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Dreaming Together About Spiritual Formation

I'm writing this in the New Orleans airport where I'm waiting to meet up with 13 other people from our congregation who are coming on a later flight. We're going to spend the next week working on some housing rehab projects in Diamond, Louisiana, working with Mennonite Disaster Services. I am bringing my laptop along so that I can blog about our experience this coming week, as it happens.

But while I'm waiting here with free wifi in the airport, I thought I'd try to write down a few thoughts about our dinner conversation last night where we attempted to dream together a little bit about the future of our spiritual education/spiritual formation work at KC, and possibilities for partnership with the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C. I invited all the members of our Church Council, our Spiritual Education Leadership Team and our Outreach Team to squeeze around a couple of tables at my house, and then invited Fred Taylor (the Chair of the Board of the Festival Center, where the Servant Leadership School is housed) and Elizabeth Branner (the new Director of the Festival Center) to join us.

There's more background to this story than I can really relate here, but suffice it to say that KC and the Servant Leadership School have a long history of parallel and intertwined development. The two organizations have both held that small group gatherings, where there is both content taught and a great deal of participation and response, are essential to adult Christian formation and discipleship. The "classes" at SLS and KC (and most of the Church of the Savior communities) aren't just discussion groups or support groups. There is content to each class--be it about scripture, or a theological or ethical issue. But most of the class is spent hearing short "papers" which each participant has written about his or her own responses to the content of the class. So the classes never become too impersonal, too "heady". They have a way of going deep, going right to the heart of an issue.

But there is one big difference between the Servant Leadership School and the spiritual education program at KC: the SLS is not connected to any single congregation. It was founded by the Church of the Savior, but it is an ecumenical organization, and it attracts people who are members of all sorts of churches and of no church at all. At KC, although the classes we offer are open to people from outside our community, by and large it is people from within our church who participate.

At one point in time, KC had an extremely involved program of classes, including a requirement that four or five of them be completed before a person could become a member. People speak of these classes with great fondness--it's what helped them to form an adult relationship to their faith, to go deep on their spiritual journey and connect deeply with other members of the congregation.

But the community has always been a small one, and at a certain point in its history, it go to a point when just about everyone had taken all the classes who was ever going to take it. It just didn't seem worth it to offer the classes for the one or two new people who wandered in each year. And some people who had been teachers died. Then, the minister, Jerry Goethe (who had been one of the church's most enthusiastic and effective teachers) retired. And for a number of years, the Spiritual Education program kind of went into remission.

When I arrived, people still talked about the classes the church used to offer, but classes were offered only rarely. People weren't really that interested in teaching classes themselves, and for a while I was a bit concerned that I was expected to design and teach multiple classes myself (something that could easily take up half of my time without growing the church). But I had an idea--maybe we could partner with the Servant Leadership School to form a northern suburbs branch. Florence and I went down to DC to sound some folks out on the idea, and got a flat no. Why? The SLS is an ecumenical institution, and it cannot affiliate with any one church without risking its relationship with all the other churches to whom it is related. I was disappointed, but I understood their point perfectly.

But then, last fall, I noticed that something was changing at SLS. The board was engaging in a number of conversations about the school's future with Church of the Savior churches. I made contact with the chair of the board, Fred Taylor, and suggested that KC might also be a conversation partner. And so began a series of conversations with Fred and I, ultimately resulting in dinner last night.

The conversation was cordial and interesting, but at the end of the night I didn't have any clearer sense than I did before about what the spiritual formation is going to look like (at KC or at SLS) in the future. Fred described the board as wanting to re-think the work of the school in a number of fundamental ways, including moving towards having sattelite schools in a number of locations. Since the school is committed to being very contextual in its content matter and its teachers, this could mean a wider audience, and a wider range of topics.

But a couple of questions held us back from diving into this vision and dreaming about what it might mean for KC. One question was asked quite pointedly by Roger: "If our goal is to help people to be faithful, we have to first ask, faithful to what?" Can we really come together on a project that has at its heart a call to a deeper level of commitment to Christ when we aren't really sure what that means in our current context? Fred referenced Brian McLaren's work on the various Jesuses he has known over his lifetime. Which Jesus are we inviting people to follow?

