Take Up Thy School Supplies and Follow Jesus

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I was driving to Wal-Mart the other day when I got a call from a mom.  Her children go to our youth group and they have a love/hate relationship with the church.  School was starting the very next day and they did not have enough money to buy school supplies.  Apparently they had tried to solve this problem all weekend long and had not only failed to attain the necessary supplies but instead had attained great frustration.  It was during the expression of that frustration that one of our other youth group kids was hanging out at their house.  He said, “You know Pastor Kevin would probably help out.”

The lights came on and they went about the search for my phone number, a long and humorous hunt that did eventually get them my digits.  They dialed them just in time for me to do something about it.  I said, “I am heading to Wal-Mart now.  Take a picture of the list and send it to me.”  I thought, “Ten minutes and twenty bucks.  This will be easy.”  Those were my famous last words.

I got the picture of the list moments later.  I perused through the usual “supplies.”  They needed pencils and pens and binders and paper.  But they also apparently needed headphones and USB drives, to my surprise.

I ventured into Wal-Mart, armed with the grainy, dark picture of their list.  I left my wife in the car with two sleeping children.  I told her, “Be back in five to ten minutes.”  She gave up on me after a half hour and just came inside.

Apparently Wal-Mart does not just have one school supply section.  It has four and they are in the four corners of the store.  More than that, I was shopping in the last minutes of the “back to school” season, which means hundreds of parents and children had all ready gone through all four of those sections and trashed them in their shopping.  They were a chaotic mess of left over, rejected supplies.  The pencils were scattered about the backpack section.  The backpacks were all unzipped and half of them were on a shelf, the other half on the floor.  The pencil boxes were all but non existent and the ones I found were zipped into bags and binders and backpacks.  The binders were scattered all over one shelf.

Luckily I was not the only forlorn soul trying to make sense of these four sections.  There were other last minute parents there and we became a community of pilgrims.  We bounced together through these four sections, occasionally electing a scout to venture elsewhere and bring back a report of what hairy messes and bejeweled supplies awaited.  We sang laments to the good ole days and bravely faced this strange new world where kids now need USB drives instead of journals (except they still needed journals too for some reason).

At one point a mother said, “They always want three glue sticks and my son always bring 2 and a half of them back in May.”  I looked at my list and replied, “This kid needs 9!  What classes is he taking, Advanced Glue Metrics?!?!”  The entire aisle burst into laughter and then stopped, expecting a follow up joke.  I unfortunately had none and they all shook their heads and retreated back into frustration and sorrow.

Eventually my wife found me.  The kids had woken up and started screaming in the car and she had brought them inside.  But she barely recognized me.   My pilgrimage had changed me in profound ways.  Over the last half hour I had lived a lifetime.  I had laughed.  I had cried.  I had grown and I had loved.  All of this was etched on my weary face, which was now sporting a five o’clock shadow, proudly displaying the new wisdom gained from shopping this chaotic world.

We delivered the school supplies to the desperate family later that evening.  The mom expressed sheer gratitude, at one point saying,  “God was looking out for my babies today.”

But her 10 year old son out-shined her.  I went to give him a high five and instead he hugged me and said, “Thank you so much.”

I learned the next day that kids who show up without the needed supplies feel incredibly inadequate, unprepared and out of place.  The teachers in our school district are incredible and they handle these situations with a wonderful amount of compassion and tact.  However, the other kids are not that way.  A kid without school supplies has drawn a target on his back that welcomes bullying.  Simply put, the first day of school is a nightmare for kids who are unprepared.

The pilgrimage of shopping was far too short for the payoff of a kid who now can get the year off on the right foot.

Hashtagging My Activism And Ice Dumping It All Away

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I am not a cause-y person. To be sure, I get passionate about stuff, even overly passionate at times, but I often feel like passion gets in the way of compassion and I would rather have a soft heart than a loud voice.

Or maybe I just burned out in college. I went to a wonderful private Christian university where I spent some of the best years of my life. Like most college aged students we were all about causes. You name the cause, we supported it wholeheartedly. We watched “Invisible Children” documentaries (before they went mainstream), dug wells in Africa, built houses in Mexico, took offerings for people in the community and played Bingo at retirement homes.

