Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My prayer for Christmas Eve

On this silent and holy night, we pray for those parents who will watch their children take their first deep breaths and enter a world of light. We pray also for those who will watch their children cling to final exhales in the dark. We pray for children who have parents that fight to make a place for them, even if it means a humble manger in a stable. We also pray for discarded children who have parents that choose lovers, chemicals and adventure over their own offspring. We pray for children snuggled in beds while their parents hide presents under decorated trees. We also pray for those children who live in fear of the angry footsteps of wounded, abusive parents.

Lord, grant that someone, somewhere will give them room in the inn tonight.

We pray for loved ones who warm themselves in the glow of family and friends tonight. We also pray for strangers who loiter in the cold of loneliness and those who are bloodied by broken homes and shattered relationships. We pray for those loved one who could not make it home tonight, but are held in our love. We also pray for those whose distance from their families cannot be measured in miles. We pray for those cherished friends whose images adorn our mantles and refrigerators. We also pray for those whose pictures have never been in anyone’s wallets.

Lord, grant that someone, somewhere will give them a seat at a table tonight.

We pray for our teenagers, who bring idealistic joy to world. Let them hear good tidings of great joy sung above the hushed sounds of angel wings. We also pray for those runaways whose demons sleep under bridges and in cars with them tonight. We pray for our teens that wear peace signs and hippie buttons and just want someone to take notice. We also pray for those whose innocence crept away choking and spitting on the red haze of war or the dark realities of an X-rated world. We pray for teens that will play new video games and dribble new basketballs on the morrow. We also pray for those who will have to carry AK-47s in order to live one more day.

Lord, grant that someone, somewhere will do more than just speak worn out words about how you are the Prince of Peace tonight.

We pray for shepherds and other blue-collar workers keeping watch by night in fields and factories. We also pray for those who will go to bed hungry for jobs and opportunities to earn some daily bread. We pray for those who dress up like Santa in order to spread joy and we also pray those who have to wear dirty clothes for days on end. We pray for those who are ignorant of the many hidden privileges that have surrounded them in security. We also pray for those who live, move and have their being in a world that has never given them a second chance. We pray for those who fall asleep on soft pillows of contentment and for those who will wake to a nightmare of noisy concrete, barbed wire and iron bars. We pray for those who descend on the sick and dying like a chorus of caring heavenly hosts. We pray those who are dying of diseases that can be cured in other zip codes and those who are shot up with needle of routine indifference toward injustice.

Lord, grant that someone, somewhere will figure out that you were born to do more than hang around, cursed on a tree.

We pray for those who sing Christmas carols full of life. We also pray for those whose innocent blood cries out from the ground, out of tune with Creation’s song. We pray for those who travel in freedom and we pray for people trapped in barrios, ghettos and gated communities. We pray for those who own very little and we pray for those who are owned by their things. We pray for those who will laugh and feast with hope in the morning. We also pray those whose dreams have been blown up by suicide bombers or crushed by tanks. We pray for those who yearn for your kingdom to come and long for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We also pray for who feel the lash of a hard bottom line that drives them to stain their souls in slavery to profit margins. We pray for those who will wake up to the sounds of children laughing and also for those who will wake up far away in the sterile silence of a homeless shelter in the morning. We pray for those imprisoned in their own death row of ignorance, prejudice and hate. We also pray for those who whose hands will be repeatedly nailed as they work to open those doors and release people into your new life.

Lord, grant that someone, somewhere will stop watching the front door long enough to notice that you sneaked in through the back door and left it...unlocked.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Silence may be kept

There is an over-circulated joke that says that Episcopalians are very fond of the Holy Bible because it contains so many nice quotes from the Prayer Book! That’s because the Book of Common Prayer is so central to our life and worship together. What and how we pray as Anglicans vitally shapes our identity and expresses what we believe. The Book of Common Prayer betrays our tangible commitment to beauty in worship. I find that incredibly important to my own life of worship. It may not be the thing for everyone, but it works best for me. I have a copy of the BCP by my bed, on my desk at work and in my truck. I realized one day that I am almost never more than twelve feet away from a Prayer Book for most of my life now.

Last year, when my formation for ordination process started to focus on liturgy, I had to start paying even more attention to the details. Those details are in smaller italic print. They are called rubrics because they were originally printed or written in red ( Latin: ruber) so they could be distinguished from the words of the liturgy that were spoken, which were printed in black. The rubrics are the written directions for the liturgy. I love them because they are thorough. There is no second-guessing about it, for example: “The following Confession of Sin may then be said; or the Office may continue with “Lord, open our lips.” “Then the Ministers and the People may greet one another in the name of the Lord.” “The People may add their own petitions.” “The Deacon or Celebrant says”… and my all time favorite: “Silence may be kept.” Nothing is left to chance or whim. Everyone is on the same page, decently and in order. In short, it is scripted. Deviating from the script is not a sin. In my tradition it is much, much worse. It is poor decorum.

