Saturday, June 20, 2015

Free Lunch for All

I'm taking a writing class, Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, this summer at the Muse Writing Center in Norfolk.  Thursday night was our first class.  Introductions, syllabus, signing up to present, reading Joan Didion aloud, and a bibliography of books, magazines, and journals recommended for our reading pleasure.  My downfall when it comes to writing - reading instead.  A quick check online assured me that a couple of the books on the syllabus were available at the local library, so off I trekked this morning - to get a new journal and to pick up a few books.  Why write, if you can read about writing?

As I ran up the steps of the library, I noticed a white tent just across the street in the common area by the fountain.  On the sidewalk stood a yellow sign advertising "Free Lunch:  All are Welcome."  I remembered that I had seen these people there once before when I had come to the library at lunchtime on a Saturday.  At the top of the steps a friendly woman caught my attention and asked me if I'd like a free lunch.  "Hotdogs and lemonade," she said.  I was hungry.  A hotdog sounded good.  "I might come by when I'm done," I said.  She looked pleased. 

After checking out the magazine section and determining only a few of the periodicals on my list were represented, I found two books, made it through the check out line and headed over to the free lunch.  I rarely eat hotdogs, but suddenly the thought of eating one would not leave my mind.  I still had grocery shopping to do and figured that some lunch would give me the energy to do it.  When  I passed by the sign again, I noticed that it said, "God loves you and this is the way He is showing you."  Or something similar to that.  Unfortunately I didn't think to take its picture.  No church name.  Just an assurance of God's love.  Now, I'm not sure that God shows me love through hotdogs, but I welcomed the service that this group of people was offering to our community, and I kept thinking of what a different sort of ministry it was to offer free lunch to all and not to "the homeless" or "those in need."  Part of me felt a little guilty for taking them up on their offer, but I was hungry, and I wanted to know more about their ministry.

Common Area across from Library
As I approached the tent where the hotdogs, baked beans, potato chips, and brownie bites were being served, I became aware of how hot it was and saw the sweat beaded up on the server's faces.  Two people were in line before me.  I overheard one saying, "Beans are good for your heart."  I giggled, recalling a silly song we sang as children. The server said, "Oh, I didn't know that about beans."  Evidently she was unfamiliar with "Beans, beans, good for your heart."  I giggled some more as the person in line said that there was a song about it.  "Oh," said the server.  Not being a bean person, I didn't have any for my plate, whether or not they're good for my heart.  I did take some chips and a brownie along with a cup of slightly cool lemonade.  As I looked around I noticed people sitting in the shade and a woman dressed in a brown religious habit moving about rather quickly as if on a mission.  I wasn't sure whether I would stay or go, but the woman who had talked about the beneficial qualities of beans in line asked me to join her and her new friend, a black man carrying a large backpack, in the shade.  I agreed and sat down next to her.  She introduced herself as Alex and the man as Melvin. 

Alex was quite chatty.  Seems she attends the church serving the meal, and she also goes to many other churches.  She had thick, dark auburn hair with a faded dusty rose cloth flower tucked behind her ear.  She wore a summer sleeveless dress that I discovered had an image of Belle and the Beast from Disney's Beauty and the Beast in little diamonds all over it.  She spoke of how much she loved church and how important it was for us to love everyone.  When she asked me if I had a church, I told her a bit about what I do and described the Sundays @ 7 service at SpiritWorks with the homemade ice cream.

"Churches should always have food," she said.  She thought it was good that churches feed people and admitted it helped her to save money on groceries.  She said she didn't care about denominations, just that we were loving people like God loved us.  Somehow the conversation turned to violence, and Melvin, in his Tampa Bay Sting Rays ball cap, brought up the Charleston shooting and how we can get shot in schools and churches now.  He said a man had been shot right outside his house, that someone had used the ice cream truck to lure the man out into the street.  He kept repeating that, "Can you believe they used the ice cream truck?"  And then he said, "It's not about race.  It's pink on pink.  White on white.  Black on black.  Asian on Asian."  He shook his head.  Alex said she thought we just needed to make a choice every day to spread God's love and not to be violent ourselves.  When I got up to leave, she hugged me and I offered a blessing to them both after thanking them for being my lunch companions. 

