8th & Wyandot: Be Fruitful & Multiply

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“What gives you life?” I am pretty new to this whole ‘be a chaplain to the youth’ thing, but that seemed like an important question to ask. “I write.” The answer was simple and yet took me completely by surprise. Becky has been a part of the Joshua Station community off and on for the past 7 years. During that time she had developed a reputation for literally falling asleep when I would start up a conversation in Teen Group that required any level of depth. I imagined her watching netflix. I imagined her taking multiple naps after school. But writing? Nope, didn’t see that one coming.

Since this conversation I have encouraged Becky to keep writing and she has graciously allowed me into that sacred space of reading the fiction tales she likes to put together. I have occupied that sacred space with many youth over the years. Karen and her painting, Juan and his color pencil drawings that looked so crisp we suspected it was ink, Robert and Kimberly with their spoken word, Emery with her music. There seems to be an innate desire to do more than just absorb. There seems to be an innate desire to create. To create something—anything that feels like it could cause a ripple in the world around us.

Our community recognizes that God invites us into the ongoing act of Creation. For some of us that invitation leads us to have children. For others it leads us to plant trees or gardens. For others it beckons us to allow the beauty of our inner voice to come forth through song, poetry, dance, visual art, writing, and the list goes on and on.  All of these things are expressions of what it means to participate in that ongoing act of Creation.

Understanding that we have the power to create also comes with an awareness that what we create has the power to be thoughtless, harmful, needlessly offensive, unjust, and counter productive to God’s dream of Creation. We have the power to create societies where there are none among us lacking essentials and dignity, and we have the power to create societies where some have and others have not. We have the power to speak words that serve to inspire those around us, and we have the power to speak words that cut others off at the knees. We have the power to create goodness, joy, peace, and love, and we have the power to create horror, sadness, war, and hatred.

What I love about asking the youth the question I asked Becky is that the answer is rarely something that serves to create the negative world I’ve alluded to. When they listen to what’s stirring within themselves, what wells up is almost always full of goodness, joy, peace, and love. May they listen to that stirring—and may we follow suit.

 

This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot reflection. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.

Seeking Justice: Was That White Privilege?

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Black Lives Matter has utterly transformed the way I see the world. Nearly two years of its presence in my life has caused me to evaluate things like gentrification and urban renewal like never before. Are these fancy words that thinly veil racism in my city? It’s almost like I traded in my rose colored glasses for a pair that shows the world in HD. But then there’s the ambiguity of it all. For example, I have become convinced that White Privilege is real, but I find it difficult to identify exactly where and when I have experienced it. This ambiguity has led many to deny its existence and others to call those who insist it’s real “Race Baiters”. Somewhere in the midst of it all is me, a 30 something white man trying real hard to wake up.

I remember a time a few years ago when I was incredibly “lucky” after being pulled over only 3 blocks from my old house on the West side of Denver in the Barnum neighborhood. “What’s the problem officer?” I respectfully asked. “You’re headlight’s out.” I began to worry. When I was a kid I was in the car when my mother got a “fix-it ticket” for a similar issue. Money was tight and I really didn’t want to have to pay a fine.

I was planning the speech in my head about how I would fix it first thing in the morning, so as to avoid a ticket. But before I could spit the words out, he asked me for my proof of insurance. I grabbed the card from the glove box and handed it to him. He took it from me and then said “This one’s expired.” Oh no! The new one is on my coffee table at home! I know exactly where it’s at! This just went from bad to worse! First I might get a fix-it ticket, and now I will have a fine for not having my proof of insurance on me.

That’s when the strangest thing happened. As I profusely apologized for leaving the other card at home, he disinterestedly waved his hand and said, “I’m not going to give you a ticket. Just go home.”

I remember going home thinking that I was lucky I got an officer who didn’t want to go through the trouble of writing a ticket. Still I found it strange that he just let me go when I couldn’t provide proof of insurance. I found it strange, but I decided not to question it. I chalked it up to luck and mostly forgot the story—until recently.

Barnum is a largely poor and Latino neighborhood. There are several gangs that claim the streets as their own. Gun shots were a fairly regular occurrence and we never doubted that lots of drugs and weapons made their way through the neighborhood daily. Also, my car wasn’t the nicest. It was a simple Dodge Stratus with a couple dents in it—and apparently a broken headlight. I can’t help but wonder if the officer expected to find someone else driving my car in my neighborhood. I also can’t help but wonder if he had hoped that a broken headlight might turn into a search and seizure, but dismissed the idea once he saw me in the driver’s seat.

