8 Ways You Can Stay Active in Your Faith This Summer

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Summertime!  With backyard barbeques, pick-up ultimate frisbee games in the park, and out-of-town adventures, it’s a season of increased activity.  This summer when we’re making our lists of ways to stay active, let’s add “Be active in my faith” to the list.

Here’s my list of “8 Ways You Can Stay Active in Your Faith This Summer

1)   Make a meal with someone– As the daily exhibition of the nearness of God’s love, food has the power to sustain our bodies, our friendships, and our faith.  Share a pitcher of iced tea with a friend on the deck and see how God refreshes your life through that relationship.

2)   Explore– …your neighborhood, a trail, a park, a stream, a new town.  Exploration is wonder in action, and your curiosities about what awaits you in God’s creation can excite you in your faith and gratitude for the Creator.

3)   Stargaze– Summer is a great time to grab a blanket, head out of town, and find a field where you can take in the stars.  It doesn’t take long to get in touch with the mystery and grandeur of God when looking up at thousands of stars.

4)   Read– When you’re transformed by the renewing of your mind, you’re better equipped to discern God’s will.  What better way to renew your mind than by picking up a new book about the life of faith this summer?

5)   Plant something– All life comes from soil, the site of God’s creative activity.  Want to grow closer to God this summer?  Plant something and tend to the plant’s needs, and you’ll definitely learn something about life, death, and our interdependence as creatures.

6)   Fish/hike/bike/play sports– God created us with a desire and ability to move and play, and then placed us in a creation that prompts enjoyment.  So get out there and enjoy.

7)   Rest– We think rest is synonymous with inaction, but at its best, rest is something we do actively.  God didn’t rest on the seventh day to crash and recuperate from a busy week, but to celebrate God’s creative labors.  Be active and intentional about taking time to just rest and celebrate the goodness of the life God has you in.  Take Sabbath.

8)   Go to church– You can worship God anywhere and through any of the above-mentioned activities.  But faith necessarily happens in community… with people who share our wonderings and challenge us in our growing. From worship (Thursdays outside and Sundays inside) to garden gatherings, there are lots of ways to get involved this summer!

If we let it, summertime can train us how to live out our faith the rest of the year.  Let’s stay active in our faith together by doing even ordinary summer activities with an openness to seeing how they relate to our faith.

What in God's Name Are You Doing?!

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“What do you do?”  It’s often the go-to question anytime well-intentioned adults find themselves needing to make small talk among strangers.  The conventional way of answering this question has us revealing our occupations to one another, discussing in greater or lesser detail the nature of our work.  A few years ago I met with a friend in her office to chat about my vocational next-steps.  Sitting across from me, she looked me in the eyes and asked with all seriousness, “What in God’s name are you doing?!”  The question caught me off-guard: “What do you mean, ‘What in God’s name am I doing,’” I replied.  “I’m sitting here in your office trying to carry on a conversation.”

We’re used to hearing this phrase used colloquially as a judgment.  For example, a parent might say, “What in God’s name are you doing?!” to his or her children after entering a room to find them coloring on the walls with permanent markers.  But if we let the question sink a little deeper, we might come to understand the question is far more radical than its colloquial use suggests.  By asking, “What in God’s name are you doing,” my friend was inviting me to consider how I am being intentional about allowing Christ to instruct the ways I act, live, and labor.

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In love, God invites all people to participate in preserving the creative beauty first enacted when God formed the world and said of God’s labors, “It is good.”  Every vocation, then, has the potential to be a Christian vocation.  From teaching and housekeeping to social work, construction work, parenting, farming, and medicine, our own labors memorialize God’s work in creation.  In trying to heed this call daily, we would do well to ask of our own labors: Who and what do we work for?  For ourselves?  For our bosses?  For our families or society?  Are we working for a paycheck, a mortgage payment, or for retirement?  Maybe we’re working for the betterment of our communities, for our principles, for “happiness” or future generations or the health and peace of the world.  Whatever and whomever it is that motivates us in our daily labors, our discipleship as followers of Christ requires that we begin and end our understanding of our lives’ vocations with the response, “we are working for the Lord.”

