No Longer Invisible

The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown.  Third Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit.  Walking a few blocks from my office to Third Street is rarely a solitary venture. Often  I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk.  One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood is the people I’ve come to know as friends.

Within the downtown are those who are less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless.  It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there.  Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different than our own?  Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?

The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the streets.  In the morning we put on coffee and invite folk to use our rest room, to rest in a comfortable chair and use the phone.   Those of us on staff have come to know many of our homeless neighbors by name.

In recent months, several members of the church have opened up a hospitality room where neighbors can stop by for breakfast and receive a warm welcome.  For  everyone involved it has been transformative.  A few days ago I stopped by and saw a retired teacher listening intently to a man who lives on the streets.  She was asking him about his life.   I wondered how long it had been since this man, whom people often walk past, had someone really listen to him.

What has occurred over these months is a deepening sense of community between those of us who live in secure, warm houses and those of us who struggle to find a place to lay our head each night.  No longer do we walk past one another.  Now we know each other’s name, each other’s story.  We’ve come to realize that our stories are not all that different.  Our understanding of whom we call ‘neighbor’ has expanded.

Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications.  Now that we know each other and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets.  We begin to ask questions about what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity.

The issues are complex, the needs are great and the answers don’t come easily.  The first step however is in knowing each other’s name and listening to each other’s story.  The good news, is that we are no longer invisible to each other.

Hangin with the Dalai Lama

A few weeks back I gathered with 11,000 of my closest friends to see and hear the Dalai Lama.   His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not only the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism but also a spiritual leader for people of many faiths and no faith tradition in particular.  He projects a sense of centeredness that grows from a life of being intentionally rooted in that which is eternal….that which is good and true.

The Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker for a conference that focused on climate change. During a Q and A time a person asked:  “Given that humanity has recently reached a carbon output of 400 parts per million (ppm) and given that 350 ppm is considered the maximum level before escalating global warming is unleashed, how can we have hope for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?  How can we not give in to despair?”

The crowd waited expectantly for his answer but the Dalai Lama was distracted.  It seems a girl to the side of the stage, perhaps 5 years old and sitting on her Dad’s shoulders was having a hard time.  Clearly something was bothering her.Dalai Lama and child

As 11,000 of us waited, the Dalai Lama walked over to the girl and whispered in her ear.  She then whispered back a response.  His Holiness then walked across the stage to a bag that lay by his chair.  He rummaged through the bag for sometime and then slowly walked back to the girl.  Once again he whispered in her ear and placed in her hand a small item he had taken from the bag.

She smiled and skipped off the stage.   Then and only then, did the Dalai Lama turn to the question from the audience.  For me the answer was already given.  Hope is found in the smallest act of compassion, in this case on behalf of a little girl.  It is through compassion that we bless others.  It starts with the need that is right in front of us. 

Translate such small acts of compassion to the needs of our home planet.  Consider what happens when compassion gives way to acts of advocacy on behalf of our natural world.  Is it not a compassionate act to work for minimizing and in the long run even rolling back the level of carbon being emitted into our environment?  Knowing climate change has the greatest impact on those least able to cope, is it not an act of compassion to work within our political and economic systems to bring about change?

Having tipped over the 400 ppm level where do we turn for hope?  The answer the Dalai Lama reminds us in the every day acts of compassion.  In closing His Holiness blessed us and sent us forth to bless others.  For the sake of this planet we call home, may it be so.

The Scandal of Good Friday

Cross in NicaraguaLet’s be honest, many Christians don’t know what to make of Good Friday.  This is particularly true for those of us in the liberal wing of the church.   Good Friday is that day when Christians reflect upon the crucifixion of Jesus.   Our tradition teaches that upon the cross God’s son Jesus, took upon himself the sins of the world.   From that cross Jesus sacrificed his life as an act of atonement for the sins of the world.

Liberal Christians struggle with the theology of the cross on a variety of levels.  Some question whether Jesus is actually the son of God.   Some are offended by the concept of a God who would sacrifice their most precious gift, their child.  We are put off by the horrific image of Jesus hanging from the cross, intended by the Roman Empire as a tool of torture and humiliation. 

Gordon Cosby the founding pastor of Church of the Savior, who died this week at age 94, writes:   “The cross is an embarrassment to many, that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves.  This dependence upon God’s forgiving initiative on our behalf, conflicts with our human desire for self-will.” 

Good Friday makes us uncomfortable. 

