Generosity? It’s complicated.

The other night I couldn’t sleep.

This is rare for me as I am a good sleeper.  I go to bed directly after I kiss my children good night.  I want to read.  I drift off many nights before ten o’clock.  But Saturday night I kept waking up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Additionally I felt anxious about something that I could not name.  This happens to me sometimes.  My asthma acts up from years of smoking.  It was never the less keeping me awake.

As noxious thoughts began to swell and demand attention, circling like buzzards above me, I finally threw back the covers in frustration.  I got up.

I don’t do the middle of the night very well.

Sleepers generally don’t I think as we are not used to how different it is being awake in the middle of the night.  I was aware of all the fears I managed to push away which tend to take over during the nocturnal hours.

Gone is rationality.  Gone is perspective and patience.

And so, I found myself awake, breathing with difficulty at three in the morning and I finally decided to get up.

Creeping down the stairs and into the kitchen, I was going to use my inhaler and then write.  I find writing is the best way for me to sort out what is bothering me.

There were people in my living room!

I was shocked, though it is not as if it was totally unlikely.  Molly is often coming in from work or being out and it is usually in the hours long past midnight.  But she was sitting there idly chatting with our two guests at three in the morning.  They looked at me like I was crazy (for being up) and I looked at them the same way.  I quickly high tailed it out of there!  As I scuttled back to bed, pissed off and feeling as if I had done something wrong, I recalled the two young people who had slept in our basement off and on for the last week or so.

When we returned from Seattle, we found out that friends of Molly were “homeless” and living in their car.  They had stayed a few nights in our basement while we were away, but had cleared out when we returned.  So I invited them back again.

For months, years, I have tried to resolve where to step in to the tragedy of the homeless here in Madison.

I want to do something.  I want to be intelligent and compassionate about it.  We all do the various things like offer a ride or or give money to the person with a sign outside the mall. Bring a bag of food when our church asks.   But those are band aids (and some would say giving money to transients is wrong.  In Madison it is considered breaking the law).

But I want to help real people advance in their life situation.

And so, it was easy to take these two people in and allow them to sleep on our futon in the basement and eat a few meals. When I pursued their situation further, it turns out they are “intentionally without a home, off the grid, dependent on no-one.” Okay, I think.  Why not? We had no idea what their short and long-term plans were.  One more night quickly turned into a week, more…

We have so much.

As the week progressed, it became less convenient to have them in the basement where Tom’s studio is and where we have and do our laundry.  Dare I say inconvenient?  And we soon learned that our guests slept until two in the afternoon and stayed up all night, as I discovered when I wanted to use my computer in the middle of the night.

One day, as Tom and I cleaned toilets, washed dishes and laundry, they woke up late and laid about on the back porch. What had begun as an easy kindness had quickly become something else.  Something you hate to think, much less say out loud to one another in whispered annoyance.

I caught myself thinking “they’re just freeloaders.”  To be sure, by the end of the week, if they had not made their intentions clear to us we were going to ask, to clarify how long they would need our help.

I woke this morning to a note.  They are moving on — going to live with his parents for a while in Cleveland, work and pay off debt.  And though they were polite, and picked up after themselves, and were extremely appreciative, I was kind of relieved to see them go.

Generosity is quickly complicated when it involves real people.

And all too quickly I saw how small my heart is.  I felt willing to be generous as long as it didn’t infringe too much on my comforts and needs, my daily schedule or priorities.  I have to keep asking what’s next for us?  I let them stay with us because I wanted to “do something” for the homelessness.  They were just two people, fairly affluent with a car, cell phones, a laptop and other luxuries but they have no home.   I was surprised to learn that only 18% of the homeless are chronically homeless.  Perhaps more people on the street are like them?  I don’t know.

Generosity — yes it’s complicated.

Understanding homelessness requires a grasp of several social issues: poverty, affordable housing, disabilities, and others.

Having these kids living in our basement brought up all sorts of complicated feelings and thoughts.  Why aren’t they working?  And yet how can I not share the warmth and shelter that we are blessed with?

In a letter to our mayor Paul Soglin’s assistant, Brenda Konkel recently wrote:

Over the years a great many who live homeless in Madison have found daily shelter in either the basement of the State Capitol, or the Public Library on W. MIfflin St. As it currently stands soon neither will be available. Word from the State is that there are no plans to reopen the basement of the State Capitol to the public, and the downtown Public Library at its current location on Mifflin will close in October for approximately two years. The library’s temporary location will offer very limit seating and space.

The consequence of these two factors is to cast out many of our neighbors to the dangers and sufferings of winter.

This will be a grave time in Madison especially downtown if the people of our city do not take note.    What is being done?  What needs to be done?

Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

It’s a heavy thing all this knowledge–the question is what do we do with our knowledge and our power?  Do we have open generous hearts.  Are we willing to have our lives disrupted and changed by others who are less fortunate than we?

Selah. Yes, stop and listen.  No answers today, just hard questions.

Melody

PS I did not take a photo of our guests.  This photograph was taken downtown Madison of a homeless woman.

Being Broken by Addiction

My dog Comet is being groomed for the first time today and as I was dropping him off I glanced over at the magazines. I was drawn like a bee to pollen by the cover of  Brava Magazine.  It had an article about the secret addictions of women in Wisconsin, aptly titled The Silent Treatment.

While I am not quiet about my alcoholism here on my blog and person to person I will freely tell you my story, I have never talked about it publicly — as I think that I am ashamed. 

No-one talks about addiction in my circles. And here is what I imagine others are thinking.  Perhaps they perceive that addiction is simply a weakness or a character flaw.  And in some Christian circles a place where you haven’t allowed God victory or healing or aren’t trusting.   How in the world did she “allow herself” to get addicted?  What a mess she must be.  Addicts are just bad people trying to be good.

That’s all bullshit. (Forgive me, but it is.)

And in my clearer moments I remind myself that I am broken like every other person in the world.  We all have some “thing” or more than one, that we have trouble overcoming. Most people’s “thing” can be a secret–food addiction, money problems, compulsive shopping, secret cutting, or pornography.   I won’t pretend to know what your “thing” is.

This article talked about how so many women in Wisconsin have a problem with alcohol addiction.   More importantly, that addiction to alcohol is in some part NOT a “thing” to struggle with, but an illness to work against.  I can tell you gratefully that I am “in remission.”

“[There is a] stigma that surrounds substance abuse in a culture that loves the sound of clinking glasses.” (Brava)

One of my favorite people is Henri Nouwen. 

I would have loved to have known him and even been his friend, as we share a common lifelong struggle with melancholy and depression and need for affirmation and community.  He wrote this:

Jesus was broken on the cross.  He lived his suffering and death not as an evil to avoid at all costs, but as a mission to embrace.   We too are broken.  We live with  broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits.  We suffer from broken relationships.  How can we live our brokenness?  Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission.  He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God’s blessing for our purification and sanctification.  Thus our brokenness can become a gateway to new life.

Few understand that addiction is an illness like cancer.

There is a perception that somehow addicts cause their illness.  It is both an illness and an opportunity for self-control and inner strengthening.  As we grow in our understanding of our broken hearts and lives, we can become stronger.  How can we embrace our brokenness of addiction when the Church and (some) Christians make one feel as if you are cursed with a mental illness or lack self-control.

Yes, my alcoholism reminds me (almost daily) that I am a broken person.  The days and weeks when I try to avoid thinking about it, and (almost) pretend that I’ve got it all together, those are the times when I feel the farthest away from who I really am. I become lost in the idea of wellness that denies that I am and will be until the day I die an alcoholic in remission.

For whatever reason, I am an addict.

My deeply thoughtful thirteen year old daughter asked me recently why I can’t just drink socially?  We had been to party where there was a lot of drinking and I was having a hard time having fun.  I have been completely honest with her about my addiction and so I value her questions.  I believe she needs to understand my alcoholism, because it is a family illness and because one in four children of alcoholics become one themselves.

So why can’t I now drink socially?  “There is something in my brain that switches off after the first drink,” I told her.  “After that point, I have no ability to stop.”  I learned from my D&A counselor that every time I drank, my brain sends the signal to have more.  The well-worn pathway in my brain needed more, each time, to have the same impact as the last time I drank. I’m three years sober July 17th, 2011 and if I had a drink to celebrate I would need the same amount of alcohol as my last drink — about two bottles of wine, if I remember correctly — to feel any high.

As a Christ follower, it is even more complicated.

Or perhaps more simple depending on how you look at it. My addiction humbles me daily.  Drives me to my knees.  I go to church in a bar and I laugh, joyfully with the irony!  I don’t mind the reminders of my addiction because then I am drawn to the truth that my life is so improved — clearer, better, more meaningful sober. 

But three years of sobriety brings me to a place of acknowledging that I am still full of pride.  I have not been willing to help others who struggle with this addiction.  I have not been willing to speak out locally.  I have hidden my secrets and tried to live in a drinking world as a secret alcoholic.

The article in Brava was a challenge to me.

No, I am not at risk to drink, because I have created enough awareness of those around me of my illness, that the accountability keeps me sober.

But why am I so silent, so secretly ashamed? More importantly what can I do to give back?  I want others to know that this is not a shameful secret in my life, it is a disease of addiction that has harmful effects on people, families and communities and that recovery is possible with support.  It is not only possible but it is transformational!

