Sunday, August 31, 2014

This God

I love the way Annie Dillard whimsically confronts the paradox of what we often refer to as "acts of God."

RING OF TRUTH.  Because of her marvelous imagery and meandering, non-linear manner, it is hard to find sound bytes that do Annie Dillard justice.  She is always noticing, studying, reflecting, connecting, and moving on without having tied things down for the reader.  She opens your mind and heart and touches resistant places but does not bring easy closure to such exposure.  Her writing has the ring of truth without impaling or domesticating it.  The following snippet is a three-second lap from a gushing 200-page fire hydrant titled For the Time Being (1999, Knopf).  Pay close attention to her very last sentence.  Very interesting.

WHAT GOD DOESN’T DO.  “God is no more blinding people with glaucoma, or testing them with diabetes, or purifying them with spinal pain, or choreographing the seeding of tumor cells through lymph, or fiddling with chromosomes, than he is jimmying floodwaters or pitching tornadoes at towns.  God is no more cogitating which among us he plans to place here as bird-headed dwarfs or elephant men—or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia, or sudden infant death syndrome—than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, triggering rock slides, or setting fires.  The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call ‘acts of God.’”

OUT OF THE LOOP?  “Then what, if anything, does he do?  If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens?  Is God completely out of the loop?”

NOT AS THE WORLD GIVES.  “Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning.  God is, oddly, personal; this God knows.  Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves.  He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time.”

GIFT AND RESPONSE.  “He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears.  Such experiences are gifts to beginners.  ‘Later on,’ a Hasid master said, ‘you don’t see these things anymore.’  (Having seen, people of varying cultures turn—for reasons unknown, and by a mechanism unimaginable—to aiding and serving the afflicted and poor.)”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Work is Good

Heading into Labor Day, I'm thinking about work. What's its meaning? What might it express of ourselves, of our faith? This includes some of my favorite quotes on work.

Jesuit and archeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reflections on the nature
of work resonate with me. Nothing of our work, said Teilhard, lies outside
the realm of the sacred and it all matters in the outcome of things.
Work and workplaces have been on my mind a lot lately.  Why do we work?  Do we work to work? To gain an income? To provide for our families? To express ourselves?  To learn?  To grow? To serve? To welcome God’s future? As co-laboring with God?  Why do you work?  Why do I work?  Perhaps it is one or a mix of these motivations.

WORK AS INSTRUMENTAL.  Listen to Parker Palmer mull over the question:  “Our capacity to take risks and learn from them depends heavily on whether we understand action as instrumental or expressive. The instrumental image portrays action as a means to predetermined ends, as an instrument or tool of our intentions.  The only possible measure of such action is whether it achieves the ends at which it is aimed.  Instrumental action always wants to win, but win or lose, it inhibits our learning. When the standards of instrumentalism dominate, our action is impoverished and our lives are diminished.” 

WORK AS EXPRESSIVE.  “Only when we act expressively do we move toward full aliveness and authentic power.  An expressive act is one that I take not to achieve a goal outside myself but to express a conviction, a leading, a truth that is within me. An expressive act is one taken because if I did not take it I would be denying my own insight, nature, gift.  By taking an expressive act, an act not obsessed with outcomes, I come closer to making the contribution that is mine to make in the scheme of things.” (from The Active Life, p. 24)

GOOD, WORLDLY WORK.  I remember the fear I had when, based on my freshly developed personal mission statement, I dared to come from behind the pulpit and walls of the church to step into the so-called “common world of work.” I did so not in denial of my calling or ordination, but in a sense of leaning into it more fully. At that point, for me to remain as a parish pastor would have been hiding or shrinking back from things I needed to learn, explore, and, perhaps, contribute.  My training for ministry prepared me to see ministerial and church activity as sacred work, but I have since discovered that “common, ordinary work” is also--and perhaps especially--the arena of sacredness.  But I have discovered that many ministers and “lay people” do not realize or seem to express this.

GERARD MANLY HOPKINS ON WORK.  I like this reflection by Gerard Manly Hopkins“It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.  Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, painting a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty.  To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop-pail, give God glory too.  God is so great that all things give glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live."

PRAYER FOR THE UNEMPLOYED.  “Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this community so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”  from The Book of Common Prayer

PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN ON WORK.  "The closeness of our union with Him is in fact determined by the exact fulfillment of the least of our tasks.  God, in all that is most living and incarnate in Him, is not far away from us, altogether apart from the world we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste about us. Rather, He awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment. There is a sense in which He is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle-of my heart and of my thought.  By pressing the stroke, the line, or the stitch, on which I am engaged, to its ultimate natural finish, I shall lay hold of that last end toward which my innermost will tends." from The Divine Milieu

WORKING SONG. Hear 18th-century London laborers sing this Charles Wesley song as they walk to work:

Son of the carpenter, receive
     This humble work of mine;
Worth to my meanest labor give
     By joining it to Thine.

End of my ev’ry action Thou,
     In all things Thee I see.
Accept my hallowed labor now;
     I do it unto Thee.

Thy bright example I pursue,
     To Thee in all things rise;
And all I think or speak or do
     Is one great sacrifice.

Servant of all, to toil for man
     Thou didst not, Lord, refuse;
Thy majesty did not disdain
     To be employed for us.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer's End?

When does summer end?

In our local school district's eyes, summer break concluded the first week of August. For kids around here, summer is by now a distant memory. But, according to the seasonal calendar, summer officially continues for several more weeks.

In my mind, summer ends with Labor Day. That's the seasonal gear shift. Perhaps this marker carries over from my childhood, when school ended with Memorial Day and convened after Labor Day.

So, as much as possible, I try to stay in a summer state of mind until after Labor Day. I keep a deliberate pace, a lighter schedule, and a recreational outlook. Often, these intentions get sabotaged by urgent deadlines or projects, but not too easily.

