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Lifeline This Week

Fri Dec 04 @02:30 - 04:30AM
Mobile Clinic
Sat Dec 05 @05:30 -
LifeLine Community Dinner
Sat Dec 05 @09:00 - 11:30AM
Downtown Mobile Medical Clinic
Sun Dec 06 @05:00 - 08:00AM
Koinos Church
Sat Dec 12 @09:00 - 11:30AM
Downtown Mobile Medical Clinic

On Staying Soft

So, last night at the LifeLine Community Dinner something special happened. Really special.

 

Ok, so there were a lot of special things that happened. Friends worked really hard to make sure everybody who came felt welcomed. Many new folks came for the very first time and fell in love with this gathering, as s hundreds of others have for the past seven and a half years. Musicians and poets bared their souls through their art, and invited everyone present to be present with them in their authenticity. Old friends deepened their bonds, while others were being newly formed. And it was all beautiful.

 

But none of those is the special thing to which I’m referring. The really special thing that happened was that one of our guests tried to steal from us. Like, almost $1000 worth of electronics that belong to my son, who is away this weekend. He was out in our neighborhood at the beginning of the evening, carrying a snow shovel and looking to make some money in order to buy some food. I told him I didn’t have any money to give him, but that he didn’t need money to eat with us. I told him that he would be welcome to join us for dinner.

 

He seemed grateful, and helped with shoveling walks, and running food from the grill into the kitchen a lot of the evening. He ate his fill more than once, and kept making sure to say thank you.

 

And then he stole from us. I’m sure he was casing the joint for awhile. In the end, he found his way into Steven’s room and started sneaking things out to the garbage cans, and to a spot behind a wall in our yard. Fortunately, Lyn thought he looked like he had something under his coat when he went out, she and Lauren checked and discovered the loss, and came running in to interrupt me in the middle of reading poetry at the open mic. I ran out and caught the man, and others helped keep him there while we waited for the police after we discovered the items he’d hidden.

 

What’s so special about that? Well, for me it’s a chance to define or re-determine my convictions about people and hospitality - about becoming hard and cynical or whether to stay soft and open. I choose soft.

 

I decided a long time ago that my greatest fear is that of developing a hard heart. Let’s face it – there are plenty of reasons to detach, to cover up, to become protective first of all. Last night’s attempted theft was not the first at one of these community building gatherings, although it is the first one that failed. And it would be possible to begin to become security guards before greeters; watchdogs before welcomers. But I just don’t want to live like that.

 

Last night was special because it gave me the chance to decide that again. I know the most amazing, smart, interesting people, and they make my life rich beyond measure. Over and over again I have the opportunity to connect with other people who color my world with the most vibrant hues, and over and over again the community in which I get to live grows and deepens. How great is that?

 

I’ve been taken advantage of before, and this time probably won’t be the last. I’m certainly not saying I don’t care or that I’m willing to just be walked on. I had no problem calling the police, keeping him there until the police arrived, and pressing charges. I’m just determined that that is not my starting place.

 

I’m choosing again today to stay soft. Life is just better with company.

Another Way

“We must win another way.”

 

I went to see Selma tonight, the close of the Martin Luther King Jr. day of commemoration for me. It was a late showing and there were not very many people in attendance. When the credits finally started to roll at the end, I didn’t move. I mean not a muscle. It wasn’t just that it felt disrespectful to do so, although that was running in the background of my brain, I think. I could hardly breathe, let alone get up and walk out to my car. It wasn’t as much a matter of thinking I shouldn’t; it was more that I didn’t want to. I wanted to remember the words and images, and I was afraid I might forget.

 

At some point I realized that no one was moving. Not. A. Single. Person. I didn’t have to look around to know this. The stillness was so pervasive that it seemed the world might have stopped spinning. It was a holy moment. As far as I know, no one looked at each other. Not a word could be heard – not even a whisper between lovers right down the row from me. It was as if each of us was wrestling alone with our emotions and our convictions – yet there was an equally pervasive sense that we had somehow recognized that we are in it together. Like the priest from Boston and the others from all over the country, who had decided they would end their silence and march with those whose welfare they had realized was inextricably bound to their own, after all.

 

“We must win another way.”

