Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brother Juniper

How Brother Juniper Used to Give Whatever He Could to the Poor, for the Love of God

Brother Juniper had so much pity and compassion for the poor that when he saw anyone who was badly clothed or bare, he would immediately rip off his sleeve or cowl or some piece of his habit and give it to that poor person. And so the guardian ordered him under obedience not to give all or part of his habit to anyone.

A few days later it happened that he met a poor man who was almost naked and who begged Brother Juniper to give him something for the love of God. And Juniper said to him very compassionately: "My dear man, I have nothing to give you except my habit - and my superior has told me under obedience not to give it or part of it away to anyone. But if you pull it off my back, I certainly will not prevent you."

He was not speaking to a deaf man, for he immediately pulled the habit off, inside out, and went away with it, leaving Brother Juniper naked.

When he went back to the Place, the friars asked him where his habit was. And he answered: "Some good person pulled it off my back and went away with it."

And as the virtue of compassion grew in him, he was not satisfied with giving away only his habit, but to the poor he used to give books and ornaments for the altar and cloaks of the other friars and whatever he could lay his hands on. Consequently, when poor people came to Brother Juniper to beg, the friars used to take and hide the things they wanted to keep, so that Brother Juniper should not find them. For he used to give everything away, for the love of God and for His praise.

To the glory of Christ. Amen.

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to kill a mockingbird

harper lee

On January 30, 2006, the New York Times published an article "Harper Lee, Gregarious for a Day" by Ginia Bellafonte about a yearly awards ceremony at the president's mansion at the University of Alabama for a high school essay contest on the subject of "To Kill A Mockingbird.". The 50 or so winners of the contest and their families and teachers get to meet and eat lunch with Ms. Lee herself. The literary luncheon is a serendipity of sorts because Lee, who seldom speaks to the press or makes public appearances, signs copies of her novel and provides photo opportunities for the guests, though she politely refuses to speak about her writing.

Monroeville, AL, is a quintessential small, Southern town with a population of around 7000. This is the town into which Harper Lee was born and in which she still resides. She lives with her 90 something year old sister, who is one of the most sought after attorneys in the region. You can often find them puttering around the First United Methodist Church, where they are lifelong members. They maintain an apartment in New York City, the place where Lee journeyed to write "To Kill A Mockingbird", but spend most of their time in their home town.

According to one study from the 1990's, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is behind only the Bible as the book that has made a difference in Americans' lives. It has sold over 10,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, was made into an Oscar nominated movie in 1962 (Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor and Horton Foote won for best adapted screenplay), and there are people who give their lives traveling from place to place acting the part of Atticus Finch. I am even friends with Atticus Finch on Facebook!

With all of the critical and commercial success that came to her, why did Harper Lee write only one novel? I wonder. I think that's what makes her a 'Juniper' so I humbly nominate her as an honorary member of our group :-). Perhaps she was able to say all that she hoped to say to the world through the eyes and heart of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch. What do we hope to say to the world and how are we saying it? Are we writing it, painting it, sculpting it, being it and/or doing it? Thank you Nelle Harper Lee for showing us a way!

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Monday, March 22, 2010

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was written and illustrated by the ingenious author/illustrator Brian Selznick. It won The Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children in 2008 and was made into a movie directed by Martin Scorcese in 2011. It is a wonderful story about a 12 year old boy named Hugo and the ways his life interlocks like the gears of a clock with a 12 year old eccentric, bookish girl named Isabelle and a bitter old man named George Melies. Hugo is an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930's Paris and tends the 27 clocks that keep the people and the trains on time. His father was a clock maker who died in a museum fire trying to repair an automaton - a wind-up, mechanical man that can draw and write. The automaton is partially damaged in the fire. Hugo finds it, takes it to his sparse room, and uses the drawings from one of his father's notebooks to guide him in repairing it. He is sure if he can fix it then it will create a message to him from his father.

It is a wise story that wonders, "What does it mean to be human?"

 On page 374, Hugo and Isabel ponder -

"'Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason?' he asked Isabelle. 'They're built to make you laugh like the mouse here, or to tell time like clocks, or to fill with you wonder like the automaton. Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do.'

"Isabelle picked up the mouse, wound it again, and sat it down.

"'Maybe, it's the same with people?' Hugo continued. 'If you leave your purpose, it's like you're broken.'"

I think this remarkable book asks relevant questions for us - What is our purpose? Have we left it? Is it like we're broken? Can we be repaired? How?

In Africa, we have a proverb that says, "I am because we are; we are because I am." I think our purpose is found somewhere in community. How can we build community in this broken time? Would you help me build it? Would you help me repair it?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

the araboolies of liberty street

the araboolies of liberty street - a sermon

Sam Swope is one of my favorite writers. His book, "I Am A Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories," is my textbook on how to be a committed, compassionate, and creative writing teacher to the 4th graders I work with each day at my inner-city school. If you want to read a book that is a window into the lives of school children, teachers, and schools, if you want to read a book that is a window into the human heart, then read, "I Am A Pencil." It is wonderful.

