Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Heir of the Dog

October 15, 2018

Here’s a good essay by well-respected author and academic Gene Veith.  He asks the question whether adults should still be held culpable – even prosecutable – for crimes they committed as minors.

His basic point, one that is reflected in many of our legal forms and procedures (such as – in general – treating minors accused or convicted of offenses differently than adults, including lighter punishments and the possibility of having their criminal records as minors expunged or sealed permanently), is that we generally understand that children are children and held to different standards of accountability.  We all did things as  children that, having attained some level of maturity or at least age, we wouldn’t repeat.  The why we wouldn’t repeat might be sketchier – is it just a better understanding of legal ramifications or actual recognition that words or actions once somehow judged appropriate never really are?  But barring some extreme situations, I don’t presume to judge the character of an adult based on some random fact about their childhood, especially if what I know of them as an adult outweighs that random incident.  Such as, say, eating glue in third grade.

There are also times when a minor commits one or more crimes so heinous that they are no longer treated as children but as adults, because the fundamentals at play ought to be understandable even by someone under the age of 18.  There’s a line between adulthood and being a minor, but it can be a permeable one, as well as an inconsistent or inaccurate one.

What interests me, tangentially to this conversation, is our obsession as a culture with beginning to rescind honors and accomplishments by individuals based on a later-discovered moral failing or flaw, perhaps an isolated incident but more typically of an ongoing nature.  I first wondered about this with Bill Cosby.

For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.  Wikipedia claims Cosby has over 70 honorary degrees from various institutions.  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.  Other institutions did not revoke their degrees, such as Virginia Commonwealth University.  Other schools removed the names of prominent honorees from buildings because of either real or perceived transgressions.

Obviously Cosby’s sexual behavior is deplorable and deserves punishment.  However on the flip side, does  such behavior counteract or overwrite a person’s other achievements?  Is this a binary thing – where you are either an accomplished professional or a disgusting criminal?  Can you only be one or the other?

That is problematic to me, as I don’t know many binary people.  I know many people who have wonderful characteristics but also who have some characteristics I don’t like so much.  And of course in my vocation as pastor, I am called upon to hear confession from time to time.  Very personal and specific confessions of actual bad or even illegal things people have done in their past.  And I am then charged and privileged to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ to that person, and to mean it.  I’m not allowed to distance myself from that person afterwards because what they confessed was too heinous.

Yes, there is a difference between the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and potential  legal liability for one’s actions.  But again, this isn’t a  binary thing.  We’re all guilty of some infractions real or imagined, large or small.  Did we make a full stop at that stop sign?  How often are we going over the speed limit?  Yet we generally say that such things don’t negate the good things a person has done or accomplished in their life. Sure, you ran that stop sign, but we’re not going to take away your Nobel Peace Prize because of it. 

As a Biblical Christian, I hold the tension that says that each of us is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, and at the same time capable of amazingly hurtful, cruel, even criminal behaviors.  The person is the same, capable of both sides of the coin, and therefore not binary.  Perhaps for short periods of time, but when considering the work and span of a person’s life, only in rare cases (Hitler, duh?) can we say that a particular person was practically universally bad.  Or good.

St. Paul fleshes this out in his amazing words in Romans 7.  This reality that we all live with – that there is a continual battle within us between the sinful and evil me, and the holy and righteous me.  I’m not binary.  By putting my faith in Jesus Christ, both mes exist within me – for the moment.  Only one is going to last, however.  Eventually I will be binary – I will be completely and only perfect.  But until that day, when Jesus returns and ushers in a new creation, I remain both saint and sinner.  The traditional theological phrase is simul iustice et peccatorAt the same time righteous/just and a sinner.

What this should lead to is not a glossing over or ignoring of sin, but the recognition that someone might be capable of a great sin, and yet still capable of accomplishing something great and praiseworthy, either before or after the period of time when they perpetrated the great sin.  It allows me to condemn Mr. Cosby for his sexual violence against women while recognizing that he is a legitimately gifted comedian, actor, and even thinker.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  And just as the sin needs to be punished, the gift remains worthy of praise.

And such praise is necessary, every bit as necessary as the punishment of sin or illegality is.

