Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pay It Forward

Too much death lately.  Not trying to exclude the horrific realities that leads to premature death in the world, but I'm primarily thinking about the loss of those with whom I walked, talked, related to, learned from, and loved.

Catherine Ryan Hyde wrote an international best seller several years ago entitled Pay It Forward.  It was subsequently made into a movie.  The story is about a twelve-year old boy who takes on a social studies assignment about how to change the world.  His idea is to pass on a good, helpful deed to three people and then ask each one of those persons to do the same for three other people.

Gerald Grant paid it forward as well as anyone I've ever known.  And he didn't  just do it to three people unless you think in terms of about three people EVERY DAY.  I only heard him say the words a couple of times, but I know that the driving force in his life was to "do all I can to help my fellow human being."

He didn't come by it naturally.  Like anyone, he had his own struggles, but he overcame and pressed on.  Maybe it was out of those struggles that he developed a sensitivity to make a difference in human life.

He, and a couple of his buddies, were always fast to show up whenever a need was announced.  It might be to respond to a maintenance problem at the shelter, work needed at the church building, the repair of a basic necessity at the home of a widow, or all kinds of things that most of us never knew about.  When called, I never picked up a sense of hesitancy or resistance about coming to do what needed to be done.  He just came.......and almost always, quickly.

We lost Gerald the middle of February.  I miss him.  When the thought of him crosses my mind, which happens more regularly than I can describe, it is not so much couched in the memory of sadness but in the memory of good conversation and glad encounters.

At his funeral I referred to him as one of the few "great" people I had ever known.  Some might think that was a stretch because he, like all of us, certainly had feet of clay.  But I stand by that assessment.  His greatness came in a choice to humbly position himself last and put others, and whatever was happening with them at the time, first.  He took the time and had the willingness to pay it forward.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Unless and Until

Over two generations ago, a Swiss psychiatrist named Paul Tournier wrote a series of books connecting a faith response to matters of the human psyche and issues with which we all deal.  One of those books was entitled The Strong and the Weak.  Tournier described what we all know to be true, though we might wish it weren't.  We know that the victors write history and that the facts of it all may be regularly skewed.  We know that those in positions of power can speak their thoughts, even if they are prejudicial, and the result will be according to their desire.  We know that the strong can manipulate the weak, even gaining advantage from their plight, all the while blaming them.

But occasionally something happens that reverses a trend, at least in some small measure.  It happened last week.  Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) changed his mind and announced that he would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act.  One might gather that he will now be on the side calling for the reversal of DOMA, which states that same-sex marriage is illegal.  And how did Senator Portman come to this momentous decision?  His own son came out as a gay person and the Senator and his wife began to rethink their convictions against gay marriage.  They want their son to know the happiness that others in committed relationships know.

So, let me see if I have this right.  Be against something until that very issue directly affects your own family and then it is appropriate for a change of heart to take place.  It's almost as though someone is saying that when it happens to me, it's different.

But why or how is it different?  Why do we stand as though our feet are stuck in cement and only move to extract ourselves from a position that touches untold numbers of people when we ourselves are so impacted?  It is as though unless and until we feel the pain, it just isn't that big a deal and other people don't count.  Can you imagine anything more revulsive and pathetic? And yet most of us are inclined to adopt that position.

Unless and until the power brokers have a family member directly enveloped by mental illness and with no way to treat it will we ever have a concerted effort to fix a terribly broken mental health system.  Unless and until our representatives have family or friends who are bankrupted by a devastating major illness will there ever be legitimate progress toward health care for all.  Unless and until our elected and national leaders are forced to send their own sons and daughters into war zones will we ever seek to curb the frequent rush to war that seems to be our national proclivity.  Unless and until we get "burned" by the pain visited upon countless others will our hearts be broken and then be motivated to "do something."

