Monday, March 9, 2015

This is 28

I think a lot, maybe too much
About myself, about my world,
How my decisions now are shaping patterns
Like a woodworker and her chisel
Chipping, chipping, chipping
Creating the contours of my life.

I debate between here or there, this and that
Wondering what role God plays in the whole experiment.
Wondering if he plays any at all.
More convinced all the time that the theoretical
Whats and wheres
Consuming my imagination
Matter far less than
The who and the how.

I celebrate my friends' and acquaintances' lives
As they are portrayed to me from afar.
They seem more cohesive and purposeful than my own stumbles forward.
Yet I know all too well the disparity between my own flesh and my screen.

I listen to Appalachian lullabies
Wrapped in a quilt in a wooden cabin
Drinking tea. Snowflakes
Swirling endlessly outside these walls.

I give thanks
For friends who are family
Who share dreams and home
In sharing their children's cuddles and kisses
They give more than they could know.

I learn to let go of dreams
And create new ones
Yet this time with a looser grasp
Time seems less forever than before

I wonder how much say I have in it all.
Or if my will is nothing more than an illusion.
But if not my will, than what?
But if not me, than who?
Who's creating this life?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, UVA, and Our Cries for Justice

A couple years ago I was in the habit of visiting prisoners at Huntingdon State Penitentiary. I met some amazing gentlemen (and, I'll be honest, a couple creeps) for whom some poor choices as teenagers set them on the path to lifetime imprisonment in a stone cell in the middle of rural, central PA.

The most jarring, undeniable reality of that place was not the heavy, clanging doors that reverberated through the cold, empty halls. It was not the bleak, dehumanizing atmosphere of wasted lives at every turn. It was who was white and who was black. With no need for population counts, it was clear the majority of the prisoners were black or Latino and ALL the employees were white.


The news from this week that keeps bringing me to tears and to my knees helps shed light on the heartbreaking, garment-tearing, cover myself in ashes and scream for justice "WHY?!?!?!"

How can "Drew" from UVA, and men like him, who lure women into dark rooms to initiate and encourage brutalizing, soul-shattering gang rape, go on with their lives? How can this evil done at their hands be so easily silenced as these men become our lawyers, business leaders, and politicians?

How can black men continue to be seen as a greater threat than white men? Honestly, I do not know what justice in Ferguson would actually look like. The letter of the law and the rightness of a thing seem so often to be at odds. But what I do know is that our black brothers and sisters are not speaking out of a vacuum. Their pain over the ruling in Ferguson MUST be heard and NOT be dismissed.

As we look at these stories, it is clear that injustice runs rampant. Money is winning. Institutional racism is winning. Prestige is winning. Power is winning.

These two stories this week have awoken with vengeance that sick in the stomach feeling that I had whenever I returned home after visiting prisoners. It has reignited the anger that stems from the dissonance between what I saw on the other side of that barbed wire and the conviction that white men are no better (and no worse) than black men.

Injustice overwhelms. It's immense pressure either paralyzes us or makes us snap. A lot of people have snapped this week under the weight of injustice. And I praise God for that. May it lead to change. May it lead to justice for our nation's young black men and for our southern college girls alike.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
To proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. 
(Isaiah 61)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

In Defense of Beauty--Even the Expensive Kind

"I lift my eyes up. Where does my help come from?"

Surrounded by grandeur in its majestic stillness these words unspoken echo in my spirit. My spirit, that is at once calmed as my eyes lift heavenward, as I recall my place as creature.

Beloved--yes. God's image--yes.

Yet at the same time, I am small. One of the masses. Not God. Unable to be God. Only able to bend a knee at the mention of God's name.

Worship. I suppose that is what this is. The sudden call to reverence invoked by no words, but by a place.

By beauty.

By grandeur.

Two places have brought me to this state of worship, this radical realignment of who I am and who God is.

One place untouched by man.

Phelps Lake, Grand Teton National Park

The other, designed entirely by man.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Place is important. Beauty is important.

We are weak creatures and need inspiration to worship, to be faithful, and to seek God.

We need beautiful places to authentically be God's people.