If  we’re only going to acclaim the admirable works of perfect people, we have nothing left to praise.  Nothing at all.  Which means what remains would be to determine which sins or illegal actions would be severe enough to counteract not only whatever good someone may have done in the past, but any good they might achieve in the future.  (And, for the Lutherans reading, I’m using generic terms and not dealing with a theological argument about whether we on our own are capable of any good works!)

And who will determine what sins or illegal actions those are?  And on what basis?  And what happens when a sin that is at one point considered heinous is eventually not viewed as a sin at all?  Can we counteract not the punishment that was due, but also the praise that was scrubbed out?  I don’t think so.

Hopefully Mr. Cosby learns from his sins and their consequences.  Not only that, I hope that others in positions of power or influence or wealth learn that such behavior is wrong.  Always.  But his accolades and accomplishments need to remain in the public eye as well, as reminders of what is possible despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins, and as encouragement to others that good can be accomplished even if they get off to the wrong start.

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Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

That’s how this post will make me sound, I’m sure.  Though if you’re a regular reader you probably drew that conclusion a long time ago.

But particularly, my grumpiness has to do with the efforts of congregations these days desperate to try and improve their image in their community.  Often times this is tied to declining membership and a desire to appear welcoming to the community.  Task forces and committees get together to come up with ways and means for engaging  with the community.

This is one of those vague, nebulous phrases that takes on a life of its own and won’t seem to go away.  I think it assumes that the reason Christian congregations are – overall – shrinking in size and growing older demographically as fewer young people bother to attend is that the community doesn’t know they’re there or views them as disconnected.  To disprove this, congregations seek to show up in their community as involved entities, demonstrating love and care for the community.  Oftentimes this comes in the form of providing services the community might want or view favorably.  It could mean providing help to the less fortunate.  It could mean supporting and promoting local artisans and small businesses.  It might even extend into the political arena  to some degree.

Through community engagement, a congregation will benefit from greater exposure and an improved public opinion about them.  I suspect that’s the basic goal.  The further, often unstated goal is that there will be people in the community impressed enough with the congregation’s engagement to begin attending.

It sounds nice  and good.  I can’t completely fault it, as much as I’d like to.  I guess I don’t fault the idea of being part of a community, but I question whether a congregation is able to do so as opposed to individual members doing so.  And I definitely question whether community engagement accomplishes the goals it sets out to achieve.

I  don’t think there are a lot of people in our communities who aren’t already active members of a church (or mosque, or synagogue) who sit around each week  lamenting that they have no idea where to find other like-minded believers to gather with.  Before the Internet we had phone books where you could easily look up pretty much every major church (or mosque, or synagogue) in your community.  It might have just been a single line or a full-page ad, but you could find them.  It’s even easier now with the Internet and Google.  If people want to know you’re here, they will figure it out.  I don’t think that publicity or exposure is a major challenge Christian congregations face and that accounts for falling attendance.

Similarly, I don’t think the community will have a much changed opinion about a congregation that engages in the community.  It seems like every cause or event now has sponsorship placards and signs all over it.  It’s easy to shell out a few hundred dollars and have your name slapped on a flyer listing supporters.  So easy, in fact, that I never pay any attention to it.  The only reason I might pay attention is if it’s something that I disagree with or find objectionable and I want to know who’s supporting it so that I don’t support them in some way.  But if it’s a good thing?  Hey, everyone should be supporting this, so it’s no big deal if one particular church is supporting it.  If I’m going to church already I’m not going to change churches just because I see a church supporting something I like (at least that shouldn’t be the reason I change churches!).  If I’m not attending church already, I’m probably not going to just show up randomly at a church I see on a flyer or a sign for an event.  I’m far more likely (statistically) to go to a church where I know someone and where someone has actually extended an invitation for me to attend.

So while the community might be happy to have support for a particular cause or event, I don’t think that support is going to result in new people showing up for worship.

Particularly if you’re a conservative, traditional sort of congregation that doesn’t support abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage.  More and more these churches are going to be seen as anathema.  Not simply out of touch with the times but actually evil and wrong.  More and more, younger generations wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.  What if their friends saw them?  What if their employer knew they went to a church that didn’t support abortion?  More and more faith is going to become a cultural and therefore professional liability.  People will choose churches – if they go at all – that won’t cause them difficulties in seeking that big promotion at work, or cost them the chance at public office.  Even President Obama learned that lesson once he was more permanently fixed in the public eye.

