Friday, May 20, 2005

Reading is a Picnic

photo of cake with lettering - Reading is a picnicToday I attended the closing celebration of the Read to Me program at the Grandview Elementary School in Tarentum. This was an exciting culmination to an effort by the elementary school to encourage children to read by keeping their parents involved in their children's education. The school gave certificates and books to all of the children who fulfilled their commitment. The First, Second, and Third Grade children who read the most books for their grade won special prizes.

The celebration involved a picnic-style meal (hot dogs, chips, juice, and cake) with parents and children together. As a craft project the children decorated book bags that they would be able to use to carry their summer reading.

Every parent present was deservedly proud of the children's accomplishments.

The reason I had been invited was that Central Presbyterian Church had provided some seed money for the Title I Reading Night in January that kicked off the Read To Me program.

And by the way, there were giant ants at the picnic, but they did not eat much.

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Bridging the Generation Gap

When I spot the bumper sticker with the darkly humorous invitation "COLLECT DEAD RELATIVES" I know that the genealogists are busy doing something at the church near Central Park. Yesterday the Tarentum Genealogical Society had a large crew of volunteers working together: five people who were diligently organizing into binders their latest treasure trove of data. They had been given the records of a New Kensington funeral home, and were putting each page into a slip cover, sharing with one another any interesting things they noticed on each page they handled. Of course, they weren't just talking about the papers as they worked. They joked and teased one another, and talked about various memories, having a lot of fun. But all the while they were carefully organizing these newly obtained records so that some unknown visitor who might appear many years from now, searching for information on dead relatives, would be able to find some useful data.

These genealogists have a fascinating hobby, often spending hours searching simply for a lead they can follow to find new information about their ancestors, looking back as many generations as possible, exploring their roots. They search for this information without regard for whether they'll discover that this ancestor was hung as a horse thief, or that another ancestor invented something that makes a difference to this day, or whether still another ancestor led a fairly ordinary life for people of her generation. The search for truth leads these folks to reach backward over many generations and to try to understand the lifestyles, values and activities of people who were born in a different age.

The genealogists could each work alone, but they obviously gain something from working together, from being together. Not only do they get suggestions for strategies for further research, they like being able to share the joy of a newly discovered fact with those who can appreciate it. Through the day the genealogists were at work, the pleasant sounds of their laughter and conversation floating down from their rooms off the balcony.

In the late afternoon I picked up the day's Valley News Dispatch and sat down at Central Perk to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee. While I read my paper, a number of young people were working hard on their homework in various places around the room, their paperwork spread out on the available tables. The cafe was providing a valuable workspace for learning after school hours. No stern librarian sat behind a desk ready to shush anyone, and none was needed. Although music systems were clearly present for playing CDs and MP3s, these devices sat on the tables largely unused, not even with headphones. Those who did not have homework assignments to complete were talking among themselves about important life issues, but not in a way that would distract the others. The atmosphere was relaxed and respectful. Those who were studying were in an environment where they could get up and stretch when they needed a break, but they quickly returned to their tasks after gaining some inner strength from knowing their friends were nearby.

The side conversation turned to the generation gap. Some of the young people feel that they are viewed with suspicion because their appearance is different. They wonder why those who criticize them don't remember that young people in earlier generations dressed or wore their hair differently, whatever the current fad was. I suspect my genealogist friends could come up with examples for many of the generations they have researched. One young man made the observation that there was always a generation gap. I think he's right, but I also think the gap does not need to be there.

The young people began doing some brainstorming about things they could do to make a difference for the senior citizens in the community. Some of the lists were quite long. They began to think about organizing a day for cleaning up the community. I briefly mentioned the house Habitat for Humanity is building in West Tarentum, and immediately heard a voice from behind me saying, "I'd love to be part of that." The dreaming and planning continued with positive thinking about what contributions they could make to Tarentum.

People reach across generation gaps all the time. It is easy to focus our attention on the times when those attempts fail, but much more valuable to recognize each time a new attempt is made. In the next few days we'll get an invitation from these young people to join them in cleaning up the town. I hope there will be people of other generations ready to accept the invitation.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Central Park

In response to a question from Sean,
"I didn’t know Tarentum *had* a central park. Is that what they call the park along the river now?"
The park along the river is still called, appropriately enough, "Riverview Park." That park is located at the edge of the borough where some people keep boats.

quince in parkCentral Park is probably a surprise even to the borough, and is in a more central location within it, at the corner of Fourth and Allegheny Street.

