A Guidebook to Prayer: Twenty-four Ways to Walk with God [A Review]

The difference between talking about prayer and praying is the same as the difference between blowing a kiss and kissing. – G.K. Chesterton

I am learning how to pray. Like Jesus’ original, questioning disciples, I am in need of some schooling in the ways and means of prayer. As the Chesterton quote above alludes, talking about prayer is a world apart from actually praying and I find myself frequently firmly planted in the talking about camp rather than the praying camp.

In this learning process, I’ve come to realize how my apathy towards prayer has lead to my antipathy regarding prayer. I have an aversion to prayer. It’s so boring and seemingly non-consequential. My mind wonders as time is wasted. In the end, all the talk about prayer was compounding my distaste for it.

And this in a world where I’d been taught the central place of prayer for life itself. Like many facets of the Christian life, prayer is a given in many discussions albeit an arduous road less traveled. Yet, my conversion to a life of prayer was borne out of life of actually praying. It wasn’t until I actually began praying in regular ways that I began to question how to pray, the efficacy of prayer, and the true central role it has for all of life. As I continue to learn and press through this antipathy – for it has never gone away completely – I find myself yearning for more of the God I encounter.

Thankfully, this book by MaryKate Morse landed in my mailbox. It is a variegated antithesis to all things stale and pallid in the life of prayer. Its multifaceted approach does what it says: it guides us into myriad of ways of getting on with prayer with an attentive gentleness outdone only by listening to Morse’s voice in person. (I have done so and have been bettered for it.)

The book gives us means of engaging with God in a uniquely trinitarian way.

The purpose of this book is to move from the lament to the joy of praying…Prayer is more than a practice. It is a living adventure with a relational and risen Lord. God created us to be in a relationship with God expressed in the Trinity. God is the Creator and Covenant Maker. Jesus Christ is the living embodiment of God’s love and is the Redeemer who heals and forgives us. The Holy Spirit empowers us and intercedes on our behalf. – p. 14

Taking her cues from the Divine Community, Morse has broken her book up in three sections focusing on one Person at a time: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each section, therefore, reflects the being and doing of each person. As such, prayers revolving around the Father discuss creativity, work, blessing, and worship; the Son on service, simplicity, forgiveness, and play; the Spirit, conversation, healing, and rejoicing. These are just a sampling of the prayers given and fleshed out among many others.

Within each chapter – i.e. creativity, simplicity, healing – exercises are given for the individual, groups, and partners. Thus, as one reads, not only is information amassed, but concrete practices are embodied. Furthermore, she does not foresee this work being used primarily as “an occasional tool for different ways to pray, but it is primarily designed to help us become people of prayer.” (p. 19) To this end, stories are given from folks who have gone ahead of the reader(s) in the specific type of prayer being addressed. These are helpful encouragements that play a prominent role in the book; they’re not just supplemental add-ons. In them I found my own story and circumstances echoing back to me in the common hardships and pleasantries of life. In other words, don’t skip them.

If you’re one who has grown tired of speaking of prayer, I suggest this book. If you’re a leader of retreats looking for fresh material, I suggest this book. If you’re a pastor/priest looking for both teaching material and exercises, I suggest this book. Regardless of where you find yourself, I suggest this book. From its plethora of prayers, to its beautiful trinitarian structure, to its personal stories, this is a resource rich in both diversity and the potential to unify.

May it help you – and me – in our transition to being people of prayer.

Purchase it here.

Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.

A or B?: A Few Thoughts on Discernment and Decision Making

“A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else.” – Richard Rohr

For several months now, my wife and I have been praying, thinking, and discussing with friends and family regarding a potential shift. Not only the possibility of a move in geography and locale, but one of occupation as well. It has been a long, developing set of circumstances filled with doubt and frustration, joy and laughter, bewilderment and irony. This past week brought some conclusion to this time as I have accepted a position with a company here in Syracuse.

While traversing this time in liminal land, we have had to deal with times of disorientation as we wondered what was around each corner. For us as a family, it was a much deeper and concerning time as we now are not only responsible for ourselves as a married couple, but also for our 3 children. In many ways, the decisions we were facing had the potential to alter the trajectory and direction our family has been headed. For us, it is imperative to filter our own longings through the interrelated grids of community, incarnation, and mission.

