On Spiritual Friendship

rievaulx-abbey-2My formal time at USH is coming to a close.  I am blessed to have spent time with so many interesting, bright yet burned men and women.  When one moves on, so to speak, there is a natural tendency towards memory, reflection, and appreciation for the encounters, engagements and experiences.  I wrap up all these “e’s” with hopes, dreams and a wish list three miles long.  Instead, I would like to share thoughts from Aelred of Rievaulx about spiritual friendship and what it might mean for the USH community.

Aelred of Rievaulx is a Cistercian saint and spiritual writer who specialized in writing about friendship as an image of the relationship between God and each person. He was brought up in Northumbria, which was steeped in the traditions of Celtic monasticism, and stories of holy men and women who kept alive the flame of faith brought by Aidan, the Irishman from Iona, in the seventh century.  It became clear at an early stage of his monastic life that Aelred had a gift for directing others, a capacity which was marked by compassion and gentleness. Bernard of Clairvaux officially recognized this by asking him to write a spiritual directory for newcomers to Cistercian life, The Mirror of Charity, which reflects Aelred’s spiritual acumen.  When he became abbot, the numbers at Rievaulx escalated to hundreds as he rarely turned young aspirants away.

Besides being a sensitive pastor, he was also a spiritual writer of depth. In his later years, with a long period of involvement in the pastoral care of his monks behind him, he wrote what would come to be acknowledged as a spiritual classic, On Spiritual Friendship.

Aelred speaks about spiritual friendship – a relationship which helps us grow in love: love of each other and love of God. In fact, for him friendship is a sacrament of God’s love. In an earlier book he notes that just as there is a continuous dialogue and interchange of love between the three persons of the Trinity, so human beings – the rational creatures made in the image and likeness of this Trinity of Persons – are called to relationships based on mutual dialogue, exchange, sharing and self-giving. According to Aelred, this is the theological foundation for all spiritual relationships.

Aelred’s weaves his contemporary understanding of friendship with the ancient tradition of Cicero, the theological depth of Augustine, and his own psychological insight into human nature.   He defines friendship as ‘agreement on all things sacred and profane, accompanied by good will and love,’ a definition he borrowed from Cicero. Ideally, friendship becomes a form of charity when it meets with a reciprocal response, so it is based on mutuality.

In Christian friendship each one shares, each listens, each gives and receives. Beyond his role as abbot, Aelred emphasizes the equality of those involved in the relationship and the responsibility of each for its depth, and so he refers to a friend as ‘a guardian of love’ or ‘a guardian of the spirit itself’. He says that the reciprocal response we encounter in these relationships is a small image of what we shall discover in God.  This is a relationship of two persons acknowledging the Christ in each other.  I might add to this the concept of companion.  The residents also need companions.  Bread fellows with whom they can break bread (panis) with, share in outings and conversation.  Herein lies another place where congregations could participate in community building.

Aelred speaks about the spiritual fruits of friendship and says that ‘those who have no friends are to be compared to beasts for they have no one with whom to rejoice, no one to whom they can unburden their hearts, or with whom to share their inspirations and illuminations.’ He calls a friend ‘another self to whom you can speak on equal terms, to whom you can confess your failings, to whom you can make known your progress [or lack of it!] without blushing, one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart.’

Needless to say, prayer is an intrinsic part of this relationship. Aelred says that when we pray to Christ for a friend, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that our affection will pass from one to the other, ‘so that we might begin by an awareness of our friend in prayer before the Lord, and gradually understand that when we are with Christ we are also with our friend’. We carry our friend with us in the deepest part of our being where God is found. For Aelred ‘friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge God, so that human beings from the experience of human friendship become friends of God.

What does Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship has to do with the USH community?  I return to Bonhoeffer, who emphatically claims that if you are enamored with community, it will fail.  If you care about your fellow brethren, community will grow.  These past eight weeks the USH community has been exposed to exploring spiritual gifts, attending Sunday worship, Bible study, and creating mandalas and being.   My hope is that these spiritual practices may lead to spiritual friendships that will help each man or women to grow in their trust in God, themselves and each other.  Such friendships spawn community.

A final thought.  I cannot help but wonder what our world might look like if each congregation were to embrace, own, operate or extensively support a living community for disabled persons.  One where current parishioners were active in the conduct of the day-to-day life of such a community.  One close enough to the church so that living community members were able to be active participants in the life of the congregation. We have the resources with God’s help.  Do we have the will?

