Answering the Second Question

I cringe at the well-meaning second question. You know, the one that comes after the exchange of names? The second question upon meeting new people is no longer easy to answer, at least not as a simple nicety. 


Where do you work?


It’s almost enough to make me a hermit! Do I launch into the detailed explanation about the “Holy Spirit moment” I had in the summer of 2010 which catapulted me on a journey of following the Spirit to Portland? Do I explain that God has me on a need-to-know basis, that for now I’m just learning to be? 


Nah, that always seems so woo-woo for casual social encounters. Even church people – especially church people – seem to expect a rational, heady, logical response rather than a spiritual one. I grow weary of the glassy-eyes, the “uh huh,” and the silent reactions. 


I’ve found that saying, “To pay a few bills I’m substitute teaching while I’m working on a new project” satisfies most folks. But that doesn’t feel honest or represent the spiritual nature of who I am. So, I sometimes mention my participation in the Occupy Portland chaplains hoping that sounds more ministerial. 


***


American culture is filled with admonishments that we must “take the bull by the horns” lest we lead an unhappy, pitiful life of failure. Our mainstream culture tells us that we must do, that we must achieve, and that we must make things happen

The result of all this doing is people who are miserable, stressed, worried, and anxious. When we focus only on doing, on the American doctrine that says our worthiness is based upon the money we make, the things we accumulate, and being busy, we fail to notice the Divine.

What if we practiced presence with one another instead of seeking to control our futures? What if we fully lived the moment we’re in rather than setting goals ad nauseum? What if we focused on being rather than doing

I suggest we would live our lives more true to the teachings of Jesus and the life he modeled. In slowing down and living in the present rather than worrying about the future, I have begun to notice the Divine all around me. I’ve been more available to others. I am more fully the person God created me to be. Life is easier.


I still struggle with being and the guilt of not doing. This is a rocky path for me. I’ve spent my entire adult life embracing the dogma of doing.


Still, I know I’m on the right path for it is the Spirit who has set me upon it. Though I worry at times about what I should be doing, I know that if I listen and be, all will become clear. 


God Who Is,


You who love us extravagantly,
   not because of what we do,
      but because of who we are…


You whose love transformed death,
   into life…


You who created all that we know,
   and created us in your own image…


Continue to be a beacon for us,
   of how to love and be.


Help us to slow down,
   to accept that you love each of us.
Help us to slow down,
   and listen,
      so that we hear you lure us to love.


In the name of the One who listened,
   took you into his being,
      and became love on earth.


Amen.



Whitecaps of the One


The blue water of the river,
   absorbs the joyful sunshine,
      warming itself and,
          the abundance within.



Bedraggled, she walks the bank,
   the sparkling, divine water,
      radiates outward greeting her.


Joyfulness cannot be contained,
   by a rocky, sandy edge.
Whitecaps reach upward and outward,
   finding an ocular entry.


Burdened by the human-made,
   in a mere glimpse of the glistening joy, 
      the Divine rays of abundance, 
         flow into an arduous life.


The sun-water within her ripples into,
   her dispiriting presence,
      creating hopeful whitecaps in muddy waters.


Blueness saturates her brown eyes,
   and the divine sunshine flows downriver,
      breaking out of its banks into towns north & south.





Our Urge to De-merge

I sat on the couch performing surgery on myself. My notebook warmed my lap as I severed myself into two parts. This was no clean in & out surgery. I cut a connecting artery here, I transplanted an organ from this side to that, and I did elaborate zig-zag stitching worthy of a master seamstress.


A bi-vocational minister, I was performing surgery on my three-decade long resume into two versions: the early childhood version and the ministry version. I struggled to decide what parts went where. My academic advising of students went beyond classes as I listened and counseled about life issues. I always considered that part of my life a ministry. Too bad it didn’t really look that way on paper. 

As I cut and stitched my resume, I found myself connecting one life experience to another only to cut them apart a few minutes later. I kept changing my mind. It wasn’t that I was indecisive… it’s just that  I wanted the documents to fully represent who I am. In the end, I gave up and reassembled the two resumes into one. If churches didn’t value my secular work or if secular institutions didn’t value my ministry, well, I reasoned, they didn’t value who I am.