Through it all, we knew discernment had to permeate all we did. This wasn’t a task we took lightly as it had/has enough inherent force to change how things play out in the future.

We are by no means experts in any of these things, but I’d like to share a few lessons we’ve come across and implemented through this particular season.

Discernment

Community Discussion

We knew through it all we could not and should not pretend we could make it alone. The lie of autonomy is exactly that: a lie. We have been taught in many ways that independence is a higher value and aspiration than interdepedence. Whether it be engrained in us implicitly or explicitly, the modern imagination has been shaped by power, prestige, and self-importance. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with the illusion of autonomy and the good life it purports. The interdependent life sees these and names them as antithetical to its very existence. Postures of humility, mutuality, and vulnerability are the hallmarks of interdependency and run counter-intuitive to our individualistic mindsets.

So, we tried our best to incorporate not only our thoughts on things along with the thoughts and feelings of others. We began with our family and closest friends, along with co-workers and neighbors. Knowing our decisions would have effects on people beyond ourselves, we deemed it necessary to include the voices of those we are tethered to. Through their input, we were able to discern gifts, talents, possibilities, and the ripple effects of potential decisions. For this we are/were extremely grateful.

The next step, however, was to begin to talk with those outside of our closest circles. In many ways, those who are not too familiar with the ins and outs of our existence can give us eyes to things we don’t see. Those closest to us are invaluable, but there are communal blind-spots we share that an outside perspective illuminates. As I began to talk with friends across the country, I was able to gain insights I wouldn’t have gained otherwise. They poked and prodded in ways our friends and family here couldn’t.

If you can, I suggest you look at both of these circles in your own life and ask how they can open your eyes to things you may not even be aware are present.

Stage of life

Discerning our stage in life was vital. We have been married for 7.5 years and have attempted to live as simply as we can. In some seasons this has been easy; in others, a bit more difficult. I was 24 when we were married, 25 when I started my Masters, and by 26 we had our first daughter. Those first two years of marriage we were both working full-time and had plenty of time, money, and energy. However, the past 5 years has given us 3 daughters and time, money, and energy have been found wanting.

Dreams and aspirations change as the seasons of our life change. The things I was chasing after have taken drastic twists and turns. With each new child, those potential endeavors and passions have changed as life has become more about family and less about Scott. Even within the past 5 years of having children, each successive child brought new challenges and opportunities. What I saw as necessary when I was 25, I now have been able to bury in the ground. Paradoxically, life has still emerged and emerged all the more beautifully.

So, for us, determining what stage of life we were in was a must as we came to decisions. There is a whole new set of questions we have to be asking as we form answers to what directions things might move in. They are different for everyone, but I suggest you prayerfully reflect upon them and your current stage of life.

Prayer

I know. For many, this is a given. Still, for many others, it is a given in thought, not in reality. I was certainly in the latter camp for a long, long time. It is interesting – and somewhat embarrassing – that it takes tough times to truly turn to God. Desperation has a funny way of tearing down our arrogance and providing the framework necessary to realize our finiteness. God is a being of participation, rather it be small or large decision. As Ruth Haley Barton says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it. (Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 30)

The longer we prayed about our potential change, the more we became open to whatever God had for us. As the Richard Rohr quote above states, we were becoming ever-increasingly willing to go somewhere else. Rather ironically, our “going somewhere else” will take place in our staying put geographically.

And this leads me to perhaps the weightiest part of this all.

Decision Making

I’ll be with you regardless.

There is a strong idea, perhaps even a doctrine, embedded within many Christian communities regarding God’s will. It has several variations, but essentially goes something like this: “God has a wonderful plan for your life and as long as you’re in the center of God’s will, you will be blessed.” Have you heard this before?

I have had numerous conversations with people who have heard this. They were facing decisions with tectonic shift-like power and were ruminating on some permutation of the aforementioned Christian axiom.