The next time someone asks you, “So, what do you do?” tell them about your Christian vocation: “I try to love others well.” “I play with my kids.” “I do a lot of careful listening.” “I try to be forgiving and kind and generous, and to do it all in a way that points God-ward.”

The Way of the Cross

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As early as mid February, the flowerbeds on the campus of Texas Christian University are filled with vibrant tulips in full bloom, demanding the early onset of spring. In April of 2014, my brother and I walked across campus and into the office of Dr. Darren Middleton, a Professor of Religion for whom I worked as a research assistant.  It was the Tuesday of Holy Week, and the last item on my to-do list before catching a flight home for Easter break was to check in with Darren.  “Do you need anything before we take off?” I asked. “Nothing that can’t wait,” came the reply.  “What plans do you have for the break?”  “We’re flying home for Easter!” I said with excitement.  Darren’s parting words changed my spiritual posture that Holy Week, and every Holy Week since: “Take it slow, boys.  Don’t rush through Holy Week to get to Easter without allowing yourself to feel the sorrow and heartbreak of Good Friday.  We arrive at resurrection by way of the cross.” As we left his office and walked back across campus, it struck us that even the flowers rush toward Easter.

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Easter is coming, and we are an Easter people made new in Christ who is worthy of our highest praise.  But Jesus—and we who are his followers—arrive at Easter only by way of the cross.  As creatures of the Creator, we live in a world of contrasts, and God actively uses and inverts these contrasts to make creation whole.  Most radical is God’s inversion of life and death made known in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; in Christ, life not only precedes, but proceeds from death.  There was no greater way for God to reveal God’s self as the source of all life than for God to create Life from the one thing that could not possibly have life: life’s antithesis, death.  Only God is capable of sowing life where life should not be able to take root (i.e. in the barrenness of death).

Understanding Jesus’ purpose in this way transforms the cross into a symbol not only of Christ’s crucifixion, but of hope and of a greater intimacy between life, death, body, and God’s grace. Because of the way these things all meet in the person of Jesus upon the cross, death no longer has the final word. God can turn it all—suffering, illness, death—into new life. Our own path toward newness of life in Christ doesn’t promise to be easy; it requires us to traverse through death by way of baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection. But those who follow Christ and live with a habit of hope may find encouragement in the truth that the One who went before us is also the One who walks with us from death to new life. It’s all being made new, friends. Happy Easter! Glory to God!

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The Heart of Faith

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Love is all around us: it’s on our McDonald’s cups (“I’m Lovin’ It”); it’s in our Disney movies (Frozen’s “Love Is an Open Door”); it’s on our t-shirts (“I ‘Heart’ NY”); it’s even in the heart-shaped latte art the barista pours atop our morning coffee.  And, in this season of love centered around Valentine’s Day, there’s ample opportunity for us to express our love via teddy bears, assorted chocolates, roses, or a well-worded Hallmark card.  But American pop culture isn’t the only one with something to say on the matter.  Love is at the heart of the entire Christian story, and it enters the story from the very beginning.

At the dawn of creation, in an incredible outpouring of God’s unlimited love, lands and seas, birds and fish, humans and relationships and life become things when they were once no thing at all.  Every good thing in God’s creation is a physical manifestation of God’s love: food is God’s love made delicious; puppies are God’s love made cute and cuddly; your friends are God’s love made joyful; and you are God’s love made you!  Each created thing has its own form and purpose, but all of it originates in the creative, life-giving love of God.

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It would be enough if such a beautiful story ended here.  But, just when we thought God’s goodness couldn’t manifest itself any more wonderfully, God’s love takes the form of Jesus and enters the world to be with us as one of us!  1 John 4 puts it this way: “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God… This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him… If God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other” (1 John 4:7-11, excerpts).