For me, this is the crux of the problem with doing anything ecumenically. It is hard to get one congregation to agree on an answer to Roger's "faithful to what?" question, but in my experience, it's nearly impossible to get a group of churches to agree on this. In fact, it tends to be one of the ways in which churches work to distinguish themselves from each other. But, if we aren't looking at an ecumenical future, we'll be putting a lot of time and energy into preaching to the choir at KC. And, as someone pointed out at dinner last night, the choir is getting to be a pretty small percentage of the world.

The other question that I thought held us back last night was more implied than stated. What is success? Elizabeth was quite impassioned about her belief that in order to move forward into the future, we have to be willing to be experimental, and we have to be willing to fail. I absolutely agree, but I also think we have to be willing to succeed. In fact, I think it can be helpful to have a bold vision that you are trying to step towards. But as soon as we start talking about our call to be a "counter culture" we start to worry if our desire to affect people's lives is really just a desire to be popular.

Fred made an interesting comment towards the beginning of our conversation that I woke up this morning thinking about. He said that a vision has to be expressed in terms of positive steps. So while we may all want to end poverty, that statement doesn't function well as a vision statement. Rather, we need to say, "We want everyone to earn a living wage," or "We want everyone to have affordable, safe housing."

What do we want? We talked last night about how people don't know the Bible well anymore, how people don't have a sense of who Jesus Christ is and what it means to be his disciple. But I didn't get a clear picture of the positive future vision that the Servant Leadership School has begun to embrace. And while I heard lots of dreams about a possible future for KC last night, I didn't get a clear sense of the vision of our group around the table, say nothing of our congregation.

So I'm left remembering Bonnie P's comment in the middle of our discussion. "I think there is a new vision of Spiritual Education emerging in our community," she said. "It's happening in the conversations Ruth has helped to lead with members of the Muslim community." "But that's so small," Ruth responded. "I'm not sure it's really a call. Maybe its just something that happened a couple of times because a few people felt like it."

What do you think? Are we being called into a new, positive vision? Are we moving towards this call in small, piecemeal kinds of ways? What would it take--what would it cost--if we began to consider a call that is a bit more organized, a bit bigger, a bit scarier?


More on the Spiritual Discipline of Deep Rest

Florence Miller sends this reflection...

We are coming to the end of the Lenten time. I began the 40 days with my usual heart/head turning to the obligatory self-examination. I was encouraged early in life to appreciate the ‘hair shirt’ approach to self improvement -a thorough evaluation is an invigorating thing! I have loved the inward gaze and the quiet yearnings that solemnity brings. I have often done the ‘ giving up’ and then, in recent years, I curved toward the ‘doing something’ – of course something sacrificial but edifying. Yes, Lenten devotions can often indeed confront and challenge one’s spiritual growing up and out.

But, this year I came to a new place and a new devotion. It is the idea of Deep Rest. Deep Rest as spiritual devotion. I heard the phrase from Heather who suggested that a mutual friend may need deep rest in the face of a deep exhaustion. It rang like a bell in my mind – DEEP REST!

Later, at home, tired and dispirited I went to my bed for a moment to sit down with a cup of tea. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to serve anyone or any good cause or even tidy up or answer the phone or even comb my hair. I just wanted an end to my anxiousness, and not to evaluate my ‘self’ which would, as usual, result in evaluating all of the known world! And not to do a single good deed! I was feeling separate, apart, not wanting to go into any gathering of humans mulling about in church or at a meeting or even to supper at a new little restaurant to test the fare and talk of books or politics.

I sighed, leaned back on the pillow and thought “Here I am, God, just as I am”. The pillow was divine and cradled my head like a cloud. I pulled the comforter up. “Here I am God – no searches, no answers, no penitence, no grand nor petty purpose, just me, here. I rest in you. In rest, I listen. In rest, I experience your love and tolerance and humor”. Heaven.