Also, like most college aged students, we were incredibly noncommittal. So we had a “cause of the month” where a big crisis captured our attention. Every single one was, “the most important tragedy of our time” until the next month came along with another tragedy. Then that one became the most important before we had done one lick of good for the last cause.

So I am not cause-y. I care a lot about a lot of things but uniting passion to my compassion isn’t my thing.

I bring this all up because last week ALS became our “cause of the week” where we either gave money to ALS research or dumped ice on our heads. I have a sneaking suspicion most people did both since ALS has received millions of dollars and YouTube is still full of people pouring ice on their heads.

Of course every time we come up with something new and fun to do someone has to be the killjoy who reminds us we aren’t actually helping ALS out by dumping ice on our heads. These are the same people who reminded us we didn’t actually become more like Jesus by wearing a bracelet, don’t actually have compassion for cancer victims by wearing a pink ribbon and don’t actually encourage people to vote for our politician by putting their bumper stickers on a car.

These people are right of course, except that they are not. These gimmicks all worked, even the WWJD bracelets. They all increased awareness for their cause and with that awareness came (and still comes) a great amount of money that has done a lot of good.

These critics don’t think silliness and compassion can co-exist but I think they are wrong. In fact, the ice bucket challenge went viral the same week that we mourned the loss of Robin Williams, who though being quite silly, is still heralded as having great compassion. In my own life the silliest people have the biggest hearts. The people willing to dump a bucket of ice over their heads for laughs are the ones willing to cry with the hurt and broken, suffer alongside cancer victims and give money to any who will ask.

I have learned as a pastor that to be successful (whatever that word means) I must put up with or even enjoy the inherent silliness of people. The reality is we live in a world where we spend billions of dollars to watch over-padded athletes toss around an awkward shaped ball. In that same world computer programmers spend hundreds of hours writing a story and developing mechanics to create a video game that millions will spend 100 hours of their lives to conquer. We run 26.1 miles for fun and that last tenth of a mile makes it all the more ridiculous as if 26 miles wasn’t long enough. We pay hundreds of dollars to see people stand in an auditorium and tell jokes or play music. And at home we are even more silly, playing card games with ridiculous rules (slap the 8s!) and then get mad when someone breaks the rules because breaking the rules of a card game are like breaking the 10 commandments!  We spend $10 a person (another $10 on popcorn) to see a movie whose entire plot is watching things blow up.  We even play charades, a game so dumb it consists of people miming household objects to each other.  All of this merely cracks the surface of our absurdity because if you cross country lines you will see similar silliness at work in the rest of the world.

It is all to be celebrated and enjoyed because I am quite certain that the New Creation will consist of nothing but such folly. We will tell jokes and play innocent pranks and pour into theaters to see which Angel is “The Last Comic Standing.” We will play games and have dances and we will certainly sing wonderful songs.

But this side of eternity our silliness should sometimes have a point. So if wearing a pink badge or dumping ice on your head is a way to raise money and awareness for those suffering under debilitating diseases, we are all the more merry and all the better for it.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Grapes of Wrath

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Over the last few weeks I have run across quotes, allusions and references to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” everywhere I turned.  I had a very kind High School English teacher who didn’t believe in torture, so I had never the book.  But I figured maybe God was more cruel than my English teacher and was now requiring that I read it.

So I was obedient to the calling and found a cheap copy on Google play.  As it downloaded, my wife warned me in a way that echoed Dante, ‘to abandon all hope ye who read that book.”  Although she had never read the book herself, her words were vindicated by a 1 star Google review by someone named Megan that said, “Horrible! I only read this because I had too for English class.  The whole time I’m thinking dafaq? is going on.”

I ignored my wife’s and Megan’s reservations and resignedly finger flicked my way through the book.  As my finger perfected the side swipe, my mind, heart and soul spent the week surviving the Great Depression with the Joad family.

As I struggled my way across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California with the Joads, I was often tempted to think, “I am glad we have come such a long way in the 75 years since this was written.”  Honestly, we kind of have.  I mean right now as a nation we do a lot better at feeding and housing homeless people than at any time before and better than most countries throughout history.  Despite popular belief this assistance does not just come from the government, but a large amount of individuals, churches, NGO’s and for-profit organizations give a lot of time and money to helping the less fortunate.

