Friday, May 28, 2010

A Cup of Water

May and June seem to be the peak seasons of hospitality. As I write this at least a dozen people I know are getting ready to host parties for graduations, weddings, Memorial Day cookouts, or friends and family coming for a visit now that summer has arrived. About a hundred more, like me, are buying gifts, making side dishes or packing suitcases in preparation for being guests.

Many years ago, on a visit to an infamous mansion where a murder had occurred, I learned that the pineapple is the universal symbol of hospitality. Later, on visits to many other famous and infamous mansions, plantations and castles this theme was repeated. Other journeys led me to St. Benedict who included the practice of hospitality in his Rule for his followers. "Let everyone that comes be received as Christ" is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted phrases of the Rule. Hospitality for Benedictines means that everyone who comes — the poor, the traveler, the curious, those not of our religion or social standing or education — should be received with genuine acceptance.

Perhaps the most common practice of hospitality is the phrase "can I get you something to drink?" When I lived in Minnesota and other cold places this meant the coffee was on. Here in Texas the most offered drink is iced tea. Whatever the drink, the intention is clear. When someone says to me "can I get you something to drink" they are really saying "you are welcome here and I care about your well-being."

So what is the mark of true hospitality? I think it's a simple cup of water. There is nothing more vital to human life than water. Isn't this is so like God - to freely supply what we need for the welcoming of others? Supplying what we need to enter into relationship? I will freely give a cup of water to someone I would be reluctant to invite to my table. Yet, in the giving of the water I am affirming that person's value and my concern for my neighbor's well-being . Jesus said "when I was thirsty you gave me water" and his followers responded "when did we see you thirsty and give you water?" He replies "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me". What a lovely, simple way to love God and neighbor - when they are thirsty, give them a drink.

If you live, as I do, in a city with homeless people who stand at busy intersections with signs asking for food, work, money or rides, you may really struggle with hospitality. The homeless make you feel helpless, inadequate, sad, and guilty. You often wish they would go away. It's hard to explain their presence to your children who still have the natural hospitality most kids possess. Maybe we should start with water. Put a case of water bottles in the trunk of the car and keep a couple inside to hand out the window. It's a decent, kind, helpful, and hospitable thing to do.

We all get thirsty. We're all human. We all need the water, and the welcome.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Path of Least Resistance

Someone told me recently that when she visited the Grand Canyon the ranger who described the formation process of the canyon said “Water is lazy; it always takes the path of least resistance.” I laughed out loud when I heard this because thinking of carving the Grand Canyon by taking the path of least resistance is a delightful irony! Yet look at what the water has done by simply going where it can! What if the path of least resistance is the path God is calling me to follow?

This is an almost incomprehensible thought. We are so indoctrinated to the concept of goal setting and hard work that we actually resist doing things that are easy. Instead of celebrating, and investing time in the things that come naturally or call out to us, we tend to work harder at the things that don't come naturally to us. Bookstores now have entire sections devoted to self-improvement. What if the creator made us for something specific and gave us the gifts we need to do it?

As parents, we reflexively focus on the single B on a report card studded with A's instead of whooping for joy at the child's great achievement. We make a note to pay more attention to the homework from the class with the B instead of looking to see which subject had the highest A and asking our child to tell us about it. What if we sent them to summer camps to celebrate their gifts more often than we sent them to tutoring to shore up their weak spots? Would that look more like unconditional love?

Our incessant striving to improve is caused by our inability to comprehend infinity. We can’t see ourselves as infinite. We see ourselves as finite, with beginnings, middles and ends like TV shows or short stories. We can’t see God’s love as infinite. We think our only opportunity to achieve or serve or matter is through the things we do within the span of our life on earth. And, we want tackle projects that allow us to see them finished. I suspect that most of the important stuff we set in motion will not come to fruition within our lifetime. Who knows what contribution our children's children will make? Who knows what the consequence of a simple act of kindness will be? God only knows. Only God knows. And only God knows what my path is and where it will go. Perhaps God draws us toward our paths by making them places we want to go; places where life is joy and work is pleasure and where we meet less resistance?

The Grand Canyon was formed over the last 40 million years and continues changing to this day. Could God's path for me also be the path of least resistance? Jump in. Let the breath and water of God carry you along the path of least resistance for a spell.

Friday, May 14, 2010

To Live Among. . .

This week I was struck by the phrase "live among God's faithful people" in the baptismal and confirmation liturgies of my denomination. "To live among" is different than "to live with" isn't it?

Those with whom we live form us. Our values, assumptions, skills, and responses were mostly formed by the people we lived with as children. Our circumstances were shared; our observations of cause and effect parallel. We loved the same people and knew the same places. We shared a world view.

The people who we live among, on the other hand, re-form us. They challenge our values and assumptions. They rank our skills on a different scale and make us wonder why we respond to certain stimuli in particular ways. They love different people and different landscapes. They have had different experiences and see the world differently because of them. This broadens our perspective and re-forms our vision of the world.