References

“Aelred of Rievaulx: on spiritual friendship.” CatholicIreland.net. November 30, 1999. http://www.catholicireland.net/aelred-of-rievaulx-on-spiritual-friendship/ (accessed August 31, 2015).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1954.

Rievaulx, Aelred of. Spiritual Friendship. Edited by arsha L. Dutton. Translated by SJ Lawrence C. Braceland. Collegeville,: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1992.

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The Fabric of This Community

Fabric of Our CommunityLike good liturgy, Sundays are beginning to take regular shape.  It is worth noting that in ancient Greece, a liturgy was a public work performed for the benefit of the city or state.  Its principle was the same as the one for paying taxes, but it could involve donated service as well as taxes.  Paul speaks of the Roman authorities literally as “liturgists of God” (Rom. 13:6) and of himself as “a liturgist of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Rom 15:16).   My reference to liturgy here encompasses both the secular and faith contexts.    While USH is not a public work it is a group of individuals, somewhat dependent on and responsible to one another benefitting its community.  It is the work of the residents that lends shape and order to this USH community in which people live.

I arrive around 8:00am.  Some residents are already at church.  Others are out for a walk or still enjoying a slow Sunday start.  At 8:00am, San Diego is already at an unseasonable 80 degrees with 80% percent humidity.  The Mandala templates, prepared yesterday are under the TV in the commons area.  D is a good steward of the colored markers.  He retrieves them and they are placed in containers next to the templates so everyone can get the idea and participate.  B, who  has a room and bed at USH spends a great deal of time with her boyfriend who lives in the park.  She picks up six of  the mandala templates, about a half-dozen colored markers and heads out the door.  I assume she is going into the park to work on mandalas with her boyfriend.  This is USH outreach in a most organic fashion.  How wonderful it is to see this ancient form of meditation reaching people in the woods of Balboa Park.  R comes out of his room, greeting me with the usual very southern and proper, “Good Morning Miss N.”   R, and how are you?  “I am doing well.” Usually, I only get, “I’m okay.”  But, we have been working on this exchange and it seems to be taking hold.

Yesterday, M had let me know that the Tea Bar was low on tea.  I forwarded a request for replenishment but went ahead and picked up a couple of boxes of tea packets to get the group through until the order arrives.  Apparently, tea is gaining in popularity as the drink of choice over coffee – decaffeinated, herbal tea that is.  A little history here.  The Tea Bar was inaugurated about six weeks ago as an alternative to coffee.  A dedicated hot-pot was purchased for “tea only” use.  An attractive sign produced and various flavors of herbal tea introduced.  The Tea Bar has many new and frequently visiting friends.

Several people began to ask about when we were leaving for church.  At 10:20pm D and I left for St. Paul’s.  J attended 8:00am, as usual and we could not locate O.  D attended several times before with me.

Afternoon, around 2:30pm is Bible Study time.  Today, it B, J, and N attend.  We are on Day 6, still in Genesis and continuing Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount.  Abraham and Sarah acquire new names, Ishmael and Isaac are born.  Abraham successfully negotiates with God on behalf of the people of Sodom.  Good discussions ensue, in between the usual creative distractions and questions coming from a mind full of “what ifs.”  Our take aways?  We are fortunate to have a loving and generous God, whom we praise in humility as misshapen earthen vessels.  We are imperfect and rely upon God’s grace as we try each day to do God’s will in our actions and with our voice.

After two months of being present, life at USH takes on a certain pattern and flow that involves liturgy, study, activity, and conversation in community.  Residents engaged in spiritual and interest inventories.  Weekly Bible study progressed.  Individual copies of Forward Movement are available for daily meditation.  Colorful mandalas created.  Visits to St. Paul’s on Sunday’s and during the week were shared.

The sights and signs of community are emerging.  Flowers are placed in the vase at the front desk by others now.  Smiles abound, even though the pain remains.  What is the tie that binds this evolving, rather fractured, unusual community cadence?  Our dear residents live on the edge of sanity and reality, incapacitated by hurt, pain or abuse, surrounded by discrimination and rejection for a good portion of their lives.  Is Jesus the selvage, the oneness, that binding-at-the-margin that holds us all together and keeps the fabric from utterly unraveling? With abiding hope, I believe so.

