A Random Thought: Relocating Poverty

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I have a confession.  April has never been nice to my productivity.  There are several things I could blame it on.  The nicer weather certainly doesn’t help.  The Easter festivities, particularly the return of that which I fasted for Lent, creates opportunities for procrastination.  There is also the post March slump that comes after throwing everything I have into that month’s fiscal year end activities, vision casting events and Holy Week services.  This Sunday will also mark 6 straight months of preaching at least once every Sunday and I am just running low on creative fumes.

Be all that as it may, every April I have no desire to sit inside and do anything remotely resembling “homework” which includes reading, sermon prep, and writing blogs.

Over the last two weeks I have sat down several times to write half a blog post before becoming distracted by things that aren’t even really distractions, like flowers and birds and sunshine and bees and that joke I heard on television last night and how much I love outside and, well, you all get the idea.

All that to say, my Facebook update now tells me it has been over a week since I have successfully published a blog post and I have engaged zero people this week.

So, under a slight obligation to remind you all I exist I thought I would publish a random thought that, for whatever reason, has been on my mind this week as I have been looking at birds, bees, flowers and trees.

A few years ago I was working in a Rescue Mission in downtown Kansas City.  It was a wonderful and magical place and I miss it incredibly.  We served the best homeless people in the country and the place was truly a beacon of hope for everyone who stepped inside, whether they were clients, staff or volunteers.

But one week a van pulled onto our street with 4 men in it.  None of these 4 ever entered our building for food or shelter, just the restroom.  But in no time at all they turned the atmosphere of our street from something resembling a Broadway musical, to something from a 1970s crime movie.  They sold drugs and alcohol out of the van.  They started drunken brawls.  They vandalized local businesses and I think at one point someone even got stabbed with a knife.

After a week or two the entire staff of the homeless shelter met together to brainstorm a solution.  It came out that this van with these men had camped out on other streets around town and pulled similar antics.  Before arriving on our street they had been chased away from a bus station, a city park, a train stop, a neighborhood and other places until they became our problem.  Every cop and city official knew the van by heart.

Our solution was fairly straight forward and almost unanimously approved.  We insisted they either take advantage of our services or leave the street.  We spent some time carefully writing a new rule that would make it look like we weren’t asking them to leave, just implying people like them should leave.  We said something like, “If you do not come in for shelter you have to be off our block by 5pm and nobody is allowed to hang out on the street after 8am.”

It all sounded good and when we announced the new rule to our regular clients they gave us a standing ovation.  They wanted the van gone as much as we did.  And, of course, the van and its occupants were gone that very night.  We never saw them again.  The street resumed its singing and dancing and all was well.

Except it wasn’t well on some other street that night where a mysterious and seemingly unassuming van pulled in to begin a new reign of terror.

You see the bus stop had made this van the problem of a city park.  The city park had made them the problem of a train stop.  The train people had made them the problem of a neighborhood and the neighborhood association had made them our problem.  And we asked them to leave and go be someone else’s problem.

We didn’t solve the problem.  We just relocated it.  We just forwarded it to  some other poor souls who probably weren’t as equipped to deal with it like we were.

I have no idea why this still haunts me five years later.

I wish we had worked harder to find a better solution, although I still have no idea what that solution would have been.  It probably would have taken more time and effort on our part, both of which we did not have, especially when people were getting knifed in our street and when our business neighbors were blaming us for it.

But still, it seems to me that if we are going to be faithful servants of Jesus we should solve problems, not forward them to other poor streets and neighborhoods.

This has been a random thought of go before grace.

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Comparative Religion in a Worldview of Absolute Humility

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I don’t know if you knew this about me but I am a really religious person.  That last sentence was a bit of a joke because any of you who know me know that I try to be spiritual but that I succeed at being religious.

A pastor named Kent Carlson once wrote, “At night I am a subversive revolutionary in a French cafe, wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes with some revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the institutional church.  The next morning I put on my nicely laundered button-down shirt, pull on my neatly pleated Dockers and drive my Honda Civic to the church office to try to figure out ways to build the organization.” (Renovation of the Church, 175.  You can read my review here.)

These words come pretty close to describing me.  I started this blog because I liked the freedom that the format gives me to pose revolutionary questions and give “third way” answers.  Therefore, I write this blog as a revolutionary.

But after I am done today I will open up a word processor and write a sermon for institutional church ears to hear.  Then I will go to Excel where I will work on an institutional church budget that hopefully represents our religious priorities.  After that I will meet with traditional church guys for lunch and then go visit a woman who has given most of her life and money to the church.

I make no apologies for that.  There is a lot of good left in what we so wryly call “religion.”

Yet lately I have been inundated with questions and claims that seek to defend our institutional religion against the big bad enemies.  These questions and claims come from a defensive posture by those in our institutional world who want everybody to know, “we are better than them!”  These come in the form of, “Who is the better Christian?  Am I a worse Christian for disagreeing with you?  Is our religion more or less violent than theirs?  Is our denomination or tradition more doctrinally sound than theirs?  Are our political views better or worse than them?”  I could list many more.