I used to criticize extravagance in the name of worship. "Think how many people that could feed?" I would think and occasionally say. I'm not the only one in history with these sentiments.

But as I continue to look around, I don't think people are hungry because of building beautiful churches (or for that matter for protecting beautiful places).

People are hungry because other people are greedy. And maybe, just maybe, building and protecting places that inspire worship will ultimately lead to more generous people.

Can prioritizing worship really help to feed the poor?

If not, I don't think we're worshiping well.

"I lift my eyes up."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Loving the World, Praying for Peace, and Other Difficulties

I wrote this last year, when a potential U.S. military strike loomed large in the media's lens, that is, a different U.S. military strike that is currently in the news. I planned to post it on International Day of Peace 2013, but overwhelmed with the issue itself, I set this reflection aside for my own sanity. 

International Day of Peace is here once again, yet it seems that war and rumors of war continue to be the default mode of being here on earth. 

Rumors of war

Last year, around this time the headlines told tales of Syria, mass shootings and bombings in the Navy Yard, Chicago, Nairobi and Baghdad, gridlock over Obamacare and serious flooding in Mexico and Colorado. Today we're hearing about domestic violence, ISIS, Ukraine, and Ferguson (remember Ferguson?)

I often worry about the rate at which we consume tragic news, but that's for another time. Even though these thoughts are practically obsolete in our micro-second world, today is the International Day of Peace and I feel compelled to share my struggle written here with the few willing to spend 15 minutes to travel back to my thoughts last year. After all, the violence in Syria is still very real for many regardless of our news networks, as it is in Iraq, Ferguson, our neighbors' homes and, yes, even our own hearts.

Thanks for reading. Let's pray for peace.

From September 2013:

As the violent pulse of Syria encroaches upon the national limelight, diplomats attempt to make clear the blurry lines of international law, and the American public contribute their opinion in grossly over-simplified yays or nays, my mind has been scrambling for paradigms through which I might understand the violence, the politics, and this global landscape.

My neat, contained values of loving the world, praying for the suffering, and promoting peace seem tiny vessels that at face value are inadequate and trite responses to a convulsing, seething, multi-faceted ball of violence, oppression, and self-interest. My daily attempt to live faithfully in my local community is disrupted with questions of a global concern, a call to care and love beyond the boundaries of my influence.

I am called to love the world.

I understand how to love the world I inhabit. I do not understand how to love people I never see. For this reason global crises, the polarizing rhetoric that ensues, and the question of how to respond as Christ's disciple has always frustrated me.

How can I love the residents of Damascus? Any attempt to do so from Huntingdon, PA is removed from real time relationships which in turn is removed from reality which thrusts this "love" into the realm of the theoretical. But love, by its very nature, cannot be abstract. Love requires action.

So, when I hear of violence, chemical warfare, and oppression of a people, I, by virtue of my geographical location, am unable to love the victims of these travesties. Any attempt at love is theoretical. Indeed, so is the violence. Mentally, I know that innocent people are dying at the hand of a brutal regime, but I must convince myself of this fact. My knowledge, void of connection and experience, is limited.

"It's not happening here, but it's happening now"

However another story line challenges this locally-minded love. The mystery of prayer. In the words of Henri Nouwen:
"Prayer for others is the very beat of a compassionate heart. To pray for others means to allow their pains and sufferings, their anxieties and loneliness, their confusion and fears to resound in our inner-most selves. It is in and through us that God's Spirit touches them with his healing presence."
Prayer provides a means of loving from a distance. The discipline of sharing in the grief and the pain of others, even others we do not know, through prayer, relieves burdens in ways I do not understand. Praying for peace in Syria leads me to ask how I am contributing to the cycle of violence, division, and injustice through my action and inaction.

But how do I pray for Syria? How do I pray for a people I do not know? For an end to violence I can't imagine?

But how can I not pray for Syria? Their world, although it feels removed from mine, is a part of my community. Any concern for my next door neighbor demands concern for my global neighbor.
"All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole creation. God's world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other." (Pope Francis, Vigil of Prayer for Peace, September 7, 2013)
However isolated I may feel, my corner of the world is an interlocking piece of the global puzzle. And nothing drives that point like a potential U.S. invasion of Syria. This threatened intervention and its subsequent consequences thrusts the foreigners' home into my local scope of vision.

