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The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

Ephesians 1:15-23

Luke 24:44-53

Can you imagine the wide variety of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that were running through the hearts, minds, and souls of those standing in a field outside of Bethany with Jesus?  Can you imagine the excitement and the disappointment and the joy and the sorrow and the understanding and the confusion that those men and women were filled with as Jesus simply disappears before their eyes?

Just when the followers of Jesus thought things could not get more mind-boggling…just when they were beginning to settle in again after this whole “resurrection” thing happened…just when it seemed they might eventually understand what was going on, Jesus Ascends in to the sky!

Sometimes it is really hard to be present in the present and appreciate what is happening right now.  It is easy to project and imagine all of the other things that those folks might have been thinking about as Jesus left their presence.

“Where did he go?”

“Was it something we said?”

“Did someone steal him?”

“We are not ready for this to be over!”

“What was he talking about with ‘the Holy Spirit’ and the ‘Power from on High’?”

“Is now when the strong armies show up and Restore Israel?”

“When will the fighting begin?”

“Was Jesus really ever with us?”

“Was he lying to us?
“Why would he leave us alone?”

There is so much that could have been going on for them and probably was going on in their heads……but an important question is what did they really need to be doing right then?

As the scene leads up to these final moments we see the disciples wanting more answers and Jesus offering them some reassurance of what would happen next. 

But what did they really need right then? 

This week, the reading from Acts and from Luke are accounts of Christ’s ascension.  He has been crucified, buried and resurrected.  He has appeared amidst the living where he was touched by them, shared meals with them and continued to walk and talk and teach at their sides.  And now, in both accounts, he reminds them of his connection to Israel’s covenant tradition through Moses and then through the prophet Isaiah and through John’s baptism of repentance.  He even leaves them with some idea of what is to come – a Spirit to be the presence of God among them.  He doesn’t really tell them how or why or when – in fact he sort of scolds them for seeking that security and knowledge.  They will know what they need to know in God’s time.

Surely those who actually witnessed this came away with a sense of wonder and awe….or maybe just confusion…or maybe a sense of expectation…or maybe disappointment.

But what about those who didn’t see this amazing event?  What about those who never physically encountered the risen Christ?  Paul wasn’t with the Apostles who sat beside Jesus as his ministry expanded.  He wasn’t among those who saw the stone rolled back to reveal an empty tomb.  He wasn’t among those who shared a meal with the risen Christ.  But he had a profound understanding – a profound passion for the teachings and the sacrifice and the covenant fulfilled in Jesus.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul shares his hope that God will give this community a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” as they come to know God.  Surely this gives us a hint about how Paul cultivated his own relationship with a risen Jesus that he never really touched. 

[A sidebar about the Psalms:  The psalms are a collection of traditional songs and prayers used by the Hebrews in their worship in ancient times and today.  These traditional verses were recorded at a time when the Hebrews were scattered by yet another shift in their political circumstances.  Scattered through many lands in the middle east, recording their worship songs and prayers was a way to establish and maintain a connection to their worship traditions. There are thanksgivings psalms, praise psalms and lament psalms.  They are included in the lectionary readings so that they can be read responsively or sung or prayed in connection to the overarching themes for worship in any given week.  This week, the psalms celebrate the Hebrews’ historic relationship with Yahweh in shouts of praise.]

We’re faced this week with the faith and hope and vision of people touched by the risen Jesus.  The eyewitnesses had a different story – a different account of what they had seen and felt and heard.  And Paul was connected to his own experience of revelation and wisdom, wishing upon the community of Ephesus. 

What sort of interaction did the eyewitnesses need to be having with Jesus in their last moments with him?  Did they need more theology?  Did they need more details?  Or did they need to simply be present with their friend and teacher as he shared these last experiences with them?

And what about those of us who were not there?     What about those of us (like Paul maybe) who have experienced a revelation of God in a different way?  Did he (do we) feel short-changed by the different kind of revelation and understanding – is our faith any less because we have (or maybe have not had) a different kind of encounter with God and Jesus? 

What has been your eyewitness account of Jesus in the world? 

What have you gained from such encounters?

Do you feel like you are still waiting for such an encounter? If so, what helps you understand God?

Everliving God,

your eternal Christ once dwelt on earth,

   confined by time and space.

Give us faith to discern in every time and place

   the presence among us

   of him who is head over all things and fills all,

even Jesus Christ our ascended Lord.  Amen.

“The Ascension,” Laurence Hull Stookey, The United Methodist Hymnal

More on how to nourish my relationship with Jesus

I do believe its all about relationship.  I think that is the key to my spiritual life. My relationship with Jesus which leads to my relationship with God and to having the Holy Spirit direct my life.

For many years I have been reading a devotional called "My Utmost for His highest".  A friend of ours suggested the book when I was in my 20's and it was and is daunting. I finally decided the book was about relationship with Jesus and that has helped me in reading and meditating on what Oswald Chambers has given us to ponder.

I want to quote a meditation for April 27th and commend it to you on relationship with Jesus. The scripture for this day is Jeremiah 45;5.

