Monday, February 8, 2016

Roots of Ash Wednesday: Spreading Humility Around

I'm struck by the sense of solidarity with all sinners that Ash Wednesday has come to reflect

ROOTS OF ASH WEDNESDAY. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the beginning of 40 days of prayer and fasting leading up to Holy Week and Easter. I came across a few paragraphs by Stuart Malloy that put the ashes we mark on our foreheads on this day into perspective. Malloy writes:

“Ashes marked on the forehead of worshipers were not always given to everyone, but only to the public penitents who were brought before the church. Much like Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet letter, these open and notorious sinners were marked publicly with the sign of their disgrace.”

IDENTIFYING WITH THE PENITENT. “As time went on, others began to show their humility and their affection for the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the number of penitents grew so large that the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday.”

IF YOU ONY KNEW… Malloy continues: “We who will bear the ashes upon our foreheads stand with those whose sins may be more public, but not, according to the Scriptures, more grievous to the heart of God. And so we make our confessions. . . . If you only knew the secrets of my heart, if you only knew the sins that I am capable of contemplating, if you only knew some of the schemes I have considered – and of course God does know – then you would know that I, too, am a sinner.”

THIN LINE, EARNEST PRAYER. He concludes: “Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).”

BLESSING OF THE ASHES. Here is the blessing often uttered just before foreheads are marked in ashes with the sign of the Cross:

“May these ashes be to us, O God, an acknowledgment of our wrongdoing and our acceptance of your forgiveness. In these ashes are our prejudices, our impatience, the times we have turned our backs on the suffering of others, our neglect of the environment, our indifference, our materialism, our greed, our hypocrisy, our envy…all of our sins. In these ashes of repentance are the seeds of our forgiveness and our transformation. For God always accepts us and forgives us. Through our repentance and forgiveness comes transformation. May God create within each of us a clean heart and a new and right spirit.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

Nine Years After India

Preparation for a cycling travelogue this week prompted me to consider the power of adventure.

This day in 2007, I was pedaling in the center of India and was mesmerized by this land of wonder and paradox, of the bizarre and ordinary, of great wealth and vast poverty, of modernity and antiquity. Today, that experience challenges me anew.

Carefully preparing for a one-hour presentation about my journey for the Central Indiana Bicycling Association's (CIBA) Winter Speaker Series at Central Library in downtown Indianapolis, I viewed and reviewed hundreds of slides, thousands of photos, numerous video clips and mementos and journal entries, along with the blog I developed for the event ( The review and preparation experience brought all my senses and recollections of that life-changing event to renewed life in me.

At the distance of nearly a decade and half a world away, I have fresh observations and new questions about what I saw and experienced in those six weeks and 2,000 miles. Had I left these images and memories alone, perhaps they would have continued to calcify and fade way. But I have revisited and resurrected my experience in India and it breathes wonder in me. This is, to me, the power of contemplation. The original experience becomes a part of eternity when repeatedly contemplated and allowed to agitate thought and change behavior.

Maybe, more basically, my fascination is this: Am I--are we--willing to experience events, such as this six-week journey on a bicycle through India, in a way that somehow fundamentally alters us? Or, do we process such experiences--fascinating travels and rapturous adventures--so that, for all their possibilities for changing us, they ultimately become little more than framed photos on a wall that we occasionally admire while we go on through life unaffected by the existential challenges they presented at the time? How can we adventure and reflect on our adventures in a way that changes us?

I left India in February 2007 with a sense that I had experienced something that would--and should--reshape my way of thinking and approaching life and relationships at a rudimentary level. I wasn't sure what all that meant. I just felt that something had happened to me, in me, not that I had just accomplished something.

I had ridden 2,000 miles and helped raise funds to rebuild a hospital, and had helped raise awareness of that hospital. That's what I accomplished. That's what externally occurred. But what happened in me? What was accomplished--or beginning to be accomplished--in me? To what extent was my trajectory and pattern of thinking and choosing being shaped and changed?

