From the Scoring Table

This may not come as a surprise, from someone who graduated UT with an accounting degree:  When given the opportunity, I keep score at Jack’s basketball games.  Most of the parents from Jack’s teams (basketball or baseball) know why:  Keeping the book keeps me from yelling from the seats too often and too loudly.  Keeping the book helps keep me calm, and rational, and really makes me focus on all aspects of the game.

OSU Basketball Scorer

I enjoy keeping score, which I only do in the rec league.  From the scorer’s table, I get a unique view of travels, and steals, and the often missed/improperly called foul.  From the scorer’s table, I can hear coaches and assistants planning strategies before the game, and during time outs.  At the scorer’s table, you’ll often see me smile when I overhear the boys ‘encouraging’ each other with heated commentary.

At the scorer’s table, I meet people.  There are always two of us – one keeping the book, and one working the clock.  Many of the league refs know by now that I do not like to keep the clock.  The pressure is just too much on the clock, and the action is so visible- turn it on, turn it off, make sure you turn the arrow, and my favorite – was that a 2 or a 3?  Sure, the more you keep the clock, the easier it is; I’d just as well keep the book.

 Keeping the book relaxes me.  I have a system for Coach Nick – written numbers in the quarter, and beside the player’s name means a shot was taken and made; zeros mean a 2 pointer was taken and missed; triangles mean a 3 pointer was missed; circle with a line through means foul shot made for 1 point; circle underlined means missed foul shot.  Throughout the columns, you’ll find my R’s, T’s, S’s and A’s:  Rebounds, Turnovers, and Steals…..and the ever illusory Assist.

Let me tell you, if this Sweeney gives credit for an assist, that player rocks.

See, an ‘assist’ in basketball is one of the most subjective statistics in basketball.  Assists are granted completely at the judgment of the scorekeeper (that would be me).  There is no formal definition of the ‘assist.’  The NBA Statistician’s Handbook states that ‘A player is credited with an assist when the player makes, in the judgment of the statistician, the principal pass contributing directly to a field goal (or an awarded score of two or three points)‘.   That is, two things need to happen:  first a pass is made from one player to another; and then, the second player makes a shot that goes in.

burke assist

I’m very stingy on handing out assists, and I feel so judgmental about it.  I guess that’s the one thing I don’t like about the scoring table – there is a point where I watch refs and coaches and players act as ‘judge’ for others, by applying the rules of basketball as they see from their position on the court.  And I really don’t like to judge.

I know of another table where there is no judgment, only forgiveness.  How I wish every table could be like the welcoming communion table, the open table to which Christ invites each and every one of us.  At this table, we recognize that God gave us the ultimate assist by giving us God’s son, Jesus Christ. God passed Christ to us, and it’s up to us to carry the ball to the basket by sharing Christ with others.

And this month, we all get to add a beautiful scoring to our book of life:

 Let’s make it a star, for the ultimate assist God has given to us in the form of a baby, come to save the world.  (MT 2:9b-10; LK 2:10-14)

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Do You Hear the People Sing? Seeing Michael Brown in the staging of “Les Miserables”

The Dallas Arts district is comprised of several venues, each with a dedicated purpose:   The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra;  and the Winspear Opera House, home to the Dallas Opera, the Lexus Broadway Series, and national touring recitals, concerts, speakers, and dance troupes.  Other buildings house specific resident troupes, including The Dallas Black Dance Theatre, or the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Last week, I witnessed transformation at the Wyly Theatre, a venue, according to the website,  for classical and experimental stage productions.  For approximately six weeks, the Dallas Theater Center gave patrons a uniquely contemporary staging of the blockbuster Les Miserables.  Same music, same characters, same beautiful story.  Yet, instead of a setting in post revolutionary France in 1832, director Liesl Tommy brought a fresh perspective to a classic story.  This version included students in red berets (ala ‘Guardian Angels’), police in stormtrooper attire, multicultural actors and actresses, dredlocks, transgender characters, and red protest flyers in place of the revolutionary red flag.

How different was this production?  And why did it matter?  It’s easy for us to lose ourselves in musical theater, in the storyline, in the melodies, and in the lyrics.  The individual elements of Les Miserables combine to bring us an intense story about compassion, mercy,  justice, sacrifice and forgiveness.   Patrons of the show leave having been exposed to courageous and ardent characters, albeit from a period long ago.    Or can we find this same story in our world, today?

