Sunday, November 25, 2012


Move beyond beholdenness and servitude to friendship in maturing spiritual and social relationships

Billy Fisher (left) and I have been friends since childhood.
Like numerous friendships I'm privileged to participate in,
along with a knowing familiarity and ever-surprising
discovery of wonder, there is a mutual trust, freedom,
and a readiness to guard the other's dignity.
I’ve been thinking about the nature of spiritual relationships.  If we--as we--claim faith in and relationship to Jesus, what is the nature of that ongoing relationship?

I’m struck by a current fixation on worship in many Christian settings and songs.  Sermons, articles, songs and events leave me with the impression that being a Christian is about groveling dependency and some persistent demand of God to be submitted unto and worshiped.

Yet, near the end of their apprenticeship, Jesus pointedly moved his closest disciples to a relationship of friendship.  “I no longer call you servants…I call you friends.” Check it out in John 15:14.

Jesus challenged his disciples to move beyond calling him "Lord" to calling him "friend."  He directs them beyond serving him to mutuality, beyond discipleship to collegiality, beyond dependency to responsibility, beyond worship to fellowship.

The trajectory of a grace-based spiritual relationship arcs toward friendship with Jesus, fellowship with God.

"With"--what a wonderful word and expression of relationship.

This isn't new, of course.  It's as old as Abraham.  "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness--and he was called the friend of God."  Check it out in James 2:23.

Imagine becoming a lifelong friend of someone who saved your life.  Imagine someone was your rescuer--one who risked his or her life to save and restore yours, one to whom you will forever be grateful.  But now, that same person is your friend—listening, attending to, tuning in, walking with, abiding, guiding, counseling.  And you are his or her friend--there is commitment and mutuality.  You will always be aware of and grateful for his or her rescue, but the relationship has developed, grown and matured well beyond incessant beholdenness.

I'm privileged to encounter and participate in--receive and contribute to--more than a few friendships that extend across many miles and years. They are like gifts--each is unique in its origin and nature.  I can talk to any one of these friends about almost anything with considerable confidence.  We can go for months--sometimes years--without contact and then pick up on a thread of conversation and care that seems never to have been interrupted.  Along with knowing familiarity and ever-surprising discovery of wonder, there is a mutual trust, freedom and readiness to guard the other's dignity.  Because of this, we are able to share and say hard or difficult things when necessary.  I imagine this to be the nature of spiritual relationship with Jesus, of fellowship with God.

Grateful, yielding friendship more than commanded servitude describes the maturing relationship of faith.  I will ever be aware of and confess my dependence on Jesus' salvific work for me and for all, but  he has invited--indeed called--me and all who respond to him to friendship.

After journaling about this, I happened onto comments by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, quoted by Brian McLaren, regarding spiritual friendship.  To the traditionally understood titles of Jesus as prophet, priest and king, Moltmann suggests another:
"But the fellowship which Jesus brings people, and the fellowship of people with one another to which he calls, would be described in one-sided terms if another 'title' were not added, a title to describe the inner relationship between the divine and the human fellowship: the name of friend." 
"Friendship is a human relationship which springs from freedom, exists in mutual freedom and preserves that freedom... The many-faceted work of Christ...can be taken to its highest point in his friendship," for friendship is "the highest form of love." (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, quoted by McLaren in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?)
Next time you hear or sing along with a Christian song that goes no further than worshiping God and thanking Jesus for his rescue, remind yourself: that's where it starts, but that's not where it points. We aren't merely servants of Jesus; we're friends.  The difference is pretty significant.

Friendship as a spiritual relational development also has strong implications for how we "do" ministry and go about so-called "secular" community development.

A few years ago, I listened to Northwestern University urban community development guru John McKnight conduct a seminar on his now well-known and impactful principles and practices of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). McKnight ended the seminar by pulling out of his wallet a folded piece of paper. He unfolded and read it slowly: John 15:9-17. He repeated for emphasis: "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends."