Swope also wrote my favorite children's book, "The Araboolies of Liberty Street." Published in 1989, it became an underground classic and is treasured by people who live and move and have their being outside of the establishment.

It is a story about Liberty Street, where all the houses and all the people are exactly the same and where General Pinch and his wife are in charge. 'Liberty' means "freedom from arbitrary or despotic control," so Liberty Street wasn't a good name for that street because General Pinch and his wife were nothing but arbitrary and despotic. They order the children to stay inside and to cease and desist from any and all fun OVER THE SUMMER!

One day, the Araboolies move onto the street. They ARE a joyful, noisy, multihued family and ARE NOT like anyone else on the street, especially not like General Pinch and his wife. They paint their house with bright colors and zigzags, camp out on their front lawn, and invite the neighborhood children over to play wild and joyful games.

Of course, the General and his wife are horrified. "I'LL CALL IN THE ARMY," the General screams. After he gets bopped in the head with a balloonaloona ball, and after he gives as much hell as he can to the Araboolies to no avail,  he does. He commands the Army to find the house that is different and take it away.

The children on Liberty Street stay up all night and use paints, banners, and balloons to decorate every house on the street to make them look like the Araboolie's house. Every house, that is, except the General's house. After this creative act of nonviolence, the Pinch's house is left as the weird one on the street.

Following the General's orders, the Army ties up the house that is different, THE PINCH'S HOUSE, and drags it away!

Acts 2:43-47

The first "company of believers" (as Clarence Jordan calls the followers of Jesus in the Cotton Patch Version of Acts 2) must have seemed like Araboolies to their neighbors. In my study of the world of the first years of the church, I find that many of those neighbors THOUGHT and FELT that God was arbitrary and despotic and always ready to CALL IN THE ARMY if they didn't fulfill God's every perceived whim. According to Clarence (who, along with his interracial community at Koinonia Farms in south Georgia during the times of legalized segregation in the South, were Araboolies themselves), that "company of believers" STUCK TOGETHER in a world where people were tearing apart, HELD ALL THINGS IN COMMON - SELLING THEIR GOODS AND BELONGINGS, AND DIVIDING THEM AMONG THE GROUP ON THE BASIS OF ONE'S NEED in a world where people were taking and taking until there was a wide gap between the few who were rich and the many who were poor and were building a system where the rich got richer at the expense of the poor who grew desperately poor, were KNIT TOGETHER WITH SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE, GATHERING AT THE CHURCH EVERY DAY AND EATING THE COMMON MEAL FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE WITH JOY AND HUMILITY in a world where individual good proudly trumped the common good and sowed despair, and were PRAISING GOD AND SHOWING OVER-FLOWING KINDNESS TOWARD EVERYBODY in a world where people praised the powerful and showed kindness only to those who could do something for them. The purpose of this “company of believers” wasn't to SURVIVE but to SERVE. They lived and taught that God is love. They may as well have painted their houses in bright colors and zigzags, camped out on their front lawns, and invited the neighborhood children over to play wild and joyful games! They were Araboolies!

Gustavo Gutierrez

Gustavo Gutierrez is my favorite theologian. His understanding of God, in his LIFE and WORK, is like the Araboolies - joyful, noisy, and multihued. He was born in Peru to poor, indigenous parents. A struggle with osteomyelitis as a child left his body crippled but his mind strong for learning and his heart sensitive to the suffering of those around him. He studied theology in Europe, was ordained to the priesthood, and returned to Peru to share the good news of Jesus with the poor of Lima. God turned his life UPSIDE DOWN when he discovered that Jesus was alive in the lives of those poor people and in the lives of those who lived in solidarity with them and that Jesus through them were SHARING THE GOOD NEWS WITH HIM. He became a "pencil" for the poor and wrote down in his monumental work, "A Theology of Liberation," their understanding of God and their hopes for building a more human world FOR ALL PEOPLE. His essential question for us is, "HOW CAN WE TELL THE POOR PEOPLE OF THE WORLD THAT GOD LOVES THEM WHEN THEY LIVE IN THE MIDST OF LIFE CRUSHING POVERTY?" He is helping me work on a theology of the neighbor, which is so deeply needed in our un-neighborly world today. He helps us think about his question by reminding us that THE CHURCH IS A SACRAMENT FOR THE WORLD and that THE PLACE OF IT'S MISSION IS WHERE THE CELEBRATION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER AND THE CREATION OF HUMAN FELLOWSHIP ARE INDISSOLUBLY JOINED. He is an Araboolie if ever there was one and he wonders, "How can we be Araboolies?" 

