On Canceling Worship

As a serious winter storm is bearing down on us, it’s been interesting to wrestle with whether to cancel worship. It raises practical questions, certainly, but there’s a lot of gray in between the obvious go- and no-go-situations. And underneath the gray lie our basic understandings of worship and the church.

There is a range of points of view about what it is we’re doing when we gather to worship, and that shows up in the ways we approach the question of closing. (Keep in mind, no one would use this language directly; these points of view are carefully dressed up in proper religious language.)

  • On one end of the spectrum, there are the those who see Sunday gatherings as a weekly class session or club meeting. Canceling is easy in this case; there will be another session next week. It’s an entirely practical matter.
  • On the other end of that spectrum are the folks who see Sunday gatherings as a mystical date with God. Canceling is almost unthinkable; it’s like standing God up. How could we do that?! God is there, waiting for her lover. We couldn’t possibly leave her there, all by herself, tear running down her face, wondering where we are, questioning our love for her.
  • Then there are those who see Sunday gatherings as a duty commanded by a demanding God who’s keeping track of attendance. Cancel at your own peril. One more X on the attendance sheet will most certainly lead to The Look from God, that slightly sad, slightly mad, very scornful “I’m so disappointed in you” Look we all remember from when we were children. It will take us months to regain the trust we destroy if we don’t show up this week.
  • There are folks see Sunday gatherings as an achievement we use to demonstrate our holiness. These are the superheroes of righteousness who find themselves bragging with gems like, “I haven’t missed a Sunday in years!” or “I’ll be there no matter what. You may choose not to come, but I’ll be there even if I need to get a ride with Fred on his snowmobile.” They have adopted the USPS’s “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night…” Canceling is a sign of spiritual weakness or lack of commitment.
  • There are people who see Sunday gatherings as the only venue for worship and spiritual connection. For them, it’s very difficult to cancel because we’re taking away people’s only chance to connect to God for the week. It’s like church is the only recharging station for their lives; we owe it to them to be open so that they can connect to God. What happens if they can’t plug in on Sunday morning? How will their spiritual batteries last?
  • There are those who see Sunday as the revenue day; closing the church on Sunday is akin to closing the cinema on Friday night or the mall over a weekend—too much income would be lost. For them, the masses can’t be trusted to adapt their giving; cancellation is a last resort because it’s too financially costly.

Another spectrum on which all of these perspectives fit: how important is Sunday morning worship? All of the above POVs would fall at different points on the importance spectrum, for different reasons. For some, Sunday worship is the only reason the church exists. For others, it’s simply one activity among many. For some, the church’s activity is the most important thing that happens in the realm of God. For others, church activity is one piece in God’s mosaic self-portrait.

This question of worship cancellation brings to the surface our basic paradigms of what church is. Is it a social service agency—the last hope for people in need? Is it a spiritual mall or a spiritual club—a consumer service provider competing for customers or members? Is it an institution like a business or governmental agency that trades in size, influence, and image? Is it a family, a community, a living organism? Sure, in some ways, church is all of these; but at the core, which of these carries the day for you? Strip away the religious language (put down the ‘Body of Christ’ and the ‘incarnation’ and ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘mission’ and try to use non-church terms) and see what emerges when you try to name it: what is church? What’s it for?

How we answer this question says a lot about who we understand God to be. And how we answer this question drives our activity. How we answer this question matters.

For me, this episode of canceling worship reveals several layers of my POV about church. Every one of the perspectives above is familiar to me at some level. All of those voices are in my head to some degree.

There is a part of me that feels the obligation and is afraid of the scolding disapproval that comes with the charge of laziness and shirking work responsibility. I feel the tug toward being at work at all costs to earn the ‘hard worker’ badge and avoid the possibility of criticism on that front. That same part of me buys into the assumption that the pastor should be the holiest disciple in the church, the most committed, the one working hardest, the first one in and the last one out. ‘Even if no one shows up, the pastor was there worshiping’ sounds right in some part of my soul. That same part of me wants to see Sunday morning worship as the very center of God’s spiritual universe, the pivot around which everything revolves. And I am at the center, scripting, facilitating, directing the Divine drama that is the point of all existence. This part of me is the child, perpetually trying to earn love, forever replaying the anxious childhood game of ‘if I’m a good boy, you’ll approve of me, right?’ And it’s the adolescent, needing the security of self-satisfaction and importance. I am okay as long as I am competent and I matter to others. To this part of me, choosing to cancel worship is like facing a firing squad. This part of me is flinching, just waiting for the shots to be fired.

