Cпокойной Josh (284 days later)

“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life.  And this is certainly good, but it it good enough?  I, for one, realize that now I need more. …” (Thomas Merton. Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook)

Cпокойной Josh

When I was a sophomore at Dartmouth, I spent the fall term in St. Petersburg, Russia.  For a frigid 12 weeks, I studied diction with appropriately fierce instructors, enjoyed the museums and opera ($3.50 on my student discount), and daily climbed 12 flights of stairs to get to my dorm room, since the elevator was usually broken: не работает” (not working) signs were everywhere in 1997 Russia.

Before our concert at the Bolshoi Zal of the St. Petersbury Philarmonia
Before our concert at the Bolshoi Zal of the St. Petersbury Philarmonia

In those days, my Christian faith came alive, as I prayed in restored Orthodox churches, confronted widespread poverty for the first time, and leaned on the Holy One for strength in a land far from home.  Not one for drinking tons of vodka, I needed an extracurricular activity.  So as a proud member of the Dartmouth Glee Club,  I signed up for the St. Petersburg State University Choir.

It was ill-fated from the beginning.  I took the bus in the wrong direction on the night of my audition. Thirty minutes late, I stumbled to find an available seat in yet another frigid room, only to discover that we were not singing great Russian choral works, but an Italian composer’s mass setting in Latin.  Gloria in excelsis Deo.

A few weeks later at rehearsal, a fellow baritone came up and asked me (in English) why I wasn’t mingling with more people.  Other exchange students (so I was told) jumped right in, made tons of friends, and learned fluent Russian right away.  “Cпокойной Josh” they called me.

Cпокойной (spokoyny) – calm, quiet, reserved, peaceful.  It’s how you say Good Night in Russian: Спокойной ночи.  “Why are you like that?” My fellow baritone wanted to know.  “Это просто Я” (It’s just me) was as much as I could manage.

My calm, peaceful, balanced nature has been one of my greatest strengths.  It’s helped me to lead organizations through times of transition, to be a good pastor through moments of crisis, to offer a bit of steady and steadfast love in this world.

But, like most things, being so cпокойной has its down sides.  I can easily withdraw, put the needs of others before my own, and stay silent when I have much to say.  One wise counselor it’s because I am a “highly sensitive person” — noticing everything, observant of subtleties, easily overwhelmed.

Start Blogging + 284 Days

When I added “Start Blogging” to my trusty ToDoist task list 284 days ago, I had the best of intentions.  I was going to write about my life as a priest and peacemaker — spiritual reflections about my work in Kids4Peace.

I even had the first line of my first post ready “On the eve of negotiations, the hard work of peace continues…”  

I was going to say that whether John Kerry’s efforts succeeded or failed, the true and lasting work of peace would continue to take place between people – in the honest, compassionate, complex communities like Kids4Peace.  (Post-negotiations, I still believe that).

“Start Blogging” never happened.

Other items have come and gone from ToDoist: prepare a budget, fix the car, call my mom, visit volunteers, raise money, do laundry, reduce my inbox to under 50 emails (which I miraculously maintain).  Why has it taken 284 days to push “publish” on this post?

Many mentors have said that I ought to blog, to be a ‘thought leader’ in this field.  Others advised that it’s a spiritual practice and good for my soul to reflect on matters most important to me.

Beyond a Simple Peace

All that is true.  But over and over I struggled about what to say, and even more whether I was ready to say it.

Conversations in public, especially online, can be vicious.  Am I prepared to count myself among the peace leaders who are, every day, attacked by both sides?  Am I ready for my loyalties to be questioned, for friendships to unravel, for my Спокойной calm to be disturbed?

The relationships that Kids4Peace nurtures —  among Muslims, Christians and Jews; among Israelis, Palestinians and North Americans — are delicate and fragile, even as our commitment is strong.

We are just beginning to learn how to live together.  We stumble over cultural misunderstandings, yearn to understand each other’s deep longings (and fears), we laugh and pray and work hard to plan the programs (and raise the money) that peace building requires.

Thomas Merton.  "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy."
Thomas Merton.
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

In that process, I love to be the listener, the facilitator, the coach and the guide — helping others to speak and be heard, in the midst of all the complexity, joy and pain.

But after 284 days, the time has come to take a next step – to share more openly, risk more fully, teach more boldly (without the protective garb of pulpit and stole).

Thanks to my spiritual buddy Thomas Merton for this new (to me) treasure:

“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life.  And this is certainly good, but is it good enough?  I, for one, realize that now I need more.  Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read…. There is a need of effort, deepening, change…” (Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook).

