Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Tell All the Truth

January 28, 2021

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Book Review: The Freedom of a Christian

January 11, 2021

The Freedom of a Christian by Martin Luther, translated and edited by Adam Francisco

I was sent this copy of Luther’s work as an end of the year thank you from 1517.org, as I’ve purchased some of their materials and attended some of their conferences in the past.

This is a short read – Luther’s actual piece is only 36 pages. There’s a short introduction and then another short essay by the Executive Director of 1517 and another short essay by Adam Francisco. Luther’s piece is beautiful and very illustrative of the difference between what makes us holy (the blood of Christ) and what makes us better (doing things for those around us out of love and gratitude for what God has given us in Christ). Are Christians commanded to do good works? Of course. But that command is intended to make us better, not to save us. The command is there to reinforce good decisions and actions in our lives that directly benefit those around us rather than as some form of repayment to God for his gift of forgiveness.

Luther’s language (and this translation) is very easy to understand and he provides some good, practical examples of how and why this understanding of good works and the Law is correct. He is not as vitriolic as he is in some of his other writings. Then again, this was authored in 1520, at the beginning of Luther’s career, just a scant three years after his (in)famous public posting of his 95 Theses. This is a good read for every Christian – whether you’re a Lutheran or not. It answers fundamental questions about the Christian life in simple language.

The additional essays are superfluous, basically repeating Luther’s main points. But they fill the book out a little bit and better justify the purchase. A great work, a great translation, and good devotional material throughout a Christian’s life!

If the Lord Wills

December 14, 2020

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

I was talking with a friend the other day who cited something I’ve heard floating around a bit the latter part of this year. I’m not going to go see my parents this year for the holidays so that I can see them next year for the holidays. The idea being that because of the risk of COVID and the higher danger to older people more likely to have co-morbidities or weaker immune systems, the responsible thing to do is stay away from them (and have them stay away from everyone else) and then next year we’ll all be healthy and COVID will be gone and we’ll celebrate together then.

I understand the rationale. I don’t fault people for saying it. I know they mean well. And as I’ve maintained since all this started back in March each person has to figure out how to navigate the COVID landscape for themselves within the larger guidelines suggested or mandated to us by various government or health officials.

That being said, I always want to remind Christians to weigh this in the balance with James’ words above. There are no guarantees as to what the future holds, other than that our Lord is returning at some point! We make our decisions with the best available information and as we feel led or compelled to by the information at hand, but that doesn’t mean it will play out the way we hope it will. That’s not in our control. This means two things.

First, it doesn’t mean we switch our brains off and pay no attention to planning or available information or reasonable levels of prudence and wisdom. To say we are not in control is not to say we have no control. It’s just that our control is limited – a fact we dislike and often seek actively to avoid completely in our considerations. Christians who refuse to use the minds God gave them and the knowledge available around us are not being faithful, and those who are not Christian and wish to maliciously characterize a life of faith in Christ as one devoid of intelligence or thougthfulness are being disingenuous, to say the least.

Secondly, it means that Christians should temper our plans for the future with the understanding things are not fully in our control. And this is the important aspect to keep in mind with the adage above about keeping distant now to ensure opportunities to be together when the pandemic has passed. Although a great deal of hope is being foisted onto the shoulders of various vaccines available in various degrees, we don’t know how that will play out.

We can certainly hope that vaccines roll out as scheduled (or faster) function as intended and with similar rates of protection to what has been seen in human trials. But even if this is the case, the likelihood of COVID fears dissipating fairly soon is unlikely. Even if rates drop, the vaccines don’t seem to offer long-term protection from COVID, meaning that additional doses will be necessary to ensure the virus loses access to a large enough spectrum of the population long enough to begin dying out of circulation. That’s likely to take at least another year. It could take longer – we just don’t know. After all, it was just two months ago the media was laughing at our president for claiming vaccines would be available before the end of the year. Now that the election is over, what a shock to find out he had been right. Hmmmm.

Anyways.

That’s all COVID stuff. Ministering to older adults, many of whom have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they miss dearly and look forward to seeing any chance they get, I know how hard the social isolation has been on them. I also know a fair number of these older adults are taking directions from their kids, and being more careful than they themselves might be left to their own devices. And I also know that things can change quickly as people get into their 70’s and 80’s – more quickly than they or anyone else expect, and sometimes with less advanced warning.