Another part of me (the part that is more spiritually grounded) sees the church as an organism, global and apart from time as well as local and now. The church is part of the living presence of the Divine, and I get to be part of that. It’s much, much bigger than I can ever know. I’m a speck in the whole, one star in the galaxy. My church is 100 stars in 100 billion. The light I shine matters, and it doesn’t. The light of 100 starts is significant—that’s a lot of light!—and it’s not. I am one gallon in the Mississippi River and my church is 100 gallons. What we do matters, but it matters in the way that ‘chunk’ of water matters in the flowing river. That 100 gallons has an effect on the bank as it flows by, and the river continues to flow regardless of the presence or absence of those 100 gallons. This part of me is free from the grandiose illusions about my importance and the importance of what we do on Sunday morning. Through this lens, I see the church as a family, intending to gather every week to be together and access that greater Presence that we experience when we’re together. And if we’re not able to meet some Sunday, or if we choose to forego our gatherings for a time for the sake of a particular purpose, no big deal. The family is still the family. The organism exists in relationships, not space. Our connection to the Divine happens in myriad ways throughout the week and in every place we inhabit, not just Sunday morning at the church building. Sunday morning is not a consumer product, and the church is not a service provider. The church is Christ living in the world. All are welcome to participate in that Divine life, both through Sunday gatherings and every other way the family of God lives.

Today the life of God goes on uninterrupted, in me, in our congregation, in our neighborhood, in the world, despite the fact that worship is cancelled. Thanks be to God!


New Year’s Resolutions & Tulip Bulbs

’Tis the season for new year’s resolutions. To me, they always come with a tone of get your life in order. Plot out the course for your growth in 2014. Figure out how to fix what’s messed up about you and commit to it. Goals. Targets.

This approach can work well in many settings, like strategic planning and behavioral change. But goals and targets and resolutions don’t fit in the spiritual life in the same way. Resolutions are about control, because I choose the goal. I diagnose my deficiency and find a path to eliminating it. Even if I’m open to help along the way, whether from friends or professionals or God, I’m still the captain of my ship, plotting the course myself.

This was my understanding for a long time of what it meant to be human. I thought that God made me halfway, and my job as a human being was to finish it. Figure out what’s missing, learn it, master it. Fill in the holes in myself. Complete the job. I was given a lifetime to accomplish this task. Then I would be complete. …And lovable. Life is the pursuit of being right and being loved because of it.

When this is the lens through which I see life, there’s a lot at stake in my competence. There’s a lot at stake in my being right in a disagreement. There’s a lot at stake in winning.

Then, a few years ago, the seed of a new paradigm was planted, by my spiritual director, I think. What if I am a flower bulb?  What if human beings are created whole and complete as they are, with growth ahead? What if the raw materials for the flower I am meant to be are already present in me? I’m not incomplete, I’ve just been given a journey of growth and becoming—not as an obligation, but as a gift. And that journey requires the input, the companionship of others. The bulb will need more materials from the soil, the sun, the rain in order to become a tulip. And, at the same time, the design for the future flower is already present in the bulb. With the cooperation of weather and soil, the Creator’s intention for beauty will emerge.

The Creator chose the final expression. The Creator designed the colors and the pattern of the petals. The telos—a biblical Greek word meaning the end, the target, the goal—is God’s.

In this season of resolutions, I’m reminded that the spiritual journey operates differently. For disciples, it’s about submitting to a process of growth rather than setting concrete goals/end points, because the telos is God’s.

My part is to just do the next right thing. I think of Abraham, who was invited to leave his home to go wherever God would show him. He had no idea where the journey would lead, except that it involved promise, and he was invited to trust God on the journey. I think of the Israelites, who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, unable to plot their course because the location of the promised land was unknown to them. I think of Mary & Joseph, who were invited to welcome a child without any idea what was ahead, just a promise that this child would be part of God’s redemption of the world.

