Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ADVENT SLEEPWALKING

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 basis 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 even 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
Incarnation.

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

COMMERCIAL CHRISTMAS OR ADVENT OBSERVANCE?

My desire to indulge and
frolic in commercial Christmas
is competing with my desire
to delay gratification
in Advent observance.
What to do?

Monday, November 29, 2010

UNSETTLING ADVENT

1st in the Unsettling Advent series
 
As Advent begins, I am immediately aware that the news in the Gospels is--or should be received as--unsettling, unnerving, threatening, undermining, dangerous and ultimately unraveling for those invested in the domination system that is America's stock in trade.

It is the good news/bad news that judges the proud.
Those who take advantage of others.
Who use people.
Who exploit "markets" (as if they didn't involve real people).
Who enslave via interest-laden debt.
Who control via pressure politics and intimidation.
Who deny equal opportunity.
Who set the rules for advantage of the rich.
Who turn the other way when they are aware of injustice.
Who measure only by efficiencies.
Who act on the misshapen principle "might makes right."
And who justify whatever means by the ends it produces.

So it is not so easy to sing Christmas carols blithely, disconnectedly, nostalgically, naively.  Instead, a chill runs through me as I sing "the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ."  Or, "chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease."

Advent, instead of being a sweet comfort for the American church, is a direct confrontation with its embrace and sanctification of the status quo of domination, of empire--however unwittingly we may do so.  Advent is a most unsettling season.  Buckle your seat belts.  Who knows where this wild ride ends?

Graphic is by Jan Richardson at The Advent Door

Sunday, November 28, 2010

EUCHARIST

Thanksgiving Day, Sunday, and Monday -- a Eucharist of life
I wrote this piece five Thanksgivings ago, relating Thanksgiving to worship and daily living.

Thursday:

Gathered together with family and friends.
Sat down to turkey with all the trimmings.
Offered thanks for blessings seen and unperceived.
Pushed ourselves back after several helpings.
Sauntered outside to pass a football.
Played until we could not see the ball.
Headed back inside for a round of desserts.
Talked and told stories late into the evening.
Piled into the van and headed back home.
Collapsed into an exhausted, satisfied sleep.

Sunday:

Gathered together as families and neighbors.
Stood up to worship with all our senses.
Offered thanks for blessings seen and unperceived.
Pondered the preached Word's fresh helping.
Sang of the grace that is greater than our sin.
Prepared to share in the blessed Sacrament.
Headed down the aisle to kneel around the altar.
Took in the consecrated bread and wine.
Piled into the van and headed back home.
Contemplated anew the wonder of these blessings.

Monday:

Scattering apart as neighbors and laborers.
Standing up to serve with all our capacities.
Offering thanks for blessings seen and unperceived.
Pondering the interface of word and deed.
Singing of faithfulness even as our strength fails.
Playfully considering the sacredness of life.
Heading interactions in the direction of community.
Talking and telling stories as work is accomplished.
Plowing through traffic as we head back home.
Celebrating the fullness of life as a gift from God.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS CULTURAL TRAIL

This afternoon, I pedaled most of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. This unique urban path winds its way through the heart of downtown Indianapolis, past historic landmarks, museums, theaters, canal, Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, Monument Circle and Indiana and Indianapolis government centers.  If it was awesome to me at 35 degrees, imagine pedaling or walking it when it is warm and trees and flowers are in bloom.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

DELIVERING THANKSGIVING DINNER

Molly delivers a box of to-go Thanksgiving dinners to a residence center in downtown Indianapolis as part of First Free Methodist Church's annual Thanksgiving dinner and delivery event.  This is a family tradition for us.

THANKSGIVING


This holiday is for all that we
Take for granted,
Assume as a given,
Absent-mindedly overlook,
Claim as our God-given right.

This holiday if for all those we
Unnecessarily criticize,
Agitate with our demands,
Impatiently rush,
Regularly impose upon.

This holiday is for all that we
By-pass in our drivenness,
Go out of our way to avoid,
Carelessly forget,
Thoughtlessly leave out.

