You might not think free hot dogs are a good way to meet your neighbors, but they worked fine for us at West Park Christian Church on Indianapolis’s Near Westside.
Our church is in the Hawthorne neighborhood, just steps off old US 40 and the National Road. Its houses were built in the first couple decades of the last century. Our building is on Addison Street, but our parking lot is on the lot behind us and it empties out onto Holmes Street. As cars and pedestrians passed, we called them in. Many stopped.
Rob, the husband of our youth pastor, manned the grill. Here he is talking to our lead pastor’s wife, Sue.
On the left is Wanda, who brought one of her friends. At right is one of our neighbors who stopped by with her children.
Jay brought his DJ gear and provided the soundtrack.
He has quite a nice little setup.
He and Phil (right) are our sound engineers on Sunday mornings.
Our little church has its challenges. We’re small in number and often lack enough people to carry out our plans. Sometimes we don’t collect a large enough offering to cover expenses. Heck, sometimes we show up on Sunday morning to find we’ve run out of communion supplies. Frankly, we count our blessings every time our worship service happens without any glitches.
But we are good at just being easy-to-approach people in our community. People find quickly that we are the most non-threatening, easiest to talk to Christians they’ve ever met. The hot dogs were just our clever ruse to let our neighbors find that out.
Nikon FA, 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E, Agfa Vista 200
As we head into our Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, here’s a rerun from 2013 that seems extra relevant now. There’s always something wrong in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it threatens to crush our spirits. Can we pause for a minute to reflect on what’s good and right, and be grateful for it?
I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.
I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.
So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.
The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.
A sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.
So I asked, because this came up during Sunday school. And the teacher said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”
It left me more puzzled than satisfied.
But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.
This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. A dozen years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.
Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.
It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.
Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.
And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.
Christians get a bum rap these days as being bigoted and small minded. Perhaps it’s because some high-profile people who claim to follow Christ behave that way. Perhaps it’s because many people experienced a rule-based, condemning Christianity as children.
But most Christians I know go quietly about their faith. The ones who live it out are involved in the lives of others, especially others in need. That’s what our faith is supposed to be: simply but actively passing along to others the love God has for them.
When Father James McDyer was assigned in 1951 to the remote Irish parish at Glencolmcille (Glen-column-keel) in western County Donegal, he found a people isolated and in poverty. Little paid employment was available. There was no industry, no electricity, no running water, and hardly a paved road. The rural people of Glencolmcille scratched out whatever bleak livings they could.
McDyer, born 1910, grew up in County Donegal. He knew this life. He saw many of his neighbors emigrate out of Ireland looking for better lives. It was part of a great outmigration; scores left Ireland in the early and middle 20th century.
The folk village at Glencolmcille shows the conditions the people lived in when McDyer arrived. These thatched-roof huts, some original and some replicas, contain furniture and home goods typical of 1950s rural Ireland.
To an American, “1950s” calls up images of suburban ranch houses and station wagons, televisions and refrigerators, freeways and skyscrapers.
These simple dwellings and plain possessions are more in line with an American concept of the frontier eighteen fifties.
McDyer set to work improving the peoples’ condition.
Irish farm life was largely confined to the family. McDyer saw that bringing people together, under common causes and in support of each other, was the key first step. He led them in building a community center, which volunteer labor completed in 1953.
He then worked to electrify Glencolmcille. He spent many of his days traveling, speaking to government officials to move his goal forward. Here he met stiff challenges, as the Irish government was heavily focused on attracting multinational corporations as the way to bring Ireland out of economic depression. This left no resources for rural areas. He was not above manipulating the system to meet his ends, and meet them he did, as electricity came to Glencolmcille in 1954.
McDyer also worked to create a municipal water supply and to pave the roads leading to Glencolmcille. In the early 1960s he spurred the creation of local industry in the form of industrial and agricultural cooperatives that processed vegetables and fish and created knitted goods. Finally in 1967, recognizing that tourism should be a vital part of Glencolmcille’s diverse economic portfolio, he led the creation of the Glencolmcille Folk Village.
The Folk Village continues today as a tourist attraction. For a few euros, you can tour the impeccably maintained huts.
One hut is a school. Pupils here wrote on slates until the early 1960s, when inkwells finally arrived. By this time, of course, American schoolchildren were moving away from fountain pens to ball-point pens.
One hut is a typical home, another is set up as Father McDyer’s home and contains his personal possessions, and yet another is a general store and tiny pub. Together, they are a microcosm of centuries of rural Irish life.
Before and after McDyer brought such life-changing improvements to Glencolmcille, the people certainly enjoyed a beautiful place to live.
Hills and cliffs overlook the coast with its beaches. A horseshoe-shaped lagoon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. But surrounding natural beauty doesn’t feed families. McDyer’s efforts lifted Glencolmcille’s families out of abject poverty.
James McDyer died in his sleep in 1987, leaving behind a region much improved, a people in much better condition.