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NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Blame the Greeks or blame the Gnostics, either way our culture suffers from deeply ingrained dualistic thinking. This manifests in severing ourselves from one another as well as cutting ourselves apart. The concept of wholeness is somehow an alternative,  an “on the fringes” way of thinking. 


In politics, where we seem to have lost respect for any opinion but our own, this dualism of polarization needs no explanation to any but the most ardent hermit. The concept of communal problem solving is a decaying corpse. We’ve abandoned any semblance of civil discourse or seeing the value in other ideas.

In our sociocultural discourse we mirror the judgementalism of politics. If you don’t do things the way I do then you must be flawed. At the very least your silly ways are worthy of my laughter, ridicule, name calling, or sarcasm. 


As North Americans, we pretend that we don’t need one another. Having bought into the myth of the white pioneer rugged individualist, who did it by himself, we de-merge from others. It doesn’t matter that white pioneers journeyed across the continent in groups, relying on the help of one another. We tell ourselves we can go it alone. 


In contemporary times this manifests in lonely parenting, in stubborn self-reliance, and in self-hatred when we cannot do it all on our own. The Super-Mom myth that emerged in the last century is an example of this. Women were told that they could give 100% to a career and 100% to the home–without help from anyone else. Unable to achieve 200% by oneself, too many parents feel guilty.


As an instructor of future teachers, one of the core concepts I sought to teach students was that of the whole child. This is the idea that all aspects of the child, physical, social-emotional, and cognitive, are inextricably linked. I had to teach this alternative idea because we have artificially severed the academic from the physical and social-emotional. While there is a strong movement supporting wholeness, both within and outside the educational establishments, they are fighting an uphill battle against a deeply ingrained dualism.


Religion itself too often ups the ante. In religious dualism we’re dragged beyond the one life we all know we have, into the next. Many Christian sects, for example, set up the dualism of insiders who are saved and rewarded versus outsiders, everyone else, who is unsaved (lost?) and will surely burn in a fiery hell. We convince ourselves that only right-thinking people are worthy of the extravagant love of the God.

The dualism in some Christian circles, spurred by a tradition that misinterprets scripture has deemed the physical as evil or unworthy and the spiritual as good and pure. Hence, we rarely talk about sexuality except to condemn it. Christian doctrine, historically decided by men, is especially critical of women’s bodies and sexuality. The church’s discomfort even manifests in extra biblical beliefs about the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This belief reflects dualistic thinking in which the body (sexuality) is bad and the spiritual is good. 

Is it any wonder that we even split ourselves apart? All of this dualistic, either/or thinking, leads to perceiving ourselves as less than whole. Our culture, politics, and religious life have resulted in an urge to de-merge. To reject our physicality or other aspects of our God-created nature, is to reject not only ourselves but the One who created us.


God of Wholeness,


You who created us to depend upon one another,
    You who created us each with Gifts needed by others,
        We ask that you help us to recognize,
           our need for one another.


You who created us each as tapestries of wholeness, 
    as images of your divinity,
        We ask that you help us to see the You,
            in us and in one another.


You whose love knows no boundaries,
    whose loving wholeness encapsulates all of creation,
         We offer gratitude for the faith you have in us.


Divine wholeness, 
     may we strive for faithfulness to You.
Gently encourage us to give up,
     our arrogant individualism,
     and our self-hatred that manifests,
         in rejecting parts of ourselves.


For it is the One-ness of You,
     in the acceptance of ourselves,
     and the embracing of one another,
     that we will find You.


In the many names humanity has used for you,
    we pray for wholeness.


Amen.
     

Living Outside the Boxes

I spent much of Monday making phone calls and visiting websites, doing those things that one does before a move: scheduling utility starts and stops, reserving a U-Haul. I struggled through the questions that used to be so simple. Have you lived in your home at least twelve months? Where are you employed? 