"Are you seeking great things for yourself, instead of seeking to be a great person? God wants you to be in a much closer relationship with Himself than simply receiving His gifts--He wants you to get to know Him. Even some large thing we want is only incidental: it comes and it goes. But God never gives us anything incidental. There is nothing easier than getting into the right relationship with God, unless it is not God you seek, but only what He can give you.'

If you have only come as far as asking God for things, you have never come to the point of understanding the least bit of what surrender really means. You have become a Christian based on your own terms. You protest, saying, 'I asked God for the Holy Spirit, but He didn't give me the rest and the peace I expected.' And instantly God puts His finger on the reasong--you are not seeking the Lord at all; you are seeking something for yourself. Jesus said "Ask, and it will be given to you..."(Matthew 7:7). Ask God for what you want and do not be concerned about asking for the wrong thing, because as you draw ever closer to Him, you will cease asking for things altogether. "Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:8). Then why should you ask? SO THAT YOU MAY GET TO KNOW HIM.

Are you seeking great things for yourself? Have you said, "Oh, Lord,completely fill me with your Holy Spirit"? If God does not, it is because you are not totally surrendered to Him; there is something you still refuse to do. Are you prepared to ask yourself what it is you want from God and why you want it? God always ignores your presnt level of completeness in favor of your ultimate future completeness. He is not concerned about making you blessed and happy right now, but He's continually working out His ultimate perfection for you----". ...that they may be one just as We are one...."(John 17:22).

Relationship is a challenge. It is work. And ultimately it is rewarding.

Blessings  Charlie Powell

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3: 13-22
John 14: 15-21
Psalm 66: 8 – 20

Do you remember those 3-D posters that were so popular several years ago? You know, the posters that usually looked like nothing more than a field of static like you might find on an old television with no antenna?  The instructions that came with the poster said if you “stared intently” at the field of dots long (or intently) enough, you would see some other sort of image—maybe an airplane or a cow or a tree.

The idea was if you look at something long enough, your brain would put the dots together and you would see something else.

This week’s readings put us in mind of this a bit this week.  Three of the four readings each offer a different perspective toward what later comes to be known as the Trinity (or Trinitarian Theology).

See, there is really no explicit biblical explanation of the Trinity.  However, there are several different scriptures that through the years folks have picked up and put together…scriptures and phrases and ideas that folks have held together in their minds, stared at intently, and the concept of the Trinity is what emerged.

The concept of the Trinity developed out of a certain necessity.  People had to find ways to say what it is they believed.  While our Muslim friends sum up their belief with “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is His Prophet”, we Christians have no such concise formula.  There were great and deep questions that arose when Christians started attempting to understand the connection of the Hebrew God to Jesus the Messiah to this Advocate / Spirit Jesus talked about sending. 

Lots of arguments happened and more than a little blood was shed by folks that took very seriously the discussion of how to reconcile these ideas (and all they knew about each of the three from the scriptures) with one another.  In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity did not fully get codified until the Nicene Creed was agreed on at the council of Nicea in 325 CE (200-300 years after the New Testament was written).  (There is a great “Speaking of Faith” show talking with Jaroslav Pelikan… is a wonderful way to spend an hour!)

Now these scriptures are not the most overt things pointing toward a Trinitarian Theology, but they do provide some of the early support… let’s look and see what sort of evidence / support for the Trinity might be found.

In Acts we get one of Paul’s first sermons as a follower of Jesus.  He is following what today is one of the most basic “styles” of evangelism....he has spent time with these new people in their city, living their lives, and understanding what it is they worship.  He takes what he sees there and then ties it to the God he came to know as a Jewish leader...and then he even goes a step further and ties it to his understanding of God as he sees in Jesus.  He tells them that they are all created in the image of God and that we (they) are all connected to God. Now in just a few sentences, Paul takes these Athenians from a place where they worship “an unknown god” [do we know how they worshiped this god?] to naming that this unknown God is actually God the Father / Yahweh of the Hebrews, and then goes even further to connect God the Father / Yahweh to Jesus as the one God the Father has appointed to judge their righteousness.  He’s really making the point that there is One God to a community that has been accustomed to acknowledging many gods.

In the letter of Peter we continue to see a pretty directive / advice giving / instructional situation.  The writer is encouraging certainly, but he is also attempting to lay down orthodox thinking so that this community will have the same understandings / practices / theology as Christians in other communities.  We do not know what was the depth of practice of this community or what they knew or how / if they shared their faith.  We do know though that this letter is encouraging them to be faithful in  what they believe and how they practice.  This community is being encouraged to do the right thing and to recognize that this choice to do the right thing might result in suffering… he is connecting the suffering they might experience with the suffering Jesus experienced.....and then he connects them back to Noah and then he connects their suffering, the salvation of the Ark, and the resurrection of Jesus all to baptism.  Even today, if you are new to the faith, this is confusing and difficult to imagine what it might have been like to have to understand this when the primary means of communicating this faith was word of mouth and letters being passed around.  Here, the author is using Jesus’ humanity to connect these people to God through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. 