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So, love looks like Jesus. And, having received the gift of God’s love, we must love God and one another in return (see Matthew 22:36-40). Pretty straightforward, right? Love God; love others; love yourself. But love can be complicated, messy. Healthy love requires patience, kindness, and—above all—intentionality (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). And yet, as hard as this work can be, one of life’s deepest joys is to engage in the lifelong pursuit of getting to know someone, not superficially but truly. Put poetically, “to love another person is to see the face of God” (closing line of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). God invites you to grow in knowledge and love and intimacy with God and one another, and if we accept, then we’ll begin to experience—at least in part—what eternity will be like.

Justice and Jesus on Main Street

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It’s 8:14 on an October Thursday morning in Downtown Durham, North Carolina.  Main Street is a bit busier than usual, but not for any particular reason…  Life just seems to pick up the pace some days: the cars drive a little faster, their horns blare a little more frequently, and the sun spends a little less time above the horizon.  The Bull City Connector (Durham’s fare-free public bus) pulls up to the stop where my brother, a medical professional dressed in scrubs, and I have been waiting for several minutes outside the leasing office of our trendy downtown apartment complex.  As the bus comes to a halt, it does that thing where it droops toward the curb and makes that air compression sound buses make, giving away just how bored or exhausted the bus is from traveling the same 3.7-mile route back and forth from East Durham to Duke University’s West Campus.  The front door opens.  I step onto the bus.  I say good morning to the same driver I acknowledge every morning, and then take my usual seat among the twelve other people already well into their morning commutes.  Once moving, I start calculating: “We’ll be cutting it close… but so long as we don’t make too many stops or hit too many red lights, I should be able to make it to my 8:30 class on time.”

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Six minutes pass, when—about halfway through the route—a middle-aged woman who boarded the bus somewhere before me pulls the cord to signal the bus driver she wants off at the next stop.  As the bus slows to a halt, the woman stands up and loudly announces, “Alright, y’all… this is all us black folks’ stop.  Everybody off.”  And with that, sure enough, everyone on the bus—save the two people who lived in the same chic downtown loft as me—stands up and follows the woman off the bus.  The door closes behind them, the driver puts his foot on the gas, and we continue on toward West Durham to Duke’s campus at the end of the line.

Twenty-six minutes… That’s how long it takes to ride the Bull City Connector from one end of its route to the other.  That 3.7-mile expanse is the difference between black and white; rich and poor; neighborhoods with no grocery stores and neighborhoods with stores like Whole Foods.  Though not a written policy, in effect the bus line ends one place for some people, and another place for other people.  And it’s not kindness or hospitality that indicates to a group of people, “This is the end of the line for you.”  Rather, racism and classism dictate who belongs where: “this part of town with ornate stone is for you;” “this part of of town with run-down convenience stores in place of grocery stores is for you.” To my brother and I it seemed like prophecy that the woman on the bus was able to accurately predict the unfolding of events… she guessed and happened to be right, and we were stunned by that.  But she wasn’t stunned at all… because her “prophecy” didn’t require guesswork.  It was an announcement she made from a pattern she had witnessed countless times.   Herein lies the problem… that this pattern of social division is so engrained in this woman’s life that it has become predictable, inevitable, prescriptive.

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This is what sociologists, the Church, and other socially-minded sectors of society call “systemic injustice.”  The problems are systemic in the sense that they are built in or inherent to the basic systems by which our society operates.  When this is the case, it is the mission of the Church to change the oppressive structures and systems in order that ALL may flourish… to participate in the work of transforming the world as it is into the world as it should be, as God created it. Our cities are broken.  And, as Disciples of Christ, we have made a covenant with God and with one another that we will be a “movement for wholeness in [our] fragmented world” and communities.  So, how do we disrupt broken systems and what is the Church’s role in reconstructing them to stimulate wholeness?