In posts that follow, I will try to explore what changes I can observe and articulate nine years later. Whatever I can now articulate, I will have just scratched the surface.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Steps in Redemptive Love

Resisting evil nonviolently is not for cowards or vengeance seekers

Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged civil rights activists to focus their anger away from destructive means and ends. He reflected on the transformation of anger into redemptive love after he committed to the way of nonviolent resistance in response to the evil of racism. The steps in redemptive love, he concluded, are:

First, “It is not a method for cowards, for it resists evil; it is not passive.”

Second, “it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding.”

Third, it directs its attack “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”

Fourth, “it entails a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation…to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it.”

Fifth, it “avoids not only external physical violence but also the internal violence of spirit.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

After Celebrations End, the Work of Christmas Begins

Howard Thurman suggests next steps for Christmas revelers

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart."

from The Mood of Christmas by Howard Thurman

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Last to Arrive?

Shall we take our place among the unlikely visitors at a stable in Bethlehem?

At the end of the Christmas season and on Epiphany (January 6 marks the visit of the Magi and Light to all people), I think about the continuing, unusual draw of unlikely people to an unlikely place in the heart—Bethlehem—and I offer the following poem:

First, census-responding throngs
swell the local populace,
burgeoning homes and hostels
with not-so-welcome guests.

Then, a man and pregnant young woman
arrive, seeking vainly for a room.
Bedding down in a stable,
their boy is born among livestock.

Later in the night, gnarled shepherds
traipse in, finding their way
to the mangered newborn,
just as an angel had told them.

How much later we do not know, Magi
come with gracious gifts,
following a star that draws them
from beyond any traceable map.

And later still, from the four corners
of earth and time, we make our trek.
Are we the last to arrive
at the gathering in Bethlehem?

Years from now, until the end of ages,
more will be drawn and find the One
whose birth angels once proclaimed
and so shall forevermore.

Read my fuller reflection on Epiphany -

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Lives by Imagination

Christmas is an afterthought. But what an afterthought it is!

Maybe it seems crude to say that Advent and Christmas are afterthoughts in the Gospel story—especially to say it this late, with Advent eclipsed by Christmas and as we now count the days from Christmas to Epiphany. But, perhaps pointing out this overlooked reality at this moment may heighten the celebration.

I learned this in Biblical literature studies: only Luke and Matthew write birth narratives and the earliest church did not attach great significance to details of Jesus’ birth. Only in the second century did the church begin to magnify and adorn the birth of Jesus.

Even the little the Gospels tell us of Jesus’ birth is divergent. Luke and Matthew tell two different stories about the birth of Jesus. Luke follows Mary’s lineage; Matthew follow’s Joseph’s. In Luke, an angel appears to Mary; in Matthew, an angel speaks to Joseph. In Luke, shepherds bear witness to the child’s birth; in Matthew, Magi come to Bethlehem to see the child.

Regarding the birth of Jesus, his initial followers missed all that Christians a generation later meticulously tried to reconstruct, document and infuse with meaning. This is not to say that they manufactured the story, but that they relied on passed-along stories (oral tradition is a great and historically important tradition—one largely lost in the West today).

Only long after Jesus’ crucifixion, after resurrection witness, and after Pentecost, amid the dispersion of Christians across the Roman world did the idea of calendaring Jesus’ birth emerge as important in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

Eventually, Christians co-opted a holiday already significant to various “pagan” cultures and baptized it as Christmas. It doesn’t sound very holy, but that’s pretty much how it happened.

However, after a date is fixed, the idea of Jesus’ birth begins to flourish. It doesn’t take long for the imaginations of practitioners, theologians, and musicians to begin to magnify and multiply meaning. One generation adds garnish to the last. Across cultures, stories deepen, traditions broaden, liturgies blossom. The original stories are magnified and morph through riffs that ripple and refract across millennia.

Beyond the church and over time, people have adorned Christmas with explosive imagination. Imagination has given us what is now too much to take in and process in any singularly coherent framework. With only a fraction of Biblical or theologically correct touchstones, Christmas images dazzle, stories morph, traditions multiply, music pours forth. The genie is out of the bottle and no one can contain or control it. Like it or not, Christmas influence is pervasive and continuously extending.