 

Dr. King and those with him at Selma, as well as elsewhere along the road that both lead and still is leading toward freedom and equality, lived out their commitment to a different way of winning at the most profound and courageous level. The visual reminder of the film struck the most visceral chords of conviction and understanding that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

The way of love was not and is not a passive, simpering way. It is the way of courage beyond mustering, and strength beyond might. It is the way of self-sacrifice and decisiveness and justice. It is a way that looks beyond the day to a more distant horizon, and it envisions a dawn that can seem impossible in the midst of the long night of frustration and despair and suffering. It is a way that, once seen in the mind’s eye, lifts a person above his or her own weakness and fear, and grants greater resolve to the next step than to the last. It is a way that leads a woman or man to say words like these from Dr. King: "If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive."

 

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin once said: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire.”

 

I have a dream. It’s a dream that Dr. King’s dream will one day be fully realized, and that that day may come in my lifetime. This is not so much in order that I may see it, but in order that the suffering and the injustice still suffered by so many – and not only because of race – may end sooner. I dream of a day when we as one race will let go of the merely flickering light and little warmth gained by our “mastery” of the world around us – including each other – and learn to walk together in the gloriously blazing inferno of love for our fellows.

 

I know I'm a bit of a sentimentalist, but I believe to my core that none of us can win but in this other way. I hardly dare breathe at the mere thought of it.

The "Right" Path

I have often noted to myself and in conversation with others how common it is to form and use clichés according to the situation at hand. For example, we use “Looks are deceiving” when something turns out to be other than it appears, but then say “seeing is believing” in order to substantiate something visible but under question.  Seldom does anyone note the mutual exclusivity of these two ideas. The truth really is that pretending either is a principle is rather disingenuous. Sometimes things are exactly as they seem, and other times not.

 

I have seen and experienced the same dynamic at work when it comes to issues of vocation, or even calling. Sometimes things seem to go really well and smoothly, and people claim emphatically “Well, you can really tell he or she is in the right place. Everything is coming together perfectly!” Another person seems to find struggle at every turn, and frustration and failure become the air he or she breathes. To this, almost invariably, some proclaim something like: “Well, you can tell that person is in the right place. Look at how he or she is under attack. Something really great must be going on!” Often the person in the particular situation uses these same arguments or assertions to validate not only their work, but their person – even their very identity. I have often done this myself. In this kind of case, I think the tendency is particularly destructive, unhealthy, and manipulative.

 

I think the innate longing for purpose, coupled with our own sense of insecurity, produces a desire to validate self in these sorts of ways. Life and the world are really unpredictable, and we humans like to feel secure and certain. The pat answers help us to cope with our own fear of missing the mark. One of the problems with this is that this is an inadequate way of measuring or assessing whether one is in the “right place” or on the “right path” for his or her life.

 

I know this: sometimes things come together in miraculous ways, and the path seems to have been cleared. At other times, the path is hard and seems like the obstacles are overwhelming and many. My life, my work, my path are doomed to dictation by circumstance, self-doubt, and pat answers, unless I can find my way to the internal sense of “home” that is not contingent on clichéd circumstances. I have spent much of my adult life sorting through this, and I’m certain I’m not alone.

 

I saw “Draft Day” tonight. At one point during the film, a point at which Kevin Costner’s character is struggling with a decision that everyone else seems to think is a “cleared path,” resulting in his self-doubt about what he believes is the way he should do his job, Jennifer Garner’s character says: “Sometimes the right path is the tortured one.”

 

The “right path” is sometimes bathed in bright light and seems to be a cleared road, but at others it is strewn with obstacles. Sometimes the look of it is deceiving; at other times seeing really is believing. But that is not ultimately the point.

 

Only the inner sense of “home” can help me, you, or anyone navigate life either way.

Reminded

I haven’t seen Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave yet, but I did get to see the Best Actress in a Supporting Role acceptance speech of Lupita Nyong’o. It was my favorite of the night. Earlier today I ran into a video of another speech Ms. Nyong’o made several days earlier at another awards presentation. Here’s the kink, if you’re interested:  http://www.upworthy.com/oscar-winner-lupita-nyongos-speech-on-beauty-that-left-an-entire-audience-speechless?c=ufb1. I think her speeches are both inspiring and important.

 

I sometime hear people talk about racism in the past tense - as if it exists now only in our faded memories. There are also times I hear it referred to as a cultural malady that has improved not at all. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think to deny its existence is ridiculous, and to leave it unaddressed, unconscionable.

 

Here’s the thing: issues like racism can never be finally addressed by means of legislation or "official" measures - no matter how important these may be. It can only be addressed at the most personal and visceral levels by each person. It requires looking inside myself, and refusing to project blame onto the person whose overt hostility is more obvious than my silence or inaction. It requires acknowledgement of my complicity in systems that continue to marginalize people based on the color of their skin, denying the innate worth of every human being.