Over a few days I came to the understanding that a deep breath, pause, and listening is a devotion I have overlooked and I believe many of us do. We may not realize that resting with the spirit of God with open heart and mind is a potent recompense, atonement and sustenance. We may even be suspicious of it, reject it. We may not know that rest in God's love gives strength and understanding. I meditate regularly but that is somehow purposeful. It is restful yet certainly a discipline. Deep Rest is letting go. Letting go into a loving, comforting presence. Deep Rest blesses.

Now, my puppy crawls up beside me. He nestles. Okay little furry animal creature, nestle in. You can feel my breathing, hear my stomach humming, smell the perfume of skin, hear the drum beat of my heart. Rest. Is my body the reassuring presence of life or God to you, puppy companion?

It is nearly spring - I have the urge to fling myself down on the new grass and stretch out on the earth and cling to it and mash myself against it, like my puppy does. There are things going on under there. The roots are growing, life present and stirring, rocks are warming in their slow, slow molecular existence and far below is the boiling heart of the earth humming like a furnace. It is Life.

As Easter comes will I resurrect to Presence? Can I? May I?

My pup and I will Rest. I’ll feed you, puppy, and myself, and avoid the crowds and love one thing at a time. Morning. Puppy. Breakfast. God. Jesus. Life.

I'll end with this poem by Lee Rudolph which was on the Writer's Almanac a while ago:

Little Prayer in November

That I am alive, I thank
no one in particular;
and yet am thankful, mostly,
although I frame no prayer

but this one: Creator
Spirit, as you have come,
come again, even in November,
on these short days, fogbound.



Palm Sunday

Matthew 21: 1 - 11
Psalm 118: 1 - 2, 19 - 29

In the Palm Sundays of childhood, there was excitement…music and palms and hoopla…and just a little naïveté about what was coming next.  Easter was next, right? 

In our faith journey, we might be more comfortable just holding on to that bright thought.  But the fact is, the scripture this week sets us up…sets the disciples up…sets Jerusalem up…sets Jesus up for a myriad of human responses, emotions, bad judgments, losses, grief and ultimately, resurrection joy.  On “Palm Sunday” no one (except possibly Jesus) knew that Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, a Trial, a Crucifixion, a Death, a burial, and a Resurrection were coming.  We already can see ahead to the Darkness of Holy Week and the Light of Easter.

But to think about these things is getting ahead of ourselves; we’re not there yet.

Our text this week is about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  Jews are preparing for the Passover.  They are traveling to the holy city that houses so much of their heritage to remember how God delivered their ancestors from Pharaoh.  It is a season of celebration and hope, but Jerusalem is in its own political turmoil and tension.  Jesus arrives at the Mount of Olives, referenced in Zechariah 14 as the location of the Lord’s return and judgment of Israel.  Jesus specifically directs the disciples to find a donkey and a colt.  The gospel writer references a quote that alludes to both Isaiah and Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

What could the bystanders have thought? 

Followers have been on a wild ride with this teacher Jesus.  They have traveled with him into one community after another.  They have watched him walk on water and raise the dead.  They have seen him offer redemption to foreigners and with him they have dined with sinners of all stripes.  He has told them many times that they cannot understand how this will end.  He has alluded to their inability to do what he is about to do.

What kind of a King rides in to Jerusalem on a donkey?  Who does he think he is?

Romans occupy Jerusalem and the custom of the day was for rulers and leaders to enter cities with great celebration and display of power and might.  Instead of beautiful horses bearing military leaders, Jesus mounts a humble servant animal.  His very entry is a statement about his purpose to serve.

Hosanna to the Son of David!  Hosanna means, literally, “help us!”

Let’s remember that Jesus is not just being followed by 12 disciples.  He has attracted quite an entourage.  Jesus has a following…not unlike the names we see splashed across the tabloids at the grocery store.   Crowds come out to see him enter Jerusalem.  People are murmuring about him in marketplaces.  The whole city is wondering who this man is.  Have you heard about the one they are saying is the Messiah?

The Messiah.