In John we see Jesus assuring the disciples that they know what they need to know and that they are going to still be supported and still be cared for and still be loved...even when he is not there any more.  This falls right in with human development theory....the first stages of life are spent building trust between the child and its takes a while for a child to trust that when a parent is not around that the parent still exists and still loves them and still cares for them.  Jesus is assuring the disciples (in their early stages of development) that they will be okay even when he is not there with them.  This is one of the examples where we get an explicit explanation from Jesus that ties the “Holy Spirit” or the “Advocate” to himself.

In the Psalm we see someone who deeply knows / understands God’s activity in his life.  He can name the ups and can name the downs....he knows where God has supported and where God has tested....and with all of this he cannot contain himself....he wants to tell others to come and see and hear about his God.  It is interesting to note all through the Hebrew scriptures that there is a certain sense that God / Yahweh is both God the Father and God the Spirit…..and it is in the New Testament scriptures that we see those “tasks” separated.

One God, many natures.  It is a concept with which the early church struggled mightily.  Deep down, we think the only way to understand it on Any Level is in relationship with God. We can look to the scriptures for evidence, but in many ways, the Trinity is beyond rational explanation. God is bigger than our rationality, anyway – Right?

* How do you understand the nature of God?
* Is your relationship with God singular or multi-faceted?  Do you relate differently to God at different times, in different circumstances, with different practices?
* Is everything in your faith explained by the scriptures?  What do you do with those things for which you cannot find an explanation?
* Do you ascribe to a specific creed?  Have you written a statement of your own beliefs and understanding of God?  How do you share your understanding of God with others?

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene Creed, First Council of Constantinople, 381 CE 

How do I nourish my relationship with Jesus?

Heathers' superb sermon yesterday at Church and the morning service has really helped me understand some things about myself as I try to walk this Christian path.

Throughout my life I have 'worked' at being a Christian. I have had what I consider a number of 'conversion experiences'. Each time sure that this time I would have it 'together', whatever that means. Much to my dismay I seem to need to go back to basics and change directions time after time.

These past few months I have been trying out a new approach to meditation, prayer and how I approach the Christian life. I have been swimming 2 hours a day for 6 days a week. (even God rested one day!) I spend about an hour listening to hymns, reading scripture and devotionals and journaling. (including a dialogue with Jesus). I invite the Holy Spirit to come into my life and be with me throughout the day. I have been taking with me to the pool a different scripture each week to meditate on while I swim.

I start with the Lords prayer as I swim, then to the 23rd psalm, 1 cor 13 and Gal 5. I meditate on these turning them over in my mind. Then I go through my prayer list, which is fairly extensive. I am adding new scriptures to the above from time to time,like Romans 8, Phil 4, Ps 121 and meditate on these as well. These scriptures are really becoming alive for me and some of this carries over into my day. Then as much as I can I pray the Jesus prayer throughout the day or for people and situations that are on my heart and mind. The Jesus prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner".

God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit seem to be speaking to me more now that I am in a receptive mood of listening.

I was really concerned about some situations a couple of weeks ago and confused about how to pray for help with them when it seemed that God spoke directly to me. God said "You just pray and I will take it from there". Now when I pray I can really let it go because I feel that God will do the rest. This is only the 2nd time in my life that I feel that God has spoken directly to me.

The other morning I was feeling pretty good about what was happening in my life when I heard "Charlie, you are not in relationship with several people------you really need to forgive them, you are letting them hold you back from me.  That was quite a shock but I knew it was true. I have been working on forgiveness since then and with Heathers sermon yesterday I have been helped to see that the bottom line was that I wanted to control the situation with these people. I wasn't 'just praying' and leaving the rest to God. I wanted control and to have them do what I wanted.

This is all a work in process. No, I am not there yet, but I feel that as I nourish my relationship with Jesus that I am closer to working through forgiving people than I was before. I now feel I have a way to work out forgiveness that is more real and not from a set of rules or demands. It is coming from inside of myself and is really like Heather said, a fruit that is produced from nourishing my relationship with Jesus. Nan also said at Church that to be in realtionship with someone means you want to spend time with them, to call them, to talk to them and to support them.

Yes, even at 75 I can learn and grow and change------with help from you all and from God! It really is about relationship.  Charlie Powell

Minor Miracles

I have a very clear memory of the first miracle I ever experienced, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I was taking a shower, washing my hair with Johnson and Johnson's Baby Shampoo, the only shampoo I had ever used. I was intrigued to discover that there was a new bottle in the shower, with a picture on the outside of a dashing man with dark hair and a sharp part along the side. I didn't know what it was, but on a whim, I squirted out a glob and put it on my head. To my great surprise, it made my squeeky clean, tangled hair smooth and easy to comb. Of course, I just had my first experience of conditioner, but the thought that went through my mind was, "This is a miracle." I can still remember the sense of awe and gratitude I felt.

I realize, of course, that conditioner is just a human invention, and now when I remember that story, I feel a little embarrassed. But last week I had another, similar experience, and a similar reaction. I inherited an old rocking chair from the office of my last job three years ago, and have been meaning to refinish it ever since. I started on this job two weeks ago using a very noxious chemical that removed the old finish only after I rubbed it on a small section of the chair for about five minutes straight. I was looking at a very long, unpleasant process, and I was feeling pretty unhappy about it.

