thoughts from oak park community

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Eggstravagant!

We have collected a lot of eggs recently–today we went out with the kids and gathered 90 eggs! Crazy. We’ll give you some, just come visit us. Very fresh!

new stars: privileges

Our church being a good typical baptist church, it does many things you might experience in your average baptist church (though being missionary baptist, there are also a lot of other things you surely won’t experience in your average baptist church). One of these things is your weekly altar call at the end of the sermon. Only they don’t call it the altar call. In the program, the altar call is when we all come to the center of the church, hold hands, pray, and then give nearly everyone in the building a hug.

They call it “invitation to christian experience or candidate for baptism.” It’s easy to be cynical about these times, especially if you’ve grown up in some form of baptist or conservative church setting. But I’ve seen a lot of goodness in these times. I’ve seen God work in people’s lives on many occasions.

After people have come forward, Pastor Howard always walks around down off the pulpit stage to the area by the front pews. He gets down on his knees and prays for them, often after he gives them a pointed admonishment (he knows many of them–he knows everyone). Not long ago, he finished praying and the deacons supported his arms to help him get up. And then he said, “It’s a privilege just to be able to get on your knees.

Being a young man, I don’t usually give a second thought to something so simple. And yet it truly is a privilege. It’s easy to take things for granted when you are young and mostly healthy.

His statement also struck me on a deeper level as well. For what are the things that we usually think of when we think of having a privilege? We usually think of opportunity. Of power. Of uniqueness. Of access. And some of these apply to his statement.

But our opportunity is the privilege of access to commune with the God of the universe through the humble act of giving up our power, of a submissive action that we can share with anyone else who would invoke their freedom to lay themselves down and offer up a few words to something greater than ourselves, to someone greater than ourselves. To do so is to acknowledge that we are not the boss, that we don’t have the power to control our lives. And our privilege is to know that we have don’t have to let ourselves be ruled by the authority of ourselves, freeing us from all those limitations and fears we hold.

Now if only we could really believe and trust in that reality. Then we could see who are the real privileged among us.

the spiritual discipline of wrestling

It may be best to start with a poem by Gerard Manely Hopkins:

Carrion Comfort

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

 

The poem doesn’t speak quite to where I am now, but I find it connecting to myself in the past. Indeed, the poem itself is a reflection on a previous experience (especially the last stanza). How do we look back on certain times in our lives? Often times we would much rather choose not to look back at all. Or think that we have done the necessary processing and healing and the past is in the past. One has to keep on living life, right?

I wonder if Jacob ever tried to hide the limp that he walked with ever after that fateful night of wrestling, when he refused to let go of his God. Was his wrestling over? or did he continue to struggle with every step he took from that night on?

The psalms also speak to us of the need for wrestling, for struggle, for sincere emotion–even with God, perhaps most with God. The need has arisen for it to be a discipline because it seems most of us would rather avoid it. It’s much easier to hide or disengage or bury those feelings. It will not be a regular discipline that we schedule into our day planners every week. But it will take setting apart a particular time and place. It will take a level of emotional energy. It will take more than I know to describe.

God help us–for we will need it if we are going to take you on. We already know we will lose, but you assure us that is the only way to really win, the only way to really live.

the simplicity of the present

Right now as a community we are trying to focus on simplicity. It’s not an easy practice in this day and age, in this society and culture. We are constantly being told in one way or another about all the things that we do not yet have, all the things that we are missing, all the things that we need to be protected against going wrong. Our lives are framed around the journey to succeed at life–which means getting to a place where you have all you need and you don’t have to worry any more, or something like that.

And yet despite all those voices, there is something so appealing about the idea of simplicity. The word itself just sounds nice. It speaks of a freedom from the ridiculous amount of choices that are supposed to represent freedom. It speaks of a freedom from the constant pressure of acquiring more and more, of replacing item after item. It offers a way out of judging our self worth by getting more, doing more, and climbing higher.

Of course the idea of simplicity is a lot easier than the actual practice of it. And that’s just the thing of it. We our entrapped by exactly what we seem to think we want. And it is very contrary to our culture to realize that we will find freedom in denying ourselves and letting go of what we want.

