Poop, Contemplation, and Pulling My Hair Out

20150201_162409

“Poop! HaHa! Poop! HaHa!” Carly was most definitely amusing herself as she lay on the floor repeating that word—erupting into laughter. A few of the kids weren’t able to contain themselves and began laughing along. Others were angry and started yelling at her to shut up. My volunteers just looked at me like deer in the head lights. And I just shrugged my shoulders, which in this case meant “Somebody please fire me”, which might have been a distinct possibility since my boss was observing Kids Club that night.

Despite how stressful it was, this scene makes me smile today. Carly is autistic and her presence in Kids Club has been difficult at times. But her presence also firmly placed a magnifying glass over our program and revealed the obvious need to slow things down a bit. Kids Club has always been chaotic—complete with running, yelling, cartwheels, flying kickballs, and no shortage of crying. Carly’s reactions became the catalyst we needed to say, “Something has to change.” She taught me a great deal about how to structure Kids Club, and she even joined a chorus of others—mostly my wife and a couple of books—in teaching me the importance of slowing things down externally for the benefit of our centeredness internally. In short, Carly became a sort of Spiritual Director for me.

Perhaps Carly’s influence on Kids Club has a significance for those of us pursuing a contemplative spirituality in the West.  Our culture is one of over indulgence, over entertainment, and over stimulation. All of these things form a loud static through which hearing the deepest rhythms of God in the Universe becomes nearly impossible. Carly began to do better in Kids Club when we reduced the level of intensity of our games, simplified our schedule, and offered the kids more predictability. My family began to feel the fog lift at home when we reduced the amount of stuff we had, created an intentional family rhythm, and sought a deeper connection to the natural world by getting our beloved hens.

My initial reaction to this wisdom was similar to that of the kids at Joshua Station. I panicked. I couldn’t imagine my life without the noise that had become so normal. I am grateful that panic eventually gave way to a sense of simply trusting the process that was unfolding. It’s a process that helped Carly stay engaged at Kids Club and it’s a process that allows me to hear more of that deep rhythm in the universe as well as within myself. It is a rhythm seldom heard in our culture, but it is nothing short of transformational.

 

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

Advertisements

8th & Wyandot: Come Play!

FB_IMG_1447649217824

A few months ago I had a hilariously humbling experience. I went to church on Sunday morning and heard a sermon based on the Lectionary text of the week—Jesus healing a blind man who cried out to Him through a crowd aggressively telling him to shut up. It’s a scene I had pictured many times before. Jesus walks by while a desperate blind man yells. Embarrassed people around him beg him to stop! This was their chance to see this man that everyone had been talking about, and maybe even make a good first impression. Then ‘that guy’—the one everyone in town just overlooks out of sheer disgust—ruins it all by yelling like an idiot. I can easily imagine how it must have felt for nearly everyone in that story.

That’s an interesting practice—to imagine which character in these Gospel stories you most identify with. In the past I had always imagined that I was the blind man, desperately calling out to Jesus. On really good days I might even be convinced that I’m Jesus—embracing the outcast despite the angry crowd. But during Teen Group, on that very same Sunday, I quickly learned where I can most often find myself in that story.

Jessica is a girl that lives at Joshua Station. She is very needy for acceptance and often smothers the people around her in the attempt to get it. Kids Club—the program I lead for her age group—is often difficult to get through without a good amount of frustration when she’s there.  That’s why I whispered, “Oh God. No. Please.” when I saw her approaching our Teen Group on the basketball court.

She really wanted to play and I had no interest in letting her. I immediately began to think of what clever reason I could give for why she couldn’t stay. “This is Teen Group”. “I think I heard your mom calling you.” “I think basketball might be a little too rough for you.” But before I could spit any of those winners out, our Teen Group—made up of teens living at Joshua Station as well as from the church I work at—tossed her the ball and said, “Come play!”