Eating a hotdog at a free lunch with complete strangers is very much out of my comfort zone.  And yet, I found myself observing my new friends with my reawakened writer's eye, trying to memorize what they looked like and how they spoke, amazed at their willingness to share with me.  I was reminded of the Prayer Station at CNU.  I'm glad I accepted the offer of a free lunch and encountered some people who will live on in my memory, though I may never see them again.  Though I would probably disagree with some of the theology of the church offering the free lunch, I have nothing but admiration for this ministry they provide and the way in which they provide it.  On my way out I saw a table with some Bibles and postcards advertising their church.  It was there and available, but off to the side, no pressure to buy. 

Free lunch for all invites the community together.  I may not have needed a hotdog, but I think I needed that reminder of God's love, that coming together of people from many walks of life, to share a meal and some conversation, to get to know one another a little better, to meet a stranger and make a connection.  I needed that concrete reminder of seeds being planted.  Thanks, Agape Mission Church, for your gracious outreach to Williamsburg.  Thanks, God, for the countless ways you show your love for us.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Blogging the Festival - Barbara Lundblad, "What's a White Person To Do?"

One of the lectures I attended at the Festival of Homiletics was given by Barbara Lundblad and was titled, "I Haven't Been to the Mountaintop:  What's a White Person To Do?"  She began by telling a Fred Craddock story about how he had attended the opening of an African-American Church in Atlanta and at the reception after the service a 6-year old black boy came up to him and asked, "Are you a mean man?"  The boy's father later apologized to Fred and said that some days were so hard that he just came home and spoke his mind and that his son had heard him say things.

Barbara asked, "Does my whiteness make me mean?"

She asked a lot of questions and she shared a lot of statistics, specific statistics that I did not write down, about slavery and "ghetto loans," about "mud people" and banks targeting black churches, about bills that address the issue of reparations but never make it out of committees, about red lines and people as assets.  Some of what she said I knew.  Some I didn't.  She was observing the things that she did not know.  Things that make you scream or weep or both when you do know.  She said them without passion, as observation, not scolding.  She suggested that as preachers we need to expose and envision - to tell truth, not to shame people.  She said we can expose by simply turning on the tv or internet and sharing what we see.  We envision by speaking about how things can be different.

Barbara told the story from Dr. Howard Thurman's book, With Heart in Hands, in which he explained to his daughters that they couldn't swing on certain swings.  "At present, only white children can play there.  But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida – it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings.  That is how important you are!" She talked about how stories are more powerful than statistics - and I know that to be true.

Barbara said we need to lift up how the little things matter, and she even made some suggestions about little things that we can do, and I know that's key.  It's the seed planting that Jesus talks so much about in the gospels.  But when I hear news like what came from Charleston today, I weep, and I want to fling the seeds away and scream.  It seems like it takes so long for the seeds of kindness and justice and mercy to grow while the seeds of anger and hatred and violence sprout and spread so quickly.  I'm reminded of the Indigo Girls again, "Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear."  I try so hard to stay positive in what I write on social media, but my heart is sick of all this violence.  It is so hard to keep from giving in to despair, especially when I hear people suggest that the solution is more guns.  Yes, I'm sure that's what Jesus would do.  I'm angry and I'm sad and I'm heartbroken, and I know I need to do something, but I feel so powerless. 

How long, oh Lord, how long?  How long will we as a people refuse your promise of abundant life for all? 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blogging the Festival - Craig Barnes and God's Will

"Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out." -11th step

I first heard Craig Barnes speak at the Festival of Homiletics in 2009 and immediately went to the Festival book store and bought, The Pastor as Minor Poet, his book that I enjoyed and recommended to clergy friends.  So I was delighted to get to hear him speak again this year.  He preached at one of the morning services and then gave a lecture.  His sermon was based on the beginning of Genesis, that tree in the garden, that hole inside of us - the one thing that we cannot have and that we so desperately want.  Barnes suggested that maybe God didn't want us not to have holes, that the first two pages of Genesis are all about God's plan and what God wants for us.  "The rest of the book is the recovery plan."  Ha!  It was an addiction and recovery sermon in my mind, and it spoke to me.  The idea that was new for me is that God's idea of Paradise includes a tree we may not have - a hole, as it were.  One that we're not supposed to plug up, one that's right in the center of our lives.  Rather than trying to fill the hole, Barnes recommended we set up an altar next to it.  Hmmm...  I continue to ponder what that might look like. 

