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?
My 11-year old son Ben loves baseball. Our nighttime routine has recently evolved to include a brief tutorial moment: each night before turning off the light, I sit beside him as he holds a baseball and shows me how to hold it a certain way, in order to throw a specific pitch.
There’s the “4-seamer” (index finger and middle finger shaped like a “V” with 2 horizontal seams visible inside the “V”; the “2-seamer” (index finger lying on top of one seam, middle finger lying atop the other); the circle change up, the slider, curveball, sinker, forkball and the “swerve”ball. And apparently, in addition to these, I still have a couple more pitches to learn. Who knew?!
Years ago when I was on staff at the Eagle Rock School in Colorado, a “second chance” school for disengaged teenagers from all around the country, I was introduced to the phrase and concept of being a “life-long learner”. Teens who had not been successful in their previous schools were inspired by adults who were not only excited to teach and instruct but who were equally excited to learn and try new things, together. We were a community of life-long learners, eager to continue to expand our mental-emotional-spiritual horizons by trying to play a new musical instrument, for example; experiment in writing poetry; venture on the rock climbing wall for the first time; learn a new language …
I like to think of our community here at Redeemer as also being a community of life-long learners: seeking, exploring and trying new, life-giving ways of how to hear and follow — and how to more fully embody — Christ in our place, in our time.
There are a myriad ways to seek and explore, learn and grow, here; and to engage with one another, as well as with folks in our wider community of Baltimore. Does scripture intrigue you? Baffle you? Confuse you? Try experiencing it as part of David’s Wednesday Bible Study, I guarantee you will hear and see it, in a new way! Looking to explore your spirituality through the collective wisdom of women? Join Freda Marie in the Women’s Council Room on Thursdays. Needing support in how to be well, and cultivate wellness? Check out our offerings through the newly opened Center for Well Being!
And yearning to “walk the talk” and put your faith (alongside your doubts and questions) into action? Get engaged in our wider community through our fruitful partnerships with BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development), Govans Elementary School, GEDCO (Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation), Helping Up Mission, Habitat for Humanity and Paul’s Place, Inc.
“Now is the time! Now is the day of salvation!” Stay alive and engaged by learning …
(And remember … to breathe …)
I am excited to announce that the Covenant Fund of The Church of the Redeemer, established in 2017 to address the root causes of poverty in Baltimore, will invest $500,000 in the work of ReBuild Metro. Structured as a loan over ten years with a 2% return, the Covenant Fund will invest $200,000 this year, with the remainder paid out over the two following years. The total value of the Covenant Fund is now over $2 million, thanks to generous gifts of the parish and a thoughtful investment strategy. The Fund, created to support direct service to and programs for people who are under resourced, to foster relationships between individuals and groups, and to build community through partnerships, is managed by the Investment Committee, and disbursement decisions are made by the rector in consultation with the Vestry and members of the Budget and Finance Committee.
Rebuild Metro has been around for 15 years, quietly working in East Baltimore. In 2004 the team began acquiring scattered properties in the Oliver neighborhood. Collaborating with five local churches from whom they raised $1.2 million dollars, ReBuild also partnered with the city, who agreed to sell them the houses at low cost and turn them over to Rebuild, address by address, as the non-profit developer was ready to rehabilitate them. ReBuild, which is an outgrowth of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), used economic data and community relationships to get things started, focusing on small areas where they knew the rehabs would produce the greatest effect. The development works inward from natural boundaries, like railroad tracks, a park, or a business, defining a discrete area and building from strength.
The model is to rehab existing houses, as well as to take smaller actions, such as fixing up a corner garden, clearing an overgrown lot, or turning some of the vacant properties into community green space. All this commitment is of a piece – and built around organizing – with residents taking charge of consulting neighbors, identifying needs, and mobilizing resources with support from local institutions and philanthropies.
As relationships deepened and the work proved successful in Oliver, ReBuild began talking with neighbors in Greenmount West, where blocks of rehabbed houses now combine with pocket parks, the OpenWorks community maker space, and the beautiful CityArts apartment buildings. ReBuild broke ground in Johnston Square in July.
Executive Director Sean Closkey compares typical “urban renewal” to the community-based work that Rebuild Metro embodies. “Most often a developer acquires several blocks of a depressed neighborhood, helps the few remaining residents move to a new location, razes the existing housing stock, and builds a high density structure. A block of twenty row homes might be replaced with sixty new residences.”