That does not work for everyone. My oldest son has his mother’s worship genes. He has no interest in history whatsoever and could care less about tradition. I will say, “This is how our ancestors worshipped hundreds of years ago.” He will just look at me as if to say, “So what?” I then look at him as if to say, “Am I really your father?” My youngest son will respond to the same statement with a “Coool!” while he bows and makes the sign of the cross. I speak at all kinds of churches. Whenever I go to one that is of the more contemporary worship style, my oldest really enjoys it. There is one church where they play music with live guitars, drums and keyboards. They do not have hymnals. They project the words of the song upon the walls. I am not kidding. Seriously, they really have the words rotating up on the walls. They stand for long periods of time and sing with their hands lifted up in the air. My oldest son will be moved to the point that he has tears in his eyes. My youngest will have a look of utter terror in his. I spoke at one of those services once and the worship leader stopped right in the middle of the music and asked for anyone who wanted to pray at the front to please come forward. That seemed off the script for sure. My oldest went forward. My youngest looked at me in horror and whispered, “What do I do? What is happening?” I could tell that he longed for a Prayer Book to say, “Please turn to page 641 for additional directions.” Alas, there was no script to follow and he felt like running out of the building. I leaned over and whispered, “Just sit still and look holy.” Ahhh…now, he could do that. We both just sat there and reverted to our Anglican default settings: “Silence may be kept.”

I have many Christian friends who think that is mechanical and unspiritual. They fail to behold the beauty and creativity of the rhythm that the rubrics bring. It certainly would do nothing for them in the same manner that having the lines of a song projected upon the walls stands to do little for me. You see I had to sit through many slide shows when I was young. Every holiday my relatives showed the same slides to the family. Projections on the wall, while they bring back fond memories of my aunt Edith and uncle Charlie, do not exactly cause my heart or mind to soar to heaven.

I have often thought that I wish my life at the Rescue Mission came with rubrics. Unfortunately, most of life is lived unscripted. That is especially true of my type of work. It is as unpredictable as an old-fashioned tent revival meeting. One minute you are sitting in your chair at the back. The next minute you are on your back in the sawdust at the front watching people jump from chair to chair as they shout and wave a handkerchief. One minute I am sitting at my desk in my office. The next minute I am out front trying to stop traffic so that the nearly naked man who has been huffing paint does not get run over in the street---- “Wait a minute, he actually has a tattoo that says ‘Live to ride, Ride to live.’ How did he get a tattoo down there? Oh no, that car almost hit him! I wish the police would hurry up and get here.”

Actually, I can think of some pretty good rubrics to help order the chaos of crisis shelter ministry: “If the intoxicated man flips his middle finger, the Director responds by saying…” “If he moons you, an alternate form may be used.” “When desired, Directors may be appointed to slap the snot out of abusive husbands. In Lent, they may use a baseball bat.” “If a mentally challenged person gets a monthly check, it is appropriate to hide the income from predators in some convenient place.” “In place of calling 911, or in addition to it, the staff may use any of the additional means to keep disturbed individuals from jumping the fence.” “The Director or staff member faces the People and says…” “Here a ‘No Smoking in the Bathrooms’ anthem is sung or said.” “On weekends the following resources for mental health emergencies may be used.” “A hungry lady with children takes precedence over a lazy man requesting seconds at lunch.” “If a fundamentalist questions the validity of providing GED training to the homeless, hit him with a Bible while singing ‘Inglorious things of thee art spoken’ or, turn to page 732 for additional directions.” “It is always appropriate to yell at agencies that dump people like garbage at homeless shelters.” “If a guest urinates on the sidewalk use Lysol, then follows generous amounts of hot water.”

Sigh…of course, there is no such book of homeless shelter rubrics. There are so many invariables that the book would certainly resemble those massive, old Bibles that were kept chained to the tables in old Cathedrals. At the end of the day, the rubric that I usually find best to follow in just about every situation is my favorite, “Silence may be kept.” It’s always golden!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Soloist: a theological movie review.

Something strange happened in the Jones household last night. My wife and I sat down and watched a movie together…and we both actually enjoyed it. That might possibly be one of the signs that herald the beginning of the Apocalypse. The only way she would like one of my movies would be for James Bond’s mother to be diagnosed with cancer so that 007 moves home and everyone in his family learns to love each other again. The only way I could ever watch Julia and Julia with her would have to involve at least one Julia wearing an Iron Man suit, lots of explosions, car chases and an evil plot to take over the world with her recipes. You get the picture. My wife liked the long, first part of Titanic and I could only tolerate the last 40 minutes where something interesting actually started to take place.