This holiday is for all things we
Receive as gracious gifts,
Share as common ground,
Express as transcendent grace,
Return in praise to God.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A SACRAMENT OF THANKSGIVING

African-American Quaker pastor and writer Howard Thurman composed this poignant litany

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breath,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For these, I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father,
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the
lives of many who talked of days gone by
when fairies and giants and all kinds of
magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle
in the eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I finger one of the messages of hope that
awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands
the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a single handshake
when I feared the step before me in the darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
and the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said,
the simple sentence from an open page
when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the mainsprings of my heritage:
The fruits of the labors of countless generations
who lived before me, without whom my own life
would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sense a truth greater than the mind
could grasp and whose words could only find fulfillment
in the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
whose courage made paths into new worlds and far-off places;
The Savior whose blood was shed with a recklessness
that only a dream could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meanings of my own life and the commitment
to which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared with my loves,
my desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
that I have never done my best, I have never reached for the highest;
The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of
the children of God as the waters cover the sea.
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my Sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee, Our Father,
in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

From For the Inward Journey, selected writings by Howard Thurman, 1984, Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

GRATITUDE


Gratitude comes from some place deeper than mouthing the words “thank you”

I penned this poem thinking of gratitude, which is a grace that runs much deeper than the socially-expected etiquette that surrounds “giving thanks.”  As important as it is to celebrate Thanksgiving and to take up the practice of saying “thank you,” finding gratitude reverberating authentically in one’s heart is the surpassing gift.  I pray that you experience and express it this season.

Thanksgiving doesn’t live in a vacuum;
We do not pluck it from thin air.
We cannot be grateful on command,
Genuflecting at the drop of hat.

Talk is cheap when it comes to thanking,
Yet beyond courteous etiquette
Lies a deeper reality that beckons,
Inviting us to reckon with grace.

Native American graciousness
And Pilgrim hospitality,
Turkey and all the trimmings point
Beyond finely folded, praying hands.

Through and beyond these images
We glimpse a sacred connection,
As generations across time
Hail some gracious provision.

It’s not so much a debt we owe
Or tribute for posterity
As it is a virtue we receive
And reflect into eternity.

We deep-down know we are held
By sustaining, life-giving hands.
Not our own or on our own,
We belong and are lovingly known.

We cannot utter such mystery--
Tradition and rite fall short;
But these, and we, can point and say
“Thanks” for life and grace today.

Monday, November 22, 2010

HARVEST OF THE HEART


Howard Thurman contemplates an ingathering beyond nature's
I found the following insight in Howard Thurman’s For the Inward Journey: 
“Great and significant as is the harvest in nature, the most pertinent kind of ingathering of the human spirit is what I call ‘the harvest of the heart.’  Living is a shared process.  Inasmuch as I do not live or die unto myself, it is of the essence of wisdom for me conscientiously to live and die in the profound awareness of other people.  The statement, ‘Know thyself,’ has been taken mystically from the statement, ‘Thou hast seen thy brother, thou has seen thy God.’”
For whom, for what, might we give thanks this week?  Forgo trying to conjure up sentimentality.
Instead, contemplate.  Perhaps a gratitude might arise from the depths of contemplation, or out of a moment’s realization of our sacred interconnectedness.  And dare we confess our modest appreciation to these beloved ones?  Be careful, gratitude might be contagious. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

PRAYER OF COMPLICITY

God,

Don't let us live in denial of our complicity with evil in the world.

Dare we live before you and our fellow humans as if charity will suffice,
as if a "sacrifice of praise" is sacrifice at all,
as if it's enough to mind our own business and be nice,
as if this "justice for all" thing will take care of itself?

Do not let spiritual amnesia  excuse us and perpetuate the separation
between "faith" and works of mercy and justice that
reflect your will and define your character.

Liberate us from our fear and shallowness:
fear that we will be inadequate for the task of bearing loving justice;
shallowness that keeps us focused on secondary issues and trivial pursuits.

Help us to understand and practice your Word comprehensively,
leaving the outcome to you.

First and foremost, I pray, convince and convict us of our complicity,
so that we confess it honestly and respond responsibly.