Central Park is adjacent to the Central Presbyterian Church. A block away on Corbet Street one can get a nice cup of coffee and interesting conversation at Central Perk. Also within walking distance is the Tarentum Senior Center. In addition to these places whose names identify the central part of Tarentum, there are a number of other services nearby. Lee's Chinese Restaurant, Calligan's Pharmacy, Blackburn's Physician's Pharmacy, Eckerd's Pharmacy, Harrison's Men's Wear, and a number of doctor's offices are all just a short walk away.

maple in springAnd on the other side of the park from all of those businesses lies a friendly residential neighborhood where people of all ages live and walk and chat and play, and where neighbors watch out for one another's children. Just a block away is Golden Towers, one of Allegheny County's 18 high-rise communities for senior citizens.

Central Park is in a nice location. The park bench, as of this writing, is merely virtual.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pentecost 2005 :: grid blog

pentecost_grid_blog_image.jpgThis is my first post as part of a grid blog, in this case an attempt to get 120 bloggers around the world to post on the topic of Pentecost on May 15, 2005. somewhat less organized than a webring, I find I am not even asked to post links to the grid blogger who signed on immediately before me, or to the grid blogger who signed on immediately after me, but I expect each of them will have something insightful and inspiring to say.

Other than that, I am not sure what to expect from this experience. Synchronized yet decentralized, it may be something like the experience of the early church on that first Pentecost after the Resurrection, when the gift of the spirit was distributed upon all the believers, yet they all at the same time were telling what God had done. The story told in Acts 2 emphasizes the manifestation of the Spirit that prompted all the believers to speak in diverse languages that would be understood by the diverse crowd who surrounded them.

Bob Carlton wrote about the variety of ways Christians in different cultures have celebrated Pentecost. Here in Tarentum, at the church near Central Park there is a long-standing tradition of wearing red and bringing geraniums to church on Pentecost. All of the donated flowers will be planted around the church and some will end up in a planter here in Central Park, intended as a sign for months to come that the Church of Jesus Christ is afire with the Spirit. The geraniums certainly were bright and pretty last year. No one outside the church has told me that seeing the geraniums communicated the specific message the church intended, and in fact no one even asked me about the geraniums. Perhaps the colorful flowers speak to passers-by on a level deeper than words; at least I hope so. Does the Holy Spirit give people a gift of interpretation of flowers? Or is that too specific a descriptiion of what the Spirit does day by day in helping anyone to understand spiritual truths?

receive power
This is a picture I made for Pentecost as I meditated on the Acts 2 story in conjunction with the story of the giving of the Holy Spirit in John 20:19-22.

In John's story the Risen Christ appears to the disciples and simply breathes on them while telling them to receive the Holy Spirit. Although there is no description of a great sound, there is nevertheless a description of great power. The disciples are told "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (Who can forgive sins but God alone? ... The Son of Man has authority....) The community of Jesus' followers has authority to announce a message people need to hear, the message of forgiveness. I pray that, using different words in different languages, our lives may show forth the powerto forgive sins in the name of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Moving off-center

Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home. -- Sigmund Freud
I found Nate Adams' motivating article, "Acts 1:8: What One Church Can Do", which is a reprint of an article in Baptist Press, and an encouragement to take an Acts 1:8 challenge. Adams makes an interesting interpretive move, and it is one that innumerable others -- including myself -- have made in interpreting the reference to "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth" metaphorically. So he talks about having plans for "my church's ends of the earth," for "my church's Samaria," for "my church's Judea," and for "my church's Jerusalem." He assigns analogical meanings to each of these places and regions; Samaria is “a close-by place that we rarely visit,” "Judea can be seen as the surrounding state, region or province," and "the Jerusalem mission field is the community where we live, work, shop, play and go to school."

The interpretation works from a model in which "I" and "my church" (as if "I" can actually own a church) are at the center of a number of concentric rings. It feels nice to be at the center. I am already at the center of all of my perceptions and observations, and without moving an inch all seems right with the world. I might make temporary excursions to nearby or far-away places to do some good, knowing that I can keep coming back to the familiar center. It is a comfortable and comforting perspective on the text.

