Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Seven observations that emerge from 21 years in the heart of the city

NEAR EASTSIDE & WEST INDIANAPOLIS. I have invested most of my adult life working in Indianapolis urban neighborhoods. I first served as Pastor of Shepherd Community and a director of its then-fledgling, now-bustling compassionate ministry. I then succeeded the beloved John H. Boner at the Near Eastside community center now named in his honor. I was then asked to guide Horizon House to rebuild and reboot its day services to homeless neighbors. Coming full circle, I served as Pastor of West Morris Street Free Methodist Church, a 95-year old congregation in the southwest shadow of downtown.

NEVER MORE ALIVE AND HOPEFUL. Twenty-one of the past 24 years, I’ve been privileged to serve in or in relationship to the heart of the city. During this time, I have felt welcomed, invited, drawn forward, empowered, and blessed. I’ve been scolded, doubted, intimidated, stretched, and provoked. I’ve never felt more alive, more on a learning curve, more opened up to changing realities, more overwhelmed by immensities, or more hopeful of possibilities. The gift and challenge of community has taken hold in me. You might say that I am ruined for any other way of life or vocation because of these community organizing experiences.

MY TEACHERS AND TRAINERS. Caring neighbors, faithful congregations, committed activists, and supporting partners have shaped the way I view the city, the region, and the world. Out of this, I will forever be seeking to encourage community and foster the circumstances in which interdependence, trust, faith, hospitality, sacrifice, and neighborliness are the norm, not the occasional exception. I jotted down the following reflections on some of what I have learned from serving in Indy’s urban neighborhoods, and for these I am grateful:

1. THERE IS NO GREATER CHALLENGE OR DEEPER CALLING THAN BECOMING AND BEING A NEIGHBOR. Whether across the street, region, or world, we never max this most basic, humanizing challenge. It's far easier to say "neighbor" than be one. But with every neighborly action, we realize more of that for which we exist.

2. IT IS ONE THING TO MOVE INTO, LIVE OR WORK IN A COMMUNITY; IT IS ANOTHER MATTER TO MOVE TOWARD COMMUNITY. Proximity is of little value if it is not combined with opening one’s heart to one’s neighbors and getting involved. Community is, first of all, a movement of the heart.

3. THOUGHTFUL LOCAL ACTIONS HAVE GREATER POWER TO SHAPE COMMUNITIES FOR THE GOOD THAN WELL-INTENTIONED POLICIES PLANNED AND IMPLEMENTED FROM AFAR. Our world is more likely to be changed for the better from a strategic urban neighborhood initiative than it is from Washington, D.C. or the United Nations building.

4. AS A COROLLARY, I CONFIRM THE ADAGE THAT A FEW THOUGHTFUL PEOPLE ACTING TOGETHER MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE. Effective neighborhood actions and social service interventions are fueled by a few who believe it can be done, and they do it. Who knows what can happen if more get involved and act more strategically for the common good at local levels?

5. IN OFFERING HOSPITALITY TO STRANGERS, WE WIDEN THE CIRCLE OF COMMUNITY AND ANTICIPATE TRANSFORMATION UNIQUE TO SUCH OPEN-HEARTEDNESS. Some of the greatest gifts I have received have come from people who appeared to have little to give, no one to commend them, and whose stake in the community is generally overlooked. Within safe boundaries, learning to recognize and receive the contributions of otherwise disregarded citizens can be one of our city’s most valuable assets.

6. WHERE AGREEMENT ON AN ISSUE IS NOT POSSIBLE, THERE CAN STILL BE RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY OF PATHS AND EXPLORATION OF NEW COMMON GROUND. I have learned to reject most either/or, win/lose, good guy/bad guy framing of conflicts and community issues. Common ground is there, but it must be sought for and cultivated with a persevering passion, as if everything depended on it.

