Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Challenge Day, for an adult

“If you really knew me, you’d know I’m terrified of failure. And my great fear of failure? Failing to make a difference.”

Last week, I was able to put that into words. I shared that with a group of high schoolers I’d never met. Because when you start a phrase with “If you really knew me,” you’re opening yourself up, giving up a piece of yourself you don’t share often.

I was at the local elementary school for “Challenge Day,” when about 100 high school students gather for a day of community building. I thought of it as an anti-bullying campaign. I was wrong.

“If you really knew me” was only part of the activities. We listened as our Challenge Day leaders shared their stories, connecting with youth on issues of racism, sexism, broken families, drugs, abuse. Listening to their stories made my heart hurt.

And then we split up into our small family groups, and my heart broke. We shared those “if you really knew me” statements, giving up those pieces of ourselves we cling most tightly to, scared to share. Scared to be vulnerable. But those members of my small group had the courage to  share stories with people they didn’t know well, some of them strangers. Some things they said shocked me; some scared me. I was blessed to listen to each member of my group think through and reflect on that idea, those 2 minutes being sacred space for each person. No advice given, no responses to what they said, other than to pat a shoulder or hold out a tissue for the tears streaming down their face.  No high school student should be dealing with some of the things they shared in our group.

Later in the afternoon, we did an activity called “Cross the Line.” The entire group stood on one side of a line, blue masking tape crookedly pulled across the gym floor. One of our Challenge Day leaders called out different circumstances or situations that affect the youth.

“Cross the line if you’ve ever been made fun of for your body, whether it is because they say you are too fat or too skinny, whether you are too tall or too short.”

And 60-70% of the group crosses that line. No one ever crossed that line alone at any point in the activity. And as one, those that didn’t cross the line held up their hands in the international sign language sign for love (an image that so reminded me of the Hunger Games I couldn’t help myself). Eyes met across the line. Tears started to flow. Everyone returned to the same side of the line.

And then the next prompt.

“Cross the line if you or someone you know lives in an environment where they live in fear of abuse, be that verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual.”

And so many students crossed the line. We raised our hands in recognition and solidarity. And so on, 20, 30 different prompts.

I knew some of the students crossing those lines. And I knew, albeit briefly, those students in my small family group that had just poured their hearts out in “If you really knew me.” But watching these students, many of them the same students, cross that line, 10, 15 times, for things that I have never had to deal with or experience...well, it got to me.

I watched students reach out to one another in between prompts. I watched adults break down as prompts hit home and they crossed the line sobbing. All day, our Challenge Day leaders had encouraged the adult helpers to participate fully--I don’t know that we were ready for what that would mean. We were no different than many of these students. We share many struggles.

Selfishly, I came away realizing my blessings, my luck in my idyllic upbringing. And I recognized my power and challenge to work to change what I can for those going through some of these difficult, difficult things.

I don’t think I can overstate the power of these activities. We realize we are not alone. We realize that we each carry our own baggage, struggling with our own journey. We gain an awareness and compassion for each other we might not have had before.

The final activity of the day gave the youth an opportunity to share their feelings in a letter, whether affirming the positive power of someone who has changed their life for the better, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or writing to someone who had died or moved they had never gotten closure with. Some of the youth, in front of the entire gathering, apologized to each other for disputes and struggles going on for years at a time. Others publicly recognized and thanked friends for their support and love.

I ended the day aware. Aware of my privilege, aware of the brokenness around me. I ended the day affirmed and loved. And I ended the day more sure of my role and place in this community than I have felt at any point in the last 5 months. I am not the solution, but I am a tiny part of it. And I am proud and honored to work alongside those students toward that greater, diverse, vibrant, supportive community.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Mountain and the Star

Rising from the fire of sunset
like a phoenix rising from the ashes
of dusk
red morphed into orange
yellow, white
into the sky-blue
aqua, teal
darkness, comfort of night

the mountain looms
darkness below
darkness above
stark contrast against a myriad of colors behind it
a pinnacle rising in the evening skyline

and the goddess rising o'er the flanks of the spire
Venus watching the light fade
on the edge of the horizon
taking in the visual lightshow

with the approval of the heavens.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Above, Beyond

above the valley
above the noise
above the lakes
above the trees

there is peace.

poised on the shoulder of a giant
poised on the edge of the ridge
poised on the quiet of pure, sweet silence
poised on the mountain

you find bliss.

Look at the ranges
lined up on end
look at the sky
look at the sky

this is real life.