In Jerusalem, in the shadow of the Temple, the faithful Jews know Torah.  They are steeped in the words of the prophets.  They recognize what might be happening at the Mount of Olives. They expect to be liberated by one who will come and raise the dead.  …One who will free them from hundreds and thousands of years of disappointment and loss.  …One who will suppress the oppressors and place the “Right” (it turns out there were several groups even among the Jews who thought they were ‘Right’) Jewish leaders back in control

Could this really be the One?

There is a frenzy building.  This society has expected a Messiah for years.  Even the gentiles are aware how central a Messiah is to the Jews.  And the gentiles have something to fear.  What if these really are God’s chosen people?  But this Jesus hasn’t really conformed to their expectations.  And he hasn’t just been teaching among the Jews. The Pharisees don’t have nice things to say about this man.  He’s been calling age-old assumptions into question.  He’s been trodding on the Law as it has been upheld by the Temple elite. 

These folks Want to believe that Jesus is the One.  We don’t have it proven in the text, but it is easy to imagine that these folks had the tune of Psalm 118 playing in their heads “Give thanks to the Lord…His steadfast love endures forever.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it….His steadfast love endures forever.  The rejected stone is the chief cornerstone….His steadfast Love endures forever.  This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Give us success Lord….I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation!”

Can we dare NOT to believe it is he?

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.  Hosanna in the highest.

It is easy for us to be drawn in to the frenzy of Easter…in to the excitement and promise of salvation and resurrection.  However, we cannot look past the importance of Jesus humbly entering the city with his disciples.

It is easy for us to only think of chocolate crosses and bunnies that lay eggs and pastel suits and promises of eternal life, but we also need to remember the messages of compassion and commitment he was preaching before he ever mounted the donkey.  It was the message and the experiences with Jesus that gave people hope, that caused them to gather along the streets with their hope and branches held high.  Their hopes were high, their emotions strong.  They needed something…they needed a Messiah.  Hosanna…help us.

  • At what times have you experienced tremendous hope that something you have waited for us about to be fulfilled?  Were your hopes satisfied?  What emotions did you encounter as you waited for an outcome?
  • Why was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem important?  What purpose did it serve?
  • How will you encounter Jesus this week as you face the events of the Passion? 

A Prayer for Courage
Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done.  Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives.  Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more.  But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death.  Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say:  I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.  Amen.
W.E.B. DuBois quoted in Every Eye Beholds You




   

Bush Defends Torture...Again

If you look hard for it in the Washington Post this morning you'll find the end of the story on HR 2082, the the bill passed by both the House and the Senate which would have banned the use of torture by the CIA. President Bush vetoed that bill on Saturday, and spoke about it in his weekly radio address. Yesterday, the House voted to override the veto, but they failed to get the needed two-thirds majority (the vote was 225-188).

Bush explained his veto as necessary for our national security. There is by no means consensus on this point, even within the intelligence community. Many have argued that torture does not produce useful intelligence, and furthermore, that it increases the risk to captured U.S. citizens. My disagreement with the use of torture, however, isn't based on its effectiveness. I believe that torture is a moral bottom line, and we accept it only at the cost of the erosion of our sense of ourselves as being different from the terrorists who we oppose.

This past Saturday, I spent the day at a conference led by Brian McLaren based on his book, "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope." One of the most effective parts of the conference was McLaren's morning presentation entitled, "Which Jesus?" He carefully laid out an argument that I first encountered in Ched Meyer's magisterial work on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man. He showed how the gospel writers, and probably Jesus himself, used language and symbolism to intentionally oppose the Roman Empire's claims to power and dominion. McLaren made a clear and convincing case that the word like "Lord" and "Son of God" weren't first understood by Jesus' followers as religious terms. Rather, these were the titles that Caesar had taken for himself. Therefore, when Peter confesses to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," he is making an explicitly anti-imperial statement.

McLaren then went on to list all the ways in which Jesus' teaching and ministry countered the reign of Caesar. He put two columns of words up on a screen, one column describing Caesar and one describing Jesus. I should have written them all down, but the pair that caught my eye was "torturer" and "tortured".

I know that there is great complexity to many of the moral questions which face our country today. But when I looked at that list on Saturday, I knew what side I wanted to be on. I will continue to urge my representatives to refuse to pass any bill for intelligence funding that does not explicitly ban torture.