7. DEVELOPING EMERGING LEADERSHIP MUST BE A PRIORITY FOR EACH CONGREGATION AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION. The value of being “community based” is always just a generation of leadership away from extinction. Some non-profits have lost or seriously distorted this component of their mission and leadership without even realizing it. Every organization in the community owes it to itself, the community, and the future to grant the time and resources needed to help emerging leaders develop community networks and explore the challenges and opportunities of formal and informal neighborhood and community-based leadership.

Friday, April 22, 2011


For use in contemplating the Good Friday story in contemporary context

STUMBLING BLOCK TO FAITH.  “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot.  The reality is so horrible, it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” -- W.H.  Auden


Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy Blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon--
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

-- Christina Rossetti

GIVEN PUBLICLY.   “Given is the word.  Given publicly, on the first Good Friday, on a hill, in the sight of all, was the visible demonstration of the only permanent way to overcome evil.  Human nature demands something more enduring than the unquiet equilibrium of rival powers.” – Muriel Lester

LEADING OUT, DRAWING IN.  “The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city.  It does not invite thought but a change of mind.  It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned.  On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God.” -- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God


Holy one,
shock and save me with the terrible goodness of this Friday,
and drive me deep into my longing for your kingdom,
until I seek first
yet not first for myself,
but for the hungry
and the sick
and the poor of your children,
for prisoners of conscience around the world,
for those I have wasted
with my racism
and sexism
and ageism
and nationalism
and regionalism
for those around this mother earth and in this city
who, this Friday, know far more of terror than of goodness,
that, in my seeking first the kingdom,
for them as well as for myself,
all these things may be mine as well:
things like a coat and courage
and something like comfort,
a few lilies in the field
the sight of birds soaring on the wind,
a song in the night,
and gladness of heart,
the sense of your presence
and the realization of your promise
that nothing in life or death
will be able to separate me or those I love,
from your love
In the crucified one who is our Lord,
and in whose name and Spirit I pray.
-- Ted Loder in Guerillas of Grace

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Jesus set the example of servant leadership. Do we resist?

"AS I HAVE DONE FOR YOU."  Last year, some of our family participated in the Maundy Thursday liturgy at St. John's Episcopal Church in Breckenridge, Colorado. The little church was half-full and likely a quarter of us were out-of-towners.  No matter.  Not used to the turnings and citings and readings of formal liturgy, we fumbled our way through the service.  The part in which I felt particularly connected was the foot washing.  Following the story of John 13:1-17, we were invited to do for another what Jesus did for his disciples that night of their last supper together.  After the pastoral team, we were invited to wash each other's feet at the front of the sanctuary.  During the foot washing, the congregation sang:

Brother, let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.

HOMELESS NEIGHBORS' FEET.  The radical humiliation of washing the feet of another person first struck me when I was asked to help a nurse with foot soaks and foot massages for the homeless men who visited Horizon House.  I initially offered to help, but when the hour came, I found myself strangely resistant and made excuses not to be available to wash their feet.  The next week, the nurse wouldn't let me off the hook.  I found myself kneeling before the dirty, swollen, smelly feet of a homeless man.  Still resistant but yielded, I gave myself to the task, pushing thoughts and inner protests aside.  One after another, I washed and massaged feet until there were no more feet to wash.  I felt relieved and released and somehow strangely at peace.  From that point on, I have always viewed people without homes as neighbors, recognizing and accepting my connection, complicity, and challenge in their condition.

LEADING PARADIGM.  During my 2000-mile bicycle ride through India in 2007, we were honored in Bangalore by foot washing.  The Free Methodist Bishops of India knelt down and washed each cyclist's feet in front of all their pastors, parishioners, and non-christian friends and community members who gathered to welcome us to that city.  Knowing the strong sense of caste and social role that pervade the various Indian cultures, I can only begin to imagine the radical--even offensive--action of a leader washing anyone's feet.  But this is likely close to the context of Jesus' action on Maundy Thursday.  He is the Servant Leader and this is the primary image for Christian leadership.  The towel and basin stand alongside the cross.  Those who dismiss or stray from this paradigm mislead.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Palm Sunday signals that the future doesn't belong to those who use might to make right

NAÏVE AND UNWITTING. Palm Sunday is the ultimate expression of mistaken hopes for national spiritual renewal and theocracy. Naively, the followers of Jesus anticipate he will overthrow corrupt worldly government and power. They hope for a restoration of Israel’s “good ol’ days.” Its contemporary equivalent is the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and similar Christian populist movements. Palm Sunday triumphalism is precisely NOT the way it is supposed to be for those who follow Jesus.