References

Gregerson, Linda. “The Selvage.” Poetry Foundation. December 2010. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/240828 (accessed August 30, 2015).

White, James C. Introduction to Christian Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Zabriskie, Marek. The Bible Challenge. January 10, 2015. http://thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org/ (accessed August 15, 2015).

Taming the Monkey Mind

Being-presentAs my time as USH winds down, I reflect on the first several weeks when I was with the residents Saturday, Sunday and Monday getting to know them.  I did not know their pain, hurts or stories.  Nor did I know their mental health or self-medication challenges. I was not sure how to initiate a conversation, what questions to ask or what questions I should not ask.  As I was present on the weekends, many of the regular activities were not in motion.  The weekends were just that – weekends when people relaxed, did their laundry, went for a walk in the neighborhood or the park.

Part of my assignment was to serve as a backup Residential Assistant.  The duties included signing off on chores, cooking meals, refilling paper supplies and anything else that helped keep the house neat and orderly.  I gravitated to the cooking to use fresh food that would spoil if it were not used. I just was present in and among the residents wondering, questioning…who are they, what are their hopes and dreams, passions, what do they see as their  obstacles to living full lives?  Can I imagine or understand their pain or agony, that which is so deep one cannot see it? Okay, here’s another “journey towards the center” about to take place.  I find myself wondering exactly what does it mean to be present? What does it mean as a Christian to be present?

Being physically present and accounted for is important, but I think it entails much more than that. Being present also means to be focused and engaged in the person or task at hand.  Being present requires a focused engagement of every aspect of our being including the physical, mental, emotional and even the spiritual.

We live in a world that militates against our being present in the moments of our life.  We are bombarded 24/7 with distractions and demands for our presence, primarily through media, social networking websites, and e communication.  Perhaps we delude ourselves into thinking that with the sophistication of technology we can now be omni-present because we can multitask.  Can one tweet and talk and be fully present at the same time?  Can we make ourselves to be like God, who alone is omnipresent?

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) seems like a reasonable place to begin. The Hebrew word for “be still” literally means to “cease” or “cease striving”.  As I strive to build relationships at USH I realize that to be present in any relationship I needed to push the pause button on and forsake everything else in my life and focus on God in that moment. Perhaps there was ways I can improve truly being present. Here are a few I intend to pursue.

 Be Watchful – Stay alert and discerning. Jesus tells us to “Keep watch” and Paul warns,  “Be watchful “(Matthew 24:42, 1 Corinthians 16:13 & Ephesians 6; 18).  As I get to know the residents, I increasingly understand and come to know their frustrations and joys, and it takes the active engagement of all my senses to experience these revelations.

 Be Content – Being content with the moment I am in and not wishing for some other moment either past or future will help me abide in the present.  Paul tells us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NIV) One of the true delights of time at SH is Bible Study in the Commons Area.  J is always there: other people come and go.  J is fascinated with Eve; he is a true feminist.  I am glad he is on my team!

 Be Thankful – Being content and thankfulness go hand in hand.  And so it is possible to “be thankful in all circumstances, “for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT).  As L says every time I ask him, “How are you”?  He responds, “Grateful.”

 Be Prayerful – When the moment I am in is not a pleasant one or is trying my patience I have the option of turning to God in prayer.  Prayer enables me to be present when other things around war against that.  Prayer also helps me be more discerning to find God in the moment. It is joy to worship with L, D, and B on a Sunday morning at St. Paul’s.  As we pray, I hope for their peace and resolve to forge forward into full lives.

Before concluding, I would like to go back to the pause button for a moment and close this reflection with this thoughtful poem by May Sarton. As I review the passing weeks at USH, I hope I am left with more questions than answers and the time to luxuriate in the space between the question and answer. I noticed today and yesterday, when I pause and let go, my monkey mind[i] chatter is greatly reduced. It has been helpful.

Beyond the Question

The phoebe sits on her nest
Hour after hour,
Day after day,
Waiting for life to burst out
From under her warmth.

Can I weave a nest for silence,
Weave it out of listening,
Listening,
Layer upon layer?

But one must first become small,
Nothing but a presence
Attentive as a next bird,
Proffering no slightest wish,
No tendril of a wish
Toward anything that might happen
Or be given,
Only the warm, faithful waiting,
Contained in one’s smallness.
Beyond the questions, the silence
Before the answer, the silence.

