Dear Folks,

The folks who meet John the Baptist in the wilderness are a courageous, scrappy lot.  They could have stayed home.  They could have shut their ears to his stunning, difficult cries.  They could have circled the wagons against change and his impertinent challenge of the status quo.  But when John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” instead of ducking, they turn their heads to listen.  I’m not sure who was more surprised!  When John says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” they drop what they are doing and cross the Jordan River to meet him.  When John says, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” every person within ear shot says “What then should we do?”  It’s a question that will change their lives, an invitation to rise up from death to life.  Their query “What then should we do” belies their discomfort with the way things are and their consciousness of the need to change.  Crippled by destructive choices and the selfishness that can bring death to any one of us, they long to walk in the light of a new day.

We live again in a dark and dangerous time, and I wonder if we have the consciousness and the courage to kindle some essential light?  Do we still believe that God is bending the universe toward that which is right and good, toward the weak and the wounded and the truly wise?  And what are we willing to give up, to make a way for those who have no way?

Ten years ago I preached at the memorial service for a neighbor who struggled with his own set of demons, including depression, and what I learned from him, I think, can apply to each of us.  In his ups and down, Francis’ life is a parable.  For each of us is transformed through dying and rising, probably many times over a lifetime—little deaths and small resurrections punctuate our days and years, if we have eyes to see them—and surely this was the case with Francis.  This pattern seems to be the only way we really ever grow—death to life, Good Friday to Easter, over and over again.

And “We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast.  Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there.”  (Richard Rohr)  So most of us have to be taught the language of the spirit, which is all about descending into the crucible of life’s struggle, where wise ones discover meaning not in answers but in better, more focused questions.  If we will listen, the dark periods of life are good teachers.  And as Francis discovered in his sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful journey, God works in the darkness.  In fact, God works especially there, where we are most lost and alone.  Novelist William Styron writes in his record of depression that the hard won light of wisdom, gift of God, can make even the darkness visible.

What can you do?  Go into the wilderness, your own private darkness of selfishness or greed, of violence or anxiety, of anger or fear.  Take inventory and separate the wheat from the chaff.  And then let the light of Christ burn up everything that’s getting in between you and your changing the world.  Let yourself see what the darkness makes visible, and then make a way for those who have no way.

Love,
David

Stage lights fell on the man behind the podium at The Historic Parkway Theater on North Avenue last Tuesday night.

“My mother died when I was 21-years old,” William Glover Bey confessed in a soft voice to a packed crowd. “She was the only person I trusted in the world. My life spiraled downward from there.”

“Spiraling downward” for William included what has become, painfully, a familiar Baltimore story, including being shot several times, getting involved in the drug scene, and spending years of his life incarcerated.

But William is now a fulltime, well-respected employee at The Johns Hopkins Hospital – his children are in college or college-bound – and minutes after speaking under the Parkway Theater lights, he was asked back on stage to receive a special award. The award was given to him by Terrell Williams and Melvin Wilson, co-directors of Turnaround Tuesday. Turnaround Tuesday is also a Baltimore story — one of redemption, hope and courage — that deserves to be spread broad and wide during this holiday season of light shining through the darkness.

Perhaps some of you have heard this Baltimore story by now? Several years ago, a pastor and a community organizer decided to engage the group of men whom they noticed hanging out, day in and day out, in the alleyway outside the pastor’s office window; the alleyway was strewn with needles, evidence of how many of them were passing their days.

Armed with genuine curiosity (and perhaps a clipboard or two), the pastor and community organizer began talking with the men and listening to them, listening to their stories. “How is it that you are here, doing what you’re doing?” they wondered aloud, together with the men. “What would it take for you not to be here? What is it that you need, to change your status quo?” Some natural leaders in the group were identified, to engage others in this reflective exercise.

Their resounding, collective response? “Give us living-wage jobs, the chance to support ourselves and our families, and we won’t be here in this alleyway, anymore.” “Don’t send us to job training program after job training program after job training program that don’t result in actual jobs; we’ve been there, done that.” “Connect us with employers who are willing to hire us, who don’t automatically equate a history of incarceration with untrustworthiness and unemployability.” “Give us a chance at a meaningful, productive life.

And thus begun the jobs movement of BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development) known as Turnaround Tuesday that celebrated its 5 year anniversary with a grand event at The Parkway Theater last Tuesday evening.