Beyond the cars
busses, bikes
you have only your feet

and how far they will carry you.

Beyond the stress,
failures, expectations
you have only hope

and how far it can carry you

Beyond fear
worry, hate
you have only love

and it will carry you.

Beyond it all
with only nature
as guide
and friend
we begin to live again.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Westminster Woods with the PYGs

Released into the woods
the wall into the wild
broken barriers
the wake of
a wave of
cascading through the conifers
bouncing off bark
and buildings
echoes rolling into
the air
the atmosphere.

carrying in the upper elevations
less-than-angelic notes
yet holy nevertheless.

Go go go
productivity through the roof
many hands doing good work
visible signs of progress made
yet suddenly
the train of progress
hits a wall
called fatigue
2 solid days of physical labor
catches up
like the storm threatening for days
when it rains
it pours
and with youth
when attention wavers
behavior falters
focus wanes
and the time is up.
what they accomplished
what they have done
one could hardly be prouder
of them.
in these places
we all win.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

5000 Voices

5000 voices
a raucous
assembly of tones
carrying the cries
of the youth
the voices of truth
crying out in the wilderness
calling for an end to excess
the mess we've made of the world
swirls of colors
sisters, brothers
gathered as
one body
one branch
one lifetime
one chance to make a difference
in a world
they love and care passionately about.

They love
they see the neighbor
that our fears call a stranger
dangers to keep at arms length.
Eyes of compassion
hands stretching out

But will we let this voice be heard?
Can we hear the prophetic words
of the youth?
Too young, too naive, we dismiss
their wisdom as the pleasure
of innocence
like we know better how the world is meant to be.

Amplify these voices, God
bless each of their footsteps
with your broad and beautiful grace
show your face to them as they walk away from here
into a world more familiar with fear
than hope.
filled with systems that are broken
injustice and inequality spoken
more often than the language of
Praising each person's dignity
their abilities and goals and dreams.

The voices of the youth are crying out.
Will we listen?
Can we learn?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon 7/14 "Eyes of the Youth"

The Good Samaritan. You know, I smile thinking about this, just a few weeks after Vacation Bible School, where the Good Samaritan was the Bible story one of the days. I stood up front at the end of the day, and prompted the kids: “Who did we learn to serve today?” The kids answered with an exuberant, “Neighbors!” And I said, “And who is our neighbor?” Jubilantly, they replied, “Everyone!”

And we've all heard that part of the Gospel, right? This was difficult for the disciples to get their heads around, with their biases and prejudices against different local populations. Samaritans were the bad guys. Levites, priests, these are supposed to be the good guys. Yet the good guys behaved...I don't know, cowardly seems strong, but I think they behaved like cowards. They turned tail and ran. They willfully closed their eyes to the plight of another human being. They made up excuses as to why they shouldn't help. Can't you picture it? “Oh, I bet that guy in the ditch only got there because he was mixed up in alcohol or drugs.” Assuming the worst in another human being. That is cowardice. Only this Samaritan, the guy that wasn't supposed to help, goes out of his way to help this man he doesn't know. Bravery. And Jesus' point is clear. The expert of the law, who asked the question, correctly identifies the neighbor. “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus' challenge comes through: “Go and do likewise.”

Yet, despite the fact that this is one of the best-known stories in the Bible, I stand here today and I'm still just not sure we've got it. Or, I’m not sure we’ve got ALL of it. I think we’re starting to see the man, and help the man on the side of the road, but at some point don’t we need to ask if we need to make the road safer? How do we move from privileged charity to justice? I mean, pick your issue. Me? I have. I've spent years during high school, college and after struggling to identify which neighbor needed me the most. Homeless folks in McMinnville? Victims of foreclosure and shady banking practices in Philadelphia? Families in Mexico desperate for a home? Countless people in Palestine, Rwanda, Congo, or India, cast down by society solely based on past quarrels and struggles? Migrants, or maybe I should just say HUMAN BEINGS, dying on the US-Mexico border? Individuals unable to gain basic rights because of their sexual orientation? Or our elderly neighbors, living next door to us in abject poverty and filth, scared of losing their independence if they ask for help? Which one of these neighbors do I go to? And what about those other neighbors? Will anyone help them? Will anyone work against the systems that put them on the side of the road in need of help?

And what about us as a church? We have expanded our mission programming to include the Open Door program, to include the Backpack program, and as a congregation we are active in food banks, mentoring programs, and volunteering throughout the community. But where are the neighbors that we are passing by? Where are we scared to act bravely? And how do we move past charity work and into justice work, striving to change the systems that create these inequalities?