Unless and until.........and the really sad thing is, that time is probably never going to come.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Story In Which We Find Ourselves

I am changing the way I speak about important life matters.  For instance, the word Christian no longer works for me.  I feel almost apologetic to a lot of dear friends who still identify as such.  But that once noble, albeit controversial, name has hit upon hard times.  The majority of images that course all the way from the Vatican to mega-churches to religious TV programming and media expression to the mean-spirited attitudes and actions of so many is something I can no longer abide.  If those images are really what it means to be Christian, then I don't want to be one.  So, how do I call myself?  Not really sure yet.  Maybe "follower" or "seeker" of the "wisdom teachings of Jesus."  Pretty cumbersome I know.  But such will have to work as my self-identification for now and until I can find a better way.

The word "church" no longer has any appeal either.  The same arguement used above applies here also.  If the contemporary expression is supposed to describe what an ancient call to be the people of God was about, then I have to remove myself and find another way.  Church has been and continues to be corrupted from any original intention.  What we see in so many quarters now is not what was desired by the Galilean peasant whose body it is supposed to be.  "Community of Faith" has been suggested by some folk that I know and trust and, at least for now, that designation works for me.  We are a folk journeying together, sharing something of life in common, and struggling to understand better what a faith response is to be.  I realize it all sounds so laborious.  But I am a part of a group that loves each other, accepts each other regardless, and finds in our midst a sense of joy.

So how might I put this connection between follower and community together.  I am urging my community to think of it all in terms of a story.  Paraphrasing Brian McLaren, our life together becomes "the story in which we find ourselves."  We are a part of a different story.  Always has been, and will always march to a different beat.  It is a radical, some think very strange, kind of story.  Although it rubs shoulders with other stories, it is not what we generally see going on around us.  It is not the american dream with a religious twist.  It is not conventional wisdom wherein anybody with any sense at all should understand.  It is not a national or denominational or creedal or racist or sexist or straight or class or capitalist or power story, although its design is to touch all these matters in a transformative way.  It is a different story.

So I am going to start trying to demonstrate more of my understanding by how I phrase my conversation.  I am a follower or seeker.  I  want to understand what Jesus taught and what he was about.  I want to grasp his wisdom.  I do so in a community enhanced by feeble faith.  And I want to constantly remind that those of us who give ourselves to this way are part of a different story.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Walking Easy On The Earth

Over four decades ago, a man named James Kavanaugh left the Catholic priesthood to become a writer, counselor, and continuing seeker of truth and meaning.  He authored numerous books, both non-fiction and poetry.  His poems have been among my favorites.  They help my spirit soar when such is needed.  Some days they moved against my pain with healing balm.  On other occasions they kicked me in the gut so hard I lost my breath and had to struggle to regain it.  One of my favorite poems was entitled "Some Few Walk Easy." Evidently Kavanaugh wrote it to describe a male counterpart.  But it fits some women I have met also. It doesn't describe everyone I know, but it does remind me of a few who have graced my life when they walked onto my path and journeyed with me a while.

One of those persons was Jo Quinn Murphy.  We lost her a few weeks back.  (Seems like I'm writing a lot about departed friends and I still have another one to go after Jo Quinn).  I feel a sense of loss for those who are no longer here.  The beauty of their memory is that all were uniquely individual and gifted.

Jo Quinn walked easy.  For all that I may be able to recall about her, I do not remember a sense of heaviness.  Even as she stared down the so-called "Grim Reaper," it was done with a sense of calm and an almost matter-of-fact attitude.  I never sensed fear.  I never heard regret.  I never visited her without seeing her smile.

She was not religious.  Didn't need to be.  Her sense of the spiritual carried her deeper, and probably farther, than most.  She would occasionally gather in worship with some of her friends, but I think it was because friends were there and she appreciated the community (and the hugs and encouragement).  There is a statement that goes "spiritual, but not religious."  At least one book recently hot off the press challenges that notion and says that spiritual but not religious is not enough.  The author of that book never met Jo Quinn.  The "Spirit" of her life was in tune with the body, nature, the earth, healing, compassion, and the things that make for gentleness and grace.  Sounds good to me.  Don't know many religions that consistently top that.