Communities will be happy to receive whatever congregations are willing to give them.  Well, that’s not actually true.  Communities are going to be less and less interested in receiving the one thing those congregations should give them – the Gospel.  The truth that there is real and true and objective good and evil, and that there are eternal ramifications to these things.  That by default we’re in the camp of evil rather than good, and that we can’t extricate ourselves by any words or actions or feelings or thoughts.  Our only hope lies in the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins, received the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, and offers resurrection hope and life in his own empty tomb.

That’s the unique gift a Christian church can offer the community.  The one thing the community can’t get anywhere else.  The only things that really truly matter.  Truth.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Life.

I wish I heard more congregations and Christians talking about how to get those things, that message out into the  community instead of how to get the community to like us more for doing things that anybody or any organization could do by writing a check or fielding a few volunteers to wear t-shirts.  The Church’s job is not to get our community to like us.  The Church’s job is to witness to Christ crucified and resurrected.  More and more, that message is going to be offensive and will engender hatred rather than social  media likes.  It’s going to prompt vandalism and protests and angry letters to the editor.  Not because we want it to, but because we have an enemy at work stirring up hearts and minds and confusion in opposition.  That’s real community engagement, loving your community so much that you’re willing to tell them the things they don’t want to hear.  Offering the real assurance of forgiveness and grace if and when they come to repentance.  Feeding them with the Word of God that conveys eternal life and sustaining and nourishing them with the sacramental gifts of God.

Why can’t we create some great t-shirts for that?

 

 

More on Context

September 22, 2018

We were sitting this morning as a family around the breakfast table.  We’re reading a book together,  The Life of Fred: Financial Choices  .  It is a source of great conversation, laughter and thought for all of us, not just the kids.  The author is clearly a very goal-oriented, disciplined kinda guy (or at least projects that persona).  I find this an admirable trait, though not one I can claim to share beyond a certain extent.

The chapter this morning focused on instant gratification vs. long-term rewards, and the author dutifully notes that these ways of thinking apply to all of life, not just financial decisions.  The author is very clearly in favor of long-term reward thinking and planning.  He speaks very dismissively about instant gratification, even as he tries to remain balanced and accepting of some instant gratification.

It’s true that very few people possess the discipline for long-term goal setting.  It makes those who are both admirable and probably more often than not more successful.  My wife and I were in a follow-up conversation about it after breakfast, talking about how some people just seem to be wired more towards long-term thinking.  They know what they want to accomplish – often from a very young age – and are nearly single-minded in their determination to accomplish it.

My wife mentioned the girl who sailed solo around the world at age 16 (this girl, I assume), and related how at one point she ran away from home for fear her parents might not let her pursue her dreams (not sure if this is an actual biographical detail or not, but we’ll assume it is for the purpose of our conversation).

It reminded me of my musings a few days ago.  It struck me that we admire these people when they’re successful.  We hold them up as examples of human capability.  They are inspiring and become models that we point to for our kids and grandkids.  But if she had failed and died in the attempt, we wouldn’t glorify her.  We’d likely vilify her parents for not doing their job to guide and look after her.

Again the issue of context becomes critical.  Goal-setting is important and valuable but it requires a context within which to function both healthily and safely.  Without such a context, it can become actually dangerous both personally and relationally.  It appears that Laura Dekker’s parents (or at least one of them) was pretty supportive of her efforts.  But we could easily understand if they had not been.  And at that point, Laura faces a decision – reject her parents’ duty and authority to pursue her goal, or abide by their guidance.

Sounds like the plot context for a movie-of-the-week.

I want my kids to be happy and successful but more than this I want them contextualized, embedded in a larger understanding – a meta-context – that helps them define what these terms even mean and could look like.  Without that, the definitions become slippery and evasive, potentially even damaging to themselves and those around them.

This is part of what faith in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible does.  I don’t simply adopt it or teach it to them as a means to an end of personal fulfillment.  I believe it is true, and because it is true, it will have these side benefits of providing a healthy context for my life and my children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean it will always be easy to remain consistent to this faith, this meta-context.  But it provides a means for doing so, and those means by and large seem very consistent with my personal experience and the experience of those I know both personally and historically.  There will be anomalies, and those might be inspiring, but only if we also acknowledge the real costs involved, the real risks that remain whether that person succeeds or fails.

