Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kingdom of God is People

Those of us who are old enough will remember Charleston Heston's role in the dystopian sci-fi classic "Soylent Green". The movie was titled after a fictional nutritional substance that humanity depended on for survival. In the movie he plays an detective who investigates a murder. He follows the evidence to its end. When he realizes the truth, he belts out that iconic line, "Soylent Green is people!"

In many ways this movie was a product of its time. The era produced an entire genre of post-apocalyptic movies. Certainly they were all a  commentary on our fears and self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps even on consumerism's endpoint where we consume ourselves. Those would all be a topic for another blog. For now I want to focus on "people".

Throughout His ministry, Jesus tried to convey truths about the Kingdom of God to people. Think of all the metaphors Jesus used to describe "Kingdom of God". A treasure  hidden in a field. A pearl of great price. A mustard seed.

When he sent his disciples out, he instructed them to say "The Kingdom of God is Near". He never told them how to describe or define this kingdom. They were simply to announce it's nearness.

So what is the Kingdom of God? What was it that Jesus alluded to, told parables about, announced the presence of, but never directly defined? It was hidden in plain sight, right in front of everyone. The Kingdom of God is people! People following Jesus. It's that simple.

The Kingdom of God is people following Jesus. They adhere to his teachings. They follow his example. If Jesus said "love your neighbor", then they love their neighbors. If Jesus said be kind and hospitable to marginalized people ("the least of these"), then his followers are kind and hospitable. If Jesus said forgive enemies, then they forgive their enemies. If Jesus said "love one another as I have loved you", then his people, kingdom people, love one another.

The Kingdom of God is built with rejected and marginalized people,  the people no one else wants. Jesus' followers love them,  re-humanize them, and build a family out of them. That is how the Kingdom grows.

The only evidence of this Kingdom is the lives of its people. Their disposition and actions towards others. When people are re-humanized by Jesus,  have their dignity restored, when people feel like people in the presence of Jesus' followers, the Kingdom is near. Because The Kingdom of God is people!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent - One Single Change

"Something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out.  Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people — a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing, a stark truth — something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there. It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us....Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds — you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine.  This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead.  But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other." - Karl Barth "To Believe" Advent Meditation 

As Advent 2016 approaches, I am brought back to this reading. Again it is as if Karl Barth's message was a personal letter to me and to so many of us. Barth describes a fire in our soul that finds no outlet for expression.  He laments our isolation, how each of us inhabit separate dwellings. When we do venture out, we mute our desire for heartfelt conversation. We are afraid and resort to small talk. Barth compares this to Zechariah's muteness after his encounter with the angel.  This is the isolation of modern society. For if there is no one to hear our voice, to share our griefs and joys, then how are we even alive in a way that makes us human?

That is why Christ came into the world, to make us human. To re-humanize us. But to do this, he had to experience the world with all its barriers and isolation. His entry into the world began with a frantic search for somewhere to enter it. Door after door was shut on them until at last Mary and Joseph had to settle for a stable.  Instead of being welcomed into the warmth of a household, Jesus was welcomed into the chill of night air among the animals. An event which should have been shared with family and friends was shared with strangers, shepherds in the fields who were called by the angels.

There was no peace on earth for the child Jesus. Shortly after his birth Herod attempted to kill him. His family fled to Egypt and waited there until Herod's death. Because Herod's son ascended to his father's throne, his family bypassed Bethlehem and settled in Nazareth. His family had to settle in a strange town and make a life there.

The story of Jesus' family is a story many in this world can relate to. If you can't relate, take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself as the target of ethnic cleansing or your city bombed into oblivion. Imagine running for your life. Imagine travelling at night through the woods. Imagine taking rickety boats to cross rivers and seas. Imagine giving your life savings to smugglers to get you through to safety. Finally you arrive at a safe place but in that place you are a foreigner. You don't speak the language. People stare at you. You keep your head down. You feel isolated. Dehumanized. Rejected. Again the barriers.

