The Parable of the Neighbor Kid

I had a talk to the neighbor boy tonight. I wasn't looking forward to it, but it needed to happen. I was hoping he'd come talk to me, but it didn't seem like that was going to happen. So when I was in the yard taking dish towels off the clothesline and saw him walking toward the back door of his place, I knew I had to stop him so we could talk.

He's probably around 13 or so (though I'm a terrible judge of age). His younger brother and he were over yesterday playing with our kids after school. Before they left I had a sneaking suspicion that someone had stolen some money yesterday.

The boys live in the duplex next door. If you've been around our house at all, I only need to mention the duplex and you've probably already not surprised. The duplex along with one other rental across the street, tend to be the trouble houses on our block. They're the ones we've seen the police at; they're the ones we've called the police about. We try our best to love them, but we also aren't going to put up with some of the stuff that goes on.

The boys are fairly nice boys. I don't think their home life is overly stable, but they have been friendly.

But yesterday when I went upstairs to have everyone clean up before supper, I noticed some coin jars that were out on my dresser that I was fairly certain weren't out earlier. I also only saw two and believed we had three. I had been gone over the weekend, however and wasn't positive if Beth had done anything with them. So I brought it up (reminding everyone--including my boys--that our bedroom was off limits), and I said I'd check with Beth if my suspicions were true or not.

When Beth got home she confirmed that there were three coin bowls and one contained a decent amount of quarters (left over remnants from our rental days of having to do coin-operated laundry). Then I discovered a sack of coins (pennies and nickels mainly in the drawer in our bathroom that contains our toothbrushes. Then I saw the third bowl in our laundry basket in the bathroom. About the same spot where the oldest kid was when I came upstairs.

I had told them before all this was confirmed that I hoped they would be honest and truthful. That I would know if they were lying or not. That we wanted to be able to have them over to play but that we needed to trust them. I had hoped, after I discovered that they had lied and that they had stolen things, that his conscience would weigh him down and he'd come and confess.

Now, it wasn't much money--maybe $5 or so. But I no longer could trust him. He lied. He stole. I couldn't be sure that nothing else had been stolen before (we'd had packages taken off our porch just before Christmas, Anders has been missing his Lego watch, the kids always asks about our computers and digital camera). We felt violated.

So when I saw him coming tonight, I stopped him to talk. I tried to give him an opportunity to confess first. That didn't happen, so I told him what I knew to be true. He still didn't really come out and confess, but he also couldn't hide too much anymore. I'm not sure if he fully acknowledges that he did something wrong. I think he may feel guilty mainly because I confronted him. He gave me some of the quarters he had in his pocket and said he'd bring more over tomorrow.

I hope he does. It's not about the money. I feel for the kid. Growing up where we live, being a black teen, the statistics show that he has a good chance of having a run-in with the law as he gets older. I don't want that to happen. I want a better life for him than what he's got. So I hope that returning things would give an opportunity for him to change.

And even more than that, I want to be able to talk with him about forgiveness. I haven't been perfect, either. I've lied before. I've stolen (I don't think either of these sins is foreign to most of us--look around and see if you've taken anything home from the office for instance). But I've also received forgiveness--from others and from God.

The hard part will be trusting him again. I don't feel I can let him in the house for a while. I'm not sure what he'll need to do to regain our trust.

But I hope we can talk. I hope he'll take some responsibility. I hope...I hope.

It's also a good reminder that with repentance comes change. Simply saying, "I'm sorry," isn't true repentance. Repentance is a 180degree turn. It's turning from our wrong actions toward right ones. I don't always do that well, I confess. So I need the reminder for myself as well that with the grace of forgiveness comes the responsibility of repentance...of change. May it be so.


More Reflections from the Abbey Guesthouse

The monks enter for the evening incense vigil. In two rows they approach the altar. Two by two they bow before the altar and then turn, bowing to each other as they back away.

The incense is placed in the censer. The smoke begins to rise, filling the front of the chapel, drifting towards us. Slowly, the smell reaches my noise. It is sweet, earthy, almost reminiscent of the beach--maybe the scent of driftwood. I breathe deeply as I watch the smoke rise upward, like prayers ascending to God.

We are outsiders--not monks, not even Catholic--but we have been allowed to be apart of the community. At the same time, as men from the same church, we are feeling the increase of own community, growing closer to one another as we share and worship and play.