As I begin a new year, I’m grateful for the reminder that I’m not the creator of my self. As much as I may feel like mastery is necessary to be loved, I’m the bulb, created complete as I am—with the promise of growth and beauty ahead. And I don’t need to know where it’s all headed; I just grow, one step at a time.

The Realm of God on Sunday Morning

Today our congregation swelled by nearly 50% when an extended family gathered for baby Zach’s baptism. Amy, in the time for joys & concerns, offered a prayer of gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this family’s celebration and to welcome this family into the congregational family, naming Heidi & Ford and Zach. It was exactly the right way to ‘claim’ this family that has, so far, been barely connected to the congregation. She embraced this couple as they are without even a hint of judgment and made it real that they belong, not simply because of their connection with the pastor, but because the community loves them.

We overheard a tender, Divine assurance of presence when the pastor held baby Zach and sang to him:

I was there to hear your borning cry,

I’ll be there when you are old,

I am here the day you are baptized

to see your life unfold.

Next to the baptism family was a young woman named Gina with tiny baby Finigan, just nine days old. She lives in our neighborhood and has wanted to find a church. Her friend was in town to help celebrate the new baby, and Gina asked her to come to church with her. Today was her first visit—nine days into motherhood, she came like a pilgrim to meet God in this place. And she was wrapped up in family she didn’t know she had.

Sue spoke up during the prayer time to share that her mother-in-law died this morning, the end of a long, painful decline with Alzheimer’s. The love in the room was palpable—that holy moment of breath drawn in, silence that’s full, tears welling up in many eyes, hugs that continued all morning.

Peggy, one of the matriarchs, invited prayer for 86 year-old Don next to her. Don has been a neighbor of the church for decades, but he’d never been part of the congregation until this summer. He collects discarded liquor bottles as beautiful objects, and he and they became the centerpiece of a sermon in July (see Mr. Macdonald). He was embraced that morning in the old folks’ Sunday School class and in worship, and he’s been part of the congregation ever since. Don’s sister is dying and he was waiting all morning on the call that she was gone. “When the phone rings,” Peggy said, “you’ll know why.” When his phone rang right after the service ended, he stepped over to the side of the sanctuary to take the call. Bart, younger than Don’s sons, stood by him with a hand on Don’s shoulder while he talked on the phone, a silent witness to the entire congregation’s care. It was Don’s daughter who called to tell him his sister died early this morning; she began by asking him where he was. He said, “I’m at church. I’m with friends.”

Tom, a well-known jokester with a soft heart, spoke up in the prayer time, too. He got a laugh out of all of us before he spoke what was breaking his heart—he just found out yesterday that his brother is going through a divorce. It’s a situation he understands well, and isn’t surprised to hear about, but his heart is breaking for his nephew & niece, who will learn in a week that their parents are splitting. The emotion of it was on the surface as Tom shared his sadness with his faith family.

We celebrated last Friday’s annual Turkey Dinner with Bruce expressing joy and appreciation that many of the youngest adults in the congregation were there serving, and we heard Cathy’s expression of appreciation for all who shared in the ministry and of $900 raised for the Indiana United Methodist Children’s Home, where children and youth in crisis find a safe home among other kids and adults who care. There was genuine celebration of each other, of the pride of being community together, of the act of pooling our skills to provide for others.

And in the midst of so much beauty, the pastor tried to juggle, adding chairs and making sure everyone had a bulletin and making up choreography for the baptism and filling out the certificate and getting signatures on the charge conference paperwork and posing for photos and embracing the grieving and sharing his own journey of discipleship, messy and quirky as it is. Marveling at the life of the community around him. Full of joy at the experience of speaking and hearing the Word of God in so many forms all at once.

This morning was a beautiful piece of music falling into shape through no direct efforts of any of the players. Each of us just shows up and makes the sound in our soul today, and what emerges is a symphony––the sound of the Realm of God.

In the aftermath of another mass shooting…

I was an 8th grade teacher in Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999, when the nation was shocked by a horrific mass shooting a mile away at Columbine High School. Back then it had been unthinkable that such violence could happen in the suburbs or the comfort of the upper class. We were used to gun violence being the consequence of the deprivations of the inner city or the turf battles of gangs. That event brought needed attention to other causes of violence, like bullying and social ostracization.