 

I had my first encounter with the ugliness of racism when I was about 7 years old. I never forgot it. A few years ago I wrote about that encounter in a poem:

 

 

DEWAYNE’S FENCE

 

We were just grade school boys

Doing what grade school boys do:

Playing baseball in the back yard

And imagining I was Al Kaline.

I don’t remember who you were,

Or who Jim pretended to be…

Actually, come to think of it,

We all wanted to be Al Kaline,

 

I was the oldest and biggest, and

Regularly, I’d get ahold of one

And most literally “go yard,” on you,

While Jim went over or around

The fence that divided our small yard

From the next-door neighbor’s,

Endlessly running the path to

Retrieve both the ball and our dreams.

 

It turned out, that fence segregated

More than just the families’ spaces.

Jim, exhausted and frustrated,

Asked to swap places for awhile,

So you could be the rabbit

And hunt all the homers down,

While Don Spaula cheered our

Real game and imagined heroics.

 

I didn’t know. Honest, I didn’t.

When you ran after the first homer

Just like Jim had been doing,

I didn’t know Mr. Spaula would be mad.

I didn’t understand his words:

“Youare not welcome in this yard,”

But by the look on your face

I could tell you were not confused.

 

As if it were yesterday, I can see

The hurt, the disappointment,

The humiliation and the knowing

Casting a shadow on your dark face.

The innocence of boyhood play

Ravaged by a devastating reality;

The contentedness of friendship

Shattered by such cruel intent.

 

“I didn’t know” wasn’t an excuse then

And it can’t be claimed now.

Your memory etched in mine

Has refused to let me resign

To the cultural status quo.

I wish I could tell you I remember,

And how your pain shaped my life.

As if that would erase the wrong.

 

Words are cheap.

The difference that counts is to live it.

My life has been too often silent

About those wearing shoes like yours.

Thatdarkness is on my soul.

I must – we must – do more than

Avoid the same prejudices.

We must tear down the fence.

 

 

I’ve posted this poem before, but I always need reminding that there is more work to be done on this arena, and that spectatorship cannot be an option.

Putting Flesh On It

I begin this post with yet another quote from Pope Francis:

"For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness."  Pope Francis

It seems like I've been quoting this new Pope quite a bit. I'm not the only one, and I can tell you why.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors had what I thought was a very funny voicemail message on his office phone. It went something like this: "Hello, you've reached the disembodied voice of Dr. ________. Leave your name and number, and I'll call you when the rest of me returns." It wasn't until a couple of years later that I realized what a perfect metaphor this is for the Church in North America, in particular. We have insisted on a life together - not to mention engagement with the world - based solely upon propositions. Now, I'm not arguing the veracity of the core propositions, but I am saying that, absent a life congruous with those propositions they are less helpful than otherwise they might be. I think we have had too many words and too little life.

I'm well aware that this blog post will meet with resistance from some. I'm ok with that. I just feel compelled yet again to throw my lot in with an incarnational approach to life and faith. I identify with James, who informs his readers that he prefers to show his faith by his works. I can and do explain the great propositions of the faith, but I am not a disembodied voice. So, in terms of an everyday vocabulary, I long for my life, my self-giving, my service, my reconciliation to others, my membership in the community to be my proposition.

Christmas Wonder

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." "The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood..."  "The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us..." "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us..."

All of these translations of one of my favorite verses in the scriptures conjure up images of the most unlikely event ever conceived - and it was real. On Christmas Eve, in particular, after everyone else has gone to bed, I invariably sit and "soak" in the incredible wonder of this idea, this image, this reality. I never tire of it. Emmanuel. God with us. The Incarnation.

As those who have been around me very much at all could attest, I have often spoken of the subtle, but immensely powerful difference between being for someone, and being with them. That distinction is the heart of Christmas.

My one-item wish-list for this Christmas is that I and others who follow Jesus would actually follow him in this way... That my propensity for too much talk and too little life would be radically overthrown by a propensity to be a continuing incarnation of God's heart in the world, for the world... That I would recognize and respond more and more to the invitation to live in such a way that puts me in close and long-term proximity to people who long to know if there is anything beyond words to this faith thing... That in the with-ness of my life, someone would come to recognize the with-ness of the God who put on flesh and moved into this human neighborhood, and soak in the wonder of it.

That is all.