Being here has being caused us to slow down. You can't rush when you come to pray together. It doesn't matter much, I realized today, that I haven't gotten a bunch of spiritual disciplines accomplished. A retreat isn't about that. It's about slowing down. It's about refocusing, resting and renewing. In this case (as a group retreat), it's about relationships as well.

I guess it's always about relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, our relationship with self. That is the focus of the Great Commandment, of course.

Part of the incense vigil, as I understand, is a "cleansing" of the worship space in preparation for the Sunday mass. We are cleansed as well in some ways. We are cleansed from the busy routines of life. We are cleansed from many of the worldly influences that distract us during our week. We are cleansed from isolation. We are cleansed from tedium and routine that prevent us from noticing God around us.

For a weekend at least my spirit is back on track (mostly). I have experienced close community. I have felt God's presence. I have been in worship.

And hopefully, I pray, those things will continue beyond this weekend. And if not--if I need another retreat at some point to remind my of these things--my life is still all the richer. I can recall the scent of the incense and I am back before the altar, bowing to my Lord, remembering that it is His will, not mine that I try to live by.

Reflections from the Abbey Guesthouse

This morning I woke up on a semi-hard mattress in a dark room. I peer out the window. I faintly see the outline of the trees along the lake, but otherwise darkness blankets the snow-covered landscape. I put on my clothes as my friend and roommate Peter freshens up in the bathroom. When we were both ready we headed downstairs to the lobby of the Abbey Guesthouse to join the other six men from our church that are at St. John's with us for our men's retreat. We head over to the abbey for morning prayers at 7am.

We had arrived yesterday on Friday afternoon. It was my second visit to be a monastic community. My first had been last fall to St. Benedict's for a day of retreat and renewal. There we joined the sisters for their mid-day prayer. Here we join the brothers--last night at 5pm and at 7pm. In a few minutes we will join them again for mid-day prayers.

I enjoy these moments. I wish that, like the monks, I was able to take a break from work during the day when the bells ring and pause with community to pray and read the Psalms.

I enjoy the back and forth reading and chanting of the psalms. First their side, then our side, then back to the other side.

One thing you learn when praying with a monastic community is that you don't rush it. At first I cringe a little as they pause at the end of each line of the Psalm, not reading it as a complete sentence when that is the case between lines. I awkwardly wait until I know it is time for our choir to say the line. I fear speaking before the group. So I pause and listen.

After a while this becomes second nature, and I appreciate the time to sit and soak in the words--not rushing through them for the sake of getting the reading done, but to savor them.

I ruminate on how the monks bow before the crucifix as the enter and leave, as they say the Gloria and at other parts during the service. Some may do it out of ritual, but I notice the way most do it with meaning. They acknowledge Christ as the Lord and Master of their lives. They come before Him as His servant.

Here the youthful novitiates and the older, wisened brethern sit together. There is honor and respect, but there is also fellowship.

And when the bells ring, the work stops. The work is important, but it is not the full meaning of the day. The prayers are important, but they are not the full meaning of the day. The times of study are important but they are not the full meaning of the day. It is all of it together: work, prayer, study, community, individual, neighbor and Christ.

And so, as I hear the ringing of the large bells outside the abbey, I know it is time for me to pause and get ready to go pray and say the Psalms.


I Don't Particularly Like to Bait Hooks

Mark 1:14-20 (our text at church tonight) is a familiar passage to most. In it Jesus calls his first disciples: Andrew, Peter, James and John. Two sets of brothers who all made their living netting fish out of the Sea of Galilee. From the passage (and it's parallel in Matthew) comes the familiar phrase, "I will make you fishers of men" (or "I will teach you to fish for people"). It's a nice phrase. Much has been done with it. Maybe too much. If that is our focus of the passage, we have made too much of it.

Pastor Jan pointed out how we're not all fishermen/women. The metaphor only goes so far. Gleaning info from another blog (the author of which I'm forgetting, so I'm sorry I can't point you to the source a little better), Jan noted that if the first disciples had been carpenters, Jesus would have invited them to "follow me and build my Kingdom." If they had been farmers Jesus might have said, "Follow me and sow seeds of Good News." If they had been of some other profession, Jesus would have found an apt analogy for their call to discipleship. Pastor Jan points out that Jesus calls them as they are. He calls us as we are...to be ourselves. That is who He wants. God has only ever created one of us. He needs us to be ourselves that we might each have a unique contribution to His Kingdom.