Maybe it truly was just an officer who wanted to make sure I got the headlight fixed and had no interest in writing the ticket, no matter who was driving. But then, maybe my “luck” was really me benefiting from a broken system of assumptions that is heavily bent in my favor. Maybe.

8th & Wyandot: Care for the Widows, the Orphans, and the Grasshoppers Among You

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The three boys—some of our biggest troublemakers—walked into the front office beaming with ear to ear smiles. They were more than eager to show us what was inside the jar with holes poked into the lid. Some of the girls ran screaming as they proudly displayed the grasshopper they had caught. They had named it and were already making plans for how they would care for it. This plan included avoiding their mothers, who they knew would make them set the little guy free.

Most children have a special fondness for animals. Kids will often ask their parents for puppies and kitties, while parents exhaust every excuse to avoid giving in. But there is something about the special bond many kids on the margins of society have with the animals they encounter. The love they have for them, and the tenderness with which they care for them, is noticeable.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes a statement that is rather disorienting and deeply mystical. He says that whatever you do to “one of the least of these” you do to Him. What a profoundly humbling thing to really think about! How have you treated Jesus today? I’m not sure I would like my own answer to that question.

Somehow this notion of caring for those who are weaker, for those who are either oppressed or their plight simply ignored, is not a difficult one for children—especially children who find themselves in places like Joshua Station. In fact their treatment of vulnerable creatures—like their grasshopper friend—often puts to shame their treatment of each other! Still, there is something welling up inside of these kids that we would do well to pay attention to.

May we feel that love and consciousness welling up inside of us that leads to the care for the “least of these” among us. May we love and care for them as we would Jesus Himself, because after all, we are.

 

This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot reflection. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.

Seeking Justice: For Profit Policing?

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Black Lives Matter. With one short phrase I probably caused you to have some kind of emotional response. The truth is that our country will never be the same because of this phrase and the movement that it represents. I have spent the better part of 2 years trying to learn as much as I can from my friends and acquaintances who work for racial justice in Denver. What has this felt like for me? In the words of a friend of mine:

I’m standing at the fire hose with my dixie cup.

One of the phrases I caught in that dixie cup was, “For Profit Policing”. It caught my attention, but I wasn’t really aware of what it was pointing toward. I suppose that can be said of so much of what I’ve learned. As a white man, it catches my attention,but I have no experiential container to put it in, so it takes me a while–like over a year–to finally even begin to “get it”. About a month ago something clicked. I heard the phrase “For Profit Policing” and I immediately remembered my time as a sales person at a retail store on the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

I don’t claim to be the most noble person alive, but I think most of the people who know me would describe me as a “good person”. That’s important to say at the beginning of this story.

The store I worked at sold many things, but the biggest money maker for the company, and also for myself through sales commission, was cell phones–specifically cell phones that came with the activation of a 2 year contract. I went through the company training. I learned far more about sales tactics than helpful information about the phones I was trying to sell, to be honest. Then I was unleashed. I feel slimy even remembering the way I tried to convince my customers I knew what I was talking about. My ultimate aim was to manipulate them into believing that I was an expert and that they really wanted this phone. No, not the pre-paid one. That one’s bad. The contract phone is the way to go!

After a few weeks of trying to sell phones, largely unsuccessfully, I began to make some “helpful” observations. The people who were most likely businessmen and women, who appeared to be wealthier, and who seemed to be well educated, were very difficult to sell to. They were far more likely to ask questions that would stump me. They would easily catch on to my tactics and call me out on them. In short, they were far less likely to pull the trigger and give me that coveted commission.

On the other hand, those who seemed to be poor and less educated offered far less resistance. They seemed to actually buy into the ruse that I was the “cell phone expert”. They asked far fewer questions. They were often swept away by my sales tactics. In short, they were far more likely to sign that 2 year agreement.

My supervisors were happy with me. My paycheck made me happy. I kept doing it. I targeted the folks who I had discovered were far more likely to give me the sales numbers, all the while having to force down the suspicion that they might not completely understand what they were getting themselves into. I often suspected that they would eventually default on their bills and end up with terrible cancellation fees and most likely a decent hit to their credit score. Still, I did it anyway. In the system of my company, it was all about the numbers.