INDULGING THE HOPEFUL. But Jesus seems to indulge hopeful naiveté on Palm Sunday. He goes along as far as he can. He allows himself to be praised as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord,” a designation reserved for Messiah. He says to the propriety-obsessed religious leaders who are aghast at the children’s “Hosanna” cries: “If they don’t praise me, the rocks will.” Yet, Jesus doesn’t let himself be controlled by their hopes, demands, or fears. Jesus stays on task to accomplish his mission.

REDEFINING LORDSHIP. During what we now call Holy Week, Jesus shatters Palm Sunday naiveté and triumphalism. Jesus forever re-defines Kingdom, Lordship, power, leadership, morality, and triumph through the Cross and Resurrection. The future does not belong to those who use might to make right, but to those who embrace and live the paradox of the Cross and Resurrection: “Whoever saves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.” It will take all the imagination and creativity and energy that grace will make possible for the rest of my life to grasp and live this paradox.


A weaponless, army-less liberating king rides into the violent polis on a colt. Is he crazy?

A NEW WAY OF LIVING. It is not likely you have ever heard this take on Palm Sunday: in theological and anthropological terms, I imagine Palm Sunday to be as much about ushering in nonviolence as anything. Palm Sunday is at once an outwardly naïve social moment and at the same time an inwardly authentic signal of a new way of living and leading.

WATCH CLOSELY NOW. It is not that Jesus has not thoroughly exemplified nonviolence before now. It is that he is now allowing himself to be publicly declared Messiah in the heart of the polis and the stakes are ever so much higher. Watch him closely now. Strain to observe as, having completely renounced violence inside and out, he faces his foes and darkest hours.

POWER AND CONTROL. Renunciation of violence is heard in Jesus' voice and seen in his actions throughout his last week. Even Jesus' effort to drive the religious profiteers out of the temple is a near-comical expression of the futility of violence. What does it accomplish? But never mistake nonviolence for weakness. Jesus is not at all powerless as he enters Jerusalem. It becomes clear as the week advances, even as the cross is planted and the tomb is sealed, that Jesus is the controlling enigma.

CHOSEN RESPONSE.  His chosen response to intimidation, pressure, accusations, betrayal, desertion, condemnation, suffering, violence, and even death is a nonviolent response. It is not about giving in to fate or conceding anything; it is about exercising power that is nothing more or less than faith and trust in a loving God to bring meaning and life to one's existence and journey.

ON AN EXCEPTIONAL PEDESTAL? When it comes to thinking of nonviolence as a way of life, we mistakenly set Jesus on a heroic pedestal. We think of his actions as exemplary, exceptional, unique, and unrepeatable. They certainly are not, we surmise, the pattern for our own lives or social and political behaviors. We sentimentally accept Jesus as personal savior and Lord, but immediately bracket and set aside the very core of his witness and pattern. We say "yes, but…" We want his forgiveness and laud his sacrificial life, but we are not willing to live nonviolently, lovingly, trustingly, redemptively, powerfully ourselves. We want, in the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer's phrase, "cheap grace."

SAYING ONE THING, LIVING ANOTHER. For all our words, worship, songs, and altruistic actions, when it comes to the most powerful aspects of Jesus' witness, we do not imitate Christ if we do not embrace his nonviolence. Therefore, we neither truly follow him nor glorify God. Though we say so, we evidently do not trust God and before the world make a mockery of faith in God's name. We are certain the future of the world is best left in our self defending hands and in our calculating control. Better yet, in the hands of self-serving politicians and power brokers who give lip service to Christianity but live and act by the same power sources as did the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate. And we bless them.