The other issue I have with how we tend to use the "Follow me and I will make you fishers" line is that we tend to focus on our strengths. Jesus never talks about strengths when He calls people to follow Him. We lived in a leadership-driven world (which is a future blog post in itself); we take strength assessments. We know our spiritual gifts. We learn the top five/seven/ten principles of being a strong leader. But Jesus never calls us to be leaders. He calls us to be followers. And He never tells us to be strong. He tells us that in our weakness, He is strong.

Jesus doesn't call the disciples saying, "Come be leaders and I'll using your fishing skills." Instead He says, "Be my follower, and I'll use what you know to make an impact in areas where you're weak--saving the lost, for instance." As we see the disciples interact with Jesus throughout the Gospels, it's very clear He didn't call them because they were the smartest, brightest, strongest or best that Judea had to offer. They were clearly men with weaknesses. And I believe Jesus called them because of that fact.

As Pastor Jan exhorted tonight--we need to follow Jesus as ourselves...not as the Christian we think we're supposed to be, not hiding our unique characteristics. You may be like me and are still discovering who God made you to be. As you learn to be who you are (and discover who you are), don't hide your weaknesses. Embrace them. Know that through them, Jesus works.


Listening, Being Present and The New York Philharmonic

A couple days ago the New York Philharmonic and its director, Alan Gilbert, were in the news--not so much for their music, but because they had to stop a concert--right at the end of Mahler's Symphony No. 9. At issue: a ringing cellphone. At the beginning of the concert, as I understand, a pre-recorded message from Alec Baldwin, even asked people to turn off their cell phones. (I also understand that the perpetrator of this faux pas had just gotten the phone newly from work and didn't know that an alarm was set on it.)

We've all been in movie theaters or concerts or meetings or other places when someone has forgotten to turn off their cell phone and it goes off in the middle of things. I've done it myself. It's easy to forget to do. And sometimes we need to be reached--if our kids have an emergency for instance.

But we've all probably been in theaters, concerts or meetings where someone continues to talk, ignoring everyone else around them.

Tonight's text at church was 1 Samuel 1 in which God calls to young Samuel, who is in the temple with Eli. God calls to Samuel during the night. Samuel wakes up, thinking that Eli is calling him, but Eli tells him to go back to bed because he hadn't called Samuel. After three times, Eli finally realizes that God is speaking to Samuel, so he instructs Samuel to respond to God.

God, ever so patient and gracious with giving us several chances, calls to Samuel once more.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

And God speaks to Samuel. Not just then, but the rest of his life.

God still speaks. But we must be listening to hear. We must be willing to be present and available to Him.

Continually having our cell phones on does not constitute "being present." More likely, having our cell phones or ipods turned off makes us more present to others.

But listening to God or to others involves just turning off technology. Being present is a posture we take. We are, as much as possible, available and ready when God or someone else desires to speak to us. We are aware of self, but not absorbed with self.

When Samuel responds to God, he does so with the label of "servant." That is the role He calls us to as well. Serving others--our calling and purpose--is living out our love, both for God and others. Being present is living out love.

This is why the Rule of Benedict begins with the word, "Listen." Benedict knew that for a community to thrive and to live out their commission of loving God and loving others, they needed to be present. Awareness of God, Respect for Others, Hospitality, Taking Counsel and Listening are all core values of Benedictine communities and new monastic churches. They were core values of Jesus, as well. These values take a posture of being present.

Turning off your cell phone shows consideration for others. Turning them your ear shows them love.

God desires our ear as well.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Reflections on MLK

On Friday I was subbing as a para in a school nearby. In one class we got to see an historical actress tell us about Jane Adam's life and her founding of the Hull House in Chicago. It was quite a remarkable story (and the actress did a great job bring Jane Adams as well as an immigrant woman to life). She was all about serving others and helping to give immigrant families (as well as any poor) a better life.

In another class we watched a video about Martin Luther King, Jr. We didn't talk much about MLK when I was in school. We knew who he was, but his birthday wasn't really celebrated yet, and I lived in a rural community of less than a thousand people that was pretty homogenous. It didn't seem like King's life affected us too much.

But without King's life, I wouldn't be living where I am today...one of the few white males on my block in the midst of Somali, Hmong, Ecuadorian, Native American, African American and mixes of many races. My kids wouldn't have the blessing of diversity in their classes at school.

Have we come a long way? Yes. Do we still have a journey ahead of yes? Yes.