Then, one evening last week, it occurred to me to buy a power sander. Rosa and I had a great mother-daughter trip to the power tool section of the Lowe's, and the next day I gleefully sanded off the finish from the whole chair in a couple of hours. I actually got a little teary when I realized how well it was working. The sense of awe and gratitude that I felt reminded me strongly of my first "miracle".

And now I have another one to add to the list. Yesterday, I accidentally spilt an entire cup of tea on my laptop, which was then pronounced dead by the geniuses at the Apple store. As a last ditch effort, I propped it open in front of the heater in my office for a couple of hours, and when I returned, it worked perfectly. Again, tears of joy.

None of these events constitutes a miracle in the traditional, Biblical sense. All of them can be explained without having to appeal to divine intervention. But in a way, that doesn't really matter to me. Each event surprised me. Each delighted me. And for that reason, each experience gave me practice in welcoming unexpected goodness into my life, and nourished my capacity for gratitude.

I hope I never stop experiencing these minor miracles.

Fifth Sunday in Easter

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14
Acts 7:55-60

What Do You Really Believe?

You have heard the stories of people who were asked at gunpoint whether they believe in God or Jesus or maybe you have heard the stories of emergent medical decisions that put a person’s faith to the test.  In different places at different times the question is raised:  With your life hanging in the balance, what Do you really Believe?

Today, our evidence for Christianity is based on a combination of scripture and personal experience.  The scriptures have been handed down to us through generations of folks that edited the stories, decided which ones were important to share, used the language they understood to convey the ideas they named as key, and shared the thoughts and ideas in forms that were meaningful to them at the time.  The scriptures are a form of personal experience that have been passed down to us from our fellow Yaweh / Jesus followers through thousands of years.   Today, we pass The Faith to our children and to new adult believers and to one another through our own personal experience with God.

This is hardly scientific method.

What do You really Believe?

This week’s scriptures offer us some examples of invitations to belief and examples of people who put their complete belief in God even in dire circumstances.

If we read all of Psalm 31 rather than just the 7 verses selected in the lectionary, we see the writer of this psalm putting his / her trust in God based on what seems to be personal experience.  He has experienced in the past that God has “redeemed me, seen my affliction, not delivered me into the hand of my enemy, set my feet in a broad place, shown his steadfast love to me, and heard my supplications”…. Of course, he also refers several times to being aware of the presence / care of God because his enemies, those who were against him, etc suffered afflictions and received punishment at the hand / behest of God.  Was this Psalmist motivated to belief because of the benefits of being in relationship with God?  Is faith or belief really faith or belief if it is based on fear or revenge?

When we look at our next piece of the first letter of Peter we see the writer’s continued encouragement that it is only now (“that you are God’s people”) that each person receives God’s mercy.  Now that you are “a holy nation, [one of] God’s own people” you are able to share God’s light with the world.  He seems to be almost shaming or pressuring people in to believing in God when he says, ”you may grow in to salvation IF you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Certainly, in faith and belief there is an element of choice, but should any of us be pressured (or forced) in to belief?

Then in John 14 we see Jesus, after having spent much time with these folks and having shown them many signs and wonders, being a bit directive with the disciples and encouraging them to believe in him, to know him and to know the Father.  And still the disciples (Phillip specifically) ask for more evidence.  And Jesus tells him again, directly, to Believe in him because he is in the Father and the Father is in him.  Jesus tells Phillip (and, we assume, everyone else in the room) that they need to “Believe” in him because he is a direct connection and representation of the Father.  In fact, he tells them “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.”  Wow, that is a big promise.  In this instance, Jesus does not put any parameters around what it means to “ask for anything”--he just tells them that if they believe, if they ask, they will receive.  Again, is this encouraging belief on the basis of what one can receive from it?  Or is that the basis or purpose or even the genesis of faith in general – that we have faith because we believe it will be of benefit to us?

Finally, we see an example of ultimate belief in Acts.  The scene is already well under way when we join it in verse 55…Stephen is about to be killed.  He believes all the way until the end…he repeats two phrases that Jesus says from the cross….he was completely committed, but it does not seem to be a personally benefiting commitment.  An important facet of this verse is seeing Saul (the same Saul that becomes Paul) standing there showing what he believed.  He is a witness of this act.  He does not intercede and he does not participate.  He is “only” a witness. 

Flash forward.  What will it mean to Saul to witness these acts once he believes that Christ was indeed resurrected?  Do our evolving beliefs change the past?  Does our past affect our evolving beliefs?

What do you Really Believe?

Sometimes, it is hard to look at these stories of faith and to accept at some rational level that these are “proof texts” for the divinity of Jesus Christ.  And yet, what gave rise to these texts?  What were people witnessing in the days, weeks and months that followed Christ’s death and resurrection that gave rise to this oral tradition and eventually to these texts?