[i] The monkey mind (kapicitta) is a term sometimes used by the Buddha to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behavior of ordinary human consciousness (Ja.III,148; V,445). Once he observed: `Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night'(S.II,95). Anyone who has spent even a little time observing his own mind and then watched a troop of monkeys will have to admit that this comparison is an accurate and not very flattering one. On another occasion the Buddha said that a person with uncontrolled craving `jumps from here to there like a monkey searching for fruit in the forest'(Dhp.334).

In contrast to this, the Buddha asked his disciples to train themselves so as to develop `a mind like a forest deer’ (miga bhåtena cetasà, M.I, 450). Deer are particularly gentle creatures and always remain alert and aware no matter what they are doing.

References

Chadron, Thubdon. “The Monkey Mind.” Guide to Buddism A-Z. 1995. http://buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=274 (accessed August 28, 2015).

Eunice C. Wong, Rebecca L. Collins, Jennifer L. Cerully, Elizabeth Roth, Joyce Marks. Stigma, Discrimination, and Well-Being Among California Adults Experiencing Mental Health Challenges. Internet, Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2015.

Stuart, Tom. 8 Ways to Be Present. January 4, 2012. http://tomstuart.org/2012/01/04/8-ways-to-be-present/ (accessed August 28, 2015).

God’s Affection In Motion

God's AffectionThinking about affection tends to evoke positive feelings for someone or something.  But I would like to suggest that affection is more than a feeling.  When I first came to SH, it felt cold, stark, and inhospitable. This is home to nineteen men and women whose lives have been rent and ripped apart by circumstances early on which were neither in their control nor their choice.  They know more than the fear of abandonment; they know the state of abandonment, desertion, or neglect.

Years ago, someone visiting me commented that my house had no affection.  At the time, I did not understand my friend’s remark.  Subsequently, I learned the meaning of her comment and the value of living in and with affection.  I fondly recall Alexandra Stoddard reflecting that “efficiency and convenience alone don’t bring joy; beauty is the mysterious element.” I speak not of material or lavish beauty but of God’s beauty that soothes our busy and anxious hearts.  It is the beauty of color, texture, encompassing the senses of sight, touch, smell, taste and sound.  This insatiable desire for God’s beauty stokes the fire of our Christian life. We ask for the same thing every day: “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). And we testify together: “all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:5–6).  We must have God’s beauty; this beauty matures into abiding affection.

The beauty of God’s tender mercy calms me down, lets me breathe again, and slows my heart’s frantic scurrying about.  In all my anxiety, God is undeterred and gentle with me.  It is this same tender care of my surroundings that leads to a greater sense of wonder and solace, freeing me merely “to be.” God’s beauty fuels my sense of call to ordained ministry; without it, I wither.

Now, how might one go about beginning to create an affectionate environment at SH so that its residents can feel they live with affection in a cherished and loving home?  The bleak SH, perhaps is a form of chaos, but the Spirit hovers near prepared to create.  It could come in the shape of a simple white rose, snipped fresh from the garden when the dew is still on the petals, placed in a plain bud vase on the front desk.  Possibly, it is the computer sitting in the middle of desk moved to the side so that a smile greets visitors instead of the back side of a computer screen.  Or what about scrubbing the baking pans that have a well-aged grease patina on them from cooking many meals for twenty people, so they sparkle and shine with new life.   Imaginably, it could be the hanging of colorful posters on the walls in the dining area so that people have something to look at while they eat their food at the counters facing the wall.

Collectively and individually these actions of tender care, love and concern are outward signs of an abiding inward grace and affection.  It is important for us to care for our surroundings as we “love one another with mutual affection; outdo[ing] one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).  Engaging our affectionate behavior in our surroundings and among our brothers and sisters constitutes God’s affection in full motion, headed for a new dimension of well-being and a heighten sense of wholesomeness.

References

Stoddard, Alexandra. Creating a Beautiful Home. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1992, p. 45.

The Birthday Box

The Birthday Box

How often do we take for granted the gifts from God in our daily lives? Do we presume that our birthdays, Christmases, Easters and other holidays will be abundant with food, drink, gifts – family, friends or community? Many of us are blessed with these events occurring in our lives; we simply expect them to happen. Sometimes, we might even wish we did not have to partake, what with all the demands and stress that are part of living today in this postmodern global world. Consider what our lives might be like if we never celebrate anything. That our lives are a virtual wasteland as far as family or community celebrations are concerned. This is the experience of many residents at SH. Broken homes, disrupted families, abandonment, abuse – these conditions make celebrations hard to happen.