Amen

Thursday, November 11, 2010

VETERANS, WAR, & DREAMS OF PEACE

A Veterans Day tribute and a call for discernment regarding war

ARMISTICE DAY - 92 YEARS LATER. Today is the 92nd anniversary of Armistice Day, the day Germany surrendered, ending "The Great War." We now observe November 11 as Veterans Day. At least 8,538,315 soldiers died in World War I; there were 37,508,686 total casualties, or 57.6% of all troops deployed by allied and axis forces.

FOR REMEMBRANCE. I've found numerous poems in tribute to those fallen in World War I, but choose the following, called "For Remembrance" by Basil Ebers, to post:

What is it, O dear Country of our pride,
We pledge anew that we will not forget?
To keep on Freedom's altar burning yet
The fires for which a myriad heroes died
Known and unknown, beyond the far sea's tide
That their great gift be no futility.

Faith with the Dead kept through our living faith;
In this alone the true remembrance lies,
The unfading garland for the sacrifice,
To prove their dream of Brotherhood no wraith,
No moment's hope--its birth-pang one with death--
but the fixed goal of our humanity.

HONOR THE WAR DEAD, NOT WAR. A fine line it is, but oh so critical that it be observed and guarded. The line--almost imperceptible when inflamed with hatred toward enemies, drunk with hard-fought victory, or intoxicated with exaggerated nationalism--will glorify or condemn us. It is the line between honoring the war dead and honoring war itself.

NEVER DREAM OF ITS VIOLENCE. Honor with reverence those men and women who died in battle. Weep and mourn for civilians cruelly caught in the strife. Give due respect for lives laid down in the name of freedom. But never glory in war. Never embrace its horrors. Never savor its torments. Never dream of its violence. Never drink to its return. Never gaze upon its power, lest its illusion seduce us. Lest war lust obsess us. Lest its siren sound lure us into its labyrinthine bowels and we swear allegiance to it, live for it, and our souls die even as we breathe.

NOT ALL WARS ARE EQUAL. Not all wars are equal. A vast majority are not really necessary. This is not a reflection on the troops who fought them as it is on those who chose and directed them. The current war in Iraq is an example of a war begun with highly suspect justifications and carried along with ranging political rationalizations.

VETERAN DREAMS. I know some Veterans and they are people of integrity. Some fought in World War II, some in Korea and some served during the Vietnam conflict. They tell different stories. All are glad to be alive. All grieve their lost comrades. All are relieved that their service is ended. None I know wish for their sons or daughters the opportunity to fight another war.

A NEW CROP OF HOMELESS VETERANS. I've worked with homeless vets for years. Just when we were getting most of the Vietnam-era Vets connected with counseling, housing, and the costly, life-long resources that are necessary for ones whose minds, emotions, bodies, and souls have been ravaged by war, America starts breeding a new crop soon-to-be homeless Vets. It doesn't take years for Vets returning from doing our government's dirty work to show up in soup lines and missions; think in terms of months. It takes many years--and often a lifetime--however, to overcome what a few months in front-line action can do.

WAR FINDS A WAY. Militarism always finds some twisted way to justify the necessity and perpetuation of war. Once engaged, it plants its gruesome seed then argues for its rebirth in every generation. War is self-perpetuating; few generations can resist it.

ART'S PROMISE AND POWER. It has occurred to me (or at least resurfaced within me) that a way to reveal the hollow way of mammon and violence, and to simultaneously bring light to grace and peace, is through arts and literature. Case in point: the Czech Republic and the Velvet Revolution. Political partisanship gets us nowhere. The evangelical church has largely lost its witness amid partisanship. But art--the written word, the dramatized situation, the lifted song, and the vision graphically cast--has more power to delegitimate war and cumber, and to bring the possibility of grace and peace into our lives than the currently prevailing methods of choice.

Photo: I snapped this photo during an early-morning visit to the Korean War Memorial

Thursday, November 4, 2010

BEYOND WORSHIP: COMMUNION

The word "worship" locks us in to ritual; Jesus had a better idea 

Warning: this is a bit of a heretical-leaning rant.