Everyone believes something.  To profess a lack of belief in one thing is to assert belief in another.  Our beliefs are a combination of what we experience and what we adopt from those experiences.  To value a scientific method over other methods is in itself a form of belief…an assertion of where the highest power lies.

•    What do you believe?
•    What has shaped your beliefs over time?
•    What is your responsibility in sharing your beliefs?

“It came to me ever so slowly that the best way to know the truth was to begin trusting what my inner truth was…and trying to share it – not right away – only after I had worked hard at trying to understand it.”
Reverend Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers)

Fourth Sunday in Easter

Acts 2:42-47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We hear it so often.  But really, as a society, we’re pretty conditioned to operate as loners.  Sure, we play team sports, we have team meetings at work, we set aside “family time.”  But often our focus and motivation is self-preservation.  When push comes to shove, we take another task on ourselves rather than asking for help.  We store up our treasures for a rainy day.  We make the choice to push ourselves and then feel martyred by our sacrifice.  And sometimes, our affection for independence makes it difficult to be led.

A properly functioning flock of sheep is a community that is made up of more than sheep. It turns out that sheep are not inherently all that smart. A group of sheep left on its own is certainly still a “flock of sheep”, but if one sheep turns his back on the rest of the flock to go after some tasty grass the rest of the group might leave him and then he is stuck there by himself.  Sheep are naturally most comfortable when they are with one another.  In fact, sick sheep are often identified because they tend to wander off by themselves.  If a flock is left without a guardian they are almost totally open to predators…they have no way to fight back, they cannot stand up well if they fall on their sides…they don’t even have top teeth to give a good bite with!  Sheep need a leader.  They need a guardian.  They need a guide.  Sheep are dependent on their shepherd.

As followers of Christ, we choose to belong to a community of fellow believers.  Ideally, that community works together toward a common vision and community care.  There are benefits to belonging to such a community, and there are also responsibilities.  The community also has to be led – perhaps by one, or by some who agree to lead for the good of the community.

So how do we hold it all together?  How do we reconcile our individual entitlement with the deep cellular need for others and for a leader? How do we hold together the need to be empowered and the need to work with others to maintain order and to create harmony?

Shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection, communities of believers came together for fellowship, civility (frankly), safety, and support (It wasn’t easy or particularly popular to be a follower of Jesus).  In the Jewish communities, there was a tradition of the synagogue and covenant community.  Groups of Jews who followed the teachings of Jesus grew “churches” out of this tradition.  Early converts to Christianity certainly needed the protection of a community against persecution in their society.

The scriptures for this week all reference the boundaries, benefits and responsibilities of these early communities of followers, and in each, it is important to look at where the leader is in the community.

In Acts, the author describes the behaviors that unified perhaps the earliest community of Christians, who were directly connected to the apostles.  The description is of a community that lived communally, sharing their resources so that all had what they needed.  And their community was growing.  The apostles were out teaching and recruiting.  The community cared for newcomers, embracing them and helping them understand what it meant to be part of the community. For these early communities, Jesus was not just a story from the past.  These communities housed eyewitnesses.  They had founders among them – some of their leaders were among the Twelve.  They were still working out a lot of kinks…rules, expectations…and they were still uncovering the mystery.

The Psalm is a familiar one, naming the Lord as Shepherd.  A key to all of these communities was unification through a caretaker – a shepherd, God, a resurrected Jesus, a spiritual connection with teachings about justice and mercy and grace. In response to the comfort of that care giving, the Psalmist describes the ability to face dark times and to be at peace.  In ancient Jewish society, the extended family was a primary community.  There was a leader – a patriarch.  The Psalmist is praising the ultimate caretaker of the Hebrew race – God, while acknowledging a place within the “flock” – the community.

The letter that we know as 1 Peter was probably written to a community in Rome that did not gather around a common Jewish heritage.  The letter girds the community for resisting persecution that they face.  In the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity was a maligned foreign religion. Converts were rejected not just by their civic community, but by their families as well.  The letter urges converts to imitate Christ in the face of all of this suffering and persecution.  The letter itself is a strong encouraging voice.

In John, we read the familiar parable of the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd doesn’t just know his sheep; he knows them by Name.  The sheep know the shepherd’s Voice. It is interesting to see the modification of the sheep / shepherd image here because Jesus is not just the Shepherd, he is also the gate through which the flock must pass. Continue reading past  10:10, and you’ll see this is no “hired hand.”  This Shepherd will lay down his life.  This is a leader that will make sacrifices for the flock.  It’s hard to draw much about the shape of the community, except to understand that Jesus tells this story once and his listeners do not understand.  He continues to retell and retell.  The shepherd is also very patient!

As followers of Christ, we are called into community.  A flock, a community, is not a closed group.   In our comings and goings (through the “Gate”), we sometimes choose to act in our own best interest and sometimes we choose to act in the interest of a greater group. Sometimes the stray sheep endangers the flock by distracting the Shepherd. We have opportunities and responsibilities to work with one another within our community (within our flock), but if we accept these images given in scripture, we also know that we do all of this within sight of a guiding and protecting Shepherd.