By one count, there have been 30 mass shootings (8 of them in schools) in the 14 years since Columbine, claiming 284 lives. 18 of them happened in the last 5 years (including Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown).

And when we talk about how to prevent the next mass shooting, we still default to the argument over restricting gun access, an argument that, like the argument over abortion, is mired in extreme positions having a tug of war that is a guaranteed tie.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m an extremist about guns. I’d rather live in a state that denies citizens the right to own any firearms. I think the arguments about needing guns in many hands to keep us safe are wrong. Violence begets violence. I think that volatile moments with a gun are deadly, while volatile moments with fists or weapons that require direct physical contact are much less damaging. I think NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is unimaginative, ridiculously simplistic, and self-serving. Sorry, hunters; if it were up to me, you’d be forced to go back to using bows or blowguns. Sorry, gun enthusiasts, your hobby is too costly for society. Firing guns for fun needs to go the way of dog fighting. There are some recreations that we just don’t allow as a society because we judge the cost to the many to outweigh the benefit to the few. (And yes, I’m aware that it’s easy for me to say this, since guns are not my hobby. I have played the mental game of wondering whether I’d be willing to submit to the same logic if a movement arose to ban small airplanes…)

On some level, I would expect to be happy that guns are taking another beating in the public square. Our cultural worship of guns and violence is a deeply rooted cancer, and seeing it appear on another scan of the American body is good.

But I’m tired of guns being the focus of conversation after mass shootings. We are not going to solve our problem of mass shootings by legislating about guns. On this point, I have to agree with my usual opponents in gun conversations. They’re right when they point out that the guns used in mass shootings were legally purchased, that background checks wouldn’t have stopped those purchases, and even if they did, having to get a gun illegally wouldn’t stop those who are on the path to mass murder.

The issue is deeper and more difficult to see. It can’t be fixed with a bill in congress. It’s not something “They” can handle for me. The scary reality is that mass murder will continue to happen until we change the way we all understand mental illness.

Today, even with significant progress over the last generation, mental illness is still heavily stigmatized. It’s synonymous with “being crazy”. It’s a category without dimension, without degree, without a human face. It’s still seen as weakness, something to be pitied, something monster-like. Suggesting someone seek professional help for a mental/emotional issue is often received like telling them they’re evil would be–there’s some part of us that believes mental health is within our control, and acknowledging a need for help is like acknowledging failure. Mentally ill people are always ‘Them’, the Other, not me or my loved ones.

Until it is me. Or someone I love. Then I’m forced to see mental health just like other health issues: with compassion, not judgment. And, truth be told, the judgment/blame voice is so deeply embedded in our assumptions about mental illness that it’s still hard to have only compassion even when the person with the illness is myself or a loved one.

I think that’s at the root of our denial about mass shootings. The solution will require change from all of us. We can’t solve the problem by building stronger legislative fences, because the problem isn’t as simple as easy access to guns. And we all know that in the good ol’ U-S-of-A, firearms are ubiquitous and will likely always be. So let’s stop the insanity of chasing our tail all over again, only to accomplish nothing that stops the next mass shooting before it happens.

What will stop mass shootings? Taking mental health seriously. Changing the systems that encourage denial by making anyone in treatment for mental illness equivalent to a raving lunatic. Paying for treatment. Educating the masses. Humanizing the illnesses of the brain by talking about them in connection with people we know and love. Honoring the courageous people in our midst who are willing to share their stories and diagnoses. Turning our stigma about mental health treatment upside down–rather than looking down on someone for being treated, recognizing that their treatment labels them healthy. Just like we see an obese person who’s sweating at the gym as one who makes healthy choices. Just like we see a person with diabetes who’s watching their diet as wise and well. Just like we see a stroke survivor who’s diligent in physical therapy as a strong person.