But the Baltimore housing stock, which was built for a city with a population of one million people, arguably doesn’t need more houses. Rather, neighborhoods like Oliver, Greenmount West, and Johnston Square are strengthened by being right-sized and having fewer houses, while adding more community-building features. “You can’t organize without residents,” Closkey adds, “and since our vision is based on knowing the people we serve, we help them stay in the neighborhood.” Importantly, over the 15 years of ReBuild’s work, no residents have been displaced.
I first spoke about ReBuild in June, and since then a number of Redeemer parishioners have become involved in this transformative work. Peter Bain has joined the board of ReBuild. Janet Harvey has agreed to help organize the campaign to raise funds for ReBuild’s third project, based in Johnston Square. Dixon Harvey, Jim Piper, and Molly Hathaway have generated considerable enthusiasm about the work, and last week Molly organized a group of interested community members to visit. This summer I invited two groups of parishioners to meet Sean Closkey and learn about ReBuild, and in October the Vestry and program staff toured the Johnston Square neighborhood and met with community leader Regina Hammonds.
There is a lot of exciting engagement ahead for us. I hope that the Covenant Fund’s investment will inspire individual, foundation, and corporate partners to get involved. Through this commitment, allies can help repair the breach made by race-based housing policy, assisting African American Baltimoreans create equity, some for the first time in generations. At the grass roots level, Regina Hammonds, Cristina Paglinauan, and I are planning projects to connect parishioners and community partners to her neighbors, including vacant lot upkeep, park clean-ups, and elementary school support. We will need teenagers, families, singles, and seniors to make it work.
On November 10 after the 10:00 service, we’ll welcome Regina Hammonds and other leaders involved in the project to talk about how it works and why they are so excited to be part of ReBuild and to partner with Redeemer. Regina said last week, “We would never have gotten to where we are now without interested people from outside our neighborhood.”
It will take all of us to transform Baltimore, she said. Amen.
Sometimes an event occurs that makes you go, “Hmm….” Usually, I notice these for reflection later. Saying, “hmmm….” Allows me to come back to it to wrestle and that is exactly what happened to me this morning. I had an “Hmm….” moment.
I was driving down Park Heights Avenue around 9 a.m. and turned east onto Northern Parkway. Since several cars turned either before or after me and we were all driving the same speed, I didn’t think twice about a horn blowing behind me; I mean we weren’t at a stop light or anything. But the owner of the obnoxious Toyota car horn continued to blow, and blow, and blow. In fact, s/he laid on the horn while practically attaching their front bumper to my rear one.
Now, I don’t know about you, but anyone who does this is just begging to be slowed down-n-n, but I didn’t change my speed. I stared incredulously into the rearview mirror as the driver angrily whipped their car around me, then in front of me, then around the car to my right and then around the car to his right. It was apparent that we just weren’t moving fast enough. Later, as the three of us pulled up to the red light, there was the over-anxious, in-a-hurry driver of the Toyota already sitting there. I smiled to myself. Of course, he peeled off in a screech of wheels, when the light changed and then ended up in a long line of red taillights further up the road.
My first thought: Where is he going like that? Must be late. Second thought: Doesn’t s/he realize they are creating their own reality of being late AND arriving at their destination with a high cortisol level and high blood pressure to boot?
Now, I don’t believe that everything that happens to us in life is within our control and that we have the capacity to fully create our realities, but I do believe (and am learning daily) that a number of our life perspectives are based on beliefs we hold and some of those beliefs no longer serve us. In fact, many of the unexamined beliefs we are holding haven’t served us since high school or earlier and yet they populate our psyche as we categorize and judge the people and things of life accordingly.
With the driver for example, driving with the belief that they won’t make it to their destination on time is a sure way of not making it on time. Having driven a lot of the 600 sq. miles of Houston over the past 5 years, I can tell you that I have tested this hypothesis repeatedly and found it to be true.
Although running late, I discovered that it was better for me to simply BREATHE and choose to be PRESENT to each moment as it presented itself. So, if all the cars around me were traveling 35mph, I could just fall in line and find myself in a much better frame of mind when I finally arrived at my destination. And wonder upon wonders I usually wasn’t more than 2 or 3, minutes late! The first time this happened to me, I was amazed and intrigued enough to try it again. Experimentally, I discovered that it always worked. With lessened anxiety and fear about the future, and with acceptance and attentiveness to the present moment, I discovered a true shalom that went with me into my encounters at my journey’s end.