All of which is to say that not seeing your family is no guarantee you’ll get to see them next year, even if none of you contract COVID or have any complications from it. As James reminds us, life is fleeting. All too brief as well as unpredictable. And this at least needs to be discussed as plans (or no plans) are being made for Christmas time.

Again, it isn’t as simple as saying go see your aging parents or grandparents because you may not get another chance to. But it is worth reminding people that life is fleeting, like a mist. Talk about it together. Pray about it together. Make decisions together. Grant a great deal of grace and forgiveness in the midst of all the stress and craziness of this past year. And also take seriously the sovereignty of God in all things, even pandemics. Life is a beautiful gift we don’t have absolute control over but receive day by day as it is given to us without any assurances of the next minute let alone the next year.

You may reach the same conclusions you were inclined to before, but you’ll all be better for the discussion and the prayer and the deliberate inclusion of the faith you proclaim in the process.

Other COVID Effects

December 1, 2020

Just a reminder – COVID and related restrictions have other costs associated with them than just who gets sick and who doesn’t.

A fascinating article here about Japan, where suicide deaths in October alone exceeded COVID deaths for all of 2020. The mental health effects of COVID and associated isolation and lockdowns is being seen in real time in some countries.

Other effects of COVID and related restrictions include deepening levels of social awkwardness as people deal with their own fears of others and reciprocal fears. Traditional understandings of how to engage socially – shaking hands, smiling – are all being deconstructed when our faces are hidden behind masks and human touch as become a social faux pas.

Long term impacts on school-aged children during COVID will be gradually revealing themselves for another decade or more. At risk students has a whole new dimension to it in the age of COVID. I developed and taught online curriculum for over a decade when it was a brand new field of technology and Internet possibility. I witnessed firsthand that online education is not for everyone, and that means both teachers and students. For those with learning styles requiring more or different than what is possible through synchronous or asynchronous online learning platforms, the risk of falling through the cracks is even more prevalent now.

And of course the working world is changing. For the first time the reality of a large percentage of employees working remotely permanently seems to make sense. But of course, not all jobs have that option. Many jobs – particularly ones with lower salaries – require people to show up in order to bag groceries and cook food and harvest crops and any number of very tangible, real-time duties. How does our society deal with this shifting away from the idea that everyone goes to work? Is working from home a benefit to the employee, and as such should the employee be taxed for that benefit in order to provide additional funds to those who have no such option? Or should employers be taxed for this option, since it will inevitably enable them to save money through smaller office space needs and other very tangible, bottom line benefits?

A vaccine is not going to make any of these issues disappear. Damage has already been done, and changes in approaches to work and personal life will continue even if a vaccine is ready or herd immunity is reached or the virus simply quits infecting at the rates it has been. COVID is going to be with us a lot longer than the actual Coronavirus might.

Book Review – Cannery Row

November 16, 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Reading a great writer, reading for fun, is one of the best joys in life. Relatively inexpensively you can travel across geography and culture and time itself. I’ve loved Steinbeck since I encountered him in junior high and high school, but never read this particular work. Cannery Row is an enjoyable character study of a community and some of it’s specific inhabitants. Centered around a cluster of unlikely characters united by a place and one another, this reads like a series of very short stories and sketches. Having lived in California for the last 13 years it is fun to not only try to picture Cannery Row as Steinbeck knew it, but to hear other familiar place names.

This isn’t a great book in terms of some gradiose theme, but rather, as Steinbeck aptly does, a celebration of smaller stories and the people who never make the history books, but without whom the history books would have nothing to say.

Grace

November 5, 2020

I had it all planned out. A quick phone call is all it would take. Sorry, I can’t make it for class this afternoon. It didn’t have to be any more than that. But of course I had to have the rationale settled in my mind. A busy weekend. Preparing for in-depth Bible study, a memorial service (and sermon) after that, and then of course Sunday morning sermon preparations. But I wouldn’t need to share any of that.

But for it to work I had to ignore the underlying motivations and challenges. This COVID situation has just worn me down. And half the time when I show up for class they aren’t responsive. They aren’t interested. They’re going through the motions. What difference does it make if I’m there to lead class or not? I don’t like those reasons as much. And in the end, I don’t make the call, and I show up for class at 12:30pm.

Yes, leading a Bible study/discussion class at a residential program for drug & alcohol recovery with a group of men directly after lunch. Motivation is about as high as you might expect. There’s at least one guy I can count on to have something he wants to talk about, something pertinent, Biblically based. But he leaves halfway through the class for one of his other counseling commitments. And then what?

Then he speaks up.

He’s probably been there a month. Maybe six weeks. Just starting. He hasn’t said anything, ever in class before. Sometimes he falls asleep. And hey, I’ve slept through more than my share of classes (as well as sermons) so I don’t take it personally but it is disheartening. But today he speaks. So quietly I can barely hear him. Jesus died for my sins. Christians say that but I don’t understand what it means.

The door opens for an exposition of all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The story of salvation and our place in it and the place of this man called Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be nothing less than the incarnate Son of God, come to suffer and die on our behalf, in our place. His question was the perfect slow pitch and I cranked up and swung as hard as I could, connecting with that ball and trying to drive it out of the park.

And then he responds. Truly a miracle! I’ve never really heard any of this before. Never cared about it. Never needed it. It’s overwhelming. Yes, yes it is. You come to a program in hopes of recovery and change in your life, or maybe just to get off the streets for a while, or maybe to avoid a jail or prison sentence. You’ve heard about AA and the Twelve Steps but now you’re also confronted daily with the Christian faith and the Bible and all this insider talk about Jesus.

Another perfect, slow pitch and I crank up and talk about the questions the Bible and the Christian faith answer that other religions and philosophies don’t. Why is death a problem for us, even as we continue to try and treat it as just another part of life? Why are we shocked and hurt when natural disasters strike in various parts of the world, despite being brought up in a Western, materialist and evolutionary culture that presumes this is more or less how the world has always functioned? Why do I constantly maintain an internal baseline of who I ought to be, even though I never manage to meet that baseline? Why do I hold myself to a standard I have only ever imagined meeting? Why do I do the same things with others?

It was an amazing hour, and I know that at least some of the guys were really listening, really processing what I had to say which was, by the grace of God the Father, provided to and for me through God the Holy Spirit. An amazing opportunity to articulate the Gospel in response to a genuine curiosity. And a reminder that even when I am less than willing or interested the Holy Spirit is more than ready and capable to work in ways I could only dream of.

God is so very, very good, and I am so humbled and grateful to be an imperfect part of his work, throwing out seed and praying for him to raise up a harvest.

COVID Risks

November 3, 2020

A good reminder that the risks of COVID are not restricted to the physiological illness we are conditioned every day to fear, but also the psychological (and I would argue spiritual) side effects that prolonged isolation bring on. This article reminds us there are lots of risks, and many of them won’t show up in a mucus sample.

Fear of Self and Others

September 18, 2020

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.

Pastors in Pandemics

September 9, 2020

The message came early in the evening during preparations for dinner. A member who had fallen and been hospitalized had slipped into unconsciousness. They were non-responsive and not expected to recover. They were coming home for hospice care, and would I come to pray with the family?

It was my first home visitation in six months.

I can’t describe how good it felt to spend time with a parishioner in their home. Preaching and teaching has been enough of a struggle these past six COVID months. But actually spending time with people where they live is another aspect of pastoral ministry I really miss. Not chit-chatty social calls but spending time in prayer during important moments, whether it’s after the birth of a child or near the end of someone’s life. To be where people live, to – COVID be damned – breathe their air, that’s when and where you learn the most about people. People may appreciate a sermon or enjoy a Bible study but when you’re with them one-on-one in their home, real connection can be made. Relationship is strengthened and deepened.

Pastor’s are uniquely privileged in this respect as we get to be with people in their homes without at least some of the angst caused by hosting a social visit. Few other professions meet with people in their homes (at least under good circumstances!). As a seminary professor once drilled it into our heads, it is part of a noble task. I try not to take my privilege lightly.

The home is the primary locale for life. I suspect American Christianity has missed a great opportunity in trying to position the church buildings or grounds as the most important space in people’s lives when it’s obviously their home. Sometimes ministry needs a different and larger space but ministry began in the home, whether it was Adam and Eve in the beginning or Jesus and his disciples having dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And unless the home is recognized as just as much the abode of God the Holy Spirit as the sanctuary, the sanctuary will eventually dwindle in significance.

I wish it was a happier occasion for this first visitation in six months. Then again, praying over (and with) someone who has lived a long and vibrant life and has a deep and abiding trust in Jesus as their Savior is a really good thing. To know that he’s now at peace, awaiting the final Day, the great reunion that won’t ever end, that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot. It’s an honor and a privilege to remind people of that even in their grief. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.