Long-range planning isn’t enough on its own – it requires a context to function within.

Context matters.  Authority matters.  What’s yours?

A Deeper Loss

September 19, 2018

I work with the recovery community in town.  For years I’ve been teaching and mentoring people as part of their commitment to a year-long recovery program.  It’s some of the most enjoyable time I spend each week, speaking the Gospel to people who still aren’t sure what it is and whether or not it is for them.  And since the beginning of August my work in that community has deepened through opening our home to some of the women in recovery for dinner each week.  It has created a closer relationship with some of them, participating together in a less formal, non-programmed time each week.  It has allowed them to get to know my wife and children, and for us to get to know them better.  A little bit about their families as they experience our family life.

My family looks forward to Thursday night every week.  They’re excited to meet new people, to share themselves around the table or playing xBox games together.

But it makes the pain of losing one of those people we’ve broken bread with that much more acute.   And tonight I found out that one of the first ladies we had over had to leave the program today.  She was past the halfway mark in the program.  She was sweet and kind and seemed to be taking everything to heart.  The grief of the ladies tonight who met with me for Bible study was palpable.  The tears were real.  And in a way I haven’t ever really before, I felt that anguish at a deeper and more personal level.

This is the challenging and painful work of relationship.  Of getting to know people and caring about them and wanting the best for them.  It is the visible face of sin and evil, those powers and forces, those addictions and other issues that drag us away from love and hope and back into dangerous waters.  We prayed tonight for her, and I prayed not only for her but for the women who mourn her loss as a sister in recovery.  And while my words in the prayers weren’t explicit, they were  words for my own hurt as well, and for the hurt of my family when I share with them in a few minutes.

I don’t know the details of this woman’s departure.  It was a second infraction, a second violation of the rules against  drugs or alcohol while on a home pass.  I don’t know if she’s back in full-blown addiction.  I pray not.  I pray that what she’s learned in the months before will give her tools to help protect herself.

But if nothing else, she’s isolated.  She’s away from her recovery community, and unless she establishes herself in regular recovery community through AA meetings, that isolation will grow and the odds of her relapse into addiction are agonizingly high.  Nearly overwhelming.

And addiction or not, her departure is not the equivalent of her losing faith in Jesus Christ, either.  Our faith is not determined by our sobriety, though  it can be severely impacted by the lack thereof.  I don’t treat this woman as a lost soul, necessarily, but I pray for her spiritually most of all.  It isn’t just recovery community she needs to be a part of, that might form the difference between a life of hope instead of a life of addiction, she needs to immerse herself in Christian community as well.  A place where she knows and is known, where she can be loved, supported,  encouraged.

So that’s what I pray for her tonight.  Grateful for the eight women who drive out for Bible study with me but who wept and had trouble focusing because of their fear, their loss,  their anger.  And I give thanks for the Good Shepherd who insists on pursuing the lost sheep, whose Spirit does not rest until she is  found and brought safely back home.

May that be so for Ash, Lord.  Tonight and every night after.  Amen.

Interesting Read

September 7, 2018

How do you articulate an identity in the face of an overwhelming alternative narrative?  Where do you begin?  What do you identify both as the strengths and challenges of the alternative?  What critique do you offer against the prevailing alternative narrative?

It might look something like this.

 

Calculated Risks

August 30, 2018

Every Thursday night now, for the past month, we’ve started taking calculated risks.

We don’t think of it this way, but that’s certainly part of it.  What we think of is just inviting people into our home for time and dinner, and this in itself isn’t too unusual.  Practically every night of the week we have one or more people outside our immediate family breaking bread with us.

But our Thursday guests each week are a little different – we try not to think of them that way, though others might.  They come from a local rehabilitation program, clients of a one-year residential treatment program for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.  We’ve had a dozen of these women to our home in the last month, in groups of three.  These women span the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic spectrum.  They come from all over the country, from backgrounds either urban or bucolic, nightmarish or right off the set of Leave It to Beaver.  Yet each one for various reasons has found herself in the grips of serious addiction.

