No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. -Oscar Romero
I turned 41 in October. My wife, Emily, who celebrated her birthday today (11/17) is right behind me. While we were at dinner this afternoon, it occurred to us that we’ve celebrated more birthdays together than we celebrated apart. We’ve finally tipped the scale and have spent more than half our lives together. Our relationship is a gift to me in so many ways, but one is the ways in which we continue to allow each other enough space to grow and change, shifting with the times and needs of each stage of life. When you love someone, it is amazing to watch that person evolve and age with time. To share life so closely with another is envigorating as it is challenging, but to do it in the context of love is the best place of all. I am who I am in no small part to this person who I have spent 20 years side-by-side with.
After birthday dinner, we talked about how many of our friends have told us that their forties were their most favorite decade, I’m prepared to have that kind of positive experience myself, but honestly, each decade has been good, even when it was hard. Today, as I write this (11/19) I am reminded that 16 years ago my step-father killed himself. I’m reminded of many other loved ones we’ve lost, and countless failures and mistakes I’ve made over the years. But I also have so much to be grateful for from the past 20 years of being together.
Here’s just a short list of a few things that have happened in the midst of Emily and I creating a life together:
We have three wonderful children together
Lived in four states
Had 6 different full-time jobs and many more part-time gigs
Visited Paris, England, Ireland, and Scotland
Visited many states and had two cross-country road trips
Lived in 8 different homes
We’ve lost a parent and all of the rest of our grandparents
We have suffered the loss of many dear friends
The evolution and maintenance of faith, political views, and expectations for everyday life.
Experienced plenty of broken relationships, and sometimes saw them restored.
And so much more, how do you sum up almost 20 years in a list?
But the thing that stands out to me the most is the friendship. The friendship on one person over a long storyline of ups and downs, multiple climaxes and resolutions, laughter, joy, tears, and heartache. Each turn of the page more revealing, more dynamic that the last.
Emily, I wouldn’t change a thing. And I’d do it all over again. Repeatedly. I look forward to the next 20 years and how we improve upon the storyline.
I’ve been blogging on WordPress.org since 2004 and blogging since at least 2001 (a Xanga site for those of you keeping track). Recently, I came across my old blogroll (a set of links of blogs you followed, supported, wanted to give props to), and 8 out of 10 of the link were dead. I couldn’t believe it. This is a sad state of affairs as far as I am concerned. I haven’t always been able to stay on top of blogging the way I would like, or the way I used to, but I love having this site, seeing people continue to find it helpful, and using it to share what I’m thinking about, working on, and into at the moment. Long ago I gave up the idea of making an income on my blog and the dream of having millions of hits each week. Instead, I’ve settled in, gotten comfortable with what I am able to offer here, and happy to have it as my “front porch in the Internet.”
Part of that settling in, was realizing I didn’t need to run my own self-hosted website any more, I didn’t need a server any more, and I don’t need to be doing PHP and behind-the-scenes coding. So a few weeks back I migrated from the WordPress.org self-hosted blog to WordPress.com. For those of you outside this terrain, I went from driving a manual transmission to an automatic. In this case, someone else is taking care of update software, plugins, etc. I pay for the service and I blog. At this point in my like, that works for me. Please excuse the broken links, weird formatting, etc. as I continue to work to update the site.
I hope you’ll continue to read along in the coming years. I’m not going anywhere and I’m going to continue to develop the material on this blog, opening up the themes more. I’m going to share and write about whatever you might find me talking about on my front porch, rather than limiting this to Quakerism or theology or academic topics. I have far more interests and ideas and energy and this seems like the best place to share them. In other words, I plan to go back to old school blogging.
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Recently, I was listening to a podcast from OnBeing about Hannah Arendt who spoke about what she called “the banality of evil.” (“The Banality of Evil” is covered in her 1963 book about the Jerusalem trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann). The Ardent scholar on the podcast, Lyndsey Stonebridge, explains that the “banality of evil” is the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.
