Lessons From One Night In Ferguson

Michael:

David captures things well from our prayerful walking and witnessing. Keep praying, people, and discerning other steps we might take in our country.

Originally posted on signs of life:

Last night Michael and I joined a group of clergy to pray and petition for justice on behalf of Michael Brown. We were already in the St. Louis area with our families for a few days of vacation and when word came about the clergy march the timing and location seemed too providential to ignore. I won’t go into the play-by-play of our evening, but the experience was unlike any I’ve had.

Ferguson

This morning I woke up thinking about some of the lessons I’m walking away with from our short time in Ferguson. My perspective is incredibly limited: I’m an outsider who spent a few hours in a place where others have lived their entire lives. Even so, I want to hold onto some of my experiences, despite how incomplete they are.

The Anger Is Real

It seemed that many of the protestors, like us, where from places other than Ferguson…

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Creating a Rule of Life, pt 7

This message gets a lot of play in church.  In my church, there is an assumption that serving is so much a part of our Christian life that there’s rarely a Sunday when service of some kind isn’t mentioned.

I almost don’t need to connect this to the practice of developing a Rule because we live by the implied rule that doing for others is Christian or religious or spiritual at its core.  It’s hard to live in the world and not care for others, give to others, and serve for others.  It’s even harder to be a part of a religious tradition and not serve, because service is a part of most, if not all, religious traditions.

Still, the placement of this in the work of developing a Rule is important because having service somewhere in this instrument of spiritual growth will help us 1) reflect on our service, 2) inspect our motives for service, and 3) discern what we’ll do next as we care for others.

That’s the framework when it comes to questioning or discovering what kind of service needs to be in your rule.  Where have I served or given to others?  To serve is to be generous; it is to give of one’s self and one’s stuff.

Serving, when paired with reflection, is another way of reflecting upon our motives.  We ask, “Why am I doing this?”

Richard Foster wrote, “When the heart is purified by the action of the Spirit, the most natural thing in the world is the virtuous thing.  To the pure in heart, vice is what is hard.”

I agree with Foster.  For the person whose heart continually turns toward the Divine, sin and wrongdoing and wrongbeing is what’s hard.  But that transformation of motivation takes a long time, i.e., a life time.

I’d love to know that rather than jumping at the chance to serve, the people in my church were pausing long enough to question their motives.  Not so that their motives would be pure and sacred.  It’s impossible to get to the clear ground of a person’s motivation.  No matter how long we search or how long we look, we’ll never be truly aware of our motives.  But we can survey them.  We can question them.

Third, placing service in your rule is a simple way of looking forward to what’s next.  There is a host of ways to serve around you.  In your family or your apartment building, in your residence or in your workplace, there are countless needs–some of which you can meet.  What do you do next?  Carry with you your clarified sense of intention, your hopes and expectations, your goals for personal transformation, your awareness of God who works–always–through people.

Then, listen to that voice that’s within you, that voice that either sounds so familiar you gauge that it isn’t God’s or that voice that is so strange and uncommon that it could be nothing other than God’s.  Perhaps that voice is the hushed voice of friends who are sure that you should do this or do that.

Don’t retreat from the service others call you to.  Inspect it prayerfully.  Wonder around in it for a while.  See if there’s a place in it for you.

That’s the way I came into ministry.  I was headed toward the more effective arena of politics in my earlier view.  I wanted to study law so I could write law.  I wanted to give my skills over toward the social-political world and have God use me there.  I knew I wanted to be of service, and of God’s service, in the world.  But I didn’t entertain ministry until others told me to.

I tell people who ask about my “call story,” that the story was written by the community of people who told me to face this way and go that way when it came to my call.  I was headed elsewhere, but the persistent whisper emerging in me was repeated, distilled, and clarified in the inflections and voices of church people around me.  And they’re as much responsible for my life of service as anybody.

So, for you, what service do you need to start doing?  What will you write into that Rule to turn you both inward, toward that inside voice, and outward, toward the world that very much needs you?