 

Rekindled Hope

Many of you reading this are aware that yesterday marked two years since a fire took our family's home. I don't just mean the five of us who share the same lineage and whose last name is North; it was also a home to everyone connected to LifeLine Toledo - hundreds of people every month. It was a devastating day in many ways, but in others it was an opportunity to get perspective on what had been built over a period of 5 years plus.

About a week after the fire, and in the wake of an overwhelming outpouring of love and generosity, I posted these words on Facebook: "What we are seeing is not so much a community rising to meet a crisis as it is a crisis revealing what the community has become." As someone who usually despairs of reaching his goals, that was a big deal for me.

Some years ago I became captivated by a vision for a different way of living. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t then and probably don’t yet know how to do this. But the idea has wrecked me.

While I often despair of ever reaching this ideal myself, I see it in others around me very often. Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Someday, after taming the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire.” You (LifeLine community) make me believe:

 

A HOUSE ABLAZE

Toledo, OH 2011

Inspired by Teilhard de Chardin and LifeLine Toledo

091913

 

I saw its devastating side:

The angrily licking flames, the

Billowing smoke pouring from

Pores no one knew existed.

The welcoming double-double doors

Showcasing through leaded glass

Tongues wagging with vibrancy and

Intensity, all consuming passion.

The attic louvers bellowing the

Black clouds of our household dreams.

 

I saw my daughter’s security

Disappearing with the smoke and

Collapsing to the grey pavement

Through yet another of my failed

Attempts to hold her up;

And I saw my son’s face

Shattered like a fallen chandelier

In the face and feeling of

Debilitating repeated disappointment,

Walking dazed in the dusky surreality.

 

Such overwhelming inferno may

To some suggest that destruction

Is the noteworthiest characteristic,

Red or blue the right and only colors

To convey the power of fire.

But through hazy falling night

A different image slowly emerged,

Extraordinary in its pure whiteness

And intensity not all-consuming,

Rather, somehow, all-enfolding.

 

I saw them come down street and walk,

One by one like meandering sparks, or

Bundled together as tender kindling,

Ignited not by idle curiosity

Nor callous tourist instincts,

Barely noticing the center of attention

With all its chaos and grim knowing.

Instead, having eyes only for we

Who shivered in the cold of grieving, 

They gathered as both fuel and match.

 

I saw, at first, in flickering light

Comfort somehow spreading,

Flowing slowly, like lava across

The heaving hearts of our family,

Covering fear with love’s embrace.

I saw in both dark and daylight the

Magma collect in pools of every hue,

Almost blinding in its intense purity,

Compassion and authenticity,

A dazzling white-hot conflagration.

 

Untamed flaming fury did its worst

To our hearts and Victorian framework.

But rising through the heartbreak,

Rubble and ashes, something new

Was built – against all odds,

Though not with sweat or tools –

And it was untouchable, unshakeable.

The undoing of wood and nails enflamed

Reduced the seen to nothing, only

To reveal my dream – a house ablaze.

Maslow Wasn't Far Off

Have you ever noticed how easy it seems to advise someone about what they could - or even should - do to "fix" the broken circumstances of life. This often occurs to me. It is easy to belief the answer to someone else's woe's are really quite simple, and that making an obvious decision would make everything better. I have been on both the giving and receiving end of this sort of thing. I bet you have, as well. I can tell you this: people who are poor are on the receiving end of this kind of thinking (read assumptive arrogance) all the time.

Abraham Maslow, with what has become known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, contended that someone whose most basic needs are not being met find it nearly impossible to move into higher levels of life. Maslow identified those most basic needs as the physiological needs of things like food, water, clothing and shelter. If these needs are not met, then focus on things like esteem and self-actualization cannot be reached, much less maintained. These needs are so basic, so oriented to actual survival, that things like five year plans are moot points. After all, a 5 year plan can't do much good if the person making the plan dies in 1.

Now, this is not to say that someone can't or shouldn't work towards long-term sustainability of his or her life, or that she or he can't or shouldn;t have longer term goals, plans, aspirations or ideals. It is, however, to say that a person living with food insecurity, health insecurity or housing insecurity must expend a great deal of energy of every kind to ensure survival to next week, in order to have any chance ever at thriving for years to come. I have lived with this tension myself, and so empathize with those who have to do so in even more profound ways than I.

This is one reason why coming alongside those who are stuck at the most basic needs levels need a community that comes alongside them to help stabilize his or her ship in its stormy seas, rather than leaving her or him to sink or swim alone.