Now, hear me: I’m not saying this statement is inherently evil nor are those who perpetuate it. I have said it, believed it, encouraged it, and acted upon it. However, as of late, I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea what it means.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my inexperience. Maybe it’s my faith.

Regardless, my worry is that it has created more confusion than clarity. For those whom I have spoken with who were wrestling with the ramifications of “being in God’s will” there was a paralysis brought upon them by this belief. It’s as if there is either A or B and you must choose and choose wisely or else. There is no “both” because they are typically seen as mutually exclusive and singular in their pathways. As such, there is a visceral fear of making the wrong choice in regards to God’s will and finding God is blatantly absent from our lives due to it. (Obviously, there are decisions we make that are outside of the life and kingdom Jesus beckons us into. The thought here is central to decisions decidedly not of that nature.)

In place of this fear, we have found freedom in finding God’s presence in both A and B. Recently, we were reminded, “God made humans, not robots.” Again, it is one thing to understand this; it is another to embody it. Yet, the beauty of God’s love is its allowance for choice.

God is infinitely patient. He will not push himself into our lives. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom. If we want habitually, even exclusively, to operate from the level of our own reason, he will respectfully keep silent. We can fill ourselves with our own thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. He will not interfere. But if we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love expresses itself – by presence. – M. Basil Pennington

I firmly believe we would do well to crack the illusion of both God’s non-involvement in our lives and God’s commandeering of our wills. We have certainly found the grace of God in the tension of earnestly praying for his will to be done all the while knowing it was our decision to make. As we have decided, we have rested in his promise of “I’ll be with you regardless.”

What about you? What has aided you in discernment and decision making?

There is a lot more to be said. What am I missing?

I’d love to hear your story.

Love Your Neighbor: It Isn’t Hate; It’s Fear.

https://i1.wp.com/www.folkart-crafts.org/images/neighbors.gif

There has been a push happening for awhile now. For many, the perpetuation of isolated people, anonymously living their lives next door to one another needs to end. This push back into the neighborhood has come due to the cultural insistence on privacy, individualism, and overall autonomy (among others). Where estrangement has flourished, many are seeking to replace it with intimacy and interconnectedness.

Over the past several years, I have wondered if our tendencies toward isolation and individualism stem from fear not hatred. I say fear because for the most part, I don’t find too many who actually hate their neighbor. If they do, it seems this hatred is an outcome of fear. In other words, they hate because they fear, not the other way around.

Fear of our norm being interrupted. Fear of having to be vulnerable. Fear of the unknown. Fear of finding an unknown ally. The list goes on.

Fear is an interesting thing. Many of our fears are steeped in cultural stories; things we have deemed the normative “big” things to be fearful of. Thieves, rapists, car accidents, muggings, and the like plague and dominate our imaginations. Perhaps we have become a culture marked by fear because we are primarily marketed at in fear. Oddly enough, studies have shown that crime rates have actually declined, yet the reporting of crime has steeply ascended. This paradox has given credence to our efforts in self-protection while allowing us to remain hostile towards others.

As Nouwen says, “In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.” It seems we have allowed our fears of the “big” things to permeate our views of the neighbor, coworker, and stranger featured in our everyday occurrences. This isn’t necessarily a cognizant reaction, yet when our imaginations are shaped by stories of threat and danger carried out by strangers, it is easy to carry these attitudes and practices over into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places.

In response, then, we build walls – be they literal or figurative – keeping hostile others out and ourselves in.

Yet, many of us might not believe we live in fear of others. There is no visceral emotion or attitude showing itself as fear. At first glance this may seem true, but taking a look at the actual practices we employ, it doesn’t take long to realize how embedded fear actually is.

There are three aspects of fear I want to point out in particular. Three points that often go unnoticed, but are vital. Vital because if Jesus tells us and shows us how to love our neighbors – and even our enemies – we need to be reflective and aware of how we might be replacing love with fear. Real life is a life of love, not fear; after all, perfect love casts out fear.

