Inviting doesn’t mean you have to like it

I don’t understand it when perfectly good-hearted people say things like “Well we couldn’t invite this drunk homeless man in to our church on Sunday because we don’t know what he’s capable of.”  Really?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are valid safety concerns and it certainly wouldn’t be one of those things where you let the person wander around un-escorted.  But why wouldn’t you invite the person in, let them get warm, offer them coffee or something warm to drink?

I guess for me it comes from having spent the last decade or so working in (and for some years, pastoring) a congregation that welcomed in people exactly like that to our Sunday morning services…still do.  It’s disruptive, it wasn’t what we planned on doing.  It hasn’t always been easy or comfortable.  We’ve had to call the police sometimes, but we keep doing it.  Because it’s Christ’s mission, it’s our mission.  To reach out to those most desperately in need of hope and reconciliation to the community.

When our congregation started, we spent time in groups determining what our mission, focus and name would be.  We thought we knew what we were doing and our name came from the neighborhood we lived in – Open Arms.  But living out the mission contained within that name has proven to be anything but comfortable or easy.

Living Open Arms, being a representative of the body of Christ means welcoming in those you would just as soon leave outside your doors.  It means welcoming the felon, the drunk, the homeless and more.  It means welcoming those who have never been to church before, who disrupt the service (either knowingly or unknowingly).  It means dealing with crisis, with people who have mental illness challenges.  It means not getting to sit in a pew, listening to the service for sometimes months on end as you visit and mentor and just sit with people for whom Christ is known more as a curse-word than a friend.   It means being around people who smell, who make you uncomfortable, that drive you nuts.  It’s draining and it hurts…and it asks a lot of you.

But if we are true to our calling, Christ didn’t call us to follow him to make it easy.  He didn’t say that come to church on Sunday, accept me and then you’re off the hook for doing anything else.  He lived an example that says we HAVE to do more than this.  We MUST do more than this.

Christ’s mission was to a world in need.  A world hungering for positive news of hope, renewal, a re-connecting.  That hasn’t changed.  We are still called to reach out, with Open Arms, to those who most need our love and support.  LGBT, bikers, homeless, addicts, abusers and abused, people in poverty, felons… people for whom whatever reason, society says are “less than,” these are our brothers and sisters.  These too are God’s sheep.

Dare to reach out.  Dare to invite in.  Dare to be vulnerable to Divine Grace and then let the Spirit breathe.

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Taking a breather

I have decided to ban myself from Facebook for a few days.  Despite what I am sure it may feel like to some of my friends, it was not a hasty decision or even prompted by any specific incident.  It was rather a culmination of things that just became too much in the wake of the Paris attack and our conversations about it.  Although admittedly I’m not sure conversations is even the right word for what was happening.  Demonizing might be a better word.

The Left was dehumanizing the opposite side by calling them racist, xenophobic, challenging their beliefs, ignoring their valid concerns and engaging in name-calling.  The Right was dehumanizing the opposite side by making crude comparisons, ignoring their valid concerns, refusing to see any side but their own and engaging in slander against a whole group of people, innocent and not.  I am not proud of the fact that I was one of these voices at times.

It just got to be too much.  Too much negativity, too much anger, too much hurt.  Everywhere I turned people that I know and love and respect (whether I agree with them or not) were posting things that vilified one group or the other, were arguing with people that I know they also love and respect in ways that frankly bothered me.  It was like someone has tossed a grenade of fear into social media and we were using the shockwave to reinforce our worst perceptions about each other.  Whether “pointy-headed, naïve commie liberal” or “racist, ignorant conservative”, the discussions were less about sharing ideas and finding ways to build common ground and more about pitting “my” version of reality against “yours” and proving my way is the only right way to see things.  And I engaged.  I did it to… and for that I am truly sorry.

As a minister in a faith community that claims the name of Christ, I feel like this last week was not one of my better weeks.

I was not a presence of his love, peace and justice among the world in which I live.  I did not lift people up, care for their wounds, or listen to their concerns in the ways that I probably should have.  I struggled to show love to my neighbors.  I questioned whether I even wanted to remain known as a “Christian.”  But I believe God is real.  I trust in the experiences that I have had and others have shared with me throughout my life.  I trust that Christ is love and calls us to live a better life than we see is possible now.  I hope for and have faith that the world can be a better place.  But I can’t build that world, which we call Zion, if I do not walk the walk as well as talk the talk.  And this week I hurt people.  Whether I meant to or not is irrelevant.  I showed people a caricature of a Christian who says one thing but does another.  I screwed up.

So I am taking a break.

I hope to spend the next few days with God.  As Christ showed us, sometimes we need that break.  To pray with Him, to be with Him… to recharge so that when we reenter the world we are not over-come by it.  I pray for all those affected by the Paris attacks, and yes, that includes the killers and more importantly, their families.  I pray for the thousands of refugees around the world who will suffer needlessly because of the actions of a few.  I pray for me, that I will be a better mirror of Christ’s love to the world I live in.  And I pray for us all, that as God promises, Love will overcome Fear and Division.

See you in a few…

Faith in difficult times…

I have seen a lot of posts since Friday about the attacks in Paris. Some I agree with some I very much do not agree with. But as I have expressed myself, through memes and comments, I have found myself having people question why I do feel or believe what I do, especially as it relates to the ISIS terrorists (not just Muslims in general). So this is sort of an explanation of my beliefs, not a competition or critique of anyone else’s beliefs. I have many friends and family members who disagree with me and that is okay. I love them anyway and in some ways, because of their beliefs. I don’t judge them for it and I certainly do not claim my way is the only truth or true way to believe. I am not so arrogant as to think I have it all right. This is simply the best I can do as I understand it. So, to return to my thoughts….

