A Door Just Opened


I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night.  At least, I felt the earth shake a little.  

We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community.  We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions.  We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.  

But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know.  Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area.  They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.

We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting.  Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.

There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began.  A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community.  "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone.  "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way.  We want to say YES!  We want to say WELCOME!"  Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!"  And we were off.

Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first.  He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed.  Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.

In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion.  We put a stole on Don and prayed over him.  And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well.  Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.

After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step:  a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.  

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision.  We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000.  But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all.  Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group.  We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.

That energy was back last night.  After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour.  Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.  

I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse

And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch.  As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world.  We can't imagine what their lives are like.  We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make.  But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth.  After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm.  We share this desire with the whole human family.  So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs.  With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.

And then we passed out pledge cards.

It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends.  We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".

Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:

Great job tonight, everyone!  God is good; God is here.

Quick Tally:

$4,825 checks in hand

$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)


$12,575  Wow!

Wow indeed.  Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others.  I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt.  The power of Divine Presence!  I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced.  I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God.  I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.

P.S.  We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project.  Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis?  Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line.  Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD  21044.  Thanks!

Bob McDonnell and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Moral complexity makes for great movies, but it doesn't mix well with politics.

I haven't spent much time over the past year thinking about Bob McDonnell's problem.  He wasn't my governor, he's not a member of my political party, and he and I are on different sides of a number of issues.  So when the news came out this week that McDonnell and his wife have been indicted on a number of charges related to receiving gifts and loans in exchange for political favors, I didn't bother to read the full article.

But now the Washington Post is running analysis of this story and I can't stop reading.  I am not nearly as interested in the stupid things that people do than I am in their explanations for their behavior.  I'm in the meaning-making business after all.  I am interested in the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of our actions.  

Robert McCartney asked in his column yesterday, "How did a smart guy like Bob McDonnell end up in this mess?" His response was less than satisfying:  "a toxic mix of personal money worries, an assertive wife, a taste for luxury, and a culture of coziness between politicians and rich supporters."  What's missing in this list?  Anything that suggests that McDonnell is really responsible for his actions.  It makes it sound like it was all an unfortunate mistake.  The "assertive wife" comment is particularly egregious.  It makes it sound like McDonnell was guilty only of trying to make his wife happy and to make everything seem like it was okay.  It sounds suspiciously like a story that McDonnell is telling himself right now.

But I think simple explanations tend to be more accurate.  Instead of attributing McDonnell's actions to a "toxic mix" of anything, let's just say that McDonnell did what he did because it benefitted him and he thought he could get away with it.  Everything else is a story told to justify bad behavior:  "I deserve this", "My office demands I have this", "This is how the game works", "This was forced on me by someone else."

McDonnell's actions may be particular to politicians, but his explanations aren't.  We all try to justify our bad behavior so that we can maintain our role as the hero of our own stories.  How can we check this tendency before we get into trouble?

  • Ask:  Would I tell other people the story I'm telling myself?  Would they believe me?  This is a version of one of the most effective morality tests I've ever learned:  Would I want this published on the front page of the Washington Post?  
  • Ask:  How long would it take me to explain this?  If it would take several paragraphs, chances are you are hiding something from yourself.  The right decision is most often easy to explain.  
  • If the only explanation for your behavior is, "It's complicated", back up.  Keep it simple.


Talking About Love, Learning About Power


I started off my sermon this past Sunday by complaining about Martin Luther King Day.  It might have been a bad call.

My problem with Martin Luther King Day, I explained, is that I think it focuses too much on Martin Luther King.  I know that sounds like an odd complaint--the holiday falls near his birthday so it makes sense that we use the occasion to learn about King's life and to honor the work he did.  And that's exactly what our kids do in school beginning in Kindergarten.  They read stories about King's life and later, they read his "I Have a Dream" speech.  They hear him talk about his vision of what the world should be like.  They might even see a picture of him giving that speech to a huge crowd of people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  

But here's what we don't tell our kids.  Those people did not come to Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give a great speech about his vision for America.  They came to protest policies and conditions in the United States.  They came to pressure the government to enact civil rights legislation.  And they also called for the creation of a public works jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage and for home rule for Washington, D.C.  It was the largest protest ever held in Washington up to that point.  The size of the crowd was, in the end, even more eloquent than King's memorable words.

