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.

Notes From Louisiana, Day One

Our group of 16 from KC is about to start our second day of work down here in Diamond, Louisiana, a tiny bayou town about an hour South of New Orleans. I didn't even know there was land an hour south of Louisiana, but it turns out people have been living down in this area for hundreds of years. There's a small Native American community who has been living here for over 300 years. But this is a flat and watery place to live, and when the levies were topped by the storm surge from Katrina, people's houses were washed away.

We worked in four different groups yesterday, and had four different experiences. One group had a pretty exhausting day of sanding, taping and spackling, one group was doing more skilled work framing windows and cutting trim. One group had a dirty morning picking up and hauling trash and then ran out of work by lunch. And the last group--which was just me and some of the other people who are volunteering this week--did a little electrical work, a little sanding and took a long trip to Lowes which is about a 45 minute drive away.

So, last night, when we sat around to debrief the day with our "highs" and "lows", we were concerned about there being enough work for all of us this week, but reallyImg_0325_4
delighted to have learned some new skills, made it through the day, enjoyed each other's company and met some of the families who are going to move into their new home.

But my highlight ended up being hearing Vernon talk about his highlights from the day. He said, "I've got two high points today. The first one was picking up trash at the side of the highway! And the second was that I got to help Mr. Dean make a bench." His incredibly positive attitude did a lot to help mine.

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.

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."

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

A Poem About the Cold Weather Shelter

Carol Buell, KC's Poet Laureate, sent this note:

Monday night I slept over at the Cold Weather Shelter and was very moved by how cordial almost all of the guests were and saddened as well by all of it. I wrote this poem.

Homeless Shelter -- Old Barn Church
Columbia, Maryland
February 2008

The lofty-ceilinged barn
Is sheltering the poor,
Keeping them dry and warm
In stone walls heavy and secure.

A night or two, a week,
A place to lay the limbs,
A place to lay the head,
A moment's bed,
Keeping out the chills.
The fear of future dims,
The ache in hearts a moment stills.

All of us this moment seek,
When, scared and lonely, we are caught
In sheltering arms and brought
A brief respite from the storm,
And so we give each other
The courage to go on.

Love, Carol Buell

Hiddur Mitzvah: Doing Things Beautifully

This past weekend was a busy one at KC, with a full-day Lenten retreat on Saturday and two worship services, a mission trip training and a class on evil on Sunday. There's a lot to ponder on Monday after a weekend like that. The depth of reflection, insight and wisdom of the KC community continues to amaze me. But today I'm not just thinking about what people said or wrote. I find myself reflecting on the beauty of what some people did.

When I arrived at the church building for our retreat on Saturday, Rebecca had already been at work, setting up a number of "stations" with tools for meditation. One of the first things that I saw was a "senses table". On it were things that were meant to delight each of our five senses, including a quitely burbling tabletop fountain (with an invitation to listen), a bowl of anise seeds (with an invitation to taste) and a bouquet of fresh basil (with an invitation to smell). The whole table was set up so beautifully--it had the quality of a thoughtfully arranged still life.

Downstairs, Bonnie and I had created a simple, three-circuit labyrinth on the carpet using three different kinds of tape. We did in on Friday, which was a snow day for my three kids, and I had just grabbed every kind of black tape I could find in our basement. Some of it stuck better than others, and we ran out before it was completed and filled in the missing parts with blue chalk, which showed up fairly well on the carpet. It wasn't pretty, but I was in a hurry to get home, so I was satisfied once it looked "good enough". When I came back on Saturday, Bonnie had fixed the whole thing up with thick black duct tape which really did stick to the floor. She had straightened out our crooked parts, set up candles around the room, and managed to make the whole room beautiful.

On Sunday afternoon, it happened again. Harriett and Ken were leading a training for those of us who are going to Louisiana for a mission trip in three weeks. The whole training was done with a lot of thought and insight, but one of the things that impressed me most was that the had set up lunch on the table with a green tablecloth, bright yellow napkins, and colorful Mardi Gras beads spread between the platters of cold cuts and rolls.

In each of these situations, someone put extra effort into making something beautiful. And in each case, it really wasn't necessary that they do so. It would have been perfectly fine to just put the lunch meat out on the table on a paper plate and leave it at that. No one would have complained, and I don't think anyone would have complained if the tape-labyrinth has been sloppy or if no one had arranged a sensory meditation table. But the fact that someone put thought into those things, made an extra effort, really touched me.

Why? It's not just that these things pleased my sense of aesthetics. It's deeper than that. For me, Rebecca and Bonnie and Ken and Harriett's extra effort had the feel of "hiddur mitzvah", a Jewish concept that doesn't really have a Christian equivalent. Hiddur mitzvah is a phase that comes from Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will glorify him." The Hebrew sages interpreted the call to "glorify" God as an invitation to carry out God's commandments (mitzvah) in a beautiful way. In this way, we show God that it's a joyful thing to observe the commandments. We're not just trying to do the bare minimum to get by. We're not just doing it because we'll be in trouble if we don't.

The idea of "hiddur mitzvah" shows up in some wonderful ways in Jewish tradition. For example, sometimes the Hebrew letters in a manuscript are decorated with delightful little lines like little buds growing out from the top. Beautiful silver kiddush cups, candlesticks and menorah are another part of this tradition. It's a mitzvah to light candles at the start of Shabbat, but it is even more wonderful to observe that commandment in a beautiful way.