Justice is a necessary mode of behavior for those who follow the way of Christ.  A classic definition of justice construes justice as “giving each their due.”  Theologically, though, justice is much more than an attempt at fairness or a balancing of the scales; it is a state or system of wholeness marked by the mutual flourishing of all creation under God.  Biblically, to do justice is to cultivate love and renounce evil (check out Proverbs 21:15). Accordingly, justice is the God-given mode of existence for which we strive as Christians, an existence built on the cornerstones of radical peace, non-competitive prosperity, loving kindness, and a responsibility to care for one’s neighbor (Micah 6:8).  Since God’s love and character are such that God desires to make whole all of creation, when wholeness is diminished for any one of creation’s members, the entire membership suffers.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose life and work for justice the nation commemorates this week with a national day of service—knew the significance of securing justice for ALL people when writing his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (April 16, 1963).

Despite our nation having pledged to pursue “liberty and justice for all,” some members of our communities thrive off the nation’s unfair systems while others are victim to the systems’ in-built prejudices.  This is injustice: a set of socially constructed conditions that prevent the possibility of a flourishing common life for ALL members. These oppressive conditions are so deeply integrated into the fabric of American social systems, political policies, and even religious institutions that justice-seekers must undo them to free all members of creation to live as God intended.  Without question, then, social justice is necessary work for the Church.  That said, “social justice” (the term and the act) has been stigmatized in recent years, swept up into the political arena where many churches seldom tread.  So, if churches are to be involved in restoring creation to God so life may flourish as God intends, then the Church needs to reimagine what “doing justice” entails.

Throughout Scripture, justice and righteousness are co-conspirators in God’s plan to restore creation to its intended glory.  We might, then, understand a “ministry of social justice” to be that work in the church which restores creation to God such that all of God’s people may flourish. For, God’s creation is only whole when it is so filled with justice, peace, and loving-kindness that creation overflows its capacity to contain them: when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  This justice work involves addressing the needs of people, animals, and land on a more systemic level by stimulating the social change necessary for more wholesome living of all creatures.  This looks like protecting the land, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, etc. (Matthew 25:35-36), as well as changing the oppressive policies or infrastructure of our systems that create these needs in the first place.  Here, it starts to become clear that justice has a symbiotic relationship with love. This construal of justice, which begins as a somewhat abstract concept, finds its fullest embodiment in the lifework of Jesus.  Jesus is justice incarnate, God’s very self made manifest in acts of healing, peacemaking, hospitality, and love.

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Back on the bus… In the heart of North Durham, about halfway into the bus’s route, lies St. Joseph’s, an Episcopal church with a modest building but extravagant ideas about what justice, hospitality, and Christian community should look like.  The church’s statement of welcome reads: 

Our church grounds are always open to anyone who would like a place to rest and renew.  St. Joseph’s welcomes our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, that they may find respite and relationship in the church and on our grounds.  We share breakfast Monday through Friday at 8:00 a.m., following Morning Prayer, with anyone who is hungry.  Through our conversations with our neighbors, we seek to provide assistance as we are able.  We are always interested in meeting our neighbors around St. Joseph’s, both new and long-time, and in learning what the needs are in our neighborhood.  Everyone is welcome at St. Joseph’s.  We look forward to meeting you!

East and West Durham occupy opposite ends of a geographic and socioeconomic spectrum, and at the center exists this church that’s committed to being Christ in the middle of it all.  At the edge of the church’s lawn, not ten feet back from Main Street’s heavily trafficked sidewalk, lies a bronze statue of a person sitting cross-legged, shrouded in a cloak that renders his/her features indistinguishable.  Head bowed and arm outstretched, the figure appears to be asking for help from kindhearted passersby.  The statue is reminiscent of the countless persons experiencing homelessness on Durham’s downtown streets.  But a closer look reveals the figure’s defining feature: buried in the palm of the outstretched hand is a hole, the wound of a Savior who knows all-too-well the struggles of being human.  For the community of people who frequent St. Joseph’s, few depictions of Jesus so thoroughly communicate God’s with-us-ness.