McKnight's whole ABCD concept is based on becoming friends with God and friends with our neighbors--no matter their socio-economic status or resources or whatever.  We are to be neither lords nor servants (McKnight demonstrates how much "professional servants" cost those who are being "served" in the welfare and compassion industries.  What the lords don't take with them when they abandon urban communities, the servants divide amongst themselves). Instead, we are called to be mutually responsible friends.  The policy and practical implications are powerful.

Friends trump lords and servants every time--whether in spiritual or social terms.

I posted a blog piece--a prayer--a few weeks ago that precipitated this reflection.  It really is a twin to this piece.  A God-Wrestler's Prayer.

I look forward to your "friendly" responses.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Why I choose to approach dailyness as a contemplative

Glenna Thomas, one of my favorite old saints at the church of my childhood, was once looking around during congregational prayer.  After the “Amen” and when everyone else had raised their heads and opened their eyes, her granddaughter, who had spied Glenna’s eyes wide open, blurted out loud: “Grandma, you’re supposed to close your eyes when we pray, but you were looking around.”  Glenna laughed and, without missing a beat, retorted just as openly: “Honey, the Bible says to watch and pray, and I was watching!”

Impressed by the witness, practice and writings of Thomas Merton, I committed to try to become a contemplative a number of years ago.  It’s a spiritual practice deeply rooted in church history.  Though most often associated with monasteries (Merton was a Trappist monk), contemplative Christian spirituality is just as well practicable in a fully engaged, work-a-day world.  Who knows?  You may be a contemplative and not even realize it.

The best way I can describe it is this: contemplatives live and pray with eyes wide open.  We pray with the newspaper in one hand and the Scriptures in the other.  We literally pray the news—and not just the news, but life as we experience it.  We take it all in—the good, the bad and the ugly—consider it, reflect on it as fully as possible, and then respond to it in light of what we can grasp of God’s story and Spirit of grace.

Contemplative living intentionally heightens awareness and sensitivity to what impacts life both near and far, small and great, personally and systemically, micro and macro.  Instead of narrowing one’s focus to one’s own particular vocational niche, organization, interests, direct responsibilities and assigned tasks, a contemplative dares to set one’s own limited responsibilities and small tasks in the context of all others--of systems, of networks, of powers that be, of relationships with known neighbors nearby and unnamed and not known on the other side of the world.  A contemplative takes the whole world, as it were, into one’s heart, and begins to see otherwise imperceptible connections and relationships across the whole spectrum.

This way of living refuses to pretend that what’s really evil or difficult or inconvenient isn’t really there, isn’t serious, or is “not my problem” and dismisses it.  Instead of using religion to label, avoid, or trump what’s difficult or oppositional, contemplatives dare to let the fullness of both light and shadow, both positive and negative, both what is soulfully uplifting and what is soul sabotaging to be revealed, felt, considered, discerned, lifted up, and then continue to be responded to in grace again and again throughout life.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t grant the option of ignoring or caring less about what is troubling or complex in our world.  Instead, it faces it (sometimes with trembling), takes it in, discerns it as fully as possible, and lifts it up to God, and considers it in the light of grace.  For long periods of time, it sometimes seems, apparently irreconcilable paradoxes can weigh on one’s mind and heart.  One feels something of the impact of profound tensions--real sorrows and the agony of injustices, as well as the joys of breakthroughs and healings.  As the weight of paradox is felt, heaviness is lifted to God.  Contemplative pray-ers turn heartfelt anguish or awe inside out to God in a manner similar to the Psalmists.

So, I approach this Thanksgiving with an acute awareness of the profound paradoxes in our culture and world at the moment.  I hold in tension Thanksgiving and bloodshed in Gaza, Black Friday frivolity and mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the desire for personal integrity and the reality of confounding social complexity (and my unavoidable complicity in it).  And I pray for a heart broken enough, a mind broad enough, and a faith buoyant enough to embrace these realities with a forward-looking, creative stewardship.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


A poem, to be read on Thanksgiving
A few years ago, I went searching for the ultimate Thanksgiving poem.  I turned up lots of worthy renderings.  I have since posted quite a few of these on Indy Bikehiker.  But nothing that year spoke to or from what I was feeling at the time.  So, here's the result of my attempt, not at the ultimate Thanksgiving poem, but to express what was--and is--in my heart as we approach this holiday.

