one of the coolest things that happened is that she decided she was going to go ahead and do all the things she had always wanted to do, but had put off. She wanted to see giraffes in their natural habitat. Dad was going to be taking a trip to Malawi for work and invited her along...but when she found out that there weren't giraffes around there she backed away from the trip and found one that would take her to the Serengeti. She and dad made that trip and boy did she love it. She wanted to see the Great Wall of China -- so she and Dad took a cruise that took them to China and Vietnam. Less than a year before she died she took her three sons and our families on a cruise of the Caribbean. She had wanted to take us to Alaska, but she (wisely) thought that most of the grandchildren would be too young to really enjoy Alaska and that a warm climate would be much better. Every night we sat together for several hours for a meal together. The gospel text for Sunday was from John and talked about Jesus encouraging the disciples to "abide with me." At those meals we were abiding with one another.

The last few months of her life had both highs and lows. Dad officially retired and I surprised him by showing up at his going away bash. He and Mom and I went out to lunch and she seemed to be doing great (that's what the picture is from at the top). In November she went into the hospital for a week or so it seemed, so Jordan and I drove down to see how she was doing and found her weak but home. One of the last pictures I have of her was of Jordan and her and me (one of the few times she allowed the wig to be off for a photo -- with her radiation caused bald head).

On that trip she and I sat in front of the fireplace and as she poked at the logs she said to me that she was running out of options. She had talked about it with her Sunday School class and one of the members had told her not to be discouraged that there was always hope. Mom turned to me and spread her arms wide and asked "what more can I do?" I can't tell you what a gift that was to see her after these years of showing all this strength to see for a moment, her vulnerability.

She was one tough woman. She didn't suffer fools gladly. She always spoke her mind. She had passion. She could get mad. She could hold a grudge. She could laugh herself silly. She could play the piano. She could knit. She could cook (though she really didn't like to). She had opinions about everything.

Yes, my mother clothed me.

Friday, May 12, 2006


The photograph above is from Arsenal Technical High School Friday morning. It is a picture of the National Honor Society at that school. Our son, Conor, was inducted into the group this morning (second from the left, front row). Kathy and I are quite proud of him of course. I would never have been considered for such an honor in high school...but he joins his mother in membership of this good society.

I loved hearing the names of the young people in the National Honor Society this morning -- they included: Pankita, Vinh, UnoBlessed, Maire, Teigra, Itavia, Allias, Skye, -- and last names as diverse as Oldfather, O'Connell, Adams, Dao, Pandya, Arteaga, and Mather-Licht.

Conor is a terrific young man. We are proud of him, not because of the awards he gets, but because of the person he is. Years ago Kathy signed up Conor and herself for a study through Purdue University on mothers and sons. The interviewer came and talked with all of us initially. Conor was 5 years old and I remember being asked what we wanted him to be when he grew up -- she gave us a list that included everything from doctor to teacher to lawyer to gardener to sanitation worker to construction to business. I wrote on the form "I want him to be a decent human being." (A couple of years ago I was talking with Mari Evans about this and she said to me, "I thought that was all that I wanted to...but I know now that they also need to know how to make a living!") The interviewer seemed a little thrown by that. Oh well.

I can't help thinking about Brennan today as well. And his parents Harry and Mickey. There are of course no words that are worth anything at such a time. But I remember my mom, years ago, talking to me about what happened after the death of their stillborn son, Mark. She told me that she doesn't remember anything that anybody said to her...but she remembered that people were there and said something. She said that there were people who didn't come because they didn't know what to say or because they were afraid of death. I didn't know what to say to Harry and Mickey - but I remembered Mom's words and I called and choked out a few things and soon enough we were talking. I doubt if either Mickey or I will remember what we said -- but I think we'll both remember that we talked.

The principal at Tech spoke to the young people this morning about being people who make things happen. I hope they will be. I hope that they will pay attention to the lives of their classmates and their families and find ways to support what things they want to make happen. I hope that they will help create, grow communities that will not waste one single person -- but see that everyone has a gift, something to offer for strengthening our common life.

I can't help but think about how much poorer the community is when Brennan is gone. His easy smile -- his willingness to tell you when he had been hurt by something -- his expectation that people would be their best selves. Those are gone.

Except this. We remember him. We remember his graciousness, his peace, his kindness. His friends and family, his young daughter, are all blessed because we knew him. How do we celebrate a life in the midst of such senseless brutality and death? We do it by being thankful for his life and presence in this world -- and not forgetting that. We do it by reminding ourselves to pay attention to the young people in front of us, not take them for granted, and find ways to magnify and share their blessings with the rest of us who are around.

