Monday, March 26, 2012

Cross as Criminal || Discipleship and the Way of Jesus

I have read the passage, heard the verse, and preached about Jesus' declaration, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). Yet when I read this the other day by bedside lamplight- I stumbled. I have never been threatened with the fate of a "cross"; I have never been forced to decide between freedom and arrest. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made minimal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. In other words, my story of discipleship has faced little resistance from outside authorities, minor persecutions by those who know me or meet me (most of these by fellow disciples who disagree with me in regards to social and theological matters), and never put my life or the lives of those I love at risk or in jeopardy. Again, when I read this passage over and again the other night, from the friendly confines of my bed, within a safe neighborhood, after a fairly easy day (aside from wrestling to sleep my two kids), I stumbled.

Has Jesus' call to "carry the cross" anything to do with my Christian witness, experience, context, and journey of discipleship?

After all, the only cross I have ever carried has been worn around my neck, a silver chain with sparkling symbol dangling between my collar bones. I don't think that's what Jesus meant.

But is that what it has come to mean?

I have been enamored by my Lenten journey through Mark's gospel. I have read this rendition of the Jesus story more times than I can count; however, this time around has been different. I have felt as though I have actually entered into the narrative and begun to ask many of the same questions of both disciples and cynics, been astounded by the diverse and subversive, even paradoxical, teachings of this Rabbi, left afraid as I ponder what all this means, and amazed as I consider the brilliance and beauty of what all this can, should, and one day will mean.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stop Feeding the Homeless? (Part II in light of NPR Interview)

Photo Courtesy of Philly Restart

The proposed regulations and ban on outdoor "feedings" of the homeless in Center City, to be enforced by Mayor Nutter and the City of Philadelphia beginning in 2013, continue to draw a variety of reactions. There are those who boldly condemn the pending ordinance and those who find it a step in the right direction in order to "clean up the streets" and reduce dependency. Many have sought to protest, demanding a change in the Mayor's stance; others have considered this an opportunity to envision fresh alternatives to street-side feedings and move towards indoor gatherings, the provision of social services, and bold celebrations of human dignity with those who call the streets (or shelters) their "home."

As I said before, I am torn.

I think this is a very complicated matter that warrants significant and numerous conversations. Nonetheless, I am grateful that all of this has provoked many to talk about the crisis and look for informed answers, long-term solutions, and next they indoors or outdoors.

I am grateful for the variety of voices that are being lifted up in response to Nutter's decision. This includes today's WHYY interview with two friends of mine, Adam Bruckner (Philly Restart) and Bill Golderer (Convening Minister at Broad Street Ministry). [click link to listen and download mp3] These fellow conspirers against homelessness and poverty share compassion and solidarity, while at the same time differ in paradigmatic approach: one strives for indoor feasts and extrvanganzas (BSM), the other quite comfortable with the "family bar-b-que" on the parkway (Philly Retstart). Both Golderer and Bruckner, whom I have served alongside, believe that in such communal engagements, the homeless can celebrate their dignity, find fresh opportunities for advocacy, converse with their neighbors, and be directed to a variety of critical social services to help lift them from their circumstances. I am indebted to the voices of these friends, who provide thoughtful, prophetic, and varied dialogue for those still pondering what all this means.

That said, I hope we can join them in their discourse and quest for a different, albeit possible, world where homelessness will not only be alleviated in Philadelphia, but also in cities near and far.

What are your thoughts?


See also:

Statement by Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way.

Previous Post: "Stop Feeding the Homeless? It's Complicated..."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jesus, Field of Dreams, and Border Crossovers: Reflections on Mark 5:1-20

The classic film, Field of Dreams, is one of those flicks I can watch over and over again. There is something about the "If you build it, they will come" mantra and the risky vision of Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) that draws me in and even sends me out inspired. I then contemplate where and how I can build my own field of dreams, complete with classic ballplayers who pilgrimage through a cornfield, cross over from death to life, and join me in a simple game of catch.