This image is by artist Rhea Brown.
In the last year, I’ve already moved out of two homes, this is the third. If you count my efficiency at seminary, this is the fourth move in less than twelve months. I am on a Spirit-led journey that was spurred by a “Holy Spirit moment” in the summer of 2010. I perceived a call to new church ministry. I am in what church bureaucracies call, discernment. I’d argue that I’m not so much discerning as waiting, listening and responding, and waiting some more as the Spirit reveals the form of this new thing (Isaiah 43).

This journey makes answering where I’m employed even more difficult.  My primary vocation is following the lure of the Spirit. Unfortunately, that doesn’t pay much. To help cover a few bills, I substitute teach in several early childhood programs. I’ve actually turned down two full-time teaching positions in my commitment to a Spirit-led life. You can see why corporate America and our mainstream culture don’t know what box to check regarding me. 

Even some church people don’t seem to “get” me. Yes, some understand what it is to be Spirit-led but there are probably more folks in the pews who don’t. They  smile and affirm me in that way that exudes respect but lacks understanding. You know it’s like they think I’m crazy but they love me anyway. Some institutional (including judicatory-type) churchfolk try to fit me into their institutional models or suggest I send out my search and call papers. Even the traditional discernment process doesn’t seem to fit me. I am convinced that I’m called to something radically different. Consequently, I even feel uncomfortable with the term “new church.” 

None of these challenges of striving to follow the Spirit are helped by God. God seems to have a need-to-know policy on where this is all headed. How hard would it really be for God to email me a copy of God’s business plan! There are times when I grow weary of this counter-cultural path upon which I find myself. Often I feel devoid of the language to describe to others who I am and what I am experiencing. 

After my Monday of squeezing myself into corporate boxes, I was blessed by a tweet quoting Henri Nouwen.

“Jesus . . . asks us to move from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us. . . .”

In less than 140 characters, I felt my angst of following the Spirit validated. Nouwen encapsulates my struggle between living in a world of taking charge and a world of being who God calls me to be. Our culture, within and outside of the church, is based on power structures, hierarchies, planning, deciding, and doing. Success is defined by the matrices of popularity, dollars, bodies in attendance, endowments, and of doing. I am striving, however, to discern the Spirit’s gentle nudges, to be who the One created me to be. When Jesus called James and his brother John, they got up and left their father and their fishing business behind. They did this to follow Jesus (Mark 1: 14-20). 

This is what I strive to do as the Spirit beckons me forward: to follow the One who breathes in God and lived the life he was called to live. Though I stumble over questions asked by utilities and sometimes give in to the temptations of a culture more concerned with things than people, I have left my boat. I’ve left my fishing business to follow the One who embodied the extravagant love of the Divine.

Always & Forever Creating



The world: it is transforming,
   changing from what it was,
   to what it will be.


The world is,
   always and forever transforming.


The people are responding,
   some are changing,
   some by embracing,
   and some by resisting a little or a lot.


The people are,
   always and forever embracing and resisting.


The Divine is creating,
  as the Divine did in ancient times,
  in not so ancient times,
  and in our times.


The Divine is,
   always and forever creating.


The One is lovingly creating,
  not created, not planning, 
  but being & doing love.


The One is,
  always and forever love.


The Divine One is creating with love,
  and in so doing instills Oneself, 
  and in so doing weaves the Divine
  into all that is and all that will be.


The One keeps creating,
  the love keeps flowing,
  whether we resist a little or a lot.


The Loving One is,
  always and forever creating with us and within us, 
  whether we’re resistance or embrace-ness. 


The One retrieves resistance,
  embraces it and transforms it,
  creating love with it.


For all that is created by love,
  for all that is created of love,
  gently steers resistance and embrace,
  to wholeness.


Always and forever,
  we move toward loving wholeness,
  guided by the love that creates and transforms.

The Gift of Just Being There

I lay on the rug beside the 3-year-old boy as he told me of an upset. He and his dad apparently had a conflict before school that day. The boy told me about his feelings. I brushed back his long blonde hair to see his wet eyes while he talked. When he was done with his story, he got up, and ran to play with friends.