King was, without a doubt, a gifted leader.  But it was the movement that made the difference.  King was a part of a large, well-organized coalition of organizations that trained thousands of people in the tactics of non-violent resistance to injustice.  Because we so often lift up King without lifting up the movement, we have not passed on the organizing strategies that the movement worked hard to teach.  We teach our children and teach ourselves to admire King’s work instead of continuing King’s work.

I said all of this on Sunday as an introduction to the point I wanted to make about Jesus, so I couldn't spend much time making my argument.  To be honest, I didn't think that would be a problem because I thought everyone would agree with me.  But once I got talking, I could tell I had lost more than a few people.  "I was worried you were going somewhere I couldn't go," one man told me afterwards with a smile.  

So my King Day Complaint was still on my mind when I went running Monday morning.  I was listening, as I often do, to the podcast of the NPR talk show "On Being".  This week's show spoke to the issue of how we can tell the story of the organization that surrounded and supported King and his work--with much more eloquence and insight than I was able to muster on Sunday.  The topic was "Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement--and Rediscovering its Humanity".  The host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons and Lucas Johnson, civil rights activists from two different generations.  What first caught my attention was this comment from Simmons explaining the start of the Black Power movement:

And more and more, the understanding became that this is more than a moral issue. This is more than getting white Americans to love us. This is about us sharing power.

When I heard those words, it suddenly occurred to me why we tend to talk more about King than we talk about the Civil Rights Movement.  It is a way to avoid talking about power, a topic we have little experience discussing or analyzing.

When I went through a 10-day training on community organizing with the Gamaliel Foundation back in 1992, the first thing I learned was this: if we are going to talk organizing people to make change, we need to talk about how people get and maintain power.  We have to talk about privilege and class and money, topics that most of us never really discuss.  Christians especially avoid these topics.  We talk about right and wrong as moral questions and then talk about the importance of standing up for what you believe in.  We pretend that good people change the world simply through the moral force of their own good lives.

Civil Rights leaders were not naive about this.  They understood that people in power rarely share power just because it is the "right" thing to do.  They begin to share power when it becomes clear that it is in their self-interest to do so.  In order to affect people's self-interest, a movement needs to organize people to march and sit-in and vote and boycott and go to prison. 

And here's the thing:  because those who participated in the civil rights movement learned about how to acquire and utilize power to make change, they had hope.  That's why it is so important that we talk to our kids--and talk to each other--not only about what King did, but how he did it.  As Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons said towards the end of the On Being interview,

So, you know, there are changes even though there are so many problems still. So I can never give up that, on the idea that we the people can organize and bring change. That I just – I know we can because we did it. And because we did it we can continue to do it. 

Prescription for a Pauline Headache


The Word of God proclaims, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."  1 Corinthians 14: 34-35  (as quoted on Gotquestions.org)

 "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." - Romans 16:7

 “…It ought to be said that from a biblical standpoint, there is no tolerance in Scripture for women leaders in the church, apart from women leading other women--older women teaching younger women and leading their children and so forth.” –John MacArthur

“About the injunction of the Apostle Paul that women should keep silent in church? Don't go by one text only.” – Theresa of Avilla

This subject of a woman’s authority has been a thorny issue for the church for a very long time. Entire denominations have split over this. People’s lives are ruined over this. Which perhaps is understandable, if, as many Christians believe, Paul’s writings are The Word of God. Because if they are the words of God, how can God contradict himself so often?  And apparently contradict Jesus, too?

Paul’s words were used over the centuries to justify Antisemitism, authoritarianism, slavery, misogyny and sexual bigotry. He also wrote tender love poems memorized by people around the world.  Which Paul should we listen to? Or should we listen to him at all?

