Thursday, September 27, 2012

Poverty's Face

How about this? Here’s a new rule - you can’t say anything about a group of people unless you can call to mind somebody in that group whom you know and after calling their face to mind you think that you would be able to say what you were about to say as you look directly into their eyes.

Have you ever been to the University Plaza Hotel in Springfield, Missouri? You might have been there for an event of some kind, or a dinner, or maybe a “conference” type of deal? If you haven’t, you likely know the kind of place it is - big fancy hotel, ornate lobby, a bunch of meeting rooms, big “ballroom” for banquets and stuff like that.

I know a guy who works there whom I will call “Chris” for this article. I know Chris really well. He is not my friend by any means. However I am well acquainted with him, since I have been intimately involved with his life for over two years now.

Chris works at University Plaza Hotel; he washes dishes. Do you have a general idea of how much a banquet facility like that charges per plate? If the hotel sells three meals, that takes care of paying Chris for his entire minimum wage shift, and then some. And they could almost cover it with two. Two plates - you and the person sitting next to you - Chris’s check for the entire day.

Chris rides his bike to work, because he and his girlfriend cannot afford to keep a car. He is strong, he works hard, he never misses a shift. He is almost always tired. I cannot begin to comprehend the stress he must be under.

They had been renting a house. The plywood of the front porch slopes away from the front door. Every doorway from one room to another in the house is crooked. The foundation is cracked and crumbling. The roof is a disaster. To my great shame I confess that I would never ever live in a house like this.

Actually they don’t live there anymore; they could not afford the rent, even on such a house. So there’s a motel in north Springfield that basically changed their name from “Motel” to “Apartments” without doing much of anything else that I can tell. Now Chris and his girlfriend live there, in what’s called a “studio apartment,” but is really just a motel room with a curtain hung across the middle to divide the space if desired.

So that’s Chris. He is not lazy. He does not have an inflated sense of “entitlement,” a word that politicians have rendered almost meaningless. What Chris wants is a standard of living that would allow him to get married and raise his son, to be healthy and just be able to live a decent life.

It is Chris’s face that comes to mind whenever I hear anybody say something about “the poor.” Admittedly I do not have as much experience working in impoverished communities as some do, but nevertheless I have a lot more than some. And I always think about Chris when somebody starts in on how “all they do is scam the system” and “you know they’re just looking for a handout” and “I don’t want something I earned to be given to someone else because they should have to earn it” and so forth.

Of course there absolutely are people who choose not to work and make a career of going from charity to charity getting aid. But in all honesty my experience has been they are an extremely small percentage - like in the single digits.

I always wonder about people who so blithely write off “the poor” as just lazy good-for-nothings, or as somehow inherently dangerous, or as moochers living ungratefully off the hard work of others. In particular I wonder how much time they have spent in impoverished communities. I wonder if they've ever been inside a house that they would never dream of living in. I wonder if they've spent any time getting to know the person they deliver that pretty food basket to, or do they just drive up, drop it off, and dash away.

I wonder if they have a “Chris” whose face they call to mind when they talk about the poor.

And I wonder if they would really have said what they just said if they did.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Bishop of Digne

Let me tell you why I’m so excited, honored, and humbled to be portraying the Bishop of Digne in the current production of Les Miserables at Springfield Little Theater.

Firstly, it’s because I’m playing the Bishop of Digne in the current production of Les Miserables at Springfield Little Theater!!! I mean, come on - how cool is that? It’s flippin’ LES MIZ!!!

More specifically, though, and in no particular order…

It is a privilege to play a character who embodies unconditional love and is guided so deeply by the grace of God that he allows grace to dictate every word, every act, even every thought. The acts of welcoming Valjean, sharing a meal with him, and giving him a place to sleep are amazing in and of themselves. But when Valjean breaks that trust and steals the Bishop’s silver, and in response the Bishop not only allows him to keep it, but gives him the costly candlesticks as well, the abject selflessness and audacious grace of the act penetrate to the very heart of holiness.

It is a challenge of musical, physical, and artistic skill to funnel ninety-plus pages of description into two minutes on stage. In the novel, the Bishop of Digne is intimately described in the first section of the book, with overwhelming clarity and detail that reveals a complex and nuanced character. The burden of the actor playing the Bishop is to convey all of that in just a few simple phrases and gestures on stage. It has been quite a humbling process.

It is an honor to be on stage with Lloyd Holt for the powerful “candlesticks” moment. He is not just portraying Jean Valjean; while he is on stage he IS Jean Valjean. The energy that Lloyd radiates elevates the cast around him, myself included, and inspires us to a level of excellence that is rare in community theater settings. As our eyes lock while I am placing the silver candlesticks in his bag, his focus compels me to fully enter into that moment with a passion and depth that I would be unable to access were it happening with a different actor. There is so much that is unspoken underneath that brief moment, and you have to know that the Bishop’s love for Valjean is very much parallel to Andy Bryan’s love for Lloyd Holt.