And so, as the headlines point to U.S. involvement in the ongoing violence, we begin to pay attention and we rally for peace.

I confess that I did not pay much attention to the Syrian conflict--apart from skimming the headlines--until rumor of U.S. intervention reached my ears.

I confess that I failed to pray for peace until threatened with another possible place for U.S. deployment.

These are confessions because they betray my self-interest, my local bias, the "my people" prejudice.

During this international crisis, ripe with high stakes and dire consequences, it's easy to pat myself on the back on account of my anti-intervention stance. It's the way of peace. The way of Christ.

But it's more complicated than that. Peace-building is harder than that. It has nothing to do with passivity.

When peace rallies pop up at the rumor of U.S. intervention it makes me wonder if our concern is for the innocent Syrians who will die at the hand of a U.S. military strike, that is the innocent Syrians who are already dying at the hand of their government.

Do we care about these people lives? Do we care about peace? Or do we just care about our nation being responsible for the destruction and about the lives of our countrymen?

Is simply being opposed to U.S. military intervention make me a peacekeeper? Or does it just make me a keeper of the peace for my land and my people?

Now, I know that it is impossible to take on the burdens of the whole world. And I still think that loving the person in front of us and being peacekeepers in our hearts, homes, and communities is our first order of business.

Yet the one I call "Lord" stretches my understanding of love. He asks me unequivocally to love the face directly in front of me. But he also asks the impossible--for me to love the foreigner, my enemies, the world.

And so I will try to love these unknown faces in the only way I know how--by praying for peace. I'm not sure what it does or how it works, but it's all I have to give.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Just Passing Through?: Confessions of a Chronic Commuter

Ten miles from Huntingdon, my home, sits a piece of land that is used for two distinct purposes. To some folks this land is known as McAlevy's Fort, a rural community home to farms, churches, a charter school, historic buildings, and of course, the people that attend to and inhabit these places.

To another cohort of people, this land is more frequently known as Rt. 26--the main thorough-way that leads north to State College.

To the former, its a space to be. The latter, a space to travel through.

An intersection at the north side of this town has an uncertain future. PennDOT has red-flagged it as dangerous and inconvenient to motorists and have thereby drafted plans to rework the road and in the process remove two buildings and a stop sign. Community members are petitioning the construction, arguing that doing so would put the community's safety and well-being at risk as motorists that already speed through their neighborhood will have another obstacle removed.

The last I heard, they're going ahead with the project. The needs of McAlevy's Fort have been overshadowed by the needs of Route 26.

There's more to the story, but this issue and talking to folks about it has reminded me how often our culture views space as something to move through rather than something to reside in.

This summer I have fallen victim yet again to this mode of being.

I have been rushing through time and space with a list of tasks in my head and "Excuse me", "Pardon me", "I must be going"s on my lips. As an optimist whose optimism extends to how many hours I think are in a day, time management has never come easily to me. But between a full-time job with additional responsibilities, moving, starting a business and trying to end another job well, this summer was the first time I ever went for so long without a full night's rest, so few meals and virtually no time spent reading, praying or writing.

The last few months I have failed miserably at adventuring slowly.

Now, I have no desire to have a pity party for myself--trust me, I've had plenty of those and I can only send my regrets and gratitude to the longsuffering ears that patiently listened. But rather, I'd like to share what I've learned, quite certainly more for my sake than yours.

What happens when you work too much:

1. You can't love people. 
When I am too busy, people become inhuman to me. They are no longer creatures made in the image of God with hopes, pain, gifts and stories, but are interruptions--obstacles standing between me and the thing I need to get to next. The lesson I learned (not for the first time, and probably not for the last) is no matter how "noble" that "next thing" I am trying to get to is, if it routinely makes me treat people as objects or obstacles, I need to rethink some things.