“Whatsoever You Do” statue | St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church | Durham, NC

“Whatsoever You Do” statue | St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church | Durham, NC

Recall the bus stop where the woman announced all the black folks would be getting off the bus. This stop is right outside St. Joseph’s Church… a church that has established itself in the community as a place of radical welcome, hospitality, and love. Is this not the call of the Church… to be a people with whom it is safe to be yourself and a place where those whom the world rejects are valued; to be a force that straddles the dividing lines in our communities and commits to the work of justice there until all are welcome and all may flourish as God intends? By the grace of God, it will be these spaces and these people who are so transformed by the love and hospitality of being church together that they will be the new hubs of “wealth” in our communities. Transformed by the work of justice, our communities will measure wealth by the strength of their human resources rather than the amount of their financial ones. Until then, re-present Christ in the world by entering into one another’s brokenness and cultivating justice there.

A Home for the Holidays

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Some of us do a lot of preparing during the holidays.  You’ve got family coming into town at the end of the week and you’re hosting, so you take off work to tidy up the house.  You find out-of-sight homes for all the clutter that normally lays in plain sight; you put that enormous stack of papers in the bedroom; you stack a couple books you’ve never read on a corner table as decoration; you get on Pinterest and search “Christmas craft I can make in 5 minutes or less” so you have something cute to put on the mantel; you vacuum; you change the sheets on the guest beds… A lot of preparation goes into readying our homes to play host for the holidays.  In 1 Peter 2:4-5, the Apostle Peter says that as you come to Jesus you are being built into a spiritual home.  So, then, are you putting as much love and attention into preparing your spiritual house to host God as you put into preparing your homes to host family and friends this holiday season?

You belong to God’s household, and as God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.
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I try to prepare for Christ to be born into my life, but there’s so much mystery wrapped up in Jesus’ arrival on earth.  It’s such an unfathomable gift that I sometimes wonder how I could ever be fully prepared.  And this is where Jesus’ grace enters the Christmas story. 

The world wasn’t ready for Jesus to come: King Herod tried to have him killed the moment he was born; the Pharisees and the Sadducees didn’t understand him; Jesus wasn’t even welcomed in his own hometown. The world was so unprepared for Jesus’ coming that the people’s response to his being here was “crucify him.”  But to this world that wasn’t ready for him, Jesus said, “I’m coming whether you’re ready or not.”  And then he broke into a world that so desperately needs him but can’t always recognize it.  There’s so much grace in that.

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The most remarkable part of the Christmas story—the part that overwhelms the heart—is that God chooses to break into the darkness of our lives and endure our struggles with us.  And this coming, this in-breaking, has the power to reinvigorate life in such a way that our life in Christ can never be extinguished.  John the evangelist says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  As we prepare our hearts and our homes for Jesus’ birth, may we be open to Christ igniting a light in us that can never be put out.  Happy Advent.

Loving Beyond Fear

We pulled into Durham around 6:45 PM, concluding a quick early-May weekend trip to the beach.  Stopping off at our apartment complex just long enough to empty the car and change clothes, we left to go hang out with our friend Tucker who was hosting a Cinco de Mayo party in his backyard at 7:00 PM. Luke and I were running a bit late, but not unreasonably so… just the kind of late that allows time for the burgers to finish cooking and be ready to eat by the time we got there.

As we turned onto Tucker’s street in East Durham, I found a parking place in front of the neighbor’s house.  I pulled into the spot, put the car in park, removed the keys from the ignition, and waited for Luke to wrap up a phone call with Mom and Dad.  While we were sitting there, I glanced in the driver’s side mirror and saw a man approaching the car from behind.  He passed my window and got all the way to the front bumper of the car before turning around and approaching my door.  Now, Luke and I lived in this part of East Durham for a year, and from that experience know neighbors can be pretty picky about where you park.  And I get it… the driveways in this neighborhood are small, and not every house has a driveway.  Just look at some of the “Rush Hour” style maneuvering we had to do to park at our house when we lived in East Durham.