Last night we watched The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is based on the true story of journalist Steve Lopez’s interaction with Nathaniel Ayers, a cello prodigy whose schizophrenia drives him into homelessness on the streets of the infamous Skid Row of Los Angeles. I admit that I have no idea what makes a film a critical success or if director Joe Wright should receive an award, but I do know that this film surprised me.

I am hesitant to watch any media portrayal of homelessness because the depictions are usually hurtful stereotypes that only serve to push the homeless further into the margins of society’s consciousness. The other reason that I was initially reluctant to watch a movie about homelessness is the fact that it is the meat and potatoes of my everyday existence and it has been for more years than most people last in this business. When I am not at work, I am usually hiking to a remote waterfall somewhere as far away from crime, drugs, prostitution and mental illness as possible. In other words, I cope by intentionally getting away from the overwhelming crush of the masses when I am not at work. However, so many people have asked for my feedback on this film that I could not ignore it. It obviously touched something within many of its viewers.

Several people have asked me about the accuracy of the film. I have never been to Los Angeles, but I have met people who work there in homeless shelters. I also know people who have toured the areas just outside of those shelters. They describe a horrifying place of human misery like a permanent encampment of an army of severely mentally ill people. In short, their descriptions match what the movie portrayed of those who live on and under the pallets and skids of Skid Row. I know it is the place where this first became known. “Skid Row Staph” strikes terror into the hearts of homeless shelter workers everywhere and drives up our own operational budget for Lysol.

I can say that the portrayal of some of the homeless people in the movie was so realistic that a couple of times I was tapping my wife on the shoulder while shouting, “That’s so spot on!” The depiction of Nathaniel Ayers as a chronically homeless man who is suffering from schizophrenia, but is also beyond the reach of the any sort of required medical treatment because he is neither homicidal nor overtly suicidal was painfully similar to my experiences with many chronically homeless people. Over 90, 000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County every night and 35,000 of them are chronically homeless precisely because they are in the same sort of shape as the character portrayed by Jamie Foxx. My experience has been that many people in that condition tend to migrate to larger urban centers, but sadly their migration is often helped along by one-way “bus ticket therapy” and “patient dumping” by organizations in smaller communities. The tragic reality is that the most troubled souls among us can easily get lost and remain invisible in the bigger cities. It’s no secret that many smaller communities, which survive on tourism revenue, count on that very thing happening.

The thing that I found most appealing about The Soloist was its honesty. It did not try to wrap things up into a neat, “lived happily ever after” fairy tale ending. The movie ends with a sense that everything is unfinished, impermanent and open to revision each day. Making peace with the fact that humans are concrete, complex people and not sterile, abstract cases to be managed or “fixed” is a process that everyone who works with the homeless eventually experiences. That’s because homelessness is ultimately a human issue that is as diverse and unpredictable as humans generally are. Many of my conservative evangelical friends like to believe that once an individual is “healed’ everything just neatly works itself out into tidy resolutions that mimic the narrative patterns found in the stories of the Bible. Many of my left-leaning Christian friends believe that institutions are the key to solving homelessness. More affordable housing and services surely would fix the problem. Both deny the complex reality of human experience by reducing individuals to a two-dimensional, cookie cutter simplicity. Homelessness will not be resolved by conversions or stroking checks. Both approaches miss the fundamental truth that the movie tapped into so well: in the end there is no such thing as an abstract homeless “problem” to be solved from a distance, but only people who are homeless and in need of mutual human nearness. People who rise from the grave of self-absorbed, super busy, rat races and walk the journey of long-term friendship with another human can narrow that distance one person at a time. Everything else is often hubris.

Of course, that sort of thing does not feed our messiah complexes. Whether by evangelism or activism, we want to save the world and quickly move on to the next problem. I find a lot of people very interested in the eternal souls of the homeless. I also find a lot of people very interested in the availability of a roof for the homeless, but I find very few people actually interested in the everyday lives of individuals who are homeless. Heck, I find very few people with time enough to be interested in the everyday lives of individuals who are not homeless. Instead, everyone is so busy rushing to usher in the kingdom that they trip over the homeless fellow and never ask him what he had for breakfast. If they did, they would discover the kingdom is already here, hidden in plain sight by its bare-naked simplicity and grace.

I have repeatedly witnessed the amazing difference that the involvement of just one friend---not a paid service provider or social worker, but a real friend can make in the transformation of the life of someone who is homeless. That’s the true message of The Soloist. It’s also the slow heart of the Gospel that was long ago tossed aside during the McWalmartization of the Church in North America. I am not against more homeless shelters, religious soup kitchens or government housing initiatives. However, those are not the answer. Getting over our 'Constitutional right' to individual self-centeredness will reach deeper than all of those could ever hope to. The Gospel is about incarnation. It’s never about redemption from outside or above, but entrance into the messy world of another. There are over 90, 000 homeless people in Los Angeles County each night. However, there are almost 10 million people in Los Angeles County. Imagine what would happen if just 90,000 of them slowed down long enough to actually get to know just one homeless person and come to care about that person’s life…then, it would truly live up to its name.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Guest post by Kerry Jones

(Dear Readers, a year ago I did a guest post on my wife's blog and my dear wife returned the favor and posted this on my old blog. Since my old blog has now gone away, I thought I would repost it here. Yes, I know just how blessed I am to share life with her. After two decades together, I am still absolutely crazy about her.)