For me too.  Here we go.

Because of the Works Themselves

Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, OH
May 18, 2014
| The Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me”

Her name was Miss Daisy Jones (Miss Daisy, for short). The distinguished, silvered-haired, perpetual Sunday School superintendent at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania.   For more than a decade, Miss Daisy was a fixture of my Sunday morning routine. As a child, I would walk the four blocks to church, with or without my parents and siblings, always on time for the 9AM Opening Exercises of Sunday School. Now, I wasn’t always crazy about the rest of Sunday School. Classes were kind of boring, and gluing cardboard cutouts of Jesus onto popsicle sticks got old fast.

But in Opening Exercises, the kids of all ages came together to sing.

Sometimes, we would sing the Welsh hymns of our ancestors (Guide me O thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land). Other times, it would be more theologically questionable songs like Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. But there was one song that we sang every week, without fail. In words that would make a Stewardship Committee swoon, as we dropped our quarters into the miniature offering plate, we would belt out “Our giving time is a happy time, a happy time, a happy time. Our giving time is a happy time, we give our gifts to thee.”

And as Mr. Ralph, the perpetual Sunday School pianist, improvised on that catchy tune, we would recite together the words of John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

In those days, my world was comfortably small. In the safety of my working-class town, my loving family, my old time religion, Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ table, science fairs, Boy Scout camp, everything was pretty good. Most of all, I knew I was going to heaven. I knew I would spend eternity in one of those mansions in my Heavenly Father’s house, and I was so excited (especially that I wouldn’t have to share a room with my brother in this world without end).

Sometimes during Sunday School, I would daydream in exquisite detail about my mansion – what it would look like, what would be in each room, who would be there with me. It was cozy, happy, secure.

The biggest conflict in Plymouth, Pennsylvania was between Catholics and Protestants, but not because of religion; it was because of football. Protestants cheered for Penn State, Catholics for Notre Dame. And the rest was history.

If you told me then that I would become the director of a global nonprofit organization committed to interfaith understanding, social change, and the end of violent conflict in Jerusalem and around the world, I would have had no idea what you were talking about.   My world was too comfortably small.

But a lot changed in the past twelve years, and here I stand, bringing you greetings today on behalf of more than 250 teenagers, 500 parents, and 1,000 volunteers at 10 local chapters in Jerusalem and across North America, who make up the community of Kids4Peace.   We are a movement for change – dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies around the world.

We are women and men; Muslims, Christians and Jews; Palestinians, Israelis, Americans (even some Canadians!) who are giving our lives for peace. We believe that religion can bring us together and not simply drive us apart.

That children can create a new reality, not just in the future, but now, if we give them half a chance.

That the conflict in the Middle East will not last forever.

That violence in our cities can come to an end.

That children of the Holocaust and children of the Nakba; children from the East Side and the West Side, from downtown and Over the Rhine, can live together and chart the way to a different future, a new possibility ­– one so big and so bold that we can barely dream it for an instant, before the tempter tricks us into hopelessness and despair.

On the surface, Kids4Peace is a lot of fun. We bring together twelve year-old children for summer camps and year-round after-school programs. They laugh and play soccer, swim and sing songs, they stay up late rocking out to hits by One Direction and swapping stories about being a kid in Jerusalem, in Atlanta, and hopefully soon, Cincinnati. Being together seems so natural for them.

They observe one another at prayer – the most intimate moments of their lives. You can almost hear a pin drop at camp, as a twelve year-old Muslim boy, often with a shaky voice, begins the call to prayer Allahu akbar! God is greater. And the laughter and smiles beam so strongly, as Palestinians kids and staff learn to braid challah from their Jewish friends, and feel the joy of Shabbat.   They step into new worlds, as they visit a synagogue, a mosque, a church for the very first time.

But Kids4Peace is not a naïve, pie-in-the-sky fantasy; it’s not wishful thinking born out of optimism. To the contrary, Kids4Peace came to life in Jerusalem during the worst fighting of the Second Intifada, when hostility between Palestinians and Israelis was at an all-time high. And Kids4Peace came to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, when all of our wonderfully small worlds were rattled by a new reality.

It wasn’t enough for me, anymore, to dream of mansions in heaven. Something was happening here on earth, and I needed to pay attention. My faith was undone by the consequences of the unholy alliance between religion and violence, in what scholar Scott Appleby calls the “ambivalence of the sacred.”

While some parts of our society wrongly lashed out at Muslims the enemy in our midst, my gaze turned to my own Christian faith and our legacy of violence, an ambivalence of the sacred which runs through our texts for today.

Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons becomes its first martyr, stoned to death because of a theological dispute gone awry.

And if, as a child, I had read further into the Gospel of John, beyond my heavenly mansion, I would have discovered the haunting verse that “no one comes to the Father but by me.” A battle cry of Christian exclusivism, damnation and superiority, wielded by those who would say to the unbeliever “convert or die.”

And even our lesson from Peter has a tragic legacy. None other than the golden- tongued St. John Chrysostom would say that the stone the builders rejected was Jesus, and builders who rejected him were the Jews. And because of their rejection of Jesus, they also ought to be rejected – crushed by the stone into powder, was the image he used. And so this saint of the 4th century laid a theological foundation for generations of persecution and death, all in the name of God.

Where in this is good news? What does it mean to follow Jesus, the way, the truth, the life, in a world where religion can so easily become a conspirator of evil, suffering, and pain? Where is the power of life in the midst of death, on this Sunday when we pray for the church in South Sudan, bravely working to the end violence that has displaced more than a million people in the last five months, where famine and genocide may come yet again into our world?   Where is the good news when this week’s New York Times editorial declared: “Mideast Peace Effort Pauses to Let Failure Sink In?”

The good news is not found in a return to cozy, comfortable realities which probably never existed in the first place. It’s not found in circling our wagons, walling ourselves off, closing our ears or hardening our hearts. It’s not found in building a protective shield against those who are different from us or leaving people to their own devices to let failure sink in.

For me, the biggest temptation in the work of peace is giving up, losing hope, washing my hands Pontius Pilate style and letting the sin of this world run its course. We can so easily feel powerless in the face conflicts, divisions, and injustices; the barriers can seem too high to cross, the pain too strong to heal, the fear too intense to melt, the first step too hard to take, the sacrifices too great to bear.

And yet we follow Jesus, who says this week to the always-confused disciples not only am I in the Father and the Father is in me but if you still don’t believe THIS — “then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Each time I read John’s Gospel, I am drawn into this mystical connectivity between Jesus, the Father, and us. Thomas and Philip can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that in Jesus they have seen the Father, they have seen the way. The distance, the separation, the confusion that seems so strong is just an illusion. Abide in me, Jesus will tell the disciples, in the next chapter of John, dwell in the very life of God.

And here in Chapter 14 there is I think something even more interesting, another avenue into divinity through the works themselves – not just the works of Jesus, the miraculous healings, the compassionate forgiveness, the revolutionary fellowship that turned his world upside down … but also the no-less-miraculous works that God is doing through us.

As we step into the way of Jesus, as we follow his footsteps into the broken, fractured, conflicted parts of our world – and ourselves – we will discover there the power of God.

The Holy Spirit pulsing through our veins. The energy of life. The possibility of peace.
A new world in Jerusalem, and here at home. Worlds we were told are impossible coming to life before our eyes. On the hardest days of Kids4Peace, I believe because of the works themselves

  • Because of David, who refuses to chant “Death to Arabs” at a soccer game with his friends.
  • Because of Daniella who confronted her Jewish teacher about stereotypes against Christians
  • Because of Nitzan, whose father barely survived a bombing that destroyed the bus he was driving; a father who sent Nitzan to Kids4Peace so she would not grow up to hate.
  • Because of Nizar, a Palestinian teenager arrested, beaten and jailed during a nonviolent protest to protect his village, who spoke with honesty, dignity and challenge to his Jewish friends.
  • Because of Asiya, a Muslim American, who turned to Kids4Peace for support, after her “friends” at school asked if she is “one of us” or “one of them.”
  • Because of Kenzie, an Episcopal college student who put her Kids4Peace lessons to work by rallying the Jews on her campus to provide a prayer space for Muslims.
  • Because of Sewar, who in the face of rejection stays with Kids4Peace, because, she says, “I’m doing this for me.”
  • Because of hundreds more stores I hope to share, as we take this peacebuilding journey together.
  • Because against all odds, there is a community of Christians, Muslims and Jews who come together in the midst of conflict, in the midst of pain, to undo a legacy of violence and fear, and to live a new dream of peace, no less miraculous than turning water in to wine.
  • Because even a little kid from Miss Daisy’s Sunday School class can grow up to change the world.

In these stories, in these works themselves, lies the power of God. The way of Jesus. There is truth. There is life. There is the cornerstone for a house we can barely imagine, the first fruits of a dream we can barely dream.

Where is Jesus leading you today? What world-changing dream does he have in store? Take the first step, and find the power of God.