her trail of incense

August 10, 2010

She was unexpected.

On a day that I had already scheduled full of listening to people give reasons why they have no homes and thinking about ways to peacefully and forcefully engage in a battle against those reasons, she showed up with an unscheduled reason and a sense of urgency in her deeply accented voice. Her homelessness was a reason she didn’t understand.

What I did was listen. She wasn’t my client and I had no obligation to help her, and, in fact, I didn’t have the physical capacity to help her within the confines of my program. But I listened.

Heartaching at the inability to offer her my own resources. Because something warns me if I let her sleep in my house she might take my things. Something worries me that if I give her my food I could run out. Something suggests that I worked for these things and so they are mine to be shared within a safe circle of people I already know who largely already have things of their own. So much for directions to give to those in need. These words must be code for  “learn the appropriate agency to call and have the initiative to put in a referral.”

But even through her body-weighing frustration, I could catch a twinkle in her eye when she said she had slept outside under a full moon. I could bear with her frustrated, yet still dazzled, view of life.

She left in a much-calmed state from the frenzy surrounding her appearance. Listening and redirecting were the only things I felt able to do. They changed her demeanor if nothing else. As she left, she pulled a single stick of incense from her bag and handed it to me. “I hope you enjoy the scent.”

Later in the week, one of my plants grew too long to stand on its own. So I stuck her incense in the dirt and tied my leaves to the support, letting the scent of how we need each other drift across me, the neighborhood, the city. And the wondering of how far the smoke will float.


July 26, 2008

The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Is that social or political?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

(desmond tutu)

As the praise band finished our songs that began the church service on Sunday, we walked with our guitars out into the lobby to put them away so we could come back into the sanctuary with the gospel choir. But we discovered a small difficulty: Erica had left her guitar case at the front of the church. As we instructed one of the church youth who sang with us to get the case, she hesitated, saying, “Church is going on…you can’t just walk up there during the service…”

The youth group leader looked skeptical and replied, “The church is a living and breathing thing. It’s not a play. You’re allowed to move and be alive.”

I couldn’t help but note the significance of that statement.

Our regard of church has become too concerned with flawless presentation, and so we all cringe in agony when the sound system makes obnoxiously loud feedback in the middle of the sermon—not just because it hurts our ears, but because it interrupts the successful smoothness of the church service. I’ve noticed that many contemporary churches have created a fine line between entertainment and worship.

But church is the people.

Since people are far from flawless and do things like let a baby near the sound controls or leave their guitar case in the front of the sanctuary, the movements and mishaps of church embody us and reflect our imperfections.

I used to get completely frustrated by tone deaf voices that stood near me in the choir stands. But, strange as it sounds, after singing in my more perfect-sounding gospel choir in college, I found that when I returned to sing at my home church, the bad notes of voices that clashed with mine were comforting and seemed more alive. Life is nothing smooth or flawless. It’s when we attempt to gloss over our mistakes and present ourselves as perfect that we become even greater hypocrites and liars.

If we spend too much of our energy on Sunday mornings concentrated on getting things just right, we can easily create a nice and entertaining service that is too far removed from our imperfect lives.

This morning my wise grandpa offered a phrase about pacifism that evoked several chuckles and is just too good to forget. He said,

Becoming a pacifist is like becoming a vegetarian. You know it’s good for you, but it’s too hard to give up the baloney.

People often dismiss pacifists as idealistic radicals who are out of touch with reality. But the fact is that we (pacifists) recognize the failure of redemptive violence to create peace, and we see that violent methods only instill hatred and beget more violence. It takes frustrating patience and effort to discover creative peaceful methods, but this is necessary to practice the Christian ethic of peace.

The pacifist goes further than believing in imaginative, peaceful responses to violence. The path toward war is often one that nations take in order to build and secure their empires. As a pacifist, I not only reject the use of violence, but I reject the empire mentality and instead choose to follow the peaceful kingdom of the sacrificial lamb. In this alternative kingdom, worldly power and security are meaningless in comparison to humility, love, and eternal life.