Do you like stories? I do, when I have time for one. If this is a tightly scheduled day for you, and you have already cursed out the old lady in the Buick in front of you for making you late to your dentist appointment, then you might resent this post, because it might take longer than just a minute, but if you’ve got your coffee in hand, and have settled down for a quiet moment away from the fray, then why not sit a spell and go on a journey with me.

I was sixteen and had just gotten my first car about the time I first met this skinny, lanky boy with a huge smile. My mother, grandmother, and I did this singing gig back then where we went around to various churches and belted out gospel tunes in three part harmony. (It’s a southern thing.)

On this particular night, we were back at our home church for what was probably a revival of some sort (our brand of gospel belting was especially in demand at those sorts of things), and he and his father happened to be in attendance. My mom, who had already met the young man in question, could hardly wait to introduce us. Normally, her enthusiasm for any guy would’ve been the death knell to any future interest on my part, but I had to admit, the guy’s smile was genuinely infectious.

We struck up a friendship not long thereafter. The friendship mostly consisted of short talks on the phone and bumping into each other at various gospel-singing/revival/make-sure-you-haven’t-lost-your-salvation type of events. Once or twice, the lanky kid tried to take things to the next level with me. He bought me little presents occasionally, and even asked me out on an official date once, where I unintentionally stood him up (this is hotly contested, but I am eternally sticking to my story).

The guy with the great smile eventually went off to college, and our friendship dwindled to a few sporadic letters. That is, until I was at the end of my senior year in high school and was dateless for a formal event that was coming up. Fearing that I had probably already burned my bridges, I was very doubtful as I sent off that letter asking my smiling friend to be my date for the event. And yet, miraculously - - smiling, lanky young men being what they were back then - - he magnanimously consented.

Your coffee is probably getting cold about now, so I’ll cut the story shorter here by just telling you that whatever was in that corsage he brought me that night was pure gold. From that night on, I was hooked, and I’ve been privy to the depths of that beautiful smile for twenty years now.In fact, that smile has superpowers that not many people beside myself are aware of. In the last twenty years, that smile has gotten me to:

*endure thousands of hours of potty humor

*traipse through briar-infested woods and across cliff ledges in search of undiscovered trails

*play second fiddle to any new theological theory in book form

*watch more than my share of cars and planes being blown up on screen

*prepare hundreds and hundreds of manwiches

*administer hundreds and hundreds of rolaids

*birth two beautiful boys sporting genetically dominant smiles

*watch helplessly as those boys become infected with dad’s potty humor

*patiently handle the interruption of every family outing within a twenty-five mile radius because we are spotted by a former shelter resident who either wants to share their latest victories or beg for another chance at redemption

*look on as my husband’s heart breaks for the umpteenth time when he offered that chance for redemption only to see the person crumple it in their fist and toss it to the curb

*share in my hubby’s elation each time a shelter resident makes the momentous discovery that they are worth the effort it takes to pull themselves out of the pit they are in

*even stick it out despite the daunting future possibility of having to iron all those clerical collars

Being the lifelong companion of this man has been an adventure fraught with laughter, head-shaking, eye-rolling, snuggles, love, exasperation, consternation, giggles, and even the occasional indigestion. It has meant coping with basically the equivalent of doctor’s hours - - my hubby is on call 24/7, 365 days a year. But it has also meant being privileged to spend my life with my best friend. The one whose smile still makes my heart melt. What better ending to any story can there be than that?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The foolishness of preaching

"You can no longer separate Word and Flesh. Once separated, once you refuse the reality of the Incarnation, you are left with a theology that is merely a heap of words." ----Alan Ecclestone

Words, words, words. Without incarnation, that is all they are. Preachers often find themselves wrestling with God and their own demons in the pulpit---nakedly, right in front everyone. That is because the best truths we ever speak are born from the womb of our own struggles---when the words are incarnated into real human experience. The best preachers often tell on themselves by the themes they revisit over and over again with success. We are drawn like moths to the flame by the irresistible urge to subconsciously exorcise our own demons. I say that with some embarrassment because a theme that constantly comes up in my preaching is the acceptance of our own humanity as a gift from God. Deep down, I know that this journey into the world of homelessness has been about more than compassion and justice for those in need. It has been a quest to find my own humanity. My Holy Grail quest has been the search for my own soul among those lost souls who are also trying to find their way home. My best sermons have always been the strongest indictments of the worst of me. Of course, the little old lady who shakes my hand at the back of the church and tells me what a wonderful “message” she just heard has no idea that I just crucified myself again with my own words.