On the other hand, as Freud said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." When Jesus told his followers to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, he might have actually meant the city of Jerusalem. Judea and Samaria might actually mean simply the territories of Judea and Samaria. The original apostles were Galileans who already had traveled with Jesus through Judea and Samaria to be in Jerusalem. They had not gone home to Galilee, but had stayed in Jerusalem in obedience to a command from the risen Christ (Acts 1:4). The Jerusalem mission field for the first apostles was not the community where they lived, worked, shopped, played and went to school; it was a big city from which some of them would have gone home a whole lot sooner if Christ had not commanded them to stay. If Acts 1:8 describes a sequence for mission, it might be a markedly different one from the popular sequence of concentric rings around "me" and my familiar places.

Acts 1:8 shows the program for the historical narrative Luke is about to tell, describing the apostolic witness in specific geographic locations, beginning in Jerusalem and ending with Paul living in Rome preaching boldly and freely. Even Rome was not "the ends of the earth," but merely a stopping point along the way toward the conclusion of an as-yet unfinished story. Paul's ultimate ministry in Rome is offered as a fulfillment of prophecy and as evidence of the divine guidance and protection of the early Church.

A literal and narrative reading of Acts 1:8 would require me to recognize that the place that I consider my home and center is actually already far from the starting point of the post-Easter mission of the church. When the first apostles were sent to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth, they did not even know about the existence of North America, or that there would be a region called western Pennsylvania. The mere suggestion that such places existed at such distance from Jerusalem might qualify as a reference to "the ends of the earth." If there is today a faithful worshiping community of Jesus's friends here in the center of Tarentum, it is because over the centuries faithful witnesses have travelled carrying a treasure of good news far and wide. The followers of Jesus are still in motion today. And more personally, I the reader, where I am, far from the starting point, am already in motion, already travelling through a mission field toward the ends of the earth where Christ intends to use me. Its good to be off-center, to be reminded that "I" am part of a story for which I/me/mine are not the last words, or even the first.

Make no mistake, Adams' described goal of a universal and genuinely worldwide mission is correct, and Adams is absolutely right in encouraging Christians to recognize the place where they live as one of the mission fields in which they are sent to bear witness. But the conventional metaphor he uses is one which obscures the larger scope of the salvation history that has gone before. A literal and narrative reading of Acts 1:8 would require the reader to recognize a different center, a different starting point, and might even be the source of a clearer vision of the mission into which one is sent. It might be helpful for North American Christians to read the Bible from a perspective that tells us we are already off-center.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Bigger than a skateboard

cars on the sidewalkThere are bigger problems than skateboards on the sidewalks of Tarentum. Now I am not trying to get any particular drivers into trouble (which is why I did not photograph the cars showing their license plates). I understand that parking these cars on the sidewalk is in violation of an ordinance in the Borough of Tarentum. And, incidentally, they parked their cars without permission on sidewalks which the property owner (not the borough) paid to install and repair.
Rumor has it that the borough is considering banning or regulating the use of skateboards. One of the rationales for this move is the imagined risk to pedestrians. I would respectfully suggest that if cars, SUV's and trucks were not taking up half the sidewalk it would be a lot easier for pedestrians and skateboarders to coexist peacefully and to pass each other safely. 
I admit that I have had some concerns about skateboarders. I don't think that the teenagers who skate without protective gear realize all the possible risks to themselves. There genuinely is a need in the community to help these young people know how to enjoy their outdoor activities safely.
Rather than simply resorting to regulation, is it possible for youth and community leaders to sit down together and have some safety education? Is it truly out of the realm of possibility that the skateboarding community could set some standards for itself to ensure the safe use of the sidewalks?
And by the way, I'm not asking the Tarentum Borough police department to start ticketing the drivers involved above.  A better solution all around would be for young and old, pedestrians, skateboarders, and drivers to talk with each other about how to make our borough a better place.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Ars Gratia --