I think I’ve got March Madness!

I think I’ve got March madness, and it isn’t about basketball.

It’s been such a strange week already.  I feel exhausted and I can’t identify exactly why.  It cannot simply be the time loss or the season changing.  It’s March and so for Wisconsin that means lots of sunshine.  Lots of slush.  There is an anticipation in the air but there is still snow on the ground.   I went for a walk earlier today in shorts and snow boots!

The highs and lows of late are stunning and I do not mean the weather.  It’s international woman’s week and I was going to write about that.  Perhaps I still will.  I’ve stopped and started several posts.  Taken lots of photographs.  Thought, prayed and dreamed about the future.

Here are few things I’ve been thinking about — being an artist & a Christian, politics in Madison, Rob Bell and what that has to do with the future of women in ministry in the evangelical church, my baby turning ten, and getting a job.  And lent.

Artist Showcase @ Blackhawk

Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed participating in a showcase of artists at our church. We, along with more than fifty other artists,  expressed how we love and are loved in the context of the community of Blackhawk Church and beyond into our Madison community.  It was so rich with the many expressions of God at work in people’s lives in song, spoken word and visual art including a dance!  It was a very powerful time for me.  I’m glad artists have a platform in the body of Christ for their gifts to be used.   I think many times artists do not know exactly what our place in the church is or might be.

by Kortney Kaiser

Politics in Madison

The whole political shenanigans in Wisconsin is exhausting.  So many folk are pitted against one another, the national media is saying strange and untruthful things.  The demonstrations have been peaceful while the rhetoric is grinding and vitriolic.  It’s troubling.  Hard to know how to be loving in the midst of what feels like grave injustice and oppression of the poor.  I have a lot of images here.

I want to lead a book group at my church for people interested reading and talking about women’s roles in ministry, but I was turned down.

I understand.  How can you read books about women in ministry without it becoming theological?  And well, as I don’t speak for my church and this isn’t something they want to get into “right now.”  So therefore, I can’t do the group.   I was choosing the wrong format for what I wanted to do anyway which though Tom says is “nurture a small revolution” that is not completely true.  Yes and no.  But yes, kind of.

So Iwill keep praying about how to move the titanic of conservative belief along.

I’ve started to think there’s little hope for women to preach, teach and lead within evangelical church denominations.

This last week it was as I learned about the controversy with Rob Bell. If you don’t know about him, and I didn’t until a few months ago, he’s what the New York Times calls “one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors” and he comes highly recommended by a few people in my church.  He pastors Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., with 10,000 members.  If he sounds like a Christian celebrity, it’s because he is.  I watched him online.  He is a hipster with groovy dark glasses and a lanky look.  They say hundreds of thousands follow him online.

Anyway. Bell’s new book, Love Wins, looks at the doctrines of salvation, heaven and hell.  He may have said something about Gandhi and hell inferring that a loving God wouldn’t send Gandhi to hell, or something.  Prominent Christians that you would know by name have denounced him with the double criticism of universalist and unbiblical. Here’s the crazy part — no one had read the book.  It came out on Monday.   And yet conservative authorities like John Piper, wrote, “Farewell Rob Bell.” on Twitter.

As one blogger said:

“These knee-jerk reactions, at least to my mind, are unhelpful and reveal just how narrow many people’s understanding of Christianity really is. It is amazing to me that people will hold so tenaciously to their own particular Christian tradition of understanding that when they encounter ideas that fall outside it they are viewed as non-Christian or threatening. The truth is that Christian “tradition” is a much wider river than many people are willing to acknowledge they are swimming in.”  (Emphasis mine.)

There are so many variety of Christians.  I know, the word of God says what it does.  But we all read it within a context, coming from different cultures and well, he goes on.

Are you a mystic?  Try reading John’s gospel, the book of Ephesians, Julian of Norwich,  Meister Eckhart or Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentary on the Song of Solomon.  Are you concerned with social justice?  Try Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Luke’s gospel, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Theresa.  Do you have a penchant for ritual and structure? Look at the book of Hebrews, the Didache, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and large portions of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  Are you philosophically minded?  So were Paul, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, and Alvin Plantinga (to name a few).  Do you have existentialist leanings?  Try Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and maybe even Augustine.  Do you struggle with the concept of hell?  So did the early Christian writers Origen and Evagrius (among others up to the present).  Are you a pacifist?  So was Menno Simons…and Jesus.  All of these writers and thinkers considered themselves Christians. All of them were “biblical” insofar as they read the Bible and used it as the foundation for their theology, philosophy and lives. All of them came to different conclusions on many issues.”