Sunday Morning Reminders

The last two Sunday mornings a different person in our church has asked me prior to worship what was going to said about the Middle East (last Sunday) and what was going to said about Michael Brown (today).  Both those people approaching me before service have become reminders for me of several things I want to list in order to remember.  I’m grateful for Lara and Jeremy and my reflections are out of gratitude for them:

  1. The people of God (aka, the church) know what to say in worship.  The content of our faith, and the content of our liturgy, has never solely come from the recognized leaders of the faith.  I am comforted by this.  As the pastor, I’m not the only person with a facility for words about God in relation to human beings and human life.  God has gifted the people with the people.  And those lovely people have things to say about the world.  Pradeep reminded me of this even before Lara greeted me last week.
  2. What we do in worship is important for when we’re not in worship.  This comes out of something my member and friend, Nate, said.  Our worship connects to the lives we live when we’re not gathered with God’s people.  As James Smith says, our worship ends in mission.  The cyclic nature of mission, though, is that mission continues to feed and instruct our worship.  We live between Sundays, worshiping God and then, in a thousand ways, living for God.
  3. Our worship has to echo or reflect something about the world after the benediction.  If there is no connection, no reflection, then there is no real tangible reason for being a church that God continually sends into the world.  The end of a worship service is a recommissioning for all involved.  When we return the following week, we return with all that’s happened since last Sunday and we bring those events, those sorrows and joys, with us as worship, hear, and respond with others gathered.
  4. The prayers of God’s people are filled with news.  Daily news.  The news and the headlines of our times should become the words we pray, fill our throats when we sing about God’s future, and inspire us to live Spirit-empowered lives now.  The fact is our songs are all out-of-date.  They are not necessarily old though.  Our hymns and choruses are out of date in the sense that they anticipate a future that hasn’t fully come.  Those words match with the images of black hands uplifted before police holding guns–reminders from the 50s and 60s in the present–and they pull our hands upward in the direction of a God whose heart is still broken.
  5. Our words are the words of the oppressed, the marginalized, the disinherited, and the over-looked.  The truth of the disinherited is that they feel unheard and cast aside.  The truth of any good Christian faith is wrapped in the power of a God who reclaims, always holds close, and never abandons.  In other words, Christianity is an answer to the state of oppression, marginalization, and disinheritance.  That faith is a bottom-up reiteration of a deadly event where God abandoned God, upsetting all of created history and all of created future, and where God reset all things to move creation toward a better future.
  6. The hope of the church has to be proclaimed as an answer.  The hope of the world is in Christ; this is the news of the Christian faith, and that news is a long-told story.  When we proclaim the gospel in the midst of the world–be that gospel proclaimed in explicit or implicit ways, be it seen and experienced in the church’s rituals, be it lived in our lives–we are following Jesus who has always entered into our experience, checked our experience with God’s message for our time, and pointed us toward the hope of the ages.

Thank you Nate, Pradeep, Lara, and Jeremy.  You’ve led our church these weeks, even if you haven’t picked up the microphone.  Your leadership and service has filled me with thanksgiving.

Averted Vision

Such a contemplative thing to say:

Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that any deliberate campaign to achieve it is so misguided, is that it isn’t an obtainable goal in itself but only an after-effect.  It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to—by which I don’t mean ethically correctly but fully, consciously engaged in the business of living.  In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomenon familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes.  And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the real stars, those blinding cataclysms in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.

From Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, pg. 218

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 6

I like to tell people to “Take care,” when I end calls and emails.  Because I don’t waste words–not intentionally–I think about how to end interactions.  Sometimes I tell people to “Stay well” or I’ll close an email with “Every blessing,” taking the ending from Dr. Walter Elwell who emailed me about a paper once when I was in grad school.  I still love that closing and every time I use it, I think of him and what he taught me about Jesus in my first class studying theology.  Of course, most people don’t give that much thought to how I close my emails.  Still, when I write “Take care,” I’m often thinking of the focus of this part of the Rule.

This isn’t caring for someone else.  This is care for you by you.  Most people are told–in a variety of ways–to care for others, but being told to care for self and actually doing so feels selfish.  Consider the notion of being selfish.  The snarky but well-meaning me wants to say that we are selves, that we are alive to be who we are and nothing else.  When it comes to being selfish the question is, can we be anything else?

I know when people say it they intend to suggest that we not make ourselves the center of the universe, that we become giving people, and that we not restrict our experience of the world to the limits of our skin, our arm’s length, and our conceived notions.  Still, all selfishness isn’t created equal.

I was speaking with pastoral psychotherapist Dr. Janice Hodge earlier this year and she reminded me of Jesus’ words where he summed up the commandments into a two-part law.  It’s the one where Jesus said to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Dr. Hodge underlined the as yourself part and told me that most people dismiss that clincher.  I’ve learned this over the years, forgotten it, and am learning it again.

The rule of life becomes a vehicle where we attend to others, to serving others, for sure.  But it also makes us question what we’ll remember, be mindful of, and execute for the sake of ourselves.  We don’t love others if we don’t love ourselves.  What we do is attempt to love, try to love, get at love.  We may be on the way to loving, but without the as yourself part, we’re still, simply, trying.