Now, I think there is an enormous amount of good stuff in Paul's writings. There’s a lot we can learn from what he has to say and a lot (but not all) of his advice is well worth heeding (even though he is really not advising “us” who came 20 centuries later – Paul thought the end of the world was just around the corner). It’s even been said that Paul, and not Jesus, was the true founder of the Christian religion.

But a lot of what he says just doesn't make sense to contemporary ears and a lot of today’s Christians have dismissed Paul as irrelevant or even dangerous to the faith.  I even considered doing so myself but then remembered that Paul’s work is the earliest known written account of the Christian faith, years before the earliest Gospel. If the Gospel writers were likely influenced by Paul then how can we ignore him? And then how do we reconcile him to the Gospel? This used to give me terrible headaches.

Unless I stopped trying to make this first-century square Jewish peg fit into our Western culture’s round holes I would always  bog down in his words. Instead of some iconoclastic mouthpiece for God I needed to see Paul as the man he was, when he was, and where he was. Paul needed to be put back into the scope of real history, freshly scrubbed of all the unfortunate doctrines and dogmas that his writings are the source of.I believe that many of Paul’s words are taken so far out of context that the resulting Christian theology is tragically flawed -so flawed that the world has suffered terribly for it. This theology has become the conventional Western Christian wisdom and, using circular reasoning, is now the distorted lens through which we view Paul - as well as Jesus.

That’s why I am excited about this upcoming series on Paul and Empire at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.  I’ve read a couple of Crossan and Borg’s books and they were mind opening; intelligent and scholarly - not written for seminarians, but in a way I could understand. I’ll admit it was hard for me at first because they so thoroughly skewered ‘truths’ that I once held to be sacred. But when I began to learn about Paul and Jesus’ “back stories”, the story of Israel under Roman domination, everything began to make sense. The now obvious parallels to our day and age began to emerge and I was able to understand better what Jesus meant by the ‘coming Kingdom of God’ and what my minor role might be (or how I might be standing in the way).

But more importantly, the headaches are gone.


A Real Pentecost Story

I love the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and I hope one day to be in a life circumstance where I can join in on their mission to "get in the way" of those who pursue violence and war. In the meantime, I read their weekly updates avidly. Today's brought tears to my eyes:

14 May 2008
IRAQ REFLECTION: Pentecost in Kurdistan

by Beth Pyles

And how is it that we hear . . .? --Acts 2

It is Pentecost. The Team gathers for prayer and leaves its apartment to conduct a training in nonviolence and reconciliation with people from the Kurdish and surrounding governorates. They have come from Tikrit, Mosul and Kirkuk. They have lived in Baghdad and Kurdish villages. A few speak English, most Arabic, some Kurdish, and one of us, Cantonese.

How will we communicate? Will they stare, bewildered like those first Christians who heard the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in languages not their own? Will they be angry at our presumption that we might have anything to offer? Will they be captive to their own allegiances, unable or unwilling to speak against the limitations of their own governments? Will they stay silent?

We needn’t have worried. Disagreeing with the structure of one exercise, a woman challenges me early on. After some wrangling to have my way, I concede, saying, "Salaam, Ashti" (peace), and she replies, "No, democracia!" We smile together at her wisdom.

We end the day with the Heart Exercise: Those who wish to do so tell their stories about how violence has affected them. Each holds a pink paper heart while sharing, and at the end, tears a piece from the heart, symbolizing the brokenness that violence leaves behind.

We do not interrupt with translation. Instead, we listen with our hearts. Voices clutch with emotion; eyes brim with tears; sounds of anger and sorrow fill the room; fists are clenched, heads shaken in disbelief. The first two who share, a Muslim and a Christian from the Mosul area, leave the heart whole. Next comes a Muslim woman, statuesque and proud, the same woman who reminded me of democracy.

Her voice trembles. She regains her composure and continues. Her voice rises, the emotion intensifies. Virtually everyone in the room is in tears. She crumples the intact paper heart in her hands and rips it in two.

I do not understand the words of her story, but I do know that violence has not just broken her heart; it has torn her asunder.