I find the driving metaphor for life to be very helpful. We are the drivers of our lives and unlike cars we each have only one precious life to live. Some —not all—realities (based on our perspectives) have been created by us unconsciously. To re-create a different and more desirable reality might just mean examining the beliefs on which those perspectives are held. We can begin to let go of beliefs like “I’m not good enough, smart enough, young enough, old enough, wealthy enough, etc.” and begin a new song that says, “I AM ENOUGH!”
If you feel the need, try on this new Way of being just who you are, choosing the present moment as the present moment, knowing that “You Are Enough.” JUST BREATHE….and see what happens!
Whatever your politics, we’re in a painful place right now as a world, as a country, as a city. Leaders are at odds with each other, families are at cross purposes, and as always, the folks on the margins take the brunt. So I want to talk about healing this morning, about the loss and struggle that precede it, the humility that invites it, and the whole new life that follows right behind.
Kathleen Norris writes, “Once a little boy came up to me and said, ‘I saw the ladder that goes up to God.’ Stunned, she closed the book she was reading, which happened to be The Ladder of Divine Ascent by a fierce 7th century monk, and listened. “The boy told me that the ladder was by his tree house and that God had come halfway down. God’s clothes were covered in pockets—like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed. Even God’s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder. (Then the boy) said that God carried food in the pockets to feed all the…birds and the… people” who had died. (That’s good, I offered, and he nodded.)
The boy’s vision had been laid alongside his own searing loss. “His dog (was) bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family’s ranch, and his father had had to shoot both animals.” (Norris) As the boy shared his dream, Norris was quiet, and then she couldn’t help but think of another young man who had also seen a ladder going up to heaven—Jacob—and his response is compelling to me: When he awakes, Jacob says, “God is in this place of struggle, and I did not know it.” God is in this place of struggle… What kind of healing do you long for? What loss is calling you? How do you contribute to systems that serve some and wound others? What kind of healing work is particularly yours to do?
Healing does not come through some external rationale or explanation—there are no perfect words to say to a child who has lost a beloved pet or to a classmate who’s lost a friend or to a neighbor who’s lost an opportunity; no recipe to give to a parent who is burying their son or a dream; no magic to give to a survivor of violence or oppression. Healing is lonely work that stirs within. First there is an acceptance of need, then an honest engagement with the struggle and one’s capacity to respond; there’s the discovery of personal strength and the embrace of a power greater than yours; there’s a recognition of history and context and a through line of Presence—and then something like peace dawns, if only for a moment, and perhaps hope for tomorrow. And if you are willing to pay it forward, one’s own healing invites taking the risk of solidarity to stand alongside another vulnerable person: to ask what being well looks like to them, to hear what they have to offer, and then to walk the mourner’s path together. This is how a beloved community is made. If we have eyes to see it, shared loss is the soil in which humanity’s healing is planted.
In today’s scripture, Naamen knows something about losing his life in order to find it again—diminished, perhaps, but richer for the exchange. Naamen is a successful military leader, the commanding officer of Israel’s enemy, a great man in high favor with his master, the king of Aram—and yet he suffers from a debilitating skin disease. And that is to say, in addition to his status, beyond his skill as a warrior, despite his political prowess and power, Naamen is wounded and weak. “How can this be possible?” the original audience would have murmured to themselves, as they prepare for the hero’s inevitable fall. He’ll learn a lesson about pride, they assume.
Most of the time his ailment is referred to as leprosy, but that translation is open to debate. No archeological evidence can be found that the illness commonly called leprosy today, Hansen’s disease, existed in the Middle East in ancient times. But whatever Naamen had, it was disfiguring and painful. And to add insult to injury, his illness was obvious to anyone who looked.
There was no hiding it. On the hands and the neck and the face of the generalissimo—inside the tailored uniform, beyond his broad chest of medals, beneath the hilt of his shiny and swift sword—Naamen’s skin had fallen to pieces. No longer able to protect him, his skin boils and burns. For good and for bad, the barrier between him and the rest of the world has literally broken open, and that vulnerability is both the cause of his pain and the way through which he can be made whole.