What stands out to me now, what seems still so early in this journey, is a simple line from a book on simplicity that just says, “the present isn’t enough for them.” I think that’s a good place to start, to learn to be satisfied with the present. to realize in a very concrete way that it is enough. And to accept that.

dirty jobs

We’ve had an exciting last couple of weeks here at the community. All the dry weather and then sudden rain did seem to agree very well with our plumbing. Our sewer line backed up and it wasn’t long before we knew that it hat broken somewhere underground. This is a major problem. The first major issue you face is where the break is–whether it’s under the building or outside, or if you’re really lucky, in the street (then it’s a city problem). The problem was only about 30 feet out though, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the case.

A.B. May really helped us out a lot with this, sending out someone to send a snake down the pipe with a camera and locator. We were extremely fortunate the the break was not under the building, and that it was only 3 feet deep (it can be as far down as 8-10 feet I believe). It was also just under a sidewalk, so we didn’t have to tear up any garden space or any of the pergolas or peach trees out back. Also extremely fortunately, we have a concrete saw because of the work we are doing for the farm out on the parking lots behind the church. In fact the giant saw (it’s like the size of a shopping cart–but WAY heavier) was only a few feet away. Also extremely fortunately, Bobby’s father is a contract plumber, so he was able to tell us all the things that we needed to get. I think it’s safe to say we were being watched over during this whole ordeal.

After locating the break, Bobby and I set to work digging down to find the pipe. After removing the concrete and a couple feet of dirt/clay, we got to the invested section. I’m not sure how long the pipe had been broken, but it had been at least awhile, because there were lots of goodies waiting for us mixed in with the clay. Side note: did you know that pee can crystalize? It also turned out the the pipe was fitted into a groove of a giant limestone boulder, making access to it somewhat difficult (it was also made to go around the rock, and it was at this joint that it broke). It was a messy job, but we got it done (Bobby did most of it) and saved thousands of dollars doing it ourselves. Thank God! Even though it’s fixed we are still strongly considering compost toilets!

Here are a few pictures from the whole ordeal (click for larger images):

St. John of the Cross

To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come by the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come by the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

--St. John of the Cross

New Stars: The Gift of a Day

One of the things I’ve noticed from the very beginning of going to the church service downstairs was a phrase used over and over again in prayers and sermons: “Thank you Lord for waking me up today.” This was an unfamiliar phrase to me, something I hadn’t really ever heard in my past–certainly not in church. Maybe it’s because it’s something we take for granted. Of course we’re going to wake up tomorrow, why wouldn’t we? Or because we think of it as something passive, something that simply just happens. I wake up. God doesn’t really play a part in that process, does he?

And there is the beauty of the prayer. We begin to realize that waking up is not a given. It is not just the scientific process in which our physical bodies (something separate from ourselves) instinctively know they’ve had enough sleep. Or it is not ascribed to the sound of an alarm clock. We have woken up this day by the grace of God. Our life is not fully within our control. Our life is not our own. Each new day is a gift.

I suppose one of the reasons it stands out to me so much is because it is one example of how the church downstairs helps me to see things that I normally just take for granted. Another time a woman prayed: “Thank you Lord, for a day we have not yet seen.” Far too often I approach my day by looking at what things are on my planner and think “well it’s another Thursday.” But this is a day I have not seen before. I take it for granted that it will be another day like any other. But we have not seen this day. Only the Lord has seen it and knows what is in store for us. And only with openness can we begin to see the things that might make this day different, that might change our lives in the small, summable ways that make up a good life.

the shots

For awhile there loud noises would startle me.  I could be out in the middle of a field in the country, or on the deck of a friends house in the suburbs, and any loud bang would cause me to jump.  That was shortly after moving into this neighborhood, after hearing gunshots regularly many nights.  It struck me, the conditioning that quickly overtook me, feeling the fear rise up in me at the bang of a door or the pop of a dropped object.  I had never had to grow up on edge like that.

I don’t know when it changed, but it did.  The popping in the night became all too familiar.  Just another round of shots.  Sound carries in the concrete city, and usually it’s not that close.  You can tell with the close ones.  But even those now–I don’t jump.  Maybe something has changed in that I am no longer afraid of the stray bullet.  Or more likely I’ve been desensitized to it.  Just another noise.  Another few shots.  Could be someone firing in the air.  Could be worse, could be much worse.  If these are the bells calling me to prayer, too often I’m hitting the snooze button–one that doesn’t work but to shut off the alarm.

Tonight they were close. It was only 8:30.  I didn’t jump.  I froze and listened to the four or five shots. I was in the kitchen and looked out the window. A man was walking down the street, the shots less than a block away. If he broke stride I didn’t see it. He just kept right on walking. I didn’t see anything else out the window so I kept doing what I was doing.  A minute later there were another ten shots, just as close, same gun. This time I awoke.