Okay Jesus and Paul didn’t read the Bible, but the greater point I’ve thought is, if a Christian celebrity and pastor, clear leader of a new generation of believers, can’t express his thoughts on a controversial topic without being branded unbiblical, what hope is there for women?

For Christian feminist thinkers.  For theologins who are outside the mainstream? Who is speaking, teaching, studying, influencing, changing minds about women in such a way that mainstream evangelicalism responds?  Just wondering.

If you wonder what I’m talking about?  See this from John Piper on women.  It’s stunning in its subtlety about the role of women in the church.

I applied for a job today.

And after ten years out of the workplace that’s revolutionary on many levels no matter if I get it or not.   It is with a Christian organization so I was asked to share my faith journey and this is what I wrote.

“My parents were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators and later with InterVarsity.  As Christ followers they raised me with Christian values and as much as I understood it, I committed my life to Christ in high school and was baptized.   In my twenties and thirties I was doing and serving – willingly and happily – but it was not until my forties that I faced that I had not received God’s grace fully nor allowed it to transform me.

This may be because my home life was extremely dysfunctional with a rigid, angry, controlling father.  A series of things converged including hard work in therapy, my father dying, leaving full-time ministry and the recovery work of alcohol addiction.  Over a period of ten years God pried open my heart and began to teach me about his incredible life altering grace.  It was through these experiences, as difficult and mortifying as they were, that I have come to recognize that I had to face my disappointment with my parents — and forgive.  Gratefully, I can say that all of this, including the addiction to alcohol drove me to my knees, to the cross.  At one time, I was puffed up with my own importance but through this learned and gained a real understanding Christ’s broken body.

I believe we must trust while serving, not knowing the future.  Trust that we have a contribution to make.  Today I am grateful and full of hope that I am becoming a person useful to God again.  I am humbled by how my story and my experiences sometimes minister to others, as I am willing to be open.

Today, my faith is grounded in the grace of God.  I do have daily disciplines of study, prayer, and constant seeking, but I rest in the knowledge of Jesus and what he did for me — Yes giving his life so that I may also live.  I am no longer a slave to doing, but rather serve out of joy and passion for telling others what Christ has done for me.

Moving into the Lenten season it is good to remember what’s truly important.  What was it again?  Kidding.  Read the prayer I sent out a few days ago.  That’ll prioritize your heart, and mine.

Other things in March.  My baby turned ten. 

A few misc. images from March.


Be well,

Melody

“Your words were found and I ate them,
And your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart;
For I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts.”

Jeremiah 15:16

Kathleen Falsani in the Huff Post on Rob Bell.

On Complaining & Criticizing

[respect]

“Complaining is epidemic in our world”

Yep, that is pretty much the way to communicate these days. Some call it critique (I have) but it is pretty much bad news.  And a bad example.   And it’s gotten so out of hand with one of my kids that I just snapped recently.  “Not another word!” I found myself screaming.  I totally understand the old adage which I heard from my father “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”  And when he was mad, just “Shut up” in Tibetan so no one else would know what he was saying.

So I’m trying to lead by example and not complain about anything or criticize anyone, or gossip, for 21 days, which is how long it takes to form a habit apparently.

They offer purple bracelets (you can get free on their website) but I have stuck with a rubber band.  Wear it on a wrist and switch it to the other wrist when you catch yourself expressing a complaint, gossiping or criticizing.  And begin again.  I started on Sunday and I haven’t made it through a day, yet.  But I am über conscious of my thoughts and have struggled to not express a lot of complaints, criticism or gossip.  The idea is by changing your words you change your thoughts — a constant striving to reformat your mental hard drive.  By doing that you change your heart and your life.

And I think Jesus would agree.  He talks a lot about kindness, speaking kindly to one another, not slandering one another, not calling names.  In Matt 5.22:

Whoever says to his brother raca will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says “you fool” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. NIV

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult*[Greek say Raca to an obscure term of abuse] a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire. NRSV

Whoah!  Bottom line beyond our words:  “Be kind.”  Watch our tongues, stop putting others down, or gossiping.  Perhaps I’m just on about this because I have two middle-schoolers and they are often catty and snarky and I find myself also guilty.  It’s such a common part of our culture that we don’t even realize it, often.

So, build into your life a practice of treating others with respect, giving people the benefit of the doubt, stopping your tongue, and be kind!

This could easily become a fix-it gimmick, but if you look at this in spiritual terms I believe it could change you forever.  Irrevocably.

Speaking positively about others is a simple thing, but it is so hard to do.  Trust me, I shout out loud at the “idiots” on the road. I talk about people who I don’t understand (e.g. gossip).  I called the Governor of Wisconsin a bad name yesterday.  When you have kids all of a sudden you have a mirror in front of you or in the case of yelling obscenities at the dog-sh*t on the floor, you have a tape recorder in the memory of your children.  Yikes!

Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms:   Shut Your Mouth!   Don’t be a fool.   Be kind.

Listen to him and I believe it will change you.

—————————————————–

[“Ephphatha” Be opened] First in a series on responding to Jesus’ words

A Complaint Free World: How to Stop complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted by Will Bowen.

On Facebook.

50 Years for Better or Worse

"MARRIAGE AND PISTOL LICENSE" office...
Excuse my perverse sense of humor. Image via Wikipedia

My in-laws celebrate fifty years of marriage this year and each family member was asked to write something to them.

December, 2010

Dear Bonnie & Terry, 

I must say how much I have been blessed by a marriage that is relatively easy — For Tom and me, it was a joining of two people’s lives that made complete and total sense.  Growing up, my parent’s marriage seemed so hard, which I now know was as much a reflection on the people than the institution of marriage.

I am so grateful for the man that Tom is, the man you raised him to be and for his life experiences that have shaped him into the person he is today. But I know that much of his character was formed as child in your home and I am so grateful to you and to God for allowing him to grow up in a healthy home with Christian parents who loved one another!

When I think of you two, I feel I feel more than a little awe.  Your partnership seems to work so well.  You two don’t talk a lot about your marriage — whether it has been easy or difficult.  There is so much I would like to know.  Your marriage seems to have a quiet strength.   I suppose the best testimony is the 50 years you have been together.  Yours has shown the test of time.  CS Lewis described that kind of love as not only a feeling but a deep unity, that must “be maintained by choice and will, and deliberately strengthened by habit, reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both parties ask, and receive, from God.”  It is clear that you made a choice a long time ago and you work daily to support and reinforce it.  “This quieter love enables people to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.” (Mere Christianity)

When I think of you two, I think of that deep unity and the quiet love that Lewis speaks of and I know that it must have been a daily choice to make it this long!  But more than simply choosing because it is the right thing to do, you both seem to be happy in your marriage.  My parents certainly loved each other, but they had a strange relationship.  It was a puzzle to me why they stuck it out when they often seemed so miserable.  But you all have been together for more than fifty years and you seem to enjoy your life!  That’s a great example to us and to our kids.

Recently I read an article that said in a committed relationship roughly two-thirds of the problems are unresolvable.  That’s daunting when you think of it, but especially in a coventant of marriage where you plan to stay together until death parts you. 

You two seem to be quite different and yet you have made a good life together.   Whatever it is that you have found, it works and it is a joy to see you share your lives together happily.  Although we cannot hope to resolve every problem, being committed to a person and to the life that you want to build together, seems to be the key.

May your lives continue to be an example to us and to your grandchildren for many, many years to come.

I love and admire you both.

 Melody

I Don’t Know (A poem)

And from my eleven year old son, Dylan:

Happy anniversary Grandma and Grandpa. 

I hope you have had a wonderful 50 years together. And that you have many more years. I think you are nice and generous people. Thank you for being my grandparents.  

Love, Dylan

From my nine year old, Jacob (with a little help from his parents.)

 Dear Grandma and Grandpa — Thank you for coming to Wisconsin in the middle of he winter and for all the trips you have made here from warm Florida.  You are fun and kind.  I love you.  Thank you for loving me.  Thank you for coming to stay with us and taking care of us when my parents go on trips!  You do a good job.  I am glad that you are my dad’s parents!  Love- Jacob

 

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this life-long fast [*a poem*]

This Life-Long Fast

Just saw a headline
in the Huffington Post.
Winter Cocktails Gone Wild.
And I am choked
by my longing.  I can’t explain it
easily, but I’ll try. I still crave alcohol.  Not
in the way
you might think.  Infrequently.  And not when
or where you might expect.
I go to church in a bar, but that only reminds me
of my gratitude
and drives deeper into God.  My
humiliation is my heartfelt cry
There, my worship. Inside, every Sunday
I am on my knees.

[Dare I say
lest I tempt fate]  I am not tempted
to break this life-long fast I have taken.  Yes.
I can say that and mean it.  I do not feel
like I need alcohol but it still
charms me. I think I want it.  Especially if I linger
with the thoughts that whisper to me.
Drinking is about
the moments, about intimacy
and good conversation. The idea
of being cultured,
intellectual and refined.  All those remembered
or imagined
moments swirl in my mind.

The Liar brandishes his greatest weapon, uttering:

“That is what you’re missing.”

And I find myself thinking

If Only!

Then immediately — I don’t even
have to force it, the list of reasons come for
why I will

not ever = never

drink again.
They come.  The list my counselor made me
so painstakingly write on a 3×5 card
(so that I would never forget.) Oh, I won’t
forget.