My favorite national holiday might be Martin Luther King Jr. Day (partly because it’s usually the same day as my birthday and mostly because of the pertinent wisdom of MLK’s words), and I find it somewhat ironic that the U.S. can recognize the good he contributed to society and yet fail to heed the majority of his messages that condemn war and encourage people toward efforts that will end poverty. He has some really good stuff to say about pacifism:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to an evil power… It is rather a courageous confrontation with evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

The word “pacifism” immediately turns some people off, and thus we might do better to create new ways of referring to our hunger for peace. Instead of calling himself a pacifist, my uncle refers to himself as a peacemaker. I also noticed that in the entire book Jesus for President, there is a clear call to promote peace and refuse to participate in violent actions (supported with careful Biblical study), and yet the word “pacifist” is not used once. Dorothy Day might refer to pacifists as willing cross-carriers:

You just have to look at what the gospel asks, and what war does. The gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform works of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner and sick. The gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross of suffering on others.

An organization that I have the utmost respect for is Christian Peacemaker Teams. Their mission is based on the foundational question, What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?

It’s quite the question to consider. Especially if you’re sick of baloney.

[T-shirts with this logo are sold by Irregular Apparel at SKREENED: Ethical Custom Apparel. All their stuff is made in the U.S with no sweatshop labor. They also have a commitment to environmental sustainability, and they donate a percentage of their income to charity. Sounds great to me. They have a bunch of other cool logos to choose from or you can create your own.]

the kingdom question

June 28, 2008

I read and enjoyed Jesus for President (by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw) over the past week. Its stories and theological thoughts encourage ideas about Christianity that seem more in line with what I see in Christ than what I see in much of the church today. It is a book that encourages us to fully follow Jesus in a radical way (as the subtitle “Politics for Ordinary Radicals” declares). And it has pretty pictures.

The book ends by discussing the issue of the American presidential election—after having thoroughly established the idea that Jesus would never run for president. This idea was stirring in my mind as I was invited by my cousin to attend an “Obama for change” meeting. Although I’ve been all-but-brainwashed to support the democrats, and I’ve been quite the democratic party supporter, I’ve recently begun feeling somewhat uncomfortable about endorsing a presidential candidate at all.

I have discussed the election with Christians who strongly support the democratic party, and those who are devoted to the republican party, and both have come across as if their political affiliation is an aspect of their Christianity. I, most likely, have been one of those people.

But I have recently decided that as a peace-lover, I must not commit too much support to anyone willing to waste millions of dollars on election campaigns so they can then assume the role of Commander in Chief of the armed forces in a country that wastes an astronomical amount of money on the military and seems to constantly involve itself in wars.

Jesus for President offers this insightful passage:

The distinctly kingdom question is not about how we should vote but about how we should live . . . We vote every day with our feet, our hands, our lips, and our wallets. We are to vote for the poor. We are to vote for the peacemakers. We are to vote for the marginalized, the oppressed, the more vulnerable of our society. These are the ones Jesus voted for, those whom every empire had left behind, those whom no millionaire politician will represent. (pg. 334)

So while I have an educated and instinctive urge to promote Obama in the upcoming election, I will continue to place my hope elsewhere, realizing that even Obama, with his slogan for “Change,” is willing to wage war on other people if he thinks it’s in the best interest of the United States. The inherent difficulty is that whoever fills the role of president is willing to elevate the maintenance of this country’s strength and power (this empire) above all other allegiances.

We never see an empire that makes itself lowly and humble and allows the world to abuse it and put it to death while practicing love and nonviolence all along. But there is a savior who did just that, and his kingdom beckons us away from the power and violence of the empires of this world. It invites us to live in a radically different way.

One of my favorite quotes is from Lee Camp’s book Mere Discipleship:

It is not through the power brokers of human history that God will effect God’s purposes, but through the little minority band of peoples committed to walking in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, bearing witness to the new reality, the new creation, the kingdom of God. And all this, besides, requires great trust: that it is not our task to make things turn out right, but instead to be faithful witnesses. We will have to trust that God will be God, and do what God promised.