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.

Friday, November 16, 2012


My poem describes possible purposes of Thanksgiving Day

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.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


A still-emerging poem of Thanksgiving

Shall gratitude fail
even as the day that proclaims it
draws near?
An age-old grievance surfaces,
rude and unwelcome.
Petty regrets and jealousies stir
afresh, subtly skewing the
lightening horizon.
Common relational tensions
seem annoyingly magnified
in light of a conscious decision to
accentuate the positive—especially
for this holiday.

Presence or gnawing absence
of estranged or once-endeared loved ones
plays games with a heart intent on
embracing thanksgiving’s spirit.
Unusual or changed circumstances
provide breeding ground for
doubt or guilt or despair—
particularly for souls trained
to calibrate meaning by repetitive, familiar,
nearby things.

Shall gratitude fail
in calculation of debits and credits
of goodness on a balance sheet?
Weighing pleasant occurrences
over against troubles threatens
a tenuous thanksgiving.
Only if gratitude is faux
will it falter in the face of
persistent rationalizations for
justifiable self-pity.

Out of a thousand impressions
and experiences appealing for
complaint or protest, gratitude
emerges—wonder of wonders—as
the response of choice.
Discounting no injustices,
minimizing no contrary feelings,
gratitude simply shines a light
on what is given and good
and declares it so.

Neither a salve for wrongs
nor an obfuscating diversion,
gratitude, instead, invites recognition,
often amid too-obvious wreckage,
of grace and mercy and love—
unearned, undeserved and free.
And in this recognition, this choice,
this declaration, thanksgiving
opens a way to walk toward tomorrow
with confidence, with courage,
with hope.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Inside and out, the metropolitan area is an arena begging the incarnation of grace

CYNICS, THIEVES, & SOLDIERS. The invitation to serve, to which we can respond gratefully with our own unique “send me,” does not necessarily lead us into sanitized places or safe situations. In his book Only One Way Left (1956), George Fielden MacLeod writes:

"I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage-heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about."

DESPERADOES ALL. I have been mulling this quote over again in my diverse capacities in a sprawling metropolitan area. Haven't we all, in one way or another, at one time or another, lived as thieves and among thieves--desperadoes all--contributing our own crudities to the diverse mix of humanity that calls the city “home” and tries to make a way in it? There is little difference, save money and levels of sophistication and self-deception, between the inner-city desperado and the suburban one. But for grace, the whole metropolitan area languishes hopelessly.

THE SAVING SCANDAL. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is the saving scandal to which the obviously hungry and the thought-to-be-satisfied both turn. Grace is not neat, not tame, not controlled, and certainly not quaintly preserved on a table of Communion. An old gospel song blurts out its raw essence: “That God should love a sinner such as I…how wonderful is love like this!”
PUT GRACE TO THE TEST. There seems to be a notion aloft that grace is fragile and somehow needs to be protected from the forces or influences that would threaten the church, undermine orthodoxy, or derail the faithful. But grace does not need our stained-glass protections. Instead, it needs to be released, laid bare before the powers that be, and tested in the warp and woof of raw community life. Let us follow its lead, trusting in its promise to hold and draw, particularly amid the wreckage of the world’s broken people and broken promises.

BREAKING THE SPELL. Grace is greater. The power of forgiveness, the promise of reconciliation, the reality of lived love, the freedom of truth, the possibility of peace, the healing touch of comfort, hope, faith (just for starters)... these are greater than the cynical spell of resentment, hatred, division, greed, prejudice, alienation, despair, and fatalism that pervade so many individuals, groups, media, and institutions. Dare to express and offer grace: to act boldly on its claims, to lean into its assertions, and to become its emissary in the cosmopolitan community.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


She may be one of the most important voices you've not yet heard. 