I can't help but think about how much richer the community is because Brennan was present.

Back in the summer of 2004 I heard Marjorie Procter-Smith give a lecture that I hope I never forget. In it she advised us to listen to the voices of the very young and the very old and poets and artists. Today I hear that in a way that I hadn't heard it before. I need to listen to the voices of Brennan and Conor and Allias and Skye and Kirk and Grace and Nigel and Montel and all those young people who surround me. Today, as well, I also think of listening to the voices of the very old, of Clone who is moving to hospice and of Shirley who complained to me that doctors don't pay attention to old folks. Listening to the lives of all these people and finding ways to build up and share what they have to offer -- will remind us of the riches and abundance that surround us all the time.

Now THAT'S Honor.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

No More Wasted Meetings

I got a call today from a friend, Jeff, a High School English teacher from South Bend. I listened to his message and I heard the shock and grief in his voice as he told me that Brennan had been killed (apparently murdered in his apartment). Jeff and I had taken youth from our parish to New York City every couple of years. The last trip we had taken together Brennan had come along.

I met Brennan when he was about 10 years old. He was a pudgy, happy little boy. He always had a shy and sweet grin on his face. He was easy to talk with. As he got older he grew quite a bit. The last time I saw him, two years ago, he was well over six feet -- but that shy, sweet grin was still there. His complexion was a beautiful light gold. His hair was dark and curly and was the perfect complement to his graceful welcome he offered to all.

It seems to me impossible that anyone would want to kill Brennan. He was truly one of the most gentle, kind people I've ever met. His parents were very active in our neighborhood (not in the church) which is how I got to meet him. Both of his parents are pretty fiery and passionate people. They are leaders in that neighborhood -- both official and non-official. But as passionate as they are -- Brennan was quiet. He was the type of person that when you walked in a room you would gravitate to him just because of the sense of peace that came off of him.

Many young people in our Southeast Side neighborhood liked to appear tough. But not Brennan. Even if the people around him were itchin' for a fight he would try to calm things down. He would have a quiet word and a gentle laugh that could break the tension -- or at least bend it enough to get past the roughest spots.

I worry that in their grief some of those who love him might seek revenge. And then the pain and grief would just be compounded.

It makes me think of all the useless meetings I have spent my time in -- particularly church meetings, in the denomination and in the congregations I've served where we have spent more time arguing about whose ego gets to go first at which time, then about the shape of our community where sweet young men can find themselves dead in their own kitchen.

I've spent a lot more time in meetings talking about what color a wall or a carpet should be then I've spent in meetings where people are talking about how what we are doing can strengthen our life together, can draw us closer together, can build up what is best between us. Why have I allowed that? What's wrong with me? What's wrong with us?

I've attended the General Conference of our denomination and listened as speech after speech after speech wants to spend time trying to limit the participation of men and women in the life of our church based solely on their sexuality (not on their call, not on their discipleship, not on their faith) -- while wars and diseases steal whole generations of families in Africa, while people live in hopelessness, violence and desperation in this land of plenty, and while our apathy and active disregard towards the way we act as stewards of this earth goes driving merrily along (with a few grumbles about the increased costs of fuel). Am I missing something here? Or are we all simply mad?

God sees the fall of every sparrow? Why can't we see and hear one person -- one child -- one beloved child of God who we know fall? Why can't we take the time to invest in Brennan -- to ask him what he is doing and how we can be a part of it? Why can't we do something about strengthening our communities rather than feeding each other out of food pantries or offering tutoring programs of mentoring programs (or whatever the hottest new thing is)- why can't we build up one another in love? Isn't that the lasting gift we have to offer?

I will hold on to my memory of Brennan's good life and shocking death and try not to spend any more time in wasted meetings where people only want to spend their time talking about things that don't matter with other people who don't care. It's time for me to stop.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Old Be You

Last night I had dinner with Joe and Ronda. It's been a while since I've seen them. Too long. Ronda and Joe live in South Bend and we were at Broadway Christian Parish UMC together. Ronda works for Church World Service and Joe is a painter, a writer, a musician, a teacher (of electrical engineering among other things) -- he is the ultimate renaissance man. My favorite memory of Joe is that every year at Easter he would take his banjo and lead the congregation in the singing of a song called "Hallelujah" that became the sound of Easter to my ears (in fact, I have in my memorial service arrangements the request that Joe would come and lead the congregation in that song).