In an instant I realized that I was the angry crowd and the teenagers who I am supposed to be setting an example for, were Jesus. I wanted Jessica to be excluded, while Jesus pierced right through my attempts to do so with a beautiful invitation. My heart was made a little softer that day by the unlikely teachers I have the privilege to know. Now when I see Jessica—or anyone else I feel a need to exclude—I often hear Jesus whisper, “Come Play!”
This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot update. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.

Childish Lessons…

20150423_092903

Nicole and I have been a part of Joshua Station since May of 2009 and our primary experience has been with the kids. It only took a few hours for our door to receive its first knock from two rowdy boys looking to score some candy. It took a few days for the teenagers to grace us with their presence, but they quickly became a dominant part of our lives in this crazy and beautiful community.

The Gospels give us a few examples of Jesus becoming angry. One of those examples occurs when people start taking their children to Jesus so that He could bless them. The disciples start rebuking the people, probably thinking about how Jesus had much more important people to spend His time with. Jesus sees this happening and that vein in His neck begins to become visible. “He was indignant…” He goes on to make the disorienting proclamation that the Kingdom of God belongs to children! He even goes a step further and says that the disciples will never enter into that Kingdom if they don’t accept it in the same way that the children do!

It was about a year after we moved here that we first encountered what I have seen multiple times since. Sam, a Joshua Station teenager, had invited us to join him at a school event. We got to meet some of Sam’s closest friends and mentors. They knew nearly everything about him…except the huge fact that he was homeless. It quickly became apparent to Nicole and me that Sam carried deep shame around his situation and worked very hard to hide it from as many people as possible.

This sense of shame is something I began to see over and over in our teens. They usually can’t wait to move out. That stands in stark contrast to the younger kids. Joshua Station quickly becomes their home and moving out of this community is often something that causes a great deal of anxiety and sadness. Our teenagers are far more indoctrinated into the society constructed by adult egos. They are far more aware that poverty is something that is seen through a mostly judgmental lens. This illusion of awareness often prevents them from truly living—from experiencing the life laid out before them.

Perhaps the disciples were allowing their egos to drive them to act so crudely toward the children trying to get to Jesus. They had their understanding of who was important and who was not. The problem is that this understanding was born out of their social upbringing, which Jesus constantly seems to loosen their grip of—in this case through angry rebuke. Perhaps life actually is meant to be experienced and not won. Perhaps the kids around us do have something significant to teach us—something we once knew without knowing that we knew it. Perhaps the Kingdom of God is a reality that values participation above competition. Perhaps the only way we can see that reality is by allowing children to have a prominent place in our spirituality. If we make that a priority, perhaps we can remember what they have not yet forgotten.

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

Endangered Silence…

20150822_133336

I have fallen in love with an app on my phone. For those of you who enjoy NPR and talking about faith, you would love Krista Tippet’s show called “On Being”. I recently listened to the interview Krista did with Gordon Hempton, an Acoustic Ecologist. In response to Krista’s question about how many truly quiet places there are in our world, Hempton said “Silence is so ‘endangered’ in our world that we almost need another name for it.”

I am sometimes struck by how often Jesus tries to avoid people. There is a pretty evident pattern to Jesus’ life. That pattern is to engage, then retreat. Of course those retreats are often thwarted by people all too hungry for the kind of love and life He was offering. It seems that there is something significant about shedding the noise. It seems that the imagery we find in Scripture might actually be pointing to something important. Think about Jesus’ retreats, God’s voice being called still and small, etc. It seems that there is something to be discovered in quiet moments, in still moments, that will be left undiscovered if we don’t make room for silence.

I recently pulled one of our kids away from the group during Kids Club. I sensed that she was carrying something heavy, but I knew that it would never come out with the rest of the kids there to offer their ‘2 cents’. So I pulled her aside and just asked her some general questions about life. I noticed 2 things almost instantly. She put her phone away, and then she made eye contact with me—2 things that are so rare that I immediately noticed. She was offered a quiet space to listen to her own heart, and she poured it out to me.