It is exciting to be portraying a “religious” person who is not a vapid caricature of the faith. Almost every time an explicitly religious person is portrayed on stage or in film, they are shallow, judgmental, hypocritical, or in some other way characterized as “the bad guy.” Not so for the Bishop of Digne. Of him Victor Hugo wrote, “It will be perceived that he had a peculiar manner of his own of judging things: I suspect that he obtained it from the Gospel.” (Hugo, Victor (2010-12-16). Les Misérables (p. 25). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.)

I portray other characters throughout the show, including a poor beggar, a factory worker, a waiter, and … a pimp. (Yep.) I am having a great time with each, and to be a part of such an overwhelmingly talented cast and crew is undoubtedly a life highlight.

But I am captivated by this Bishop. I am hopeful that I can present him with the profound simplicity and powerful humility that he embodies. I hope that in my offering of the Bishop of Digne to the audiences at the Lander’s Theater, I can offer Christ in the fullest possible expression of what that truly means.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wishy One Day, Washy the Next?

The term “wishy-washy” has been around since the 1690s. Originally it meant “thin and watery,” and likely was just the word “washy.” So you might have said, “Wow, my tea is quite washy this afternoon,” meaning it had been “washed” with water. The “wishy” part was added for a bit of playful emphasis.

I can’t think of “wishy-washy” without thinking of good ol’ Charlie Brown. Here’s an exchange between him and Lucy from a 1965 comic strip:

Charlie Brown: Next year I'm going to be a changed person!
Lucy: That's a laugh, Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown: I mean it! I'm going to be strong and firm.
Lucy: Forget it. You'll always be wishy-washy!
Charlie Brown: Why can't I change just a little bit? I'll be wishy one day and washy the next!

In our current worship series, “No Other Life But This,” the character of King Ahasuerus (or “Elvis,” if you prefer), gives us an example of what it means to be a “wishy-washy” leader. Every single time there is a decision to be made, he makes it based on the persuasion of others. There is never a time he takes a stand boldly on his own, based on what he knows is the right thing to do.

Sometimes I think we follow Jesus like that, too. We base our own faith completely on the influence of others, rather than our own unique perspective. Of course, I am not discounting the power of community and the profound importance of connection with others. Far from it.

In a passage discussing unity in the church, Ephesians chapter 4 puts it this way: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”

Is our discipleship “wishy one day and washy the next?” And what’s the difference between “wishy-washy” (with a negative connotation) and “open-minded” (with a positive connotation)? These questions and others will frame our worship at Campbell UMC this week - see y’all in church!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Who Teaches Whom?

This morning started with “Character Education” at Cherokee Middle School. Once a month, people of the community (including 4 from Campbell UMC!) come to Cherokee to lead a half-hour character lesson in a classroom.

I have a clever and insightful group of sixth graders this year. I also have some fairly substantial mutton chop sideburns at the moment, because I am in Springfield Little Theater’s production of Les Miserables. Needless to say, mutton chop sideburns elicit a reaction from sixth graders. It was definitely an “ice-breaker.”

At the end of our lesson, a boy named Tristan asked me if I was going to keep the sideburns after the show. I told him that I would if it catches on as a fashion trend.

“NO!” he said, “If it catches on, that’s when you DON’T want to do it because then you’re just doing what everyone else is. You want to be doing your own thing.”

Yeah, there’s your character education, right there!

My second meeting of the day took me to Room 123, where I met with our three three-year-old classes from our congregation's daycare/preschool. It is “Community Helper” week for them, and I had been invited to share with the littles about what I do to help people.

I told them my name and what I do, and told them that I help people by helping them think about God and learn about God and know that God loves us and is with us all the time. I put on my robe and let them look at the symbols on my stole. I showed them a Bible and told them that we use it to learn about God and read stories about God and so forth.

I also brought a hymnal to show them, and told them that one of the things we do when we are with God is to sing. So then we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

When our time was up, I asked who remembered my name. Most of them did, which was fun. Then I asked, “And who can remember what I do to help people?”

A little girl raised her hand. When I called on her, she paused kind of shy like three-year-olds do sometimes, then she said very softly, “You help us sing.”

And I thought, “I’m good with that.”

When I was ordained, I promised to “diligently instruct the children in every place.” But even better is when the children instruct me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

No Other Life but This

This week we begin a new series at Campbell, titled “No Other Life But This.” The phrase is Henry David Thoreau’s; the full quote is:

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.

Because Thoreau may not be everyone’s first choice on which to base a worship series, and because the quote itself is open to different interpretations, I would like to share my thoughts as to the basis for this series.

We are going to spend a few weeks with the characters in the scriptural story of Esther, and watch to see how each lives fully “in the present” and finds the “eternity in each moment.” The characters in this story are presented with choices and challenges, and we’ll spend the next few weeks reflecting on how they do (or do not) understand that “there is no other life but this.”

So when I say “there is no other life but this,” I do not mean once we die, we die, and there is nothing other than this earthly life. Far from it.

This quote makes me think about the potential contained within each and every moment of our lives. Every instant is ripe with God-imbued possibility, ready for us to realize. God does indeed offer eternal life, but not as a separate life that begins after this one. The life God offers is possible right here and right now.

This series will allow us to see how the various characters in the story of Esther realize the possibility of their moments, and hopefully give us new insight into our own moments, and how we ourselves might find our eternity in each of them.

There is no other life but this!