Before Joe worked as a college professor in electrical engineering he was a professional folk musician. He has written books on how to play the banjo and the guitar. The picture at the top is of Joe performing at a student peace conference at Notre Dame. He not only taught at college, but he also taught folk music to the children of the Head Start program in South Bend. He's also a wonderful cook and wine maker. As he cooked up a terrific (and healthy) Italian dinner we reminisced and visited. We talked about things that were going on in our lives.

As I sit here this evening I am thinking back on some of the projects we worked on together.

In our Food Pantry at Broadway Christian Parish we would ask three questions at the end of a pretty extensive survey when our neighbors came in to get some food. The three questions are:
1) What three things do you do well enough that you could teach someone else how to do it?
2) What three things would you like to learn that you don't already know?
3) And who besides God and me is going to go with you along the way?
(many thanks to John McKnight and folks from Lawndale in Chicago who developed the survey that inspired this one).

My favorite question was that first one.

We took that first question and we asked people if they wanted to teach in what we called "The School of the Spirit." They had to get the students there -- but if they would get at least 3 students Broadway would pay for the needed supplies. The first group of classes were a Mexican cooking class, a basic auto repair class, a quilt making class, a guitar playing class, and a Bible Study. Later classes included instruction in Tai Chi(?), oil painting and acrylic painting, drama and a class on Hollywood Westerns and Why Black Men were left out. It was a pretty eclectic mix.

We would not pay the teachers but we would put a coffee can in the room and if people donated the teachers could keep what was given. Joe had the idea of building on this by taking the classes that were most successful and starting something he called "Broadway University." This would be something that people would need to register for and the teachers would be paid a very small stipend for the six week courses they offered. The Indiana Arts Commission helped support this.

One of the first set of Broadway University courses included a class in "Conversational Physics." When the article appeared in the paper we got a call at the church about enrolling in the class on "conversational psychic." "Oh," I told the woman who called, "it's 'physics' not 'psychics.'" "Oh my," she replied laughing, "I guess I got that all wrong!" The psychics class was the one she wanted -- after I hung up I couldn't help sitting there and thinking about what that class must have been like. I imagined a room full of people sitting together in silence, because they would all know what each other were thinking!

Joe encouraged us to call Broadway University "Old B.U." (hoping that the folks from Boston University wouldn't crack down on us for using that name). He pointed out that it fit the whole idea of what we were doing if we thought of it as "Old Be You."

Joe is one of those people who helps people be themselves. He doesn't suffer stuffed shirts very well. He's a man of the people. He is himself. And by being who he is -- we know ourselves all the better. Thanks Joe!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Life after Birth

When I was in seminary out in New Jersey I often made my way into New York City to hear people speaking who I was interested to hear. Orlando Costas was speaking at Riverside Church in New York City and I went in to hear him at their Sunday morning service (this was just a few months before he died). There was a lot of debate going on in the country then (as now) about abortion. Dr. Costas was an evangelical Christian from Latin America. What he said really struck me that morning. He said, "we spend so much time talking about life before birth -- what about life after birth?"

At worship yesterday at Broadway we shared communion. Right before my eyes passed a lot of life. There were people with struggles and people with joy. People with grief and people overflowing with hope. There was someone celebrating their 80th birthday. There were children filled with laughter and energy. There were a couple of boys who are autistic. The scripture this Sunday was on the Good Shepherd. I thought about how it was that the people I know who are autistic seem to be tuned into something else that others around them don't see or hear. I thought of Temple Grandin, the well known woman who has autism, who has written books about the gift her autism is to her in helping her be aware of the emotional lives of animals (particularly cattle). Jesus seemed tuned in, as well, to something that others couldn't see or hear. Even as a shepherd -- if you think of him as the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one who is lost -- he isn't perhaps a very good one, or at least a very rational one. What he is though, is a Good shepherd...a loving shepherd. He is a shepherd who seems focused on people -- those on the margins, those who wander off don't seem far from him at all.

We came to table of abundance -- bread and wine (okay juice) -- body and blood we call it -- others here say -- a sign of God's love. It is the ordinary stuff of life that breaks in on us on days like today.

Life After Birth. What would life after birth look like? Is it sitting in front of the television watching the NBA tournament, or the Survivor television show (whichever manifestation it is right now), or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? or Oprah? How about sitting in front of my computer e-mailing folks or even writing a blog?