Apparently in SH’s past history birthday celebrations occurred. Currently, such celebrations take place once a month. Last Saturday, L announces that “we are celebrating S’s birthday today.” “Okay,” says I, here we go!” L and I have conversations, share ideas, and now the energy arises together! S selects the cake and icing flavors; L bakes the cake. The SH community rallies with cake, card and candles to honor her on her special day, her Birthday. The card is signed; “Happy Birthday” is sung. All present take the time to enjoy cake and ice cream with S as she reads the messages on the card and smiles after studying each greeting or wish. Plus, we have a picture that she asks to be posted on her Facebook.

Okay, birthdays may be all about the “I” in us. As Christians our focus tends to be away from ourselves, in service to God and humankind. Why would we want to promote the “I” in us? What does our Christian heritage say about birthday celebrations? What are the cultural roots of acknowledging birthdays? What contemporary psychological aspects deserve consideration? These questions peak my curiosity and stimulate an exploration of the birthday celebration tradition and to affirm the relationship between God’s love and celebration birthdays.

Egyptians started the party. When pharaohs were crowned in ancient Egypt they were considered to have transformed into gods. This divine promotion made their coronation date much more important than their birth into the world. Scholars have pointed to the Bible’s reference of a Pharaoh’s birthday as the earliest known mention of a birthday celebration (around 3,000 B.C.E.), but Egyptologist Dr. James Hoffmeier believes this is referencing the subject’s coronation date, since that would have been the Pharaoh’s “birth” as a god.

 Greeks added the candles to the cakes. The Greeks offered moon-shaped cakes to Artemis as a form of tribute to the lunar goddess. To recreate the radiance of the moon and her perceived beauty, Greeks lighted candles and put them on cakes for a glowing effect. The Greeks most likely took the idea of birthday celebration from the Egyptians, since just like the celebration of the pharaohs as “gods,” the Greeks were celebrating their gods and goddesses.

 Ancient Romans were the first to celebrate birthdays for the common man (but just the men).The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Romans were the first civilization to celebrate birthdays for non-religious figures. Romans would celebrate birthdays for friends and families, while the government created public holidays to observe the birthdays of more famous citizens. Those celebrating a 50th birthday party would receive a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. All of this said, female birthdays still were not celebrated until around the 12th century.

 Christians initially considered birthdays to be a pagan ritual. Due to its belief that humans are born with “original sin” and the fact that early birthdays were tied to “pagan” gods, the Christian Church considered birthday celebrations evil for the first few hundred years of its existence. Around the 4th century, Christians changed their minds and began to celebrate the birthday of Jesus as the holiday of Christmas. This new celebration was accepted into the church partly in hopes of recruiting those already celebrating the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.

 Contemporary birthday cakes were invented by German bakers. Although the general idea of celebrating birthdays had already started taking off around the world — like in China, where a child’s first birthday was specifically honored — Kinderfeste, which came out of late 18th century Germany, is the closest prerequisite to the contemporary birthday party. This celebration was held for German children, or “kinder,” and involved both birthday cake and candles. Kids got one candle for each year they’d been alive, plus another to symbolize the hope of living for at least one more year. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was also a part of these celebrations.

The power of positive psychology is real. Positive Psychology emerged at the beginning of the new millennium as a movement within psychology aimed at enhancing human strengths and optimal human functioning. This emerging area of scholarship, scientific research, and application has inspired leading scholars and practitioners from across the globe to rethink the fundamental nature of how we live, work, and educate; of our health and well-being; of how to design and lead positive institutions; and how to develop positive public policies. Data show that children from broken homes are five times more vulnerable toward mental health challenges as adults. Teaching people how to be happy and lead productive lives starts with surrounding them with positive people. Learning to celebrate each other’s special moments in community fortifies people for continued growth and development.

I conclude that celebrating one’s birthday is a good time to reflect on God’s love. We are each special, unique and precious in God’s eyes; “for you, created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). Consider that the Exodus (Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread) was an annual celebration of the birthday of the Jewish nation. Pentecost or Easter perhaps could be considered an annual celebration of the same for the Christian church, but I tend to think that Sunday is the weekly celebration of this. Yet each of the commemorative dates is truly a celebration with a focus on what God has done. Every annual milestone God enables us to attain, personally or as the church, is equally an opportunity for the same.