I've struggled with my lack of focus on these issues. I've written about it, I've prayed about it, asking God to take away this curse for me of seeing too much, focusing too little. I've watched friends of singular passions achieve great success in serving their neighbors, starting non-profits in various sectors, working with NGOs in foreign countries, entering into the ranks of the employed in education or business, changing lives. I wanted that simplicity. I knew I wanted to help people. But if I chose just one of these things, how could I keep from looking over my shoulder at the next one? Which one mattered most?

I came back to this church, to this job, because I believe the people that best see “neighbors” are the youth. Of this church. Of many churches. Not in churches. But the youth seem to understand something, grasp something that maybe we all once had, but no longer do. I wrote a poem while I was in Newport about it:

His clear, exuberant voice greeted me as soon as I rounded the corner
his blonde, curlish locks barely visible
above the front of his stroller
The face of his father greeted me differently
and I can't help but pause
and contemplate
a world of youth
void of the curse of life experience
and pain
a world
where each stranger you meet
brings hope
new possibilities.
the world is created new through the eyes of the young.

I came to this job, with these kids, 5 of which I get to accompany to Indiana this week, because the youth are the ones who are willing to challenge our notion of “neighbor.” Youth carry few of the biases and prejudices we've accumulated in our years of individual baggage. They see possibilities anywhere and everywhere, friends to be made instead of foes to defeat. The hyper-competitive world we live in has not yet corrupted the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. I need that encouragement. But more importantly, the world needs that. We, as a church need that.

You see, the opportunity to work with youth is where I see all of these issues of “neighbor” colliding. Working to educate and expand the world for youth is a task that combines all the topics I mentioned above. Any part I can play to help cultivate an awareness for the size, beauty, and diversity of the world these youth are growing up in is a task I will gladly and willingly take on. And yes, that carries a bit of homelessness. That carries some questions of equality struggles. That carries some economic conversations. What is justice? Who is our neighbor? The youth will tell us—if we are willing to listen.  

These kids (and a couple very lucky adults) are leaving for a week at Triennium they'll be talking about for days, months,  even years to come. My challenge, as youth director here, and I think our challenge as a church, is to not belittle or dismiss the revelations these youth come back with. This isn't a time to relate their experience to your own life, “Oh yes, I've done something like that.” This isn't a time to project our own failures and attempts on them, “Oh, we've tried that. It didn't work.”

Too often I've found myself thinking the same thing. In my time in Newport and here, working with youth, I find myself clinging to my experience in youth group, my vision of how things should be done. It is difficult to let go of my past, my own incredibly positive experiences, enough to let the youth develop their own, on their terms. And I don't think the answer is forgetting our own history, or how we did things. But we do need to allow the freedom for a new future, a future envisioned by the eyes of the children, the youth.

There will always a tension there, between tradition and emergence, between new ideas and the way it has been. But I want to implore us to explore those differences. Too often I think we refuse to engage simply because we know we might disagree. And so, youth dismiss adults (“their ideas are old-fashioned”) and adults dismiss youth (“we've tried that, it didn't work. They'll change their mind when they get older”). The fact of the matter is, wisdom abounds in both groups, but pride prevents us from seeing it.

“With age, comes wisdom.” That's the common phrase. But Jesus tells us that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be like children. Perhaps this is the time to acknowledge the wisdom and insight these youth, all of these youth, have into the eyes and heart of Jesus. They see the neighbor on the side of the road to Jericho. Can we let them teach us how to see?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Take notice

Taken back
by the sweet smell of sage
as I lift one
double-socked hiking boot
in front of the other
stopping to examine flowers
but ultimately fail at identifying them

taken back
by speculative conversation
on which mountain or range
we see rising in the distance
passing the binoculars back and forth
like ancient, sacred wisdom

Yes, then I might not have noticed
the excitement in your voice
as you discuss your travels
and past hikes
or laughed at the way you
vocally appreciate a good, crisp apple

Taken back, I didn't notice.
But now I do.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A bike ride to work

Chiseled out of the cobalt skies
like the prominent jawline of a pharaoh
the mountains rise
hidden for days behind
ominous clouds that
produce little bite
for all their bark
the mountains rise.
and then today
they appear
and corral my restless,
roaming spirit
with the long arms of a father
the gentle arms of a mother
welcoming me home.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Chase the fleeting light

I can sense my time in Newport is ending, and I'm getting sentimental...