She worked as a volunteer coordinator at the shelter for a while many years ago and encouraged others to invest their lives in the work of hospitality.  When she left she developed an idea called the "Card of Hope" which involved the selection of a local artist's work placed on a card that could be given at any time in honor of or memory of someone and the proceeds would go to support the shelter endeavors.  That one simple, but beautiful, effort has now become one of the larged fund-raisers for the shelter.  That was the easiness of Jo Quinn.  Combine art with an act of compassion and remarkable things happen.

Jo requested that there be no final service.  She thought a picnic would be more in order.  I hope it happens someday.  That would be so like her.

If you ever can, try to find Kavanaugh's poem.  See if the image of Jo Quinn Murphy does not come to your mind as you read.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A little bit of irreverence

Maybe it's the aging process, but I find that I learn more these days from paying attention to those who step aside from the conventional, follow something of their own beat, and chart their way.  I have a growing appreciation for the "maverick" even if that one is classy and attractive.

We lost such a person late last fall.  Her name was Debbie Starrette.  I find that as I think about her today that I am still learning from her. 

I said at her funeral service that I regret not ever sharing with her that I viewed her as an "aesthetic philosopher."  She really was.  Her tilt was toward things beautiful, especially that which she could help create.  Music, floral arrangements, place settings at a table....all works of art when touched by Debbie's hand and heart.  Her efforts also coupled with the desire to find the right path of wisdom.

A friend of Debbie's daughter wrote Emily after her passing and included this paragraph in her note:
"I am filled with the deepest, breath-taking sorrow for you for the loss of your beautiful Mother.  She was such an interesting mix of strength and gentleness, class and a little bit of irreverence, warmth and determination.  I enjoyed and admired her greatly" (italics mine).

Aahh, the little bit of irreverence.  I caught it on numerous occasions.  The gleam in her eye, the toss of her head, the almost-under-her-breath chuckle.  Among her numerous talents, Debbie also developed the skill of never taking herself too seriously.  And she certainly would not abide those who did take themselves seriously.

For all her giftedness, Debbie was never one to "work the room."  She had no need to really be noticed or to be in charge.  Some even thought her shy and that she would withdraw if there was something painful.  I have now figured out that such was not the case.  If it didn't work for her, she just moved on to something else that would.  Her leave-taking was not in anger or spite.  She just realized that she could find what she needed if she continued the search.  There may have been something about her reminiscent of "shaking the dust off her feet" and moving on.  As I said on that day when we especially remembered her, "She did it her way."  She really did.  Not in arrogance.  Just finding what worked for her, so she, in turn, could do the work of sharing gifts and being human.

A few also knew Debbie in those moments of their own deep pain.  They looked up and there she was.  She got into settings that others would never dare.  She comforted and cajoled, whatever was needed at the time.  And when she left, folk were ever so glad she had come.

I want to be like her in some measure.  Not taking myself too seriously.  Using and developing my gifts.  Making choices and moving on to find what will work and will make me stronger.  And looking at it all with that sense of earthiness......that little bit of irreverence.

Bless her.  I miss her.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I'm baaaaaaaack!  I've been gone from these pages for a while.  Two  reasons why.  First, I just felt like I had run out of things to say.  Call it writer's block, call it whatever.  I had to keep up with a regular routine of preaching and teaching, but as I look back over the past six months or so, I realize that I really did not have my heart in my proclamation.  2012 was the worst year of my life and I have had some tough years.  Our youngest son defied all understanding and expectations, relapsed into prescription drug use, and wound up being incarcerated.  He has now been released and is in another recovery program where he will stay until the middle of April.

Never has the word "regardless" meant so much to us.  Regardless of what he did, he is our son and we love him and will not give up on him.  Our visits have been wonderful.  That beaming smile of his is beginning to return.  He is working hard to rebuild his life and we will stand in support of him.  His life will probably progress for the foreseeable future only inch by inch.  We will be there to encourage.  We have learned not to enable.