How might this practice continue at SH for each resident moving forward? Perhaps through the help of the “Birthday Box”. Right now it contains cards, candles and decorative icing. The idea is that box will be filled with cake mixes, icings and some simple gifts so that everyone can be recognized on their special day throughout the year. Birthdays will be a rallying point that brings people together to honor, a brother or a sister. Would it not be wonderful if churches would take on supporting a year’s operation of The Birthday Box at SH?

“O God, our times are in your hand: Look with favor, we pray, on your servant S as she begins another year. Grant that she may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen her trust in your goodness all the days of her life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And as children of our loving Father, we have been given many gifts, starting with the first breath of life in the first moment of our very first birthday. Subsequent birthdays, even — and most especially — after we have grown up into grownups, are a meaningful opportunity to acknowledge our Father’s love: this is something that we need a lifetime to understand, because there are so many counter messages assaulting us from the world of men.” Amen

The Book of Common Prayer

References

Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

“Exploring Positive Psychology.” DBOS Claremont Graduate School. September 5, 2014. http://www.cgu.edu/positivepsychology (accessed August 23, 2015).

Henderson, Carolyn. “God Gave You a Birthday, Celebrate It.” Commonsense Christianity. May 2015. ://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonsensechristianity/2015/05/god-gave-you-your-birthday-celebrate-it.html#IzVdKwQd47WtEiA0.99 (accessed August 23, 2015).

Luling, Todd Van. “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year.” Huffington Post. 11 11, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/11/history-of-birthdays_n_4227366.htmlin (accessed August 22, 2015).

 

One by one, day by day

One by One, Day by Day

While the residents tend to be the focus of attention at Safe Haven, this program would not exist without a competent and dedicated staff. As most of my service occurs on the weekends, I have a fair amount of interaction with L who is a wealth of both professional and personal experiences. Personally, he shares some of the life struggles of those encountered among the residents and he has overcome them. Professionally, L is kind, thoughtful and full of wisdom.

Recently, L shared a Wayne Dyer story with me that I am still mulling over and wondering, could it really be possible in our broader world?  It is about a young, disabled child wanting to play baseball with the regular boys. The team is losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. One of the boys invites Shaya, the young boy, to join his team. By the ninth inning, the team has a few runs but is still behind. The bases are loaded with two outs and it is Shaya’s turn at bat. He clumsily swings at the first pitch. For the second pitch, a team member joins Shaya and together they hit a slow ground ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead the pitcher throws the ball in a high arc towards the right field, far beyond the reach of the first baseman. Everyone encourages Shaya to run to first base and he scampers down the baseline. By the time he reaches first base, the right fielder has the ball. Instead of throwing the ball to second base he throws it way over the head of the third baseman. Meanwhile, everyone cheers Shaya on to run to second base and the shortstop yells to Shaya to run on to third. Then the boys on both teams scream to Shaya to run home. As he steps onto home plate all eighteen boys lift Shaya on their shoulders and make him the hero, as he has just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for this team.

There is no lost sheep in this story. Surely, the boys on both teams want to win the game. Yet, something inside of them decided that it is important for Shaya to win, too.   This community action is what Bonhoeffer reminds us about…”He who loves community destroys community; ho who loves the brethren builds community.”

As I look at my own call to ministry, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to build community, how to instill the rewards of everybody winning, sensing that it takes the will and faith of individuals to make community, and God’s grace to overcome the struggle for self-justification. Competition is age-old behavior as Luke reports, “There arose a reasoning among them which of them should be the greatest (9:46).”  Perhaps no community comes together without this thought emerging as a seed of discord. The baseball teams exemplify community action rooted in love, perhaps even “God’s Perfection” as Wayne Dyer suggests. What matters is how the boys react or respond to Shaya. And this is true for Safe Haven residents as well. We are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and gifts, not as we would want them to be. Community means giving them space, helping them to grow. It also means receiving from them so that we too can grow. It is giving each other trust. With intention and loving responses, one by one and day by day, community builds at Uptown Safe Haven.