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Back in our car outside Tucker’s house, Luke and I looked at one another with rolling eyes that communicated something like, “Great… he’s going to ask us to move our car.”  But his sudden shift in body language communicated something very different.  With a previously undetectable sense of urgency, the man flung the driver’s door open, drew a gun from his waistband, and pointed it at us.  “GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE AND GIVE ME YOUR KEYS,” he demanded. We got out of the vehicle, and as we backed away with hands raised, I tossed him the keys and he took off out of the neighborhood.

In the days that followed the incident, Tucker’s friendship was a refuge for us, a safe and sacred space where—after the shock had worn off—we could simply lament together the brokenness of a world where violence rather than love is instinctual.  But the responsibility for this violence doesn’t fall squarely on the one man who stole our car. He himself is a victim… a victim of broken communities… of impoverished neighborhoods where gang violence has been a way of life for decades.  He is victim to a set of circumstances that make him think violence is the only solution to whatever problem provoked his anger.

We have a responsibility as community to break the cycles of poverty and violence.  With God’s help, we—as a community—can transform brokenness into wholeness and abundant life.  But how do we do it?  How do we transform our communities?  How do we turn the world as it is into the world as God intends for it to be?

The Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham is a community that aims to do just that.  Founded in 1992, the coalition is a nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to “rectify and prevent violence through intentional relationships that facilitate both institutional reform and individual acts of compassion and reconciliation.”  The coalition supports a variety of ministries within the Durham community that invite neighbors to know one another in peaceful covenant, one of which is a prayer vigil ministry for homicide victims.  Together, members of the community step into spaces of brokenness and violence, and reclaim them as sites of hope and resurrection.

Upon learning a member of the Durham community has been murdered, members of the coalition go to the site of the incident and invite family, friends, neighbors, pastors, and caring citizens to gather for a vigil to mourn, to acknowledge the dignity and worth of the victim, to recognize the traumatic loss for the victim’s loved ones, and to simply exist together.  The beauty of committing to just being there on the street together is that coexistence can reknit—even if only in part—a community that has been torn apart by violence. As Marcia Owen, former Director of the coalition puts it, “being with” is the opposite of violence.

Prayer vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

Prayer vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

To stand at the site of a homicide—a place that reminds witnesses of the brokenness of the world—while participating in a prayer vigil with victims, gang members, relatives of victims, and relatives of the accused alike is to work toward repairing some of the damage of the community.  On street corners around Durham, community members are sharing memories of loved children of God lost to gun violence, and in their sharing, they are brought into the ongoing work of making creation whole. Most simply, it’s Communion—a shalom-making communion that starts with brokenness and transforms it into abundant life... into God’s peaceable kingdom.

Christ invites each to come to the Table as they are: violent, addicted, hung over, poor, judgmental, exclusive, and hungry.  Author and minister Sara Miles reflects, “Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right.  But gathered around the Table, we [become] right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God [is] building” (Take This Bread, 139).  Spaces shaped by violence and brokenness are the sites of God’s creative activity.  These very spaces are the arenas wherein God plays out God’s redemptive work; where Christ transforms brokenness into wholeness and mourning into dancing. These are the very places where God unleashes God’s love.  These are the very streets Christ—as God’s love incarnate—walks… to communicate to anyone who thinks he is beyond the reach of God’s love that communion and divine love is for him.

Prayer Vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

Prayer Vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

But how do we live without enemies in a world where violence is as prominent as it is?  We do so by loving beyond fear; by committing to care for others’ wellbeing, even when those others have wronged us.  In the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Jesus is in East Durham. I know because I’ve seen him in the streets at the vigils and in the eyes of a man who was desperate for communion one night in early May. And Jesus is in the broken spaces of your life too, working to reunite God’s people in love and peace.

