Archive for the 'Jim Wallis' Category

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

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One day this week our youngest grandchildren (Lucas, 5-1/2, and Amelia, almost 4) took Dianna and me to Sunset Park. We didn’t know that’s where we were headed when we started out. Small people have a way of “redirecting” the big people who think they’re in charge. Geese winter at this park’s sizable lake. Huge flocks of ducks call it home year-round. Some people even claim they catch fish.

The lake and the surrounding shoreline were teeming with waterfowl–and pigeons. They expected, sometimes demanded, that their visitors pay the price of admission—FOOD! But we had nothing to offer. We’d set out without knowing our destination. But we were standing near a couple with two boys about Lucas and Amelia’s ages and a younger girl. They’d come well-prepared with scraps of bread. We watched those boys toss bread to the ducks, geese, and pigeons for a couple of minutes. Their dad soon noticed that Lucas and Amelia wanted to be more than spectators. He asked his oldest son, who was holding the bread bag, to share.  All the children shared the bread, the birds stuffed themselves chowed down, and a great time was had by all.

Finally we returned Lucas and Amelia to their parents and made our way home through rush-hour traffic. We moved into the left-turn lane at an intersection teeming with nearly as many cars as hungry birds at the lake. Our green arrow came on—and nobody moved. Then cars began leaving the turn lane. We wound up sitting at the red light next to the reason for the delay. The first car in the left-turn lane sat with flashers blinking, engine not running, and the driver on the phone looking very flustered.  Nobody was doing anything to help her. We went through the intersection, worked our way back, and decided to park and offer assistance.

The stranded driver agreed to let us push her–maually!–out of the intersection. Her car was very nice—and very heavy! Just as we ran out of “push”, two young women joined us. When the four of us couldn’t get all that steel up the driveway and off the street, a very fit young man helped make the final push. The driver had a safe place to wait for help and the rest of us went on our way.

Now here’s the rest of the story: The family we met at the lake was African American. Race didn’t matter as they shared their bread with Lucas and Amelia. Race didn’t matter as we enjoyed being outdoors together watching those birds. The driver of that stalled car was African American. So were the two young women who helped us push her stalled car. The “muscle” who helped us make the last push was White. Race was irrelevant as we worked together to solve a problem.

I believe our experience suggests a way to build bridges in our culture. Someone took a first step—that family shared their bread; Dianna and I offered to help the stranded motorist. Others joined in. Our shared experience—feeding the birds, watching children be children, pushing a car out of a busy intersection into a safe place—transcended, just for a moment, cultural barriers. Such shared experiences can become building blocks for deeper relationships.

Somewhere in this discussion we who follow Jesus remember his words we call the Great Commandment: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And…’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV) Most of our “social justice” initiatives have roots here and/or in the teachings of Old Testament prophets. But our efforts to address large systemic issues often become abstract and impersonal. I’m more intensely motivated to work for change when I know people who are experiencing injustice and will benefit personally from the change we seek.

What if we heard that Great Commandment say …”know your neighbor as yourself”? (See Luke 10:25-37 for Jesus’ definition of “neighbor”.) We can’t know personally all our 7 billion neighbors on this planet. But we can cultivate relationships that expand our knowledge of neighbors. We  can begin putting faces on black, white, brown, liberal, conservative, senior, boomer, millennial, Jew, Muslim, etc. The more we do that, the more those stereotypes disintegrate. Nobody I know is adequately described by labels, stereotypes, or social role labels. Our creative God has made us unique individuals. We discover the rich wonder of that creativity as we learn to “know our neighbor as ourselves”.

Before we were taken to the park, I’d been reading Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. While the book addresses a complex and divisive cultural issue, it flows out of Wallis’ experience growing up in Detroit. On his first job he worked with a young black man named Butch. They became friends and learned a lot about their very different lives. One day Butch invited Jim home for dinner. During the evening Butch’s mom described the negative experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons– had had with Detroit police. “’I tell all my children,’” she said, “’if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.’ As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words [and mine and many of yours as well] rang in my head…’If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.’”