 

Pink Lemonade Blueberries and Strawberry Corn

Pink BlueberriesPink Lemonade Blueberries and Strawberry Corn…what is our world coming to? This new pink blueberry provides year-round beauty and interest. Pinkish-white, bell-shaped blooms appear in spring. Summer brings pale green fruit that quickly turns deep pink for harvest. Autumn leaves are bright orange and red. The fruit is deliciously sweet and mild with a pleasant firm texture.  And Strawberry Corn? These adorable little two-inch ears look remarkably like strawberries! They are great for decorations or crafts. It is also edible and pops into fluffy white popcorn.

R knows all about them and thinks we ought to plant both of these horticultural jewels in our emerging Herb Garden next to the Purple Dragon Carrots, another R suggestion.   “R? Where did you learn about these unique edible delights?”, I ask. He responds, “From my grandfather who farmed in Mississippi.”

R is a tall, square young man with a cylinder shape haircut and a magnanimous personality. He is friendly, but it takes time to draw him out. Today is R’s and my day! We have an extensive conversation. He is the first to sign up for the Herb Garden planting the weekend of August 22 and to recommend what he thinks ought to go in the garden. Rosemary is his official entry. During this enlightening conversation thoughts race through the back of my mind. Listening to R and simultaneously creating context from the bits and pieces I am told, reminds me of Rudolph Steiner’s telling of the effects of earthquake tremors on people.  When an earthquake takes place in some part of the world and people feel the earth stirring under their feet, as a rule they experience a feeling of terror, a shudder runs through them. If we try to find the causes of this feeling of terror, we must turn our attention not only to those occasions when a person faces the unknown, unexpected and inexplicable, but also to those when terror arises because as long as the tremor lasts one is wondering how far it will go and what may still surge up from unknown depths.  Does R live with this kind of terror as the result of physical and mental injuries he suffered as a child?  Does he carry in him the tremors of intense pain hidden in the depths of his soul? Does he have a deep cry for communion, a cry for love and friendship? I believe so.

My role at SH is primarily to be present and to encourage activity and community. Context helps in understanding the challenges facing the residents.  I am aware of  the same profound cry for love, friendship and communion in all the residents with whom I am getting to know but it shows up in different forms unique to the individual.   At the same time in many of them I sense the deep fear that nobody can really love them, that nobody really wants them, because they are “dirty”, “evil,” “no good.”

R has many gifts; God has ways of acknowledging and affirming R’s gifts. Not only is R knowledgeable about edible plants, but also he will take a full load of classes at City College beginning in August. R exhibits the courage to move forward while he faces his mental health and self medication challenges head on. His façade? Light and carefree. His fears are real to him and his resolve present, but he is still vulnerable. God’s creation is part of R’s healing soul, which he brings with him from a troubled childhood. R is creating something new which will live on in him and in the Herb Garden.

I recall L telling me early on…”they all believe here.” I take that as a euphemism for “They all believe in God.”   Reflecting on today, I am reminded of residents who come to church with me, participate in Bible study, want to talk about faith or to pray, or sit with the Book of Common Prayer. Almost half of the residents participate in one or more of these faith expressions. What would the world be like if almost half the world’s population engaged in one or more of these “spiritual disciplines”?

God is working his purpose out at SH…in God’s time. Go R!

References

Steiner, Rudolph. The Hidden Depths of Soul Life. November 1911. http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19111123p01.html#sthash.FMiIaNqP.dpuf (accessed August 12, 2015).

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1992.

 

 

 

A Trek to the Trees for Health Garden

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Thinking about the SH community and its life together occupies a significant amount of my time.  Right now, everyone, more or less has their own schedule. No group activity is mandatory. Perhaps it is akin to herding cats. Perhaps it is akin to Kairos time. I began a weekly newsletter to sharing information about upcoming events in the community, such as at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Balboa Park to stimulate dialogue and to test people’s interests.