Once a child’s emotional needs are met, they are free to risk and explore, to be independent. As a former college instructor and administrator in early childhood education, I sought to teach this concept to students and staff. When one of my staff members or students was faced with a particularly whiny, clingy, or needy child, it could be difficult to convince them of this truth. Children’s (and adult’s) emotions are too often viewed as problems to be solved. What children need, however, is to feel their emotion, to be heard and to be seen by someone who is truly present. It is only after children are heard that they can move forward. The same is true for adults.


“How are you today?”, asked the grocery clerk. 


“I’m fine, thank you, how about you?” I asked.


Though she said she was well, I was not convinced and said so. She proceeded to tell me about her grandfather who was having surgery as we spoke. She told me how she hugged him at the hospital as he was wheeled away. The surgery would take much of the day and the prognosis was good. Clearly, though, she was preoccupied. I just listened. I reflected things like, “it’s hard to focus on work when you know what’s going on” and “even though the prognosis is good, you’re worried.” To both of these statements she nodded her head and told me more about her feelings. And about her grandfather. 


I saw her again a few weeks later. She remembered me, thanked me for listening to her, and told me that “having an ear” helped her make it through that day. I was humbled by her appreciation; all I did was listen.


We need one another. We need the loving, accepting presence of others who listen, who see us, but do not try to solve our problems for us. We need someone who acts as a physical manifestation of the Divine presence for us. 


Divine One of Presence:


Your love for all is steadfast.
    Your presence allows us,
        to use the Gifts you have given us.


Help us to open ourselves to your presence,
    that we can more fully be who you created us to be,
    that we can respond lovingly to all we encounter.


May we feel your loving presence from others,
    in the loyalty of a beloved pet,
    in the unexpected beauty of a sunrise,
    in the friend who is “but a phone call away,”
    and in the stranger who smiles.


May we see and feel you,
    in our times of struggle.
May we be your loving presence,
    for others in their difficulties.


As we seek to be your healing presence among all people,
    we remember the human infant born in a stable.
We remember the One who breathed in your love,
    and manifest your loving, 
        Divine presence among our ancient kindred.


Amen

Dance Here

I left the coffee shop where the local Occupy Chaplains were meeting to catch my bus home. At the bus stop, “Dance Here” was stenciled on the sidewalk. I smiled, reminded of Emma Goldman’s words, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”


I have been concerned about economic injustice for a very long time. I was recently reminded of my first sermon when I found a Youth Sunday bulletin from the 1970s. At 16, I stood up before a congregation of white suburban, middle-class Christians and pointed out global economic disparity. Americans, many of us Christians, I told them, were living well on the backs of impoverished people around the world.


It hasn’t changed. It has worsened.


His thin, frail body hung in her arms. Thin herself, she stood before me seeking child care for her son. I looked into the baby’s eyes, smiled, and spoke to him. Behind the cloudy, hollow eyes I could see the Divine still sparkling in him. He smiled back at me and made sounds typical of a much younger infant.


Within this country, the disparity between the haves and have-nots has grown in the last four decades. I directed a not-for-profit which primarily served the poor and “working poor” during the 1980s as the disparity was accelerating under new governmental policies. I heard the stories firsthand. I looked into the faces of those who struggled. As a follower of Jesus, sometimes my response was to bend the rules I could bend, to level the playing field as much as possible.


The woman holding the baby asked, “Do you have any openings?” Though there was no room at the inn I  administered, the faces of the Daughters of Charity flashed through my mind. (They founded the program as an orphanage in 1849 for poor children). I walked this mother through the enrollment papers. The baby started the next morning. 


My wife doesn’t always speak positively about the years I spent directing that program. The constant struggles of an underfunded program serving society’s nearly forgotten, meant that I was often too tired to dance. It meant that my own paycheck went uncashed for days or weeks until the program could afford to pay me. It meant that I was often shorter with my own children than I would otherwise have been. 


Dance here.


The secret of surviving those years was to take breaks in the baby room, to read stories to the preschoolers, and to dance with the two-year-olds. I danced and laughed when I should’ve recommended that we close our doors. In a time of revolution, in serving families that society called lazy, incompetent, and undeserving, we found time for dancing in the midst of our tears.


