Thursday, November 27, 2014


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 Indybikehiker. 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.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Seven ways receiving and offering the grace of gratitude enriches life

A few years ago, I spent most of a week in the San Francisco bay area at the expense of Lilly Endowment with an extremely gifted group of emerging teachers, compassionate ministry practitioners, and pastors. The group was part of Lilly Endowment's Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative. Our group was facilitated by Dr. Christine Pohl, who teaches ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary and is author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, and, more recently, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us. Our task for the week was to explore the meaning and practice of gratitude in the context of Christian community and ministry. Here are some personal reflections I brought home:

1. Gratitude is more than a cultural courtesy; it can be a spiritual grace. We are taught to say “thank you” as a common courtesy, but gratitude also erupts within us as a grace. Instead of cheap, trite words somehow mustered up, gratitude seems to arise from the depths of a soul that has encountered grace. It can be a heart-felt response to recognizing grace. How have you encountered grace? What responses does it produce?

2. Gratitude is only gratitude when it is expressed. It is one thing to have feelings of thankfulness, but gratitude is expressive. It speaks the words. It demonstrates in actions. It goes public. The Apostle Paul captures the spirit of it: “give thanks in all circumstances.” To whom might you outwardly express the inward thanks you feel these days?

3. As we offer gratitude, we are made whole. In a story told in Luke 17, ten lepers are healed bodily as they go on their way, but it appears that only the one who returns to give thanks is made whole. His healing is complete. Expressing gratitude for what God has begun in our lives moves us toward fullness of life.

4. Gratitude is a life-affirming choice in the midst of a cynical social environment. Cynicism seems to be the very air we Americans breathe. To choose gratitude in such a Zeitgeist risks being scoffed at, to be sure, but it taps deeply into an authentic source of life. At the conclusion of a prayer, one of our group members—a fellow who labors against poverty in Harlem—humorously blurted out: “Cynicism be damned!”

5. Gratitude is a hope-bearing perspective in the face of extreme difficulties. Choosing to express gratitude for some small graces or mercies in the midst of dark hours and deep waters seems, somehow, to draw a line in the sand against ultimate despair. In the face of tragedy, loss, or trial, what is below the surface—what is in us—is revealed. We may grieve our losses and at the same time express gratitude for what is lost or what remains. When we do, gratitude becomes transformative.

6. Gratitude, one group member said, is like a lubricant in the context of community. It is like oil in ongoing, committed and sometimes turbulent relationships. Our group explored the disciplines and interconnections of truth-telling, promise-keeping, hospitality, and gratitude. Of these, gratitude seems to be the healing and sustaining balm in sometimes very stressed communities.

7. Gratitude may well be a distinctive quality of Christian community. Christians do not have a corner on the market on gratitude, to be sure. But small and great expressions of gratitude, practiced as discipline and expressed as grace, seem to define healthy communities in which Jesus Christ is being recognized as Savior and Lord. One might conclude that when a community practices gratitude it is becoming more like the one whom it honors and in whose name it exists to serve others.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mission of a City

From where do we and our city's leaders get our ideas about the purposes for our city and region?

Two-term Mayor Greg Ballard has decided not to seek a third term, leaving Republicans scrambling to find a candidate. Yesterday, former Secretary of State Joe Hogsett officially launched his campaign to lead Indianapolis. Whoever takes the reigns will have significant issues to grapple with.

But before arguing policies, postulating solutions, or resuming power plays, I wonder if would-be leaders and citizens would pause to consider the mission of our city?

If so, I suggest we begin with the following mission statement and apply it to our city and Central Indiana. Our polis, to be healthy, must be guided by a high enough mission to heal and inspire the whole.

“The mission of a city is to put the highest concerns of human beings at the center of all its activities: to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered people…into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalisms, by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.” 
-- Lewis Mumford in The City in History (1961)

Read it carefully. It is not idealism. It is neither unrealistic nor unreachable. It is not a business-as-usual mission, however. It is not a business-knows-best perspective. So-called leaders have overlooked the core concerns named in this mission at the expense of our city’s and region’s vitality. And yet there has never been a more opportune time to fulfill its promise.

If we took this as our city’s mission, we would invest to address crime’s personal and inter-cultural sources rather than frantically throw more taxpayer money at covering its symptoms. We would reverse the devolution of public education into private self interest. We would develop our capacities to draw our residents into a rich common life--regardless of income or cultural background--instead of occasional faux expressions of it.

