Style, life.

I style my hair. You may not know it today, and frankly I’m not happy with it, but I do spend time on it. It’s too short right now, but it will grow. It always does.

I have a style of clothing that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable and confident as I do my daily whatever. It usually includes Birkenstocks. About 13 years ago, pumps and stockings fell by the wayside, no longer a style I was willing to deal with. I do still wear suits. And black Birks and flip-flops for dress-up. (They go well with clergy collars.)

My home has a style. Across the pine living room floor, an old 8-foot shutter leans against one wall; a black window screen from a much earlier era hangs on a different wall – next to the charred oak lid from a Four Roses bourbon barrel; a bowling pin signed by my high school teammates is on a bookshelf, along with a marching band hat, a wooden shoe-form, spindles from an out-of-production textile mill, a hurricane lamp filled with buttons, and several small flower vases in the shape of dogs or antique cars; there’s an ancient mirror that used to be on someone’s dresser now resting on the andirons to cover the fireplace in the off-season, and in the wine rack are scarred rolling pins that once belonged to someone’s great-grandmother. In the middle of the floor is a long-retired and fairly squeaky railroad cart, gray with age and – some would say – begging to be restored. I like it better unrestored.

Old, worn, used, perhaps unkempt. This is my style.

This is the busy season at UrbanSpirit. Groups from other places have come to Louisville for an experience, a simulation, of life in poverty in America. They are well-meaning, out of their comfort zones, encountering realities they never knew existed, discovering causes and consequences they couldn’t have imagined. And they are struggling for words. Trying to put language to such an unbelievable state of existence. I appreciate their efforts. And one day I’ll be excited to vote for one of them, the candidate who can see something new and isn’t afraid to pursue it. But in their struggle and ours, there is a word I would like to banish.


Poverty isn’t a lifestyle.

Lifestyle suggests preference, taste, choice, options. Lifestyle is about whether to buy porcelain or pottery for your everyday dishes; lifestyle is whether to go camping or stay in 4-star B&Bs for vacation. Whether to tailgate at the stadium or hang out in a sports bar – or eschew sports altogether and take up knitting. Lifestyle is about cashing in your split-level ranch and moving to a condo in a high-rise. Downsizing so you can travel more, deciding to move to a city where you can take the train instead of owning a car. Lifestyle is vegetarian or pantheistic or community garden or philanthropic. Lifestyles are subject to change, to whims, to trends.

Lifestyle is voluntary. Even if you prefer picking foods from dumpsters, buying clothes from consignment stores, and bartering for babysitting, if you choose to live this way, this is lifestyle.

Poverty is not a choice. In fact, poverty is lack of choice. Social mobility is a huge problem in America. People born poor tend to stay poor, held there by myriad social policies and political agenda. Our simulation participants learn the very difficult lesson that poverty is not merely lack of ambition or a poor work ethic. Despite their creativity and effort, they are knocked around and tripped up by a system that doesn’t much give a damn. As I’ve argued before, the “system” depends on poor people, thrives on poor people; the system – the ‘American Dream’ for some – requires there be poor people in America to do the jobs that we need but don’t want to pay a lot to have performed.

Lifestyle? Living every day uncertain of food, shelter, employment, health?
Lifestyle? Sleeping poorly at night worried about what the next day will bring to shatter the fragile equilibrium or undo the tiny step forward you’ve somehow made?
Lifestyle? Knowing that people are blaming you, demeaning you, sacrificing you for their own comfort?
Lifestyle? Living with hopelessness, having no reason to believe that anything will ever be different?

Worn, used, perhaps unkempt.

Not a lifestyle. Not even much of a life.

I’ll say.

A friend expressed her frustration with the easy “unfriend” button on facebook, which sometimes seems a metaphor for our disposable friendships.  In the chorus of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” Billy Joel sings “say a word out of line, you’ll find that the friends you had are gone forever,” and I’ve been pondering relationships lately.

More specifically, I’ve been pondering clarity, truth and conviction, and the toll they can take on relationships. But I believe clarity, truth and conviction are important. I walk a line. It matters to me to tell the truth; it also matters to be in community.

Which truth? Which community?

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, a man I hadn’t seen in a dozen years, but whom I’ve known for 30 years now. Our paths have been oddly similar, and we talked about the joy and cost of being truth-tellers, the people we’ve lost, the ones we’ve gained. Another friend has indicated his political views on his facebook profile thusly: “I’d rather not say.”

Both men are pastors, as am I. All of us vowing at our ordination to be truth-tellers, to speak a word of grace and a word of summons to a higher vision. A pastor I worked with long ago dedicated himself to staying in his current congregation until his youngest child finished high school 6 years away. Another pastor never took a public stand on anything at all, and was eventually elected bishop, based on a “clean” reputation and record.

I’m not like that, and will never be elected bishop. Or much of anything, I guess.

But I’m in the call process right now, fully aware that congregation search committees are checking me out in this forum and others. Do I clean it all up? Remove any contentious postings? (especially that thing about repealing the second amendment?) Would I, or a congregation, be happier if I just kept my mouth shut? Or kept it shut until they hired me?

I think about the way we vet Supreme Court justices, parsing their records, speeches, papers, lectures, opinions. Doing our damnedest to make sure they’ve never taken an unpopular stand, held an out-of-the-mainstream view. We do the same thing with potential jurors (if Law and Order is to be believed), although one could argue the stakes are lower. (I don’t imagine they seem lower to the one on trial.)

We do it to political candidates, as well, even going so far as to mock or discount them when their ideas have changed over time, as if somehow changing your mind is a sign of weakness or instability.

Would we rather folks live out principles we didn’t know they held? Can we feel any personal integrity by always keeping our mouths shut?

A Jesus who always kept his opinions to himself might have made a kindly octogenarian, but Jesus the truth-teller changed the world. Sometimes one can be both (Nelson Mandela is nearing age 95), but there are costs along the way.

So, what truth do we claim, and how deeply do we hold it?

I’m not always right, but I try my best to be clear and to be open to transformative conversation. I do believe the second amendment should go, and I believe poverty can be ended, and rich people and corporations should pay more, and socialism is a decent system with biblical roots. You may say I’m a dreamer or something less flattering, but I’m not the only one.

If you’re one, feel free to say so.