CHOOSE YOUR POWER SOURCES CAREFULLY. In Jesus, particularly in his so-called triumphal entry scenario, we are challenged to continuously renounce our violence every day in every encounter. We are given opportunity to renounce the subtlest uses of threats, intimidation, controlling, fear, and shaming. We are invited to let go of the impulse to be self defensive or to coerce others for the sake of keeping the peace or promoting just causes. Whether the arena is our household or the global stage, the opportunity is the same. We are shown how to live from a different place in our soul when it comes to exercising power or taking authority. It is a place of strength, the strength to love. So, choose your sources of power carefully.

A ROAD LESS TRAVELED. Nonviolence is not easy. Folks try hard to be nonviolent. It takes more energy and determination than going with the flow of violence that defines our culture. It is a road less traveled. It is marching to a different drumbeat. Sometimes we can be quite militant in our vigilant commitment to nonviolence, to the point of taking on a violent spirit. I am convinced that a commitment to and actions for nonviolence are not enough. Renunciation is pointless if not for a surpassing love that transcends violence and endues us with a higher power, a life-giving source.

AN EMBRACED TRANSCENDENT LOVE. Nonviolence apart from an embraced transcendent love remains mere idealism. It is right, but only partly so. Renouncing violence is unsustainable personally and socially in merely humanistic terms. Without a spiritually inward transaction, I am not sure that as a social agenda it will work. It seems to me that nonviolence can only lead to shalom if violence is supplanted by agape love.

LOVE AND VIOLENCE. But why is it that many who claim the name and love of God never renounce violence? Why do we not include personal and institutional violence when we declare, in the great confession, that we renounce Satan and all his works? Why do we continue to live in reflection of a violent god? Why is the spirit and example of Jesus on Palm Sunday and Holy Week not incorporated into the pattern and practice of our lives? This remains an open question for me. It puzzles me. It keeps me looking forward.

Friday, April 15, 2011


There is nobody he does not fully love

“As he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by people shouting 'hosanna,' 'cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path,' Jesus appears completely concentrated on something else. He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not wave. He sees beyond all the noise and movement to what is ahead of him: an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death….There is a deep awareness of the unspeakable pain to be suffered, but also a strong determination to do God’s will. Above all, there is love, an endless, deep and far-reaching love born from an unbreakable intimacy with God and reaching out to all people, wherever they are, were, or will be. There is nothing that he does not fully know. There is nobody whom he does not fully love.” 

– Henri J. M. Nouwen

Thursday, April 14, 2011


THIS VULNERABLE GOD. “On this Sunday, through the palms and the shouts of royal acclamation, we see that Jesus enters Jerusalem to fulfill the longing of the ages, but in a way we could never have imagined. This vulnerable God rides into the city and also into our lives, entering those deep places of sorrow and suffering and fear, taking them on as one who has lived both with us and for us.” - Keenan Kelsey

FESTIVAL OF PARADOX. "Palm Sunday is the festival of a paradox, the paradox that lies that the very heart of the Christian faith. Jesus is the Messiah, and yet not the Messiah. Nevertheless in a higher and final sense he is the Messiah, the one who was to come, and who came, and who is still to come. 'Jesus is the King who did not reign.' Even so, Christians have described him as the 'uncrowned King.' He was uncrowned, but it was with a crown of thorns, and his scepter was a reed. He did not reign, yet he does reign, he has reigned, he will reign for ever and ever.” - Frederick C. Grant