Activities need to be within walking distance of SH.  Realizing that Balboa Park is minutes away, a sign up sheet to visit the Trees for Health Garden, featuring dozens of tree varieties with unique medicinal properties was placed in the common area. Favoring native, Mediterranean, tropical and subtropical varieties, the garden includes trees used in traditional healing practices around the world (Mulberry, Jujube, Coffee Berry), as well as those prized for their nutritional properties (Pecan, Bay Laurel, and Pomegranate) and commercial applications (Tea Tree, Willow, Allspice). Four residents signed up and two went. B who straddles both the housed and unhoused worlds and V a longer time resident who has a close relationship with another resident. Two very different souls venturing out to learn about the healing trees. Interestingly, V was quite knowledgeable about some of the trees and this backdrop provided him with an opportunity to share some of his story. I continue to be amazed by people’s stories. V was born in Romania but he has lived and fished commercially in Alaska. He is open about his struggles and hopes for a bright future with plans to start over in a southeastern state soon. Both enjoyed the venture out and wanted to return with their significant others. V shared with me how much he enjoyed his second visit to the garden in the same day with his friend.  The trip to the trees served as the medicine for opening up and building community.

The magnitude of brokenness in the lives of the residents is significant. Scars one cannot see they are so deep and have been there for so very long. Yet in many souls lives a spirit intent on overcoming. Listening to people’s stories of abuse, neglect, pain and hurt evokes a deep sense of deep gratitude but also a keen sense of the importance of simply being present.  The social engagement experience is an art, balancing presence, God’s time, and readiness to seize an opportunity. With one successful “field trip,” another one is planned for the following week again to Balboa Park, the audio tour of the whole park. No one signed up but the newsletter continues and so does the journey of getting to know people’s yearnings and interests that build trust and support the healing of souls.  It feels like Bible study will happen soon.

The Incarnate Apple

The Incarnate Apple

It is Saturday and plans were to march in the Pride Parade. However, a level of discomfort is in the air and besides, as it turned out, the skies opened up and such rain never experienced in San Diego came down upon us. It was a hurricane-like tropical storm carrying with it the warmth of a comforting fleece blanket and the force of raining cats and dogs. Or was it Job’s God, “scattering his lightning about him, bathing the depths of his sea (Job 36:30)?” God’s creation was in high gear, making a statement with an arid earth welcoming each drop, each torrent to soak each grain of dirt, each cactus or thirsty tree, or blade of “approved” grass.

Time for Plan B. While not exactly apple season, the uneaten apples were wilting in the dining area…what to do with all this unused and very ripe expression of God’s abundance in our midst. Hurry, or the opportunity will be lost and big time waste will occur. I am still seeking ways to engage people, get to know them, learning what they think, feel or believe. Needy apples, rain, getting to know YOU….

A prop, yes sometimes props help. In this case, it is God’s creation, the ubiquitous apple. How could anything but good come from the presence of apples? Last week I brought in the apple all-in-one “corer/peeler/slicer” anticipating a rendezvous with the very ripe apples. The time is ripe.

One by one, all forty of them, I core, spiral peel and slice the apples, the way the meat grinder works, manually, by turning the crank. Being present in the kitchen as residents come into get a cup of coffee, practice social skills, peering at all the apples and wondering what ultimately is going to happen to them, as was I for at that point, I had no idea. I simply know they need to be prepared somehow and hopefully enjoyed in their various fashions. As I peel, core and slice,  I also began to explore in my own mind how the apple fared in biblical times. Was the reference profound, positive or peculiar?   At that point, clearly the apple preparation was a gathering place where people came into community around warm, sweet smells and hospitality.

Remember the social skills that were being practiced? One resident’s awkward approach was met by another’s kind and honest, “no thank you.”   Both residents walked away feeling good about themselves. Yes, indeed, “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11).” It was an amazing place to be grinding apples into oblivion and all this community unwittingly coming together in new and unusual ways around the apple. Throughout the four-hour period of prepping and cooking, residents pass through, check on the progress, stay and talk for a while and gather, as if that small kitchen area was grandma’s large kitchen of old.

The cooking…there were fried apples with onions on the side. I am not  sure how many sweet/savory devotees we had. The consensus? The combined flavor of apples and onions …delicious.   Plus, homemade applesauce is ready for dinner and an apple spice cake available as a sweet treat to end the meal. All of the apples in all sorts of conditions were consumed. They did not suffer a prolonged or uncomfortable demise.  Instead, they were happily enjoyed and even become part of the conversation as signs of community were observed, the loving of the brother or sister and each other without recognizing those expressions of conversation, smiles and pats on the back as community. As Bonhoeffer reminds me,  “He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community (Vanier 1992, p. 35).” Trust building begins in the presence of the apple. God’s creation, the apple, its skin, seed and flesh at the end of the day living in each resident, like the Trinity lives in us and binds us as community, in oneness with God.

References

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1992.