Friday, March 2, 2012

Speaking together…

Whoa! What an incredible event I witnessed! I refer, you may expect, to the Community Conversation on Local Poverty at IOCP last Monday. Representatives from 15 local faith communities (6 from PCCC), the public schools, area businesses and neighborhood families gathered to learn about and discuss the realities of suburban poverty. As the evening’s emcee, I spoke a bit myself, gave a couple shout outs to our church, made predictably cheesy jokes, and otherwise enjoyed this unique moment of people coming together.

As many of you might also feel, I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with the current tone of public conversations. Nastiness seems celebrated. People engage in what passes these days as “dialogue” not to gain insight or bridge differences, but as puerile entertainment or an excuse to offload stress and anger onto others. Perhaps, given the recent fragility of family finances and public economies, some of that behavior makes sense. But just because you understand something, doesn’t make it right. Thus, I believe we all- but particularly us Disciples of Christ, who claim “unity” as our polar star, our deepest desire, our primary mission- have a responsibility to reject the accusations, demagoguery and divisions happening about us, rising above to love our neighbors, embrace- even learn from- those who think differently.

Which, again, is much of what excited me about a room packed- 150+ participants!- with diverse people, all gathered for the sake of the poor and vulnerable. The tenor of the discussion was gracious and seeking. Presenters shared devastating statistics about poverty’s rise in suburban neighborhoods, but folk didn’t respond with blame or vicious attacks. After hearing stories of local families suffering mental health debilitations, employment loss, limited access to expensive child care, etc., people seemed genuinely empathetic, stirred to do more, and at the very least appreciated the problem’s complexity without oversimplifying or closing eyes and ears. For that alone, I imagine Jesus smiled.

And the greater good news transcends this one conversation. Yes, we acknowledged that poverty’s here, in our midst. It’s hard and it’s big and it’s our problem to solve. But the ultimate goal of such education is to catalyze action. And, fortunately, this community has long history in acting together to help others. The presenters, for instance, shared the story of a single mother- we’ll call her Tina- who lost her job, then her house, and so slept with her two young children on a friend’s couch. Within a few weeks, though, they hinted Tina was overstaying her welcome. When she walked into IOCP, therefore, the ‘presenting symptoms’ were numerous. Yet their caseworkers connected her with state and county services, found the kids scholarships for quality preschool, helped her write her first resume, get a job and apartment security deposit. She’s not out of the words, but Tina’s on her way.

The point being, of course, is that this community- You!- made this possible. By volunteering at the foodshelf that augmented the family’s food stamps, by supporting IOCP with dollars and prayers. Now that they’re in a new building, and so able to allow poor families a choice of groceries (rather than give only pre-packed boxes), these clients can be more strategic in what they bring home, which means spending less at Cub Foods, and more on medicines or child care. Caseworkers tell me that this simple fact has meant the world for hundreds of poor folk. Plus, their new thrift store has attracted more volunteers and raised more money for other services than expected, even distributed thousands of dollars in gift cards to clients that IOCP serves. If all of this sounds like a commercial for IOCP, forgive me. It’s just that I’m all too aware, after this recent conversation, that any such work happening in our backyard happens because we care enough to work together.

So may that spirit of unity continue. May we never forget our neighbors in need. And may we all renew a personal commitment to learning more, talking more, working more, together.

Grace and Peace,

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Creating light…

Alas, Google tells me that the year’s worst day approaches. Daylight Saving Time begins officially Sunday, March 11.

Yes, I know. There are good reasons for this change of time. More sunlight farther into the evening will boost our collective spirits, increase productivity for some workers, allow my puppy and I more time to run. And for that, we’ll be grateful, eventually. But the day itself is heartbreaking, when we ‘spring forward’ in wee morning hours, then awake to discover that a precious hour of sleep has disappeared. Oh the horror! Oh the madness! Oh how I’d better plan ahead! I’ll survive, I’m sure, but please be sensitive at church that morning (assuming you don’t accidentally sleep in!).

I don’t know much about daylight saving's history in our country; my memory vaguely offers theories about improving conditions for farmers during planting and harvesting time, or helping commodities traders better coordinate with global partners, or something. But in the abstract, the very idea that we have power over the clock- can wind or unwind it at whim to create more light- seems very metaphorical and meaning-rich, an exercise in playing God.

For most cases, certainly, I’d recoil at that suggestion. The prophets were studying this month in worship for the Lenten Sermon Series (A Prophet? Me?! Imagine that…) vocally denounced any attempt to diminish the first-place greatness of God. But in this instance- mimicking God by creating light- I’d give us a pass, perhaps even recommend the notion. Bear with now; I realize we’re discussing analogy, not actuality. But hearken back to Scripture’s first chapter, which I’ve discussed in this forum before. Act one by our Lord: “Let there be light.” Not many verses later we get: “Let us create humankind in our image.” Usually, I take that evocative phrase to mean that we’re created to be creators, co-creators with God, as some would say. But maybe we can push the envelope further, and suggest that what we’re created to create with God is what Godself actually created. Light. Life. Order, balance and illumination. That certainly tracks with St. John’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…the Word shone light into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.” When Jesus left, of course, he left us with the task of continuing his ministry; lighting up the darkness that threatens the world around us, illuminating the world with love.

This month, y’all may know that an annual Minnesota tradition continues. The Minnesota Foodshare, sponsored by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches (on whose Board I serve), annually uses March to raise over half of the food supplied to Minnesota’s 300+ foodshelves. Our local foodshelf, IOCP, has encouraged member churches to join the effort by donating food, toiletries and money to help out. They’ve also received a matching grant from Mosaic Corporation to the tune of $20,000, meaning that for every item donated, IOCP receives an additional dollar. That dollar, when spent at local food banks, secures about 10 pounds of food, so the leveraging effect is considerable.

And Mosaic/IOCP decided to go an extra step this year- spice up the food drive- inviting participants to create sculptures with the food donations they receive. With the Plymouth Creek youth, we’ve designed a sculpture that looks like a lantern, which when built will literally light up our sanctuary (due to strategically placed lamps inside the structure). In other words, I’m hoping you’ll join me and other PCCCers to create light this month by bringing food donations to church that will feed hungry families in our community (and specifically, if you could make those donations cans or boxes that are white, blue and green, that’d be ideal!). Call it an invitation to do something you were created to do: exercise your God-like image and power to brighten the world around you with generosity and love.

And while you’re doing that, let me encourage to take an additional step- Pray for guidance on further ways you might shine the light of God’s love to your neighbors. Then go out and show your neighbors the wonderful brightness of our Lord.

Grace and Peace,

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