From Africa To Jefferson Street To Washington, D.C.

I understand liberation theology with the help of three small stories from my life that I hold in my heart and now share with you.

The first two stories help me understand the CELEBRATION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER. We find the institution of the Lord's Supper in the last night of Jesus’ life in the first three Gospels of the New Testament. Surprisingly, though, we do not find it in John's Gospel. Instead we find in it's place the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. If the Lord's Supper is indeed a remembrance of Jesus, John helps us understand what we are remembering, that Jesus calls us to GIVE OURSELVES TO OTHERS.

 When I lived in Mali, West Africa, I woke early one morning to go to a village down the main road from our town. I walked to Momadu's courtyard, one of my best friends in the world and a subsistence farmer/cook/parson/saint. I wondered if we could celebrate the Lord's Supper with our friends in the village. "It's good idea!" he exclaimed with a broken toothed smile in his broken English that always made my heart smile, made my heart whole.

On the way to the village, we stopped and bought a loaf of bread baked in a rock oven and the dried leaves of a flower used to make a traditional African red tea. These would be the simple elements we would use in the celebration with our friends.

We arrived at the village and began our time together in a small clearing beneath towering baobab trees under a soft, dry season, morning sky. Drums pounded out traditional beats and we sang songs together.

 The small company of believers sat in chairs in a circle. Many curious people from the village stood around the circle and watched us. The time came to share the Lord's Supper. Momadu whispered, "I think it would mean a lot to the people if you gave them the bread and juice." He prayed a prayer and I broke the bread and placed it in the expectant, open hands of my friends. I looked at them and said, "Xa taa ani domolo xe," which means, "Take it and eat," in English. 

I noticed that a woman holding a small, frail child in her lap didn't eat the bread. The child was so small and so frail that she was almost unrecognizable, almost unseen. I wondered why the woman didn't eat the bread. "Do you think she understood my broken Malinke?" I whispered to Momadu. He leaned close to me. "Her daughter has been very sick and she is saving the bread for her."
 And there it was, in the life of an African woman and her child in a small, forgotten place in the world - an example of what it means to remember Jesus, to give ourselves to others, to be an Araboolie.

When I lived in Louisville, KY, my home was at the Jeff Street Baptist Center across the street from the Clarksdale Housing Projects. I was a member of a company of believers called the Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty and a part of the neighborhood, too. One morning I walked out the front doors of the center and turned down Jefferson Street toward the Ohio River. There, huddled in a circle beside the wall of our building, was a group of worn, ragged homeless men. I knelt down with them and said, "Hello." One of the men smiled a toothless smile at me, reached into his coat, pulled out a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, took a swig, and passed it to me. "Here," he said. "Have a drink."

What an Araboolie moment! Here I was offering my alcoholic friend a, "Hello," and he offering me the thing that was most important to him. And there it was again, in the life of small, forgotten, homeless alcoholic - an example of what it means to remember Jesus, to give ourselves to others, to be an Araboolie.

The last story helps me understand the CREATION OF HUMAN FELLOWSHIP. 
When I was in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I spent one of my spring break weeks serving at the Johenning Baptist Center in inner-city Washington, D.C. One night, my friends and I visited a small, Episcopal Church. There was a sign on the tiny lawn in front of the traditional red front doors of the church. "Free South Africa!" it said. I was intrigued. Were churches supposed to take sides in political matters? 

During the service, I waited for the moment we would celebrate the Eucharist. I wondered what it would be like to drink wine, real wine and not the Welch’s grape juice we took in Baptist churches (where no hands were to be found on another's hips and no wine was to be found on anyone's lips!). The ruffled, kindly priest called us to the altar. I looked around for the first time and noticed that the congregation was unlike any congregation I had ever worshipped with before. There were homeless people among us. Gay couples were there. There were black people, brown people, and white people. We were young and old. I will always remember the priest holding the cup before us and instructing, "Tonight we are going to drink from the same cup...this cup reminds us that we are brothers and sisters...we don't have to be afraid of each other...Jesus gave himself for us and so we should give ourselves to each other..." 
And there it was, in the life of a small, forgotten congregation in the heart of America's capital - an example of what it means to create human fellowship, to be an Araboolie.

Wouldn’t We Like To Be Araboolies, Too?

Now we know how to be Araboolies. WHY DOES THE WOARLD NEED ARABOOLIES?

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD that is tearing apart, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will stick together and work to stitch it together again.

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where people are taking and taking until there is a wide gap between the few who are rich and the many who are poor and are maintaining a system where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor who grow desperately poor, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will hold all things in common - selling our goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of one’s need.