This, then, is what a Christian, what Christianity, is supposed to do: seek the marginalized and help them improve their condition — and through this, help them meet and know God. Such gifts are not often given in this world. That these gifts are attached to a person doing God’s work, that they ultimately come from God, is what attracts people to the faith. It is the experience of God’s love and gifts on earth, and it is compelling.
Billy had a challenging backstory. He made it out of childhood and adolescence and was trying to build his adult future. The church was directly supporting him and loving him, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe he was crushed by the weight of his past. Maybe the road ahead looked to be too steep. I don’t know.
But I do know about suicide. I’ve written about it here obliquely before, but let me be plain about it now: I lived with and fought through periods of severe depression from the time I was 16 to the time I was about 40. I’ve walked right up to the edge of suicide several times.
During the worst of my depressions I didn’t kill myself because I was afraid of surviving it and being left permanently, horribly damaged. Then after my children were born I never ended it because I couldn’t leave them behind. But during those times, the pain was too great, the recovery road too hard. I wanted no part of life.
Because I stuck it out, sooner or later things got better. Never all better. But things always stopped being screamingly, intolerably bad. Whatever I was feeling, whatever thoughts were looping through my head, they changed all on their own. Mind states are never permanent. And whatever difficulties I was facing, the circumstances changed all on their own. The world keeps going while you are stuck, delivering change into your world. Sometimes circumstances got better and sometimes they got worse, but when they changed I could usually see a path forward when I couldn’t before.
If you ever think about ending your life, wait. Just wait. Your feelings, thoughts, and circumstances will change, if you just hang on.
We gathered at church on Saturday to celebrate his life and mourn our loss. We will miss Billy terribly.
It’s a Good Friday tradition at West Park Christian Church, on Indianapolis’s Near Westside, to carry the cross through the neighborhood.
A hundred years ago, our brand-new neighborhood was a cheerful middle-class enclave. West Park Christian Church was new, too — and had hundreds of members. We have several panoramic photographs of our congregation through the 1910s and 1920s on our walls; see one of them here. But the neighborhood, and the church, began to decline in the 1950s. Today, the neighborhood knows too well the problems of poverty.
By the 1990s, most members had long since fled to the suburbs and drove back here for worship. When someone from the neighborhood visited, they found a congregation that didn’t look like them and they didn’t come back. By the early 2000s, attrition (mostly through death) brought us to fewer than 10 members and within inches of having to shut down permanently. But a new pastor in 2004 refocused the church on the neighborhood, and we began to grow again.
We do many things for the neighborhood: a food pantry, a clothing pantry, a well-attended Wednesday-night youth program, referrals to social services. We’re even trying to get a infant-and-toddler daycare off the ground. But on Good Friday, we still carry the cross.
This year it was largely a youth effort. That’s Billy, carrying our large cross through the alley that runs by our building. He carried it for more than half the walk.
We walked down the sidewalks in our neighborhood
The first place we stopped to pray was this pocket park in a formerly vacant lot. A neighborhood resident spearheaded the work to make it happen, including planting this old car into the ground.
Billy was very pleased to carry the cross on this first leg of our walk.
Rob, one of our youth pastors, carried the cross briefly after we left the pocket park. This was our crew, small but determined.
We also stopped to pray at Hawthorne Center, the neighborhood’s community center. It’s another place of safety and stability in our turbulent neighborhood. The building is a Carnegie library.
Several of the younger children took turns carrying the cross. This is one of Rob’s sons. He’s far smaller than the cross, but he handled it well.
Our last stop before returning to the church was at the home of two of our most elderly members, Leo and Marie, both in their 90s. Marie was the director of Hawthorne Center for many years, and now her daughter holds that role. Leo was in poor health this day and couldn’t come to the door. Marie didn’t feel great either, but did come to greet us. Sadly, Leo passed away a few days after we stopped by.
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I shot this with a Canon AE-1 Program that was recently donated to my film-camera collection. I already had one, but this one was in better condition. So I sold the other one and loaded some Fujicolor 200 into this one to test it. I planned to write a new review of this camera from that test roll. But when Good Friday came around, I’d only taken a couple photos on that roll. I decided to take a chance and use it to document our walk. Heightening the risk, I tried a lens I’d not used before: a 35-105mm f/3.2-4.0 Vivitar SMS zoom. I’ve owned it for so long I forget where it came from. I have had such mixed results with off-brand lenses, but this one handled very well. I figured I’d be fine when, on more than one occasion as I brought a subject into focus, I had that “ohhhhhh yes” feeling knowing I’d nailed it. A lens hood would probably have eliminated the flare I got when shooting into the low sun, but the effect is at least not displeasing.
The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.
It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.
The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The original Greek carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too. I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and simply communion.
Meanwhile, several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do conservative Churches of Christ, a church to which I once belonged. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.
I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imaine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.
However, those churches contend, correctly I might add, that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birthdate anyway, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert the nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.
Part of the rationale some churches have for not celebrating Christmas is avoiding any connection with those pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new meaning.
But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.
In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have only become widespread in the last hundred years or so, mostly since the great prosperity that followed World War II’s end.
And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.
Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.
“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. Read the other entries here, here, here, and here.