In light of this uncontainable, irreducible reality, I laugh at those who ardently try to convince us that someone is trying to steal Christmas—to drain it of meaning. Hogwash. No one, even if they tried, could curtail the Christmas imagination.

So, however Christmas imagination has come to you—whatever its shape, whatever its feel, whatever its experiences, whatever its traditions—dare to enter into them as fully as possible. Hey, why not contribute a bit of your own imagination to the mix? It is only those who fail to imagine a little who miss the spirit and trajectory of what this season promises.

Have a merry Christmas!

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


These four stories help me get over gift anxiety 

GIFT ANXIETY  What shall I give?  Will it be enough?  Will it be right?  Will it be what my loved ones desire?  Will they be pleased?  Such thoughts go through my mind as I think about gift-giving.  I scroll through online items and walk the aisles of stores with questions circling.  You do this, too?  We're not alone.  

Some of my favorite imaginative Christmas stories and songs revolve around gift anxiety--and its resolution.  Leaving alone the more perplexing story woven in the Twelve Days of Christmas song, you may know the following stories quite well.  I recall them here and set them in context of this question: what is an adequate gift?

LITTLE DRUMMER  The most popular of the stories I have in mind is embedded in the song, "The Little Drummer Boy."  It sings first-person of a little boy who has nothing he thinks is fit to bring to the baby who is born to be the King.  "I have no gift to bring," he sighs.  He decides—innocently, naively, hopefully—to offer the only thing he has or can do: he will play his drum the very best he can for Jesus.  In the song, the baby Jesus smiles at him as he plays.  The gift is adequate.

LITTLEST ANGEL  "The Littlest Angel" is a familiar childhood story about a troublesome little angel who, learning that God's Son is to be born on earth, manages to hide away such common things as a butterfly, a bird’s egg, stones, his favorite dog’s collar in a rough-hewn box--things that he loved as a little boy on earth—to offer the Christ child.  His items, however, pale grossly in comparison to the other angels' magnificent, shining gifts.  He feels humiliated and runs to hide.  But, to his surprise, his choices are things the little boy Jesus relates to and loves.  As the Christ child looks approvingly upon his gift, it rises and transforms to become the star above the stable, giving light to all.

GIFT OF THE OF MAGI  "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry is the touching story of a young couple with very limited resources trying to offer each other a significant gift at Christmas.  Unbeknown to each other, they sacrifice the best they have for the other's best. She sells her beautiful long hair so she can purchase a golden chain for her lover's valuable watch. He, in turn, pawns his cherished timepiece to buy a golden comb for her beautiful hair.

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER  Christina Rossetti’s carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" concludes with a verse that compellingly underscores the only adequate gift we really bring is the gift of our heart: “What can I give Him, Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give Him--Give my heart.”

GIFTS WE RECEIVE  Christmas is really not about what you can give to Jesus or to others. It is about what God has given to us. All our gift giving is a simply response to and reflection of this gift. Whatever it is you choose to give to others, let it be joyfully and from a grace-gifted heart.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Seven Relational Wonders

These wonders are not distant and rare, but near and necessary for life transformation

I’ve seen a few of the natural and human-made wonders of the world—and long to see more. I’ve witnessed the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. But I have yet to gaze up upon the sky-filling wonder of Aurora Borealis.

Seeing the Seven Wonders of the World requires costly travel, putting many of them out of reach for most of us. To see the Northern Lights, I will plan to travel far north. Even then, it will be a momentary experience that may soon fade from the realm of wonder to the list of “been there, done that.”

What about wonders that are much nearer and accessible to more of us? What about wonders that are not in the natural order or of human ingenuity? I offer seven relational wonders of the world—wonders which amaze and continue to shape us on a daily basis. Before these, I feel reverence and mystery.

1. Children and parents. Privileged to witness the birth of each of our four children and participate equally in rearing them into young adulthood, they are, to me, a wonder. Their uniqueness, innocence, zest for exploring, and gradual maturing amazes me. Likewise, who is ever adequate to the vocation of parenting? My profession in life pales in comparison to the challenge of parenting.

2. Love and marriage. Do we choose love or does love choose us? We choose life partners and these relationships impact the dailyness and trajectory of our lives. We may yield to love, fully confident that we can manage and max its apparently predictable paces, only to find that love turns us inside out and upside down and, somehow, for better or worse, makes us more fully alive.