God, incarnate in Jesus, could barely find a way into this world. Once here his life was in danger. He became other, vulnerable as anyone  could be in this world. Yet he came anyway. He demonstrated hope aginst insurmountable odds. He crossed the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and man, between man and man. He "destroyed the dividing barrier of hostility". In his person he brought the Kingdom of God to earth. 

We look back and romanticize his coming with all the cultural trappings accumulated over the centuries. We celebrate the miracles that happened so long ago. Yet the miracle awaits each of us. The words he spoke still echo down through the centuries. The challenge: Follow me. The miracle happens in our lives the moment we take up that challenge.

When we decide to follow, our preoccupation with tradition, gifts, token alms, and what is written on our coffee cups fall by the wayside. We fix our eyes on Jesus and his path. There will definitely be barriers. Following Jesus, we dare to cross them. Following Jesus is "one single change" after another that combine to form a path. A narrow way. We change our habits and practices. We notice people. We linger a bit longer in conversation. We listen, We knock on a door for the first time. We mend fences. We forgive. We notice the pan handler, not to fling a coin, but to ask his name. It's not easy, but it is the only way. We can take courage from those who have discovered the words of Jesus and followed. Some have written their journey down. We should read their stories. In the end, their journey began with "one single change".

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Full Life

Michael P Zissimos

October 18, 1984 - December 30, 2014
October 18th is my nephew's birthday. He would have been 32 years old. I do miss him. Not just because the empty chair at family gatherings, but because of who he was.

Mike had a heart for special needs individuals. He had worked with the special needs ministry at his church. He also helped brain-injured adults relearn computer skills at his prior position in a rehabilitation facility. In reading posts on his memorial page, I came to realize how many people he helped. He didn't talk about helping people, he just did it. Mike loved God and he showed it by loving people.

Mostly I spent time with Mike as we gathered formally for birthdays and holidays. We saw a lot of each other informally as well. His childhood home was only half a mile from our first home. In the summer we often walked to his house.

Our get-togethers continued after he grew up. We had each other over for dinner. We went to the Detroit Auto Show. We traveled to Chicago together to visit his cousins. We enjoyed the attractions of downtown Chicago, especially Shedd's Aquarium.

Mike was a Detroit sports fan through and through. Like all Detroit sports fans, we complained about the Lions. We enjoyed ballgames at Comerica Park and that one last Wings game together at Joe Louis Arena.

Mike was also an avid motorcyclist. He used every opportunity to ride. He was a member of a riders' group at his church.

Mike liked superhero movies and parties.  Though I'm a "wet-blanket" when it comes to parties, I dressed up as Clark Kent for his 30th.

Mike had a Greek heritage,  but was fond of only only one Greek dish...lamb chops. So from time to time, Uncle Alex barbecued lamb chops for Mike.

I learned about many of the good things in Mike's life after he was gone. The qualities that made him special. His heart of gold. The small and largely unknown acts of kindness. It seems that we only hear and appreciate the good qualities of a person when they are gone.

"Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many others."
- Clarence (It's a Wonderful Life)

Mike's life had meaning and value. He gave meaning and value to those who may have had no value to society or who may have felt they lost their value. He added meaning and value to my life. So how do we, how do I,  honor his memory?

Forgive now...we don't know if we will have another opportunity
Love now...we don't know how long we have with others
Live now... Don't wait until the future...we don't know if we have it.

Mike's life was short, shorter than it should have been, but it was a full life, because he loved.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why am I Here? Perhaps as a Warning

I am the son of a refugee. My father fled Poland in 1939 just days after it was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Horse-drawn artillery and wooden biplanes had no chance against the mechanized forces of two world powers. He decided to flee to Romania. As fighter planes approached to strafe those fleeing, he dove into a ditch for cover. He felt the repeated thump of machine gun bullets impacting the ground. After the planes left and he felt it was safe to get up,  he arose to discover every other person in the ditch was dead. He just happened to be in the place that was between rounds.

I can't help but be a student of history, since my life is the product of it. It seems so ironic that I owe my existence to the rise of demagogue. Eighty-three years ago in Europe a man rose to power on the promise of restored national glory, renewed economic prosperity, and the defeat of foreign and domestic foes. He knew how to channel the public angst into wild-eyed devotion. Crowds were spell-bound before him. There was only one catch....enemies had to be named and destroyed. The rest is history, so to speak.