  • Who do we allow to lead and when?  What if we are called to lead?  Are we equipped?
  • Do you accept the idea of Jesus (or God) being your / our Shepherd?
  • When is it most difficult to be part of a community?  Why?
  • What is the minimum required for a community to exist? 
  • What is the difference between harmony and dissonance in a community?
  • To what communities do you belong? 

“The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.”

Life Together – Dietrich Boenhoffer

Here's Something That Really Might Build Civility

KC Member Ada Iris Jaime sent me this to post for her:

Since attending K.C. I have asked myself, “What can I bring to the table and offer those who are giving me such nurturing bread?” One day I heard my heart voice the desire to talk to Heather about the ideas that tossed around in my head. She gave me a great smile and suggested I call a "FOCUS group" to help put the ideas to action.

I am putting together a group that would work together to co-create a cross-cultural outreach program based at K.C., reaching out to Spanish-speaking people in Howard County who are hungry not just to improve their English, but to connect to share their culture and connect to the culture in which they live. I am hungry to work and live in a community that cares for each other, as I know so many others are too.

A word about my own background will help to explain my approach:

In my 20's I lived a most exciting life in Seville, Spain where I accidentally on purpose became the spearhead of change in the way the Language Institute where I taught English and Spanish approached their curriculum for college exchange students. Students from all over the world came together in Sevilla to learn Spanish, and local university students attended the institute to learn English, not to mention all the other languages that were offered at the institute. It was so invigorating to walk the hallways and hear conversations in all different languages from people of all different colors, shapes and sizes. I noticed most of the students limited their interactions with classmates and rarely ventured out on their own into the community. Everyone stayed in a group and clustered around those similar to them. Something about this didn’t seem right to me. I knew there was an opportunity waiting for something else.

As a young foreigner myself, I also initially had difficulty integrating in the society I planted myself in and I knew the language. So, it wasn’t a language barrier that kept me apart, something else was preventing me from reaching into the community and this something else, I feel is experienced by all foreigners at one time. I lived trying to co-exist as a foreigner (keeping true to my way of doing things at home) and was tormented by the thoughts of isolation because I saw everything as their way. I wanted that feeling to go away but it was constant and I didn’t know how to initiate social discovery. I knew I had to reach out but didn’t know how. My father's only consistent advice to me when I whined of homesickness was, "When in Rome do like the Romans". And I consistently responded, "I'm in Spain, Dad, not Italy.”

It took me awhile to get what my dad meant, but finally I got it. I had to become one with them to be present with them and therefore no longer will I be alone. I made it my intention to seek to understand and discover what was going on before me and not judge or compare things the way I was accustom to do things (this took effort but became easier as I practiced). Finally I was really awaken to how things are there and experienced it, and had no need to go in my mind anywhere else.

I began to view the world at the people level, with an open-mind and explore with them, meaning just to smile and look people in the eye inviting myself into their lives and allowing them to show me what surrounded us. I began to talk to strangers, waiters, cab drivers, students, clergy, talk politics with Pepe and Manolo who sat at a park bench cursing at a daily news line (I learned many new expressions I could never repeat), play with Pedrito soccer, at the market ask Maria how do you prepare this or that dish, dance with flamenco dancers, and write poetry under the scent of jasmine and azhar.

I found I had to only approach them once, and then they called me over as I passed, “Hola Morena, venid”. The tables turned quickly and they began to ask me the who, what and whys of my country and the people of America and those Yankees. It was awesome to be a spokesperson. I got to know myself at a deeper level and laugh at myself and cherish what I was receiving and what I left behind.

My life in Sevilla changed me right before my eyes and this lesson had to be shared with those who I saw before me doing as I did, living as a tourist and not experiencing the world around them. I knew I had to teach them more than what they could read and write on a postcard. I would tell students my story,

“It wasn't until I sat with anyone and everyone that Seville opened up to me. I realized I lived in Seville. Wow, I no longer considered myself a foreigner, I lived there, I was a part of all that surrounded me. Anyone can take ownership of where they are at if only they follow the way of entering community and limit self to the invitation of show me, tell me, explore with me how is it that... smile and receive.”

I took my students into the community, I organized soccer and basketball games mixing local kids and the exchange students, chess games at the park with the older generation. I brought Maria into my house to teach us how to cook. Later Maria wouldn’t have it with my cooking-challenged kitchen and obligated me to take them to her house. After awhile it was my students inviting me to activities they had conjured with their friends in the community. My students left family when the got on a plane home. Months later they were back on holiday with their parents sharing community in the bars, parks, historic sites, the Plaza Mercado (market place). The feedback was amazing. What was more amazing was hearing Manolo at age 82 try to speak English for the first time.

Other classes wanted to do what we where doing, so, I began coordinating activities for all the language arts teachers. Students regardless of the language had to go out into the community and give of themselves and invite others to share in the experience. Everyone benefited from the dialogues, no one left without experiencing Sevilla. And as they say, “Si no has visto Sevilla, no has visto maravilla” –“If you haven’t seen Sevilla you haven’t seen wonder.” Those years remain in my heart as the greatest wonder.