Mike Green has been around Broadway for the last part of the week -- Wednesday-Saturday. He is helping us listen to one another and make room for the stranger, for the person at the margins. Mike, more than most anyone I know, helps us think about how we make room to hear one another's voices and then to actually do something with what we are hearing.

On Saturday Mike led a gathering at Broadway in the morning where he had people sit and talk with one another - have conversations about things that are important to them. When I got there as the gathering was breaking up people were talking together with evident joy and life. Ellie was talking about her desire to see a grocery store in this neighborhood. She was talking with a couple of other people and they were strategizing about what they next steps they were going to take. Joe was talking about how with the little things we do around Broadway we can support economic development work in the community around us (on Tuesday morning I saw this in action as he had hired a guy from a block away to put up the fence around the new air conditioner -- he didn't have to do it. It would have been easier to just let the company who put it in hire someone. But Joe took action, hiring Yusef and Michael).

As people were leaving a few of us went to lunch together to continue the conversations.

To me this conversation is remarkable. Maybe it shouldn't be. But it is. I realize how jaded I've become in the Church to think that it could be a place that people would really take the time to listen to one another -- to make room for one another. Mike pushes the folks around the table to think about what they are doing and about the ways in which we internalize the way we feel about what he calls "labelled people." I realize that this happens all the time -- we think about how we should "mentor" or "tutor" or "help" people. But what we fail to realize is that all of us needs help. And that each of us needs what others have to contribute. But if we only treat the person across from us as one who receives and not as one who has something to give -- we will end up getting exactly what we expected in the first place.

I think about how my friend Phil Amerson reminds me often that "you only learn, what you already know." If what you already know is that the person in front of you is developmentally disabled or poor or at-risk or sick or any other of a million different labels (learning disabled, juvenile delinquent, alcoholic, etc...) we limit what we will receive - because all we see is the deficiency.

But, as Mike so often reminds us, it's not enough to recognize that every one has something to can you act on it? And you must be prepared to act. And acting will actually lead to something meaningful.

It seems like something the autistic Good Shepherd might encourage -- a little life after birth.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Mary Ann

Last night Mary Ann Moman was in town and stopped by to visit. We ended up going out to eat with her and Mike Green at Maggiano's. Mary Ann and I have known each other since 1986. I was appointed to serve at Broadway Church in Indianapolis. And she was already there (I was appointed in June -- I think she was appointed in March). She and I were an odd pair from the beginning. She is very kind and gracious. I'm very loud and obnoxious. She always has a cup of coffee in her hand...I always (in the past) had a Pepsi bottle in mine. She was very proper. I...was...not. Am not. Whatever.

I used to love to jump into Mary Ann's office with a book in my hand, plop down in the chair across from her desk and ask if I could read her something. She's the first person I remember ever doing this around regularly. At least she's the first person I ever remember really ALLOWING me to do that regularly.

She and Phil and I really enjoyed working with each other there. We laughed a lot. We cried sometimes (okay, that was mostly me). We tried new things. I learned a huge amount...from getting to work with those two good people.

They would always be talking about what they saw in the hearts and lives and faith of the people of Broadway. I was spending most of my times in the home of the youth of the congregation and in the streets around the church. I didn't go to many meetings. But they would always have stories and insights into the lives and faith of the people of that place. And they were always seeing and suggesting where that might be taking us.

They helped me so much to see the joy and the gift of this place. Not by arguing with me or trying to convince me -- but simply because they lived as if it were true. They lived as if the gospel were true. And I don't know or imagine what could have been a better experience for my spiritual growth.

They showed me by how they lived and what we talked about all the time that people who are poor really have a lot to give. They expected everyone to contribute. They saw the hospitality and warmth in the people of Broadway that the people there didn't even seem to realize -- and they celebrated that spirit in them. I see the fruits of that sense of hospitality around this place in a 1000 different ways every day.

And because of that I'm grateful in a thousand different ways every day for them.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Tuesdays with Mari (Wednesday this time)

Every Tuesday I go to a home two blocks from our church and visit with Mari Evans for an hour. Mari is a neighbor, a poet, a musician, a composer, a mother, a daughter, a writer and many, many other things. She has written two new books just published this year. Both are excellent. One is entitled "I'm Late" and is about teen pregnancy. The book is aimed at teens and pre-teens. It is a very accessible book and it has questions at the end that are expertly written for young people. She also published a collection of essays entitled "Clarity as Concept." The writing in the essays is incredible. Her first couple of essays offer reflections on her growing up and the world around her that are truly astonishing -- I often laughed out loud -- and also was stunned into silence at the vividness of her reflection and its insight on the world then and now. She also has an essay on how democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be if you are in the minority. Very thoughtful.