Like the sparrow o'erhead
still flitting about in the fading rays
of what is left of twilight
while the rest of us now stand in shadow

I chase the fleeting light.

when the day has ended
seasons have changed
and a chapter closes

I chase the fleeting light

one final grasp of what was
some relationships
some storylines
written to resolution
capped with a hug
or handshake
others uncomfortably incomplete

This week
I chase the fleeting light
of little time left
like a word on a page
sensing the book is closing
I cling to what still is.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reflections of a field trip to Lincoln City

is the language of children
I understand it
but can't speak it
if what is said is true
every card they create is spoken for

Celebrations burst out raucously
with passing restaurants
exuberant endorsements from the elusive
child demographic

we pass street names
eyes open wide as they recognize their own
"I live down that street!"
"I know where you live!"
"I bet you don't know where I live?!"

As we drive, the ocean takes over
and like the constant roll of the waves
it calms our passengers
mouths open with nothing being said
quiet with the horizon spread out before us
chairs start reclining
heads roll to the side
as eyelids delicately close
like a butterfly landing

voices still make themselves heard
discussing a tv show or music group
but the metal rattling
engine roaring
hum of the road
sings the passengers
the soothing lullaby
of sleep.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Birthday Examen

In honor of my 26th birthday yesterday, I sat down and did an examen...looking at things that bring me joy at this stage of my life, and things that bring me down. I have 13 of each to share.

13 Joys:
  1. I still have hair (yes, this is my #1 joy).
  2. Good friends, from childhood-adulthood.
  3. Wise and encouraging mentors.
  4. Food.
  5. Shelter.
  6. Family.
  7. Wilderness.
  8. Music.
  9. People of passion.
  10. The youth and children I work with.
  11. No credit card debt.
  12. A beautiful and loving girlfriend.
  13. Hope for the future.

13 Concerns:
  1. What am I going to do with my life?
  2. Hangovers hurt WAY more than they used to.
  3. War.
  4. Poverty.
  5. Injustice.
  6. Inequality.
  7. Celebrity culture.
  8. Country music (note that "music" was #8 on my list of joys--country music is definitely a concern).
  9. Where will I end up?
  10. Does faith matter?
  11. Traveling worldwide will become more difficult as gasoline prices continue to go up.
  12. Will I make a difference?
  13. My beer belly seems to be growing.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Put in my place

I'd been sitting, reading my book probably fifteen minutes before they came in the door. I looked up at the sound of the bell announcing an arrival mostly out of habit, but I immediately recognized them, the same faces that had popped out the window of an RV parked along the road as I was walking home from the laundromat the other day.

“Did you just do laundry? You have any spare change, brother?”

I nodded quickly in assent and dug into my pocket, finding a dollar in quarters, resolving that I'd done my part as I placed the money in his grimy hand.

“Thanks, God bless ya, brother!” he said, as I began to walk away.
“No problem at all,” I told him.

I remember thinking, “One dollar isn't even enough for one load in the washer. Did I really help at all?”

And here they are again, in the laundromat, and he recognizes me immediately and beelines in my direction.

“Hey brother! Any chance you gonna have any change left over today?”
Smiling, but buying time, I said, “I don't know. Let me switch mine over to the dryer and I'll let you know.”
So he plopped down on the next bench over from me, her following, and I could already smell the reek. I got up to check the washer. Still 10 minutes left.

I sat back down and resubmitted myself to my reading as I tried to feel how much money I had left in my pocket. I pulled out my phone to text a friend. Then I left it, clearly visible,  on my lap.

It wasn't even a minute before the voice was back, coming from that bench just to my right.
“You got a cell phone, brother? Any chance I could use it to make a call?”
A little off guard, I asked, “Yeah, who do you need to call?”
I don't know why I asked that. It's not like it mattered to me. I guess you feel a right to ask that question when someone is borrowing your phone, but it still felt like a jerk move.
“My sister.”
“Oh sure!” I said, as if excited about his answer, and I handed the phone over.

I watched as he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and strained to decipher the numbers he'd written on it. He passed it off to her (maybe it was her handwriting), and together they pieced together the numbers, dialed, and pressed call.

I can't pretend to have heard the whole conversation, but I could hear the voice on the other end, and it wasn't happy for this interruption in their morning. His sister was not pleased to have heard from him. The conversation was almost over immediately, with him pleading and apologizing from the get-go. Other customers in the laundromat looked over.