Jo Kadlecek's article on, "Commission Impossible?", tells the story of an interview with an author whose writing bore the marks of a Christian upbringing, and then her surprise that the young author viewed the presence of Christian symbolism in his writing as an accident, and that he viewed his viewed his Christian upbringing with disappointment and as "religious baggage."
She calls for a "biblical perspective of creativity that validates the importance and contributions of artists of faith". I sense that she is right. We rightly value the beautiful artistic creations made a century ago; they tell an important part of our ongoing journey of faith and are properly worthy of preservation and renovation. But at the same time what can we be doing to stir and encourage the creation of new expressions of our ancient faith in the One who makes all things new?
Bloom for Jesus.JPGWhile I was away on my spring vacation the elementary school age children participating in Grand Central Station made an amazing collection of posters that were their attempts to express their faith. The artistic techniques and levels of skill were appropriate for the ages of the young artists, but I was astounded as I talked with the leaders from that evening who had learned from each of the children what they had been attempting to draw. It was all evidence of a powerful movement of the Spirit in the lives of these young people.
The posters reminded me of something Rich Melheim had said in this post:
"Why aren't the drawings and paintings of every Sunday School child paraded into the hallways and mounted with precious care under celebrating lights in fellowship halls turned to galleries every Sunday? Why aren't the little artists paraded into pulpits and applauded into lecterns and adult education classes each week to explain their interpretations of the marvelous works of God?"
I'm looking forward to sharing these wonderful expressions with everyone. And perhaps a new day for the arts in the church is at hand.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Blended individuality

quilt squareThe anthem this morning was a surprise for me, even though I'd heard the choir rehearsing it for a couple weeks. Margie Shutack, Carol Lynn, Jessica Mriso, Kay Fink, and Frances Elliott each sang solo parts in "The Longer I Serve Him" by Gaither. I was not familiar with the piece before I heard it, but was amazed at how beautiful it sounded with the solos blending into a chorus, shifting to other solos, and ending with a chorus that included the voices of William Pfeil and Herbert Pfeil.
One of my friends spoke with me afterward about what a pleasant surprise it was, first that there would be a solo, then discovering there would be a second, and eventually that there would be five solos. Each member of the choir made just the right contribution to the whole.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


delocator.JPGFrom this post I recently learned about the Delocator, a fascinating tool that locates independent coffee houses by zip code.

Sure enough, I entered 15084, and my favorite local coffee shop, Central Perk on Corbet Street came up.

I have enjoyed seeing the positive influence on the community since Central Perk opened. It has become a good place for young people to hang out and talk. I've been impressed that the kids chatting inside, and sometimes spilling outside onto the sidewalk to talk, have been polite and peaceful.

They've started having occasional evenings of entertainment at Central Perk, all of which is a positive addition to the community.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Just eating?

justeat240.jpgI learned through this news story about a new study resource, "Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table." The seven-week curriculum was written by Jennifer Halteman Schrock and explores the connections between food and justice and spirituality.

The six units in the curriculum are:
  • Sharing Food as Sacramental
  • Nurturing the Body
  • Hunger
  • Food and the Environment
  • Creating Community with Food
  • Responding to God's Call
Although I did not know this resource was being prepared, a number of events over the last several months have caused me to be asking whether there is a resource that can help thoughtful people get their heads around some of these issues. These events have included: conversations with neighbors in financial straits concerned about how their families will eat; shopping and noticing that it is increasingly difficult to find basic, unprocessed foods with which healthful meals could be made; and those occasional 'wake-up' moments when I recognize with shock my own poor choices about what I am eating because I didn't take the time to plan to fix something appropriate for my own health needs.

Over the past couple months in particular I've found myself thinking about the intersection of food with justice. I was pleased to see that Yum! Brands, the largest chain of restaurants in the world, has adopted a Supplier Code of Conduct, which will require all of its U.S. suppliers to be able to verify their compliance with a number of socially responsible practices. This Code is in addition to specific policies of Yum!'s subsidiary Taco Bell, who is requiring their Florida tomato growers to pass through an additional penny a pound for tomatoes to the migrant workers who pick them. Policies such as this can set a standard for others in the industry.

Tuesday night at the Meal and Ministry, one of the children present asked who made the food we were eating. I started to take the credit, but quickly had to admit that someone else harvested the grain, someone else ground it into flour, someone else made it into noodles for me to cook, etc. It is almost impossible to do so simple a thing as eat a meal without being connected to an enormous network of often forgotten people who all made the meal possible.

As I reviewed the materials in "Just Eating?" I particularly appreciated the observations that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand took place in a setting of political oppression and likely at a time when civil unrest was reaching dangerous levels.

Free download of the participants' and leaders' guides as well as ordering information can be found here.

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