That grip pervades all of a person’s life, eventually.  What becomes optional, then manageable, then functional, finally becomes out of control.  Jobs can’t be held.  Families can’t be held together.  Jail and even prison are not unusual locations either short or long-term for some of these ladies.  Working in the recovery community as  I have for roughly the last seven years, I know these things.

We opened our home to these ladies to give them a taste of something they aren’t able to access very easily or often – home.  A place where they aren’t defined by their addictions of  the past or their recovery at the present or the uncertainty of their futures, but where they’re just friends invited to join us around the dinner table, or to play video or card games with our kids.  Where they’re free to just laugh and be.  No expectations.  No duties (other than helping with dishes a little bit!).  Last night the kids  led us all in making homemade spaghetti noodles for dinner.  It was a lot of work and didn’t go entirely as planned – at least initially.  But everyone had fun and enjoyed themselves.

There are risks with being open with people.  A friend of my wife’s – a fellow home-school mom – pointed that out to her the other afternoon.  She was concerned that we might be allowing people with criminal records into our home.  She was concerned for us, of course, and I appreciate that.  Nobody wants anyone else to get hurt, after all.

But life is full of calculated risks.  The challenge is that everyone uses slightly different variables in their calculations.  We don’t find the risk unbearable to have these ladies in our home.  Someone else would.  My wife and I have discussed the need to talk with our kids about being careful with people (not these people, specifically, but people in general) as they more and more find themselves in the world and negotiating the world on their own.  Not everyone can or should be trusted.  Not everyone is safe.  There are people out there who will hurt you and take advantage of you.

But in addition to teaching them how to be safe, we have to demonstrate to them how to make sure that the quest for safety doesn’t replace the very necessary calculation of risks with the goal of being as open as possible.  The goal should be openness as much as we can.  I think Scripture calls us to this.  It’s a means by which we love our neighbors.  But if we let it, our fear of being hurt can overwhelm our calling to love and serve one another.  We can quit bothering to really calculate the risks and simply opt for a very insulated life.  Ultimately this not only isolates us, it fosters attitudes towards others that aren’t just uncharitable, they’re unChristian.

What’s your risk calculation?  At what point do you draw the line?  We all draw lines – we all have to as sinful people in a sinful world.  Lines aren’t in and of themselves wrong, and I don’t fault people if they draw a line closer in than I do, and I try not to feel guilty when someone else has a line much further out than mine.  But how do I pray and work to extend those lines out as far as possible?  How do you strive to share yourselves with others?  These are important questions for people of faith to ask themselves in a media climate the fosters only fear and distrust.

Our answers to these questions can make huge differences, both in our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Curious Community

August 26, 2018

Saturday night we were blessed to pass perhaps the most singularly curious evening my wife and I can remember in some time.  Given the number of people in and out of our lives in any given week, this is no small statement.

On the tail end of a vacation we spent a night in a place described as a Euro-mansion.  It was massive – 7+ bedrooms in the main building.  Library, bar, music room, formal dining room, entry hallway, massive kitchen, full basement – not  to mention a separate cottage rented out to two people.  Built nearly 100 years ago by an apparently eccentric person, this home was unique not only  architecturally and historically and decoratively, but first and foremost for the people there.

We arrived and entered through the main gates to find a band warming up and people wandering around the grounds.  We though these were  other AirBnB guests but it turned out they were there for an impromptu fundraising event that showed up for the afternoon and evening.  We eventually met the owner and her late-teen/early 20’s son and daughter, along with at least five of the other people who live  more  or less full  time on the premises.  The connections are some family, some professional,  some simply coincidence of time of life and other matters.

Most of them seemed pretty quiet and introverted, with the exception of one obviously extroverted woman.  After perusing the truly stunning bar they had, I offered to put together a small cocktail tasting after we returned from dinner.  The offer was eagerly accepted.  I put together small tastings of three different drinks – my Almond Tequila mainstay, a poor variation of a Manhattan using questionably ancient vermouth and equally questionable vanilla-flavored bourbon, and a simplified version of a Melon Ball (Midori, orange juice, vodka) that omits the vodka.

We sat together for over  an hour, sipping the drinks, sharing stories and a bit of background.  We learned a lot about these people that we never would have had there not been a pretext to sit down together.  There’s a tentative offer for me to return to provide bartending services to a private movie screening in the near future, which of course means an opportunity to meet more people, hopefully have  more  conversations, and ultimately hope to build more relationships where I can be shown how to love my neighbor and show them Christ’s love.