Ultimately, we live in cultural denial about mental illness. It’s better than it was a generation ago, but we still carry the assumption that the only people with mental illness are the ‘crazy’ people and that everyone else is perfectly well mentally. That’s no more true than the physical analogy–that the only people who have any physical illness are those who are incapacitated by it. It’s time to grow up as a culture and get past our denial–our assumption of sameness. It’s time to grow up enough to recognize that we all need some sort of help. It’s time to celebrate all people who are mature and strong enough to seek treatment for whatever ails them.

Only when mental illness diagnosis & treatment is as common as physical illness diagnosis & treatment will we no longer have an epidemic of mass shootings.

It’s no wonder…

martinAs the national conversation about race and violence and justice and personal safety has been ongoing since the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder, I’ve appreciated many wise commentators’ explorations of meaning, especially with respect to the race realities that have appeared on the surface again (enough that those of us in the ‘white’ majority can see them). I’d refer you to Jim Wallis’s reflection or Willie Jennings’s for wise commentary on how and why this situation is hitting the race nerve in our collective consciousness.

One of the questions raised by this tragedy: how could something like this happen? What leads to a teenager who walked to the convenience store for candy getting shot in a safe neighborhood? There are lots of answers to those questions, but my preparation to preach last week led me to spend more time reflecting on what the tragedy and the justice served by our system of laws have to show us about ourselves with respect to violence.

I’m working my way through the Sermon on the Mount this summer, and last week’s chunk of text was the section in which Jesus shows his hearers that conventional wisdom––outside and inside faith communities––isn’t consistent with the ways of God’s Realm. His rhetorical device for this contrasting of conventional wisdom with God’s Way is to say You have heard that it was said…. But I say….

In the week after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I hear these segments of what Jesus had to say ringing particularly loudly:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. …

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

(Matthew 5:21-24, 38-39, 43-44, NRSV)

 That’s what Jesus said to his own Jewish community, 2000 years ago in the Middle East. The formulations are still remarkably appropriate today; at the same time, I can imagine what Jesus might be saying now. He would most certainly have something to say in our national conversation, and I imagine it might sound like this:

You have heard that it was said it is right to defend yourself not simply with self-protection, but with violence, even murder. But I say to you, violence is never redemptive, only love is.

You have heard it said that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but I say never repay evil for evil.

These sound naive, even foolish in our culture. They sound like hopeless ideals that no one would ever live, and if we did, it would be a recipe for letting evil crush us without resistance. We’ve breathed the paranoid air that says that destruction is waiting just around every corner, and unless we beat it back, it will overtake us. Whether the evil we see is terrorism, or immigration, or criminals, or the government, the narrative in our culture is clear: if you’re not prepared to fight back, you will get trampled by the evil on our doorstep.

And fighting back, in our culture, is assumed to be about physical power and superior violence. We live under the thumb of what theologian Walter Wink called the Myth of Redemptive Violence: the belief that, when faced with violence or the threat of violence, salvation comes through superior violence. In fact, I’d argue that our mythology tells us there are no real alternatives––that evil can only be defeated with violence.

Examples of this mythology’s vice grip on our collective imagination (and most of our individual imaginations, too) are all around us, from the kind of assumptions we have about personal safety (inflicting or threatening even greater harm on my enemy than he could inflict on me is all that makes me safe) to our national behavior (we fight terrorism by inflicting orders of magnitude more harm than was done to us). The list could go on and on for pages; the fantasy that violence in the hands of Good Guys is redemptive is literally everywhere.

Superman Logo

Nowhere is this myth as fun as at the movies. I enjoyed the recent Superman movie, Man of Steel. And I’m a little ashamed I contributed my money to the perpetuation of the myth of redemptive violence in one of its most all-American franchises. Superman, of course, is as all-American as heroes get: handsome, humble, buff, virtuous, and able to accomplish physical feats without breaking a sweat or a bone.

And Superman is our best attempt at a bright spot in a world of violence. Kind & humble or not, he is violent––in the extreme in this most recent film. When Superman responds to an obnoxious bully, he does so by getting revenge with physical violence, destroying the bully’s property. When Superman defends the weak, it is through physical violence. When Superman saves humanity, it is by kicking Bad Guy ass, and in the final battle, it’s an extraordinarily violent fight. The violence isn’t contained to the antagonists, either; there’s extreme collateral damage. The fight takes place in a major city, and the super-people literally crash right through buildings, blowing glass and debris out the side of high-rises in scenes that reminded me of the images from 9/11/01 that are burned into my mind. Except this time, we’re not supposed to think about the folks at work in their cubicles until they were killed by Superman & the Bad Guy flying through in their violent embrace.