1. Fear does not only separate us from others, it allows us to dissect others.

Fear gives us a myopic vision of others where we cut up people into atomized versions of themselves. Rather than seeing others holistically, we pinpoint the qualities we deem necessary to fear them. We don’t see others with both their gifts and problems; we tend to selectively view them for their delinquencies and ills.

Our coworker isn’t a gifted teacher; in fear, she is primarily a gossip. The neighbor across the street isn’t a gracious gardener; in fear, he is the loudmouth who lets everyone know he was out late every Friday night. A spouse isn’t a partner and lover; in fear, he is a prideful manipulator waiting for you to mess up.

In short, fear gets us off the hook of lovingly seeing and participating with whole people. Permission is given to divide them up into the good, bad and ugly while living as if the bad and ugly exist alone. We do this because if others are essentially their most deviant selves – their problems/deficiencies – we don’t have to love them. They are a danger and must be kept at an arm’s length, at best.

In fact, I wonder if we don’t dissect others out of fear of finding ourselves in them. If we can keep the dividing lines alive and well through atomization, there will always be the “us” and “them”, not the “we”. Fear enables us to reject any possibility of finding a like-minded brother or sister. After all, who wants to find a brother and sister in a supposed stranger?

I have seen this over and over again – especially within myself – with those I’m most familiar with. It does happen with the actual stranger, but more often than not, it happens within the relationships that effect my everyday. Focus must be brought to the daily, mundane, humdrum of life for that is where we actually exist.

2. Fear does not only allow us to dissect others, it allows us to blindly deny our own complicity in ugliness and evil.

Fear permits us to lay the blame at the feet of others as we walk away innocent. It allows us to play the victim card in a world full of agitators and thugs. The problems of the neighborhood, workplace, and family are not our own, they are the product of and responsibility of others.

As long as the ailments of our world can be found in others, we will not be accountable for fixing them. Those who need correction are those who are not us. Expectations can be projected across the street or over the cubicle wall as long as they don’t reverberate back on us. Peter Block talks of projection and accountability in his brilliant book Community: The Structure of Belonging

Projection denies the fact that my view of the ‘other’ is my creation, and this is especially true with how we view our communities and the people in them. Most simply, how I view the other is an extension of being accountable. To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence. It is the willingness to focus on what we can do in the face of whatever the world presents to us. Accountability does not project or deny; accountability is the willingness to see the whole picture that resides within, even what is not so pretty. (p 57)

3. Fear does not only keep us from being accountable, it allows for the continuation of the status quo.

If you are like me, you have plenty of grandiose ideas. The problem becomes when they interrupt the established rhythms I’ve created over the years. Behind these walls I’ve built between myself and others lies my comfortable, personal world which has taken years to establish.

This world is full of preoccupations keeping me distant from my neighbors. Nouwen states,

Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. (Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 74)

For many of us, myself included, it is this fear of the unknown, the uncertain, which keeps us holed up in isolation. Our neighbors might interrupt our entertainment plans in front of our big screens; our hurting coworker might stop my efficiency and money producing; my child might steal my sleep.

Rather than reaching out in love, we hide away in fear of our precious timelines, agendas, and show times. The way to change is pushing through these self-imposed comforts and to allow revolutionary breakthroughs to emerge.

So, I ask, how has fear taken root in your life? Are you dissecting others? Have you turned a blind eye to your own ugliness? Do you protect your status quo at all costs?

Or am I way off base? Is it hatred – or something else – not fear?

I’d love to hear your story.

Image: Johnnie Swearingen (Brenham, TX). Neighbors, 1989. (Source)

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: End of Summer Compilation

Last Friday was the final day of summer school, which meant it was my final day with Stan. That is, of course, until school starts back up in a few weeks.

As I look back on this summer, I have been hit with the mutual learning that has taken place. As I said earlier in this series, working with Stan, and my other special education students as well, is an exercise in co-learning. It is not just me teaching them; in many real ways I am taught just as much, if not more.

I’ve also been reflecting upon Jean Vanier’s life and work with the less-abled. Back during this past season of Lent, I shared Vanier’s seven aspects of love taken from his amazing book, Becoming Human. The more I marinate in his thoughts, the more I find truth deeply embedded within them. He is not a mere thinker, but is one who has given his life to those at the margins of society: the weak, the feeble, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.