I’m still processing the evening and all of the nuances and dynamics.  But I pray there will be further opportunity for to build relationships with these curious community of friends and family.

 

Sharing Ourselves

August 9, 2018

Last week my family and I launched a new ministry outreach.  Weekly I teach at a women’s residential addiction recovery facility.  I spend an hour a week with ladies in the midst of recovery.  Some of them are still detoxing from their latest binge.  Others are nearly finished with the program, obsessed with finding work or lining up schooling.  Women of all ages and from all walks of life.  We have wonderful times together laughing, talking about God’s Word and work.

But then they graduate from the program and it’s rare that I ever see them again.  I’m part of their program of recovery, and once graduated, they don’t see a purpose in continuing the relationship that was formed (my assumption).  Yet these women are the most vulnerable of the recovery community – especially those with children.  They need every resource they can find, but all too often church and pastors are presumed to be part of the past rather than an integral part of their present and future.

So to try and develop the relationships beyond the one-hour a week classroom environment, we started opening our home up.  Every week, 3-4 of these women sign up (voluntarily, not required) to come to our home Thursday evening for three hours.  There isn’t a program or a plan.  They aren’t required to do or be anything.  They can just come and be themselves.  Not as guests of honor, not as representatives of the recovery center, but just as women coming to a family home for dinner.  They pitch in to prepare, enjoy, and clean up from the meal while interacting not just with me but with my wife and children.

The hope is that relationships will form, and that some of these women will want to come back, and will recognize that recovery is more than a program, but a matter of relationship.  Likewise, the love of Christ is expressed through the Word (and Sacraments) of God delivered by friends, neighbors, people we have relationships with.

Tonight three different women are signed up to come.  It’s impossible to predict personalities and all the issues that a time together could bring, but it continues to show us that opening ourselves to others makes a difference in people’s lives.  Not necessarily immediately or dramatically.  Sometimes slow and subtly.  But relationships are created through these experiences, and only God knows how those relationships will develop and what He will do in and through them.  I believe He will do much more than deliver someone from addiction, but rather will deliver them from sin and death and hopelessness and despair.  And if He can do that through sharing a meal, opening our home, having our kids play Just Dance on the xBox with them or letting them pet our dogs, what a beautiful testimony not to our eloquence or skills but his creativity and power and goodness.

 

The Unexpected Tithe

July 22, 2018

I’m on vacation this week.  Which means I’m not leading worship and not writing out our weekly tithe check.  Part of me feels bad about this.  I try to fight against this part of me.  Not because I don’t value tithing but because I don’t like the legalistic guilt it inspires in me if I happen to miss a week.  If my comfort comes from putting a certain amount in the collection plate I’m sorely and dangerously mistaken.  I prefer the feeling of uncertainty that reminds me that my life and all I have belongs to the God who created and saved me and lives within me striving to make me holy.  Taking that reality for granted, as though I could pay off God with a certain amount each week is dangerous.  Deadly dangerous.

I walked out of my hotel about 1:30pm today.  I slept in – a Sunday luxury I very rarely have.  Again, the faint tug of guilt about not finding a church to attend.  Church is not my salvation,  though.  Christ is.  The Church points me to Christ and therefore the Church is beautiful and necessary and critical, but it is not in and of itself the answer, as though checking off an attendance box can put my soul at ease.  It shouldn’t, but it often tries to.

She was sitting by the entrance to the hotel I’m staying in.   I noticed one of the employees handing her a handful of granola bars as I searched for a newspaper, to no avail.  I exited the building, saying hi to her as she opened the granola bar.

Why was I thinking about her?  I crossed half the parking lot but there she was,  still in my mind.

Young-ish, but not too young.  Blonde hair showing brunette roots.

I turned around and went back to her. Are you hungry?   She nodded.  I’m heading to Denny’s, you can come with me and I’ll buy you a meal.

We walked the few hundred feet to Denny’s.   It was crowded.  She had a hospital bracelet on her arm and a taped pad to her upper arm from some sort of injection or blood withdrawal.  People watched us as we came in and waited.   I suppose that’s pretty impressive for a place like Vegas, where you assume people  have seen pretty much everything.  But here was something a bit out of place a few miles off the strip, this man in his slacks and this young woman in her shorts.  She pulled a long-sleeve white shirt on that covered the bandage.

