“Nosey Neighbors”

You may have read my post entitled Insteadpublished on August 8 or a guest  “Learning from ‘Strangers’ Among Us.” on August 15 which responds to “Instead” by sharing a story about learning from refugees and immigrants.   On August 22,  I shared “Bags Full of Hope,” a success story about a  project carried out in just weeks by people in Holland, MI (with help from friends in other places) that demonstrates the power of “Instead” thinking. Today I present a comment on “Bags Full of Hope” by Thomas Tajian. This essay, which further develops the concept of strangers helping strangers, first appeared as an entry on his Facebook page. Thank you Thomas!

At this time when people are looking suspiciously at people who are different, I want to thank strangers for carrying to this point in my life. I am blessed with the things around me but would not be here or have these things but for people that I don’t know who came to my rescue and then disappeared. I am third generation full-blooded Armenian, and Armenians hold a grudge against Moslem Turks because of the genocide led by Talit Pasha at the turn of the century.

But a Moslem Turkish gendarme saved my aunts and grandmother by warning them of soldiers coming to look for them. My grandmother’s Turkish housekeeper hid them below the outhouse when soldiers came to her asking about them. A Moslem Turkish General protected my Grandmother as his servant as she went with him to the Turkish border by Aleppo to search for her children. A Moslem Syrian merchant picked up my aunt as she begged for help and carried her off to his place in Mosul and raised her as a daughter until my grandmother found her. An Moslem Iraqi judge hear my Grandmother’s case and gave my Aunt back to her for her to find her way, as many refuges did, through Europe, to America.

I would not be here if any of these and other strangers had not risked their lives to help my ancestors.In America, I would not be here if an Catholic Brother did not climb into the rubble of our tornado –wrecked 3 – decker to pull me out. There are people from all walks of life who carried me to this point. An old lady came out of Friendlies yelling at some hoodlums to leave me alone as they were beating me up when I was young. In college, a black lady banged her umbrella on the bus roof and yelling “let the Man out “ at the corner of Longwood and Huntington Ave in Boston after the bus doors closed on me and it began moving. My daughter might not be here if a rich man had not dived off the dock by the Yacht club to pull her out of the water in Manchester, MA.

There are other things that I also witnessed: I saw a woman in a wheelchair, wheel up to a fence in a parking lot on a cold winter day to allow a young African-American boy stand on her legs to unhook him from the cyclone fence that pinned him when he slipped while horsing around with his buddy. Twice, when I was tired at the end of a long workday when my wife was laid up, I came home to find help from unknown neighbors: Once there was a casserole on my porch and other time I found my animals tucked away in the barn. I never complained to anyone, but my “nosey neighbors” reached out. I still don’t know who did those things. Certainly not the government casserole agency.

Thank-you GOD for nosey neighbors, and strangers who love YOU regardless of their backgrounds. Thank-you that you did not wait for an agency to help or ask “who me?” but just did what was needed.

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Bags Full of Hope

You may have read my post entitled Insteadpublished on August 8 or a guest post “Learning from ‘Strangers’ Among Us.” on August 15 which responds to “Instead” by sharing a story about learning from refugees and immigrants. Today I’d like to share a success story,  a project carried out in just weeks by people in Holland, MI (with help from friends in other places) that demonstrates the power of “Instead” thinking. 

On July 17, my friend Nancy Miller, spurred on by the horror of the Trump admin- istration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, sent an e-mail to about 30 people. She told us that nearly 20 unaccompanied minors (ages 5 – high school) were being sent  by the federal government soon to Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, MI (about 25 miles from us) for care. She wrote:

Bethany is one of 2 sites in Michigan that contracts with/is licensed by the federal government to serve as providers of shelter, i.e., foster homes, for refugee children (ages 0-17) who come from the Mexican border and are labeled “unaccompanied minors,” even if they crossed the border with their parents. 

 Bethany has been receiving kids from the border for more than 5 years, but this year the need has exceeded capacity, given President Trump’s recent executive order to detain all adults who enter the US illegally (and must therefore give up their minor children who then become unaccompanied minors). In short,  Bethany, and agencies like it around the US, have run out of space.  Bethany is, therefore, opening a new site for 18 such “unaccompanied minor” children in Holland by the end of August.