Collecting Tiny Bits of Hopefulness

This morning's Washington Post carried a beautiful story from Kenya--it's buried inside the A section, but its there, and my hat's off to Stephanie McCrummen for reporting it. It tells the story of residents of Kenya's Kibira slum who, during the height of the post-election violence in that country, put their own lives on the line to make peace.

One such person is Joseph Osodo, a member of the Luo people group (unlike the Post, I don't like using the word "tribe"). At a time when everyone around him was hiding in their house for fear of being killed, Osodo walked to the house of his friend John Kyalo who lived in one of the rival areas. He just couldn't stand staying in his house, he said. "Someone said 'You will be killed,' and I said 'Then let me die.'" He persuaded his friend to walk through Kibira with him, and to hold their own peace talks with various leaders the next day.

The other person profiled in the story is Solomon Muyundo who spent weeks painting phrases like "Keep peace fellow Kenyans" anywhere he could find an open space. One night, he even painted words of peace on the body of a man who was about to be burned to death--and saved the man.

Reading this story this morning, I remembered again Florence's words during the last meeting of the Lenten class on Evil I've been teaching with John Lobell. Florence spoke with such stark honesty about her struggle to recover from the awful violence her family experienced some years ago. She talked about how her whole outlook on the world suffered from that event. She lost her trust in people, and began to look at everyone as a potential perpetrator.

But then, she said, a time came when she made a decision to start noticing other things. She decided--made a conscious choice--to see goodness in the world. "I became a collector of tiny bits of hopefulness," she said. "That made it possible for me to delight in the world again."

There were many other powerful things said in that class, such that the class itself became one of the things that makes me hopeful about the world. God is at work, in us and among us and at times, in spite of us. Today this comment from the Post is all the evidence I need:

"Even as former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan was brokering a political settlement over tea and cookies at a posh safari lodge, people in Kibera--Africa's largest slum and a flash point of the post-election violence--were forging their own kind of fragile peace, block by block and person by person, often at the risk of death."


Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37: 1 - 14
Psalm 130
Romans 8: 6 - 11
John 11: 1 - 45

In general, with the "popular" understanding of God, we want to imagine God as All-Powerful.  We want to imagine God as All-Loving.  And inevitably, as we sometimes misread, misinterpret, and misallocate scripture, we run in to questions like, "If God is All-Powerful and All-Loving, how could God allow the Holocaust, Genocide in Darfur, children dying from malnutrition, desecration of the Creation, etc?"

It is easy in the middle of horrible situations (from the large scale of Genocide to a smaller scale of losing a job) to shake our fist at the sky and wonder why God has left us hanging out to dry.  It is easy to assume that because some sort of difficulty has arrived in our lives, we are being punished for something we have done or left undone.

We want God to be SuperHuman and solve our human problems in ways that we can imagine--the thing is God is not human.

Part of the difficulty of this type of question is that we are applying Our Human understanding of Love and Power and Our understanding of Control and Our own logic to....God.  This is not to say that genocide is not painful to God.  However, we do sometimes get caught in a trap of wanting Our world to be (from Our perspective) smooth and bumpless; and then, since We cannot seem to make things work out Ourselves (because, it seems We might be a part of the problem) We call in, and sometimes blame, God.

We pray that God will hit the reset button.

We pray that God will make the particular problem go away.

Essentially, We are praying (and hoping and sometimes demanding) God will eliminate the problem (and all of it's contributing factors) as we have defined it, as we understand it, and as we would solve it.

When we read the stories of scripture carefully, we notice God provides solutions We could not imagine in ways We are not capable of envisioning. We see God providing miraculous solutions and We want to have a miracle of Our own.  It turns out God is not under Our control, obligated by Our understandings, accountable to Our clamoring, Our questions, or Our time table.