3. Grace and forgiveness. Anyone who loves and joins with a companion will, sooner than later, discover the value of grace and forgiveness. Separately and together, both in offering and receiving, they are oil that salve and heal individuals and relationships. Grace is revealed as timely empathy, understanding, and forbearance. Profoundest of wonders, forgiveness births hope for a changed and better future.

4. Reverse mission. Named so by Henri Nouwen, reverse mission is the discovery that those to whom we feel called in mission in the end contribute more to our lives than we ever can give. Those we seek in compassion to change, change us.

5. Border crossing and bridge building. Who knows what compels and propels some people beyond their own kin and kind to cross guarded cultural borders, dwell in notorious DMZs, and build bridges between here and there, inviting all to new common ground?

6. Connectedness of all things. Discovering that all people, animals, lands, and systems are inextricably connected undermines ideologies, humanizes “devils,” extends kinship, cultivates value, changes habits, and creates stewardship.

7. The power of one small light. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.” If one has seen but a single person so shine, one forever salutes this wonder. Moving our light closer to another’s, we become part of the wonder that dispels darkness.

In this wonder-filled Advent season, may we open our hearts and eyes anew to the possibility of wonder. May some wonder disrupt our dis-ease, interrupt our foregone conclusions, rattle our settled presumptions, and challenge our criticisms. Perhaps some small relational wonder will begin in and through us a movement that changes the outcome of the future.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 7, 2015

Moving Toward Winter Cycling

The glory of autumn cycling yields to the tougher temps and extreme conditions of winter cycling. Winter cycling is not for the faint of heart and body. But, for those who dare, cycling through winter can be a thrill. Certainly grounds for bragging rights come spring.

Here are a few things I do to prepare for and keep active cycling through winter:

1. I get my bike ready. Tune it up. Lube it often. Put on treaded tires. Fenders required. Lights in front and back because you WILL ride much more in the dark of winter's shorter days.

2. I pull out my cold-weather gear. Heavy gloves. Neoprene shoe covers. Merino wool socks. I dress in layers, starting with a long-johns base layer. I like lightweight but warm fabrics. I wear a windbreaker or jacket over whatever else I'm wearing. I wear a head cap under my helmet. Keeping my ears, fingers, and toes uncold is critical for me. I carry a neoprene face mask, just in case.

3. I make sure my lights are in good working order and batteries are charged. I now have a USB-charged headlamp and taillight, so fewer batteries are needed. But I carry extra lights and batteries, just in case. I also carry a reflective vest and wear it when it is dark outside. I want drivers to see me clearly.

4. I now have waterproof bags and panniers and use them liberally. In this photo, I'm using a medium-size Sackville trunk bag and a small front bag. Both are well-made and have proven waterproof through a few rainy-day commutes.

5. One of the mistakes in winter riding is to over dress. If I'm sweating during a ride, I'm over dressed. It's self-defeating because I get cold from the sweat. So, I find it's better to feel somewhat cold on the first third or half of my commute than to be sweating half way through the 14-mile trek into downtown Indy. Again, embrace the wonder of layering.

6. Did I mention lights and reflective gear? I did. Let me reiterate: you not only want to see, you want to be seen--clearly, unmistakably, boldly. There's really not enough you can do, even to the point of looking silly out there on the road. Why? Because while most drivers are conscientious, they are not necessarily completely alert at all times to bicycles along the roadways. Some are quite distracted. I want to attract their attention. If they see me, they usually give me space. Usually.

7. Get ready for rain, sleet, and snow. My commute via bicycle is optional, but it is choice I like to make as frequently as possible. To the gear I've mentioned, I add rain gear. Nothing is more miserable to me than being cold AND wet. One or the other, I can handle; the combination is, to me, miserable. So, get rain gear that keeps you dry.

8. Snow calls for studded tires. They're expensive. So, unless cycling is your ONLY commute option, consider this carefully. I have friends who swear by them, but they're also kinda nuts. There are some clip-on or strap-on treading options for tires for snow, but I haven't tried them.