I’d like to share some of these aspects again as they have been at the core of this little blogging project. It has been my conviction that the more we reveal, communicate, and celebrate those around us, the more we begin to live as God intends. Paradoxically, I have found Stan and his friends to be the ones who have taught me much about love, community, and forgiveness even as it seems I am the one doing the above things. There will never be a “Thank you” attached to the work I do with these students, but that does not negate the work my friends and I have given ourselves to. What it has done, however, is taught me the necessity of doing work regardless of it being noticed or not. Furthermore, I have learned the communication of thankfulness transcends the verbalization of the words, “Thank you.” There is a deeper sense of communication that takes place when you move beyond spoken language (especially when it is not available, as is the case with many of my students) and begin to know others through body language, moods, and actions. All of this re-learning takes patience and constancy: the bedrocks of love.

When I step back and am attentive enough, my eyes are open to their subtle revealing, communicating, and celebrating of me.

I pray as you read Vanier’s words below and examine the drawings of Stan that follow, you will ponder who it is in your life – perhaps someone unlikely – that you need to love through revealing, communicating, and celebrating.

To Reveal

The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation…To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention…As soon as we start selecting and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.

To Communicate

Communication is at the heart of love…I have learned that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others. It is a part of the process of moving from idealism to reality, from the sky to the earth…We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

To Celebrate

It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is to celebrate them…they need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them.

Scan 9 Scan 10 Scan 11 Scan 12 Scan 13 Scan 14

For more in this series:

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “The Weather”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “The Airport”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: “Elephant”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: “Once Upon A Time” (An Unfinished Storybook)

 

Living the Subversive Life of Jesus: Question Asking and Community Cultivation

The other day a few of my friends and I were discussing the realities of life. Rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life were at the core of our dialogue. For us, life doesn’t make a whole lot sense unless we’re pursuing the actualization of these words. The call to move into our neighborhoods is one we’ve taken seriously and are becoming more and more aware of the postures and practices needed to follow through with this. In a world where the extraordinary and flashy are sought after and valued, we believe faithfully pursuing the mundane of the everyday is where we will see actual growth.

We firmly believe in things like rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life because these are some of the things Jesus firmly believed in. And by “believe in” I don’t mean mental assent alone. Belief is something that is manifested through action. Therefore, if you say you believe something, I should be able to see actual actions and habits to support this. Give me a month of observing you and I’ll tell you what you actually believe. We in the Church have done a grave disservice by assigning mere intellectual affirmation to what it looks like to have faith.

Discussing these things in generalities is step one; coming to grips with specifics is step two. So, when my friends asked me what it looks like for Scott Emery to practice contextualized rootedness and patience within the humdrum of everyday life, I had to pause and think for a moment.

Within my life, I have been learning what it looks like to follow after Jesus from the margins. I am thoroughly convinced we are living in a post-Christendom society here in the greater Syracuse area, which changes everything, including our postures and practices in and among the rhythms of our everyday.

Where once the Church was at the center of culture, we have been pushed to the margins. Where once we had a voice and a seat at the table, we have now been booted out the door. Where the story of Christianity held a prominent place in peoples’ collective memory, a vacancy sign now hangs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a good thing.

Why is this a good thing?

Because I believe it is the impetus to push us into being more like Jesus and less like Caesar.

As I continue to read the gospels, I consistently see a Jesus who is marked by profound question asking. He didn’t possess the assumed cultural power and influence of his time. He didn’t wield a violent rhetoric or forceful legislation thundered from on high. Nor did he browbeat anyone into agreement. (Yes, he did give many answers, but it seems to me that we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the answer-giving direction much to the relegation of questions. In many ways, we’ve adopted our Enlightenment heritage of power through proclamation over the humble way of Jesus.)

Instead, he spent his days subverting the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.  His primary means of doing this was through constantly asking questions. Think about how many times you hear Jesus ask the person or crowd in front of him a question.

Why do you call me good?

Who is my mother and brothers?

Who touched my clothes?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Do you love me?