A Mourning Meal

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Wow, two years already.  On the evening of August 20, 2016, my 23-year-old cousin, Brett Andrew Neal, died when a truck ran a stop sign crossing a county highway in Iowa.  The truck hit Brett’s car in the driver-side door, tossing him and his car end-over-end into an unharvested cornfield seventy-five miles northwest of our hometown.  I remember the moment I received the news in the entryway of my aunt and uncle’s dimly lit house that night.  Without notice, the pain overtook my body as I collapsed to the hardwood floor: a heavy lump in my throat and a punch to my gut that, at once, made me lose my strength, my breath, and my appetite.  There is something disturbingly visceral about the shock of losing a loved one unexpectedly.  For the rest of that dreadful night, I had a deeply embodied sense that life just got emptier and no amount of time or justice or food could fill it back up.  And so, unable to fall asleep after returning home, I lay awake in bed until morning, famished but not hungry, parched but not thirsty.

The next morning, as news spread of Brett’s tragic death, people near and far began expressing their sympathy in a variety of ways.  From cards to Facebook messages, flowers to monetary donations, people who knew Brett—and many who didn’t—found ways to support our family in our time of grief.  Among the most common, however, was people’s impulse to give food in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  Within twenty-four hours, food donations and “sympathy meals” began to accumulate until the fridge, freezer, and counters in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen overflowed with enough food to feed the whole neighborhood.  It has always been a curious thing to me that people give one another food in times of loss and grief.  Perhaps people give food to the bereaved because words escape them.  More practically, perhaps the intent is to free the family from having to overcome their sadness to cook themselves a meal.  Or, maybe we turn to eating because in our encounters with death we have an instinctive urge to exaggerate our aliveness in embodied ways (e.g. yelling, crying, eating or drinking in excess, engaging in dangerous activities, etc.).  Whatever the case, a smorgasbord amassed so quickly that my Uncle Les suggested our family come over to help get through all of the food.  The way he presented the offer, it seemed a practical matter: there was too much food, so we should come over to eat so it would not go to waste.  But below the practical veneer, amidst his feelings of loss and helplessness, it seemed he was also saying, “I need us to share a meal together.”

And so we gathered the day after the accident—Uncle Les, Aunt Sheryl, Cousin Jared, Grandma Norma, Mom, Dad, Mark and I—standing around the kitchen island overflowing with lasagna and mashed potatoes; store-bought French bread and homemade yeast rolls; green beans, carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes; deli meats, cheeses, and crackers; enchiladas and rice; an assortment of salads and casseroles; cookies and muffins and brownies and lemon bars and cinnamon rolls… such a mountainous cornucopia of mostly homemade foods prepared and shared to be vessels of love.  With mindfulness we received.  Hands joined, encircling the bounty before us, we wept and gave thanks to God for this overwhelming outpouring of love and for the familiar comfort of sharing a meal together.  What followed the prayer can only be described as Eucharist.  Like never before, I saw the body of Christ in the food before me—broken and shared in love so that in the face of death we might know with abundance what a gift life is.  In that moment, the food was much more than a mere reminder of God’s love; it was God’s love incarnate... God's love made tactile and delicious.  [For more on this theology, see Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith].  Suddenly, then, partaking together seemed a sacred act.

Amidst my sadness, the act of eating itself brought life.  The food—God’s love made physical—slowly enlivened me from the inside out, providing some of the first real pleasure I had felt since Brett’s death.  Never before had my eating been so mindful, so unhurried, so deliberate, so purposeful.  For, each food item carried with it a name, a love, and—in some cases—a memory that transcended what any written or spoken condolences could express.  Two examples deserve mentioning.  First: of all the desserts scattered throughout the kitchen, there was one batch of particularly gifted cookies that stood out among the rest…  The sort of hearty oatmeal-butterscotch cookie that was undoubtedly the pride of the donor’s recipe box.  Each time we gathered that week, my aunt, uncle, brother, and I teased each other by hiding the bag of quickly vanishing cookies somewhere deep among the pile of desserts, joking that there were none left so we might save more for ourselves.  These delicious cookies were a respite, an excuse to trade in our solemn tears for teasing smiles, if only for a moment.