That’s the story that comes to mind today when I hear the phrase “For Profit Policing”. Did you know that police departments across the country are expected to bring in money? And it’s not usually a percentage of all fines, fees, and forfeitures. There is often a budgeted amount that they are expected to bring in. That’s right. Before the year even begins our police departments are given sales goals.

This reality was one of those “Ah, I see” moments for me. One of the primary complaints coming from poor and minority communities is the sheer number of times they get pulled over for painfully minor traffic violations. Things like a license plate that is improperly displayed, dice hanging from the rear view mirror, failure to signal a turn, etc. Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during one such stop, had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years–most of the time for minor violations, according to public record. Another complaint is how often those minor violations result in searches as the officer is suspecting the presence of drugs or weapons, violations that would result in hefty fines paid to the city or county.

Is it possible that vulnerable communities bear the largest part of this burden for the same reason that the most vulnerable people bore the largest part of my sales efforts? Are they perceived to be the least likely (or able) to resist–less likely to seek legal retribution?

One element of the phrase “For Profit Policing” stands out to me: It acknowledges that the individual officers aren’t necessarily the problem. The decision to expect police departments to be the one branch of public servant that brings in a revenue puts the officers in a difficult situation. If they resist the system that so often leads to the oppression of the most vulnerable, they could be seen as under performing in the same way that I would have been had I refused the “easy sale”. In this way it becomes clear that the well being of one truly is the well being of the other. We are not as disconnected as it often seems.

Black Lives Matter. If your immediate response is to shut down, resist the urge. Listen. It might feel overwhelming, but whatever you are able to catch in that dixie cup might just change everything.

 

 

 

8th & Wyandot: Loving the Vandal

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The chaotic scene left behind by her was shocking. Nearly every car in the parking lot, much of the building, and lots of sidewalk space was covered in profanity creatively written with a few items from the condiment shelf at the grocery store. She hoped that nobody saw her, and expressed a deep amount of shame over the incident when she realized they had.

She is one of the most interesting kids I’ve gotten to know over the years at Joshua Station. She is—all at once—everyone’s favorite kid to hang out with, and everyone’s biggest pain. Being one of the first kids that I got to know, her story has brought Nicole and I lots of joy, sadness, anxiety, and excitement over the years. It is true for us that she is one of our biggest pains. It is also true for us that she is one of our favorites. In short, we truly love her.

There was a sense of certainty that she would be cast out. After all she had put us through, this surely had to be the last straw. Surely we would say, “We have given you so many chances to behave differently, and you just don’t seem to get it!” But what she was truly struggling to “get” was just how loved she really was. Of course, there would have to be consequences, but she would never be cast out. She seems to expect that someday our love for her will end and our wrath will take over. But that’s just not how it works. That’s just not who we are, and that’s just not who she is to us!

Her reluctance to believe how much we love her has placed a mirror in front of my face when it comes to my trust in God’s love. I find myself saying, “Surely God has reached the end of the rope. Surely I will be cast out this time.” And it’s as if God gently whispers back, “That’s just not who I am, and that’s just not who you are to me.

May we—along with our resident troublemaker—allow our defenses to drop and truly trust that God’s love is not conditional. We are not going to be cast out. That’s just not who God is, and that’s just not who we are to God.

 

This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot reflection. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.

8th & Wyandot: Holy Interruptions

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I have an office at Joshua Station that is isolated from everyone else. Some people have expressed their sympathy saying things like, “You must be so lonely.” These people obviously don’t know that I am pretty introverted and love the fact that when I go to work I am away from all of those interruptions that can keep work from getting done. I love the fact that I can “hide” for a few minutes before Kids Club to prepare myself for an hour of chuck e cheese level craziness. I also love the opportunities I get in my office to read, pray, and practice contemplation. It really has become a sacred space for me in recent years.

But sometimes even our sacred spaces get invaded. This time it was a particularly irritating interruption. I was reading my weekly devotion out of Meal From Below when my co-worker came in to inform me that a man was downstairs and that he needed to take a drug test…and I was the only male staff person around.

I was so irritated! I had to leave my time of spiritual formation to do something that felt very “non-spiritual”. In fact, it felt awkward as hell! I hate giving drug tests. There are few things a guy hates to hear more than, “I need to watch you pee.”