Because our denomination is strong in this area for its clergy persons, I have a pretty developed practice of self-care.  I teach seminarians in this area as well, and anytime I answer questions around self-care, I’m immediately reflecting on my ups and downs, successes and failures at living it.

What do you need to do to attend to yourself?  What activity do you need to start or end?  Who do you need around you for the next six months, the next year, to strengthen you?  Of course, we’ll get to the next parts of the Rule which have to do with what you’ll do for people, how you’ll love God or others.  But stay with this until you come up to some unmistakable clarity about taking care of you.

Singing with Brother Tom

When we first met, he seemed to be a stiff, jovial man.  The stiffness was only in his movements and not his heart.  He kept a full, broad smile on his face, wore glasses and a gray beard, and I could tell early on that he had jokes I wouldn’t understand.  Jokes, perhaps, I’d laugh at later.

I was told to call him Brother Tom because that was his preference.  We would get along because I could relate to his Christian faith, to the songs he sang, to the scriptures he went on and on about.  All those markers would be little pieces of Brother Tom’s deep faith.  He had an abiding song for his God.

On several occasions when I was with him, he had me pull his CD player to his side so he could play Gaither gospel, music I didn’t enjoy but lyrics I could follow.  The tunes’ texts were so familiar that I could follow them, even if I had to close my ears to their sounds.  Looking at Brother Tom’s face as he sang–closed eyes, his deep throat open–I’d think back to rehearsals with the Soul Children of Chicago when we would sing with all our selves.  I’d think about my days at church singing in the choir.  And I would join Brother Tom.  Sometimes.

We talked about the Bible.  We spoke of theology.  He always asked about my ministry and my leadership.  He wanted to talk about his writings, and I wanted to hear about his life.  Sometimes it felt like our conversations were dull in the sense that they were aimless, almost lazy.  But there was something building, an intimacy I wouldn’t know until my internship and time with him was ending.  Still, with all those important words shared between us, it was his music that marked our time.

He would sing in the middle of a conversation, offering a public display of affection, even next to sleepy residents in St. Paul’s house.  I didn’t want to wake up his fellow residents.  But he didn’t mind it.  He would simply sing.  Loud and never quietly, he’d open his throat as if God was before him, waiting and encouraging him to sing louder.

Donny Hathaway, a singer I’m sure Brother Tom was unfamiliar with, sang that “for all we know tomorrow may never come.”  But the faith residing in the deep bottoms of my old friend, old because he’d seen so many days with God and with people, old because he’d experienced plain loneliness and gripping isolation, old because he was aged by grace and suffering and illness, that faith had a different lyric.  In some ways, Tom Lopresti sang because he believed he would see a tomorrow.

On the first day of the week, when he died, Brother Tom’s voice joined another melodious chorale.  He wouldn’t sing along.  He would join the sounds of the stars and the unseen vocalists from all eternity.  In death, he would start a new chorus, hardly ending his lovely baritone rendition of thankfulness.  He would keep singing, even if I’d never hear him again.  Perhaps this time he’d open his eyes, but Brother Tom would sing.  For sure he would.

30 Questions for (Engaged) Couples, pt 2

My spiritual mother has a pretty expansive questionnaire which she created when she led a Chicago church.  My questions aren’t as good, but they reflect some of the common questions I bring up with couples in our church.  I need to keep a running list since I don’t keep notes on such meetings.

Some of these feel immediately appropriate for personal reflection; all of them assume that a couple will discuss them at some point.  Of course, the inability to talk through questions like these are always clinically interesting to me.  With some revision, all of these questions can be asked at different points in the future of a marriage.

This is the second part of the list.  I’ll frame these as if I’m not in the room with the pair.  What would you add?  Here goes:

  1. When we’re at our best together, what are we doing, what aren’t we doing?
  2. How would I capture my spouse-to-be in a word, phrase, paragraph, and page?
  3. How much time we spend talking in a week?
  4. When I close my eyes, what’s the future I imagine with you?
  5. How will we spend our time together?
  6. What does an expanded family look like for us?
  7. What are the changes, transitions, and decisions in front of us for the rest of our lives?
  8. What will I shine at in this relationship, and what will I inevitably fail at?
  9. What will my spouse-to-be shine at in this relationship, and what will s/he inevitably fail at?
  10. How has my loved one shown me grace in the past?
  11. What is the significance of the party (i.e., wedding) we’re planning?
  12. Who are some of my dead relatives I wish my loved one could have met?
  13. What do I mean by the vows I’ll take?
  14. Where can we put our joint energies and our best collected efforts as a couple?
  15. How will this marriage make me, change me, challenge me, and better me?