For good or bad, my love affair with preaching has shaped the last twenty years of my life. I love to tell stories. I love to make people laugh, and occasionally cry, but the thing I love most of all is the “aha” moment. I have not found anything more beautiful than watching someone experience an epiphany. The irony is that most of the lasting epiphanies have little or nothing to so with my sermons. What I say and what people hear are quite often two very distinct things. Most of the time when someone tells me the really profound “truth” that she or he heard in my sermon, I realize that I did not say that at all. It was not even close enough to the intent of my homily to count in horseshoes or hand grenades, but there it is, some life-changing truth that I was never even brilliant enough to have come up with in the first place. Deep down, I know that most preachers are given far more credit than they deserve for things like that. I might just get kicked out of the club for admitting that on here because most practitioners of pulpit craft take themselves far too seriously. The most dangerous thing a preacher can ever do is start believing all of the kind things those nice, gray-haired ladies say after the service. I have watched many of my peers over the years begin to not only smoke, but to also inhale that drug. The next thing you know, they are sure that they really are brilliant after all. Watching that happen is often as painful as watching a crack addict slowly melt away over time.

The best sermons are the ones that we preach to ourselves about two minutes into the one that the preacher is giving from the pulpit. We know ourselves better than any preacher could ever begin to know about where we are at in life. Those “ooh” and “aah” moments of epiphany belong to you and God. I do not mind that my hearers go off to their own burning bushes while I am speaking. It beats watching them stare at the windows or count the bulbs in the chandeliers.

Not long ago, I preached at a large church here in town. A lady came up to me after the sermon and said, “You are wasting your talent on those people down there at the shelter.” Whatever kind of bizarre compliment she meant by that, her words broke my heart. They spoke volumes about how little she thinks of the people at the Mission. It is the same attitude that causes people to dump their trash on us as a “donation” in order to save a trip to the land fill dump. I could not help but wonder what made her think that a pretty church somewhere full of aging people who show up to get their heavenly tickets punched each week was more worthy of my very best efforts than the homeless and hungry people who voluntarily wander into my little chapel service each day at noon?

Like our meals, each noon chapel service is open to the public. Anyone may attend. You are welcome to drop by if you are ever in the area at noon. For years now I have offered my very best reflections, homilies, humor and stories to the people I deeply love there in that little chapel (shown in the picture). I had a pulpit speech instructor years ago who rolled his eyes every time I walked in the room. He said that I did not approach the text with enough soberness. I am ashamed to say he was probably correct. He would definitely flunk me out of homiletics now if he visited one of our services at the shelter. Sometimes we have a rowdy, irreverent crowd. Other times we have older folks who come into the warmth and fall asleep. I do not blame them. It is very comfortable in there and I have, on occasion, put myself to sleep.

My prayer is not that people will remember what I say, but that we all encounter something more than a mere heap of words. Together, I hope we are all foolishly touched by a little incarnation of faith, hope and love.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"Let us all see again."

Reflection for Morning Prayer, Rite 2, Diaconal Formation Class, February 14, 2009

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

“I am never going back to that church again.” My stunned wife and I looked across the table at our ten year old who had just burst into tears. He was not, and five years later, still is not the kind of kid who would normally make that kind of ultimatum. We could not argue with him. He had tried his best to fit in. My wife and I had repeatedly tried to educate the people in charge of the church class he was in. You see, when he was five, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s a neurological disability that causes him to have vocal and motor tics. No, he does not have coprolalia, which causes people to scream and uncontrollably shout profanity. Even though it is the symptom most commonly associated T.S. thanks to the media, it is actually a rare symptom. My son Andy’s symptoms involve movement tics and clearing his throat over and over again. I am very proud of my son. Since he was small, he never hesitates to try and educate people who feel compelled to stop and stare. He is an extraordinarily brave young man. I probably would have wilted at that age under just half the scrutiny he gets on a regular basis. However, no matter what he did or how much we tried to educate them, the people in charge of his class made it clear that they did not appreciate his behavior and disciplined him for what they viewed as intrusive, disruptive misbehavior. They would set him aside in the corner and isolate him from the others. We later learned that they even allowed a discussion to take place in class about whether or not his condition was one of those “demon possessions” that Jesus healed. No, my little boy was not demon possessed, but I certainly was for a while after learning of that incident. My wife and I did the only Christian thing we could do. We listened to our son and we never went back.