The irony of that situation is that I was reading a book put out by friends of mine who feel called to be people of the Incarnation. I realized as I was giving this man I had never met a drug test that I was experiencing what my friends would identify as the genesis of spirituality. Spiritual experience does not start with me reading a spiritual work, or even finding a quiet place to pray. As important as those things are, spirituality begins with the real stuff of life. And the real stuff of life for this man was that he and his family were homeless. They were really hoping to get into Joshua Station to find transformation, and my irritated self reluctantly played an important part in helping make that happen.

I realized that day that moments of Incarnation often feel like they take me out of spirituality, but really they help me come face to face with it. It is my prayer that I will become more and more aware of the gift of interruptions—especially the particularly uncomfortable ones.

 

This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot reflection. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.

Exploring Spirituality: We need to have a conversation

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Last weekend I had the chance to visit my brother in Omaha. While we come from the same womb, in some ways we couldn’t be more different. For the past few years, politics and spirituality were things we just pretended didn’t exist. I can’t speak for him, but for me the primary thing that maintained the silence was fear. I didn’t want to drive unnecessary wedges between us, so we talked about his latest hunting trip, my favorite soccer team, what our favorite beer was that week, etc.

Something really cool happened during my recent visit. We talked. I mean, we actually talked. We covered spirituality, politics, and obviously still beer. We didn’t try to convert each other as much as we simply opened up about our own convictions. I feel like I have seen my brother, and that he has seen me, with a new level of raw honesty. It was great and I really believe that it has pushed us deeper into our appreciation and love for one another.

It feels like we restarted the conversation. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of conversation lately. I listened to a podcast recently where Krista Tippett interviewed the philosopher and poet, David Whyte. Whyte sees conversation happening all around us–the conversation between the sea and the shore, between the sun and the moon, etc. I love that imagery. Everything in conversation.

But this also brings up a great tragedy for me. In the Christian household, the conversation has been feared for quite some time. It has been feared so much that in many instances, it has even been forcefully ended by silencing the “other side”. This has happened a number of times, but two specific examples come to mind.

1. Christianity got into bed with the Empire.

When the Christian Church was “Early”, there were many voices in the conversation. The voices ranged wildly and offered different perspectives, asked different questions, and forced the Church to constantly evaluate its beliefs and commitments in an effort to be sure that they were following Christ as closely as possible. Now I don’t want to romanticize this period. People were called “Heretics”. They were passionately argued against. They were told that they were wrong. But…they weren’t silenced. The early church didn’t have the power to silence teachers who challenged their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. They simply had the power of argument and reason. Essentially, the conversation was lively!

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, (4th Century) that little problem of not having the power to silence the “other side” was solved. It was during this period of the Christian story that Pelagius was excommunicated and branded a Heretic. He was forced to finish his days in exile away from Rome. It wasn’t the Church that eventually made sure of this, but Rome itself through the tireless effort of Augustine of Hippo. His was only one of several voices that were seen as problematic. And so, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation was silenced.

2. The Celts were finally tamed.

There was one stream of Christianity that had somehow managed to exist just outside of the Empire’s reach. That was the Christianity practiced in the Celtic world. Largely inspired by voices that were no longer allowed in Rome, like Pelagius, the Celts were off-beat compared to the Roman Mission of Christianity. They held women in high esteem, they saw the essential goodness of all created things, and they had no interest in conforming their way of spiritual practice to the demands of Rome.

In 664, Rome had finally had enough and the head on collision between the Celtic Mission and the Roman Mission occurred. It is no surprise that the Roman Mission was victorious and the Celtic Mission was ordered to conform to the Roman practice of Christianity, including the silencing of the voices deemed “Heretic”.

The tragedy of this moment is not simply that the Roman Mission won and the Celtic Mission lost. The tragedy was that the two could not find a way to engage in conversation, but instead engaged in war–the fruitless fight to prove that I am right and you are wrong. Once again, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation again was silenced.

We live in an age where many of us are tired of this dualistic mindset. We are a people who don’t buy into the lie that if you are not Republican then you absolutely must be Democrat. We are a people that don’t buy into the idea that wisdom does not exist in the tradition and perspective of “the other”. We are a people who are tired of the silencing of the conversation. So, let’s reclaim it!

Let’s not be afraid to read the Heretics. Let’s not be too proud to embrace our friends with whom we disagree. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s hold our convictions with deep commitment and also deep humility. Let’s reclaim the conversation!