So pardon me when I sense a darkening cloud casting its shadow over our country. A demagogue has arisen who knows how to work a crowd. He has said he will "Make America Great Again".  He has blown by all boundaries of civility, all the lines that his opponents and predecessors would not dare cross. The truth of what he says does not matter. His character does not matter. That he has stiffed countless people that have worked for him does not matter. That he says outrageous things about minorities, women, and even veterans is excused as forthrightness. He has named our enemies which somehow all happen to be people of color. He has talked about mass-roundups, internment, and deportations. He has talked about the exclusion and public marking of religious groups. He has talked about legitimizing racial profiling and searches. He has talked about muzzling the press because "they say bad things" about him.

Some of us are going to vote for him because we believe in him. Some of us are going to vote for him because we despise "her". Some of us will vote for him because we are afraid. Some of us are going to vote for him because he has thrown us a bone about some issue dear to our hearts. Some of us are going to stay home because our candidate lost the primaries. Some of us will stand on principle and vote third party. We will say to ourselves, "so what if he gets elected, we will only have to put up with him for four or eight years. What have we got to lose?" Everything!

Let's not delude ourselves about constitutional limits and protections or that we are a nation of laws. Constitutions, amendments, and protections of the law operate under the assumption of  a collective good will. That if things don't go my (our) way, we will live to fight another day through the legal process and perhaps through a change of national conscience. In our past, universal suffrage and the Civil Rights struggle were able to advance in this way. In our past however, there have also been reversals:  the Japaneses internment, Communist witch-hunts, and the Kent State massacre, to name a few. It doesn't take much to throw constitutional protections out the window when it suits a collective national will. Just a little fear will do it.

So why then am I here? I very nearly was not. Perhaps I'm here as a warning. History does repeat itself.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lost and Found

I am  an engineer who is a bit of a techno-geek. If there is one thing I hate is being lost. I like to know where I am and where I am going. So when I started using smart-phones, the map app was my favorite.  Not only could I see where I was, I could see the traffic ahead! This provided the opportunity to see problems in advance and detour around them. Knowledge is certainly power! However the information has to be correct.

Over time I began to notice that my map location was not following my true location. I also noticed that the exercise app was getting the paths and distances wrong. This was totally unacceptable.

I searched the internet to see if anyone else has had this problem. Indeed they did! It turns out that a GPS could have an accumulation of errors that might need to be cleared out. However, to do that required a GPS test app. So off to the app store I went.

I installed the GPS test app so I could clear out the errors. After  opening the app, I discovered a previously unseen world. It was fascinating. A live map showed the location of approximately 20 satellites orbiting overhead. At first the symbols were gray. One by one, the symbols changed to yellow, orange, and then green as the GPS locked on to them. When enough satellites locked, the GPS established a fix. I cleared the GPS and the location locks came much faster.

I have observed that life can be like that. Sometimes we get lost. Errors accumulate. Noise, stress, fatigue, grief, and difficulties of our journey all take their toll.  We lose our bearings. We can no longer see the "satellites" that guide us. I like to think of these "satellites" as clues to our location and direction in life. So what are these "satellites"?  Conventions. Manners. Ethics. History. Tribe. Religion. Our "spirit" or inner voice. Our conscience. Our upbringing. Our families. Consciously or subconsciously, we rely on these reference points for guidance.

Sometimes we don't know that we are lost. We have been running on auto-pilot for so long, we don't realize we have lost our way. However there may be hints. A short temper. Irritability. Depression. The need to "escape". The need for substances.

Not only do we need to know where we are, we need to know where we are going. What is the destination? Status? Wealth? Fame? Leisure?  Family life? Social life?

Once we have our destination in mind, we have to set priorities. What will it take to get there?  Is it worth the cost? Life tends to be a zero-sum endeavor. What things will we have to give up to get the things we desire? We cannot have it all.

Just like the GPS, we might have to do a reset, clear out the corrupt data, and re-establish the lock. We might need to simply rest. Take care of ourselves. We might need a spiritual retreat. We might need to work on our important relationships. We might avail ourselves of the wise counsel of friends and community. The point is that our internal guidance system has a limit. It needs to be cared for.