The work of revolution, of heeding the Divine’s call to care for all of God’s people, can often feel oppressive when you’re enmeshed in the struggle. Don’t forget to  take dance breaks.


Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
  Exodus 15: 20 NRSV Read this passage in context.


God Met Me on the Bus Today

God sat across from me on the bus today but I didn’t trust God….

The young man walked to the back of the bus and sat across from me. He carried a large, loosely-packed gym bag. He wore crisp black jeans, a hoody, athletic shoes, and an Oakland Raiders cap. I bristled making sure I had my bag over my shoulder, with my fingers looped tightly around the handle. 

What was it that caused me to respond to this young man with mistrust? He was clean, well-groomed. The style of his clothing was similar to that which my nephew Jacob wears routinely. I’m never disturbed by Jacob’s attire. The young man did nothing threatening. He simply walked to the back of the bus and took an open seat. He looked tired. If that’s threatening, the bus was full of threats as it moved through the pre-dawn darkness. 

I perceived a threat even when God’s arms were open….

A short while later the bus stopped and another similarly-dressed young man joined us at the back of the bus. I did not respond to him in the same way that I responded to the first young man. I don’t like to admit to why I felt threatened by the first young man but not the second. I am ashamed of the characteristic that triggered my automatic threat response.

I prayed but didn’t trust God to heal….

My culturally-entrenched biases were triggered by the the color of the first young man’s skin. Disappointed in my response, and in myself, I prayed. Even in my prayer seeking to overcome my bigotry–my racist feelings–I doubted that God could lessen them. You see, I’ve bumped up against these learned responses to young African American men in myself before. I’ve even used them as an example when teaching the Anti-Bias Curriculum to those preparing to be teachers. I’ve talked about the importance of self-reflection as a tool to avoid acting in a bigoted way. As I did this morning, I force myself to look at the situation objectively when my racism rears its ugly head. 

God kept working on me….

Though, I did nothing overt, talking myself down is not enough. For one thing, subtlety is in the eyes of the beholder. The young man may not have noticed my “subtle” actions–but he may have. If he noticed them, he is aware of my sin against him. If he didn’t, I still sinned. 

Self-reflection and talking ourselves down may be a good first step. Still, if we are to combat racism each of us must not only be honest with ourselves, we must confess (i.e.; be honest with) to others.
  • We can start by being honest with God. This morning as I prayed to God to open my heart, my fingers remained wrapped around the handle of my bag. It’s not that God doesn’t know of my sins but until I lay them down before God, it is very unlikely that I will be open enough to let go of them.  
  • We also need to admit publicly that we are imperfect, that we have racist feelings and thoughts. Though, unlike many European Americans, many of my childhood years were spent in mixed-race settings. Yet, my youngest years, when racism is first learned, were spent in all-white settings. The churches, schools, and neighborhoods in which I lived were nearly or all white until I moved to St. Louis at the age of eight. To pretend that I don’t have racist feelings is to give them free rein.
God sat across from me on the bus today but I didn’t trust God. I perceived a threat even when God’s arms were open. I prayed but didn’t trust God to heal. God kept working on me encouraging me to confess the sin of racism.

Even as I write this, I am doubting whether I want to post it to my blog. I am embarrassed. I don’t want to admit that as an American man of European descent, I have any racist tendencies. If my embarrassment at my subconscious racism prevents me from admitting to them, can I truly overcome them? 

So, today I confess publicly that I have racist thoughts and feelings. I am not proud of them. I try not to act upon them but I’m sure at times I do without being aware of them. 

God of Grace and Transformation:

Forgive my sin of racist thought.
Forgive my failure to loosen my grip on my bag,
    even as I am in communion with You.

Keep my eyes and heart open that,
    I might seek your strength and healing power,
    to overcome hatred.
Transform me that I might sow love,
    even when hatred, racism, and bigotry rests within me.
Cause me to perceive the Divine, 
    cause me to see You in all whom I meet.

You are the One who includes and loves all.
Guide me to reveal more of You in me,
    so that Your inclusive Kin_dom comes to all of Creation.

Amen