While my favorite scene is the ending, Ray reunited with his deceased father, in close second is the "crossover" scene (see below). Ray Kinsella has made his journey across the country, following a voice and strange clues, questing for all the right answers to this mysterious and border-line vision of insanity. Along the way he picks up a young hitchhiker, Archie Graham, who longs to fulfill his own dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer. Fast forward many scenes later, to the "field of dreams" in Iowa, where Archie is invited by epic ballplayers like "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb. While the Kinsella family, to include their young daughter with hot dog in hand, and classic author, Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), are seated in the bleachers, Archie lifts a fly ball into the outfield and drives in the go ahead run- a perfectly executed sacrifice fly by the "rookie." Just as they are reveling in the moment, Ray's brother in-law, who is unable to see these "ghosts" in the middle of a game, interrupts and underscores the insanity that is this "field of dreams" mission. He proceeds to lift up their daughter, Karin, as testimony of their foolishness, only to carelessly drop her from the top bleacher, whereby she is knocked unconscious.

Panic sets in as the camera pans to Archie Graham. If you have seen the movie, you know that Archie is simply the younger persona of the aged doctor, "Moonlight" Graham, whose professional baseball career was short-lived. And now Archie has a choice, stay in the game or cross over the gravel path that separates the deceased ball players from the real world. If Archie crosses over, he will forfeit his youth, regress to an aged doctor, and cut short again his playing career. If he stays, he can play on- but at the little girls expense. The cinematography underscores the drama of the moment, as Archie chooses the former and slowly crosses over the gravel, transfigures from rookie to Doc, pats Karin on the back, and reveals a piece of hotdog as culprit.

A risky and sacrificial crossover brought rescue and healing to the little girl. This is why Archie had was for more than a baseball game. He had come to make a crossover of deliverance.

We come to Mark 5 and we read of another crossover. Jesus and his disciples have been seaside for the duration of the gospel's opening anecdotes. It can be said that Mark has a fondness for the sea as metaphor and allusion. Mark is emphatic about the beginnings of Jesus' ministry taking place by the Sea of Galilee and among poor, Jewish peasants, of which Jesus is certainly one of them. Yet, the Sea of Galilee is about more than geography; it is sacred and mythical symbol: chaos, Hebrew exodus from hard-hearted Pharaoh, and allusion to those very systems and boundaries that exclude and segregate. Up to this point, Jesus has merely "passed along the sea" (Mk. 1:16) and gone out to teach "beside the sea" (Mk. 2:13; 4:1). However, now we learn of Jesus' intentions to "go across to the other side" of the "sea." In other words, Jesus is going to venture from Galilee, home of marginalized and poor Jewish peasants, to the country of the Gerasenes, home of unclean and unwelcome Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews. And just as Jesus crosses over the sea, he "immediately" encounters a demon possessed man.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Stop Feeding the Homeless? It's Complicated...

Yesterday I spent a few hours with my friends at Broad Street Ministry as part of their Breaking Bread Initiative, an extension of hospitality and solidarity over a meal and the provision of a variety of services for the homeless of Philadelphia. I have learned a lot through my interactions with those who gather in the old Presby church with the red doors, none which trumps the reality that homelessness and poverty are very complex issues and realites we face domestically and globally.

This is a far cry from my understanding in high school and throughout college. Then, I thought it was fairly simple- give them food and get them a job. I remember many occasions where I would venture either to Baltimore City and hand out bagged lunches to those gathered in monument park or Center City Philadelphia and do the same to those who called the fountains their home. And I felt good about what I was doing.

And it was mostly about me.

I will never forget a conversation I had with one of the pastors at Broad Street Ministry in the Fall of 2007. I was new to the Presbyterian scene and was inquiring about this fairly fresh urban, faith-based community when I began to unveil my passion and "experience" in working with the homeless. I said, "I come down often to Philly and feed the homeless. But I do so by handing out a lunch in exchange for a conversation."

Feed the homeless? Are they pigeons?

In exchange? Dare I hold daily bread over their heads in exchange for anything?

That's when the pastor interjected, "That's not how we do things here. It's much more complex than that."

I was humbled. I was silenced. That day I committed myself to a new posture of learning.

I made it less about me.

Again, homelessness is very complex...more complex than handouts and well-intentioned conversations.

This was affirmed yesterday when I sat down at Breaking Bread with a new friend who has been homeless for 15 months. He slid over to me a recent edition of Metro Philly, whose cover story was "Do Not Feed the Homeless People!" The story addressed Mayor Nutter's recent legislation that will quest to remove the homeless from the streets and eliminate the plethora of volunteers who frequent places such as the Parkway and Love Park and offer handouts of meals to the many who live there. The means, $150 fine to those who offer free handouts in public places, such as in front of the Philly Free Library. The intention, as stated by Nutter, is to remove the increasing dependency of homeless that cripples their ability to "get off the streets" and into more sustainable and safe circumstances.