I think this is a good thing. My family of origin was an exceptionally loving place. It has taken me a lifetime to realize that not everyone was so fortunate. On the other hand, unlike most of my peers, I never lived anywhere where I could go to school with cousins or other relatives. Still, most of the people my family lived among welcomed us into their lives and made us part of their community. When I moved to Austin as a 20-something I learned to better appreciate living among God's faithful people.

Austin, unlike the small towns of my childhood, did not welcome me just because I was someone new. In fact, in 1982 people were driving around with bumper stickers that said "Thanks for visiting, now go home" and "Native Texan". I didn't feel like I was living among, I felt as if I were living outside some charmed circle. There was little southern hospitality extended - even some of the churches I visited were unwelcoming. It was an unsettling experience.

Then one Sunday I walked into the congregation that became my place to live among God's faithful people. It was friendly but not desperate. I was allowed to settle in at my own pace and find my own niche. When my children were born I promised to help them live among God's faithful people; and I did. For more than 25 years I have had my assumptions challenged, my perspective changed, and my world-view broadened by God's faithful people.

I am remarkably re-formed by this experience because living among doesn't mean just brushing shoulders with others. It means living connected: comparing our stories, lightening each others burdens, celebrating and sorrowing together, and building a collection of shared experiences. It means arguing about God's intended messages in scripture and gathering together at table like a family. It means being God's faithful people to other children from other families.

We don't send our children to go swimming without a buddy. We know that they are safer swimming with friends. Likewise, we shouldn't send them out to test their faith alone. Even as we are forming their values we need to bring them to live among God's faithful people and be re-formed. They'll swim more safely in their baptismal waters if they aren't swimming alone.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Swimming Against the Current

Lately I've been swimming against the current. While most people are winding down toward a more relaxed summer schedule, I have been gearing up for the equivalent of retail at Christmas-time. This is the cycle of my job and while it is challenging, it is also invigorating. . . a personal challenge that comes with a huge sense of accomplishment. Nevertheless, I'm going against the current; and some days the current forces me backwards or knocks me off my feet. It's tiring.

It's interesting to think about the ways we respond to the currents. Some people try to always "go with the flow". Others think that going against the "flow" is the only meaningful way to live life. Still others think the most important thing is to stand in one place, to be an immovable object that water flows around. There are even some people who just decide not to get in the water. (I have to add a quick tip for parents here: think about which category your child fits into and compare it to your own. You may discover a whole new way to understand your relationship!)

Whatever your natural inclination may be, the water will always prevail against you. You can go with the flow but eventually, you'll get stuck in an eddy and go nowhere. You can fight against the current for a time, but you will always tire before the current does. Digging in doesn't work, the very ground beneath your feet will erode as you plant yourself. Even staying on the bank is no guarantee - rivers rage, hurricanes blow, banks collapse and you're right in the water with everyone else.

The water will always prevail, but we can rely on, even call on, the one who prevails against the water. On behalf of Moses and the crowd who accompanied him on the exodus, God first turned a river to blood, then parted the Red Sea, and later caused water to flow from a rock. Water, while inevitably stronger than humans, can be harnessed by God.

God harnessed water and comes to us as living water. We are baptized in water and spirit and given eternal life. So float, swim upstream, plant your feet in the mud or just stay on the bank. . . God can prevail over the waters. . . and will. . . just ask!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Almost there. . .

Last week in the pre-school chapel service a four-year-old shared with me that she can swim all the way across the pool, AND, when she can do it four times in a row, she will be allowed in the "big kids" part of the pool. "I'm almost there" she told me with a joyful expression on her face.

My eighth grade confirmation students are almost there too. Almost to the end of confirmation classes. . . almost to the end of middle school. . . almost to high school. . .

Seniors awaiting graduation are almost there. . .

A young mother told me with heartfelt pride that we are "done with daytime diapers and sometimes dry overnight." Almost there. . .

Anticipation is a gift to be cherished and celebrated. Sometimes, as parents, we tend to be a bit too realistic with our children. We say, "Well remember, it took you three weeks to be able to swim across once, you probably aren't going to be in the deep end before summer." We do this because we want to spare them disappointment. We're protecting them from a part of life they can't anticipate. What would have happened if, as they learned to walk, we said "Just wait another month or two little one, you're going to fall down a lot before you can walk. Don't try now." We didn't do that; instead we encouraged them - "Come on honey, you're almost there. . ."

Time and experience will teach children soon enough that there are some things they will never be able to achieve. Trying to spare them small disappointments may ultimately cause them to rein in their dreams. They may pursue only what they are certain they can achieve. Their THERE will not be the place of their dreams, it will be the reality of their self-limited choices.

Jesus said, "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself." Let's not teach our kids to worry, or to diminish their dreams. Children don't become; they are. And WHERE they are is almost there. . .

Let the Creator of the waters carry you, and your children. You're almost there. . .