Mumford’s perspective of a city is a soulful—though not religious—one. That is, it places ultimate value on persons as individuals and as participants together in a commonly-felt but pervasively-sabotaged common good. It defies interest groups, which, all the while declaring their value to the city, nonetheless act primarily to exploit it for gain.

Based on Mumford’s mission of a city, I offer the following challenges for the current and next generation of our region’s residents and those who would serve them in municipal leadership:

1. Carefully explore where you get your understanding of the city, interpretation of its conditions, and recommendations for shaping its future. Develop a healthy skepticism of so-called expert sources that self-identity as serving our good. I, for one, have not found many local news media outlets, real estate brokers, partisan ideologues, pulpiteers, or entertainment media to be valid reflectors or helpful interpreters of the life and challenges of our city. Unfortunately, these are some of the prime sources by which many people form their perceptions and respond with their actions.

Consider four inadequate views and responses to the city: 

• A necessary evil – endure it

• A marketplace – consume it, exploit it, use it, take advantage of it 

• A dangerous place – flee it, fight it 

• A broken place – work around it

Such inadequate and misleading perceptions of the city and metropolitan area lead to choices, behaviors and values that can become self-fulfilling prophecies of fear, division, segregation, disinvestment, and violence. On the other hand, an understanding of the city as Mumford describes it can lead to barriers being bridged and vibrancy abounding.

2. Strain to see your life and the city's future as bound together in a greater work of vitality.  Are we not here together now in this particular place to listen, learn, contribute, and grow? Place and what we do with it and in it, Mumford implies, is tied to one’s sense of meaning and fulfillment. So, let’s make a functional connection between our personal wholeness and the vitality of this place in which are together living.

In this, I ask myself two questions: (1) In what ways might I be formed to become more mature, more whole? (2) How do this city and region’s past, present and future challenges uniquely connect with this maturation process? Personally, I am convinced that my salvation is tied up with how I live in and contribute in this place we call Indianapolis and Central Indiana.

3. Cooperate with a bigger dream by investing your life redemptively in our city and region's peace.  A transcendent sense of purpose should be informing our approach to life and development in this metropolitan area. This is not our city to use, exploit, possess, or control. It is a place and a people with a higher value and peaceful purpose. Regardless of its self-deceptions, its worth is inestimable. Regardless of its hurtful ways, it is renewable. Actions for individual and community redemption are critical to higher purposes for both.

Could Indianapolis and Central Indiana identify and claim Mumford's mission as our own?  Certainly. Can we develop a clear, unique sense of mission that is shared across the region?   It is possible. Or, we can continue to be pushed and pulled and quartered by one competing self-interest and passing influence after another. I'm choosing to live as if Mumford's mission applies. Will you join me?

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wendell Berry's 'The Way, the Truth, and the Life'

I came upon this gripping, insightful 2012 Sabbath poem of Wendell Berry this morning. With him, my heart aches at the ripping fabric and cultural insanity of twisted words, shallow values, hollow justifications, and indefensible violence.

Praise "family values,"
"a better future for our children,"
displacing meanwhile the familiar
membership to be a "labor force"
of homeless strangers. Praise
work and name it "jobs."
With "labor-saving technology"
replace workers at their work
and hold them in contempt
because they have no "jobs."
Praise "our country" and oppress
the land with poisons, gouges,
blastings, the violent labors and
pleasures of the unresting displaced,
skinning the earth alive.
This is the way, the truth, the life.

Welcome the refugees set free
from the "nowhere" of rural America,
from the "drudgery" of the household
and the "mind-numbing work"
of shops and farms, into
the anthills of "liberation,"
the endless vistas of "growth,"
of "progress," the "limitless adventure
of the human spirit" rising
through inward emptiness into
"outer space." Welcome
the displaced naturally "upwardly
mobile" to their "better world"
as they gather bright-lighted
in "multicultural" masses
in the packed streets. Catch
those who inevitably
fall from the light-swarm
in meshes of "safety nets," "benefits,"
"job training," the army,
the wars, mental hospitals,
jails, graves. Forget
vocation, memory, living
and dying at home. This
is the way, the truth, and the life.

Flourish your weapons of official
war where they are needed
for peace, bring death by chance
but needfully to small houses
where children play at war
or a wedding that is taking place
so that the bride and groom
will not be separately killed,
for you have an enemy
somewhere, who must be killed.
Therefore forgive the unofficial
entrepreneur who brings
your weapons to your
school, your office, your
neighborhood theater, bringing
death randomly but needfully,
for his enemies are his
as yours are yours. This is
the way, the truth, and the life.

- from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA