Dear Candidates for Youngstown Mayor

First of all, thank you for running for Mayor. Offering yourself to public service is an admirable and sometimes thankless task. People will be expecting you to have answers to hard questions, to be without reproach in your personal life, to listen to all concerns with respect and compassion, and to be a positive force in this city. That is hard, holy work, maybe impossible. So thank you for being willing to try.

We are coming to the end of this election cycle and I am concerned. There is a great deal of dissension, people taking sides and harsh talk. We are mirroring some of what is happening in our nation. And that can only lead to disaster.

So in the coming weeks I will be watching for a candidate who listens. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I do expect that you will hear my concerns, that you will take me (and by me I mean the residents of this city) seriously. It is stunning, isn’t it, how diverse we are in Youngstown? There are Baptists and Buddhists, old and young. We are a multiracial community. There are people with tremendous resources and people with almost nothing. I am looking for the candidate that listens to all of these people, because they are all my neighbors.

It will be the work of the next Mayor, as it always is, to make sure all of us neighbors are treated equally, that justice is available to all of us. It will be the work of the next Mayor to continue the incredible gains in economy and activity and spirit that we have witnessed in recent years. And it will be the job of the next Mayor to make sure that all of the people in this city have access to those gains. We are a city of promise, but also extreme poverty. You will need to attend to both of these things to really make a difference.

I admit I am still undecided in my vote, though I will make a choice when the time comes. And I realize that I might lose, that my candidate might not be victorious. And so I pledge to the one of you who wins, that I will shake off my potential disappointment and support you. Because we live in a democracy, that is how we act when an election is finished. We do our best to be informed and passionate, and then we accept the outcome and work to make this city as good as it can possibly be. I will offer you my support, understanding that we will not always agree, but we have to get along and get things done.

And I ask you, whoever wins this election to do the same. Because this is not the last vote I will cast. I will be watching. Not to see if you do what I want, supporting my issues. I will be watching for a gracious winner. I will be watching for a Mayor who lets go of the election rhetoric and partisanship, and becomes a leader for all people. I will be watching to see if you can build a community that cares for each other, treats people with respect and gets things done for everyone.

This is a tall order, and civility is no longer the norm in politics. So lead us. Be the example we need. Bring us together. If you do, I will stand by you, work with you, and I will say thank you (because I don’t think you will hear that enough). Again, thank you for being willing to take on these challenges, and good luck to all the candidates.

300 Miles to Compassion

After doing some travelling the past few days I have determined that I cannot wait for a penitential season to address a personal and pressing problem. I am not proud of this personal weakness. But I am savvy enough to recognize that I don’t like it.

And, I bet you agree that sometimes other drivers can be very irritating. VERY irritating. So, the other day, I am crawling my way down the highway in the midst of road construction. There is a whole open lane blocked off for no apparent reason. And this car starts weaving into the closed part, speeding ahead until they come to a barrier, weaving back in to my lane. Going a few feet to the other side of the barrier, and repeating the same thing.

Wow.

I was immediately enraged. So does it count as being enraged if no one else sees it? Like a tree falling in the forest? I was not only yelling at the transgressor, but also the people who were letting the car back in. I thought s/he might not be so bold if they had to cool their jets for a while, like maybe 20 or 30 minutes, before someone let them back into traffic. We were all in a hurry for heaven’s sake!

It took about 300 miles for me to start thinking with some compassion. What if they were sick, or trying to get to the hospital, or had to go to the bathroom, or were in pain, or…whatever?? A few months back, in a previous attempt to conquer this “road irrationality” (it seems extreme to call it rage), I started calling the drivers who I thought were not being safe with names of affection like “dearie” or “sister” or “friend”. Not in a pejorative way, but in an act of solidarity. Because sometimes I am a bad driver too.  That helped. But I think I have to up my game.

“Giving up” my road irrationality will take time. But it seems that if I have promised to find the good in people, that drivers should count too. I am not a perfect driver, and so I have to make space to love other imperfect drivers. Maybe I will start with tolerating them…with affection.

Giving From Our Substance

I learned how to cook at the Catholic Worker House in Rock Island, IL. We ran a small homeless shelter in that house, women and families, usually about 10-15 people. And we ate whatever was donated to us. Just to be clear, that means we didn’t buy any food. I had to work with what we had.

When we moved in, I was the one who was going to do most of the cooking. And I was told there was a pantry, and we would plant a garden, and people dropped off things like meat, occasionally. So with great anticipation I went down to said pantry. Most of the shelves held precisely two items: cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes. Shelves and shelves of cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes.

So if you get nothing else out of this brief reflection, please let it be not to donate those things to homeless shelters, and in fact, not to give your garbage. If that can of lychees has been in the back of your kitchen cabinet since you moved it there from your old house, please eat it. Don’t give it to “the poor” because “they will be grateful for anything if they are hungry.” It simply isn’t true.

Let me say that now, I love cranberries, and I make my own cranberry sauce when they are around in the fall. Then, I wasn’t so thrilled. Because my plan was one can per week would be incorporated into a meal.  Maybe two.

It turns out you can do a lot with sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. You can make sweet potato pie, sweet potato cakes, sweet potato hash, sweet potato soup. I even have a great recipe for sweet potato salad that I made up over the years. But cranberry sauce is a little harder. I would often throw it in soup. Like vinegar or lemon juice. You can mix it with mustard for a great sauce for chicken. You can fold it into rice and bread crumbs and sage to stuff pork. You can make punch. Little by little I whittled the supply down to almost nothing. Until Thanksgiving time, when I would get hundreds of cans again. I learned to say no.

We are approaching a season of generous giving. My hope is that we are all giving from our abundance, giving from our substance—not our leftovers. If it isn’t good enough for me, I don’t give it to someone else. I reduce or reuse or recycle. Sometimes I throw away. But I make sure the gifts I offer are truly gifts. If I wouldn’t give it to Jesus, well, that is my litmus test.

A Recipe for the Weekend: Apple Snicker Salad

My grandmother used to make prune jello. Yes, I said prune jello. And she was proud of it, presented it to us only on special occasions as an offering of the highest order, of the greatest affection. Of course, we all hated it. And we all had some. Never more than one helping, of course, but never a complete rejection.

Because my Grandma also used to give us bread sopping with hot gravy when we came for lunch after church. She would pick all the raspberries on her bush and tell me to eat them, or fresh green beans from her garden. She would make shrimp salad with those cans of tiny shrimp because she thought that was my favorite when I would visit during the week. She was a depression-era grandma who showed her love in providing, especially food.

And I have learned that from her, and my other grandma and my parents. Preparing food is always done with love and intention, always an offering of myself. And when I am surrounded by people I love, family and friends, and we bite into a roast chicken or a plate of brownies, they know I made the food especially for them.

So I offer a simple recipe, something that my family and friends love. It was first made for me when my son had open heart surgery when he was 9. I had been with him in the hospital for a solid week and I went home to see my other kids, and a friend had us for supper and support. She made this salad, and I will always remember that it made me feel like everything was going to be OK. (And it was). I think of that moment whenever we share it.  And I offer it to you to make your own lovely memories.

Apple Snicker Salad

6-8 sweet apples, cored and chopped ( I sprinkle them with a little lemon juice)

1 bag of snickers candy bars, chopped

1 container of whipped topping

Combine and refrigerate. Very yummy!

Working to Be a Sign of Peace

I was walking down the hall at Williamson Elementary the other afternoon, and as I passed the library I saw the counselor teaching a class of older students. I heard her talking about saying please, thank you and I’m sorry, and asking the students to identify which they would say in various scenarios. It seemed very basic stuff to me, and I thought how sad it was that we have to teach manners in school.

It would be easy to say that inner city parents don’t teach their kids manners, and blame some amorphous villain. But that simply isn’t true. It doesn’t matter what school you go in, you are going to find children who have been taught kindness and respect and those who have not.

The most powerful way to teach civil behavior is to model it. There are many places where adults congregate, including church, where it is clear no one has taught them to be nice. We live a life of rushing, of fear, of imagined scarcity, and so sometimes we lead with our elbows. I am always moved and deeply impressed when I see people stop, pay attention and choose kindness.

I have a picture in my mind from the Charlottesville protests. A toddler, barely able to walk, clothed in a bright white Klan outfit from head to toe. I was horrified. What will that child know but how to hate? It will take a lifetime of pain and isolation to unlearn the cruelty and meanness. That poor baby is being taught a very specific way of treating people. Heartbreaking.

While I cannot change what is happening in that family, I can be very intentional about what is happening in my own. I can work to be a sign of peace. I can work on my temper, on forgiving and forgetting, on practicing kindness over being right. I can set a more reasonable pace, lower my stress and take time to be with people I love and who love me. I can be what I want from others, live the life that I hope for others.

All of this is hard work. But I can’t leave it to a school counselor to accomplish. She has enough work to do. We all must reset our priorities, put others first, and be nice. That is the world we all want to live in, so that is how we must live.

Standing in Our Belovedness

Last week I presided over a lovely outdoor wedding. The families were wonderful and supportive, the couple was a delight. Everything was beautiful, thoughtful and (important to me) well organized. At the reception that evening, I was asked to start the meal with a prayer. Happy to do it. And on the way back to my seat, a woman pulled me aside and said how happy she was to be at a “Christian wedding.” Me too, I said, and wondered exactly what she meant.

I was thinking later that whether I had prayed before the meal or not, whether I had presided or a judge or someone’s best friend, whether we had a Eucharist or the whole thing took 15 minutes, God would have still been present.

We can work pretty hard at pretending we are riding solo. We can convince ourselves that we do not believe, or that God is only around when we are paying attention. We can pick and choose times that include God and times that we think we exclude God. And the truth remains. God is always, always, always there. God is always with us, always calling to us and inviting us, and always loving us.

And that is the hard part, isn’t it—standing in our belovedness. I think it is easier to imagine a vengeful, punishing, judgmental God than it is to realize that God is always loving us. We know we rarely live up to our own expectation of what that means. So in defense, we just look the other way, pretend not to pay attention. And yet, God is always loving us. Absolutely, delightedly, abundantly.

Prayer is spending intentional time welcoming and trying to live into God’s love. Prayer is standing before God as we are and allowing God to love us into our best selves. When we let go of all of the negative baloney we carry and just let God love us, we are changed. And we want to share it. But prayer is a discipline, a practice. So spend time practicing being loved, practicing being delighted in, practicing accepting that love. And see where that moves you. How will you become that love in a world that sorely needs it? Who will you tell about it, invite to pay attention?

God is loving you this minute! Open the door of your heart and let God in!

What does love say when we do not agree?

I love poetry. Every Lenten season I buy a book of poems from someone new and read a few a day as part of my prayer. I love the funny, the historic, the ordinary. I love words. And there are also poems or authors that aren’t my favorites. I was at a poetry reading recently, and some of the poets were fabulous, and some were… not my taste.

This is to be expected, and I want to be exposed to new things, to things I might not enjoy but should be open to hearing anyway. However, on my way home, I was thinking it might be hard to be married to a poet (or any artist really). What if they poured their heart and soul into a poem, and after the first line or two, you knew you were going to really hate it? And yet, there is your beloved, looking for affirmation. It could be so awkward.

What does love say in that moment? And isn’t it also true for religion or politics or anything potentially divisive. What does love say when we do not agree, when it is painful to listen, when your very heart says no? Isn’t it also true with friends and co-workers and the people at the gym. What does love say when the person you are sweating on the treadmill next to turns on Fox News or MSNBC?

This is the question for our time. And I would say it is a discipline that we continue to refine, a discipline of generosity and patience, of humility and investment. We model for others how we want to be listened to, how we want to be received, by the way we listen and receive. Sometimes, the most loving thing is to tell the truth boldly and sometimes it is to breathe deeply and believe in the good in each person.

What I know for sure is that the way is not violent or mean. I know that being right isn’t as important as being kind. I know that there are plenty of opinions which are not facts. I know that relationships are precious and ultimately our only hope. I invest in relationships, even when it is hard, or I have to bite my tongue. We have to build up community, and that requires love, and love always includes sacrifice.

Why I Wear a Collar

I am an Episcopal priest, and so I wear a religious collar.  You have seen these collars.  The Roman style is a tab, a white square surrounded by black cotton, worn around the neck.  The Anglican style is wraparound, white, about an inch and a half thick.  You have to purchase a special shirt that can hold the buttons that keep the collar in place.  My church tradition favors the Anglican collar, and I have a collection of black, grey and white shirts that I wear to work that will accommodate this peculiar ornament that I hope will identify my priestly vocation.

People ask me various questions about the collar.  Question 1: Is it comfortable?  After more than a dozen years of wearing it, I don’t really feel it anymore.  It is like a wedding ring or a wristwatch.  You know it is there, but you don’t notice it.  It can get hot in the summer though.  Question 2: What is it made of?   Mine is plastic; some are cloth.  You have to iron and starch the cloth ones so mine is plastic.  Question 3: Where do you get them? There are catalogues of church supplies and priestly vestments and clothing.  You can get them online.  And no, I will not let you borrow it for Halloween.

But people rarely ask me why I wear it.  I think they assume it is a requirement of the job, though many of my colleagues in this area don’t wear one except on Sundays.  I don’t have to wear it. No one monitors my compliance.  I choose to.  My choice to wear a collar, to wear something that sets me intentionally apart, does not have to do with my need to be an authority.  Any priest will tell you that those days are gone.  There is little privilege to being a priest, which is probably a good thing.  So I don’t wear it to be powerful, or to avoid speeding tickets or to get a free lunch.

In fact, for me, wearing a collar is a spiritual discipline hopefully grounded in humility.  Wearing a collar doesn’t make my life easier.  Actually it makes it more likely someone will want to tell me their problems or ask me for money.  It makes it more likely that I will get asked why there are starving children or what I believe about complicated social issues.  It makes it more likely that I will be challenged about the hypocrisy of religion, or that I will be told about how Sunday mornings are too valuable to waste on church.  People love to tell me they are spiritual but not religious.

And frankly, that is just fine.  I love the hard questions.  I love the challenges.  I love that people ask me to pray for them or their relatives and friends.  I love it when I am a reminder of when church might have been important in someone’s life or a sign of hope that it might be again.  I love it when I can assure people that I believe in a God of love and mercy and compassion.  I love to let people know how much it means to me to be a priest.

I wear a collar because what I believe matters to me.  Just like someone might wear a cross or a Star of David or a burka, or carry a set of prayer beads.  I deeply respect when people are willing to proclaim who they are, are proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves, especially those who proclaim it with humility and graciousness.  I aspire to that. And that is why I wear a collar.

Back To School Blessings

For many years the 3rd Sunday of August meant the Blessing of the Backpacks. The members of the church would be encouraged to shop the summer sales for various school supplies and colorful backpacks. We filled up about 50 in the course of things, along with socks and underwear and miscellaneous boxes of
crayons. There was incredible abundance.

And I loved it! I love shopping for school supplies. As a kid it meant a new year of adventure. As a parent, it meant the end to complaints of boredom and minor skirmishes. As someone who no longer has kids in school, I love the smell. The smell of clean and empty notebooks, the smell of a large package of crayons. I would say the smell of glue but it sends the wrong impression. It’s the newness of it all, I love that newness and the potential it implies.

Last spring, I asked the school counselor at the local elementary school if they still wanted us to provide backpacks. It seemed last summer like everyone was distributing them, and I wanted to be meeting an actual need and be respectful of the generosity of the givers. The counselor looked awkward, as if trying to figure out exactly what she wanted to say. And then she told me that while they appreciate the supplies, it isn’t what they really need.

Instead she gave me a list of personal hygiene items—shampoo, soap, shower gel, deodorant, feminine protection supplies. She said that some kids come to school clearly ungroomed. It is embarrassing for them and hard on their fellow students.

We go to that school several times a month for one thing or another, and I have seen it. Seen kids in dirty clothes and uncombed hair. Seen kids hide themselves and not engage because they are ashamed. It made perfect sense. So that is what we did. We made personal hygiene kits with soap and deodorant,
toothbrush and toothpaste. We still bought socks and underwear. We put together 35 kits and counting. The generosity of this parish always stuns me. I want to be clear that what we are providing here isn’t just shower gel. What we are offering is dignity. Every person should be able to feel good about themselves.

Every person should be able to take care of themselves. Offering dignity and self-respect, or at least the opportunity for that, it is a justice issue.
Maybe it is too much to associate love with a stick of deodorant. Maybe we can’t expect kids to make the connection between our care for them and the availability of body wash. But we hope in some way that the kids who gets these items know someone pays attention, someone wants the best for them, and that they matter. We could tell them that. But showing them by helping them to have their dignity, that seems to be really important. Please pray for these kids, and then concretely help them.

Remembering a Rich and Diverse History

I work in a building filled with statues and monuments. There are statues of famous people who have touched our lives by the way they led their own. There are windows that remind us of events in our history, ancient and modern. There are plaques dedicated to loved ones who died serving our country or who died as children, dedicated to those who generously gave of themselves and should be remembered.

And each of these monuments, large and small, before they were built, were first submitted to the community. Some committee looked at the offering and decided if it represented what we wanted to stand for, how we wanted people to come to a deeper understanding of our values and beliefs. The committee rendered an opinion that was then affirmed or argued by other groups and committees until a decision was made. We looked for a wisdom deeper and broader than one person or perspective could offer.

As I contemplate these monuments, I am also thinking about the statues and monuments in the south, the statues of Confederate leaders that are being removed or relocated. As a person who has studied and appreciates history, I have wrestled with what is right, with the original intent of the statue, and what it means today.

What struck me was how easy it is to pick and choose what parts and events in history we want to call to the attention of others. It reminds me of people who will choose a passage from the Christian Scriptures completely out of context to make their point. You can find almost anything in the Bible to justify what you want to do or believe, especially if you limit the passage to a sentence or two. The Bible needs to be read in its entirety, needs to be understood in the biggest picture. Otherwise it loses its holiness and becomes an opportunity to glorify a person or idea rather than God.

I see the same thing happening in our country. We are picking and choosing the parts of history that make the point we want to make, that supports ideas that we think are right or true or even sacred. And frankly that is easy. The history of our country is so rich and diverse that we can find an incident or a quote to support just about anything, especially if we take it out of its context. Looking at the bigger picture is more of a discipline, more complicated, and much more honest.

If we are wise, we will be big picture thinkers. Many people have encouraged us to know history in order to learn from it. But just like we limit ourselves when we follow only the news outlets that agree with our way of thinking, we lose our focus if we don’t put historical events in their broadest context, and that includes submitting our interpretation to a community of scholars who can help us to understand deeper implications.

In our own area I see a lot of confederate flags hanging from homes and I wonder about the intention. What are the bearers of these flags trying to tell us about who they are and what they believe? I understand these flags to be a symbol of racism. Maybe I don’t see the full picture. But that is the problem with monuments and symbols. So often we cannot even remember the original ideals they represent because we have co-opted them into our current debates.

When any symbol becomes recognized as a means of oppression, as a way to offend or hurt, as a sign of superiority, it stands against democracy. Hate, supremacy, racism—these cannot be political positions in our country because democracy stands for the good of all people, one nation under God. As a nation we need to come together, to be united, to recognize how great this country is now and continue build it up. Any other action hurts all of us, equally. How long will we stand for division and what sacrifices are we willing to make to repair our broken nation?