Memory brings it
and I remember
the vomit,
the disappointment,
the regrets (so many),
the fear,
the sink hole of depression and anxiety,
the danger.

No I don’t easily forget

that.
Alcohol, that sweet elixir
was my personal hell.  Oh no, the truth

is so fresh and real as if

I quit yesterday.
And soberly and gingerly, I consider

how far I have come.

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

A Krispy Kreme store in Atlanta, Georgia with ...
Image via Wikipedia

I was asked to write some brief thoughts about the application of Philippians 2.1-11 to my life.

My thoughts are neither brief nor, sadly, do I see them applied very well thus far in my life. Thankfully, the journey of faith is a road slowly traveled and full of grace.

Melody

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being the very nature of God, did not consider equality of God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Obviously one cannot compare their life, whether you are a spiritual person or not, in any way to what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up — his stature in heaven with God the Father — and Jesus did that for you and me.  And yet, that’s the irony right?  And the beauty.  We are so very human and yet in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians we are taught to behave so unnaturally, even supernaturally.  And we can’t.  We can’t do anything like that.  A human life can’t possibly compare.  What then?

Reread this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.1-11 in Today’s NIV (above).

Honestly, the Apostle Paul rubs me the wrong way, at times.  Especially the way he seems to command the church to do and not do so many things. That I have issues with control is no secret.  So, I struggle with Paul’s emphatic tone and his sometimes enigmatic letters full of instructions that are not always clear in their application today. (Just my opinion here.)

But I have come to respect Paul’s story; his passion, his purity of purpose, his agape love for each church that he started, his strong prayer life, and especially as it applies here, his willingness to make personal sacrifices every day for the cause of Christ.  What he was instructing the Philippians to do, he most definitely lived out himself.

Writing from a prison cell, it is striking that he says “fulfill my joy” or “make my joy complete” (depending on the translation) by having “the same mind and the same love, by being of one spirit and intent on one purpose.”  He’s not saying here’s a way to become a “cookie cutter Christian” thankfully. What he is saying emphatically is do this to be united! And he continues, be humble because it is impossible to be “one church” if you are living for yourself, for your own desires, agendas and needs; If you are constantly seeking those things that only create a better life for yourself, you are not united. And then, as if that were not clear enough he goes on to say don’t do anything out of selfishness and think of others as better than yourself.  And if you do this, the result will be unity.

I’m thinking at this point: “Okay, no biggie.  Have some humility.  Live for others.  Give up your “rights.”   Be unselfish.  Wow, I need to work on this!”  I just haven’t had it put so emphatically before.  It is as if the message of Christ depends on it. Unity. And I should want to live that way!  I guess it’s time to spend some time reflecting on whether that is true in my life.  I’m four verses in and I’m totally convicted that I rarely live as if  others are more important me.

Incredibly to me, at this point Paul becomes gentle so I guess he has a softer side.  I’ve judged him from the lists of dos and don’t in Corinthians.

In a poem he goes on to describe in beautiful words the utter humiliation of Christ for us — Christ’s descent from the throne of God to death as a human on a cross.  That is the humility Paul challenges the church of Philippi to and that is our example — Christ chose humiliation.  As Christ became human, he gave up being seen as God and emptied himself taking on the limitations of human flesh.  He never ceased to be fully God, but for a time he actually gave up GLORY for us.  If your mind isn’t blown at this point, well, you’re not fully taking it in.  It’s mind-boggling.  It is worth pondering a while over the Advent season.  It’s incredible.

Christ became human for me and wants me to become humble and unified with other believers in order to be more like him? NT Wright, in Paul for Everyone, says that an inner life of unity seems unattainable.  No kidding.  But, as we mature these things (paraphrased) should be true about us:

“1 We are to be bringing our thinking into line with one another.

2 Know the Gospel is the the final aim, not simply unity.   If “it” doesn’t align with the Gospel, we could be unified around Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s not what Paul’s promoting.

3 We are to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everyone else and their needs are more important than our own.”

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

When Paul was writing about this idea to the church in Philippi, it must be said, that they didn’t hold a high view of humility.  No one aspired to be humble or to humiliation in the Greek world.  If I am totally honest, do I really hold that high a view of humility?  Being humble is hard!  When was the last time I gave up my rights?  My power.  That is a form of humility and I honestly do not even know.  That’s not really esteemed in our culture too much.   Paul says we are to regard others as higher than ourselves. And in case we’re still unclear, we are to voluntarily give up our rights (like Jesus.)

As a part of the bigger picture of Philippians, Paul says “True people of God are united by thinking of others as more important than themselves.”