Ezekiel is a prophet called in the midst of Israel's exile in Babylon after the fall of the Temple.  He is part of a society beaten and bruised, away from the comforts of home and the familiarity of their own culture and tradition.  They have pushed back on God and their covenant again and again. It seems they have lost the land once and for all.  By all human measures, they should be lost to God.  Amidst a valley rattling with dry bones, the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones themselves, telling them to come together, to grow flesh and to breathe again.   God remained faithful in God's own way and in God's own time.  And behold, they do. Beyond this week's reading, God shows Ezekiel a new society, a new justice and new tranquility.

The Psalmist writes about expectation and supplication and ultimately hope. The encouragement is for Israel to recognize the Lord's great power to redeem.  It is easy for us to project on this writer that he or she may have had some plans on what God should / could do whenever God showed up "in the morning."  However, we do see in this Psalm the hope and trust that God will be faithful and will stay true to the covenant made earlier.

In the gospel of John, we have a more convoluted story.  Lazarus has been a good friend to Jesus.  When Jesus receives word of Lazarus' illness, he asserts that this illness is actually an event through which God's glory will be revealed. And then he waits two days more, after which he tells his disciples that they are going to return to Judea.  Now the disciples protest - in Judea they will face an angry crowd.  Jesus knows this, and chooses to face the threat.  He's not bending to societal pressure.  Nor is Jesus (the Son of God, remember) held down by the same fears that are holding the disciples.  He's in relationship with God and is doing what he understands that he is to do regardless of what his followers or his society thinks.  He knows Lazarus is dead and he knows that he is going to change that.  He confidently calls Lazarus out of the tomb because he knows God remains faithful in God's own way in God's own time.

Paul's letter to the church in Rome encourages the community to understand the difference between what they know in flesh and what they know in Spirit. The people he writes to are under terrible pressure to not be followers of Jesus.  They are surrounded by the threat of persecution.  They are attempting to follow a new model that runs contrary to the Roman, Caesar-worshiping society around them.  Paul is gently reminding them that if they live only looking at the physical problems (of the flesh) surrounding them, then they will surely die.  If they only look at the difficulties, then difficulties will be all they see.  He encourages them to rest in the Spirit of God that "will give life to your mortal bodies", even in the midst of the broken American...er..Roman system.

Nowhere in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures do we find a promise from God that everything will be perfect or that we will not experience pain in our lives.  Nowhere do we find a promise that our bodies will not decay and die. Nowhere do we find a promise that when we wish upon a star, no matter where we are, our dreams will come true.  Contrary to the border-increasing "Prayer of Jabez", God is not a genie in a lamp that we hit up for favors
and use to stay out of trouble.

However, it is easy to find examples and promises that God will be faithful to us.  The difficult thing here is discerning / understanding what God's faithfulness looks like for us.  The difficult thing is allowing that maybe We, while completely loved by God, might not have the greatest perspective on what are the primary problems, nor how they might be made right.

  • ­Do you believe God is in complete control of everything?
  • Is God responsible for everything we attribute to be Divine Punishment or Reward?
  • What role do we play in the creation and solution of the difficult circumstances of our lives?
  • Where have you seen in your life (or in history) God putting breath back in to dry bones?

The light of life is a finite flame.  Like the Sabbath candles, life is
kindled, it burns, it glows, it is radiant with warmth and beauty.  But soon
it fades; its substance is consumed, and it is no more.  In light we see; in
light we are seen.  The flames dance and our lives are full.  But as night
follows day, the candle of our life burns down and gutters.  There is an end
to the flames.  We see no more and are no more seen.  Yet we do not despair,
for we are more than a memory slowly fading into the darkness.  With our
lives we give life.  Something of us can never die; we move in the eternal
cycle of darkness and death, of light and life.

-The New Union Prayer Book


Whose Civility?

Last week's weekly email newsletter from the Oakland Mills Village Center included a comment that caught my attention, and provided some new fodder for my on-going conversation (with myself and anyone who will listen) about the possibilities and limits of Howard County's Choose Civility Campaign.

The goals of this campaign are "to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance in Howard County." No argument there. But it seeks to do this by teaching and reinforcing 25 "rules" for conduct. Is that what we really need? Or do lists of rules end up undermining the very things that would lead us to act "civilly" to each other?