The banality of evil means that we are susceptible to becoming so fused with empire and its ideology that we not only fall asleep to its ills, but we actually become an extension of it. For Arendt, this leads to passivity and alienation. This is exactly what Johns vision in the Book of Revelation is meant to warn us of and wake us up from.
Where is the Spirit inviting us to be people of the lamb that was slain in these four themes that show up in Revelation:
In relationship to enemies (do we have enemies?)
In relationship to wealth (do we manage our wealth or does it give us freedom)
In relationship to how we worship and who we worship with?
In relationship to how we build and create community, whose voices get lifted up, who is centered and cared for us.
For more information on these themes check out my new book “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation” visit “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance” Kindle Edition https://amzn.to/2l7OUgI
Following these presentations each night, Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke University Chapel, will be giving the sermon. This is an open event for those interested in joining us. As you can imagine, this is a great honor to me to be invited to share with the Providence community and I look forward to the opportunity.
I’ve been reflecting on the passage from the Gospel of Luke 12:35ff this week where Jesus says the words,
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks… You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I am particularly drawn to the line, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” and am trying to meditate on what it means to put this into practice.
One of the standards interpretations of this text goes one of two ways: either it is about the end times or it is about one’s own death. “Be ready at any moment, God could take you home.” Or, “You better get your act together, Christ could return at any moment the end of the world will ensue.” Both of these readings are rooted in a fear-based vision of God, and I don’t find either particularly helpful or compelling for my own spiritual growth and reflection about how to live now. I don’t believe this is text about being afraid of God returning and catching us doing something we’re not supposed to, nor do I think we ought to live in fear of having our lives taken from us at any moment.
I think the point is much more simple: pay attention, stay awake, the Son of Man can visit you in and through all kinds of situations, people, and experiences and you don’t want to miss it.
It reminds me of the passage in Hebrews, “you may be entertaining angels unaware,” or the passage in Matthew “When did we serve you, Lord?”
Just this past week while on a motorcycle ride, my friend who I was traveling with was hit by a car. We were headed to the Blue Ridge where we planned to ride into the Maggie Valley. We got on to a very curvy road with many difficult turns, but one in particular turn had a blindspot. From what I can tell, he misjudged the turn, drifted over the yellow line, and was his by an oncoming car coming around the corner. He was thrown from his bike and got his hand trapped underneath the car that hit him. The driver of the car had to back the car up to get him free. I was riding behind him, watching the whole thing happen.
As you can imagine, this was a scary scene. Thankfully, my buddy was able to get back up on his feet pretty quickly after the accident so we could get him off the road. While he was in an extreme amount of pain, he was able to stand up! Before long the ambulance was there, along with the Fire Department, and an officer from the Highway Patrol. Many people stopped to help direct traffic, check on us, and offer help.
What I learned later: there had been three motorcycle deaths at the very corner in the past 2-3 years. I noticed sometime after the accident that fifteen feet from where my friend’s bike laid in ruin stood a small cross with the name of a young person who died there just two years ago. When I saw that, I remembered right after the accident there a was a man who said his name was Joey, helping direct traffic and make sure that everyone on the side of the road was safe. He told me his son died on a motorcycle on this turn 2 years ago. Shortly after speaking with Joey he left. Afterward, looking back down at the cross wrapped in wreaths of flowers, it said that the motorcyclist died in 2017.
Thinking about this experience, I could read this text from Luke in light of either interpretation above, but it was far more useful for me to be ready and aware in the moments following the accident. I kept reminding myself in those moments to pay attention, make sure everyone was safe and okay, be a calming presence, keep checking in on people. Now, many days after the accident, talking with my friend and hearing of his recovery (he had no broken bones but suffered plenty of bruising and swelling), I look at the grace that covered us that day. I know exactly what could have happened, and what has happened to others. And I see how “lucky” we were, how many people were there to help us, and all of the things that went right in the face of this trauma. As I look back on that day, I see so many moments in which “The Son of Man” was among us.