These are difficult times.  The recession has effected so many people, that if you happen to have kept your job you feel incredibly grateful!  If you have lost a job or may have been forced by circumstance to live with family or a friend, you know you are one misstep away from potential disaster.  Perhaps even from joining the most powerless in our society — the poor, the elderly, many children, victims of domestic violence, youth fleeing abusive homes, many immigrants working two or three jobs to get by.  None of these groups of people have power or influence in society.  They are definitely “the least of these.”  Their lives are a struggle and at times unbearable.  At the bottom of this list, rock bottom I think, are those that are have lost their home and live now on the streets.

We make assumptions about the homeless and never question them.   For the most part we avert our eyes and walk quickly past.  There are homeless downtown that are the “stereo-typical homeless person —  male, impoverished, smelly panhandlers that smell like alcohol and are acting slightly off.”  But, actually, the average age for the homeless in Dane County is nine years old. My youngest is nine and he’s just a kid lucky enough to live in a house.  Why him?

hu. mil. i. a. tion. 

n.

1 degradation;2 the state of being disgraced; shame; 3 a humiliating condition or circumstance.

I cannot think of anything more degrading or humiliating than being homeless.  Often, if we think of the homeless at all, we convince ourselves that they somehow deserve it.  It’s not a clear thought and if we keep it ambiguous and undefined we don’t have to face it.  But we probably think that somehow homeless people chose.  I challenge that idea completely.

When you are homeless no one knows who you are or where you are.  You have lost everything:  your old life, important relationships, job safety, the security of a locked door, and more importantly being known by someone, giving and receiving love, feeling content, the goodwill of being in community or a family — They chose to give up all that to be a wanderer known by no one? With no history —  “lost” to your family and society — invisible — and somehow you chose that? This idea is absurd and is based on our chosen ignorance. Even selfishness.

Yes, the truth about homelessness is that it makes us uncomfortable.

A few facts:

The top three reasons people are homeless are:

1 mental illness,

2 domestic violence,

3 inability to pay rent.

In Dane County in 2008:

3,894 people were served in emergency shelters.

3,636 were turned away.

More than three thousand children, teens, elderly, veterans, mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts, PEOPLE were turned away from shelter for lack of space and resources in Madison alone.

A Simple Story.

As a member of BH Downtown, I was recently asked for$ .75  by a panhandler just outside of the Majestic.  I was disconcerted because this wouldn’t happen on the west-side of Madison and I was unsure what to do.  But I was with my kids.  So I dug in my pocket and gave it to him, mainly thinking we have so much and my kids know it.  And I wanted to show them that generosity is important.  (Subsequently I learned giving money to panhandlers in Madison is illegal.)  Looking back I think it is laughable that they might learn anything from our giving up less than a dollar to a homeless person.   There was no sacrifice and there was no lesson learned.

Actually, I have learned because as a member of a downtown Life Group I learned that there are “real” ways to help. (more later)

When it comes to the homeless in Madison, in the past I have consoled my aching conscience with a few dollars and moved on.  And I spent some hours thinking, reading, fretting about the complexity of the homeless situation, growing ever more hopeless about resolving the grander issues of funding and public apathy.

But, being downtown every week, if I choose to see the homeless, they are there.

There is a group here in Madison that does see the  homeless.

Free Food gathers once a week, at three o’clock in the afternoon on Sundays, at the top of State Street, bringing whatever food and goods they have and giving them away.  Variations of this group have been doing this for years.  They give what they have — any kind of food, sometimes new socks.  And now that it is cold they are seeking hats, gloves, blankets and anything to help someone stay warm on the street. (If purchasing some of these things interests you, shoot me an email and I can connect to pick them up.)

As I’ve thought about the Apostle Paul’s challenge to give up yourself for Christ, I see the actions of this group as an example of what Paul is talking about.  I cannot think of anything more humiliating than living on the street, not knowing your next meal will come from; perhaps only having water and a meal once a day.  Being constantly cold.  It sounds horrible.

Homeless people likely did not lose everything by choice, perhaps simply bad luck or a series of unfortunate circumstances.  The less power you have the more difficult it is to regain it.  Powerlessness begets powerlessness in America, that’s a fact.

Paul says regard others [the homeless, or anyone] as higher than yourself. Voluntarily give up your rights. One way to do this is to serve the humiliated.  See them.  Go to where they are. Listen to their story.  Be a friend.  Or just be a meal.  In these cold nights of Wisconsin winter you might even save someone’s life by providing a coat or blanket or warm meal.

If you want to help on any given Sunday you will find these good people giving away food and other resources.  Week in and week out, over the years, people have given up their time, money and things for the lowest and most humiliated in our city.