Second: when Mark and I were young, we spent a day each year at the house of our family friend, Jan, baking cinnamon rolls and fruit pies together around the holidays.  For us it was a play day in the kitchen; for our parents a much needed break; for Jan a labor of love.  Ever since our annual bake days came to an end, Jan has continued to make cinnamon rolls for our family on special occasions.  So I have always known this is her way of showing love.  And, oh, are these rolls heavenly… Pillowy sweet dough swirled with a generous helping of cinnamon, topped with a cloud of cream cheese frosting so smooth it cascades down the soft edges of the roll when melted.  Needless to say, it is no mystery—to myself or my loved ones—that these rolls are a true labor of love, the result of a full day spent in the kitchen.  And so, when I first caught a glimpse of Jan’s cinnamon rolls buried deep, barely visible beneath the mound of food donated after Brett’s death, a reassuring peace came over me… “Of course they are here,” I told myself.  In that moment I could imagine no greater sign of God’s love, no clearer display of God’s comfort and nearness.  So, rather than hiding them like the oatmeal-butterscotch cookies, we were intentional about dividing the four dozen cinnamon rolls evenly among each family unit; for, this love offering was too generous, too heartfelt, too special not to share.

These foods were much more than sustenance, much more than delicious; as manifestations of God’s love, they were avenues for healing.  Baked deep into their savory sauces and sweet, yeasty centers was an earnest love that held for my family a much-needed reminder: we are not alone in our grief.  A professor of mine at Duke Divinity School, Dr. Norman Wirzba, shared in lecture, “Food is the daily exhibition of the nearness of God’s love,” ...and God’s nearness was so evident to me in this gift of food that I could feel its texture, smell its aroma, and taste its goodness.  For an entire week we returned to Les and Sheryl’s house for every meal, as together we slowly ate our way through the food gifts.  At the family’s invitation, guests came to the house to be filled with food and left having been filled with the Provider’s bounty and healing.  Our mealtime together became a sacred pause in the midst of chaotic days, an intentional time for sharing memories and resting in God’s presence instead of worrying about funeral logistics.  By the time Mark and I left for Durham to start school a week after the incident, those meals were host to smiles in addition to the tears.

Before Mark and I left town, though, my family and I drove to the site of the crash.  Gathered on the side of Highway 169 south of Fort Dodge, we stared into the corn field where Brett’s car had flown one week prior.  Busted headlights, shards of broken glass, and crumpled metal still lay among the broken cornstalks, once seven feet in height but now matted down by the car’s violent entry into the field.  In that moment, the cornfield was a place of violence for me: the ground where my cousin died, alone.  I watched my uncle pound a cross bearing Brett’s name into the same soil that nurtured a healthy crop of corn.  Beyond that, any recognition of the connectedness between corn and car, soil and Brett, life and death escaped me, and I returned to Durham stricken by the violence of it all.

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My understanding of Brett’s death evolved, however, as a result of my participation in Norman Wirzba’s Agrarian Theology course that Fall.  Soil, I came to understand, is the site of God’s creative activity in the world.  Yes, it is a site of death and violence, but it is also a site of new life, redemption, and resurrection.  I carried this new insight with me on the plane from Durham to Des Moines during the Thanksgiving Break of 2016, suspecting I might see the cornfield in a new way.  Returning to the crash site for the first time since August, Mark and I expected the flowers to have withered and the cross to have been battered by the elements.  But as we approached the country crossroads, we were humbled by the scene before us.  For three months the farmer had maintained the makeshift memorial, mowing the grass around the plot, tending to the cross, and replacing the old withered flowers with fresh ones.  I got out of the car and stared across the open field of dry soil, once teeming with sturdy cornstalks but now made bare by the early onset of winter.

God breathed.

The cold wind blew across the open plain.

Creation sighed.

The food, the field, the farmer… all of it God’s work of resurrection.

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