The message of our Superman mythology (and that of most other heroes) is very clear: the only way to defeat a violent enemy is with greater violence, and any level of violence is justified in the process of winning. And this supposed “truth” is built on two major underlying beliefs: 

  • Ultimately, power is in physical strength. The difference between good & evil is not whether strength is the mode of asserting power, but to what end that strength is used. It’s accepted as a given that power equals physical strength. ‘Weakness’ has no power.
  • Salvation comes through kicking ass. It might be self-sacrificing ass-kicking, but supreme physical power––the ability to force an outcome––is the final word. (And the good guy always lives through it and emerges unscathed long-term.)

This story-line is about as anti-Christ as possible. …Not that I’m saying our civic cultural mythology should be Christ-like in appearance. But one of the reasons it’s offensive to me that the mythology of America includes that this nation is somehow ‘Christian’ in nature: this is how we approach power. There can be no reconciling the teaching and life witness of Jesus of Nazareth with the lust for power expressed through physical violence we demonstrate in American culture.

Which is one (only one–there are several more) of the reasons it’s shocking and sad to me that this most recent Superman movie’s marketing blitz included marketing through churches to church-goers. Seriously. Church, something is WAY off when we allow ourselves to be marketing tools, especially for a product that uses surface-level similarities to mask the process of turning the object of Christian worship into an American superhero. Jesus was anything but.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not ultimately pointing the finger at Hollywood and its lust for violence. It’s pointed right here, at myself and all of us, because Hollywood is simply a mirror for us and our culture. And it can be painful to look in that mirror. Even in the middle of a bad-ass movie. Our cinema shows us our fantasies. Whether you identify personally with the siren song of the Superman myth or not, it is an uncomfortable glimpse at our culture’s assumptions about how the world works.

In this culture that assumes that Good Guys use violence redemptively, it’s no wonder George Zimmerman was packing heat that night. And it’s no wonder that the ubiquitous imagery of threat––especially hooded, dark-skinned threat––led to an unarmed teenager being shot and widespread shrugging of shoulders about its inevitability & moral justifiability.

There are a number of things about the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy that should give us pause, including these:

  • Stand Your Ground laws, especially when coupled with legalization and normalization of widespread gun-carrying in public and the lack of laws that punish racial profiling, are a savage development in our so-called ‘civilized’ society. This trifecta of factors is a recipe for more murders of young men of color and more acquittals (in the cases when they’re even prosecuted) because the murderer ‘felt threatened.’
  • Racism is a cancer that is just as present as it was 40 years ago in America. It’s less visible to most of us today because we’ve learned how to be polite about it (which really means we just lie by avoiding acknowledging or saying the dark thoughts that are whispering deep in our hearts). This cancer certainly isn’t cured, and it may simply be evidence of metastasis that it’s less clear on scans than it used to be. The reaction of our black neighbors to this verdict makes clear that there’s no shortage of active racism at work today––even though I may pretend it’s gone, they’re experiencing it every day.

Mr. Macdonald

I had a one o’clock appointment, and I went to prop the door so the person could get inside. I looked out through the window in the door to see if they had arrived, and I noticed a thin old man sitting on the stoop in the shade. I figured he was cooling down. I had a momentary twinge of ‘I should go see if there’s anything he needs’, but I hesitated. His clothes were a little dirty & he was unshaven; he had a plastic crate with him with a number of empty liquor bottles next to him. Plus, I had an appointment.

I hemmed and hawed for 5 minutes or so, avoiding opening the door, hiding inside trying to avoid being seen. He might ask for something, that damn voice was whispering in my head. Finally, I couldn’t ignore how ridiculous this was, so I opened the door to prop it and greeted the man as I did.

What followed was a solid hour of listening, which included laughing at the same story 3 times. …And one of those quiet spiritual experiences when God says “See me? I’m right here. Didn’t expect me in a grizzled old man sitting on the stoop, did you? Well, here I am.”

