On dreaming

It’s snowing today. This snow’s beauty lies in its falling down, reflected in the street lights. But that beauty fades as it hits the ground, mixing with the messiness of the lives which have passed this way throughout the day. Its promise dies as it becomes tied up inextricably with the dirt, trash and discarded mess which are mere symbols of structural inequality, poverty, cycles of abuse and destruction and violence, marginalization, and isolation from centers of power. The debris of the American dream.

I live in an inner-city neighborhood called Kensington in Philadelphia. Over 42% of our neighbors live below the poverty line, 46% have less than a highschool education, and most are unemployed. The neighborhood’s primary industry is the drug trade. Ours is a community full of violence and chaos, addiction, abuse and poverty – but it is also full of hope and beauty and good people trying to improve their own and neighbor’s lives. We are not naive about the challenges Kensington faces; nor are we overwhelmed by them. Fundamentally, we believe that another world is possible and that maybe it starts by dreaming, by relocating to the broken and neglected places of empire, by living with our lives what we speak with our mouths, by being good neighbors. We seek to re-spark imagination in our interactions. We have built a beautiful neighborhood park at the end of our street, and a neighborhood garden where folk can grow their own vegetables, we run a food distribution, and give out blankets and toiletries and bedrolls when folk knock on our door. We do homework help three days a week with kids from the neighborhood, throw holiday parties, hand out school supplies to over 550 kids, celebrate birthdays, put bandaids on scrapes, share our chocolate sprinkles, make popcorn, open up opportunities for summer camps, and play in the fire hydrant in summer. Most importantly we try to live our lives on our streets. And we always seek to dream.

A few short weeks ago, I thought that most of our neighbors had lost their imagination, their ability to dream of a different way. Many have. In places of violence, war, conflict, poverty, destruction and despair the privilege of dreams is often secondary to the necessity of survival. For others, years of walking a trail of broken dreams has only served to crush any hope for a future. I do not doubt that there are many in my community who have lost their imagination, their daring to hope and dream.

But I have also learnt that I have not had ears to hear the many dreams that do exist on my block. These are streets of pain; but they are also fields of gold. Some are dreaming of an orchard at the end of our road. Another longs to see an aquarium where children can learn to run their own businesses. Someone wants to paint all the post boxes on the block. There are dreams for a compost business which will serve Kensington, a vegetable garden which will feed our block and provide low cost healthy food to our broader community. A neighbor has a file full of contacts for emergency services, heating, food, jobs and education which she pulls out anytime anyone is in need. Someone else has a file full of clippings from magazines and printouts from online – of fences and parks and benches around trees. Someone sweeps our streets each morning – and each day it fills again with trash. But for those few hours this is another world. And slowly others are joining in.

I dream of the day when these dreams become stories celebrated not regrets mourned. I pray these dreams breathe life into the here and now, in the time when these dreams are not…yet. I dream that the debris of the American dream can be swept off our block so that the snow can fall, creating a new world on our streets.


On stories

These are not the answers. I’ve only been here a month. Inserted myself into someone else’s story. HIS and all those who came before me. All those who walked these streets. Slept in my room. Wrestled. Cried out. Toiled. Built relationships. Broke relationship. All those who sought to change and were changed and all those who somehow managed to bring change to others. I’ve inserted myself into a story that dates back 13 years. And further. Back to the days when this area was vibrant with factories, business’, jobs and families. A little further on to the “white exodus”: the years when factories closed, businesses relocated, jobs were cut off, and families drifted on and apart. I don’t understand this part of the story. I don’t even understand or grasp the part of the story that begins 13 years ago. I certainly don’t understand in its fullness the part I find myself immersed in now. So these are not the answers. Not after a month. As if a lifetime could give them.

No, these are the questions. My thoughts. My struggles, my dreams. My wrestlings and crying out. My toiling, my seeking and my changing. I tend to write romantically. I live practically. Immersed. The writing is the listening to Josh Garrels through my earphones. The living is the hearing fights and children and police sirens and drug dealers breaking through. Hear them both; they’re both important. I must live as though I am here. Present. I must dream as though I’m not. Future. I must understand as one who was. Past. And I must hope that Christ breaks in. On me. On this neighborhood. On our lives. Present-continuous.

This is the story. About liturgy in the morning with visitors and community and strangers. All of us with one thing in common: Jesus Christ. About evening prayer in the basement. Surrounded by clothes and food and tools and toys and stationary and ice-cream and prayers which span 13 years and beyond – deaths and lives and addictions and marches  and subversion and holy mischief and small acts of great love. It is about living intentionally in a community house with 4 other people. About frustrations and different interpretations of cleanliness and moods and personalities and strengths and weaknesses and how to share the bathroom in the morning and the washing machine in the afternoon and graciously accepting tofu. It is about intentionally living in geographic community in a neighborhood that is loud and many times angry. Where children and people in need and pilgrims knock on our door – seemingly unceasingly. It is about learning to live and most especially to live well amidst drugs and addictions and anger and hurt and seeming confusion. It is about boundaries. It is about realizing that we are not the only ones who bring good here and recognizing it in the lives of our neighbors and friends – not our social “projects”. It is about struggling with how best to relate to the drug dealers who sit on our step turning thousands of dollars of despair a night. It is about how to maintain a marriage amidst competing demands and other covenant commitments.

It is about making sure to place Jesus back into the center of the gospel of social justice every time I am tempted by my own pride and naivety to relegate Him to the back seat.

It is about going about our daily lives aware, intentional, full of grace and mercy and love. It is about not just going about.