It's easy to lose sight of this value when you are busy, and almost impossible to uphold when you feel put-upon. If the request to do something feels like just "one more thing" you have to cross off your already too-full list, you do what you need to do, no more. I'm well aware of this dynamic, and of the internal muttering "you should be glad this got done at all." I've put many a meal on the table for my family with exactly that feeling.

I feel no need to make my life as beautiful as Martha Stewart's, and to make every meal a gourmet one. In fact, in our culture of consumption and excess, I often feel the call to pare down, to do things more simply, to reuse or repurpose instead of buying something. But I want to be sure to keep this other value in mind as well. I don't want to just give God--or my family, or the church--the bare minimum. It is a gift to God to do something beautifully.

Beyond Impossible

Anne startled me this morning in worship when she introduced our scripture reading from Matthew that describes Mary's visit from the angel Gabriel who tells her that she is going to become pregnant with a child who will be a saviour, Jesus. Instead of directing our attention to Mary's willing embrace of God's work in her, or to Gabriel's prediction of Jesus' significance to the world, Anne asked us all to make a connection between Mary's life and our own. "Think of a time," Anne said serenely, "when God has asked you to do something that seemed impossible or unacceptable according to the standards of the world. Did you submit to that request? What made it possible, or impossible for you to do that?"

Then she went on to read the scripture. I looked around the room as she read, and no one seemed particularly stunned by what Anne had said. Only at KC, I thought in some amusement. People have been talking long enough and seriously enough around here about having a "calling" from God that they are able to consider that there is a connection between Mary's life and their own without falling off their chair in fright.

I'm not quite there yet. I have yet to receive a visitation from an angel who identifies himself as such, and who delivers a message to me direct from God. Whenever I talk about a call from God, I describe myself as getting nudges, as getting an inkling, or of trying to figure it out. I think of that as being modest, but now I'm wondering. Maybe my tentativeness is really just a way of protecting myself from the kinds of life-alteration that God's call often demands.

After worship, I had lunch with Caitlin, a friend of our congregation who is spending the year in Portland, Oregon, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Among the many impossible things she's done since September, Caitlin has twice broken up fights between guests at the cafe where she works and figured out how to feed six adults for a month on less than what I spend feeding my family for a week. She described these things to me in a totally matter-of-fact way, and I found myself thinking again about Anne's invitation, and Mary's response.

Each year, around this time, I run out of steam. I had energy through more of December this year than I often do, despite an unusual amount of complaint and an unusual number of business-related meetings here at KC. I was powered, in large part, by my intense anticipation and excitement about our first-ever "Jazz Advent Liturgy" which was, in my experience, just about the Best Thing Ever. But after that service was over, I had to face the things I don't particularly enjoy about this time of year--gift buying, travel, and family differences. Now, I find myself saddled with my annual despair about ever having a Christmas that reflects, even remotely, the values that I believe were at the heart of Jesus' message and mission. It seems impossible to change anything, and so this time of year I tend to go into the mode of just waiting until it's over.

But after hearing from Anne, Mary and Caitlin, I'm feeling nudged--dare I say called? In God, nothing is impossible. So, I'm praying for some wisdom, some courage and some insight into how to welcome Christ this year, and not just celebrate Christmas.

Isn't It Just Like the Lord to Put Me Next to You?

A number of years ago, I was sitting in LaGuardia Airport in New York, preparing to take a flight to Sweden. I knew the flight was going to be a long one, but I was ready for it. I had just started a great novel, and I was looking forward to some quiet time to collect my thoughts and get ready for my Big Adventure Abroad. As I was getting ready to board, I noticed with some amusement a woman with way to many carry-on bags and a huge black straw hat with a pink polka dotted ribbon fussing at the agent at the desk. She seemed like a real handful.

When I got on the plane and settled into my seat, I looked up to find the movie screen and saw her coming. I froze with panic--surely she wasn't going to sit next to me? I prayed silently that she would sit down far behind me, but no, she plopped down next to me, looked and me and smiled, and started talking. Within the first half hour, I heard her entire life story. Only then did she pause to inquire about me--what did I do for a living? I sputtered for a moment, trying to think of a good lie, but nothing came to mind so I had to say it--I'm a studying for the ministry.

"OOOOOH!" she squealed in delight. "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"

And for hours to come, she talked to me about her take on religion, her interpretation of key Biblical passages, various churches she had attended, the reasons she had left each one. I finally had to pretend to sleep in order to get her to shut up--and then she talked to the flight attendant and all the other people around us. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I had to have a serious talk with God. Did you have something to do with this? I wondered. If this is the kind of thing you orchestrate, you have a really sick sense of humor.

I was on my way to Sweden to reconnect with my long-time Jewish boyfriend, Dan, who I ended up marrying a couple of years later. The following year I got ordained as a minister, and no, Dan didn't convert. And no, we haven't worked it all out, harmonized our differences, issued joint statements on the Meaning of Life. And no, that's not always easy. But when I'm start to really wonder how we ever ended up together, I think about that flight that preceded our reunion. I can diffuse a lot of situations by saying to Dan, "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"

I thought of that story again today as I looked through the list of people signed up for our annual retreat this weekend. At the retreat, we talk about what it means to make a commitment to our community, and then we invite everyone there to consider whether they feel called to make that commitment this year. It's a pretty amazing group of people on that list, but it's not necessarily a harmonious group. If we agree to all be together this coming year, we are, in part, agreeing to be in conflict with each other. To have differences of opinion. To wonder why we even ended up in the same place.

But when I read Paul's letters to the early churches he planted, it's clear that we're in good company. This is, I'm pretty sure, how the Lord tends to place us. Right next to someone different from us. I'm not always sure why, but I'm quite certain that's how God works.