Lately, I've been wondering if church leaders and Christian influence peddlers are missing the point when they focus so much on worship. Worship is the thing most of us point to as the central descriptor of Christian faith and practice (I know I have). We quote the first assertion of the Westminster Shorter Catechism--"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"--and assume that worship is the essence of this duty or imperative (I'm not sure how we get "worship" from "glorify" and/or "enjoy").

The exaltation of impassioned worship gatherings in churches in recent years--whether a renewal of ancient liturgical forms or contemporary emotive gatherings that all but discard form--is pointed to as a step in the right direction.  We've considered it a step away from self-exaltation, away from shallowness, away from self-righteousness; a step toward a more mature, robust Christianity.  Now, I'm not so sure about that.

Whether contemporary or ancient in expression, worship, as the primary descriptor and focus point of Christian faith, has lots of baggage--baggage that Jesus seemed to be pointing his followers beyond.  Granted, there may be some liberated understandings of worship, but most of what I've heard described, seen enacted, and read about is pretty sub-christian or pre-christian.

This is part of the baggage of worship: its very etymology and core images are rooted in veneration of a deity by subjects who are trying to please, appease, or move the deity to assist them in some tangible way.  As such, worship predates the Bible.  Most of the Old Testament passages and images reflect such worship, with some modifications.  The OT moves from a simple, profound image of Abraham walking by faith with God (something the Apostle Paul would reassert is core) to layer upon layer of sophistication and grandiose staging of worship ritual.  A few exceptions are found in the Old Testament prophets, like Amos, whose spirituality moves away from the tabernacle/temple cultus to a lived relationship expressing tangible social justice.

Even though Jesus offered an eclipsing experience of faith and direct relationship between people and God, less than a century after Jesus, the church once again began returning to ancient, pre-christian worship patterns and continued building form and ritual into a highly-regulated system.  Ultimately, great cathedrals as worship centers accentuated this system.  Reform movements have usually tried to reformulate worship as part of their agenda.  The Society of Friends is one striking example.  But those of us who are beneficiaries of Martin Luther's reforms have found ourselves, after a generation or two of simplicity and freedom in worship, returning unwittingly to more ancient conceptions and patterns of worship.

It is not relating to God personally and/or corporately that I am questioning here.  It is, instead, the nature and manner of that relationship that we keep succumbing to that I challenge.  To cut to the chase: as long as we use the word-image of worship, we will ultimately live backward and down to its limited and limiting meaning.  If we are to live and become the people--personally and corporately--that Jesus beckoned us to be, perhaps we should consider moving beyond worship as the descriptor of who we are and what we do.

In short, God is not demanding worship.  God is not needing to be worshiped.  Not as we think of a deity being appeased or impressed.  Not as groveling subjects bowing to a powerful potentate.  Not as fearful people giving required honor.  Not as obligated people dutifully fulfilling prescribed rituals.  God is not like that, nor does that reflect the essential nature of the relationship Jesus models and invites us to.

To me, Jesus clearly points us beyond worship when he addresses the Samaritan woman at the well.  She worries about appropriate places and right rituals of worship and her place in the scheme of things.  "A time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth," Jesus replies.  Enough of the old stuff.  Enough groveling.  Enough about distance and appropriate places.  Enough squabbling over worship rituals and patterns.  Jesus offers something more profound: be in relationship with God and one another in spirit and truth.  "That's the kind of 'worship' God seeks," he says.

Jesus tried again and again to move his followers beyond worship.  Abide in me, he said, just like I abide with the Father.  Think in terms of friendship, not servants, he said.  Think in terms of love, he said.  Think about a relationship in terms of personal counsel.  Or in terms of yieldedness and mutuality.  Clearly, the direction is something beyond what we typically reflect and do on Sunday morning--whether we're in a Catholic cathedral or following the Book of Common Prayer or lifting our hands and closing our eyes as we sing full-throated as a band blasts out the latest contemporary pop-worship favorite.

I propose an alternative word and image in place of worship.  Try "communion."  We're at the table.  We're invited--us and billions of our fellow humans.  Still, it's accessible and intimate and participatory.  There's mutuality and learning and growth.  We're talking together.  We're breaking bread.  We're drinking from the common cup.  We're being nourished in body and soul.  And it's full of meaning and power.  There is awe and humility with the One in whose presence and companionship we find our footing and purpose, to be sure, but that doesn't call for subservience or dramatic fawning.  There is Otherness, but it is completely empowering.