How are we like Naamen the leper? Where in you or in the systems you uphold is an old wound that belies your beautiful frame—covered over, ignored, even forgotten but festering? Where do you hide away the sin-sick soul: in anger, in fear, in sadness? What would happen if we let God lead us to the place where we are most weak, where it hurts the most, and where it pains us even to look? Racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, pride, arrogance, greed? Would you go there if I promised that that is where the healing begins?
An essential character in the story is the Israelite girl. Young, female, and held captive, which is to say three times an outsider, who in Hebrew is described as “little, little” just in case we missed the point, she is pivotal. This unnamed heroine is courageous enough to break her expected silence and speak her mind. “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria! He could cure him of his leprosy,” she declares in a surprising show of interest for the other, itself a healing act. And it is upon her word that Naamen approaches the king of Aram with a request to follow this lead toward his own wellbeing. And in that, the one heretofore understood as powerless has become the initiator of hope.
The girl suggests that Naamen contact the prophet Elisha. Not surprisingly, given the way power usually works in the world, the king of Aram disregards her advice, and he sends an enquiry to his peer, the king of Israel. He also sends along a small fortune in gold and silver and fine clothing, presumably to assure the conquered king that this time Aram comes in peace. But the overture has the opposite effect: the king of Israel tears his clothes in grief, believing that his rival is trying to pick another fight.
At this point the prophet Elisha steps in, directing the king to send Naamen to him. Upon his arrival, though, Elisha will not see the powerful leader, instead sending a messenger with the prescription: wash seven times in the Jordan river, which Naamen rejects as both too simple and beneath his dignity as a foreign power. “Are not the rivers of Aram as good as the Jordan,” he asks imperiously, turning away in rage. “Where is the welcome a man like me deserves? Where is the miraculous ceremony? Where is my cure?” For a moment Naamen forgets that it was by putting himself in the hands of the little servant girl, accepting his weakness and her power, that got him to this point. Perhaps his arrogance is a reaction to being on such foreign soil as this vulnerability? I get it. Again, a nameless servant invites his healing. “What’s up, tough guy?” he admonishes Naamen. (My rough translation.) “For you, it’s got to be difficult? Relax. Surrender. Wash and be clean.”
When Naamen doesn’t get the attention or deference he thinks is his due, the Spirit waits, letting the man vent and strut. No lightening bolt consumes him in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends. God waits until Naamen acquits himself of the odd human propensity to work against our own good. And when, after stalking off, he relents, we see in Naamen what had been there inside him all along (and what I believe is in each of us, too)—a person who is brave enough to accept his own weakness, faithful enough to step through his wounds into a whole new life. When he finally gives up, and lets go, and listens to the vulnerable voices outside and within him, and steps into the water, it’s clear that the river is just the place of his healing, not its source. Healing is lonely work that stirs within.
By this time, Naamen has already come a long, ragged way, a path familiar to anyone who is willing to take herself on. We know Naamen and “all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors” in his story, because we have all of that in our stories, too: big ideas, bad tempers, taking offense, throwing tantrums, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, changing our minds, eating crow. He’s not perfect, but he listens, and he learns. Mostly he figures out how to not let his demands to be fixed get in the way of his work on being whole… Sooner or later, I guess, most of us won’t “get the cure”: we’ll be too old or too sick or too late. But each of us can always be healed.
One morning walking across the campus at Duke University, author and professor Reynolds Price stumbled and fell—and there began a journey of excruciating pain and loss. Paralyzed for a season by a mysterious disease, he would have to learn again to feed himself, and bathe himself, and walk unassisted. It was like dying and being born, he said. “Fairly late in the catastrophic phase of my illness,” writes Price in his book A Whole New Life, “I began to understand three facts I’d known in theory since early childhood, but (whose reality I had barely plumbed.)” When you have lost your way, or lost your health, or lost a loved one, three things are true:
- You will have to dig your own way out. Healing comes only when you begin to face what you have lost.
- Given the significant loss, you can no longer be the person you used to be. So,
- Your work is to figure out who you are now. And who will you be tomorrow?
And once you’ve got a glimpse of being whole, consider this: who will you feed from your pockets, who will you walk beside, and who will you point to the river of life?