But today the topic was grief. Her own at the death of her beloved son Derek from cancer two weeks before Easter. She has just returned from his apartment in Denver which she had cleared out with her grandson. The apartment building is home to many struggling with the same health issues Derek did. Mari wanted to make sure that Derek's food and other things would be shared with all the residents. She talked with the super and he told her that if she laid out his food and other items on a table in the basement they would be available to all. So she did that. But before she did that a neighbor stopped by. He asked if he could have a couple of things and she allowed him to take a couple of the things he asked for. She then sent her grandson on several trips to the basement. Toward the end of the time she discovered that the fellow she had given things to had diverted her grandson to his apartment where he had taken almost everything else. She was furious and she confronted the man and took back the things that her grandson had dropped there.

Mari asked me if I found this type of greed common. I told her that in my experience it was not common, but it was not unknown. We talked about the results of the elections the day before and how a well known (and long serving) representative to the state congress was defeated in the primary by a candidate who is in favor of public flogging. While this may seem a bit shocking -- once you noticed that the candidate who was defeated (the incumbent) had been one of the leading forces behind a push (which succeeded) to ensure that all state legislators (with a certain, very minimal number of years in service) would have lifetime health care for themselves and their families insured -- while so many in our state are left with inadequate and shrinking quality health care (especially for the poorest). Now that's greed on an even more massive scale.

There is no such thing as having too much. Individual greed seems to be the American Way.

I thought back on my own mother's death back in January of 2003 and how disorienting the last few years have been. There have been many times that I will forget for a moment that she has died and hoped and expected to see her walk in the room. As Mari talked about her struggle with grief and what an odd and difficult path it is, I certainly could agree. But even with that we both have good memories, buried way back there perhaps, of my mother's and her son's good presence in our lives.

Greed may be good in this day and age...but grief is such a deeper gift. To act with greed one has to be cut off from one's feelings, one's loved ones, and one's fellow citizens. But to experience grief is exactly the opposite experience. It is to know the pain of the loss that one has felt and know that there is no way to re-fill that. And yet to also know that this loss comes (mostly) out of gratitude for our shared lives together. Greed comes out of emptiness. Grief comes from fulness and abundance. They couldn't be more different.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Finding Neverland

This morning (Friday, May 5th) Mike Green and I headed off to breakfast at the Keystone Deli with Monty Hulse. Monty is a friend of ours and he is also with the United Way program Bridges to Success. Bridges to Success is an initiative that attempts to strengthen partnerships between school, families, business, and government (or so it looks like to me). The breakfast and the conversation were both very good.

Then we went to meet with some of the staff from Bridges to Success for a couple of hours. It was a fascinating conversation. Mike (Green) is really terrific at this. The staff for the initiative seems to be doing good work, but it is clear that they feel that it is an uphill battle in many places. As Mike listened he asked them questions about what they were doing that was working and what principles were at play. He also asked them about what wasn't working. There was a lot of talk about parental involvement and both the struggles and successes of such efforts. They talked about a particular principal and school that were doing great.

One of the things Mike asked them (it seemed brilliant to me -- but then I'm easily amused) was if there was a way for them to spend more of their energy on getting the people together who were doing things well. He wanted to know if there was a way to reward them and bring them together in what he called "a learning community." He talked about how much positive energy such a gathering could generate and not only what it would (and could) generate, but also that it would be a forceful attraction. People who are close to the good work, but not quite there yet, would find themselves pulled into the orbit.

As the group talked people responded very positively. Mike was giving them permission to think about giving up at least some of the energy they had been giving to things that just weren't working with people who just weren't happy or interested or committed to the work with children, families, and schools. One of the people in the group said that she really hadn't been looking forward to this conversation - but that she was really glad she came. What he said made sense to her. And it made a lot of sense to me as well.

So often in the church (and in many other places) we spend all our energy and time spinning our wheels on things, efforts, etc... that aren't working. We do that for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we do it because we think it's a good thing to do. Sometimes we do it because it has a history of being done and we think it should continue. What Mike is so good at pointing out is that sometimes the things we think we should be doing are not at all the things we want to do. One of the things he often says is "Don't ever do something that nobody wants." It seems so simple.

I wondered what it would look like for the United Methodist Church here in Indianapolis to look at things this way? I thought of all the meetings I have been to of the clergy in our district that I just walk away from feeling more depressed and frustrated then encouraged and feeling as if I have actually learned something. This morning I realized why. If we worked to build up what is best, if we brought together folks doing good work and engaged one another in conversation good things would bubble up. Energy would multiply. Hmmm.