I can imagine that folks indoctrinated in Calvin-based traditions will find letting go of worship as the  primary or core descriptor somewhat threatening.  Ancient images of worship are part and parcel with the Westminster and Swiss reformer's conception of spirituality.  But, to me, it's worth focusing more on the words, patterns and invitation of Jesus than hanging on to traditions that serve well up to a point but themselves become limiting to the life and relationship the living Word points toward and makes possible.

Moving into a communion-based focus, I am convinced, also empowers an engagement with life's difficulties and the world's challenges and the Christian's witness in it in a more direct way.  While worship should move us there, more often than not, worship, by its very historic meaning and image, keeps us focused in the cult, inside the walls.  Though there are notable exceptions to this pattern--and some will describe worship more as what happens outside the cult than what occurs inside it--the predominant pattern is that folks end their worship when they walk outside the church doors.

If you insist on sticking with worship as your modus operandi of relating to God, then I can only hope and pray that what occurred to Isaiah in the year Uzziah died when we was worshiping in the temple will happen to you.  The vision transformed Isaiah, turning him from being a mere repetitive worshiper into a turned-inside-out, spirit-and-truth prophet.  He moved from worship to communion--with God and his community.  Isn't that the point?

Oh, by the way, see you in worship next Sunday.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

AT THE GATES OF HOPE

"Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope--not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which can creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of 'Everything is gonna be all right.'  But a different, somewhat lonely place, the place of truth-telling...the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be--as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only the struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see." 

- Victoria Stafford from "The Small Work in the Great Work," in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, Basic Books, 2004

Monday, November 1, 2010

HOW I VOTE

Five questions I ask about every candidate every election

Everybody has different ways of approaching their vote in the polling place. Some are predictable party-line voters.  Some are one-issue voters.  Some think of short-term, highly-charged issues; others look more toward long-range challenges.  Some are emotional voters; others are more cool-headed.

What kind of voter am I?

Here are five considerations that, more than anything else, impact my voting:

1. How do they regard the poor?  What candidates, platforms and/or parties have a clear intention or a proven record of being sensitive and responsive to the crushing economic and social realities of poor children and families in our communities?  Simply put, Biblically, the first principle of community is compassion and justice for the poor.

2. How do they deal with the growing divide between the rich and middle class?  What candidates, platforms and/or parties express understanding and dare to make critical responses regarding the increasingly widening gap between the very rich (individuals and corporations) and the middle class and poor?  To me, nothing rips at the fabric of American democracy or breeds cynicism as much as this. And, yes, I think it critical to address this carefully and pointedly.

3. How do they regard the city?  What candidates will make a constructive investment in metropolitan economic vitality and a diverse, healthy urban life? I want to know if a candidate understands and values cities and I want to know to what extent they factor metropolitan vitality in their priorities and decisions.

4. Will they represent all and serve the whole?  What candidates frame issues more in terms of what is best for all over what is framed by interest groups, what is needed for a vulnerable many over what will satisfy campaign contributors and self-interested constituencies?  I want to know who really cares about the health of the whole and values those who cannot speak for themselves amid the overly-moneyed voices.

5. Do they have integrity and will they use it bridge divides?  What candidates have demonstrated integrity and breadth, along with enough moxie and charisma that I can imagine them bringing people together instead of primarily promoting their ideology?  First, show me you have genuine sincerity and sound ethics.  And show me you think well, think through, think of others.  Then, show me you are savvy enough to bridge some divides and use whatever influence you are given to represent all instead of implementing ideologically-spawned policies.

That's about it.  Given these questions, I typically have slim pickings at the polls. Few of the candidates and issues I vote for often prevail.  But, I'm satisfied that these questions are principled, coming from deeply-held convictions.

I can unpack these voting considerations on down the road.  But maybe my brief statement will encourage you to begin to identify the guiding principles that determine how you vote and for whom you vote.  If you take the time to do that, I'd be interested in your findings.