Another woman cries out "This is too hard!" She is right. It is too hard.

Earlier in the day, participants had broken into groups by ethnicity to describe their own strengths and hurts, as well as the strengths and hurts of the others. When they came together, everyone was open and affirming, but within their groups, as our translator listened in, people mumbled against each other: "We’re not going to say that about them!" "They aren’t going to hear something nice from us!" But during the sharing of the heart stories, our translator saw the same people weeping for the pain of the other, people speaking with the ones they had condemned, people opening their hearts to the torn hearts of their enemies.

In one room in one city in one region of Iraq, Pentecost has come.

Collecting Tiny Bits of Hopefulness

This morning's Washington Post carried a beautiful story from Kenya--it's buried inside the A section, but its there, and my hat's off to Stephanie McCrummen for reporting it. It tells the story of residents of Kenya's Kibira slum who, during the height of the post-election violence in that country, put their own lives on the line to make peace.

One such person is Joseph Osodo, a member of the Luo people group (unlike the Post, I don't like using the word "tribe"). At a time when everyone around him was hiding in their house for fear of being killed, Osodo walked to the house of his friend John Kyalo who lived in one of the rival areas. He just couldn't stand staying in his house, he said. "Someone said 'You will be killed,' and I said 'Then let me die.'" He persuaded his friend to walk through Kibira with him, and to hold their own peace talks with various leaders the next day.

The other person profiled in the story is Solomon Muyundo who spent weeks painting phrases like "Keep peace fellow Kenyans" anywhere he could find an open space. One night, he even painted words of peace on the body of a man who was about to be burned to death--and saved the man.

Reading this story this morning, I remembered again Florence's words during the last meeting of the Lenten class on Evil I've been teaching with John Lobell. Florence spoke with such stark honesty about her struggle to recover from the awful violence her family experienced some years ago. She talked about how her whole outlook on the world suffered from that event. She lost her trust in people, and began to look at everyone as a potential perpetrator.

But then, she said, a time came when she made a decision to start noticing other things. She decided--made a conscious choice--to see goodness in the world. "I became a collector of tiny bits of hopefulness," she said. "That made it possible for me to delight in the world again."

There were many other powerful things said in that class, such that the class itself became one of the things that makes me hopeful about the world. God is at work, in us and among us and at times, in spite of us. Today this comment from the Post is all the evidence I need:

"Even as former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan was brokering a political settlement over tea and cookies at a posh safari lodge, people in Kibera--Africa's largest slum and a flash point of the post-election violence--were forging their own kind of fragile peace, block by block and person by person, often at the risk of death."

More on the Route 1 Homeless Project

Anne Dunn, a member of our community, has been coordinating the Route 1 Homeless Project. For Anne, this work feels very much like a call, not just a job. With her permission, I'm reprinting here the report Anne submitted to the Howard County Homelessness board. I think Anne did a great job communicating some of the possibilities she envisions for this work.

Here's what Anne wrote:

Since December 2nd, churches have delivered 519 meals to persons living in the woods, in their cars or in motels along the Route 1 corridor. The number of persons served has averaged 20 per week, but the number varies each week.

In this process we have learned a great deal about these people and their needs. Each individual has a different story and different circumstances that have caused their homelessness. Some live in camps of 2 or in one case 4, but some live totally alone. Some have hope of better times, and others seem resigned to their circumstances. Many have either experienced shelters or have heard reports of shelters and feel this is not an acceptable alternative for them. Some of the comments have been, “If I go in a shelter with the little bit I have, I will come out with less.” A number of them do not seem to be able to cope with the crowding, and in some cases it might not be prudent to put them into a situation where there are people living and sleeping in close proximity. Others have expressed concern about drinking and drug use in shelters. For others it is the rules, and loss of freedom as they see it. For some, the familiar is more acceptable than the unknown. Some seem equipped to live in these circumstances; others are much more vulnerable.

We have found people with jobs, one who receives unemployment, people who panhandle to meet their needs, and others who have no evident source of support.

During the very cold weather we were able to meet the needs of these individuals to ensure their safety. For some it meant providing tents, extra blankets, and propane heaters designed to be used in tents so they could find enough warmth to carry them through. Two went into motels during the Code Blue nights, and one actually ended up going into a shelter at the end of the week.

As the churches have gone out to serve these people, we have found individuals who were sick and needed food and warmth. We have found a mother with three children having surgery for a brain tumor and needing subsequent chemotherapy. One woman had been living in her car that had not run since September 30th. As we have encountered these people, the churches have responded to their needs. We regularly provide clothes (particularly outerwear), hygiene items, boots, and other requested items. In some cases it is as simple as dry socks and blankets; in others it has been far more extensive.

As people have expressed their needs for help the churches have responded. In the case of the lady having surgery, she would not ask for help because she was afraid her children would be taken from her. But once the church learned of her needs they “adopted” the family and began to help her get on her feet again. They made sure the children were taken care of, they took the children to visit their mother in the hospital, they began working on getting her voucher for housing. She had gone through the process and been approved for a voucher, but because of her health issues, she had not been able to follow through. The church took this on by contacting her caseworker and helping this woman to work through the process when she did not have the strength or means to do so herself. They secured the voucher, found her a home and went in on one weekend and fixed up the house so she could move from her motel room to a home. They are also working with the children to provide for their needs including working with the older child who had dropped out of school due to the moving around to get him into a program to get his GED. All of this happened in a little over a month.

The woman who had been living in her car for 4 months had been trying to get a job, but was hampered by the fact that she had no means of transportation. A church member offered to work on her car and in less than a week, she had a car that ran and made the decision to go into a shelter so she could avail herself of the services there to help her get some medical care and support for finding a job. She is still currently in the shelter.

To date, 19 churches have expressed an interest in being involved with this project. Each week, new churches join those ranks. There is a tremendous interest from the Howard County churches to help meet the needs of the homeless people. The experience is that they respond on multiple levels with vast resources to provide assistance.

Awareness has increased as to the needs, and maybe most importantly, relationships are being formed with these people in need, and they are experiencing a sense that someone cares about them.

Breaking Things Up

My daily email from The Writer's Almanac this morning reminded me that today is the anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Immediately upon reading that, I had a vivid memory of that day. I was in my freshman year in college in 1986 when the explosion occurred, and I was spending every morning buried in a building at the edge of campus trying desperately to pass Intensive Japanese. I was walking to lunch after class when I heard the news from another student. Later studies showed that something like 85% of Americans heard the news within an hour after it happened.

But the ones who heard it first were by and large kids in school. Because Christa McAuliffe was on the plane, the first "Teacher in Space", thousands of schools broadcast the launch live and every classroom gathered around the television. I've heard a number of my peers describe that experience--the shock of the adults, the confusion of the kids, some of whom exclaimed "cool!" and other of whom burst into tears as the smoking pieces of the shuttle shot off into different directions against the bright blue sky.

I've heard a number of people describe the explosion of the Challenger as one of the defining experiences of my generation--"Generation X" or whatever we should be called. I think this might be true, and not just because so many of us can remember where we were when we heard the news.

My parents' generation remembers watching the first lunar landing and hearing Armstrong's claim that all of mankind was stepping forward in that moment. My sense is that they believed it, too. Technology was the engine of progress, and governments and groups gathered their resources to create massive projects that Pushed Us Forward.

But my peers and I grew up with technology. I'm on the older edge of GenX, and even I had computer classes in grade school. I did all my writing, from high school on, on a personal computer, not a typewriter. So technology was a tool at my personal disposal like a toothbrush or a paintbrush, not a source of wonder and awe. The television program I do remember watching during high school was "The Day After" a nightmarish depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. And then came the Challenger explosion. The lesson for me and my peers? Technology isn't much good for holding us together. In the end, things fall apart.