My friend was outraged. I was somewhat torn.

Is this really an opportunity to end dependency, which I agree is a significant problem, or is it a political move to "clean up the streets" due to upcoming projects intended to draw more tourists and increase revenue?

It's complex.

My friend agreed.

That said, what are your thoughts? Should we stop "feeding" the homeless? Will this legislation prevent your church from driving up to Love Park and dishing out soup? Will this actually provoke new conversations about whether or not these volunteer services are really helpful to the homeless community or enabling them and their growing sense of dependency?

There is truth to Mayor Nutter's remarks, "'Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.'"

In other words, it's complicated.

We need conversations. We need solutions. It will indeed take much more than handouts. It will also take much more than legislation.

It will certainly take more than me.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Mark 6: Disciples Packing for a New Exodus

Audio of This Sermon Available Here (Title: "Freedom from Clutter")

I have served in youth ministry for nearly 10 years, working with many o' youth on many o' youth trips. That said, I am used to packing. I am quite confident that I can cram enough stuff for a weekend retreat of 40 youth inside any vehicle in about 20 minutes flat. Then I can cram those same students into any vehicle, with adequate supply of seat-belts of course, with little trouble. While I pride myself on my education from Eastern University and Biblical Seminary, I will say that they failed me in not providing some sort of elective that would enhance this necessary skill for spiritual formation retreats. That said, I have had to learn it as I go. And despite the packing lists that I give to students, they ALWAYS PACK TOO MUCH STUFF!

Speaking of lists, the packing list I usually develop is quite standard:

Sleeping Bag
Change of clothes
Toiletry items
Deodorant (for the love of God deodorant)
Notebook (which students question every time, saying we never use them. true...)
Pen (most students bring a notebook and forget the pen...)
It's pretty simple. But somehow they end up with way too much stuff for a simple weekend retreat.
In Mark 6, Jesus gives the disciples a packing list. It is a list I have considered implementing on my youth trips, posting on our website, and handing out double-sided with permission form.
What to Bring:
clothes on your back.
(o.k. if a middle school trip, bring deodorant)
It's simple. It's quick. It prevents being burdened by too much stuff and the distraction that may come with it.

Still, is there more to Mark's incorporation of this Messianic and Apostolic packing list than we may think at first glance? If you are familiar with Mark, you know that there is always something more.

We need the eyes to see and the ears to hear in order to catch a glimpse of the Markan portrait.
Mark 6 is right on the heals of two significant stories interwoven together: Jesus' healing of a woman plagued by hemorrhage for 12 years and a 12 year-old girl resurrected from the dead.

But this all happened in a neighboring town. Mark 6 is in Jesus' place, Jesus' village, and among Jesus' people. They have known him since he was born...and they liked him...until now. Jesus is in the local synagogue, where he grew up and studied under local rabbis, and on the sabbath. In other words, Jesus is in a sacred space on a sacred day and, as is typical with Jesus in Mark's gospel, this spells conflict. Moreover, the student is now the teacher...and they are not fond of his particular teaching. Actually, they take offense. We know why based on all that has led us to this point. Jesus is breaking sabbath, his disciples are not fasting, he is touching the untouchables, and welcoming the unclean. Jesus is traveling back and forth across the sea (hold that reference), casting out demons and sending them into swine, in the land of Gentiles. Even more, Jesus has a following...fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners...called disciples.

And 12 of them he has called and named on a mountain. You can hear the murmur.

He knows what he's doing right? 12...sacred number...mountain...sacred place...
But this is the son of Mary and Joseph...his brothers and sisters are here with us.

They are probably still reveling in Jesus' declaration that has come to them through the grapevine, true family consists not of those born of the same blood, rather those who do the will of God.

Again, they are offended. In the sacred space and time of Jesus' hometown, he is unrecognizable, a stranger. Jesus- not welcomed.