If we think that King was all about Black rights, then we missed his message. He marched and sat in jails for the sake of equality for all: African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and even whites. His dream was for our American foundation to be fulfilled that all people are created equal. We still have a ways to go. Women still make less money than men in the same job with the same amount of experience. African Americans are imprisoned at a rate much higher than other races. Poverty and disease is highest among people of color. When we moved into our neighborhood we were told that whites don't belong here. Racism, segregation and divisions still exist among us. We can't move forward as a nation if we are leaving each other behind. King's dream wasn't for himself, but for future generations. He was living change forward.

King based his approach of nonviolent protestation on Gandhi. Gandhi's struggle for freedom in India was the one example King had witness of nonviolent activism working. Gandhi based his approach on the teachings of Jesus. King, being a pastor, was familiar with Jesus' teachings of "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemy." But Gandhi, not the church, was where he had to turn for seeing it lived out.

Justice is a thing of Christ, not of social activists. Jesus came and turned social structures upside down. He touched those whom society said not to go near, He reached below the class system and lifted people up (as well as humbling those who were lofty), He showed love to those who were considered enemies of the faithful Jews and He welcomed everyone--young, old, rich, poor, sick, impaired, lame, male, female--into His loving presence.

It's not easy. To reach beyond our own culture is hard work. We've experienced this even in Minneapolis. The inner city--no matter what color the people are--has a very different culture than the suburbs (again, no matter what race). We're drawn to what and who we're familiar with and comfortable. But in stepping over those divides, in working to bridge cultures, we enrich our lives.

I believe that what King was working toward was Heaven here on earth (Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven). Heaven will not be a place for just whites. Or just blacks. Or just Koreans. There will be no segregation. Every tribe, tongue, and nation will be there praising God. Without prejudice, division or separation. For we are all created in God's image. It is in our diversity that we see the greatness of God. And when we trod each other down and hold other's back we limit our understanding of who God is. He is love. He loves all, for all are His children. Jane Adams knew this. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this. Even Mahondas Gandhi knew this. May we know it and embody it as well.


Epiphanies, Baptisms and the Holy Spirit

This past week we celebrated Epiphany (January 6)--a day when many in the church celebrate the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Epiphany means "manifestation" or "revelation." That visit marked the first revelation of God's Son to non-Jewish people. The Good News came for all people. All. Every one.

Today we marked the baptism of Jesus by His cousin John. This event is usually part of epiphany as well, since God verbally revealed His Son--His beloved in whom He is well-pleased. No one present had room to doubt whom Jesus was.

Jesus' baptism has always been a mystery to me...Jesus didn't need to be baptized. He didn't need to repent--He was perfect, sinless. He didn't need to confess or be washed clean. He wouldn't be marking Himself as a follower of...Himself. Nor would He be doing it to identify with His death and resurrection. There is no "spiritual" reason for Jesus to be baptized.

His baptism mainly seems to be for our sake. 1) So that we can follow Him in His baptism when we follow Him. 2) And God makes His Son known to us. In the Gospel of Mark, this is where we meet the Christ. Not in the stable. Not as a child. As an obscure adult from Nazareth. But the Holy Spirit descends upon Him and the Father says that He is well pleased with His beloved Son.

Later, after Pentecost--after Jesus has ascended into Heaven and the Holy Spirit has been given to the Disciples, nearly anytime someone becomes a follower of Christ two things happen: 1) they are baptized, and 2) the Holy Spirit descends on them. The three events (believing, baptism and the Holy Spirit) are often connected.

Sometimes I wish I had that experience. Most Western evangelicals tend to put focus on praying a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart (we also seldom note the cost of following Christ). Of course, there is no "magic formula" to becoming a follower of Christ. But there is something special in believing, receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized. I wonder if I'm missing out because I haven't had that seemingly visible experience of having the Holy Spirit descend upon me.

After the sermon at church tonight, we had the opportunity to go to one of four people who were available for us to have them pray for us to receive the Holy Spirit. Not that we don't have the Holy Spirit, but I'm not sure that we're always "full" of the Holy Spirit. I know there's plenty of my "flesh" in my life that needs to get out of the way to make room for more of the Spirit. I also know that I had that that "supernatural" tingling feeling when I was prayed over (it's similar to when I'm receiving sage advice from an elder--something I've been convinced is the Holy Spirit getting my attention).

At any rate, I know that I need more of the Holy Spirit in my life, and less of myself. I guess epiphanies (even if they're a bit obvious like that) still happen today.