2. You can't pray.
Sure, I can say "Dear Jesus, thank you for this food." I can attend church and say "Amen." I can pray the liturgy of hours. But I cannot fully enter prayer. I can't bring my weariness to the one who promises to give me rest. There's no time. I can't receive Christ's words of hope, joy and peace. There's no time. The caveat of course, is that in God's endless mercy, our groans can be prayer. Our "Ugh! I don't even know what's going ON anymore!" can be prayer. And in God's endless mercy, he extends peace to us. But it is still up to us to receive that peace. And when I'm all-consumed with my work, that reception is not happening. There's no time.

3. You can't worship.
Worship is being in awe. Awe is what happens when we lift our heads and see clearly the awesomeness of our Creator, our Redeemer, of the world, and of its redemption. When my nose is relentlessly to the grindstone, I cannot look up, I am not inspired, and my so-called worship is nothing but a white-washed tomb.

So much around us invites us to be on the go, to move forward, to plan for the next thing. We are urged to be chronic commuters, but at what expense?

Is it possible to live so that space and time are no longer means to an end, but an end in and of themselves?

Could preparing dinner be a holy act, a time of prayer for those who have no food to prepare?

Might the most monotonous moments of my workday reveal themselves as opportunities to be faithful in the little things?

If I leave ten minutes earlier for work, would I find my commute is full of graces? Might I notice the changing position of the sun and the color of the leaves as the summer wanes? Or perhaps I'll notice anew the neighborhoods I pass through and in my recollection pass through them more slowly.

Most of us have the freedom to restructure our lives so that we are free to be where we are and not just chronic commuters. And perhaps if we did a little more of it, we'd be more free to give preference to the needs of the people who inhabit a place rather than to those merely passing through.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Six More Weeks of Winter

Six More Weeks of Winter
A poem dedicated to mothers and fathers who grieve the loss and suffering of their children. Lord, have mercy.

An icy, gnarled claw
Grips our valley, homes, our land.
Unprejudiced, be damned,
Be young, be old, have all, have none.

Piercing wind blows through
Windowpanes turned masterpiece
Bitterness and beauty kiss
In one breathtaking gust.

A seasonal haven forsaken,
Becomes a seasonal desert.
Groaning under her winter weight
She speaks to those who hear.

Heads low, eyes down.
Men scurry door to door
Seeking respite from the cold
Seeking hope and seeking home.

So is the winter of the soul
A heart encased in grief.

An unrelenting claw
Comes tearing at my peace.

My breath taken without consent
In awe of life, shocked by death.

Where is my home? Where is my hope?
My respite from the cold?

My groaning will not cease
Until springtime thaws the freeze,
Until hope reveals its face,
And death has lost its sting.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Words for the Weekend: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

I love to read. I love to read because I love to think. Whether its a lengthy story with slow and deep character development that boldly declares a message without ever stating the message itself or a well-worded quote, just a few sentences long that gives me pondering fodder for days, I am attracted to, inspired, and challenged by the power of the written word.

So I've decided, at the beginning of every weekend, to share some words that I deem worth sharing. I hope they comfort, challenge, and inspire you as they have me. Enjoy!

This weekend's words are from a book I just finished called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town , and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher. The book is the story of the author's little sister, Ruthie, their relationships to each other and with their childhood home. While Rod left their small, Louisiana hometown as soon as he was able, Ruthie stayed and fostered a beautiful community. When Ruthie was diagnosed with cancer, the people of her town cared for her, her husband, Mike, and their family in remarkable and self-sacrificing ways. These words speak to the difficulty and joys of staying in a place.

"Those of us you have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.

"...I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, short on deeds. I did not like the fact that I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan state and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.

"The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.

"Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you--and it will--you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want--no you need--to be able to say, as Mike did, 'We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other.'

"...In the midst of marveling about the goodness of the townspeople, Julie and I wondered if we were romanticizing St. Francisville... A local friend had said to me, 'You have seen the town at its very best. You know, it's not always like this.'

"I knew St. Francisville's shortcomings. There is poverty. There is brokenness. There is drunkenness, and there are drugs. There is meanness, and conformity, and lack of professional opportunity. Of all the things that made me run from this place nearly three decades ago, most of them remain.

"But Ruthie transfigured this town in my eyes. Her suffering made me see the good that I couldn't see before. The same communal bonds that appeared to me as chains all those years ago had become my Louisiana family's lifelines. What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand.

"We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other."