THE LIFE TO WHICH WE ARE CALLED. “The Kingdom of which Christ is Lord is not worldly but it is not otherworldly; for it is a Kingdom in this world, a historical and political reality, which both devastates and consummates the apparently prevailing order and all of its regimes and putative regimes and revolutionary causes. The life to which those in Christ are called consists of living as a society, now under the reign of the Word of God, beholden to Christ as Lord of all of life within the whole of creation, until that day when his reign is vindicated and the fullness of the power of death is exhausted, and all persons, principalities, and powers are rendered accountable, and this history ends.” - William Stringfellow

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


It wasn't what they were expecting, but is was better than could have hoped for

PRISONERS IN THEIR OWN TOWNS. The oppressed people got swept up in the coming of the liberator. For years they had been afraid to speak their mind openly. They had been treated unfairly. They felt like prisoners in their own towns. Everywhere soldiers of their ruler could be seen – a ruthless lot ready to pounce on anyone who stepped out of line. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

IT IS HERE! They’d heard of promised liberation. They’d dared to hope for it, believe the stories. But it sounded too good to be true. Their longing hope was always mingled with cynicism fueled by their present oppression. The day dawned, however, when someone shouted: “Here they come!” “It’s here!” People dropped what they were doing. They cautiously peered out of the shadow of their doubts. Could it be true that liberation was finally going to be realized?

TOWN IN FRENZY. Sure enough, over the crest of the hill came the rolling parade. Folks abandoned their fears and took to the streets. Hope welled up inside them as the procession neared. And joy. This was cause for exuberance. In a sign of gratitude and honor, some put articles of clothing on the ground in front of the entourage. Some saluted. On tiptoe, some waved homemade signs and fronds plucked from nearby trees. Some raised their voices in shouts of exaltation at the liberation that was coming. The town was in frenzy.

WHAT’S THE SIGNAL? The liberating entourage came riding down Main Street. Was it a demonstration of defiance in the face of the oppressive ruler? Was it a show of force, to let the oppressors know their days were numbered and that the liberator could move about wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted? Was this the beginning of the regime’s end? The signal for a grass-roots revolution? What could this act mean? What would follow this day of liberation, this Palm Sunday?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The King of Palm Sunday conquers by the cross on Good Friday

Hail, king Jesus!
Come to set us free
Riding on a colt
Bearer of peace

Hail, King Jesus!
Come to set us free
Going to the cross
Bearer of grief

New kind of king
Kinder and gentler
Lead on to Zion
Young crown wearer

New kind of king
Servant and giver
He lays down his life
Young cross bearer

Swept on he goes
To Jerusalem
Bring down corruption
Let right begin!

Swept on he goes
To Calvary hill
Bring down oppression
Let love flow still!

Monday, April 4, 2011


This is the poem for which Wendell Berry's beloved collection of Sabbaths poems is named

Though I think the trees and woods Wendell Berry is referring to in this poem may be located near his farm in northern Kentucky, I imagine the giant, ancient sequoias I just witnessed in Yosemite National Park in California. Walking among them made an indelible impression on me.  In the shadow of their might, I recalled Berry's poem and sing it with him anew.

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


I worked on this piece of free verse this week

I’ve come halfway through Lent
hanging on to my sacrifice
by a thread, by sheer dint of will
and right proud of myself for doing so.

Thus far, this blessed subtraction
seems more mild inconvenience
than a costly denial of my flesh
for some sacred purpose.

However, I confess that, lately,
my mind and will connive together
to justify exceptions, seeking clauses
for subtle exclusions to my sacred vow.

And, I wonder, if I interrupt my fast
for some rationalized necessity,
will it be easier the next time? Or, might I
just as well throw in the towel, confirmed
in my inability to go the distance?

And would my pathetic capitulation
lead, as ever, to trivializing sound sacrifices
others have made and are dutifully
maintaining during these forty days?

I’ve an inkling this simple vigil I keep may
become difficult and morph, somehow,
into a complex soul struggle; an insatiated appetite
magnify transcendent trajectories.

What, if anything, is worth waiting for,
so weighty that every passing desire and
all mounting powers pale in comparison
to seeing its fruition, living its fulfillment?