I dredge up that very painful story to say this. Our reading from Mark this morning is a fine story. I am sure it has profound layers of meaning about the theology of healing and Christology based on how Bartimaeus used the term “Son of David” and so on. However, as I personally reflected on it, all that my experience with disabled people would let me hear was that same old crowd saying, “Shut up Bartimaeus!” “Shhhh, stay back there and be quiet. We’ve got important Jesus things going on up here in the front row. You will interrupt our God games.”

I have seen Bartimaeus all my life. Not only do I have a son with a disability, but I also grew up in a single parent home and was raised by a father on dialysis and in a wheelchair. I have had front row seats to witness that same exclusion from Jesus because “we don’t have handicapped seating—our bathrooms are downstairs and we are grand -fathered in.” God forbid, the very last place you would want to make room for everyone would be a church. “We can’t fit you into our agenda right now. We’ve got important things to do like paint that steeple with our building funds. It’s vitally essential, you see. So, shush with all that racket, just go on about your business. You are a square peg in a round hole, an intrusion into our otherwise comfortable front row seats.”

Blind Bartimaeus and all the others like him, lepers, the lame and the deaf, begged outside the temple gate where they were excluded. They sat by the pool of Bethesda or lived in shanties by the side of the road. They sat in the shadows and like my dad and my son, they felt the sting of religious words that blamed them for their predicament---cursed by God. One of the very few times I can ever recall my very devout dad crying was after a fellow Christian told him that he could be well if he only had enough faith. That misguided person made him feel like was suffering needlessly for his own spiritual failure of "not believing enough."

On one level, the crowd was right. Bartimaeus was indeed an interruption. The narrative in this Gospel has Jesus on the way, quickly moving from place to place right on up to the climax of the story. In fact, the next thing in this Gospel is the highly anticipated triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The sacred cadences of Holy Week are playing when it all come to a screeching halt. One dissonant voice calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The music stops. (Silence) “Hey, who said that?” “How dare anyone interrupt this parade? Jesus has an important schedule to keep, you know.” It was a rather rude and inconvenient interruption after all.

The interesting thing is that the Gospel story of Jesus is one long series of inconveniently placed interruptions. Bartimaeus interrupts Jesus. A centurion intrudes upon him on his way into Capernaum. Jairus interrupts Jesus and a woman with a hemorrhage intrudes upon Jesus on his way to Jairus' daughter. A very emotional woman bursts in and interrupts his dinner in the home of Simon. They are all interruptions. Yet, when we pay attention to the those stories we begin to realize that those incidents were not interruptions of his ministry, but rather the interruptions were his ministry. I believe the spirit may be whispering through these stories to say “ The work of God is quite often found in the context of that which is the most inconvenient.”
I work at the homeless shelter. I am there to serve the homeless. Sometimes I get so busy with programs, making sure the food is properly prepared and the washing machine is working and all that goes into running a homeless shelter that when a homeless person actually shows up at the front desk to see me, I catch myself wanting to say, “Ahhhhh, now is not a good time. Tell him to come back next Tuesday. I am too busy serving the homeless.” It’s easy to instantly spot what’s wrong with that picture.

Bartimaeus is physically blind as this story begins, but I cannot help but wonder if the text is telling us that the crowds were the ones who really were blind. They could not see what was really impotant. On one hand we have a blind beggar and on the other hand we have Jesus coming down the street---the very Jesus who has a pretty good track record of healing the blind. Bartimaeus has to call out and persevere over the crowds trying to shush him. My question is why wasn’t blind Bartimaeus, of all people, placed up at the front to start with? Probably for the same reasons that I get so busy serving the homeless that I cannot make room for a homeless person in my schedule or that we get so busy carrying out our church agendas that we cannot accommodate someone whose very presence is an inconvenient interruption.That is the most tragic kind of blindness: the eyes of our hearts are dimmed and we are closed off from seeing what is really important.

When Jesus stops and actually notices Bartimaeus, he does more than heal his sight. He opens our eyes and teaches us how to see.

What would it take for us to be willing to make room for those who are an interruption into our otherwise sanitized Jesus parades? What can be done to welcome a homeless person who smells from not having a shower in days? What about someone who speaks another language or is from a different culture than our own? Heck, what about a kid with Tourette’s Syndrome? It is inconvenient. It is an interruption, and that is precisely where God is most often knocking at our door. The role of a deacon may very well be to say to the crowd, “Psssst, the blind guy is really what Jesus is all about. Why don’t you make way through the crowd so we can get him a front row seat at this parade.”

I will say this: we ended up at our little Episcopal parish out in the cornfields, not because they have the most polished liturgy or the most spectacular facility. We ended up there because they welcomed a kid who sometimes makes some funny noises and sometimes twitches. They said, “Oh big deal. Come on in. You are all welcome at this table.”

Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” I think the appropriate diaconal response would be, “My teacher, let us all really see again.”


Friday, January 30, 2009

Stay in touch, blockhead!