Case in point:

We are facing challenges with the housing market and as a result several homes in Oakland Mills remain unsold and vacant. We have neighbors who are struggling to keep their homes or face foreclosure. The Oakland Mills staff receives calls daily about newspapers accumulating on driveways, leaves not raked etc. Our Covenant Advisor Debbie Bach makes every attempt to contact homeowners and realtors to request that properties are maintained. We are here to help the residents, and spend a lot of time listening to residents and do what we can to help them get through their challenging situations.


There are many neighborly acts of kindness that everyone can do to help one another. If you see that papers are accumulating and you know that the home is vacant, please take a minute to pick up the papers and put it out with your weekly recycling. If you know a neighbor may be facing some tough times stop by, give a call, see if there is something you can do to help them out. Often people who are facing life’s challenges feel like they are all alone and simple acts of kindness can go a long, long way.

To me, this note suggests the limits of rule-based community relationships. If I am walking through my neighborhood and see a house with unraked leaves I can think, "Here's someone in violation of the community covenant! I should report them!" Or, I can think, "I wonder if I my neighbor needs help?"

The later response is, in the end, the response that builds community. It's the response which on which creates the kind of neighborhood where people want to live. And that, in the end, is how best to get people to rake their leaves, pick up their papers and bring in their trash cans. I do those things NOT because there are rules telling me what to do. I do them because I know my neighbors and I want to honor them and the world we are building together.


Extending an Invitation

For the first time in many, many years, I was really surprised on my birthday this year. Two days later, I'm still savoring the delight of it all. Because my birthday was on a Sunday, I had decided in advance that I wasn't really going to acknowledge it until the afternoon when I was home from church. But my husband Dan sprang out of bed even earlier than me, made me breakfast, and presented me with a rectangular package, nicely wrapped in Christmas paper. Even as I pulled out a zippered case I didn't know what it was, but inside lay a truly breathtaking sight: a gleaming, brand new Azumi flute.

This flute is certainly one of the nicest presents I have ever received and I'm not just referring to Dan's outrageous generosity. In giving me this gift, I know that Dan is giving me an invitation to go through the doorway that music has become for me.

How to explain this? I started playing the flute, as many kids do, in fourth grade when the band program started in my public school. I continued studying the instrument all through high school. My enjoyment of the flute wasn't strictly focused on the joy of making music. High school band was a very social experience, and just about every boy I dated was in band with me. I also studied with a private teacher who had yearly recitals in which his students were ranked according to their ability--the later you played in the program, the better you were. So, flute playing was a way for me to compete, flirt and show off, my favorite activities as a teenager.

I briefly played with the Yale Precision Marching Band, but after my freshman year in college, completely abandoned the flute. What was the point, anyways? I had never played the flute simply for the joy of it.

Then I moved to Maryland and was unemployed for seven months. For the first time in my adult life, I had time for a hobby, and flute seemed as good of a choice as any other. I eventually found a teacher, but was quite clear with her about my goals. I wasn't interested in working really hard, in playing long tones and scales endlessly to improve my sound or technique. I just wanted to enjoy my hobby, and playing duets with her a couple of times a month seemed like a perfect way to do that.

Carrie Rose is a great teacher, though, and she had a way of offering gentle invitations to me to take one step after another towards better playing and better music. Then, last summer she and I had a talk about where this all was leading. "I think it's time you recognized this isn't just a hobby," Carrie told me. "This is a doorway."

By that time, I knew what she meant and I had to agree. Playing the flute was no longer something I did with an eye towards other people--boys in the band, teachers, parents. Music had become a much more internal project for me. I was listening more deeply to the sound I was making, noticing where that sound was coming from, opening my mouth, my throat, my lungs until my whole body was part of the instrument. Flute was becoming more than a tool--it was a metaphor, an access point, a partner in my conversation with the Spirit who has always used the language of breath.

But then I got stuck. The flute I had been playing since junior high school had technical problems, and Carrie was frustrated with it and her frustration spread. I started to feel like my instrument was holding me back, and a month ago, I decided to take a sabbatical from my lessons in order to save up money for a new instrument. I was actually relieved when I finally made the decision. I didn't feel like playing much any more.