There you go. A few things to think about and get ready for to make it through winter without abandoning the joy of cycling. Have fun and be careful out there.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sleepwalking Advent

Shifting gears into Advent may take some time...but, please, don't lallygag too long!

Advent begins
In a fog of unreadiness.
As if by dull surprise
Or in a twilight zone,
We groggily hang the greens.

Hardly with awareness
Much less anticipation
God’s people sleepwalk
Through the prophecies
And Annunciation.

We may finally stir
By the time children sing
“Away in a Manger”
The Sunday before Christmas,
Their raised voices spark
A light in our slumbering souls.

Is it only children and prophets
Who grasp the urgency,
Sense the passion;
Whose hearts are rended
And readied by the
Promise of Light shining
In the darkness?

Is it only to them that Advent
Becomes no mere repetition
Of myth-laden past events,
But days of embracing
The living Mystery,
The ground of all hope?

By God’s mercy and grace
Children and prophets are
Only the first to hear,
The first to recognize,
To proclaim that
It is, indeed, Mystery.

The Light ever dawns,
Beaming its rays into the
Eyes of the groggiest saints,
The hardest sleeper
Among us.

Only those who refuse to rise
Amid many urgent shakings
And light flooding their beds
Sleep through the

“Wake up, O sleeper,
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.”

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent and Anticipation of our Daughter's Wedding

I'm used to the discipline of anticipation each Advent season. Dutifully and for the sake of the payoff and fun that happens when Advent yields to Christmastide, I annually put myself in the mindset and disciplines of hopeful expectation--the primary mood of Advent. The onset of December finds me resetting my mind and heart to an empathy for all who yearn for fulfillment of a promise long awaited.

This Advent, however, anticipation is not something I have to imaginatively work at or mindfully develop. During this Advent season, on December 19, to be exact, our daughter Molly will be married. We've got boatloads of anticipation. Our hands are full of preparations. Everyone in the Hay clan is getting ready for the big day and the joy it will bring.

What a combination: preparation for Molly's wedding and preparing for Christmas. Both call for lots of external activity. Making lists, checking them twice. But both, just as much, call for a preparation of the heart. While I am working down the checklists and activities for the wedding and Christmas, I am very much aware that I need to be preparing my heart, too.

I remember my lack of internal preparation for our oldest child Abby's wedding and marriage six years ago. I thought I was ready. I waltzed through all the arrangements quite readily. Everything was falling into place just fine. But when the week of the wedding came, I experienced feelings I'd never experienced before--feelings that perhaps only fathers of the bride of a firstborn can know. While I was full of anticipation and prepared externally, a knot developed in my throat and heart that I couldn't quite shake and still can't quite describe. I was both joyful and sorrowful, both happy and sad. When people asked me what was wrong, all I could muster was: "Nothing's wrong. It's all wonderful. But this must be what it feels like to let go of your child." I walked through my part in Abby and Alex's beautiful wedding in a bit of a daze. I feel its surreal emotions even as I reflect on it and write this.

Whatever it was that hit me that week faded. I guess I got over it. But not quite. It left me with a profound reverence for the marriage Abby and Alex have entered into. It left me with an awe that these things go much deeper and higher than our mere outward preparations. It left me with an appreciation for the sacredness of passages and relationships and life. Truly, none of these things--nothing in life, really--is to be "entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God" (from a wedding ceremony statement I have frequently used).

So, Molly and Jacob's wedding rapidly approaches. We busy ourselves with what we need to do to make it the wedding they have imagined and we all can celebrate together. In the midst of these preparations, I must check my heart. I must take time to be still. To reflect. To Listen. To try to share thoughtful conversations. To be honest with myself and faithful to the emotions that sweep through me. To shape my worries into prayers. To envision the future of blessing that lies before Molly and Jacob and all of us who have a part in their life together. To envision this whole thing as bigger than me, than our family, than Molly and Jacob, than what any of us can think or imagine--to conceive of it as a critical part of a Kingdom and Intention of which we are invited to be a part.

If I do that, or even part of that, or attempt to do part of that, I may be ready come December 19. We'll see. And then...then I can think about getting ready for Christmas.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA