Monday, April 15, 2013

Words At A Time of Tragedy and Sudden Loss

On this day of sudden tragic violence and loss, on days like this in Boston, days we are having all too often it seems of late, I think of these words written by my colleague the Rev. Burton Carley of Memphis. No words work, or suffice, which is part of the point of what he is saying, but the works of love we give to one another making the loving and healing God present, still I hope you find meaning in these words. 

..."At this occasion, whatever words we say seem inadequate. It is such a hard thing we do today, seeking to redeem a sudden and tragic loss. When you are hurting, you want answers and you need reasons. And we come up with them, from the silly to the sublime. But the truth of the matter is that even good answers aren’t enough.

Even knowledge cannot save us. Oh, it may teach us much about the cycle of life from birth to death. It may offer to us the facts about disease and the insight that nature is not partial to those we love. Even if in a thousand years all the secrets of creation were unlocked, science would not be able to explain what poets and artists express in their work. Or why a beautiful and brilliant fall [or spring] day can move us to tears; or why we may hear music so lovely that we are overcome with some glory or sweet sadness.

No, knowledge is not the answer to our grief, the gift we seek today. This is because what we know is less than what we are. This is because you don’t stop the pain with reasons or even answers, even though they are helpful. They don’t get to where it hurts in the gut and the heart. That’s because the problem of suffering, of grief and loss, is not about something; it’s about someone—someone in your gut and in your heart. [And even when it comes to Boston, when you didn't know anyone there, for some of us I know that the mere fact of where it happened hits the gut and heart because we/you know Boston as a someone]. 

The gift we seek today is not found outside of human tragedy, but comes to us from within it. I speak not about the consoling power of reasons and answers and knowledge, but about the work of love for that is how we redeem anything.
This work of redemptive love is the very essence of God--that transforming power which dwells within us and without. We are and what we are reflects the divine image. This is the essence of the message in [First] John [where it is written]: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."

In our loss we grasp for answers and reasons, but in the end, as [St. ]Paul says, our knowledge will fail us. The gift we seek is a response to the loss of what was so precious and now is gone. The gift is to love even more, by loving life more, being more aware of life, of our relationships, of the earth. The task is to claim the goodness against the pain, to respond with faith "though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." The task is to accept the loss and still live, still love. Thus we honor [those who have died] by taking [their] goodness and making it our own so that we can share it with others.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, part three

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, Part Three
Lecture Notes From Perkins, chapter 14 and Update
Rev. Ron Robinson

This is a key chapter with issues deep into ministry, and life itself, through the struggle along the spectrum of “Doing and Being.” As Plato said: To Do Is To Be. As Aristotle said: To Be Is To Do. As Sinatra said: Do Be Do Be Do…
As Perkins says, the focus should be on our complete holistic Being, for that is only achieved when it contains Doing, the living out of our Being, our Being in God. This is contextual, as he says, but in our Western cultural worldview, and Western religions worldview, and particularly American and Protestant Work Ethic worldview, we tend to find it more convenient to focus on programs than people, on a to-do list than a to-be list. This also tends to accentuate the individualist nature of our cultural and religious worldview, instead of the being approach which leads to a focus on the Body of Christ.

I like to use the mirror words of imitation and initiation. How are we Being? Is a question that reminds us that we are to be imitators of Christ, and to live as if the Kingdom of God were here; and in this way we help to initiate it; of course, sometimes we simply have to start helping to initiate it, to act our way into new thinking and being, just start doing, or jump-start our doing with others, and let that lead us into the Deeper Being from which more doing will come.

He says we must be the Body before we can do the work of the Body, but that it is not simply enough to be a community that does nothing but see itself as a reconciled community; that is a departure point not a destination point. This is all a part of how Perkins keeps coming back to a sense of holistic ministry. Social action in the neighborhood is necessary but not enough; being in a racially reconciled congregation with people of different races, or working regularly with those of other races, is necessary but is not enough. He sees evangelistic action as necessary to bring “unbelievers” to Christ, but it is not enough without social justice. I see it as one of the differences that Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost talk about between “community” and “communitas.” Community is inward looking and dwelling whereas communitas is a relational community that is externally looking and dwelling.

We each need to know, as he discerned about himself, toward which end of the spectrum of doing or being do we tend to emphasize and which do we neglect; in what ways do we lose our balance between doing and being?

Being in community, which is the deepest sense of Being, is difficult, he says, because it means inherently to be in tension with others, to struggle, to engage with conflict. (One of the reasons why it is difficult to grow in community among and with the most vulnerable is that the very community which would be most liberating and saving for them means also an increase in struggle and emotional pain and conflict, and being vulnerable they are already experiencing much of that from simple life itself; becoming a part of a community is harder for some people than others. This is where his admonition that we need to discern our gifts and diverse strengths and let them lead us in and through community is helpful.

Particularly, but not limited to, racial reconciliation work, he lifts up the importance of self-differentiation. He says persons of one ethnic group, of those in dominant cultures for example, can not hold themselves and their gifts back as a way of trying to further the lives of others and the reconciliation effort, because reconciliation needs the fullness of all who engage with it. Neither can they hold onto their natural inclination to set the cultural norms and to always be the leaders in the group, but must be willing and eager to submit their leadership to others who have been in abandoned areas longer, or who have suffered from the unjust systems and have grown into leadership through their own hard experiences in the local area. To be self-differentiated emotionally means to be able to hold the pain and vulnerability of one’s self and others without giving in to it; it means being able to risk the hard conversations about race and culture and class and privilege without the fear that making mistakes in that conversation, or the fear of change, will keep us silent and a part from one another.

I have refined and reframed the steps of covenant and community that were modified from the work of Tich Nhat Hanh particularly. Our task in community is  1. Show up. This act of simple doing, simple presence. 2. Look Up. Pay attention, be empathetic, hear others into speech. 3. Speak up. The truth in love. 4. Act up. Commit to working together with others. 5. Show up. When all else fails in steps one through four, have the trust to start it all again and not let the disappointment and disillusionment stop us.

How in community are we committed to one another through being committed together to the mission of the community? This is true for a small community oir congregation; it is also true he says for working in the broader perspective where it is congregations or people groups working together, especially if it is between a community that has relocated to a poor area and a church or group that has been there before and remained. This brings us back to his primary focus of the 3Rs on the need for ways to Relocate in order to facilitate the deepest kind of reconciliation, to meet God most fully in transformative work. (And yet, still he makes room for people to be engaged in reconciliation work even if they can not relocate with all of their life; for example, how a white woman enrolled in a black college, or even arranging for opportunities for people of different ethnicities to socialize together (preferably I would add in not just one setting which might be the safest for the host).

In the update in the revised edition of the book, Perkins even updates the reconciliation aims beyond race which has been his life’s story and work. In the years after Sept. 11, 2001, he says now there is need to work on reconciliation with Muslims more, and people of diverse cultures and beliefs. I would add in reconciliation with people of different sexual orientations as well. He ends the Update as he begins chapter 14: reminding us of the mission of loving God AND loving our neighbors; loving our neighbors AS loving God. This stance of reconciliation grows out of Relocation because relocation reminds us that when Jesus talks about our neighbors, as in the parable of the Samaritan on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, that our neighbors are those we fear, those we despise, those who are different from us, those we want to stay away from, etc.

Discussion Question:
Can you illustrate from your own life, the problem of trying to be without doing at the personal level? What about the problem of putting being ahead of doing? Which of these two tendencies do you have to guard against more? Which does your church, and why?

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, part two

See below for the first post in this three-part series of lecture notes based on John Perkins' book, With Justice For All. The 3Rs that guide our community here. From my seminary course I am teaching this semester in community based ministry, through

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, Part Two
Notes on Perkins Chapters 12 and 13

In the opening story in these chapters, Perkins describes an event where he met a white man after a talk, an encounter that happened because the man stayed behind in a faculty lounge when all other white faculty members had to leave to go to class; he did not want Perkins to think that they were boycotting him because of his race. From that moment of empathy, of sensitivity to the feelings of another different from himself, a relationship was built. How do we and can we use our resources to cultivate empathy for its own sake, because one never knows what might come from it? Reconciliation does not come out of nowhere; it itself is a result of deeper feelings and experiences.

This is the chapter where the realities of ministry dedicated to the 3Rs becomes evident. Meetings begin with great illusions and end with disillusionment. This is something to bear in mind with all ministry; people invest a lot in hopes for a ministry and a minister, and bubbles burst, human foibles are manifest, and the higher the illusion to begin the deeper the disillusion occurs. The task is then to know this from the start and to plan for it and to continue to show up when the illusions burst. It reminds me of spiritual steps attributed to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh which I have altered just a little: 1. Show Up. (much reconciliation happens just when we show up to be with others in hard times and for hard issues) 2. Pay Attention. (this is where empathy and other emotions can communicate; just showing up and staying within our own minds does not advance relationships; we need mindfulness). 3. Speak the truth in love (be authentic, be vulnerable, speak from your own experience; speaking truth without love will backfire, as will holding back your experiences of truth from fear of hurting others feelings). 4. Understand your goals, your mission, but be flexible on how to reach them; don’t be too attached to fixed preconceived outcomes; sometimes the process is the goal when it comes to reconciliation. 5. When you fail at steps 1-4, show up again.

Sometimes reconciliation realities set in when those who are caught up by the spirit and vision of reconciliation bring different outcomes in mind then the group does. Sometimes, as in the case Perkins describes where the student is upset because of a Statement of Faith, people who are relocating and stepping out of their comfort zones will look for ways to make their new environment as familiar to them, and to their culture, as they can be in order to have a semblance of homeostasis. Note too how Perkins, in a misisonal mindset, puts first stock on the statement of purpose, what calls them together, and later shore it up with a Statement of Faith as a way of sustaining their purpose; this is a move that puts external focus first before the internal group. It emphasizes “acting our way into new thoughts”, rather than “thinking our way into new actions.” In many ways Perkins approach fell between the cracks of people’s expectations. His stance on the Billy Graham Crusade was an example of this: he pushed people to go deeper and consider what kind of Christian they were seeking to grow? What characteristics of Christian life, not just beliefs, should we be focused on?

Note how Perkins breaks down dichotomies or ends of the spectrum between faith and works, spirituality and service and social justice: reconciling one’s self with God means reconciling one’s self with one’s neighbors, and especially the notion of neighbors as exemplified in the parable of the Samaritan along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, with those who are different from us.

Also, note here in this section about being reconciled with those who are closest to us; his anecdote of creating ill will with his closest followers due to his decision to cut off ties with their ministry so they would learn to be independent; it drove him to remember the need of living in right relationships in his inner circle.
When the mission is to form relationships of reconciliation, for the sake of the relationships, it may lead to both disruptions in relationships but also to amazing acts of reconciliation; the integration of the churches is an aim for him, but he found that, as he said for whatever reasons (can you imagine what they might be?) both the white and black churches did not want to broach the subject, and instead by focusing on mission together that created a common culture which then led to instances of integration.

In his chapter, Ten Years Later, Perkins takes us on a tour of amazing places where his ministry has had an impact on his community. It leads me to pondering the question of “Where is the church?” Is it in the housing developments, the health clinic, the farm, and the many other programs they helped to initiate? The spirit of Jesus is made visible in all those ways. At the same time (p. 134) he claims, in bringing us to the sanctuary where worship takes place, that “the church fellowship is at the heart of everything we do.” Worship is the heart beat that creates the blood that is pumped into all the limbs of the body that are outside the sanctuary engaging the community; together they create a manifestation of the Body of Christ. But can you have one without the other and still have a healthy body?

Not only that, but when Perkins talks about the way that different community contexts require different forms of organizing, he gives us the example of the work in New Hebron. There the holistic ministry is not like the spokes of a ministry that has a church organization and worship at its hub; instead (p. 142) there the primary embodiment is the ministries that are not explicitly “Christian identified”, though they work in close cooperation with churches in the community, and are not seen as a separate church body that could be seen in competition with the other churches in the community. There is also the more organic than organizational , informal, relational “body life” gatherings that many of the staff people in the programs coordinate  to support and nurture their faith that they live out in their daily work and life. Is that not “church” too?
But let us not forget that all of the visible ministries, and the sanctuary and worship too, were grounded in his desire to promote avenues for racial reconciliation; that struggle is a primary one and is intertwined with what it means to be reconciled with God and God’s justice. There is a danger in how even that goal can be sidelined with the attention paid to all the forms of ministry and church that were developed by Perkins. So he is observant to how racial reconciliation emerges and is challenged and defeated and rises again through those various and diverse manifestations of “holistic ministries.”

One way to promote the integration of the church is to pay attention to the different nuances between “a church” and “the church”. The more we focus on being a member of “a church” then all of the difficulties arise when that sense of “a church” is bound up with its history and geography and ethnic culture and traditions that make it difficult for people not a part of all of that to cross the threshold and become a part of it, whether, for one example, it is blacks going to a white church or whites going to a black church, etc. But if we find our ultimate membership in being in “the church” with different manifestations in different places and people, and yet times and places and ways that those different manifestations can come together to more fully approximate and embody “the church” then some of the identity markers and the history and separate traditions, all of which have their place and are nurturing, won’t hinder the movement together of racial reconciliation.

Discussion Questions:
1.      What story of Perkins in these chapters moved you the most, and why?
2.      Give us a tour of a vision, as specific as you can be, for ten years from now of what your community service organization or project might look like; what impact is it having, ten years from now, on its wider community?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Growing Together: Garden, Neighborhood Center, Cornerstore, Community, Worship

A photo of before, and one of now....

Three years ago, we began the Miracle Among the Ruins project here in far north Tulsa and Turley area, turning blight into beauty, eyesores into places of community, and working on the poor health and food insecurity of our 74126 and surrounding zipcodes.

Today, Saturday April 13, we hold our Big Event Spring Planting Day at The Welcome Table Community KitchenGardenPark and Orchard, 6005 N. Johnstown Ave., taking it into our next phase of creating a space for people to become neighbors, to find peace, to grow and share healthy food (twenty varieties of tomatoes, 18 varieties of peppers, a dozen varieties of melons and squash, a Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans, squash), a Vegetable Village of edible playhouse gardens for children, a Kiwi Dragon garden art and play space, 25 raised beds, 50 fruit and nut tree orchard, berries of all kinds, damaged trees turned into art and storytelling places, old tires into art, and restful places amid the ruins of abandoned buildings one of many of which just burned two nights ago right across from the park after years of neglect by owners and officials. Stop by today to tour, to help, to put in a bed for your family, your church, your civic group, your friends, or yourself. Free lunch for helpers. Things for all ages and skill sets and physical abilities to do. Start the day at the community pancake breakfast, 7 am to 10 am, at the Lodge Hall, 6227 N. Quincy Ave., $5 all you care to eat, then come to the park about half a mile away.

Two years ago we began using the largest, oldest church building, that had been abandoned for several years, at 5920 N. Owasso Ave., one block west of Peoria Ave. as our Welcome Table Community Center, with library, meeting space, computer center, clothing and more room, and food pantry, and art space. We continue to work on repurposing all of the property into community space, and our centerpiece now is the expanded Welcome Table Free Cornerstore Pantry where people come and select their own food items, as they would in a commercial for profit grocery, but with nutrition counselors, and where we have a counselor to help them sign up or ask questions about food assistance cards from the Dept. of Human Services. We provide opportunities for people who receive to give back to others too; and we will have our next Big Food Event, the Mobile Van Food Giveaway, on Friday, May 3. We are partnering with McLain High School on this event. Volunteers are needed to come help us from 9 am to noon, and receive a free lunch after the event. The very next day, Sat. May 4, from 11 am to 1 pm we will have a Community Food Day that combines our regular First Saturday gathering with a followup from the Mobile Van the day before. Volunteers are always needed at all events, including our weekly Wednesday Noon to 4 pm Community Food Day at the center.

But first, at the Center, on this Sunday, April 14, at 3 pm we will hold our open-sourced leadership circle to brainstorm and develop ideas and relationships and projects that keep us on the radical edge of growing community in abandoned places. It is where the idea for the expansion and change in the pantry emerged. On Sunday we will explore ways to turn requests for financial assistance into deeper relationships of economic investment in people no one else would invest in, as well as exploring ways to create a barter economy, and economic co-ops. And you never know what the Spirit will reveal.

Also this Sunday, we will leave from the Center at 4:30 pm to go to the 5 pm Taize worship service (or invite any who cant make the brainstorming to meet up with us there), with communion, and meal at Trinity Episcopal Church downtown at 5th and Cincinnati Ave. This is a missional act as well, as we are moving from creating "a church" to growing our participation as members in "the church," that people of God seeking in a myriad of ways to make the loving and liberating Jesus visible in the world. This past Sunday, as we will on the First Sundays, we held worship and communion with one of our local partner churches, Turley United Methodist Church, across from the gardenpark and orchard, and then we held a picnic lunch in the park. On Second Sundays we will go to Trinity downtown. On other Sundays we will worship with other churches across denominations, making connections, and growing relationships with them, moreso than feeling we have to create our own identity through worship each week, and sometimes we will still gather and lead worship in our own spaces at the park or center or out in abandoned places of the community, as it emerges organically, not organizationally.

(A personal missional aside note: Sometimes it seems worship, or rather liturgy, as wonderful as it is, can get in the way of the deep soulful community relational connecting with and through God and one another, especially if it begins to feel forced or added onto for its own sake. It has always been here one of the four paths of manifesting church: missional service to and with and for others, community and relationships among us, personal spiritual growth and learning, and also community worship. Experiencing worship with other diverse groups, retreating more, holding spiritual check-ins, even partying and sharing lives more all has a way of loosening us up and opening us up to the promptings of the Spirit, and moving us yet another way out of ourselves, over ourselves, de-centralizing ourselves so that we can serve others and God better. At least that has been part of the discernment underway, and the continiuing experiment with trial and error and epiphany that we call missional community. I will be looking at ways we incorporate prayer and response into as many of our missional moments together as possible, and also creating a separate spiritual center space as well for those who come to receive food or information or for meetings, etc, and wish to find worshipful space and resources, so worship may become more thoroughly infused into our work even as it becomes less something "we" do to create a sense of "we" on a set day and time.)

We are looking ahead to the weekend after this one already too for great community engagement. On Friday April 19 at 4 pm the McLain School Foundation meets at the school near us; and on Saturday, April 20 there is much community sports activities at O'Brien Park, and we will be focused on helping with the Global Youth Day at 10:30 am and the following Community Resource Fair at the new Health Dept. Wellness Center from Noon to 2 pm, all at 56th St. and Martin Luther King Blvd (formerly known as Cincinnati Ave.). Come experience and learn about what all is going on with many of the nonprofits in our area, and support the youth of McLain and northside schools and neighborhood youth regardless of where they go to school. Then at 6 pm on Saturday, April 20 you won't want to miss the McLain and Booker T. Washington Alumni Classic Basketball Game to be held at the BTW Nate Harris Field House, where we will have a booth for the McLain Foundation.

For the rest of the month after that, I will be out of the country in the Philippines as I go preach and talk and learn from the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines as it celebrates its 58th anniversary, having begun as an indigenous Christian Universalist church in and around Dumaguete in the Negros Oriental. I will be preaching on "Jesus' Lost and Found: Becoming Alive Again In and Through Community" based on the parable of the prodigal sons in the Gospel of Luke, and talking on The Missional Church, and planning how the UUCP and the UU Christian Fellowship can grow together and help us launch a new global initiative for progressive Christians within, related to, and beyond Unitarian Universalism and other faith communities. You can learn more about the church at And about the UUCF at

I am also working a lot these days on the Missional Revival 2013 in New Orleans: Jesus, Justice, and the Mission of the Post-Katrina Church" to be held Oct. 10-13 this year at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal at the First UU Church of New Orleans. All are welcome and invited to come help us work in New Orleans, and much worship, and have small group sessions and great social times, especially during the acclaimed Louisiana Seafood Festival. Our panel on the theme will include two dynamic local preachers and activists, Rev. David Billings, a United Methodist minister and anti-racist organizer, see, and Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster, an African American Baptist minister and seminary professor and community activist from New Orleans, see If you want to stay at the Center itself in the intentional spiritual community space, you will need to reserve space with us by June 7. We will have online registration up soon. But let me know if interested. We will also have a block of rooms reserved at the Garden District Hampton Inn for those who wish to stay there or register closer to the event. That hotel is right on the St. Charles Streetcar line and close to the church too. You can see lots more on the schedule, the worship services, the Center and more at our Facebook Event Page at

Finally, for those in the Tulsa area, keep Saturday May 11 in mind to come these way and experience Street Cred 2013, a community neighborhood makeover event for 36th and N. Peoria area, sponsored by Tulsa Young Professionals and others; we will have a booth at the event fair part of this glimpse into what renewal in the area can look like. Fun and Justice going together, growing together.
Thanks, blessings, and more soon,
thanks for all the prayers for all the above,