I was once asked on another blog to tell about St. Lucy. Seeing how I did not have any clue, I followed the time-honored tradition of all clergy and simply made up answer that went like this: St. Lucy was the sister of St. Linus. She was widely known in church history for pulling the football out of the way just as St. Charlie was about to kick it. Church authorities excommunicated her for her prolific use of the phrase "blockhead”. This was known as the great "blockhead controversy". St. Peppermint Patty led the orthodox defenders of the view that all heads are created round. Legend has it that the pagan Pigpen, who only bathed once a year, persecuted her until he heard a voice from an unseen source that said "Mwahnawawaw Wampwahwa" Pope Snoopy the Great reversed her excommunication and her influence continued to grow. She is the patron saint of people who feel compelled to charge money for worthless psychological advice. It is widely rumored that Dr. Phil is a devotee of the cult of St. Lucy. On her feast day crabs are traditionally served since, by her own admission, she often felt "crabby." In the 20th century a group of English lads from Liverpool wrote a song about a vision they had of her "in the sky with diamonds." Ethel Mertz, a resident of New York reportedly saw a vision of St. Lucy's face on a piece of toast, but then she later sold it on Ebay.

I have been a target of the St. Lucy Society ever since I gave that answer. They have wanted to hunt me down in order to deal with my blasphemy. However, I remain an unrepentant follower of the notion that if one has to learn ecclesiastical history, then it should at least be mildly interesting, if not always true. (Evidently this was also the view of early hagiographers as well.)

The real reason that I know anything about St. Lucy at all has to do with a letter I have to write every so often. When my Bishop granted me postulancy, he asked me, “Do you know about Ember letters?” I am sure the dumb look on my face revealed the answer long before I shook my head and said, “No, Sir, I do not.” In my mind I was picturing a Varsity Letter jacket from High School with a small charcoal grill as an emblem for the sport I excelled in. Around my house I am called “the grill master”, so I could easily envision myself lettering in embers if grilling became a sport. (Yes, I had better stop this before I completely embarrass my Archdeacon. I try very hard not to embarrass her in public.) Four times a year, the Church sets aside days to reflect on God through creation. These “Ember Days” take place in winter after the Feast of St. Lucy; in spring following Ash Wednesday; in summer after Pentecost and in fall after Holy Cross Day. Our Canons state that I “shall communicate with the Bishop in person or by letter, four times a year, in the Ember Weeks.” The purpose of these letters is to reflect on my “academic experience and personal and spiritual development." In other words, I am supposed to let my Bishop know what is going on with me. No, I have not, nor will I ever communicate to him my version of St. Lucy’s story. The whole point of being a postulant is to get to go on and become a candidate for ordination! As strange as it may sound, I actually enjoy writing Ember letters. I received an email from the Bishop’s administrative assistant this week reminding me that another one is due in a couple of weeks. It is sort of nice to know that your Bishop wants to know what’s going on with you. Heck, it’s sort of nice to think that anyone wants to know what’s going on with you. Very often the difference between solitude and loneliness is whether or not you have someone who is thinking of you while you are alone.

I have come to value that type of communication in my work at the shelter. No, I do not require the homeless to write Ember letters. Sometimes I have people who come in saturated with the smell of wood fires they have stayed around for days. Occasionally a person will pass out too close to one and serious injury will occur. I can only imagine what I would get if I said, “I want you to write me an Ember letter.”

On one of the tours of the shelter that I conducted today I was asked, “ How do you know if people continue to do well after they graduate from one of the your programs?” I told her that follow up was largely done through voluntary self-reporting. In other words, we ask people to stay in touch and check in with us from time to time. I cannot track people down, but I genuinely want to know what is going on with them. I was asked, “How do you know if they are not doing well?” I replied, “We stop hearing from them.” In the world of addiction recovery, when someone drops off the radar screen it is never a good thing. When people are doing well they love to tell me about it. I have one fellow who still calls me regularly from Seattle just to let me know how he is doing. I also have a regular stream of people who come by to stick their heads in my door on occasion and let me know they are doing well. It is a very subtle form of accountability, but it works.

I have worked with people on the journey of recovery long enough to know that I really know nothing when it comes to recovery. If I had a magic pill or a secret program success formula, the world would be beating my door down. The irony is that the people who I often think will not make it are the very ones who graduate from my program. The ones who come in showing the most potential are often the first to relapse. We simply try to take the best of the 12 steps traditions and combine them with the most intensive mentoring discipleship and pray that we get it right with each person seeking help. I have discovered that everyone’s journey is unique and there is no cookie-cutter cure-all for addiction that is “one size fits all.” However, I have discovered some important themes that seem to run through all of the lives that continue to do well after leaving the shelter. One of those themes is accountability. Whatever form it takes in each individual situation, there is always a degree of surrender to being open to others. We strongly encourage people to find a faith community to become engaged in so they can make the transition to independent housing with the accountability and companionship of their church families. I tell them it is the difference between playing defense and offense. It is a plan for failure to simply go home alone at night and sit in an empty apartment and say, “ I will not use drugs, I will not use drugs.” That is simply sitting back waiting for temptation to come. I encourage my guests to be proactively involved with their new communities and get some real face time with people who are interested in how they are doing. I have come to believe that is not only critical for the battle against addiction, but for the struggle to remain human in the midst of the dehumanizing indignities of our modern culture.