So even as I write these words in the comfort of my heated home and my belly growling just a bit from “forgetting” to eat dinner, I am convicted.   In my humanity I cannot do anything and I don’t really even want to sometimes. It’s unnatural to put yourself in a situation like that.  And, it is moving into winter and Sunday afternoons are cozy family times at home.  My mind is full of dozens of reasons why I don’t really want or need to help out.

But we are instructed to behave supernaturally.   Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up equality with God for you and me.  That’s the rub.  So I need to perhaps get cold and uncomfortable.  Go be something more than I really am, because Christ did so much more for me.  Not because I owe Him but because I am so grateful and humbled.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

or vain conceit.  Rather,

in humility value others above

yourselves, not looking

to your own interests

but to the interests of others.

I am challenged by these words of Paul to be more like Christ.  Jesus was known for giving up his rights for the sake of the world. What am I known for?

And you?

———————————————————————————

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Tom Wright, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

The NIB Commentary, Volume XI, Abingdon Press, 2000

I’m fat. You’re fat. The first lady is not fat. Hey what’s up with that!?

According to the Mayo Clinic I am overweight.  (Thank you very much.)  And I have a sneaking suspicion that my kids are not doing so well either.  But it turns out most parents do not even realize that their children are over weight.  Even our First Lady, Michelle Obama, was caught off guard by a recent pediatrician’s warning.

12.5 million children in America are overweight.

By now we all know obesity is having an excessive amount of body fat.  (check)  Especially around the waist.  (check) And  you know that doctors use a formula based on your height and weight — called the body mass index (BMI) — to determine if you are obese.  Find yours here.  Almost one-third of kids are at least overweight; about 17 percent are obese.

At his most recent checkup, our pediatrician measured one of our kid’s height and weight.  She talked with us about her concern over his BMI.  He has grown out a bit more than up over the last year.  But she seemed reticent to say anything that was too harsh though his weight is on the high side for his height.  I agree that we don’t want to mess with kids’ perceptions of themselves.  They are at very vulnerable age.

Even the First Lady’s girls got a warning recently.  The interesting thing I thought was that within just a few months she made some small changes that got her daughters back on track.  This is the kind of thing you or I can do.

  • No more weekday TV. (Oops)
  • More attention to portion sizes. (Okay)
  • Low-fat milk.  (Check)
  • Water bottles in the lunch boxes. (Rather  than milk or chocolate milk which comes in school lunches?)
  • Grapes on the breakfast table. (Fine)
  • Apple slices at lunch. (Don’t they go brown?)
  • Colorful vegetables on the dinner table. (I’m in agreement in theory.)

And then I got to thinking — this isn’t just about my kids. Or even the First kids.  All of whom eat organic apples, have their own garden and can visit the farmer’s market.  And they have plenty of opportunity to eat three healthy meals a day.

What about inner city kids?  What about low income kids?  What about kids who eat two meals at school.  Or the kids whose parents have to work three jobs and are not around as much to cook for them?

What about kids who do not have a grocery store in their neighborhood?  Last week, the First Lady addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors about cities creating healthier citizens because obesity is a particular problem in some minority communities without easy access to supermarkets, much less farmers markets.

I knew the grocery store over on Verona road had closed down a few years ago (turns out it is more like eight, and that was the third that closed down in that area.)  So I started hunting for information or articles online about that area of Madison, the Verona Road/Allied Drive area of town.

One of the things that Mrs. Obama wants to see happen is increasing access to healthy foods. She says parents tell her they want to feed their kids fresh produce but it is difficult “if you don’t live anywhere near a place that sells fresh produce.”  She also wants to make good food cheaper.  (Ahem, pardon my skepticism on that one.)

In Madison, the poor do not always have access to healthy food?  That should be a headline.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Cub Foods was closing its store on Verona Road.  It’s a compelling story:

As snow fell around her Monday, Melissa Orr set off on the five-block walk from her home on Madison’s Allied Drive to the Cub Foods store where she shops two or three times a week.  She does not own a car, so the store, 4716 Verona Road, is her only option for grocery shopping unless she takes a bus. At the store, Orr learned it will close by mid March, leaving her and many other residents of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods without a supermarket within walking distance.   … Ryan Estrella, a Dane County social worker based on Allied Drive, said numerous residents lack vehicles and that the store’s closing will be a hardship. Many neighborhood families are headed by single parents, so taking a bus is a major undertaking when children and bags of groceries are figured in. In the future when people need only a few staples such as milk and baby formula, they will probably end up at a gas station, where costs add up quickly, he said.  “I think this will be devastating to the neighborhood,” Estrella said.

As of writing there still isn’t a grocery store near the Allied Drive neighborhood.  I’ve sent a few emails around trying to find out what the plans are for 2010.

Working together, we can ensure our children’s health—and their future.  But this goes for all children.