Here’s the rub (or need). The government requires all children in foster care to attend school from 9-3 daily. The school is run by the agency caring for them. By the end of August, Bethany must have a fully furbished and approved classroom ready for the kids who arrive. They have not yet located a site for this classroom but hope to do so within the next 6-8 months. Costs are high and options very limited. So, they plan to use a room in their newly-renovated building  to provide a “crash course” in English, education and therapy about abuse and trauma and whatever else they have experienced en route to the Mexican border. Of course, they will also be learning reading, math, etc.”

Nancy went on to describe Bethany’s need for supplies for that class room and for those children and asked for our help. One retired teacher created a sign-up page on SignUpGenius – Group Organizing Made Easy. As the Bethany staff got organized, their needs for the program appeared on the Sign Up page. And people began signing up to supply those needs:  18 backpacks, 20 calculators, 16 boxes of crayons, world globe, world wall map, Simon game, etc. It was a rather intimidating list. But within days the sign up sheet was filling in and needs were being met.  Then Bethany hired a teacher experienced in working with refugee children; she added to the list:  flex space comfy floor seats, English language development speaking and listening center, Disney Pixar wooden race track, soccer nets and balls –  and on and on.  Nancy’s garage began to fill up with boxes and bags full of hope.

On August 19, I got an e-mail from Nancy.  All the items had been purchased and boxes and bags had been delivered to the classroom. In addition $650 had been contributed to meet future needs Bethany may have in their quest to educate these children.

In my original post I argued (quite strongly) that Americans bewildered and angered by the acts of our President need to keep in mind a line by Eugene Peterson:  “Instead is a word of exchange.” I noted that the word “instead” implies that we can choose this instead of that or believe this instead of that or accept this instead of that. The Bethany Christian Services “unaccompanied minor” project begun and completed in a month by a small group of friends proves that an “instead” attitude can change the world. 

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Becoming Open

I checked the stats just now; this blog now hosts 770 posts. The following post was first published on Nov. 20, 2012. Its encouragement to be open to people who are different from us badly needed in 2018.

In the book Listening Hearts, Suzanne Farnham says,

We tend to turn off the people we most need to hear. The people to whom we are least attracted often have the most to teach us. If we identify those to whom we are least drawn, we can make a special effort to listen to them attentively…. Answers can shut down growth; good questions encourage growth. Answers sometimes terminate our listening; questions stimulate further listening.

This plea for conversation among people who are different reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday with a friend about the importance of diversity in the Church – all kinds of diversity: introverts and extroverts; octogenarian and 15-year-olds; Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, Caucasians; Dutch and Polish and Irish and Kenyans and Cambodians; intellectuals, nature lovers, musicians, dancers, planners, artists, leaders, helpers.  We lamented the fact that so many Christians have decided that they only need people just like them (an attitude about which Jesus spoke rather heatedly) and how much richer our spiritual journeys would be if we risked being open to people who are very different from us.  He said sadly, “Without diversity the church will die!”

He and I are examples of the value of diversity:  he is 40, I am 70; He is a young man with large family, I am a “senior saint” with grandchildren; he is still searching for the path God wants him on vocationally, I am settled into my last career  (I think!). And yet we have this in common:  We love Jesus. We have a passion for spiritual formation.  Our goal is to be transformed and to bring transformation into our worlds in the name of Jesus – including into the church. We probably would never had met or chosen each other for friends except for our passion for the Apprentice of Jesus program. But now we have embarked on a journey of “mutual mentoring” which is rich and delightful.

In the Beatitudes Jesus acknowledged the worth and value of the marginalized and those cast aside. He invited them into the hospitality and challenge of the Kingdom of God.   Colossians 3 reminds us that there no longer are:

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all (v.11-12).

Apprentices of Jesus, students of the Master’s way of life, must be people who see the value in each “other” and live in welcoming, open anticipation that each “other” has something important to bring into our lives, including the joy of listening and learning.