Clearly director Tommy answers this with a resounding, “Yes!”

A First-Look at Dallas Theater Center's Contemporary, Immersive Les Miz Make-Over

We attended the performance on August 14, 2014.  Consider, for a moment, the events of the week, and the preceding month:

  • Airstrikes and bombs flying again in the Gaza/Israel conflict, killing civilians – adults and children alike.  Attendees of the Les Mis production might have been thinking of this conflict during the fight scenes at the barricade.
  • Tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq fled to mountaintops to avoid attacks from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).  Families remained on the mountain, without food or shelter; some humanitarian efforts succeeded despite significant artillery from ISIS; and recently, a military mission concluded with many of the refugees rescued.    One might wonder if Jean Valjean felt as rejected and desperate as he searched the local houses for a kind soul to share food and shelter with a former prisoner – someone, shall we say, ‘different’ than the townspeople?
  • Only 48 hours prior, the world was notified that Robin Williams, brilliant comedian, compassionate and generous soul, took his life.  We learned he battled severe depression; later we learned he was also battling Parkinson’s disease.     Many were still in shock at this death; most were still mourning.   I couldn’t hold back tears as the character Javert sang his soliloquy, just prior to committing suicide – might these words have been Williams’ thoughts as well?

“I am reaching, but I fall.
And the stars are black and cold.
As I stare into the void,
Of a world that cannot hold.
I’ll escape now, from that world.
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is no where I can turn.
There is no way to go on……..”

  • And on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, outside St. Louis, an eighteen year old  Michael Brown, who was black, and unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the middle of the day.  The shooting is under serious investigation.  Outrage ensued from the black community, many who opened up with stories of continued abuse and profiling by the primarily white police department and city government.  That night, many rioted.  Over the next week, protests have continued, escalating to a point where the National Guard was sent in to keep the peace.   Curfews have been established, but not always honored.  Police with tear gas, riot gear, and automatic weapons met citizens with fire, rocks, and allegedly – blazing molotov cocktails.

Last night, the situation in Ferguson escalated to a horrific scale, and I listened to the news, read the tweets, and prayed for those in harm’s way.  As I listened to one segment of the news, I learned that some of the community had “built a barricade” to separate themselves from police action.  I closed my eyes, and remembered the re-imagined, contemporary interpretation of Les Miserables:

  • Do those in Ferguson ask “Will you join in our crusade?  Who will be strong and stand with me?”
  • Do those called to protect, sing instead, as Javert did, “One more day to revolution, We will nip it in the bud! We’ll be ready for these schoolboys, They will wet themselves with blood!”
  • Did the protestors sing, before heading to the site of the killing, as Grantaire did in the little bar, “Drink with me to days gone by.  Can it be you fear to die?  Will the world remember you when you fall?  Could it be your death means nothing at all?  Is your life just one more lie?”
  • And who will be left as survivors to sing, as Marius did, “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.  There’s a pain goes on and on.  Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone.”  And later in the same song, “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.  Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends will say no more.”

What I do know is this:  In this contemporary version of a classic, we are all called to play Valjean.  As we watch and read about the protests, we reach out to God for relief, praying “God on high, hear my prayer.   In my need, You have always been there.  [They are] young, [they’re] afraid.  Let [them] rest.  Heaven blessed.  Bring him home.  Bring [her] home.  Bring [them] home.”

We yearn for peace.  We long for the truth of Brown’s death.  We pray that calmer hearts will prevail, and the people of Ferguson will be able to sing a song of reconciliation and transformation:  “Do you hear the people sing,  lost in the valley of the night?  It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.  For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies.  Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.”

“They will live again in freedom, in the garden of the Lord.  We will walk behind the plough-share; we will put away the sword.  The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”

May God be with every individual involved in the tragic events of this last month.  For those who died, may they have eternal peace in the light of God.  For those who remain, may we hear the melody and lyrics of Les Miserables, which continue to shed light on the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the nature of our relationships – in times past, present, and future.

 

 

I Wasn’t Supposed to be There….Right?

A few months ago, a friend in St. Louis asked me to contribute books to a new children’s library in the St. Louis area.

books from my childhood susy morris flicker

The Sweeney’s managed to pull together two full boxes to contribute.  I loaded the boxes in my car, where they stayed for two months.