I lifted my book a little higher in front of my face.

“Just a couple hundred bucks, that'll get us through May,” he is saying. “We've got a guy that will let us park the RV on his land for cheap, stupid cheap.” And apparently in May, from some sort of settlement, his lawyer has him expecting over a million dollars. “I'll buy you anything in June, sis. Something you've always wanted, something stupid.”
This went on for what felt like eternity. Him pleading, begging for help, and that voice on the other end sounding annoyed, disappointed, trapped. I listened as his voice started to rise, crack, gain desperation.

I wondered if I should have ever given him my phone. What if he has an anger problem?

Finally, the voice on the other end has had enough, and hangs up. He sits there for a second, fuming, while his friend tries to calm him down.
“Bitch!” he emits, not exactly in a yell, but in a voice that could be heard throughout the laundromat.

I avoided making eye contact with anyone else around. I stood back up to check the laundry again, walking past them on the way. Spin cycle, almost done. I glance at him, to see if he looks ready to give the phone back to me. Nope. He's looking through his pockets again. And she's looking through hers. Who are they going to call now?

I wait as my laundry finishes in the washer, then transfer my clothes to a dryer. I put in all the quarters I need, then carefully transfer the $1.75 required for a load in the washer to a separate pocket, for when he asks for it. At least I can help them do some laundry today.

I sit back down to my book as they find the scrap of paper they were looking for, another number. I realize how uncomfortable I am, just four feet away, and they smell bad. I wonder about my phone. I'll have to disinfect it before I use it again. Can a phone retain a smell?

I try to read again, but once again I'm listening as his second phone call goes through. The voice on the other end of this one is male, and may be the caller's brother.
“Brother! How are you doing?” the caller has his winning voice back on, once again launching into sales mode to try to find money to survive. But he doesn't need to. The voice on the other end of this line is excited, overjoyed to hear from this man. The call lasts only minutes. The voice retains its enthusiasm throughout, and I watch as the caller transforms from a desperate, scared soul, to one with hope. Whoever this person is that they've called has agreed to play some role in changing their lives.

He hangs up, a smile across his dirty, scarred face. His teeth don't look healthy either. He looks over at me and hands the phone back,
“Thanks so much, brother.”
I smile in return, and while I'm reaching into my pocket to give them some laundry money, they're already out the door, walking down the street, I presume, to their RV. Now they have hope, there's no point in waiting around. They have purpose anew.

As I walked home that day, I couldn't help but compare the differences in the two phone calls. Perhaps the first person was someone who'd helped these folks before, too many times, and was tired of their charity being thrown away. Perhaps they just held a grudge against this couple. Perhaps they had nothing extra to give. But whenever I thought about that second person, I couldn't help but think of the parable of the prodigal son. This was the humiliating return, that part of the story where the desperate son returns home, hoping only for survival by any means, even as a servant, but instead is greeted with warmth and love. An equal.

Suddenly I felt shamed and judgmental in my interactions. So “have” and “have not.” Unequal. What if my first reaction, like the second voice on the phone, was one of joy and excitement? What if I had treated these folks like beloved family, not someone to give a dollar of laundry money to, but someone to share the experience of laundry with? I had time. I could have sat with them, shared stories with them. Yet I was doing what I could to:
a) get rid of them, preferably as quickly as possible
b) assuage my conscience that I'd done enough to help.

Sometimes, we need a little kick in the butt to remind us who we're truly called to be.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Let the waves roar

Let the waves roar
as the rain pounds down
streams turning to rushing rivers
coursing down the streets

Let the waves roar
as the fog rolls in
rolling like the tide
ebbing and flowing
shrouding the world in mist

Let the waves roar
as the single red light winks
at the top of the bridge
enjoy this place
before you go on

Let the waves roar
as the wind stings your cheeks
you're riding your bicycle
out the twists and turns of the bay road
winding its way to Toledo

Let the waves roar
when you drive away
the edge of the world behind you
it's difficult to turn your back
on that
which is beautiful.

A sense of call

How do you explain
a hunch
when people question it
how do you absorb that punch
to the stomach
thrusting doubt into your mind
find peace
strive to explain
what seems to be
a mystery
I can try to reason with you
but this isn't rational
it's call
that still-small voice
so softly
you're not quite sure it's even there
maybe it was just
the wind
tickling your ear
we can never be sure
of what we heard
only act
pushing forward
looking upward
and stoke the fire
of passion