I occasionally feature a few people who have become teachers and at-a-distance mentors to me.  Muriel Lester's witness is one I happened onto via my readings about Gandhi.  She is particularly interesting to me because her faith tradition is Baptist--not such a stretch for finding common language, heritage, and theological underpinnings as with Gandhi, a Hindu, or Dorothy Day, of Roman Catholic heritage.

AMBASSADOR OF RECONCILIATION. Muriel Lester’s (1883-1968) witness of Christian compassion in one of the poorest sections of London (Bow) during the first half of the 20th century is outstanding in and of itself.  But Lester’s witness for nonviolence and international peace in the midst of World War I & II, along with her ambassadorial work for the Fellowship for Reconciliation, sets her apart.  Known as the "mother of world peace," "ambassador of reconciliation," nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and known as “the Jane Addams of England,” Lester is hardly known today.  But her witness is worth revisiting.

WITNESS FOR PEACE.  Lester doesn’t quite conform to the labeling stereotype of a “peace activist” or “bleeding-heart liberal” (are their opposites “war activists” and “stone-hearted conservatives?”).  Like Dorothy Day, Lester worked out of a deeply-lived and radically-incarnated Christian faith.  Day was Catholic, Lester was Baptist.  Both women’s experience of Jesus and the Word of God led them to similar callings--a life-long commitment to lift up the poor and labor for justice and peace in the face of prevailing community and religious cultures that disparaged both.  Lester advocated for the independence of India and worked closely with Gandhi in this effort.

I found the following thought-provoking quotes on the Fellowship Of Reconciliation website (

HERE AND NOW.  “Once you have found your relationship to God, you need never look around for work.  From that moment every person is your friend and your brother.  Your job is to build up the Kingdom of God, here, now, on earth.  You find every circumstance and every moment rich in creative opportunity.   Even sin--your own and other people's--is found to be a steppingstone to a deeper knowledge, a clearer understanding.  Your task is to set up, here and now, wherever you happen to be, the reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”

HOW TO BEGIN EACH DAY.  “The day should begin by focusing on God as shining beauty, radiant Joy, creative power, all-pervading love, perfect understanding, purity and peace.”

WHAT PRAYER LEADS TO.  “Prayer always thrusts one out into action sooner or later.  One of its main functions is to induce one to think creatively; it stretches the imagination; it enables one to see things and people not as they are but as they might be; it strips the pomp, the sense of power and the static security from the person prayed for and permits one to see him as he is in God’s sight--a mere child, needing help, needing courage, needing enlightenment from God as definitely as an infant needs the care of its mother.”

IS GOD FRIGHTENED BY WHAT FRIGHTENS YOU?  “If you will be a realist, ask yourself as you walk down the street how many horrible things in one hour do you meet?  Let these things later come back into your prayer time.  You realize that there is always something you can do about them when you get near God, and begin to think His thoughts after him.  These things which frighten you do not frighten God.”

BORN BROTHERS, NOT ENEMIES.  “God has made of one blood all nations under heaven.  No man can suddenly become my enemy just because he happened to have been born on the other side of a river or a boundary line, and his government has issued an ultimatum against mine.  Is it not time that we refused to fight?”

AT THE EXPENSE OF THE MANY.  “Today the few have achieved their economic freedom at the expense of the many.  That is why our world order is tottering.  Nothing can save it but a united attempt to put the will of God into operation.”

MORATORIUM ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT?  “We refused at Kingsley Hall to pronounce a moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount for the duration of the war (World War I).  We could not conceive of God as a nationalist.  We could not suddenly look upon our brother man as an enemy just because he chanced to have been born on the other side of a river or a strip of sea.”

WAR IS OUTMODED.  “War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and dueling - an insult to God and man - a daily crucifixion of Christ.”

THINKING INDEPENDENTLY.  “Excess in drink, vice or gambling won't draw attention to you, but thinking independently will.  If it leads you to act generously, to identify yourself with the poor or the prisoner or the foreigner or the Negro, the vested interests will be displeased.”