We all need someone who wants to know what is going on with us, even if it’s just to say “Good Grief” every time the world pulls the football away just as we are about to kick it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Storm clouds

“God is raging in the prophet’s words.” ---Abraham Heschel

“You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say ‘ If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” ---Jesus (Mt. 23:29-31)

"And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ‘round"
---U2, Acrobat

“You cannot invite those children over here. They are black.” The man standing in front of me was the leader of a little church that I worked in right after college. He wielded all of the power. It was a very rural area. I had gone over to the “poor section” and invited children to come over to a church activity we were having and I was being chastised for it. It had never crossed my mind that there might be a problem. It was not 1963. It was 1993, but it was still very much in the heart of the old Confederacy. I only made him angry when I pointed out the fact that the church sent financial support to people who served in Africa. That was different in his mind. That was Africa. This was America, more specifically, his America. I could not resist stating the obvious irony that if those missionaries were successful in Africa then this man would be spending a long time in heaven with black people. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years...” was sung almost every week in that church. If he could spend ten thousand years with black people in heaven, I could not figure out why his grandchildren could not spend an hour with black children at a church function. He looked me in the eye with all of the seriousness of men who are serious about such things and growled, “There will be no black people in heaven.” Except he used another very offensive term to refer to African-Americans. I sputtered and stammered in shock and he continued. “When we get to heaven we will be made like him for we will see him as he is and everyone knows that Jesus was not black.” I had to know just how he knew that Jesus was not black. His reply was, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” He was serious. The problem was that he was not some uneducated bumpkin from the sticks. He was a retired insurance salesman and an elected official in the town! It had never occurred to me that people really believed that white missionaries were going to Africa to help make people white one day in heaven and let them practice being Anglo-Saxons until then. After a long argument, he finally conceded that I could invite those children with one qualification. He said, “Just don’t let them play in the back yard. The neighbors who live around the church might see them.” He obviously knew our neighbors better than I did. He was afraid of their racism as only a fellow racist could be. He knew that what was in his heart was also in theirs.

I barely escaped that tradition. It was a hellish nightmare that nearly destroyed my soul. I have encountered racism all of my life. It was present in the school where I was a ministerial student. It was present in my church, neighborhood and the culture I grew up in. I do not remember the struggle for civil rights. Dr. King was murdered before I was born. The world I grew up in was a world that was still reeling from the collision of two storm fronts. One front was the prophetic word. The other was the status quo of “devout” Southern culture. The prophetic word in the Hebrew Scriptures declared that God was not interested in songs and sacrifices. God wanted justice. Worship with a blind eye toward injustice was blasphemy to God, declared those troublesome prophets. No matter “how sweet the sound” of Amazing Grace sung beautifully in Southern churches each week, there was a stain on the very soul of our culture that could not be wiped away with sacred melody. Classic Christian theology teaches that sin cannot be really be dealt with until it is truthfully named, owned and claimed in the process of repentance and reconciliation. Racism is a sin to be repented of. It is not simply a “blind spot” that otherwise good people happen to have. People act as if it is a minor problem like constipation. It is a terminal cancer that devours souls.

Everyone bemoans the silence of God until it is broken. People long to hear God speak. They want to hear the “word of God”…that is, until they finally get it. Then they want to toss it back as if they are playing a holy version of “hot potato.” Prophets are always inconvenient because the prophetic word is a sword. The prophetic proclamation is always bigger than the person speaking it and it is always like lobbing grenades into a fireworks factory. It destroys security and privilege so that justice may sprout and thrive. We love to venerate prophets long after they are gone, but at the time of their visitation “respectable” people want to silence their uncomfortable, radical rumblings. They put them on a cross or assassinate them on a balcony in Memphis.

This photograph is of our local monument to Dr. King. He had long passed away when I had that confrontation with the elderly church leader. That man whose theology of exclusion still held sway in his little fiefdom had lived through the storm currents of Dr. King’s prophetic word. He had heard and chose not to respond. Sadly, he had allowed it to pass over him and he missed the truth. That was then, but as we pause to remember the martyred prophet today, I cannot help but be a little frightful for the church. What uncomfortable prophetic word are we in danger of missing ourselves because it would mess up “the way we have always done” things? We deride the hard hearts of our ancestors a generation ago at our peril if we cannot learn from their mistakes. Abraham Heschel once wrote, “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.”