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Lessons from the “Strangers” among Us

You may have read my post entitled “Instead”published on August 8.  My “kindred spirit” Barbara Sibley who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, responded to that post by com- menting that “hanging out” with members of an immigrant community near her has shown her the “outworking of the concept of ‘instead.'” I asked her to share her experiences with the refugees she has befriended and worked with. Here’s her own version of “Instead.”

Let me say right off the bat that I am a stranger. While, by all outward appearances, I look like a “typical” American woman—white, educated, and married with grown children—I am convinced that what is currently going on in America is anything but typical. In the past several years, the divisiveness, chaos, and stunning lack of civility have grown to fever pitch, targeting, among others, the immigrant and refugee population. As this cultural and political debasement continues to unfold, I feel deeply saddened and estranged. What in the world is happening?

Well, I discovered an answer to that question in a nearby apartment complex where immigrant and refugee families live. Since I work in a writing center at our local community college, I figured that I could “help out” with volunteer tutoring at evening homework sessions for high school and college students held at the apartment’s community center. Plus, this past summer, I joined a team of volunteers to assist teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to the women residents.

In this setting, I thought I would be the teacher; instead I actually became a learner. I learned that I can choose to be anxious about the day-to-day political intrigues which so easily entangle my soul, or, instead, I can consider the experience of  immigrant families who arrive in America seeking refuge or asylum after their own hellish experiences with repressive, dangerous governments. In addition, many refugees have already lived for years—yes, years!—in abysmal camps, waiting to leave. These same refugees arrive here and become marginalized and in many cases demonized.They are regard-  ed as undeserving of respect or con-  sideration—just the type of folks Jesus would hang out with. What’s more, these “strangers” among us are exactly the ones who can make America great again; the vast majority of them bless the United States and “kiss the ground” of this country as they consider where they came from and the opportunities before them, despite all the obstacles in their way.

My time among these individuals is a spiritually charged antidote to the upheaval in America which swirls and threatens to engulf me. This vulnerable population, so fragile and yet so filled with hope, brings me face to face with Paul’s admonition: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21), a “good” that shows itself plainly with a shared hug, a broad smile, or a new understanding of an English phrase.

So yes, I am still a stranger, but one who is joyfully welcomed in simplicity and trust among a community of new immigrant and refugee friends. Through them, I see Jesus beckoning, and I am enfolded in His arms. Here, I too, am welcomed home.

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Going Deeper with God: “Training Up” Disciples (Proverbs 22: 6)

El Shaddi bannersIn Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our early Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage we learn about “training up” disciples.

Proverbs 22: 6; Making Disciples

“Start children off [train up]  on the way they should go,
    and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

CHEW

As regular readers of this blog know, I am fascinated by Eugene Peterson’s wisdom about scripture and his poetic way of writing about it.  Recently, I learned this amazing fact from one of the sermons in the book As Kingfishers Catch Fire:  the admonition to “train up” a child in Proverbs 22: 6 literally means “to rub the gums of a newborn child with oil before it begins to suck its mother’s breast.”

Peterson says that this intimate expression for welcoming a child into a new and sometimes harsh world later was used for dedication rites for houses and Temples.  Later it came to describe what we do for infants and children to get them started right in life. Peterson adds that “train up” in the original language of Scripture carries overtones of warmth and celebration. And intimacy – for what could be more intimate than a mother nursing her child?

Intimacy is a word that has been hijacked by the world to refer to sexuality. The word intimacy means “a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.” It is the kind of feeling that infuses close families, long-time friendships, welcoming neighborhoods, and groups and communities that serve others. Of course it should also be the glue that holds disciples of Jesus together!  Peterson makes the point (see quote below) that making disciples is not so much formal church programming.  It is more the encouragement of welcoming friendship with which we greet every person we meet, with which we treat every member of our church, and with which we view our helping and advocacy roles in society. “Training up” is not  just for children; it is a  life-long process; it is how we make disciples.

DIGEST

♥   Think over the idea of “intimacy” in the church.  Intimacy requires and expects honesty, vulnerability, forgiveness, and a listening spirit. Does your church promote intimacy? How can you make that happen?