I was floored at how much rich conversation came out of 5 minutes of retreating from the noise. It makes me wonder how much I allow myself to actually sit in a quiet space. Honestly, it’s not much. That’s the crazy thing about God, our soul, and the heartbeat of life—those things don’t force their way into your consciousness. It takes intentionality to really connect with the deepest and richest parts of our being—even if only for 5 minutes.

The need for this kind of space is incredibly evident everywhere I look. It is my hope that I will be able to make the creation of that space a firm practice within my own life as well as within the Joshua Station youth community. Together we can begin to live out the words of the stillness prayer we often end our time together with…

Be Still & Know That I Am God.

Be Still & Know That I Am.

Be Still & Know.

Be Still.

Be.

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

Unfamiliar Satisfaction

20141212_110748

As of yet I have not been able to leave Joshua Station. I have not been able to leave Denver. I have not been able to leave a slightly less than Middle Class income bracket. I don’t mean that someone is keeping me from leaving those things or even that I want to leave those things. What I mean is that I have experienced a sort of satisfaction that can’t fully be described with words. This satisfaction surpasses a quick fix and somehow keeps me coming back for more.

In John’s Gospel Jesus feeds an asinine number of people with an all too modest amount of food. The story gets a lot of press in our Christian tradition, but the Lectionary text I just read picks up some time after that miraculous event. The crowd that was miraculously fed tried to find Jesus, who had done a bit of water walking and joined His disciples on the other side of the lake. When they tracked Him down they asked when He had arrived. To this Jesus replies rather peculiarly—not uncommon of Him. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”

I had to read that line a few times. It felt like it was trying to point to something profound in my own experience. He goes on to distinguish the difference between normal food and the food He is referring to—something much deeper. The crowd was pursuing Jesus, but it seems that they might have been confused as to the reason for that pursuit. Jesus tries to help them understand. They had experienced an encounter with the Son of Man. That encounter had fulfilled them in a deep and profound way, and they wanted more!

To be honest, my experience in Denver has not always felt very fulfilling. There have been many times when I have asked myself if it is worth it. Then I will have an experience that satisfies a deep hunger inside myself—a hunger that I might not have even been aware of. You might ask me what it is about the experience that makes me feel so profoundly fulfilled, but I wouldn’t be able to point to anything tangible, or even anything particularly happy. There was just something about the experience that left me feeling like I had just intersected with Christ, and I want more!

I had one of those experiences a few months ago when one of our teenagers reluctantly allowed me to read the poem she had written in school. I tried to find time to read the poem between Kids Club and cleaning up. I figured, I better read it to affirm her desire to write poetry. I picked up the poem she handed me. I started to read it with a smile. My smile began to fade as I was swept away by vivid images of pain so beautifully and powerfully written that I almost felt it myself. I left Joshua Station that day knowing that I had just encountered Christ through a 15 year old poet. Struggling to fight back tears I told Kimberly about how profound her poem was. I tried to communicate to her how it satisfied a hunger within my soul for true, raw, sometimes painful beauty. Then I encouraged her to keep writing, because I wanted more.

I hope that her poem helps you to encounter Christ in a new way as it did me. 

Kimberly’s Poem

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

But, where is the Gospel?

20141202_190513

I am a part of a non-profit community committed to the long work of transformation and empowerment among families transitioning out of homelessness. It is widely known that our roots are firmly planted in the soil of Christian spirituality. That distinction can sometimes bring up as many questions as it does answers in the non-profit world. One such question that I have personally heard a few times is, “You are doing great work here, but where is the Gospel?”

There is no doubt that this question is loaded with all kinds of assumptions and possibilities for disagreement, but when answering that question I usually just find myself telling stories. One of those stories is about David.

David was one of the first teenagers Nicole and I met after we moved into Joshua Station. He had a few clear goals which we became aware of soon after meeting him. He would get good grades, go to college, get a good job, and never look back.