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where individual good proudly trumps the common good and sows despair, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who are knit together with singleness of purpose, gathering at the church every day and eating the common meal from house to house with joy and humility.

WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where people praise the powerful and show kindness only to those who can do something for them, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will praise God and show over-flowing kindness toward everybody.

 The kind, ruffled Episcopal priest – the homeless alcoholic – the African mother – Momadu – Gustavo Gutierrez – Clarence Jordan – Sam Swope – are all Araboolies who are VISIBLE SIGNS OF THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD WITHIN THE ASPIRATION FOR LIBERATION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A MORE HUMAN AND JUST SOCIETY.

The question I leave for us is – WOULDN’T WE LIKE TO BE ARABOOLIES, TOO?

Monday, March 8, 2010



I'm encouraged by last night's Academy Awards. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a 'Best Director' Oscar for her work of genius on the picture "The Hurt Locker." That picture won the 'Best Picture' award. I was rooting for "Up!" Even though it didn't win the 'Best Picture' award, it was only the second animated picture ever to be nominated for an Oscar (Beauty and the Beast in 1991 was the first). And it did win Oscars for 'Best Animated Feature' and 'Best Original Score.' It was my favorite movie of 2009 and gently landed, balloons and house, into my "Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time" list.

I like a book or a play or a movie if I can empathize with the characters and find meaning in the stories. Somehow I knew I'd like "Up" the first time I saw it's preview and watched in wonder as thousands of helium balloons lifted the old house and the old man up, up, up into the sky. When I watched the picture for the first time at the theater, I empathized with shy, quiet Carl Fredrickson. I was like him when I was a kid! I found meaning in the way he and Ellie loved each other unconditionally and well. I also found meaning in the way the relationship between Carl and Russell changed them, making them more human. I appreciated the eccentricities and loyalties of Kevin and Dug because they reminded me of my own eccentricities and loyalties. I hated Charles F. Muntz but even in my hatred of him I understood why he was as he was and did as he did and it's always good when hatred gives way to understanding. Did I mention that I loved the thousands of helium balloons lifting the old house and the old man up, up, up into the sky?

How can we be a thousand helium balloons to people, especially to the smallest, most forgotten, or least lovable people in the world, and lift them up?

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

zen shorts

from Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth

My Uncle Ry lived alone in a small house up in the hills. He didn't own many things. He lived a simple life.

One evening, he discovered he had a visitor. A robber had broken into the house and was rummaging through my uncle's few belongings.

The robber didn't notice Uncle Ry, and when my uncle said "Hello," the robber was so startled he almost fell down.

My uncle smiled at the robber and shook his hand. "Welcome! Welcome! How nice of you to visit! The robber opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't think of anything to say.

Because Ry never let's anyone leave empty-handed, he looked around the tiny hut for a gift for the robber. But there was nothing to give. The robber began to back toward the door. He wanted to leave.

At last, Uncle Ry knew what to do. He took off his only robe, which was old and tattered. "Here," he said. "Please take this."

The robber thought my uncle was crazy. He took the robe, dashed out the door, and escaped into the night.

My uncle sat and looked at the moon, its silvery light spilling over the mountains, making all things quietly beautiful.

"Poor man," lamented my uncle. "All I had to give him was my tattered robe. If only I could have given him this wonderful moon."

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Wild Irish Rose

I met John Irving's writing in Mali, West Africa. My reading buddy Joanne had a wonderful library and a beautiful heart and became my literary oasis in our saharan desert country. One day she handed me a ragged copy of "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and said, "There aren't many missionaries I'd recommend this to but I think you'll like it." She was right! I became a fan of all works Irving. I'm reading his latest novel, "Last Night In Twisted River," and am enjoying being in his world again.

Irving helps me find the 'real' in the 'ridiculous', 'meaning' in the 'meaningless' and 'hope' in the 'hopeless'. His stories remind me of times I lived at the Jeff Street Baptist Center across the street from the Clarksdale Housing Projects in Louisville, Kentucky. One morning I walked out the front doors of the center and turned down Jefferson Street toward the Ohio River. There, huddled in a circle beside the wall of our building, was a group of worn, ragged homeless men. I knelt down with them and said "hello." One of the men smiled a toothless smile at me, reached into his coat, pulled out a bottle of "Wild Irish Rose", took a swig, and passed it to me. "Here," he said. "Have a drink."

It was truly a John Irving moment. Here I was offering my alcoholic friend a 'hello' and he offering his minesterial friend a drink. He was offering me the thing that was most important to him. Do I offer the things that are most important to me to others, especially to the smallest and most forgotten people in the world?

I didn't drink from that bottle of "Wild Irish Rose" on that day but I am still drinking deeply from that moment in my life today. What would it mean to the world if we passed it a bottle of "Wild Irish Rose," if we gave it the things that mean most to us? Let's try it!