To date, since its inception, Turnaround Tuesday has placed 738 Baltimoreans in living-wage jobs with partnering organizations, including The Johns Hopkins University, Medstar Health, and University of Maryland Medical System; employers report a remarkable 80-85% retention rate of Turnaround Tuesday hires. President of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Redonda Miller, on a mini-documentary recently produced by Harvard University Wallace Foundation Fellow and native Baltimorean, Yasmene Mumby, reports that Hopkins’ Turnaround Tuesday employees are hard-working, compassionate and dedicated; they are role models for their fellow co-workers. Promotions at work are not uncommon for Turnaround Tuesday hires.

William, in his speech at The Parkway, gave some insight into why, at least for him.

“It’s my responsibility, to help fix what I was a part of breaking,” his soft voice echoed throughout the theater.

Another Turnaround Tuesday graduate, also a Hopkins employee, appears in Yasmene’s mini-documentary: “I’m making different choices today. I am better than I was yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.”

May it be so, for all of us.

Cristina

Want to visit Turnaround Tuesday? Click HERE to download pamphlet. Visitors to Turnaround Tuesday are welcome every Tuesday morning from 9-11am on the eastside at Zion Baptist Church, 1700 N. Caroline Street, and on the westside from 2-4pm at Macedonia Baptist church, 718 W. Lafayette Avenue.

I have been particularly smitten with the beauty of the autumn colors my first fall in Baltimore!  The reds, golds, greens, and ambers raise my spirit and remind me of the glory of God in her many disguises.  I use the expressways a lot and am always amazed at the splendor that overwhelms me as I wind a curve in the road to be greeted by yet another glorious Maryland landscape.  Simply put— I am enchanted!

During my years at St. Vincent’s House, Galveston, this time of year was especially grand.  We turned our large common space into a “restaurant” and served the thanksgiving meal to all of our neighbors (or even beyond) who would come.  Our neighborhood, you must understand, was much like areas of West Baltimore today.  Our partnerships with a catering business, a DJ, a linen service and our board of directors, ensured that we would share a feast that would be an extremely festive spread.  Throughout the day, we would serve and share our meals with upwards of 250-300 families.

In our times together, we discovered we were SO much alike—those of us who prepared the meals and those who ate them.  It was at St. Vincent’s House, that I realized GOD was literally “all-over-the-place” and I just never knew it.  I was forced to repent of thinking and believing that GOD was only where and when I thought God should/would be!

The Buddhist speaks of the need to enter each day with beginner’s mind, a way of perceiving life experiences anew.  The Christian speaks of repentance, a way of making a 180 degree turn from perceiving life in one way to a totally different way.  Both teachings illuminate a truth that transcends all time, space, and religions:  the DIVINE GLORY is EVERYWHERE and that includes seeing that glory in each other.

Most of us can sense something that transcends everything when we engage a beautiful piece of art, or hear a symphony, or enjoy laughter and fun with friends and family, but it was a Thanksgiving that gave me the sense of that transcendent something when I met fellow travelers on the Way.

A prayer:

May the DIVINE GLORY rise up and bathe all that we do, eat, and say in delightful reds, greens, golds, and ambers this Thanksgiving.  May our minds and hearts remain open and free!

Amen.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING Y’ALL!

FM+

Dear Folks,

“When will we know that the end is about to come?” the disciples ask Jesus in the Luke’s gospel.  “What will the signs be?” they wonder, and we can chuckle at their naivety, but apocalyptic thinking still surfaces today.  We are alive again in a time of hopelessness.  I heard it in the fear mongering that accompanied the last presidential election.  I wonder about it when people tell me they’ve lost hope in young people, or lost hope in the government, or lost hope in the church.  I wonder about it when 20-somethings tell me they don’t plan to marry or have children.  I wonder about it when we argue about fossil fuel and climate change instead of altering our behaviors of consumption.  Someone’s world comes to end somewhere, everyday—and there is plenty of anxiety to fuel doomsday thinking around the world and across town.  Thoughtful people still wonder, with reason, if the end is near.

In a sense, it’s always near.  So we don’t have to be like the kid on the long car trip who keeps asking every ten minutes, “Are we there yet.”  We are there, and I think we know it.  Look carefully and you’ll see the disparity in schools, the spiritual and economic legacy of racism, and our wounded environment.  People are hurting, some are dying, and when they lose hope or turn cynical, we can’t sit idly by.  Rather, we can respond to John the Baptist’s clarion call: God’s kingdom is at hand, and it is in our hands.

