Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The note

Feeling grateful and giving thanks for the amazing gifts of life and companionship are not things that come easily to me. I spend way too much time trying to figure out what's "happening" in the world and what "needs to happen" to avoid falling prey to the tendency to fixate upon what remains undone, broken, unjust or otherwise unhelpful in the overall scheme of things. And lately I've come to the realization that, far from being prophetic-for prophecy always walks hand-in-hand with a robust vision of hope-my meditations upon the maligned have on balance probably caused more discouragement and alienation than anything else. Why do I share this? I share it because I am trying to grow in this area and by God's grace I'm finding some pretty incredible reasons to be thankful and grateful. I had such an occurrence this past week and wanted to publicly declare it.

Last Sunday I was sweeping our kitchen floor in anticipation of some close friends coming over for brunch. As I swept, I encountered a crumpled note card that had been kicked under one of the cabinets. It was covered with lint and dust. I picked it up, dusted it off and looked it over. I was genuinely astounded by what I found. The note card was a gift from a friend of mine in high school named Angela Phipps. Angela and I became friends because we shared a passion for writing and reflecting on life through our own tender poetry and prose. Angela was a very bright & gifted student, and an even more luminous person. Tragically, she was killed in a car accident during our junior year in high school. I will never forget the day when we learned of Angela's death. Everyone was devastated by the event and the school administration decided to create a space in the library where students could come to talk about what happened and share their feelings. The day was especiallly significant for me because I had a teacher (Eleanor Griffin) who recognized that I needed some extra time to be in that space to process my feelings. But even more, I think Mrs. Griffin realized that it was a special opportunity for me to serve and walk alongside my classmates. I was without a rudder at that point in my life and really struggling to find my way. Mrs. Griffin discerned this about me and made the room for me to be present in that space for most of the day.

As I've reflected on the contents and context of the notecard, I've been powerfully reminded of how that day helped to birth a nascent revolution in my life. A kid with a lot of passion and desire to be with others and serve them, but carrying an awful lot of emotional baggage and pain, began to slowly find his way on that day. The same kid that to this day continues on much the same rocky journey. But how easily we forget where we've come from and how much God has done for us! As I read the beautiful and hope filled words on Angela's note card, I couldn't help but be reminded anew of how much that day meant to me and how unbelievably faithful God has been to me on every subsequent day since. I can look back and laugh at the cheesy nature of my attempts at grief counseling that day-"And ever has it been that love knows not its own depths till the hour of separation"-a line from the poet Kahlil Gibran that I remember reciting to several fellow students that day. But there is no doubt that this day was one of the foundation stone's of my future life; and in typical fashion something that I'd almost completely forgotten until I found that note card on my kitchen floor.

I have no idea where that note card came from or how it ended up on my kitchen floor at such a "kairos" moment in time. However, the message to me is unmistakable. For me it was kind of like King Josiah rediscovering the Torah in ancient Israel. Angela Phipps' life, and all of the vast potential it represented, was cut tragically short. My own life, which was far more uncertain and disordered than hers, was elevated and forever blessed and expanded by the sacred opening that her death created. For the last twenty-one years, by the sheer grace and love of God, I've been allowed to continue slowly (and quite often ineptly) finding my purpose in life by serving others. Truthfully, I doubt that many of my current efforts are any more effective or sophisticated than they were on that first day. But the good news for me is that that simply does not matter. That is not the point. The point is to celebrate the incredible life that I've been given and celebrate the amazing way that God has carried everything precious born in my heart on that and all subsequent days; and to remember the friends like Angela, past and present, who have incarnated this loving effort of our Lord to steward me through life on a good path. I want to conclude by sharing Angela's words, as recorded on the card.

"I have learned to respect the advice as well as the advisor, the actions as well as the actor and the opinions as well as the opinion giver, for we must all realize that without these traits and the people bold enough to give them-we would live in a narrow-minded, unchanging society which would eventually die of ennui."

Angela Phipps

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Art of life

Today I came across the section below while reading Zygmunt Bauman's book entitled "The Art of Life." I was really taken by the power of the words of Robert Kennedy, shared by Bauman, and thought I would share. Seems to me a particularly relevant meditation on a day where we've heard Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke say the immediate future outlook on economic growth is "unusually uncertain."

"....as long ago as 18 March 1968, in the heat of the presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy launched a scathing attack on the lie on which the GNP-bound measure of happiness rests:

'Our GNP takes into account in its calculations the air pollution, tobacco advertising and ambulances riding to collect the wounded from our motorways. It registers the costs of the security systems which we install to protect our homes and the prisons in which we lock up those who manage to break into them. It entails the destruction of our Sequoia forests and their replacement through sprawling and chaotic urbanization. It includes the production of napalm, nuclear arms and armed vehicles used by policce to stifle urban unrest. It records....television programmes that glorify violence in order to sell toys to children. On the other hand, GNP does not note the health of our children, quality of our education or gaiety of our games. It does not measure the beauty of our poetry and the strength of our marriages. It does not care to evaluate the quality of our political debates and integrity of our representatives. It leaves out of consideration our courage, wisdom and culture. It says nothing about our compassion and dedication to our country. In a word, the GNP measures everything, except what makes life worth the pain of living it.'