I had simply asked how he was doing today and if he wanted to come inside to sit in the air conditioning. “I don’t particularly like air conditioning,” he replied, not moving from his concrete seat. “I’m just tired; I’m walking from the dumpster back to my house,” he said pointing across the street on the other side of our parking lot.

I learned that our neighbor, Donald MacDonald (“I’m a Mac sandwiched between two Donalds”), has lived in this neighborhood for 50 years and was one of the stonemasons who finished the columns holding up the very roof that was providing the shade we were enjoying. Mr. MacDonald is 85 years old and walks everywhere he goes, mostly to McDonald’s for 53-cent coffee or one-dollar chicken sandwiches and to the dumpster in the alley behind the Union Jack pub a block over. Then he cuts through our parking lot on his way home, and when he’s carrying something, he stops at our stoop for a rest. I can’t believe (and I’m a little embarrassed) we haven’t crossed paths before!

Dumpster diving––well, that dumpster––is his treasure hunt. It’s a glass recycling dumpster in a neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants, so there’s quite a variety of bottles to be found. Mr. MacDonald checks the dumpster nearly every day for beauty, and he’s rarely disappointed. He keeps a special stick hidden nearby to help him retrieve the treasures he finds, and then he carries them back home to add to his collection.

He told me about one bottle in particular that he found this week and how his neighbors, the twenty-something couple, got to see it the day he brought it home. They were sitting out on the porch and called him to join them when he walked by. When they insisted on seeing what he had in the bag, he warned them with a twinkle in his eye: “I’m afraid to show it to you; it’s so beautiful you might be shocked. You could have a heart attack.”

This particular find was so beautiful that Mr. MacDonald asked if I would be around long enough for him to run home and back. He wanted to give me the chance to see this little piece of heaven. How can anyone (even me, even after an hour of listening and ignoring my ‘real’ work and my growling stomach protesting that lunch time was 2 hours ago) refuse an offer like that?

So Mr. MacDonald shuffled off across the parking lot to retrieve his newest prize. Five minutes later, he was back, with two empty bottles in his hands. He made sure I knew that these were precious, and he was holding them very carefully. Then he handed me an empty Russian vodka bottle with a silver label and a little raised sturgeon fish token glued onto it. Beluga Vodka, the label announced, best enjoyed with caviar. As he handed it to me, he reminded me sternly not to drop it.Don with bottle

If didn’t know better (and my brain hadn’t been obsessing about how unclean this dumpster-rescued liquor bottle with a little bit left in the bottom was), I would have thought he was handing me a delicate crystal treasure from a museum. He genuinely saw beauty in this bottle. When I handed it back, he slowly turned it over in his hands, admiring it again, drinking in the details of this worthless piece of trash. …Well, that’s what I see in it. But he saw beauty. Valuable, delicate, wonder-inducing beauty.

“There’s beauty all around us. So many of us are around things or people day after day, in our families or our homes or our neighborhood, and we never notice the beauty.”

I asked if I could take his picture, because I’d like to share this story with my congregation. I told him he was showing me something about God, and I’d love to tell people about him as an example. He agreed to be photographed, and then, after thinking for a moment, he said I could borrow some of his bottles for that sermon if I liked. “But put them on a table and put a sign that says DO NOT TOUCH, PLEASE next to them.”

What generosity in our eccentric neighbor! I was touched by his trust. I was moved by the presence of the Divine in him. I am grateful for a glimpse of such beauty (and the opportunity to admire a bottle).

I feel embraced by the God who reminds me I’m a used-up liquor bottle sitting in a recycle bin. And God’s a grizzled old man with a twinkle in his eye who delights at my beauty, whether anyone else gets it or not.


A Place for Truth-telling

This morning I was in a group of friends reflecting on the journey, and one of them said something that brought up joy in me, the kind of joy that signals connecting to the Divine:

I need a place to tell the whole truth, and that’s this group.

It’s the kind of simple truth about life that’s so deep it’s hard to talk about. It sounds obvious, or silly, or …duh. But it’s somehow revolutionary.