The phrase that stood out the most for me though, was in his lecture when he listed things that are toxic to preachers, and he said, "Don't worry more about God's will than God does."  I had to think about that for a minute.  In the 11th step we are taught to pray only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.  Did Barnes say we're not supposed to be thinking about, praying about, and listening for God's will for us?  I don't think so.  What he said was that God leaves forks in the road for us and honors our freedom to choose.  If we're choosing between, say, taking a job in Florida or taking one in Kentucky, it's not like God is going to say, "Oops!  You picked the one in Florida.  Can't help you there.  You're on your own now.  Good luck!"  Barnes suggested that our worry about God's will is really about seeking certainty and not making mistakes.  Ah, yes.  Guilty as charged.  Seeking certainty so that I won't make mistakes.  I'm sure there is a part of me that truly wants to do God's will and listens and prays and tries to understand what that might be.  Mostly, though, if I'm honest, I just want to know what the right answer is so that I can avoid conflict, make everyone happy, (preferably including me and God,) and be successful in whatever I'm doing.  I so desperately want to be certain that I am GETTING IT RIGHT.  And the need to get it right is toxic to my soul, just as Barnes said that it is.  

A little more mystery.  A little less certainty.  "The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine."  Thank you, Indigo Girls.  Thank you, Craig Barnes.  Thanks, God. 

(For those who have read this far and are wondering what the elk pictures have to do with this blog post, the answer is that it's a mystery.  Isn't it cool that we were able to get THAT CLOSE to them, though?)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sundays @ 7: Intentional Community of Prayer

Tonight was our first ever Sundays @ 7 service.  We created it because people have asked us to have a First Fridays every week.  A full Eucharist every week doesn't fit our schedule or Bruton's, but we've been trying to figure out how to have a weekly offering at a time that is convenient for people.  For awhile we thought about doing a dinner church a la St. Lydia's in Brooklyn, but the thought of cooking dinner for a group of people is so stressful to me that I just couldn't figure it out.  Neither Jan nor I are cooks, and SpiritWorks doesn't have a kitchen.  One day "Sundays @ 7" popped into Jan's head, and in our minds it was also "Sundaes @ 7."  Ice cream sundaes don't stress me out at all!  Admittedly I hadn't planned on making homemade ice cream, but a little help from William Sonoma, and voila!  Homemade vanilla and mocha chip ice cream. 

The purpose of the service is to create an intentional community of prayer, not unlike Richmond Hill.  They pray for the City of Richmond.  We pray for those who have been affected by addiction.  So I started to develop a service based on Evening Prayer and then I switched to Compline.  In the end it's really a prayer and song service.  Jan and I accompanied the singing on djembe drums, and those who came joined in with shakers and other percussion instruments.  We had a time of silence like they do at Nadia Bolz-Weber's church, in which people could pray or light candles or write prayer requests on notecards to be read during the intercessions.  We used a singing bell to begin and end the silence.  One of my favorite parts was using the TaizĂ© song "O Lord hear my Prayer" in between each set of petitions during the Intercessions.  We pray for those struggling with addiction, family and friends, those who support people affected by addiction, people in recovery, and people who have died.  We include community organizations, first responders, sponsors, mentors, etc. We used the Gospel reading from the daily office, and I did a reflection about the feeding of the 4000.  We also had a recovery reading and a Psalm.  We ended with "Holy Manna," complete with drums and shakers.

The only thing that I didn't like about the service was that a train went through during the intercessions, and we are right across the street from the train.  Hard to be heard over a train!  But other than that, I was so delighted with the service.  I've never been brave enough to lead music with my drum before, but I had observed someone doing that earlier in the week and decided that I could do it.  We had fun creating the altar with items that we collected from around SpiritWorks.  We turned our little pavilion which is usually the designated smoking area into a sacred space, a space for prayer and worship.  Of course, being outdoors on a cool night with a breeze and sunshine was just the icing on the cake.  Well, except for the actual icing on the cake. 

I might not be able to cook dinner, but I can bake!  We sang happy birthday to Jan whose birthday is tomorrow, and everyone enjoyed a little sweet feast after the service.  So grateful for the beautiful day and the people who came and the stress-free set-up and that I was able to give my little reflection without a manuscript and that everyone participated in making music together and praying together.  I hope the service will grow as we continue each Sunday evening this summer, AND I was grateful for the 8 people we had.  Eight is enough to start a community, and start it we did, with reverence and gratitude and joy for all we have been given in our recovery.

"Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good."  -Sylvia G. Dunston, All Who Hunger Gather Gladly