This last week, we drove to St. Louis for a wedding.  My friend Tom wasn’t supposed to be in town.  He was supposed to be at a conference in Squaw Valley, but scheduling conflicts caused a last minute cancellation.  I arranged to meet Tom for coffee on Friday morning, to deliver the books personally.

Thursday night, we stayed on the Illinois side of the river.  Tom had arranged for us to meet on the west side of St. Louis, so on Friday morning, I notified Google of the destination address, and let the phone navigate my way there.  Heading into St. Louis on IH64, however, there is a lot of construction.  Google decided to route me a different way – up St. Clair Avenue, which would lead me right into East St. Louis, or at least to the edge.

East St. Louis – in 2007, it had the highest crime rate in the United States.  The city still struggles with high crime, and I knew I needed to get back on the highway before I put myself in danger.

Because I wasn’t supposed to be on that road.  I wasn’t supposed to be delivering books to my friend Tom.  He wasn’t even supposed to be in St. Louis.

But I stayed on St. Clair Avenue for awhile.  I saw the burned houses, the blight, the vacant stores and the vacant streets.

abandoned home in St Louis ken fager flickr

I heard the silence.  I felt the pain.  But I got off the road and back onto the highway as quickly as I could.

After coffee, I decided to drive back the same way I came.  This time I noticed more:  boarded up windows, rusty metal buildings, and a man pushing a shopping cart with all of his possessions.

I asked, ‘God, I’m not supposed to be here.  What are you asking me to do?”

On Friday afternoon, we moved closer to St. Louis.  We were going to stay in the hotel with other wedding guests, but at the last minute, we decided to rent a nicely renovated townhouse that was made available for us.  We checked with local sources – the area was “in transition,” but considered safe.

934 Rutger St Louis

But God wasn’t finished with me yet.  God had a place for me to be.  God wanted me to see something.

As I drove down the street to the townhouse, I realized that we would share sidewalks for a few days with Peter & Paul Community Services.  PPCS provides housing and support services to the homeless.  During our stay, on some incredibly hot days, we encountered volunteers handing out bottled water to those who needed it.   Across the alley from us, there sat a building that housed the Society of Friends (Quakers), who are known for their community outreach to the needy.

We shared sidewalks and parks with people who lived in housing sponsored by the St. Louis Housing Authority.

And across the street, behind the house, we had perfect access to Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, a Catholic parish whose members serve hot meals to the hungry one week each month.  Every day of the week, volunteers at Saint Vincent de Paul’s Parish provide sandwiches and fruit to the hungry at lunchtime.

church of saint vincent de paul

We walked the streets, smiling back at our new neighbors.  We greeted the children, playing on the swings.

I wasn’t supposed to be there.  But where else would I be?

This is, after all, where Christ is found.  Christ is found with the poor, and with the orphan, and with the widow and with the sick.

Highway construction caused Google to push me onto St. Clair Avenue and near East St. Louis.  But I believe God, not Google, was my navigator in the LaSalle Park area of town….God showed me where I was supposed to be that weekend.  Now I am charged with being the hands of Christ in my own city.

Tell me, God, where am I supposed to be back home?

__________________________________________________________

Photo credit:  “Books from my Childhood,” Susy Morris, Flickr; “Abandoned Home,” Ken Fager, Flickr; “Little Red Church,” stlouisreview.com.  All other pictures original to Cathy Sweeney.

Letting Go of Fear

In April, 2014, Disney’s latest blockbuster “Frozen” opened in its final market (Japan), and global sales pushed close to the $1.1 BILLION mark.   First day DVD and Blue Ray sales, including presales, hit 3.2 Million, escalating in May to over 10 million sold.  The animated feature was nominated for several industry awards, taking home Oscars for both “Best Animated Feature Film” and “Best Original Song”  for Let It Go.

What is it about this song that resonates with so many of us?  Is it the catchy tune?  The lyrics?  Read these lyrics with me; sing along if you can:

“It’s funny how some distance, Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me, Can’t get to me at all.”

What are you afraid of?  What’s your greatest fear?  Public speaking, heights, spiders, the dark…..so many things make us uncomfortable.  But this song isn’t about the more common phobias; no, this song …. yes, this film….reminds us that when we embrace the passion that God has put inside each of us, we have nothing to fear at all.  Take a step back, look at the big picture, and know that God is there, through it all.

Psalm 27:1 reminds us of the same:  The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27 1

I don’t always remember this.  I am afraid sometimes.  Change is never easy, but we all encounter it.   Yet when I walk down those unknown paths, to a new adventure waiting, I have God beside me every step of the way.  Holding on to that comfort makes it so much easier to let it go.