Robert Kennedy was murdered a few weeks after publishing this fiery indictment and declaring his intention to restore the importance of things that make life worth living; so we will never know whether he would have tried, let alone succeeded, in making his words flesh had he been elected President of the United States. What we do know, though, is that in the forty years that have passed since, there have been few if any signs of his message having been heard, understood, embraced and remembered-let alone any move on the part of our elected representatives to disown and repudiate the pretence of the commodity markets to role of the royal road to a meaningful and happy life, or evidence of any inclination on our part to reshape our life strategies accordingly (pg.5)."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sewing in hope.....

I've been reading through a book entitled "Reconciling All Things," by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. The book is part of the "Resources for Reconciliantion" series that is being done colloboratively by IVP and the Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation. Communality community member Sarah Brown and our good friend Andrea James recently returned from Duke's Summer Institute which was hosted by the Center and focused on the topic of reconciliation. Sarah and Andrea have shared with us many inspiring and insightful stories from their time at Duke and brought back a number of excellent resources (including this book) that have edified us. This book is really accessible, a pleasant yet profound read that makes a convincing case as to why the idea of reconciliation (writ cosmically large) is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. I think Chapter 4, entitled "The Discipline of Lament," is an absolute must read for anyone involved in Christian work. There are a lot of great passages tucked away in this book, but I wanted to share one in particular today. I share it because it brings to memory so many wonderful friends in divers places who sow seeds of hope, both symbolic and literal, in their sacred quest to find ways to live and die well for the world around them. The picture is from a patch of volunteer cone flowers that we transplanted in the spring to one of the "out of the way" areas of our yard. After looking fairly wilted for a couple of weeks, consistent watering and a little time to root have caused them to explode this summer.

"A friend told us of visiting a very large religious community with a long history of activism and service. For generations St. Benedict's monastery had built hospitals and sent teachers to public schools. In its early history on the American frontier, it had literally saved the lives of weary travelers with its hospitality. Walking with one of the sisters in the community's beautifully cared for cemetery, our friend asked what the elderly sister loved most about the community. 'We do death well,' she said. 'You should see a funeral here. It's really a beautiful culmination of a life lived in worship of God.'

Over time a community like this monastery can transform a place through its service and work, creating space for human life to flourish. But such a community is sustained through small acts of beauty like doing death well. These acts point to a deeper vision that is easily lost in the urgencies of a broken world. They are themselves seeds in this broken world that are just as prophetic as our work for justice and peace.

There is no guarantee that these small seeds will take hold and grow into something beautiful for all the world to see. They could die from lack of water or be choked by weeds. We plant in hope, not certainty. But we plant because we know it is true and right and good. Even as we bend to push the seeds beneath moist soil, we are learning that hope is the patience to work and wait for a future not yet seen (pg.108)."

Friday, July 02, 2010

Another world is possible..........but how?

Yesterday I read a passage in Miroslav Volf's book "Exclusion & Embrace," that gave me a lot of hope and encouragement. In the light of my time at the US Social Forum last week, and the struggle to envision and believe that "another world is possible," Volf's eloquent thoughts are a critical reminder to me of both the steep cost and the incomparable joy of being with Christ in this struggle. I've included a photo I took several years ago outside a little mud-hut church in a village in Uganda.

"The ultimate scandal of the cross is the all too frequent failure of self-donation to bear positive fruit: you give yourself for the other-and violence does not stop but destroys you; you sacrifice your life-and stabilize the power of the perpetrator. Though self-donation often issues in the joy of reciprocity, it must reckon with the pain of failure and violence. When violence strikes, the very act of self-donation becomes a cry before the dark face of God. This dark face confronting the act of self-donation is a scandal.

Is the scandal of the cross good enough reason to give up on it? Let me respond by noting that there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or take up one's cross, follow the crucified-and be scandalized anew by the challenge. As the Gospel of Mark reports, the first disciples followed and were scandalized (14:26). Yet they continued to tell the story of the cross, including the account of how they abandoned the Crucified. Why? Because precisely in the scandal, they have discovered a promise. In serving and giving themselves for others (Mark 10:45), in lamenting and protesting before the dark face of God (15:34), they found themselves in the company of the Crucified. In his empty tomb they saw the proof that the cry of desperation will turn into a song of joy and that the face of God will eventually "shine" upon a redeemed world (Volf, 26.)"