♥ Peterson urges us to pack up our advice, our quasi-counseling, and our intellectualizing of relationships and instead engage with others in a way that shows them Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit to poke you when you give advice or counsel or try to prove a point and instead give you an opening to instead care for another.

♥  Has it ever struck you that all our growth experience from a child to a senior citizen are for the purpose of maturing our relationships with God and others (as Peterson notes below)? Reflect on your pivotal growth experiences. Have they impacted your relation- ships with God and with others?  Share that story in person or in writing with a friend or group.  

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“Training up has little to do with advice giving, counseling or analyzing. Rather it is initiated through person example and caring.  It means that every time you  engage in an act of faith in Christ, you are training another person. Every time you love another in obedience to Christ’s command, you are educating someone else.  Every time you forgive someone because Christ forgave you, you are assisting materially in the Christian growth of that person  Every time you hope because Christ has promised his help, you are opening up new possibilities of growth in another person. 

. . . . The most significant growing up that any of us do is growing as a Christian.  All other growing up is preparation for this growing up. Biological and social, mental and emotional growing are all ultimately absorbed into growing up in Christ. The human task is to be- come mature, not only in our bodies and emotions and mind, but also in our relationships with God and other persons.  . . . We are in this growing up business together, training and being trained to live maturely in Christ”( Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, pages 192-193).

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Instead

“Instead is a word of exchange.”  (Eugene Peterson)

I’ve been musing about this statement for weeks. This is what I have concluded. The word “instead” is a word of change, of choice, of substitution, of purging. It is also a word of power:

I choose to do this instead of that.

I choose to believe this instead of that.

I choose to accept this instead of that.

We live in perilous times in America. Our president is choosing divisiveness instead of diversity. He is choosing his own safety instead of the safety of the American people. He is choosing hatefulness instead of civility. He is choosing lies instead of truth.  He is choosing phony power plays instead of diplomacy. He is choosing ignorance instead of advice. He is choosing incompetence instead of professionalism. He is choosing self-aggrandizement instead of service. He is demanding loyalty to himself instead of loyalty to the Constitution. He is demanding that we accept his version of reality instead of our own common sense.

Christ-followers need to recognize the power of “instead.” Instead of choosing the safety of unawareness, we need to choose to be educated about the actions and policies of this president.  Instead of choosing silence, we need to speak up. Instead of turning away from (or worse making light of) the corruption and sleaziness, we need to protest and complain and join together to end it. Instead of saying, “Every politician lies” we need to acknowledge the enormity of over 4,000 proven lies by the President since Inauguration Day. Instead of saying that God uses imperfect people to do his work, we must argue that this president is not just imperfect but evil. 

Instead of throwing up our hands and saying, “There’s nothing we can do,” we can agree that Christians cannot support a president who believes he is above the law – and above virtue and morality. Instead of giving in, we must protest, in the way that suits us best.  Instead of giving in, we must run for office or campaign for candidates who will not line up in Trump’s brigade. Instead of giving in, we must vote in November – so he can be removed.  