In the end I was able to reset my GPS and get pretty decent location locks. Then I dropped the phone and cracked the glass. No reset helps that, so I upgraded. Wow! The new phone locked instantly even if it caught a sliver of sky! In my office building however, was metal coated glass that completely block thermal and electromagnetic radiation. Inside this building, there is no GPS. There are times when you have to step outside to see to where you are.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Mom - A Son-in-Law's Memories

Mary Zissimos (Koutrompi) 1924-2016

I met my future mother-in-law Mary at an after-church social at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour.  It was a young singles gathering, but for me it was a opportunity. You see I had my eye on a girl. Mary was there because she was riding with her daughter. Mary fit right in even though everyone around her was a generation younger.

One thing led to another and soon I married her daughter. I gained not only a wife, but a "mom" in every sense of the word. She loved me as her very own. At times I would object saying "Mom, I am just your son-in-law". No matter.  Her answer was always the same. She would tell me that I was her child in every sense except for giving birth.

I Make You Lamb
I occasionally stopped by without the family. Just because. With Mary you didn't need a reason. On one particular visit she said "l make you Lamb". It was 8 pm. I said "Mom, I ate already."  No matter. Try telling a Greek mom you aren't hungry.  So in that summer evening twilight, mom fired up the the barbecue and made me lamb chops.

Kitchen Coffee
Sometimes my father-in-law would be out when I dropped by, so Mom and I sat at the kitchen table and shared pleasant conversation. She was always encouraging. That's probably why I liked to stop by. I remember how often our conversations revolved around scripture and nearly always ended with prayer.

She spoke her mind. Without fear. With love. I had to learn to receive her words in that spirit. I realized later that she spoke her mind out of love. She was a warrior for reconciliation. Anyone who really knew her, knew that was her heart.

Prayer Warrior
Mom was also a prayer warrior.  To know Mary was to know she was praying for you. If you came to her for counsel, as many did, it was a certainty that you could not leave without being prayed for. If you were sick, she would anoint you with oil.

Battling Lions
When my oldest son was 5, we went to see his first Lions game. On the way out, Mom reminded us not to leave without prayer. So we prayed together and set out for the old Silverdome in Pontiac. While we waited in the cold at the outdoor ticket booths, a man asked us, "just you and your son?". I said "yes". He said here are your tickets. 12th row, 50 yard line as I recall. Perhaps she should have prayed that the Lions could actually win.

Trips with Mom
We took Mom and Dad (my father-in-law) on many trips: Mackinac, Niagara Falls, Canada's Wonderland, Marineland, Cedar Point to name a few. Mom was always agreeable. Regardless of the accommodations and food, Mom was always thankful.

In 1992 we took the entire family out West. There were six of us in packed into a minivan. While driving from Utah to Yellowstone, we had gotten lost,  so we were driving late at night on mountain roads with the only light being our headlights and animal eyeballs. Of course, Mom was in the back praying that I didn't fall asleep, drive off a cliff, or hit a buffalo. Mom's prayers were answered. At midnight we arrived safely at our destination.

Bible Study
For many years she held a bible study and prayer meeting at her house.  People came from all over to be prayed for, anointed with oil. She was an 'elder' without a title, a salary, or an office. Pastors of  churches sought her for prayer and counsel.

Mary's Gift
As I think about what Mary left behind, how her gift to me and to us could best be summarized, it came down to one thing: herself. She gave of herself. That I have learned is the most concise definition of love.

A Full Ministry
Mary was a women of great faith and prayer. I can never underestimate the power of her prayers but the real power of her life was love. Mary often told me "Love and Forgiveness is a full ministry" and "Love is Healing". With a sixth grade education she knew more about "ministry" than anyone I've ever met. She loved like Jesus. She embodied the life of Christ.

But to me she was "Mom". When I had no mom on this earth, she took me in as a son. I have missed her and I will miss her. I hope my remaining years will honor her love, her faith, her prayers, and her example. I hope and expect that one day I will see her again.