Text says that he could do no deed of power there...except a few healings. Jesus was not welcome in his hometown. They never dreamed this was who Jesus would become.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dry Bones: Gungor and Lenten Worship

Lisa Gungor, vocalist in the innovative and mystical band, Gungor, said in a recent interview with Relevant Magazine (Mar/Apr 2012):
"'The one place you should be able to come and be vulnerable is your community of faith and your friends. it should be family. And for some reason it turned into this thing where everybody's fine and shiny, so I think us looking face-to-fac e with the pain in our own lives and sharing that with our friends made us realize how this needs to be said in songs, this needs to be shared in worship.'" *

In a word- YES!

I have struggled in much the same way with the absence of lament and grief in contemporary Christian worship (at least the "industry" that it has become)...and Christian posture in general. In other words, despite the biblical witness' direct encounter with sorrow and distress, Christian culture tends to run from and ignore it.
And yet we cannot run from the season of Lent that forces us to embrace and confront these harsh realities.
And so does the entirety of Gungor's recent album, Ghosts Upon the Earth, which journeys through the biblical narrative and tackles these very raw experiences typical of the Christian story and life.

However, even before that, their song, "Dry Bones," from their album, Beautiful Things, does much the same:
"My soul cries out
My soul cries out for you
These bones cry out
These dry bones cry for you
To live and move
'Cause only You can raise the dead
Can lift my head up"
I am grateful for the contributions Gungor has made to modern "hymnals" utilized within contemporary worship. Their creative, honest, and thoughtful lyrics, accompanied by sheer brilliance and innovation in instrumental and vocal melodies, gives the Church fresh opportunities to journey through even faith's darkest moments.

This is precisely why "Dry Bones" is this week's pick for Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey. Actually, their whole album, Ghosts Upon the Earth, made the list, too.

* To read the full article, "The Evolution of Gungor," subscribe to Relevant Magazine.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Poison & Wine: Modern Psalm for Lenten Journey

"You only know what I want you to / I know everything you don't want me to / Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine / Oh you think your dreams are the same as mine / Oh I don't love you but I always will"
(Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars)

Every year during Lent I develop a playlist for the Imago Dei Youth Ministry titled, "Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey." This is an opportunity to intersect the biblical tension between death and resurrection with the same sort of tension pervasive in modern music. I will say, I have drawn on these playlists in difficult seasons even beyond Lent. Somehow the Spirit interweaves a sacred melody that travels back and forth, from lyric to Scripture, the ancient to the contemporary. This ritual of constructing a confessional playlist has become an annual Lenten discipline that I am grateful to be able to share with students and others interested.

That said, every year I ponder which artists to include by sifting through a variety of recommendations from students, volunteers, and personal favorites. Without fail, I find myself drawn to one song or artist whose music sets the tone for that year's playlist.

This year it is The Civil Wars and their haunting song, "Poison & Wine."

I read on their "About" section of their website reflections that uncovered some of the duet's long-standing relationship myths, i.e. that they were a married couple. They were quick to refutue, saying something to the effect, if we were we would write totally different songs.

"Oh I don't love you but I always will," a clear allusion to the tension any couple experiences when in a long-term relationship. So I wonder, why couldn't they be in a real relationship and sing this? This is not to say that I have some deep longing for "Johnny Depp" (you know you thought the same thing) and his partner, Joy Williams, to tie the knot. Rather, I am convinced this tension is actually true of any authentic relationship... include the one we may (and may not) have with Jesus?

I don't love you...I always will.

Better said, "I will never desert you..." (Mark 14:31)

Except, "I do not know this man you are talking about." (Mark 14:71).

The moment we may think our dreams and those of God's are intertwined, we are exposed of our frail discipleship. Our shallow love is uncovered and our hypocrisy revealed.

"Oh you think your dreams are the same as mine," is a prophetic lyric many of us have heard God whisper in our ears.

So we need this Lenten journey. Our disicpleship is its own civil war in need of least mine is. That said, I am grateful that while my faith in and love for Christ may not always be consistent, I can trust that his faith and love will be: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5).

2012 Playlist Thus Far:
1. "On Nature" (Matisyahu)
2. "Poison & Wine" (The Civil Wars)
3. "Us Against the World" (Coldplay)
4. "Man in the Mirror" (Michael Jackson)
5. "The Fall" (Gungor)
6. "The Cave" (Mumford & Sons)
7. "White Blank Page" (Mumford & Sons)
8. "Restless" (Switchfoot)
9. "Something Beautiful" (needtobreathe)
10. "Dry Bones" (Gungor)