“I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good.

It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about.”

Toyohiko Kagawa

on heroes

Husband-man and I have just, delayedly, finished Heroes Season One. As I was thinking about dreaming and the ‘individual call’ question, I think I found a pretty good analogy in the series. On Heroes, everyone is special –  each with a distinctive special ability – and most of them feel the call to “Save the World”. So they set out, on their own, to fulfill their own personal destiny. In the process they cut off, undermine, endanger, kill, destroy, misunderstand, question, and manipulate all the other ‘heroes’ whose tasks, also, are to save the world. In so doing, they very nearly screw  things up entirely ending with that dismal picture of the world in five years time.

I think we tend to do that. We stand with our own unique abilities, character, talents, or giftings (if you want to use Christianese). And we set out, by ourselves, to save the world – believing that we are the destined one, the chosen one; rather than the destined ones and chosen ones. The church. And so we set out longing to hear the specific call and to see the unique path layed out before us that will lead us to “hero-hood” and saving the world. And we cut off, undermine, endanger, kill, destroy, misunderstand, question, and manipulate everyone else who is doing the same. The church.

I don’t think this is necessarily intentional or spiteful. I think it rather comes from a fundamental misunderstanding and misreading of Scripture, combined with a world-view which puts the individual at the centre and elevates self-hood. In light of these two, the quest for “God’s  individual plan for MY life” becomes completely understandable. A re-reading of Scripture, I believe, clearly demonstrates that while God does on occassion work through individuals (Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, David, Esther, Daniel etc), His primary concern is with the destiny and path of nations, societies, people groups and communities. Secondly, I believe that God’s overall ‘plan’ – the coming of His Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven – can most efficiently, effectively, and exquisitely be achieved through individuals acting in their special capacity/ability/talent/gifting or dream IN COMMUNITY. I’ll do my little part, you do yours, and together we will have done something GREAT.

Shane Claiborne puts it this way:

Shane: Early in my youth, I spent a lot of time thinking, `What is God’s will for my life?’ You know how it goes – as if the whole universe kind of revolved around me. One day, I caught this idea from a priest: “Good things come to those who wait, but great things come to those who get off their butts and go find God at work.” That’s a very different way of thinking of things. And it’s very liberating to know that I don’t have to wait for God to write a magical formula on the wall for me, but I can look around for where God is at work and join in. Instead of staring at my sandals, I walk out my front door and look into the eyes of my neighbours.’

Sometimes it’s harder to be a part of a community than it is to just be a lone ranger or a vigilante. It can seem easier to be a soloist than part of a choir – but ultimately this is a story about community. I’ve got a quote on my wall that says, “I know you’re strong enough to do it alone, but are you strong enough to do it together?” …  Here’s another one: an old African proverb says `if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ In a sense, leadership is a choice to go far together rather than just to run as fast as you can on your own. Being someone who is always going fast, I am tempted to do things alone, but I have chosen to do life together. I have intentionally joined with others. Ultimately, we can do more together than I can on my own.” Excerpt from `Follow me to Freedom’ – Shane Claiborne and John M. Perkins

So stop. Stop waiting for God to reveal the individual plan for your life. Find where what you have to give intersects with what the world needs. See, God ‘may’ have a specific path laid out for you (a Moses-plan if you like), but in the meantime while you are waiting for Him to reveal it to you, I think He has laid out enough general ground rules to keep you occupied – love mercy, practice justice, go into all the world, preach the good news, baptise, make disciples, love God, love people, pray unceasingly, always be ready to give an answer for the hope you have, be salt, be light, spread the aroma of Christ…. the list goes on. Find somewhere God is already at work, and join Him and the others already there. Take out your crayons, and draw. Dream.

try this on for size…

Does God Have a Specific Plan for Your Life? Probably Not..

This isn’t going to become a copy and paste blog, i promise. But as the desire to dream begins to stir in me again, this one caught my eye. sometime in the weeks to come i’ll write my thoughts on “individual plans” for your life – a myth i believe we’ve sucked up because hey, we live in an individualistic world where everybody wants to be special (Heroes?) More on that later. for now, think on this…

‘If God is fathering us, He is helping us discover what is good, right, pure, and worthy to pursue. He teaches us morality and ethics, but also gave us a heart filled with desire and longing. It’s as though God sets before us a big sheet of butcher paper and hands us a box of crayons and tells us to dream.

If God has something specific for you, you’ll know, I promise. But if He is setting a box of crayons down in front of you (a box of crayons called life) then by all means draw. He’s taught you right from wrong, good from bad, beautiful from profane, so draw. He will be with you, proud of you, cheering you on, so draw. He loves you, so draw in the inspiration of the knowledge of His love. Draw a purple horse, a red ocean, a nine-legged dog, it doesn’t matter. Lets stop being so afraid. Lets live, and show the world what it really means to be grateful we don’t live in a dysfunctional family.”

on breakthrough

Not yet. i’m on the brink. my heart, my heart is still heavy. but now – finally – it feels like it’s time to dream again. am i ready?all i see, still, are the clouds but i long to get up and start to dance upon this barren land. with hope in my hands.

(Rain Down, Delirious?)

Looks like tonight, the sky is heavy
Feels like the winds are gonna change
Beneath my feet, the earth is ready
I know its time for heaven’s rain, it’s gonna rain

Back to the start, my heart is heavy
Feels like it’s time, to dream again
I see the clouds, and yes I’m ready
To dance upon this barren land
Hope in my hands