“Love—and know– your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know precisely the way from here to there. I do know it’s long, complex, and challenging. I know Buddhists say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Let’s take those first steps! We are Easter people. We serve a God who says, “I am about to do something brand new” (Isaiah 43:19 MSG); “Look! I’m making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 MSG)

I expect these beginnings will happen first at a minew beginningscro-level, in neighborhood, community, congregational, less formal settings. Watch for them. Join in as you’re led.Let us become the new beginning for which we work and
pray!

Postal Weeds and the Common Good

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 The weeds had grown up around our corner post office–again. So I cut them down–again! Our “post office” is at a street corner about a quarter-mile from our home. It’s not one of those sterile, institutional steel fortresses. Years ago (before we lived here) our neighbors turned down the Postal Service’s offer to install one of those. So our rural “post office” still consists of individual mailboxes in a row, each on its own post (unlike this picture), planted and maintained by its owner. This works well enough—most of the time. In July and August the “monsoon” comes to Arizona. “Monsoon” in this country means at best a couple of inches of rain. But it’s enough to get the weeds very excited. By this time most years they reach mailbox height. Every time I pull up and reach through my truck window, I worry that a man-eating plant will grab my wrist and drag me home for dinner.

Our boxes are in a public right-of-way. It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to cut down the weeds. So my neighbors and I wait…and wait. Finally I get my weed-eater from the garage, throw it in the back of the truck, drive up to the corner, and cut down the weeds. It takes less than half an hour. Everyone now has easy access, my horror-show fantasy is over, and I got to use a power tool!

This is our third summer here since I retired. It’s the third summer I’ve cleared those pesky postal weeds. Last year I tried unsuccessfully to wait out my neighbors. This year I was equally unsuccessful. Or did my neighbors successfully outwait me? It doesn’t matter. The weeds are cleared. Our corner “post office” is easily accessible. I have done my bit for the common good.

Remember “the common good”? At our best that’s why we elect leaders—to serve “the common good”. That’s why we volunteer to serve others in various church and community organizations—to serve “the common good”. Trouble is, we humans aren’t always at our best. Self-interest poisons the political process, both on the part of those who run for office and all of us who vote. Self-interest poisons our volunteering and even our church-going. We tweak and twist “the common good” until it means “good for me and my tribe”. Our tweaked, twisted visions clash with increasing intensity. We no longer care if “good for me” means “too bad for you”. We’ve abandoned any pretense of working for the common good. We’ve chosen instead to live by the law of the jungle—“Everyone for him/herself.”

Jim Wallis has devoted his life to working for the common good. The title of his latest book is On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about the Common Good. Wallis wrote recently in Time Magazine that “…the ethic of the common good has been lost on all political sides. We have entered a dark and dangerous period of selfishness in both our culture and our political life. ‘I’ has replaced ‘we’. Winning has indeed replaced governing, and ideological warfare substitutes for finding solutions to real and growing problems.”

Wallis urges people of faith to help transform this toxic trend. He suggests that our shared spiritual traditions in this country offer common ground from which we can work together for the common good. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a core teaching common to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Even the US Constitution states that one purpose of our government is to promote “the general welfare”. Can we set aside our ideologies and special interests and agree on some basic moral values ? For example, love of neighbor, care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, and a more equitable distribution of resources are values that unite people across traditional divisions of age, class, ethnicity, and ideology. They are affirmed by many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. “A commitment to the common good,” Wallis writes, “could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?”

Restoring our nation’s commitment to the common good will take more than one guy with a weed-eater. It’ll take more than an army of weed-eater-wielding old guys! It will take our personal commitment to let our lives be guided by our understanding of “the common good” instead of “what’s in it for me?” It will take courage and patience in every conversation where we have a chance to encourage others to join us in moving beyond polarization to partnership. It will take political involvement that holds all candidates to the standard of serving the common good rather than the largest contributors. It will take prayerful persistence and persistent prayerfulness. We didn’t reach this “…dark and dangerous period of selfishness…” overnight. We won’t find our way into the light without an equally long journey. A fourth-century Christian named John Chrysostom wrote, “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good…for nothing can as make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Twenty-first century Christian Jim Wallis says, “Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.”

Yes, we need much more dialog about the content of “the common good”. But let’s take the first step first. Let’s choose to make the common good the standard for our lives. Let’s reject once and for all the Law of the Jungle in our common life.


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