He was telling us the truth about how he is so good at putting on a put-together face, showing the world that he’s on top of it all, that he’s in charge and has it all covered, that he’s doing just fine, thank you, while behind the mask he’s slowly self-destructing, drawn like a moth to flame to things that suck the life out of him. And he was open about what this self-destruction looks like. As he was saying this, I was surprised, because I’ve been fooled by his mask–it’s a handsome mask. He’s cool and smooth and smart. He has great facial hair and the kind of glasses that give me the impression he’s creative and deep. He’s got that manner and voice that scream wise.

…And now you expect the conjunction butBut I realized I don’t really know him. Or But that’s an illusion. Or But now I wonder who he really is. He’s telling us that behind this ‘success’ persona is a troubled man who is struggling to let go of the demons he knows are killing him. Doesn’t that lead me to pull away? To keep a ‘healthy’ distance? To tsk,tsk under my breath (while keeping an appropriately compassionate concerned smile on my face)?

That’s certainly a familiar response in the church, isn’t it? And that would be among the least destructive responses I would expect if this were a usual church group. God knows there would be gossip thinly disguised as ‘concerned sharing’, judgment in the guise of righteousness, covert sideways glances and awkward distances.

But this isn’t a usual church group, and that helped me feel that joy that comes when the Realm of God becomes visible right smack in the midst of everyday life. In this space, my friend’s openness, which felt vulnerable enough to him that he had to end his sharing with a self-deprecating joke, was greeted with calm acceptance. The group responded with a sense of communal connection and identification–everyone in the group, rather than distancing themselves from him by judging or comparing in a way that sought differences, recognized the ways in which we are like him. The reflecting continued with someone else, who had the courage to honor this man’s openness by being similarly open with their struggles. Instead of his truth-telling separating him from others, it connected us all to each other. It was like he opened his arms wide like a child asking for a hug, and this group had the humility to respond not simply with tolerance but with real loving embrace.

And here’s the beautiful, mysterious part of this. The group loved this man not by dropping everything and focusing only on him, not by surrounding him and trying to make him feel better. That would be more comfortable for the other group members, certainly, because they could focus on his stuff instead of seeing their own. Instead, the group honored the man’s vulnerability by responding in kind. We cared for him by hearing him with love and then opening our stories to each other in ways that connected to his story. There was no competition (You think that’s bad? I’m worse off than you!) or triumphalism (I once was a bad as you are; now I’m totally different.). Just each person sharing their experience, recognizing that we all have our own versions of what our friend named. The meta-message was I’m right there with you, brother. 

That’s so very different from I’m sorry you’re so messed up. I’ll pray for you.

I thank God for places where real, actual truth-telling is safe and valued. In those places, the Divine Presence is real and …now.

And this takes work. Developing this culture of truth-telling is no small task, and protecting it against the gravity toward self-protective judgment requires the commitment of the vast majority of the group members. The good news I experience: once a person has experienced the Divine embrace that comes through this profound openness, they don’t want to go back to the old ways of polite viciousness and the isolation of ‘safe’ distance.

This is my dream for the Church. That it might become an outpost of this part of the Realm of God, a place of absolute safety for truth-telling, a community that has the capacity to listen without judgment. The Church can be known for the kind of embrace that happens with eyes wide open to ugly brokenness. I yearn for the Church to be a primary sign that Divine love is truly unconditional.

God help us, for we have a long journey ahead.

And I see glimpses of blinding light along the way. This past Sunday, our congregation gathered around a man who had gone way beyond his comfort zone and had asked for prayer. As he was preparing for a horrible, once-in-a-lifetime cross-country road trip to take his only son’s ashes to a meaningful place for scattering, he was able to reach out and ask for the care of his church. We listened with wide-open hearts and tears streaming as he choked out the story of the journey ahead in the next couple of weeks. He brought forward the bag with his son’s ashes, we gathered around him, and we put our hands on him and the bag and each other. We sang a favorite song of his to him. We stood in reverent silence, tears flowing again, prayed, and we sent him on his journey with more love than could possibly be expressed.

And it all started with his courage in being real (the ultimate truth-telling), by asking for prayer and by allowing his grief to be on the surface in the presence of his congregation.

Thanks be to God for such everyday, extraordinary, mundane, holy moments and for the truth-telling that makes them possible.