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Archive for November, 2010

Back when I was 18, a freshman in college, I was introduced to Ani Difranco’s music and it changed my life. I don’t listen to these albums much any more, but I found a few lines of a song called Hour Follows Hour running through my head the other day:

You can’t really place blame
cuz blame is much too messy;
some was bound to get on you
while you were trying to put it on me.

And don’t fool yourself
into thinking things are simple.
Nobody’s lying,
still the stories don’t line up.
Why do you try to hold on
to what you’ll never get a hold on?
You wouldn’t try to put the ocean
in a paper cup.

In fact, it was Thanksgiving morning and at first glance the day was setting out to be a disaster. I was helping to orchestrate a community potluck meal that afternoon with about 50 people planning to attend. The night before I’d gone to bed after 1am, and was woken up about 2am because of a smoke-filled dining hall. Thankfully there was no fire, but my visiting in-laws who had been sleeping in the guest house upstairs from the main kitchen were pretty rattled. Only one out of about a dozen smoke alarms went off, and thankfully it woke them up.

The culprit: cornbread that had been left in the oven so it would be nice and dry for the next day’s dressing. There were no flames, just the burning hot coals, like little lava lumps, that had once been identifiable as cornbread. And a whole two-story building billowing with stinky white smoke.

At 2am I just knew that the person who had left the cornbread there would be devastated, and that the next day everyone in the community would issue guilt trips and want to figure out who was at fault…Who was it that left the oven on? Who had taken the batteries out of the smoke detectors? Who had failed to check the smoke detectors? Why didn’t the automatic fire suppression system in the hood above the stove come on? And so forth.

I rushed about the guest house and dining hall, opening windows and turning on all the fans we could locate. What would become of Thanksgiving? Would the meal be ruined by the smell of smoke? Would anyone gloat? Would anyone drive my dear friend to tears, the one who had been making cornbread and must have just made a mistake about the oven? What will my in-laws have to say about all of this?

I was shaking as I laid out the futon in our living room for my father-in-law to sleep on, while I got blankets out and the questions became turbulent in my foggy brain. I went for a walk in the dark. I rehearsed the next day’s inevitable arguments and battles with the mob of disgruntled voices in my head. I went and laid down in bed. I got up and took a shower because I could smell smoke on my hands. I tried reading scripture. I went outside again.

By the time I settled back to sleep it was 4am, and I needed to be ready to hit the ground running by 8:30. I woke up around 8, first to my alarm and then to the sound of my husband cursing because his dad had shut off the living room alarm clock at 5:30 that morning, and so he had overslept. He gets up early to milk the cow and take care of farm chores every day, and sleeping in really throws him off, especially when he’s 3 hours behind schedule. Immediately the Ani Difranco song popped in my head. “You can’t really place blame, cuz…some of it’s bound to get on you while you’re trying to put it on me.”

I fought through panic mode and decided as I squinted through the steam rising from my cup of coffee that I wasn’t going to play into any complaining, blaming, shaming or gossip that day. It was difficult to keep my mouth shut at first, but as the day went on the grumbling spirits drifted away. Many community members came through the dining hall to help set up the tables and figure out how to create a festive atmosphere and rid us of the smoky smell. I walked around singing Hour Follows Hour to myself, and every time I was tempted to blame someone or bring disgrace and self-righteous anger into a conversation, I remembered that my perspective is but one of many.

Besides which, isn’t there some scripture that says something about removing a log from my own eye before attempting to remove a speck from the eye of my brother? I was blessed to see my own faults in the situation, and dealt with it by keeping quiet instead of projecting my insecurity into the perceived failures of others. One small success, which led to one long, fun, beautiful day with many people whom I love and respect.

Ani Difranco is known for being an outspoken feminist, critic of mainstream politics and religion, and all out freak from time to time. That being said, I encourage you to click on this link and explore the lyrics to Hour Follows Hour. By clicking the play button at the top of the page you can listen to this sweetly melancholy, humble acoustic song. It amazes me how music that once encouraged me to turn away from the church has stayed with me through the years, and is still so relevant to my daily life now that I’m a professed follower of Jesus. Ani’s words will forever remind me that, when dealing with human relationships, nothing is simple, everyone has a story to tell, and that blame is toxic to the soul.

And, if this song speaks to your heart, I’d love to hear about it.

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“What the poor need is co-workers, not caseworkers; capital, not charity.” –Clarence Jordan

Lately I’ve been hyper-sensitive to the types of societal issues that can’t be solved by latching onto a particular cause and pushing for a certain outcome in a certain circumstance. What I’m talking about is issues that seem to encompass the problem in and of itself, but when I really begin to dig into the causes and conditions beneath the surface, I find that U.S. society is obsessed with removal of symptoms without treating the disease.

When it comes to poverty, we throw money and possessions at the problem, and tell people to do silly things like “pull yourself up by your boot straps.” To solve world hunger, we think we need to grow more food faster and cheaper. To put an end to war, we hold marches and rallies and demand that lawmakers make peace. To end crime we hire police officers and judges to arrest and convict criminals. The symptoms neatly taken care of, or maybe just shoved into a dark corner, we do-gooders pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and add a slash to our collection of good deeds.

This approach just isn’t good enough for me any more, and so I’m trying to be patient while I wait for God to reveal to me how he would like me to respond to the systemic problems that, according to Jesus, require the attention of all Christians. Living with integrity is an important part of it, but the other piece is having compassion for those I would like to judge, truly being willing to care for the “poor in spirit” even when it’s inconvenient.

At Koinonia, the reality of societal sickness is often right in front of my face, and there is nowhere to hide from the openly wounded souls who show up on our doorstep all too often. I am confronted with poverty, hunger, prejudice, alcoholism and addiction on a regular basis. And it’s so tempting to offer unsolicited advice, or to bark orders, to blame others for my reactions, or to just throw up my hands in despair and turn my back on those who suffer. But I am always reminded that Jesus came into the world for those who are sick; since I consider myself one of Christ’s disciples, I must learn the amount of humility it takes to serve those who are reviled by society.

And then there are those who seem outwardly fine, but bring with them a deep spiritual hunger. It’s not always obvious when a well-to-do family or a happily retired couple or a seeking college student arrives that they need anything at all. But when they are willing to reveal it, frequently they need just as much if not more along the lines of spiritual sustenance than those with obvious troubles.

As Clarence Jordan so simply stated, the poor need people not to throw them a few bones, but to walk alongside of them without judging them, and to stay present even when it would be more “sensible” to send them packing. This means, in some cases, physical work and cash money. But in all cases it entails prayer, compassion and willingness to engage in relationships.

When I look at it from a gospel perspective, the causes and conditions might not be so complex after all. Jesus says “Come to me, all you weary, and I will give you rest.” In light of this humble request, the causes and conditions are rooted in our stubborn refusal to come openly before Christ and allow him to work in and through us.

I pray that we may stay in relationship with the Lord and with one another long enough to realize the miracles that he created us to be. And in such a moment when we understand the wonder of our very existence, may we find relief from the troubles of this world. For Jesus did not tell us to rest after every problem has been solved and we’ve gotten everything just right.  He invites us now, to find rest in him. Only in accepting salvation through life in Christ can we be open enough for true miracles take place.

I’ll close with chapter 13 of the Tao Te Ching. The way I read this, groundedness in “the way things are” means seeking life in Christ and “the world” as God’s omnipresent spirit. Balance is achieved through faith, which enables us to act without fear:

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

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