 

Second Star to the Right

When our son, Jack, was young, he was fascinated with the story of Peter Pan.  In our house, we watched the Disney version of Peter Pan endlessly; Jack wore his Peter Pan outfits on a regular basis (not just at Halloween).  We watched the movie, Finding Neverland, with great interest.  I took Jack to the Dallas Summer Musical production of Peter Pan, and he danced in the aisles to the Indian songs.  I remember the patron sitting next to me stated, “If the show wasn’t great enough, I would come here just to watch that little boy’s glee!”

Image

What is it that was so fascinating to him, to us all?  Peter Pan had a sense of adventure, of curiosity.  But the story itself also prompts us to ask a question:  “What’s out there for us that we are not expecting?”

Christ’s disciples were just as curious when Jesus rose after his crucifixion.  “What now?,” I can imagine them asking themselves?  Jesus had prepared them for it, but they just didn’t listen!  The Gospel of Luke tells us that “while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51)  The disciples may not have expected it, but after they witnessed it, they could no longer stay silent about it.  It was up to them to continue to tell the story, and to help others find that same sense of adventure, wonderment, and reverence which they had come to know as Jesus.

This last Sunday, I asked my class to close their eyes and imagine the scene of the ascension.  One of the ladies in the class told me she couldn’t stop thinking of Peter Pan, and imagined the stars – particularly, the second star to the right.  Isn’t that fitting?  No, Peter Pan and Jesus are two very different things – one is a character, one is divine, the Son of God.  But when he ascended, Jesus rose to sit at the right hand of God.  From Disney’s song “Second Star to the Right:” (by Sammy Fain and Sammy Cohn)

The second star to the right
Shines with a light that’s rare.
And if it’s Never Land you need
Its light will lead you there.

I need Neverland.  And, like my friend in class, I see Jesus, that rare light, shining there.  What about you?

___________________________________________________

Image Source: Michael Llewelyn Davies dressed as Peter Pan and photographed by J. M. Barrie at Rustington, August 1906 [public domain]

The Biblical Basis for “Paying it Forward”

My Aunt Frances died of cancer a few days before my college graduation.  Anyone who’s experienced terminal illness – family or friends – can share how difficult life is without that person.  Every birthday, every holiday, all those special jokes….eventually they bring on a smile of remembrance; but for awhile, all they bring are pain to the survivors.

I saw my cousin (Frances’ daughter) at a recent family gathering.  She looked great, had a radiant smile, and the always infectious laugh.  I’m so glad we had time to catch up – one on one – to share stories and give updates on our lives.

She’s a massage therapist now.  She specializes in massage therapy for cancer and hospice patients.  And she recently followed that passion to form her own practice, sharing her experiences with those who need her most.

therapeutic massage

Do you suspect, as I do, that her personal experiences with cancer give her an added perspective – a gentle ‘touch,’ if you will – for her clients?  As she and I talked about her journey, I saw that this career helped her as much as it helped her patients. Almost as if she were comforting her mother, bringing them closer, with each therapeutic massage.

This is a story of  2 Corinthians 1:4 (The Message)  in practice:

[God] comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, [God] brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

I know there are many of you out there going through hard times.  We all have them; some more than others.  I hope that you are able to feel God alongside you, bringing you comfort.  Before long, God will place someone beside you who needs that same comfort.  I pray that you, like my cousin, recognize it, so that you might share your journey with them.

That’s how we build community, one person at a time.

Was that a Sign from God?

“If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”  – Woody Allen

Sign from God

A friend of mine recently had a very emotional meeting.  He was confused.  He was angry.  He was disappointed.  And the meeting did not end as he expected: a loving embrace, a rousing round of Kum Ba Yah.    Instead, he tossed and turned all night, knowing that his problem had not been resolved to his satisfaction.  I talked with him about it the next day, after he stated that he was even ‘madder than yesterday.  I woke up still angry and I took that as a sign from God that I should just act on my first instinct.’   I let him talk a little more, then gently confronted him.  ‘Can we go back to that ‘sign from God’ part?  Because if you really think God is sending you a sign to be angry and hurtful, I think you need to go back to bed.’

Signs are funny things.  I find it most interesting that many ‘signs from God’ are interpreted or twisted to show what the individual wants to see or hear.