Earlier today, I re-posted a poem/prayer shared a few years ago by my dear friend Robin Charney, and I include it now in this blog post:

 

God,

you make clear

that the poor and the needy

are always on your heart.

The psalmist says you maintain their cause,

you execute justice on their behalf.

But I realize that the way you do that

involves me and my brothers and sisters.

Make me more aware of the need

and how I can be used to help meet it

in your love and strength.


— Peter Wallace
Connected: You and God in the Psalms

 

Empty Again

I realized today, while wrestling with a number of things I currently face, that a poem I wrote about a year and a half ago still speaks best to my current circumstances and deepest needs. Here it is, unembellished and without further introduction:

SILENT SELF

032312, 071612

 

I come to this Peniel

With fight left in me:

The kind of fight that hopes

Against fading hope

That I may be seen

As I wish I were

Rather than as I am.

Preferable to face another

In the chaos and noise

Of everyday activity

Or extraordinary industry,

Than to face my silent self

Unadorned

By jeweled endeavor,

Or The Other Self

Whose silence

Shatters my noise.

 

My guarded vessel

Hides cracks

And chinks and

Latent glue

By enfolding

Deftly polished fruit,

Pleasingly offered

Impressionable eyes.

Insider view

Not easily duped,

Self sees

Shattered slivers

Of splintered soul

Devoid the fruit –

The kind of empty

Not just vacant,

But decisively broken.

 

Here I start my hermitage,

Desiring neither silence

Nor solitude,

Yet present.

I am willing,

but not expectant;

And curious

More than surrendered.

I want to cooperate

And not miss the moment,

But there is no mistaking

My lack of resource

And reserve.

Empty I am.

Empty I come.

Empty I wait.

Empty I hope for hope.

Economic Ethics

How is it that so many otherwise caring people see no meaningful connection between biblical teaching and real world economics? I don't get it. I know people who are deeply caring in many ways, but who are perfectly fine with the unethical and unjust oppression of the fastest growing demographic in America: the working poor. And they defend the companies who do this most.

Somehow, there are thinking people who actually are convinced that it is ok for rapidly increasing numbers of people to be relegated to minimum or near-minimum wage jobs, simply because increasing numbers of companies are ok with taking advantage of the fact they joined by so many others in limiting the available options. And they are ok with the fact that this is not happening because profit margins and available revenue with which to pay salaries is so limited, but because so many large corporations are fine with pushing more and more of those revenues towards the highest echelons of their hierarchies. I think it's unconscionable that a corporation would think it ethical that its CEO is paid 100, 200, 400, 700 times its average employee wage.

This isn't to say that every company or corporation does this; just that many do. And it is to say that there are lots of people who defend the practice and act as if people stuck working for less than a living wage ought to just be grateful they have a job. It used to be in this country that more jobs than not paid what became known as a "family wage." This meant that a person working in a factory job, for example gave a full-time slice of his or her life in exchange for an income that provided for his or her family. The shift away from this first began in earnest in the 1960's, and has continued steadily up to the present day. And again, this change isn't due, for the most part, to insufficient revenue or profit, but to the fact that profit could be increased by sending jobs elsewhere or by reducing wages over time. There is good reason to believe that the latter is not effective over time, but it's clear that this thought of reducing employee related costs for the sake of increased profit to be distributed to the higher levels at the expense of the average worker has been prevalent.

I heard about a hospital that was in financial distress, and that the entire work force expected a large layoff. A company meeting was called, at which everyone expected an announcement about how deep the cuts would be. The CEO came to make the announcement, but when he spoke the words were far different than anyone had expected. He announced that, in order to avoid laying off ANYONE, he and all the management levels of the staff were going to take percentage cuts in pay. That is a different kind of ethic; a different way to value people.

I read about a time - a church - which in its earliest days operated from a core idea of a common good. It was a group of people who thought that their welfare was shared, rather than individual, and that one one hurt they all hurt. The Joneses saw to it that the others did, in fact, keep up. The haves looked out for the have-nots. Greed was put aside in favor of generosity, and community was preferred to individual gain. This was not legislated, but chosen because of deep conviction about a different way to live.This is not to say that it was perfectly this way, but there was at least an understanding and awareness that lovers of God ought to have a different ethic.

I already know I'll get lambasted by several readers of this post. I also know that what I'm saying will be twisted up - some knowing what they're doing, most not. I don't care. I don't relish it, but I'm going to join my voice to the voices of others calling for a return to an economic ethic that resounds with ideas like a common good, the golden rule and the great commandment.