This experience is the seed to my cross-cultural concept for exploration with the members at K.C. and the community.

I want us to unite with an open and compassionate heart and brainstorm ways to explore how we can be a vehicle of inclusion for those who have planted themselves and their families amongst us and feel they are alone or limit their exploration of our world to that which is familiar to them. I want our lives to be shared with all who live in our community from within our church stretching out as far as God allows us to take it.

My first burning desire is to explore ways we can "Seek to understand to then be understood." Walk as Jesus did, side by side with anyone and everyone with a need or listening heart and offer of ourselves so they can open their spirit of union and co-create community. “Voila”--we find ourselves enriched and at home anywhere we go. We get to know each other. Love our neighbor. It was that simple to undertake when I lived in Sevilla; why not try it over here?

I feel richness invade me as I look across the room and receive a smile from a shining face at K.C., that’s all I need to continue on my journey. I am comforted by resting. I’m home. I want wholeheartedly to offer this smile to those who do not know what is out their beyond the safety and isolation of their walls. So much to share and the only barrier I have found is not to seek the opportunity for something else to happen. Walk with thy neighbor and be blessed along the journey where the spirit will lead us.

Get Curious and Make Room

After worship on Sunday, Nan pulled me aside and said with a look of concern on her face, "Heather, something very painful must have happened to you as a result of the Choose Civility campaign to make you so passionate in your opposition of it." Her comment really took me aback because (a) I haven't had a painful experience of the sort that she imagained and (b) I'm not "against" the Choose Civility campaign. Rather, I think the book that the campaign was inspired takes a misguided approach to HOW we increase public civility.

Despite my "oppositional personality", my passion on this topic isn't about opposing anything. I'm passionate about building community, building relationships. Because of this passion, and because of my ministry at the Kittamaqundi Community is so centrally focused on building community in the midst of transition, I'm interested in pushing the conversation about civility in the county to a deeper level than simply listing rules that people should follow--an approach that I think is not only ineffective, but actual undermines our ability to treat each other with compassion and respect.

So, it might be helpful at this point to stop talking about the problems with Dr. Forni's approach and start talking about real examples of what actually does improve the quality of our public lives. I wrote in a previous post that my experience has led me to value two principles in this work: get curious and make room. Let me give an example of what these things look like in practice.

When Barry Newman from the Wall Street Journal was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go with him to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Public Library, the initiators of the Choose Civility campaign. Ms. Gross explained the origin of the campaign--P. M. Forni's book had been the focus of a staff training day. The conversation has gone so well that they decided to bring the book into their partnership with the public schools, and from their into a wider partnership in the community. It's not that Howard County is a particularly uncivil place, Ms. Gross was quick to point out to the WSJ reporter. The book was more a reminder and a refresher than a remedy to any particular problem.

This caught the reporter's interest. Surely, he prodded, there must be some concern about civility for this campaign to have caught hold as it has. Well, Ms. Gross conceded, there has been a change over the years in the ways in which some teenagers behave in the library. Some kids are unruly, and some have even sworn as the librarians.

"So what do you do when that happens?" I asked. "Do you hand them a copy of P. M. Forni's book and ask them to read up on the rules of civility? Do you remind them of the 25 rules?"

"Of course not," Ms. Gross replied. She went on to describe the approach that they have had the most success with. Each library has a "Teen Advisory Board" that meets with library staff and makes recommendations on programming for teens and discusses issues relating to teens and the library. The staff keeps an eye out for teens who frequent the library, especially those who seem to be leaders, either in a negative or positive sense. They are quick to ask those teens to join the advisory board. "We tell them that we recognize them as leaders, and we express interest in hearing their views about how we can all work together." "Does it work?" I asked. "Absolutely," Ms. Gross responded.

I was really struck by this conversation, and talked at length about it with the reporter afterwards. I wish, in fact, that it could have been the focus of his article. While the book, "Choosing Civility", may express the desire for civility in our public life, when it comes to getting to work with actually improving our local community, even the library disregards the book and its emphasis on teaching 25 basic rules.

These people are no dummies--they know that in order to get people to want to behave in a civil way, they have to feel like they are a part of a community. They have to buy into the idea that we are all creating a world together where there is room for each of us. Tell them they are rule violators, and you are telling them what they already know. They don't fit. There isn't room for them here. But get curious about what they want, what they need, what they think, who they are, and make room for them to participate in setting the agenda, making the program, and all of a sudden things shift. There isn't an US and a THEM, there is just an US.

That's not the final word on building community, but I'm convinced that it is where we start.

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

"Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

What Exactly Is My Problem With Civility?

On the front page of this morning's Wall Street Journal there is an article by Barry Newman entitled "Be Nice, Or What? Fan of Dr. Forni Spread Civility". The subtitle reads, "25 Rules Don't Go Over Well With Everybody; Naysayer in Maryland". The "naysayer" happens to be me.