Still, I hesitate to write off “The Grapes of Wrath” as an antiquated story from that time when we evicted ranchers from their ancestral homes, lured them into traveling across the country, starved them to death and then insulted them by calling them, “lazy.”  Instead, the book seems to contribute to the very timely and relevant discussion about the two golden rules that war within us.  The first golden rule is that Scriptural one about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would like to be treated.  The second golden rule is much more persuasive, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

The story begins with a bank that has the gold making the rule that farmers in Oklahoma had to leave the land of their ancestors because one man on a tractor could do the work of 10 without one.  The man on the tractor gets paid extra if he uses the tractor to bulldoze the ancestral home.  The story continues as scheming merchants and used car salesmen make up the rules of “fair” trade, leaving the homeless ranchers with junk cars in exchange for their priceless heirlooms.  Along the road, power hungry policemen, angry store operators and fearful property owners set the agenda by which the Joads must live.  Sometimes this results in violence.  Most of the time it merely results in the tyranny of an empty stomach and the pain of feeling useless and unwanted.

Steinbeck summarizes all of this with the sentiment that the Joads, “were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.”  That sentence might be a worthy contender for thesis of the book.

But Steinbeck doesn’t let the second golden rule win the day entirely because the Joad’s story is filled with sudden bursts of compassion.  A one-eyed used car parts seller practically gives the Joad’s a car part for free.  The preacher traveling with the Joads confesses to a crime he did not commit so that the father who was accused of the crime could escape.  A starving mother feeds a group of hungry children the last little bit of stew she has.  Then there is the wonderful and classic diner scene where a cook gives a family a loaf of bread for 2/3rds of its cost. His wife goes one step farther and gives the children free candy.  This encourages some truck drivers to give a gracious tip.

But every crime of compassion comes with its own punishments and rewards.  The woman feeding the children gets yelled at by their mother.  The preacher’s confession gets the uncle to confess he has been hoarding $6.  In the end he keeps $2 for himself, which he wastes on liquor.  The one eyed used car seller gets a tongue lashing about feeling sorry for himself by the person who benefited from his generosity.  And in the diner, every act of compassion is followed by another act of compassion that is also accompanied by crude insults towards the beneficiaries.

I would like to think in the 75 years since the Great Depression ended we have become a more compassionate people who love our neighbors instead of inventing rules that favor the wealthy.  And perhaps we have.  Yet reading “Grapes of Wrath” gave me pause because I sense it is still not ancient history.

After all, I work with the 21st century migrant population and they are not unlike the Joads.  I spent three years working with homeless men in Kansas City and while some of them were born and raised there, the majority landed there with no money, looking for a fresh start.

Then I moved to the small town where I pastor.  It is filled with those who have migrated here from larger cities.  Most of them are young and dirt broke.  They moved here in beat up trucks or with no car at all.  They were running from a bad situation that usually involved drugs, alcohol and a broken romantic relationship.  They are desperately craving a new start but they never known anything different than what they ran from.  As I have gotten to know them, I find they are not unlike the Joads, “being beaten by a system they do not understand.”

Yet there are sudden bursts of compassion among both the inner city men and the small town migrants.  And these acts are quickly punished and rewarded all at the same time.  The offer of a place to stay comes with expectations and household rules that when broken yield angry brawls and hurt feelings.  The financial help from churches comes with the expectation that you will go to church there (a temptation I fight often to never convey).  Free babysitting is only free so long as the parents buy the babysitter the next carton of cigarettes.  The offer of free dinner comes with the expectation you bring the alcohol.  And lent money is always expected to be repaid, if not in dollars, in video games, movies, and cigarettes.

The rules and methods of compassion are opaque in such a world, just as they were in 1933.  Do we educate those who don’t know about the system so they can get along better in it?  Do we seek to reform the system and let some of those without the gold make the rules?  Do we vilify the wealthy as corrupt beneficiaries of the evil system?  Do we launch a revolution?  Or do we, who have the goldm visit the homes of the Joads?  Do we climb in their truck and travel across the country with them, letting their hope become our hope and their despair become our despair?  Do we listen to their stories, write them down and publish them to remind everyone else that our systems and structures and powers and authorities still leave much to be desired?  From what I understand of Steinbeck he advocated for all of the above but he seems to have been most successful on that last part.

So until the Bible’s golden rule trumps that other golden rule, I will seek to do the same.  I will visit the homes, travel with the people, listen to the stories and advocate for a better world.  To do any less would be to ignore the neighbor God called me to love.