By giving me this new flute, Dan gave me a wonderful invitation to continue to walk down the path that music can take us, to keep walking through the door that music opens. As I play my new Azumi, when I even look at it, I feel like it is saying "Welcome" to me.

Isn't it amazing that we can invite each other onto a journey like that? For all our sensitivities about honoring each other's life choices, letting each other live our own lives, making room, suspending judgment, we sometimes forget just how powerful an invitation can be.


Notes From Our Trip to Church of the Savior

Rebecca Dietz sends this post...

Last November I heard Gordon Cosby preach at the 11:30 Church of the Savior worship service, where he has gifted his congregation for years with his sweet mix of humility, audacious faith, and concrete calls to action. I have heard Gordon preach a number of times over the years, yet this time my ears were opened in a new way and his words carried a beautiful vibration that nudged ME to action. Our kids--the three that live in my house and the growing brood that gather at KC--are never far from my consciousness. By our lives and in our conversations, the KC Sunday School teachers and care group leaders are intent on nudging, nurturing and loving our kids and ourselves into hearing God's call to create and heal our amazing world.

Gordon's life and vision, along with many dedicated companions throughout the Church of the Savior family, have combined to create healing and possibility for an uncountable number of marginalized and suffering people in Washington D.C. Our own Kittamaqundi Church grew out of an association with Church of the Savior. As Charlie Powell remembers it, 1n 1969 Gordon told a group of Church of the Savior members residing in Columbia and Baltimore, including Jim Rouse and his first wife, Libby, to create a church where they were living. And so they did, and here we are, 39 years later. I wanted our kids to meet Gordon, and learn about some of the missions of Church of the Savior. Becca Stelle, KC's former pastor, who now works closely with Gordon, arranged a tour to see and learn about Christ's House (a shelter/community for homeless people too sick to return to the streets and too well to be in the hospital), and a meeting where we could hear from Gordon about his work and call. We were also blessed with Becca's presence and heard about the very unusual church she is mentoring.

In speaking to us Gordon boiled the purpose of our lives down to loving each other, and "not just your mother-in-law" but paying particular attention to those who struggle to find a place in our social and economic structures. "That is what Jesus told us to do," Gordon said simply. He told us many stories of how God has directed and worked through the joint efforts of those who answered the call to discipleship within the Church of the Savior umbrella. If you have ever heard Gordon speak, you will be able to imagine the delightful southern cadence of his speech and the unusual ability he has to pare a story down to its heart.

Gordon had a close relationship with Jim Rouse for many years and told us stories of their partnership, as well as some of the experiences that led Rouse to envision and develop our own community of Columbia. He recounted a time where Rouse asked Gordon to take him to the worst place he had ever seen in D.C. Gordon took him to visit a single mother with several children. During their visit they were treated to bugs crawling over the couch they were sitting on, and a stream of mice and rats running through the room. After they left Rouse observed he had seen many terrible places around the world in his work and travels as a community planner, but never had he seen anything as bad as that.

"Jim wanted to build a city from the ground up," Gordon told us, "The kind of city where we could live like Jesus wants us to live." Chew on that one for a while. Do we live in such a community? Rouse wanted to create a community with economic and racial diversity and no poverty. When I lived and worked in D.C. as a social worker, the poor and suffering were front and center in my life. In Columbia, however, where I relate to people as an upper middle class resident, I rarely even think to ask myself who needs my help. Having the Cold Weather Shelter at KC is a good reminder that there are those among us for whom life is difficult in a very basic way. As some of us lamented Rouse's death, we also talked about the need for all of us to have a vision of what our community should be and take responsibility for its creation and sustenance, rather that relying on a visionary and charismatic leader to keep things going.

Perhaps someone else who went along to D.C. will add to this blog. In addition, you can talk to the kids that went along--Lani, Jesse, Griffin, William, Ethan and Jordan--or any of the adults--Frank Turban, Mary Jane Sasser, Sharon Setzer, and Yung Trinh.

Thanks for listening.

Rebecca Dietz