I admit that sometimes I catch myself asking those questions and playing that game.  I make lists that rank worldviews from better to worse.  I find myself thinking, “if that one grumpy parishioner would just become a better Christian, like.  .  .wait for it.  .  .me.”  I find myself in the heat of argument claiming that a “true(r)” Christianity would do A, B and C for the world.  And I get defensive and stand on what others might call “molehills.”  There I sit with my French revolution cigarette, holding a scimitar and daring anybody to try to push me off of this ideological issue.

Lately I have been laying down that scimitar and repenting of those tendencies, desperately asking God to cure me.  I am doing so because I have found those comparisons are extremely unhelpful in following a God who requires absolute humility.  In our system there is no room for better or worse, truer or falser, righter or wronger.  After all, when you boil out all the religious fluff and pound down all the molehills, what remains of Christianity is a group of wayward sinners who are dying of spiritual thirst helping each other find the free water that gives life and then proceeding from the well to live faithfully to its owner.

In closing, I am reading a wonderful little book about Jacob Arminius, whose hometown Oudewater was completely destroyed by a Christian army because the Christian in Oudewater were not “right” enough.  There is a rather dark report from Oudewater of the Christian army raping the nuns while the nuns cried out, “We are Catholic too!”  This did not just happen in Oudewater.  It happened all throughout Europe for over 150 years as Christians slaughtered Christians.  Not coincidentally, that century also saw the rise of atheism as a legitimate worldview.

It seems that with that dark memory in my religion’s recent past we can stop arguing about who has the truer system and start seeking the truer God, a God who is not far from any of us and yet whose narrow gate we still refuse to enter.

Have a blessed day.

 

Redemption in the Ugliest of Spots

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For the next 36 days (and for the last four) I am leading my congregation through the American Bible Society’s reading plan, “Engage the Word.”  This year’s theme is the Red Thread of Redemption, an obvious rip off of the the video game series, “Red Dead Redemption.”  Honestly, I am surprised the American Bible Society keeps up with video game titles so they get props there.

Whereas in “Red Dead Redemption” the good guy brings about redemption by slaughtering as many bad guys as possible, the Biblical story brings about redemption by God working with fallen and flawed humanity to fix that which is broken.  Don’t get me wrong, I love slaughtering bad guys, especially if I have the big gun and if it just on a big screen television.  However, God’s thread of redemption is probably better.

There are many stories I can and will tell to my congregation during these 40 days but one I don’t seem to have time in sermons and bible studies for involves a young woman I met a little over a year ago.

I was guest preaching at a very tiny church in a mountain town in northeast Oregon.  The congregation ran about 20 people on a good Sunday, most of them older and all of them wonderful.  While I preached a meager message about true fellowship a tall and skinny woman in her early twenties sat in the back row reading Twilight.  In thinking back about my sermon, I am not sure I blame her.

After the service a leader explained to me that she had been a part of the church for awhile now and a part of the community for longer but that she was fairly mentally ill.  Although she was in her twenties, she had the maturity of a 12 year old.

You see, when she was 2 and a half years old, her single mom left the apartment one day and did not come back, leaving her and her infant brother to fend for themselves.  It was a month or so before somebody discovered them and by a great miracle both were alive.  The 2 year old had done everything she knew to keep her and her brother alive.  They had eaten every bit of food in the house, including their own feces.  They were extremely malnourished and it took months to restore their fragile immune systems to something workable.

The infant son grew up to be incredibly violent and angry.  He is now in a mental health home and will live out his life there.  The toddler daughter is able to hold a steady job at a local business who is patient with her.  She has learned some valuable skills but still struggles to connect with people and always will.

What does redemption possibly look like in this situation?  Why do these things happen?  Why must they happen?

In “Red Dead Redemption” and the games like it, we would just have to buy a big gun and go find mom and maybe dad and maybe some family members along the way and, of course, a thousand henchmen with smaller guns and worse aim.  But in the real world, such justice would not solve anything.  It would just orphan many other children and widow many other wives.

In God’s story redemption works a bit differently.  It looks like a Son who being in very nature, God and living a genuinely human but perfect life becomes a victim of criminal and societal abuse.  His sacrifice creates a community called the “ekklesia” or the “called out ones” whose job it is to embody and inhabit this type of love in the world.  All of this means that one day when someone finds a toddler and a baby alone in an apartment, badly malnourished and sitting in their own filth, God can take over and go to work through the church.  The community of God, sharing in God’s substance through the communion table becomes the hands and feet of Jesus which welcome the children into its open embrace.  We have a God who empowers us with God’s very presence to love the hurt and broken back to eternal life.

And that is a thread I am glad to be a fiber in!