Ever notice that physical signs are somewhat permanent?  All those signs on the highway, pointing toward the next fast food chain or gas station.   It’s a sign that everyone, eventually needs to see.  Go this way, and you have arrived; your journey has ended.

Not so with God’s signs, which I refer to as affirmations.  Affirmations are validations of our path, that we are headed in the right direction.    And affirmations sometimes come in ways we’d never expect, from sources that we didn’t know would give them.  Affirmations happen over a period of time; and we have to be ready to receive them when they are presented to us.  It’s not a permanent sign that says, ‘Go here, and you’re done.’

Affirmations are the result of peaceful and meaningful contemplation of how God would have us build community in our lives.  With our family, with our co-workers, with our neighbors.  And every once in awhile, if we listen closely, we hear an affirmation that our neighborhood is not as small as we thought it was.  That affirmation reassures us that getting out of our comfort zone is what is needed.

Otherwise, we might as well pull the sheets over our heads and go back to bed.

 

Everything is Spiritual – even footnotes (a reprise)

Many of you know that I began my formal study of theology in 2009, enrolling in Perkins School of Theology for my first class, “Interpretation of the Old Testament.”  With a few years and more than a few research papers behind me,  I can say it has been quite a ride!  What is life in seminary like?  Here’s a little reflection (from the perspective of a first term part time student, still working full time):
·         Backpack – check.  Pencils, sharpened – check.  Books purchased – check.  Eager anticipation – check.  Such was the first day of class.  I was smart enough not to bring all 11 books that first day – all the time wondering what was wrong with just the original 39 books in the OT?  My concerns were noted, and I learned that 4 of the 11 were not REQUIRED reading.  “That’s a relief,” I thought to myself.
·         My first professor is German, a female who teaches from a feminist perspective.  I am intrigued with the challenges this brings, and am forced to reconcile my accounting mind of “the answer is  X” to incorporate concepts such as “what if we read the passage THIS way?” 
·         My classmates range from beginners and part time students, such as myself, as well as seasoned veterans (some in their last semester) and full time students.  We hear commentary from fundementalists, Unitarians, African Americans, recent undergrads, musicians, and those, like me, still searching for their path.
·         Midterms.  What an interesting concept.  I pull out the notecards, quiz myself, and, in general, join my high school daughter at the study table.  My efforts are rewarded as I earn my first A.  A bit of comfort as I enter the next stage of class:
·         Research paper.  I select from a number of topics, and choose to write on the story of Rahab and the Spies.  After reading more than my fair share of interpretations on Joshua 2, from the context of historical criticism (is it true?), literary criticism (the style of writing) and cultural criticism (considering our social location), my brain is flooded with ideas for the paper.  It occurs to me that, as an accounting undergrad, I didn’t write a lot of research papers – the exams and homework assignments were either “right” or “wrong,” and my grade was based on accuracy.  What a refreshing change to compile, compare and contrast other authors’ view of Joshua 2, while at the same time, forming and justifying my beliefs of God’s role in the story.  Some may choose to see it as “right” and “wrong,” but I learn more by viewing from other’s perspectives, and affirming my own beliefs.
·         Research paper, documentation phase.  That is, footnotes.  Lots and lots of footnotes.  And this is where I learn it – even footnotes can be spiritual.  Each article I read leads me to another perspective, which needs to be documented, critiqued, and noted on the paper.  Every footnote created gives someone’s perspective.  Without those contrasting and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, we are never challenged to uphold what we believe as children of God.  With each footnote and each additional article, I furthered my relationship with God, if only by understanding the view of someone who is not considered “mainstream Christian.”  I may not agree with every footnote marked – but I do believe that every footnote has a voice.
And this is what I am learning, as the date for finals nears.  This class is not so much about the stories of the Old Testament, it is as much about hearing the stories from varied perspectives.  The class is NOT titled “Intro to the OT,” it is titled “Interpretation of the Old Testament.”  And, as I am learning, interpretations vary, and should be considered.  What does not vary, however, is the love of God for God’s children.  For this, and for the opportunity to learn, I am most grateful!

God with Us.

I found this op-ed from Maureen Dowd and Father Kevin O’Neil in today’s NY Times to sum up much of my thoughts on finding God in tragedy.  Most especially, 

how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.”

Emmanuel.  God with Us.  May those of you who mourn for loved ones lost this year know your community is here to comfort.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/26