The sirens came. I looked out the window and saw neighbors running into their houses. I saw a police car pull into the car wash on 42nd and Prospect.  I went out on the roof and I could smell the gunpowder in the air.  An ambulance came but it was moving slow.  More police came but they weren’t searching for anything or anyone.  They taped off the area.  These are not good signs.

The news says a man was found dead, shot behind the car wash. No details are known yet, but that car wash is a shady place, especially after dark. So the guy wasn’t up to anything good–though that’s speculation. Would that make it better anyway? Did this man deserve to die, whatever he was mixed up in?

I heard a man die tonight. The lights went out. The consciousness gone. No more experiences. No more living. It’s different when you really think about it and don’t just pass it off with a single word and a categorization. When we keep right on walking. When we hit the snooze another time on drawing up compassion because well there is just too much shit in this world, and we can’t take it all in and expect to actually get anything accomplished can we? As long as it’s not close to me and doesn’t affect the people I know then I don’t generally have to honestly care about it. I can compartmentalize it, especially if it happens in those places it’s supposed to happen–war zones, drug zones, the ghetto.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I’m writing this mostly for myself, because that is what I’ve done my whole life. I’ve set myself aside from it. I’ve disconnected myself from the problems and realities of life of those I am not connected to. But who is my brother? Who is the whole world that God loves? Who is the Samaritan if not the one that I am not expected to care about?

Change my cold and weary heart Lord. You who see all the pain of the world, do not let us shut our eyes and our hearts. Wake our souls to the desperate need for life among our neighbors. And let us not forget the answer to that question, “who is my neighbor?”

Even now the sirens continue to cry out into the night.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

the bells

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The restoration of the church will surely come form a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.”

Though this was written more than 70 years ago, it still seems as if “it is now time to call people to this.”  Bonhoeffer started with his Bruderhoff Community, a form of alternative seminary based in community out in the country apart from the Nazi attention.  The 60s and early 70s saw a boost in intentional community along with the Jesus movement–baptized versions of hippie communes at times, but also sincere attempts to follow Jesus passionately.  And then most recently over the last two decades the rise (or return) of a grassroots movement calling itself “New Monasticism.”  (for more information see New Monasticism, or the more widely read Irresistible Revolution)

Our community is rooted in a lot of these ideas, and we’ve learned a lot from talking to and reading many of the folks doing this stuff.  But like the Bonhoeffer quote, there is a lot of ambiguity around exactly what this New Monasticism looks like.  It looks different in pretty much every community you might come across, though with many similarities pervading.  You could say we’re all just trying to figure out how to follow Jesus, and what we have in common is the belief that it’s best done with others.  That’s an oversimplification of course, and no church is going to say that it doesn’t believe in community (though it often is the case that in practice “fellowship” takes the place of genuine community).

I’ve been trying to understand more what it means to live in community, and what it means to be part of a “new monasticism.”  Talking to people who’ve been living in community for over 50 years helps.  Visiting monastic communities like Taize and reading about different monastic orders is helpful as well.  Seeing other communities like Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago and a handful of small communities in Kansas City doesn’t hurt either.  All that doesn’t necessarily help me explain it any better though.  Sure there’s the 12 marks (we would identify with a lot of these), but that really only says so much.  Perhaps that is why Jesus kept using parables to say “the Kingdom of God is like…”

Recently I had one of those moments where I had that flash–“yes! this. this is what it’s like!”  Like finding a mustard seed on the ground as you  were strolling.

There’s something about monastic life I’ve always been drawn to.  And no, it’s not the celibacy.  I strongly believe in the extreme importance of prayer, though that doesn’t mean I pray as much as I should.  I loved the time I spent at Taize, following a rhythm of life that involved prayer, singing, work, and relationships.  I would even be ok with living apart from society, offering up continual prayers as my participation in the work of God in the world.  But one of the things I really appreciate about New Monasticism is that it is an intentional effort to still live in the midst of society–not mainstream culture, but with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed (1st of the 12 marks).

But let me tell you–that is really difficult.  Monastics retreated from society to have space and time to pray.  So how do we find the time and space to pray regularly and continually, so that we would know God intimately and intercede for our neighbors, but also participate in their lives and try to be a support and help to the problems they face?  (oh yeah, and throw in a nice bit of gardening time to that as well, and marriage).  The monastics had a single devotion, and they gave themselves to it.  We have more than a few, and one of the things we just have to accept and learn to live in is the limitations that brings on.  And hope that in trying to do more than one thing very well, we will not find ourselves failing doing the few.