As I start my fifth year at Guilford College, I know that especially right now as school is just about to start, it is hard to remain present, be aware. It is so easygoing get into a rush and stop listening to the Inward Teacher. When this happens, I begin to drift. I want to be both graceful with myself when I fail to be ready with a lit lamp, but I also don’t want to stop practicing. Being aware, “dressed for action with my lamp lit,” means to me to have a practice of deep inward listening, and authentic, patient response. It means paying attention and taking the advice to “notice what you notice.” It reminds me of the works of Parker Palmer:
Every time we get in touch with the truth source we carry within, there is net moral gain for all concerned. Even if we fail to follow its guidance fully, we are nudged a bit further in that direction. And the next time we are conflicted between inner truth and outer reality, it becomes harder to forget or deny that we have an inner teacher who want to lay a claim on our lives. -A Hidden Wholeness (P.19)
Questions for Reflection:
I wonder for you what helps you to be ready, centered, and aware at a moments notice?
What can you put in place in your own practice to help you have your lamp lit at all times?
Are you aware of what it feels like to be in touch with the source of truth within?
To state the obvious: all organizations have life cycles. That is true whether we are thinking about faith communities, businesses, non-profits, schools, etc. We could think of organizations as a collected and sustained series of stories over time. It might be easier to think about the role of stories in our personal lives but our organizations and institutions are also made up of stories. Stories identify who the founders and key thinkers were. They help to name the heroes and villains. They point to the challenges and accomplishments, often told in ways that have climaxes, plot twists and grand conclusions. Do you know what one or two of the main “core stories” are in your community or organization? Think about the common words, phrases, and other points of humor and things we can reference easily with those who are inside the organization. You can also look for places that are avoided or not talked about. All of our communities have their own lexicons. For instance, at the College where I work, I think of the stream of stories that make up our college community, and within that stream, there are certain core stories we tell and retell. Sometimes this is done in a way that brings life to a community, but perhaps there are certain stories that we intentionally shape in one direction or another.
Is faith always a long reach out of hand? I wonder when I see people searching, struggling to find God if the thought is the more distant the revelation, the greater the conversion? One of the underlying practices in certain parts of the Christian Church is to praise those who have had the most dramatic conversions. The further away one is from where they started the better. There is a kind of categorical rejection of who you are embedded within this kind of theology.
In talking to a friend recently, one who is looking for a way forward in their own spiritual life, I learned that they were reading a book about Christianity that presented ideas I found to be quite a stretch for them to believe. I couldn’t help but think – there is no way this person is ever going to buy into what this book is saying. It just is too far of a stretch, and yet, this person’s Christian friends keep sending these kinds of books.
“If only you read this one, then you’ll get it!”
“This one will finally convince any doubts you have left!”
I found myself in this conversation, saying, “if you have to work that hard to connect with God, it just isn’t going to happen. It is much closer than you think.” I saw in my friend someone who is searching and interested, who has a growing spiritual curiosity and is willing to explore. Unfortunately, that was being met with a set of arguments and books that did not speak to where they were at and instead said if you’re going to find God that discovery will involve you fundamentally re-writing who you are. In other words, what I see this view saying that God is absent from this person’s life until that person rejects themselves and crosses a great chasm to become someone else.
New beginnings are hard. Endings may be even harder. It is hard to say goodbye. It is hard to see all the hard work, all the investment evaporate before our very eyes. It is hard to know when to let go. Some endings are not hard. Some endings are more like heroic escapes in the nick of time. That’s not what I want to address here. I want to address those endings that are hard to come by, hard fought, hard won: endings that feel more like death than relief.
I have experienced many endings in my life. Most of those endings were extremely difficult. I have shared some of them here. But most of these were more personal.
I want to lift up collective endings. Endings that mark a change in leadership. Endings that mark a change in the existence of a community: a church, an important program, or an organization or set of relationships we came to rely on.