So began the next four hours.

I don’t know if any of what she told me was true.  I pray I know someday.  We ate a breakfast lunch at Denny’s before walking a few blocks in 100+ degree heat to the CVS to fill her prescription for antibiotics for the kidney infection she had been discharged with this morning.  Food and coffee helped perk her up a bit for the walk.

Over breakfast-for-lunch it emerged that home, such as it was, is Reno.  Vegas is where she served a jail term, got her first job (at 28 years old), and been homeless for the past two months.  She’s been doing drugs for  15 years, with meth being her current choice.   I Googled and tried to figure out options.  The Greyhound for Reno left at 5:30pm.  It was 2:30 pm when we got out of the CVS with a prescription and enough snacks and necessity to tide her over on the nearly 24-hour bus ride to Reno, through LA and other parts in between.

The Greyhound folks weren’t encouraging.  We Ubered to the main bus station.  Along the way we picked up a couple from a now-famous pawn shop.  In town from Florida for a few days.  Complaining about a few meth-heads in the pawn shop,  and gushing about their gourmet meal the night before.  Jamie laughed along as we squeezed into the small car together.  I doubt the couple realized she was a meth-head.  I wonder what they would have said or thought?  At the Greyhound station we were told the bus was sold out, but we could try and get on it if someone didn’t show up.  We had two hours to kill at this point.  She ate half a Subway chicken sandwich and a McDonald’s shake and we sat.

And sat.  And sat.

Food and sugar had livened her up, and she was very talkative.  In the course of four hours she never asked a single question of me, inquired as to any aspect of my life.  I presume none of that mattered.  I was the source of free food and the possibility of a bus ticket out of Vegas.  What more did she need to know?  What more  could possibly matter to a young woman with three children from three different fathers, all of whom were adopted out?  Did I actually expect her to make polite conversation?  I was a sucker.  She was willing to go along with it for as long as the gravy train lasted, or until I said or did something she didn’t like, at which point I  have no doubt she would have cursed me out and stalked off in righteous indignation.

But we sat, and sat, and sat.  I didn’t say much, and she didn’t seem to mind.

She went off for a smoke and took all her gear with her.  I didn’t  really expect her to show back up, but she did a few minutes later.  We walked the block to the bus station and bought a ticket for the 7:30pm bus.   She could try to get on the 5:30pm bus after all the other passengers boarded, and if the driver said he still had room.   Everything she owned was in a single small bag given her the night before by a church whose name she couldn’t remember.  We sat in the lobby, waiting the last 15 minutes to the bus departure.

If we had been back home I could have connected her to resources.   I half considered sending her that way anyways, calling on some people I know to see if they would be willing to admit her to a long-term recovery program.  But there were no guarantees.  No guarantees the residential program would have space at the moment.  No guarantee that she would be willing to try it.  No guarantees at all.

At 5:25 I shook her  hand.  Either she was going to get a seat on that 5:30 bus or she would have to wait for the 7:30 bus.  She had what she needed to get home, where she felt she had a support system of sorts.  A better chance than she stood in Vegas.

I prefer to think she got on that 5:30 bus.  That she’s en route to Reno right now.  That by tomorrow, she’ll be with people who know her.  That there might be a chance that she’ll get help.  That life can be different tomorrow than it was this morning when she had nothing to look forward to but getting through a day in triple-digit  heat with a prescription she couldn’t pay to fill.

I don’t know that for sure, but I prefer to think so, and pray so.  It’s no more in my control than what happens to the check I write on Sunday mornings.  But it sure looked and felt a lot different.

 

Planting Seeds

July 2, 2018

Our Sunday night ministry has continued strong.  Each week we have half a dozen or so core attendees, who bring with them a myriad of roommates past and present, co-workers, family members in town.  It continues to be a place where people feel welcomed and loved.

But I’ve struggled over the past few months, worried that it’s stagnating into a fairly predictable clique.  And worse, that we aren’t really making headway in building relationships that lead to sharing the Gospel and applying it to the lives of people who think they already understand it.  Some evenings are spent playing games – literally.  And while I don’t mind me a game every now and then, I want something more.  Something deeper.