And yet, technology is embedded in the culture of my generation, so our response was never to reject the tools but rather to use them differently. Is it any surprise that a generation with the image of a technological masterpiece splintering into the air embedded in our memories is perfectly happy to let technology become more diffuse and more diverse? The technological masterpieces of our generation look a lot more like Wikipedia than they look like a lunar landing. Hundreds of thousands of entries, mutually edited and refined, connected in purpose and vision while remaining not just tolerant but nurturing of mind-boggling diversity and the opinionated argument that involves.

All of this brings me to our conversation yesterday with about 14 women and one man from the Iranian-American-Muslim community. My favorite part of the afternoon came at the end when we responded at our tables to the question, "What question could we ask that would move this conversation to the next level?" When we de-briefed our answers, I was amazed at the widely differing approaches our groups had taken. One table asked, "Who is responsible for the sanctions against Iran, why are they continuing, and how can we change them?" Another table asked, "How can we begin to tell the story of our history together?" and another said, "How can we broaden this conversation to include a much larger number of people?"

And then a young woman in a headscarf took the microphone and said, "The question that we felt would take this conversation to the next step is 'Would you come to my house for dinner?'"

That question rang true to me. I liked all the others, too, and I do hope we have another, larger conversation eventually. But it just might be that the next step is for a couple of us to have dinner together. If a million of us had dinner together, in groups of four or six or seven, maybe we'd even prevent the next war. That's the kind of process that I have faith in.

Paying Attention to Peace

Rosa was in a pensive mood as we walked along the bike path to a friend's birthday party yesterday. She'd been re-reading the journal she had written in each day of second grade at the start of the school day. "I noticed something," she told me. "Last year I wrote a lot about the world. You know, helping it out, making it a better place."

"Hmm..." I said. "Why do you think you were doing that?"

"Well, if you are actually going to make the world better, you have to imagine it better. Don't you think, Mama? Otherwise you just complain all the time. And then you end up noticing all the bad things and you end up complaining even more."

As usual, she had a good point. We talked the rest of the way about how once you start imagining a better world, you can notice parts of that better world already happening in our not-so-perfect world here and now.

Today, I'm getting ready to notice the way in which people are working now to make peace with each other, even in the midst of nations and leaders who conspire to make war. Our congregation has invited about 15 Iranian-American muslim women and men to join 15 of our for a conversation over cookies and tea this afternoon. Our conversation will be led as a "World Cafe", a process that is both simple and ingenious. It releases the collective wisdom of a group like nothing else I've experienced.

This is a conversation that has been several months in the making, and when we first considered it, there was so much talk of war with Iran coming from our President and other national figures that I was becoming convinced that another juggernaut had started to roll. War would soon be unpreventable. Things have calmed down a bit since then thanks to the bravery of some members of the "intelligence community", but the situation is far from resolved as recent events have reminded us.

Even Rosa knows that when you expect to see hostility every where, you'll be likely to notice it. So today I am getting ready to notice something different in my interactions with Iranian muslims. I am getting ready to build a relationship that might be one of thousands which will--just maybe--change the expectations of our leaders.

The Spirituality of Being in the Zone

I was delighted (and a little surprised) to read an article in the Washington Post this morning that addressed a really problematic religious practice, and ended up not reducing it or dismissing it, but complexifying it, allowing it to gain nuance and texture. The article was entitled, "You've Gotta Have Faith: Colorado Rockies at Play in the Fields of the Lord." It made note of the Rockies players who cross themselves on the field, point to heaven after a success, or wear crosses with their uniforms. It also mentioned the team's supposedly "Christian" code of conduct. But instead of scoffing at how silly it is to claim that God would be on the side of the Rockies (or how absurd it would be to imagine God being against the Red Sox!) the writer pushed on to acknowledge that teams do have experiences of being "in the zone". That, even more than winning, feels to many like a religious experience.

I know exactly what he's saying, and I've felt it myself, running or preaching or doing other activities where I get into a state of flow. In fact, I once preached a sermon where I claimed that seeing Sara Hughes win the gold medal in figure skating in 2004 was like seeing the Kingdom of God come to earth. For a few minutes, she broke through to the other side.

Still, for what it's worth, I'm praying for the Red Sox.