Many of monastic communities of old were called to prayer through the ringing of a bell, or several bells.  This would happen at the same times most every day, usually 3 or 5 times throughout.  The part of me that loves that regularity and rhythm knows that it would be probably impossible or at least very difficult to try to follow in our community.  But the other night I heard the bells ringing.  I heard the call to prayer that sounds out over our community without any regularity but charged with just as much insistence and urgency.  It is the rumbling of the police helicopter as it overhead in our neighborhood, responding to violence and pain presenting itself at any hour of the day or night.  This is our call.  The reality of the pain and trouble around us presents itself constantly through the sounds of sirens or shouting.  And just maybe a part of what that New Monasticism looks like is learning to hear those sounds not as the noise-pollution of the urban core, but as the bells that bring us to our knees and help us remain faithful to one our callings in this life.

New Stars: First Edition

New Rising Star Missionary Baptist is my new church home.  Of course quite literally it’s been my actual home for almost two years now, because I live there.  But more recently I’ve been going downstairs on Sunday morning more regularly, and their meeting of worship, their community of fellowship is becoming much more a place like home.  Which is great, because you know, it’s actually in my home.  Now if only they’d let us come in our pj’s.

It’s not all perfect though of course.  What church worship service is?  But this was different from my younger wrestlings with the way we do church and the dissatisfaction I’ve felt in the distance of services before.  Here there is a big cultural divide.  Here there is a major age gap between the majority of the congregation and myself.  And it is very different.  So different in fact, that it was really hard to go to at first.  But because of the cultural and racial differences especially, I couldn’t be critical.  It was something I didn’t understand.  And maybe in the past I’ve assumed that I understood more than I actually did about my own culture and our “church.”  So it took learning to see differently, straining my eyes, opening up myself—rather than dismissing it (though I did do that for a time).

So this is the first of a series of blog posts called “New Stars.”  Stars are often faint, and can be crowded out by too much light.  But if we allow ourselves to wander out far enough away from what we know, and if we look up into the sky long enough, some new stars will begin to emerge.  And we will see the sky more full than we knew it before.  Doesn’t that make for a nice poetic metaphor since the church is called “New Rising Star”?  Yeah I thought so too.

We’ll begin with something a little more on the humorous side.  This month is the church’s anniversary.  33 years.  In the Missionary Baptist Church (at least I think it’s common across other churches in the denomination), they call it the pastor and wife’s anniversary.  It goes on for a month and it has all these extra services.  Other Missionary Baptist churches take turns coming, bringing their choir and preacher to lead the service.  They happen nearly every Sunday afternoon (yes, after Sunday morning service has already happened as well), and also perhaps a Friday night or occasionally another time.  It’s a lot of church, especially when you also go to other churches as the visitors celebrating their anniversaries (there’s also a shared sunrise service at 6am once a month with these churches, complete with a trophy for the church with the most members, but that’s a post for another time).

So the other day in church, pastor was giving his remarks—a part of the order of worship every week (that’s another post), and as he was finishing them up he said, “alright, we got to get outta here so we can get back here.”

That made me laugh.  Not just because of the irony and humor in it, but because it also says a lot about their community.  At first I was critical of how much time they spend together doing similar worship services, but that criticism was definitely misguided.  They have an amazing closeness and knowing of each other within their community.  Their “welcome and meet time” of the service is no casual handshaking.  We all go to the center and hold hands while one of the pastors prays.  Then we spend 10 minutes walking all around the church hugging and talking.  It is a little intimidating at first, but it is wonderful.

Not to be critical of the church culture I grew up in, but I know most people get antsy if the service goes over an hour.  But though these services are longer, they also don’t have the sense that people are waiting for them to get over, checking their watches.  I know people get uncomfortable after they’ve turned and shook hands with all the people immediately around them, a lot of whom they don’t know.  But this is not an obligatory welcome to make church seem more inviting, it is deeply personal and emotional (another post for later).  And that has helped me to see something new about how we worship together.

I will now try to not wait for the time to pass and the service to be over so that I can get back to the rest of life and all the things I have to do, but perhaps sometimes look to our time ending together with anticipation of the next time we will come together, of the next time we share in community and life with the presence of God among us—even if that is just in a couple hours.