My struggle has found me isolating myself at times.  Excusing myself from the group when they’re involved in a large game or several small discussion groups that I have no part in.  At times it has felt as though my presence is superfluous.  I  know  this isn’t the case, but when there’s no real meaningful connection with anyone in the course of an evening for weeks  on end, I begin to second guess myself and my work and whether or not I’m all that necessary.  Easier to just nip off upstairs for a round or two of Call of Duty before checking back in to see that everyone is pretty much as involved as they were before I left, as though I haven’t really been gone.

I’m missed by some, who attribute it to my introverted nature.  I haven’t been able to find the right way to tell them it isn’t that I don’t want to be with people, but rather it seems people don’t need to be with me.  For all my talk about mission-work and the long-game in terms of relationship building, I’m still pretty American.  I want things to move along quickly.  I want to see some  stuff happening.  And when it’s been months since I’ve had a substantive interaction, and that one was challenging, to say the least, I  begin to tire.

God is good.  And a lot happened on the past two Sundays.

Last Sunday, there was an early discussion before most of the folks arrived.  The topic had been touched on once or twice before but here it was again.  How can we trust or love God if He allows people to go to hell?  This young woman – raised Christian and recently graduated from a prestigious Christian liberal arts college – was insisting that she couldn’t be happy in heaven knowing that there were people in hell.  She wasn’t sure she could trust a God who didn’t make sure everyone went to heaven.

The discussion began based on a Gospel reading from Mark regarding blaspheming the Holy Spirit – calling the good works of God evil.  Conflating good with evil.  She was worried that perhaps she was blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and I agreed that perhaps she was, something she was a bit rattled by to say the least.  If you’re going to insist that God is doing something wrong, something evil by allowing people to go to hell, then you’re putting yourself in a situation similar to the one Jesus warned the scribes about.  If you presume to pass judgment on the works of God, you’re in effect setting yourself up as God, and this is an untenable situation.  So long as you’re putting yourself above God you will refuse the good and necessary gifts of God, and this puts you in eternal danger.

It was an invigorating conversation to say the least.

Afterwards I was able to talk with a young man who was struggling in a relationship and the very real difficulty of learning to orient two separate lives down a single path.  I was able to listen and suggest some mentoring courses of action that might be of help to both him and his lady.  New opportunities for my wife and I to live out the Gospel by standing with the people the Holy Spirit has placed in our lives and assisting them with the hard work of life.

That was last week.  An exhausting but very exciting conclusion to an 18-hour work day.

Last night was another great conversation.  A young woman was asking questions about Holy Communion.  She didn’t understand why the Roman Catholic Church (that she was partially raised in but was not confirmed in) wouldn’t allow her to receive Holy Communion?  She saw  Holy Communion as a beautiful and wonderful gift to receive regularly and it make no sense that anyone would be excluded from it.  So after a bit of discussion about Scripture, we opened up Scripture and actually read it together.  Specifically, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

She read it, and I would stop her on occasion to explain or elaborate on something Paul said, or offer insights as to what he was getting at.  All of which culminated in verses 27-32, which are some of the most challenging verses in Scripture as regards the Church.  Paul asserts that physical illness and even death can result when someone doesn’t recognize what they’re participating in and therefore receives Holy Communion inappropriately.  It was so amazing and humbling, at the end of perhaps 30 minutes of Scriptural reading and discussion, for her to finally exclaim in understanding that denying Holy Communion to someone who may not know what they’re doing isn’t an attempt to be exclusive or cruel, but rather an expression of Christian love and responsibility.

Only on a few occasions on Sunday nights have I been sought out for discussion specifically because of my vocation as a pastor.  And this was the first time that in fulfilling that vocation, somebody was able to see and understand Scripture with their own eyes and heart.  I don’t know what that will mean for this young woman, but at the very least she has a better understanding of why the historic practice of the Church has been to be careful in terms of who is permitted to receive Holy Communion.

Two weeks in a row of wonderful discussions where I believe the Holy Spirit was at work.  I’m not sure how or to what ends, but it was a reminder that God is always present, and that building relationships can and does lead to a place and time where someone is willing to trust you enough to give voice to a concern or a question.  And to a time and place where the Word of God can be brought to bear for the glory of God and the benefit of the body of Christ.

What a humbling privilege!