What do you want me to do for you?

You of little faith, why are you so afraid?

The list could go on.

When we look behind the veil of Jesus’ questions, we find his main concern: community. God is always at work bringing disparate things together. The very nature of Godself is community and thus God’s work is always community creating. The same can be said of Jesus since he is always about doing his Father’s work. So, with his questions he is unmasking the struggles people are dealing with. He is destroying the façade people have constructed. In short, questions allow for self-reflection, which produces participation with Jesus, others, and the created order. One cannot stand by idly when faced with the questions of Jesus. And once we are participating, we can be held accountable to our commitments. We are prompted to act in a way that tethers us together. This is the nature of the kingdom of God: tying back together the relational strands between God, humanity, and creation.

Peter Block says it well

Conversations that evoke accountability and commitment can best be produced through deciding to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally put into answers…Questions create the space for something new to emerge. Answers, especially those that respond to our quick results, while satisfying, shut down the discussion, and the future shuts down with them. (Block, Community, p. 103)

The trick to this lies within the nature of the questions. When we ask questions that do not produce participation, accountability, and commitment we

collude with people who might attend a gathering and choose not to join in cocreating the value of the event. The point is that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room. (Block, Community, p. 104)

This is precisely what Jesus was and is still doing.

There needs to be a delineation between questions with little power and ones with great power (Block’s wording). Questions with little power are constantly asked and are usually the first ones rolling off our tongues. They have almost become part of our vernacular. Block lists some of them as:

How do we get people to show up and be committed?

How do we get others to be more responsible?

How do we get people to come on board and do the right thing?

How do we get those people to change?

Who has solved this elsewhere and how do we import this knowledge? (Block, Community, p. 104)

These questions do not produce participation, accountability, or commitment. Rather, they look for predictable answers and predictable futures, usually coming from ones who have already assumed they have the answers.

Questions with great power are ones that transform us into cocreators of our world. Through them we become actors in the drama of our lives. Passivity is removed and we are given agency. As soon as an answer comes from our mouths and hearts, we have moved from mere spectator to participant.

Block says all great power questions have three essential qualities: being ambiguous, personal, and anxiety evoking. Ambiguity allows each person to “bring their own meaning into the room”; things are not precisely defined. Personal: “all passion, commitment, and connection” grows out of what is personal. Everyone experiences this. Anxiety evoking: you will not move towards that which doesn’t bring some edge along with it. Power lies within evoking healthy anxiety.

So what questions are powerful?

What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?

What is the price you or others pay for being here today?

How valuable do you plan for this effort to be?

What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?

What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?

What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?

What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?

What is it about you or your team, group, or neighborhood that no one knows? (Block, Community, p. 106)

From here, we can move forward with powerful answers to powerful questions. Questions that produce commitment, self-reflection, accountability, and perhaps most importantly, vulnerability. Spectators step aside as actors take their place.

The beauty with these questions – and the typology they engender – is their universality. What I mean by that is that they aren’t questions just for pastors, missionaries, or other church “professionals.” They are questions you can walk into your context, be it a neighborhood, workplace, third place, or marriage, in an effort to cultivate community. Jesus never intended for things like this to take place solely within the confines of a church. In fact, his main work – and by being his disciples, ours as well – is happening out in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of the world.

What is your default position: question-asker or answer-giver?

Do you resonate more with asking and being asked questions of little or great power?

Who in your life is a subversive question-asker?

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “Weather”

DSC00796 DSC00797 DSC00798 DSC00799 DSC00800 DSC00801 DSC00802 DSC00803

Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us. This is a part of the description of human life; we do the way we do partly because of things that have been said to us by works of art, and because of things that we have said in reply. – Wendell Berry in the essay “Style and Grace”

This is the second installment of drawings from my friend Stan. In case you missed the first part, here is the drawing that started it all with a description of what this series is all about. At its core, people with intellectual disabilities have been relegated to the margins of our society. With this, their gifts have been sidelined or destroyed all together by the various medications and institutions seeking to fix and make more functional. I hope to open some eyes, hearts, and hands through the loving gifts of Stan.