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From My Reading

“There is nothing wrong with churches wanting to be culturally relevant.  But are gimmicks going to bring young people back to church?  Is that what people really hunger for?  I think the younger generation sees through what is slick and glitzy.  When it comes to church, I think they don’t want cool as much as they want real.  . . . People do not come to church because worship is entertaining, trendy, or hip. They come because the gospel is real and true and life-changing” (Lou Lotz in Words of Hope, June, 2018).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look in each other’s eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will. Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family” (Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“The first word of God is light, according to the Bible.  This is in the opening paragraph.  When we see the sun, it’s as if we see a divine word.   All of creation is spoken into being in this way, and everything is called good.  Over the course of time, the entire language of God reverberates across the universe.  In the beginning, the first word(s) of God, the first revelation of the divine, is reality itself.  The unfolding – aka, evolving – of the universe is God learning to speak. This is a profoundly sensitive worldview.  Only a poet in love with creation, in love with nature, could have penned the opening chapter of Genesis.  Only an experience of wonder could have given birth to such insight. The biblical storytellers were artists not scientists. Most of the biblical writers experienced and imagined a world where everything was alive with the presence of God” (Kent Dobson in Bitten by a Camel, Leaving Church, Finding God, pgs. 100-101).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“God created human beings in God’s own image, and we’ve returned the compliment, so to speak, by creating God in our image. In the end, we produced what was typically a small, clannish God. In America, God looks like Uncle Sam or Santa Claus, an exacting judge, or a win/lose business man—in each case, a white male, even though “God created humankind in God’s own image; male and female God created them” (see Genesis 1:27). Clearly God cannot be exclusively masculine. The Trinitarian God is anything but a ruling monarch or a solitary figurehead” (Richard Rohr in Daily Meditation for July 1, 2018).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“We must not let ourselves think for a second that becoming like Christ or loving like God loves is something that happens when we become a Christian. If we do, the long hard road of hypocrisy and despair awaits. Flourishing, becoming like Christ, is something that happens over a long, frustrating, rewarding, painful, and glorious period of time.  Christlike character is only something we can grow towards. It’s not something we attain in an instant or something God pours in our lap. We don’t get it, we grow into it”
(Jonathan Bailey, jonathanrbailey.com)

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Enjoying Simplicity

Readers have commented on the usefulness of my blog posts that speak to accepting changes, moving with the seasons, letting go. Several authors have helped me understand this process:  Richard Foster taught me about living simply, Ignatius of Loyola taught me detachment, Parker Palmer and Frederick Buechner added their wisdom about accepting my personality, James Bryan Smith, Dallas Willard, and Adele Ahlberg Calhoun  showed me the spiritual disciplines that helped me make the changes I wanted to make.

Recently, an excerpt from Calhoun’s work was published on the Renovare website. It states so beautifully what I have been trying to say in my posts:

“Aging has always been about simplifying and letting go. Sooner or later we realize that we can’t manage all the stuff and activity anymore. We have to let go. The practice of letting go and embracing simplicity is one way we prepare ourselves for what is to come. One day we all will have to let go of everything—even our own breath. It will be a day of utter simplicity—a day when the importance of stuff fades. Learning to live simply prepares us for our last breath while cultivating in us the freedom to truly live here and now” (Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Practices that Transform).

A good friend of mine has shared the journey of letting go for years.  During one class I taught, we were all asked to give up something we love the most to someone who really would appreciate it. Jayne chose to give up two precious things her mother had given her. One went to her sister and one to her niece; each accompanied by a loving letter.  Letting go of these keepsakes was a huge struggle, but she experienced the joy of sacrifice that the spiritual discipline intended to teach. 

Jayne was in the midst of a courageous battle with esophageal cancer when I was diagnosed multiple myeloma, a blood cell cancer. We shared a cancer doctor and our appointments and treatments were often on the same day. She was a constant encourager. Even as she lost her voice, her hair, and her energy, her strong faith gave me hope.

Recently Jayne’s cancer returned; she once again began the chemotherapy that made her so sick. Life became very difficult, but she never lost her faith nor the verve for life that made her Jayne. Jayne died this month. At her funeral we learned that in her last hours she said, “It’s time. It’s time.”  Her practice of letting go made letting go of the next breath easier.  

In The Spiritual Formation Handbook, Practices that Transform, Adele Calhoun shares several spiritual exercises that can help us learn to let go.  Here are a few:

  • Intentionally limit your choices. Do you need six different kinds of breakfast cereal, hundreds of TV channels or four tennis rackets? What is it like to limit your choices?Does it feel free, or do want and envy surface?  Talk to God about this.
  • If someone admires something of yours, give it away. Find out just how attached you are to your things.  What is that like for you?  (This is the one Jayne chose to do).
  • Where have you complicated your life with God?  Consider what actually brings you into the presence of Christ.  Spend time there.

Living simply, detaching from our possessions as well as our want lists and our life experiences, and learning to let go are all spiritual practices found in the life of Jesus. (I encourage reading the four gospels looking for examples of these practices.) They are also the disciplines encouraged by “saints” of the church for centuries.  We do well to take them seriously.

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