If you're a part of the Kittamaqundi Community and/or a regular reader of this blog, you won't be surprised to read that I am irked by Howard County's "Choose Civility" campaign which is based on a book that lists 25 rules to guide our public behavior. But I was surprised when a Wall Street Journal reporter called me about a month ago to talk about civility. Turns out he had found me while doing web searches with phrases like "P M Forni stupid" and "P M Forni crazy". He found lots of material, he told me, but almost all of it was anonymous. Except for my blog.

The reporter, Barry Newman, and I had several very long phone calls followed by a day and a half of in person conversation. By the time Barry left, he had enough material for a book, but he warned me that he was only going to be able to write a short article. I think that what he ended up writing is a very good "teaser" into a fairly complex argument, and I hope that Dr. Forni and I will have more opportunities to talk about his approach to improving the quality of our public life. In the meantime, I thought I'd make a few things a bit more clear than they are in the WSJ article:

I am not against civility. As Dr. Forni put it in our conversation, being against civility is like being against "mother's milk". My "oppositional personality" makes me wonder what the other side of an argument might be, especially arguments that everyone seems to agree with at first blush. But the argument I have with Dr. Forni is not over whether it's okay to be a jerk or not. It's about HOW we can best improve and support civility in our public life, not whether we should be civil with each other.

I think that's a fair argument to have, and if there's any merit to the "Choose Civility" campaign, it is that it might provoke conversation about what factors shape our public life. According to P.M. Forni, our public life is shaped by rules. There was a day when those rules were implicit to our public lives--everyone knew them in part because everyone knew each other. We lived among our extended families, among people who were a lot like us and who shared an understanding of how to act. In communities like that (like Goshen, Indiana, perhaps when Valerie Gross was growing up there at the end of the baby boom) no one needs to write the rules down because everyone knows them.

These days, many of us don't live in communities like that. We move around a lot more, and we live in communities composed of people from a lot of different cultures, countries, backgrounds and viewpoints. We don't necessarily have a shared sense of how to behave in our public lives. Some people are louder than other people think is necessary. Some people let their kids do things in public that other people find objectionable. Some people use public spaces in ways that other people would never do. This can make living together tough at times.

So what to do? One approach would be for those of us who "know" how to act to write down all the rules explicitly and try to teach other people to follow those rules. To P. M. Forni's great credit, he is in favor of persuading people to follow the rules of civility by appealing to their self-interest, and he is firmly opposed to enforcing these rules through codes of conduct, etc.

But to my mind, there is a huge hazard to this response. When we make all those rules explicit, write them down on bookmarks that are handed out to everyone in the library and in the high school, then we encourage everyone to notice whether or not someone is following the rules in public. We become--without even wanting to do so--regulators and enforcers of the rules. Reinforcing explicit rules moves us away from welcoming each other and moves us towards tisk-tisking every time we see someone doing something they're "not supposed to do".

Incidentally, this is what Jesus ran into all the time. He was in constant argument with people who valued adherence to the rules over all else, and was always subverting rules in order to respond with compassion. Think, for example, of his fights over healing people on the sabbath. His argument was not against the sabbath--he clearly supported the value of rest and renewal. But he was convinced that the demands of compassion trumped the demands of the rules that governed the sabbath. So to with the story of the Good Samaritan. The people who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road do so because of the social rules that governed their behavior at the time. But the Samaritan violates the rules quite blatantly and responds with compassion, and its his behavior that Jesus holds up as a model to his disciples.

I think there are better ways to support civility in our public life than rules. I think the basis of right behavior--in public and in private--is compassion. So then, the question becomes, how to we encourage compassion? How do we grow compassion in our community?

As the Wall Street Journal article mentioned, I think there are specific things you can do. I summarized two of these things as "Get curious" and "Make room", and I will write a bit more about these two principles in the coming days.

But there is another thing that helps compassion, one that Barry Newman alludes to in the article but which deserves much fuller examination. The city that I live in was created by a visionary developer named Jim Rouse who believed that the WAY we live with each other can actually shape the way we behave towards each other. In other words, the values that guide our common life can actually be communicated by how our streets and houses and town centers are arranged.

Jim Rouse didn't make things easy for himself here. He built a suburban town which included affordable, mid-range and expensive housing, all mixed in with each other. He did some very explicit social engineering to make sure that black folks and white folks would live right next to each other. So from the start, he knew that the people who lived in Columbia wouldn't necessarily share the same implicit rules governing their common life.

So he built into the community lots of things that cause you to "accidentally" run into your neighbors all the time--at the mailbox, on the bike path, at your town center, at the gym, at the playground. He believed that you could make a successful community where people DON'T have the same social background by making sure that we recognize each other as neighbors. The basis of civility, he believed, was neighborliness.

Dr. Forni believes this too. In every interview I've read with him, he underscores that anonymity greatly increases the tendency towards incivility. That's why we curse people from our cars who we'd never curse face to face. But he doesn't seem to be interested in addressing the cause of incivility--as Barry Newman quotes him saying, he thinks communities like Columbia were "utopian" but not actually effective. He only recommends remedies for the symptoms of our loss of relationship with our neighbors. This is the heart of my argument with him.

Like Jim Rouse did 40 years ago, and like Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago, I'd rather cure the disease and not just treat the symptom.