This is a series he did recently called, “Weather.” Or as he would say, “It’s the wedder.” There is a connection between them all and, as Berry says above, they “are in conversation among themselves and with us.”

What does this series say to you?

How might you respond to them?

Beauty from the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”

DSC00751

The artwork above is done by someone most people will not meet. It is a fireplace from a story kept in the mind of my friend. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him “Stan.” Stan is my young friend who is categorized as a special education student. I have worked with him and he with me for the past couple of years. It is a relationship, not a mere job of one-way teaching and learning; ours has been a mutual journey. And this is the essence of a relationship. He has taught me much about life and love; I hope I have done the same.

He cannot always articulate what his needs are, seems to wander aimlessly while talking to himself, and has – on occasion – become physically aggressive.

However, he is one of the funniest, most practical, and beautiful people I have met. Yes, he by many “standards” will never be a productive citizen in our society. He might never have a public job. The future opening up before him has the potential to be ridden with institutions and medication. He may never be “put together” or “normal” or “fixed.” As Jean Vanier states,

Our society is geared to growth, development, progress. Life, for most of us, is a race to be won. Families are about evolution: at a certain stage, children are encouraged to leave home, get married, have children of their own, move on in their lives. But people with disabilities have no such future. Once they have reached a certain level of development, they are no longer expected or encouraged to progress. There is no ‘promotion’ for the disabled and what forward movement there is seems frequently to be either erratic or cruelly sped up: many move quite quickly from childhood to adulthood without passing through a period of adolescence; others age quickly. Our society is not set up to cope very well with people who are weaker or slower. More important, we are not skilled at listening to the wisdom of those whose life patterns are outside of the social norm.

And he shouldn’t be “fixed.” He is a person in this world and his existence alone is an overflow of the love of God. With persons who are less-abled, our imaginations tend to drift into the fixing and the functional. These aren’t terms for humans, but for machines. Humans aren’t dysfunctional. Machines are.

Persons are to be loved. Persons love and are loved.

Personhood involves a host of things, but perhaps at its core is the ability to give gifts. We all have areas where the love within us seeps out in myriad of ways. I recently read a profound assessment on prisons:

We affirm how precious our gifts are when we create prisons. Prison is a societal decision to take away your freedom and thereby is a place where we say you are not free to give your gifts. Taking away your capacity to give your gifts is the worst thing we can do to somebody. The opposite of freedom is that you cannot give your gifts. In prison, we will keep you alive – we will feed you, give you shelter and health care – but we will not allow you to give your gifts. – John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community, p. 110

I have worked the less-abled long enough to realize how frequently the focus is on problems, outbursts, and brokenness over beauty, love, and uniqueness. In many ways, we have given these children prison sentences with different names. This takes place when we relegate them to anything less than human in our descriptions, prescriptions, and alienation. In short, when we strip people of their gifts and gift-giving, we dehumanize.

This forced relinquishment of gifts ends in atomization. Rather than incorporating – literally making one body – people like Stan and his gifts into the community, we isolate and hide them. In a society based on power and privilege, the weak often get pushed to the margins – gifts and all. If one is deemed to be less than human, one cannot participate in community.

So what I am proposing to do?

This summer I will post a drawing of Stan’s once a week. This is his way of participating in community: his gift – his overflow of love – is his artistry. Having watched him draw for the past couple of years now, I can tell you that intentionality, attention to detail, and precision are at the front of his little mind. Nothing escapes the watchful eye of this artist. He does complete series of life events, portraits, and still-life. Each one unique in its own way.

I want to present them to you as gifts as he presents them to me as gifts. Again, for most of us, we will never see the beauty from the margins because of either our neglect, ignorance, or blindness. Is it possible to find and celebrate the wisdom, determination, and perspective in this unexpected place? I think it is.

I hope to open some eyes to the beauty found in perceived brokenness.

I hope to open some willing hands to the beauty of those living in homes down the street or across town.

I hope to open some hearts to the beauty lying dormant within themselves.

In the end, I hope to open some eyes to the beauty given in the gifts of my friend Stan.