So on December 31, we joined with a really good friend to close out the year.  No big celebration or chiming in the New Year.  Our friend had just recently lost his precious wife (I will be writing about that soon).  We broke bread and drank wine.   And a few tears flowed.   We supported each other.  And we bid adieu to 2012.  May nothing like it ever return again.

The agony of those months finally got to be too much.  So I stopped writing.

The second reason was a more practical one.  I really did want to change the look of my blog.  Since I am so technically challenged, I had to rely on my wife for assistance.  She too carried a load of agony that only a mother can feel.  She is also the busiest person I know and finding time to navigate through some computer changes was just not in the schedule.  So, you won't see any real changes.  We will get to it in time.  I also want granddaughter Madysen to bring her photographic skills back to these pages.  But her camera is broken.  Another span of waiting.

As I pull up out of this pit, I'm not sure what I can say.  But I am beginning to feel the yearning to put thoughts down for consideration - thoughts with which I wrestle and which hopefully will find a place in your journey.

Glad to be back.


Friday, September 7, 2012

"Progressive Christianity" - Is there a better way to say it?

We use words to define and describe.  Words are only symbols used to explain what we are trying to communicate.  When we use them, they are "our" words and we assign the meaning behind them.  They may be misused or inaccurate descriptions of what we are really trying to say, but usually they are the best we efforts we have.

But some days we all yearn for different and better words.

I find myself substituting other words for the word CHRISTIAN.  Given the larger understanding of that word on our contemporary scene, and especially how the media pushes that particular understanding, I have to say that if that's what it means to be Christian, then I don't want to be one.  So I usually stammer and stumble and try to come out with something like FOLLOWER OF THE WAY...or...FOLLOWER OF JESUS' WAY.  That usually requires more explanation, but at least for now, it gets me away from the overused and abused term that is most popular, namely CHRISTIAN.

I try to no longer use the word CHURCH.  Same arguement.  Given its present understanding, especially in the realm of it being a place to which one "goes" with a particular address or with denominational/doctrinal/creedal expressions, then I don't want to be associated with that.  A COMMUNITY OF FAITH works better for me.....at least in this present moment.  A body of folk, trying to figure it out together, growing in their struggling faith, and somehow making a difference for the good in surrounding circumstances, all as they try to follow the Way of Jesus and even learn from other traditions.

Then it becomes a matter of where one places or finds oneself in the human scheme of things.  This usually revolves around how we think and act; what is important to us and what we ignore or refuse.  The big terms here, in realms religious and political, have been CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERAL, and varying degrees thereof (even these terms can be broken down into different categories).

I have long understood myself to be liberal and unashamedly so.  I want some good, conservative friends to help me keep my thinking in check, but the liberal ground is where I stand.  But that word has fallen on disrepute in the past half-century or so and I find that very regrettable.  It is a good, noble word (from liberation) and has been vital in the thinking, behavior, and progress of our common life.  (It's polar opposite word, conservative, is also a good word that has been ship-wrecked by some with a streak of meanness and a need for terrific control).  So, LIBERAL doesn't work as it used to when it comes to describing my particular stance.

Enter PROGRESSIVE.  There is now Progressive Religion, Progressive Christianity, Progressive Politics, etc.

But I must confess that particular word just doesn't do it for me.  As a friend told me last night, it is just so "ambiguous."  Those who stand on opposite ends of the measuring stick all see themselves as progressive.  The left would lay claim to being progressive.  But the right, and even the extreme right, would say the same thing about themselves.  They are moving forward in what they see as important.  They are progressing.  You know, "Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on BEFORE."   There you have it.  PROGRESSIVE.

So I pose a question and I seriously would like some answers and conversation about it.  You may leave a comment on this blog or even email me your thoughts.  I then will share them with others.   Most of us know what we are talking about when we speak of being PROGRESSIVE.  But if that word doesn't really work for us, is there a better one?  Is there a series of words that form a better descriptive term? 

Help me out here.  Who knows, maybe we can even start a new trend.