Tonight the church I serve will gather for Good Friday.  The crowd will be far smaller than that which gathers for Easter.  Easter goes down a lot easier.  It has flowers, bright colors, uplifting music and an uplifting message.   And, we offer brunch!

Our human tendency is to jump from Palm Sunday to Easter.  But unless we stop, ponder and wrestle with the cross we risk losing out on the power and promise of Easter.   This is true wherever you place yourself on the theological spectrum.

For me Good Friday is that day when we remember that it isn’t about us. It’s about God’s son Jesus, taking upon himself all the violence, pettiness and apathy of the human condition.  Upon that cross Jesus chose to suffer and in that suffering enters into deep solidarity with all the suffering of the world. 

Because of the cross Jesus is with us in the hospital.  He is with the child soldier in the killing fields of the Congo.  He is with the girl who is sexually trafficked on the streets of Portland.  He is with the people of Syria as the bombs rain down.  He is with the young man who sleeps on the streets of McMinnville. 

Good Friday reminds us that God took the initiative and entered into the human condition.  God chose to forgive the human family for all our failings.  God chose to be with us in our most vulnerable times.  God chose to bless us. Why?  Because the nature of God is love.  This holy love desires to accompany us through this life and into the next.

We need to go to the cross. In so doing we claim forgiveness for oneself but we also are challenged to forgive those who have wronged us.  The cross compels us to enter into the suffering of others and indeed, to work to correct the causes of suffering and injustice.

If we don’t go to the cross the Christian faith loses its power and promise.  This truth is lost when we move too quickly from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Ashes to Ashes

imagesCA2SY3HSTonight the Baptist church I serve, will gather with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see these  distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.   In my previous setting, we shared this ritual with a  Roman Catholic congregation and now with an Episcopal church.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic, youth oriented culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is a ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring in acknowledging ones mortality.  Something even joyful.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday reminds us to savor the gift of life, to remember that it is fleeting  and that one day each of us will return to our Creator, the source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

Your Time Has Come

Our youngest daughter is about to launch.  Soon she will travel 3000 miles from Oregon to Long Island, New York to begin her college adventure.  A different time zone, a different culture, thirty minutes by train from mid-town Manhattan.   A long way in so many respects from McMinnville, Oregon. 

I’m grateful that Katelyn has the self-confidence to make such a move.  I tell her that at her age I didn’t and I marvel at the person she’s become.  Katelyn is packing her bags, checking items off her list and saying final good-byes to her friends.

Soon she will launch upon her great adventure.  She will be challenged and stretched in so many ways.   Katelyn is a woman of courage, curiosity, compassion  and faith.  These qualities will serve her well in college.  She is ready to go.  With her she will take the love of  family, the best wishes of her friends and the prayers of her faith community.  

Tricia and I have been preparing for Katelyn’s leaving for a long time.  I/we will miss her in so many ways.  Yet, the time has come.  She is ready to go.  To Katelyn we say:  “Go with God and go in love.  Continue to stretch and grow.  Your time has come.”

I Don’t Like to Pray

I don’t like to pray.  I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor but it’s true.   As an extrovert praying doesn’t come naturally, at least in the traditional sense of folded hands, closed eyes and being quiet. 

I don’t like to pray.  I’d rather be busy doing something, anything, other than praying.  I get energy from being around people, from talking, discussing.  I like the stimulation of lots of people and lots of noise. 

I don’t like to pray.  Praying for me means giving up control….and  I like being in control.  I like being Lord of my own destiny, Captain of my own ship (fill in your own metaphor).  

But when I do pray, when I let go of trying to be in control, I often find that I am graced with a presence and a peace that is not of my own making.   I’m always surprised that I don’t get to the point of praying more quickly.   To pray seems so obvious, the benefits for me so real.

Maybe my resistance to prayer is part of the process for me.  Maybe I am so hard-headed that I need to experience the frustration that comes with trying to be a god unto myself.  Maybe I need to be worn down yet again, before I am ready to invite God to make a home in and with  me.

I’d like to think that the older I get, the more ready I am to pray.   Yet, I still like to be in control.  I still struggle to trust in God.  I still resist ‘letting go’ and ‘letting God’.

I don’t like to pray.  But I do, in spite of myself.  And when I remember to pray, I am met, I am known and I am reminded that I am not alone.

I am learning that prayer doesn’t require that I bow my head and close my eyes.  For me prayer is simply remembering to look and listen and wait upon that Great Mystery we call God.   

I don’t like to pray.  But I’m blessed when I do.