David is well on his way to accomplishing the goal of graduating college and is nearly certain to find a good job afterward. But as it turns out, he decided to look back. He surprised me one Tuesday night by coming to volunteer at Kids Club. He had a blast playing games with the kids and really seemed to be grateful for the chance to do so.

On our way to the light rail, I asked him why he came to hang out with us. His answer captured my attention. He said, “I know what it’s like to feel like you are all alone as a ‘homeless kid’ and I felt like I wanted to make sure these kids knew that they weren’t.”

The core of the Gospel is found in Jesus. Jesus, according to Christian theology, is God incarnated among us—God taking on human flesh. Jesus—God incarnated—constantly found Himself in places marked with hardship and among people who felt like they didn’t belong for a variety of reasons. Over and over again Jesus had the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things and never look back. But over and over again He looked back and even went back to offer companionship and love to those who might otherwise feel like they are all alone.

This tendency of Jesus captures an essential truth of the Gospel and so does David. The Gospel is being lived out before my very eyes when kids who could simply walk away and never look back give of themselves out of compassion and love for those who are where they once were. In David is but one example of where I see the Gospel at Joshua Station.

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

Empowerment…

For the past 3 years I have heard the word “Empowerment” used often by various staff members at Mile High Ministries. I liked what I heard, but I realized recently that I had a loose (at best) understanding of what empowerment means in terms of the folks we do life with. I was particularly confused in regard to implementing empowerment strategies with the youth at Joshua Station. While my understanding of empowerment is still a bit foggy, I have been inspired by various people to practice the art of trial and error within the youth program when it comes to practicing empowerment.

Joshua Station has a store. It is actually a closet filled with toys, books, coloring books, etc. These items are in bins labeled with a price tag for the items inside. Each parent would be given an envelope containing $1.50 in fake money to use as a reward for “above expectations” behavior from their children. The store was an instant hit with the kids (and parents) who loved to “shop” at the Joshua Station Store. However, when the person who started the store didn’t have time to run it anymore, my abilities to keep the store running as a brand new youth director proved less than satisfactory.

Recently we’ve been reading and discussing a book by Bob Lupton called Toxic Charity in Staff Meeting. The book is a discussion provoking work to be sure. Lupton is very critical of many of the models of charity offered by Government, large Non-Profits and Churches. I highly recommend the book if you work with a marginalized people in a “charity” setting. Along with several insights, this book has helped me to shape my first “trial and error” project in the pursuit of empowering our youth.

We are going to re-open the Joshua Station Store. If my vision of the store goes as planned (fingers crossed) it will be an empowering thing for our entire community. We will be re-opening the store, only this time I won’t be running the store. I won’t even be managing the store. The store will be run by a mix of employees and managers. The employees will be our Middle School Group (6th-8th grade), a great group of youngsters looking for ways to get more plugged into the youth program outside of their own group time. The management will be our Teen Group (9th-12th grade), a great mix of teenagers who have great potential to be inspirational role models for our younger kids.

While our Middle School leader and I will be overseeing the store, we will be entirely hands-off if all goes as planned. The store will be run completely by our youth. The “pay” for their work will come in the form of a monthly trip to either a coffee house, frozen yogurt shop or other business willing to offer us a deal. Coffee shops and frozen yogurt are not foreign to our kids, but the notion of the trip being something that they’ve earned will be. We are hoping that the satisfaction of enjoying a drink and the company of their peers as well as the youth staff will be a sweet taste to them that will pave the way for the basic desire to work hard for what they want in life.

Today in staff meeting we heard about the founder of Mile High Ministries. We laughed when we heard that he loved failing and seeing other people fail. He was a huge supporter of trial and error, seeing the failures as great educational experiences that give us better insight as we embark on our next project. The empowerment model being used to run the Joshua Station Store could end up being one of those failures (although I hope not). If that is the case then I pray that we will be able to learn from our mistakes and give it another (better) go.