It also made me think of things at Broadway. How is it that we are continuing to build up and bring people together who are doing good work and asking them to reflect on that and see what comes next? We can probably do that more than we do. And we can at least be more intentional about it.

I really love this notion of building on the excellent work, the excellent practices, at work around us. It is so much better than battling with what isn't working -- and what's miserable. And I love the image of the rippling effect that comes from that.

I was thinking of a scene from the movie "Finding Neverland" this week. It is the story of J.M. Barrie and the show "Peter Pan." As I recall the movie JM Barrie's character is not doing too well with the first production of Peter Pan. The mostly adult crowd is not responding too well to the show. They don't seem to get it. So, he gets tickets for 25 orphans to the show. He scatters the children around the theater. As the show progresses the children love it and are laughing and carrying on throughout. It's nearly impossible to sit next to a child who is laughing and not have a few chuckles yourself!

I believe it's nearly impossible to be around good work being done, and being celebrated and talking with folks who are part of it -- and not be attracted to it, drawn to it, and changed by it. I'm going to look for more such opportunities.

Jesus Wrecked My Life

In 1998 I attended the North Indiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church at Purdue University. At one point they were showing a video (a staple of Annual Conference sessions now that we have giant screens on stage) and a woman was on the screen from one of the largest churches in the conference saying: "Ever since I've met Jesus everything has gone right in my life." I remember wanting to scream - "What! What! What are you talking about -- ever since I met Jesus everything in my life has got harder!"

I thought of that recently when I was reading a new book by Shane Clairborne entitled The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical. In it he says:
I know there are people out there who say, "My life was such a mess. I was drinking, partying, sleeping around...and then I met Jesus and my whole life came together." God bless those people [Shane is obviously much kinder than me]. But me, I had it together. I used to be cool. And then I met Jesus and he wrecked my life. The more I read the gospel the more it messed me up, turning everything I believed in, valued, and hoped for upside-down. I am still recovering from conversion.

Yes...Shane is a lot kinder than me. I was meeting with a group from our church a year ago and someone said, "I want a religion that's easy." I shot back (without thinking, which is often the case) "well, then you will want to go to a fundamentalist church." Now -- I'm sure that wasn't a fair or gracious thing to say in that moment. At the same time it is often what I feel. It makes life a lot more tricky to take seriously the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Back in 2001 I visited the simple way, which is the community which Shane and his friends founded. They were living in a house -- no, I should use the word home, because of the sense of hospitality there -- in the Kensington section of Philly. the simple way appeared to be a group of twenty-somethings who had walked into the arms of the poor in that community. That evening we went with them as they set up dinner down underneath the train about a block or two from where they lived. Down in the basement, as you would your way between boxes of government surplus food there was a white sheet that separated the rest of the basement from a small area where they prayed and left their prayers (as had many who had visited -- stuck in cracks of the wall -- it reminded me a bit of the wailing wall in Jerusalem -- except, you know, smaller and in a basement in a dilapadated home in Philly).

We talked with the folks who lived there -- laughing and eating and struggling with important questions. We laughed a lot of the incongruities that arise when you don't have much money -- they were getting government surplus food -- so one time that meant they had received a shipment of six cases of KitKat bars! Those boxes were stacked behind the couch that we were sitting on.

We looked at a building that they were working on fixing up so that it could be turned into a bakery and some housing for folks. They were making their home with their neighbors...and enjoying themselves considerably.

What a delight to find these folks -- with so much joy - but absolutely clearly not with anything in their life made easier -- since they had come to know Jesus.

Jesus wrecks our lives -- he turns the world upside down. He makes it harder -- but in the end we know our true abundance and joy and love and forgiveness because of it. It's not trying to get God's forgiveness that's hard...and then everything is easy. It's trying to live like God has not only forgiven me, but my enemy as well. That's tough.

At Broadway Christian Parish UMC in South Bend, Guy Rowe played the guitar for us in worship. He has fragile X syndrome which I understand is also a form of autism. Guy would often punctuate sermons, prayers and readings with excited utterances. Usually they were right on point...if you were paying attention. One of the things that would often come up is that Guy would say, "That's hard." or "Now, that's the blues." He was always right. And when Guy said it he would slap his thigh and a big grin would break out on his face. He knew...he knew...his life had been wrecked by Jesus -- and he couldn't have been happier.