Kathleen Norris writes, “The literature of the apocalypse can be scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a bogeyman God.”  But apocalyptic literature, like the reading from Luke in chapter 21, is not “a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world.”  On the contrary, it is a wake-up call, “one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.” (Norris, Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith)

When we look carefully, we discover “that marriages, families, communities, and nations often come together and discover their true strength (precisely) when some apocalypse—some new revelation of the fault lines in our thinking or our systems—has occurred… For some reason, we seem to learn best how to love when we’re a bit broken, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of self-sufficiency and goodness and safety are shattered.” (Norris)  Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses—allowing us a sobering, and admittedly painful glimpse of what is—and then envision the new life we can build from the ashes of the old.

Who knows how Christ will come, or when, or where?  If we are in search of a timetable and try to crack the code of apocalyptic literature, we are probably on a wild goose chase.  And when some of us claim that all who join our party or parish or denomination will be saved and everyone else is lost, we are mistaken.  “The ones who will be saved, Jesus says, are the ones who are feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners.  If we love, in other words, we are in.”  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking)

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.  (Bishop Ken Untener)

People of good faith can change systems that have become perverse or wounding, so that they work for human beings again.

You know, we’ve read to the end of the book.  We know how the story goes.  We know the responsibility we hold in our hands and the kingdom those hands are pointing to.  We know that good triumphs over evil, that life is more powerful than death, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and that love abides.  We don’t have to travel through time or gaze into a crystal ball to see the rapture.  But we do have to build the kingdom, if Shalom is ever going to come. We know what the coming of the living God looks like: it looks like you and me working the earth of the heart, digging into the ground of Being, confronting meanness and injustice and betrayal every day if we have to, sowing seeds of healing and reconciliation and community, because we have to, every day, one person at a time.

Love,
David

Dear Folks,

What are you looking for?  What are your hopes for your family and for Baltimore?  What is God opening up in you?

A young ruler runs up to Jesus and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  If I want to live authentically, he wonders, what do I have to change?  At first Jesus discusses the ethical demands of the law: don’t murder, don’t betray your spouse, don’t lie, don’t steal, take care of your parents.  And the man of means responds, “Teacher, I have followed these rules since my youth…  I want more.”   At this point, Jesus looks at him and loves him, the story says, which catches my attention.   What’s happened within the fellow to bring him to this point, and why don’t his clothes seems to fit anymore?  So like a doctor making a diagnosis, Jesus listens deeply to him to see what the matter is, and how he might help him to be whole.

The implication is that this beautiful person, as well turned out as any high school “Big Man on Campus,” as any young woman climbing the rungs of Wall Street, as any senior counsel of the law firm, as any non-profit board chair, or attending physician or team captain or school head or vestry member or president or priest is as wounded as the next person, as likely to need help as someone more obviously broken, as deserving of God’s grace.  The man in the story is us, and Jesus loves him, not because of what he has, but because he presents his honest struggle… his need, his lack, his longing, his humility, his pain, his hunger, his willingness to be confronted by how he needs to grow.  The fellow wakes up to the ways that he’s not satisfied—with himself or with life, and probably some of both—and his desire to start living in a new way.

Jesus instructs the man to give away all that he has, and not surprisingly, he balks.  If I were him, I’d begin to bargain: “Would half be enough, Jesus?  What if I started with the things I don’t need anymore, or the things I don’t like?  What about two-thirds?  I’ve worked hard to get what I have.  Did you say to give it all up?”

This encounter with Jesus is a story about possessions, for sure, but more than that it is about losing what is false and finding what is real.  Jesus might have said to the fellow, “Don’t worry about what you have or what you will inherit in heaven: focus on today and on people.  That’s where your true treasure is found.”  Hidden just below the surface of everyday life is a world of people with broken hearts and terrors in the night… folks whose relationships are rocky, whose children are in trouble, whose jobs are overwhelming, or unfulfilling, or about to be taken away, whose future looks bleak.  They are sick, some of them, or scared to face the truth, hungry for food or meaning, worried about change or losing someone, or grieving such a loss.  Focus on people and their needs, and you’ll find the kingdom.

Mostly we keep our wounds to ourselves, the way our parents taught us or our coaches expected.  If we cry, it’s into our pillows at night or in the car alone, driving down the highway.  Stiff upper lips are a badge of honor.  But what if for a change we let God into our losses, and let God find us in the dark, or in the deep water, or where we feel most alone?  What if we let God into whatever might be dying in us, so that we can rise and finally live for others, and not only for ourselves?   Because when we seek out those whom the world has ground up or lost, Jesus says, we will find ourselves and God.

Will you go out searching with me?

Love,
David