It's not that I dread fall--autumn is my favorite time of the year. It's that I imagine the fullness of summer is good for the sake of our soul's health.

Let's not rush on. Linger with the day until its end. Savor its blessings. Consider its lessons. Release its conflicts. Then, having rested, welcome the new day and a new season with a larger, grateful heart.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Response to Ferguson

Whatever is known or not known, whatever is clear or unclear, whatever has been or will be felt or said or done in the aftermath of Ferguson, this is true:

“The Hebrew scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it.

“God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about.  God gives power and blessing so that justice and righteousness will be upheld for those who are denied them.  This is what God is like.  This is what God is about.  This is who God is.

“To forget this, to fail to hear the cry, to preserve prosperity at the expense of the powerless, is to miss what God has in mind.”

                Rob Bell and Don Golden in Jesus Wants to Save Christians

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rebuilding Urban Neighborhoods from the Inside Out

Principles for comprehensive community development and urban neighborhood renewal

I’m convinced there’s never been a better time to invest in urban neighborhoods. Having served in a range of community and faith-based organizations in urban communities, I recently delved afresh into readings, research and conversations related to urban community revitalization. I am inspired by emerging possibilities.

Urban community development is a fascinating arena, full of hope and challenge. For all its promise, it's not an arena for the faint of heart; lots of crosscurrents are at work in the polis. At the same time, organizations, communities and individuals are attempting and expressing the very best in urban community development.

As I’ve examined the underpinnings of organizations and initiatives that are attempting to revitalize urban core communities, and as I’ve explored best practices resources, a few principles emerge for me. I hope to have further opportunities to articulate and shape these in practice, but I want to share them here--even if in embryonic form. It seems to me that these ideas apply not just to urban neighborhoods, but to more difficult and complex suburban ones. This is about as close to a community manifesto as I get.

1. All who desire urban community renewal and vital neighborhoods should consider the significant non-monetary costs and investments: relationship building, careful process, time, personal challenge, disappointments, agitations. These investments payoff well, but they should not be overlooked or avoided.

2. There is a way to rehab and build houses that brings neighbors into emerging relationship and grows healthy neighborhoods. If houses and landmark buildings are going to be rehabbed and restored anyway, why not do so in a way that builds relationships and makes community itself a landmark? Instead of following the pattern of most real estate developers, follow--and insist on--a process that reflects the community-building mission. 

3. It is easier to build houses and buildings than build enduring relationships and integrity with neighbors. Without these, community is just a place and a concept, not a relational reality. Investment in urban neighborhood renewal needs to account for and give attention to good process and relationship development with and among neighbors and organizations.

4. Good design and master planning can go halfway to develop inviting and livable urban neighborhoods, but it needs to be met halfway with relationship building. We like the aesthetics of well-designed structures in relationship to others. But it is the aesthetic of caring neighbors makes a community shine.

5. More people than we care to admit have lost their sense of place and community—and not just in urban neighborhoods. Being a consumer, patron and spectator doesn't begin to satisfy the desire to belong, contribute and shape the future that lies at the heart of all of us.  The continuing effort to include, invite, welcome, make room, recognize and celebrate—drawing the circle ever wider—brings all into a new and hopeful social reality.

6. Organizationally, nonprofits gain trust with neighbors and stakeholders when they act with humility, gratitude and creativity. These trump the hubris, expert-itis and authority plays that too frequently spill over into the arena from bad for-profit and public sector actors. Community-based organizations are most effective when their collective way of being is reflected in an “alongsideness” with neighbors and neighborhood groups.

7. Government and for-profit sectors can be good partners and stakeholders in urban community revitalization. As neighbors dream of community, look out for it, or seek to preserve or restore, they need critical stakeholders whose self-interest may be different than a neighbor’s or neighborhood’s. If urban communities are to be restored, community and faith-based nonprofits and fourth-sector associations of neighbors must articulate and fight for their dream. They can welcome partners, but they must lead the way.

8. Doing the right thing in the right way is one thing in the for-profit and public sector, but the “right thing” (leadership) and the “right ways” (management) may be quite different in an urban community redevelopment setting. It is a mistake to impose a “business knows best” grid on community-based initiatives. Instead, look for collaborations and partnerships in which all sectors learn from each other in this fascinating arena of urban community renewal. Though the process and path may be different than the one for-profit or public sector partners would prefer, the mutually-desired outcome of invested, livable, sustainable urban communities are the better, long-term outcome.

9. Renewing and taking seriously the principles and practices of Asset-Based Community Development can reinvigorate urban planning protocols and practices that say “asset-based” but may have deteriorated into satisfying report forms and getting projects completed on time. Recovery of rudimentary ABCD practices catapults community development toward its intended reality.

10. Organizations, partners, neighborhoods, and neighbors find synergy when they cross borders and build bridges between and among themselves. Connecting in every direction, like learning in every direction, creates common ground and possibilities for community realization (with its natural efficiencies and power) that could not otherwise be attempted.

11. Pressing challenges of urban neighborhood revitalization remain: (1) grappling head-on with the sources and impacts of economic poverty, (2) access to livable-wage employment and the education, readiness and advocacy which make that possible, (3) addressing reentry for thousands of ex-felons in a way that offers livable-wage work and reintegration without unreasonable life-long barriers and stigmas, and (4) cooperative and responsive public safety. I am convinced that creative solutions and pathways forward will be found and best shaped from within urban neighborhoods who put ABCD to work.

John Franklin Hay, D.Min., is Executive Director of Near East Area Renewal (NEAR,, Associate Faculty at Indiana University’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (IUPUI), and Pastor of East Tenth United Methodist Church (

John Franklin Hay 

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA