Thursday, January 28, 2010

Focus outward even builds community- I saw it this week

I experienced community when the clothing closet was open on Tuesday night. I'll explain in a minute....

If the sole purpose, or the primary purpose, of a church is to preserve or save itself, it will not be fully alive. Further, if it is absorbed in seeking to build community, the irony is that it will not have community at a deeper level. It's one of those Kingdom "reversals."

Two things I read early this morning stated this very thing. Frederick Buechner explains it this way, "To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only journeying for the world's sake- even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death- that little by little we start to come alive" (p. 22, Listening to Your Life).

The community-building piece came in a note by Henri Nouwen about caring together for others in his meditation on dying and caring in Our Greatest Gift, "I have always been impressed with the thought that people are only ready to commit themselves to each other when they no longer focus on each other but rather focus together on the larger world beyond themselves." (p. 64)

I hear the longing for community continually. It is something that is important for our community- our church- The Bridge. To love, know and be known, laugh, build relationships. We were not meant to walk through life in the type of individualism that has been prominent in much of Western culture.

So, saying this on the positive side of the equation: when we see the world beyond ourselves, when we engage together for the world's sake, and when we care together for others, especially the poor and marginalized, community is built at new levels. We are more fully alive!

I can point to that very thing on Tuesday night. There are all kinds of stories out there that would tell a similar story, but here is a recent one. Simple. Nothing fancy....

Tuesday nights: our church is staffing a clothing closet on Tuesday nights, and we are in the process of organizing and expanding this service. There's a warm meal each Tuesday night for 75-100 homeless, or near homeless, folks at the church building we rent, and then a clothing closet is open after the meal for about an hour. Six of us were there this past week to not only help find a pair of jeans, coat, socks, underwear, soap, razor, or other items for those lining up in the basement. But, we also chat and joke with, listen to and begin to learn the names of the "regulars."

It's dangerous to try and speak for others, but I'll risk it. I think the six of us felt a bit more "alive" that night chatting with someone who needs a tube of toothpaste. Some of our own personal struggles might be put into perspective. Our world gets expanded another notch. We move a tiny step further away from the illusion that the world is about "me."

And, community was being built, and it was from the very act of caring about others, and engaging in the world beyond ourselves. Laughing with George and his puns. Knowing that the same older guy always asks for a bar of soap "because I don't want to be stinky!" Getting in on two guys ribbing each other. Hearing a slice of the stories (each one of our stories matter!) of those who come each week.

Another layer of community was built on Tuesday night as a result of caring together, for the world's sake.

Funny, and fun, how that works.

Friday, January 22, 2010

My Haitian brothers and sisters...

All kinds of crazy things get said, and done, that are associated with religion, including Christianity. If we spent our time focusing on those statements or actions, we would become immobilized in many ways. And while it is sometimes appropriate, and important, to say what one is against, the main focus is: what are you for?

But, there are times when I feel compelled to say, "No; I don't believe this. No; this is not connected in any way to our faith as followers of Jesus." In the midst of the unimaginable suffering in Haiti brought on by the devastating earthquake, and when our hearts break staring at death and the weeping, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, states this:

The Haitians "swore a pact with the devil...ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."

In some ways, it doesn't deserve comment. You just want to say: enough said. But, this is one of those times I don't want to sit on the sidelines. There is so much out there that goes under the umbrella of "Christianity" that it makes it difficult for many to even be compelled by orthodox, Christian faith. So, I want to say in this case: there are many of us out there that will categorically deny and disassociate ourselves from this comment and all that is implied in it. Many of us, as followers of Jesus, will say- this has nothing to do with our faith.

I will not judge the person or the faith of a person. But I will disassociate myself from this.

Perhaps another reason I don't want to stand on the sidelines is because of the way this tragedy, so close to our shores, has torn our hearts open. So, instead of this type of statement, we will pray and act. We will say: God stands with the poor and the suffering. We will join others- anyone!- to help bring immediate relief and support long-term efforts toward healing in Haiti. We will put together relief kits, send money, and support short-term and long-term personnel to help with recovery.

I am coming off a leadership week and conference at the seminary I graduated from, and the speaker, Greg Boyd, called us to be churches- communities who follow Jesus, to manifest and embody the self-sacrificial, servant love of Jesus that seeks to love all people. That is first, local- people in our communities and cities. But, it is also global. Denver and Haiti, in my case.

Stuff happens. Really bad stuff. This side of the reconciliation of all things in the "new heavens and the new earth," we will not be able to rationally and logically explain evil and suffering in some complete fashion. But, this earthquake is not because of a pact with the devil or a curse. My Haitian friends, please here us on that.

Have mercy on all of us.

And, we go to work for the Kingdom in Denver, Haiti, and ....

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Our own flesh suffering in Haiti today

Haiti, an already desparate, small country, is now faced with a multitude of suffering following the earthquake yesterday. This is not my city, my state, my country. Those suffering are not my family members...

But wait. Oh, it IS my family. MY kin.

Walter Brueggeman pointed out that the noun used to describe the oppressed, poor, hungry, naked- those on the margins and those suffering- in the prophetic call in Isaiah 58:7 is the word "kin" (NRSV). The Hebrew word for "your own flesh." So, our hearts, and support for all the efforts to share with our global family, go out to "our own flesh" in Haiti.

I'm glad Mennonite Central Committee, the Red Cross, and a host of organizations will respond quickly to aid our brothers and our sisters.

This Franciscan Prayer of Blessing, that Esther Malwitz cited today, is one I copy here:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that we will live deeply in our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression
and exploitation of people and the earth,
so that we will work for justice, equity and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer,
so that we will reach out our hands
to comfort them and change their pain to joy.
And may God bless us with the foolishness to think that
we can make a difference in our world,
so that we will do the things which others say cannot be done.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My friend has cancer

My friend has cancer. It's hard to let those words roll out. But, that's what I heard yesterday.

Maybe it is harder, still, due to the scare we had July 23. As Gail was taken to the ER for some physical symptoms, and after a series of CT scans and MRI's, with Gail on the ER bed and with me by her side we hear the words- cold, blunt: "I'm nearly certain you have a malignant brain tumor and it is likely inoperable." Our world falls apart. But, as I've written about, after a second opinion and a team of neurosurgeons, we are told it is unlikely that it is a malignant tumor. It may be something that has been there most of her life. No other symptoms to date.

For us, it is a much longer story. I'm grateful for each day of health and no symptoms for Gail. During that awful weekend, these close friends cried with me/us. We hurt; they hurt.

Now, just months later, I'm on the other end of the phone hearing, "I have cancer. They plan to start chemotherapy tomorrow..." (This is after a series of multiple tests over a period of weeks, and pathology reports coming back yesterday.) They hurt; I hurt. Oh, that is way too simplistic, for it is much deeper than "hurt."

The husband is a really close friend of mine- for 20 years. She, too. She is about to graduate from seminary and will now need to put that on hold this semester. They are gems. Quality.

So, here we go with the immediate and unanswerable question: "Why?" I have long left the theory behind when these things emerge that says, "God has a purpose in this. There's a reason for everything that happens." A purpose that people would suffer? A reason for someone to get really sick from intensive chemotherapy treatments? A purpose behind- as I've heard it from some who have gone through chemo- "I felt so sick that I just wanted to die?" A reason for someone who is actively loving God and loving others, and living in the way of Jesus- a reason that sometimes there are people like that whose lives come to a premature end in the fullness of life?

No, that doesn't work for me. That would make no sense. It is some of the very things I pondered, again, that weekend of July 23rd. Now, I know you can point me to volumes and volumes of those who have written about suffering, theodicy and how to make sense of evil in the world. I've read some of them. It is a question that will be pondered and debated, and more importantly, wrestled with at the deepest levels of our being forever.

I feel like I can merely scratch the surface when I muster up the statement, and enter the mystery, that God is God. Our finitude cannot grasp the fullness of this, and the tragic repercussions of evil. I concur with what Marva Dawn wrote recently about "...the fundamental dialectical truth that God is both good and almighty....If we begin with trust that God is both good and almighty, then we look elsewhere for the reasons behind suffering." (p. 22-23, In the Beginning, GOD). I believe that God is both good and almighty, even when I can't understand.

Here's the other thing: this morning- January 8, one day after hearing about my friend's pathology report on January 7- it was this morning, in my early time of prayer, that I open my daily guide with scripture and prayer and it begins: "I am the LORD who heals you."- Exodus 15:26 (NLT) Thomas Keating writes in the reflection, "Divine love has the power to grow and transform us." And the page ends with, "'I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,' declares the LORD."- Jeremiah 30:17 (NIV)

I won't even address the issue of the "coincidence" or whether this January 8 topic was "meant to be." What matters to me, is this concept of healing.

I understand the thought of "the LORD who heals." About 12 years ago, at a time of darkness and loss, when I wondered whether it would happen, I began the process of being healed. Over time. A long time. I know what this is talking about.

Right now, this is what I desire in this situation: healing. I can't even know what that will look like or how or when. But, I am praying- pleading- for healing. Healing for my friend from her cancer. Healing for her devoted husband and family. And, for me and all the others who love them.

So, healing it is. Through tears, and with hope, I will pray for healing.