I understand that for many people the attacks highlight and underscore concerns they already have about Islamic faith and people from the Middle-East. I understand that the attacks are scary in that they remind us how familiar, formerly safe places can become deadly and dangerous experiences with little or no warning. I understand that those who carried out those attacks will most likely not stop until either those who disagree with them are either converted or dead or they themselves are dead. I understand that for many people there is a righteous indignation that calls for vengeance and justice in the same breath.

But I cannot get on board with such understanding. And even though I understand it, I do not agree with it.

As a friend of mine put it, I was welcome to put my family in harms way but they weren’t [going to]. I am not actively advocating for throwing my family and children onto a battlefield in Syria. But what about those who don’t have that luxury? I am not saying we cannot screen those who come to this country as refugees, but to deny them entry entirely because somewhere, somehow, there might be a danger to us lurking in their midst? I believe in a faith that is judged especially on how we treat our enemies, the stranger, and the refugee. My faith would be poor indeed if I only prayed for the victims of Paris and not also the families of the aggressors.

It is easy in some ways to forget exactly how radical Jesus’ message was at the time he was giving it to his listeners. For his fellow Jews, his call to the promise of God being for Romans and Greeks and others was as radical and troubling as me saying we should accept all the refugees from Syria that want to come. His lack of concern with overthrowing the Roman overlords in Israel was in some ways as crazy as the idea that we don’t need to respond militarily to ISIS in Syria. The way people felt about “the other” whether it was fellow Jews who collaborated with the Romans, the Romans themselves, the Samaritans and more, are no different than how many people, including a number of public and prominent self-proclaimed Christians, are talking about the immigrant, Muslims and others.

As a Christian, I believe with all my heart that I am called to be a bridge to bring together the “others” of the world. I am not naïve enough to assume this would be without cost. Early Christians understood that their ministry might call for their martyrdom. In places where Christianity is the dominant religion we no longer have to worry about such concerns, and in some ways I think, forget about what Christ says about there being a cost to following Him. I realize this could mean my family is at risk, could be put in harms way. But we are everyday anyway. Look at Charleston, look at the school shootings, drunk drivers, robberies. It is not a matter of whether we are safe or not, it’s a matter of how much risk are we willing to tolerate. And if my faith in God’s promise is of any consequence, I have to believe that no matter what happens to me in this life, if I love my neighbor as myself and love my God with all my heart, might, mind and strength then it will all be well. If not for me, than perhaps for those who come after, either my children or your children. I am not willing to give up the future because change in the present is too dangerous or costly. I am not promised that life will be easy or that things will always go the way I think they should.

In my own lifetime I have seen the Berlin Wall come down, peace in North Ireland and more. Places and situations that people thought would never heal were not corrected by war or violence, but through peace and perseverance in faith that things could be better. It involved cost, loss and time. These are things I think we sometimes forget in a society in which so much is at our fingertips. Am I willing to let the possibility of harm come to my family if it means standing up for what I believe in? Yes. Do I want it to happen? No. I’m not dumb.

D_Boo Library 1

But I have faith. I don’t need to believe in the scriptures as literal history to believe in God’s promise. I don’t need archaeological evidence to “prove” that things happened in the Bible to see how Christ’s love can make a difference in someone’s life.  I can be just me and still influence those I am around and those I come into contact with thanks to the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ’s love.  I am called to be a peacemaker, not a warrior. And if that involves my death or the death of my loved ones, I can hold true to the lessons of Job and give thanks to the Lord even in the midst of loss and turmoil.

That is why I say the things I do and why I believe the way I do. No, it’s not easy and no it’s not naïve. So please don’t think I am. It’s scary and challenging and pulls me into places I don’t want to go. But as Christ reminded us in the Garden of Gestheme, “Not my will, but thine oh Lord be done.” Sometimes we just need to believe.

Mortality at the doctor’s office

Mortality is a funny thing.  Awareness of it comes in brief flashes, at random times throughout our lives.  It can often come at what may at first seem like such an inopportune time, but is more likely to be right when needed.  One such moment happened for me the other day when I had a preliminary sleep test done.  Turns out I am having an event about every 4 minutes while I sleep where my O2 levels drop and my average oxygen amount is on the low-end of what doctors want.  So it’s off for more tests to see about an official diagnosis this week.

Now, I have to follow this up by saying that I dislike doctors, I hate hospitals and clinics, and am just generally unhappy with the medical profession.  This is nothing personal against the number of heroic and wonderful people who willingly give care to millions of people each and every day.  And when I am in to see them I try to be the best behaved patient they meet for that day.  But in part because of having spent many…MANY days and nights dealing with chronic health issues for years and years, I am increasingly leery as I get older, of going in to see a doctor for anything.

But back to this test…

As I was reading up online (actual reputable places like WebMD, etc), I began to realize just how easy it would be for me to not wake up sometime and why my doctor was so insistent that I get this test done.  I called him back to set up the follow-up so here we are.  But it made me wonder about my life, will I be here for when Boo gets married, for when D gets hitched?  How many more years do I have and more importantly, what am I doing with them?  When Boo asks for my attention, did I really give it to her?  Did I play and focus on creating memories and stories that will last long past the time I’m gone?  When D calls or texts, have I done enough to show D how I feel and how proud I AM of the good things D has done in life?

It also made me think about my father, who also has breathing problems (he’s got a CPAP, although it’s not helping as much as we’d like) and the fact that he turns 72 in just a few months.  I honestly am not sure what to do without him in my life and I don’t even like thinking about it.  My mother is 68, so it’s not like either one of them is a spring chicken anymore.  But there is something terrifying I think when you think about losing your parents.  Even more so than when considering losing your grandparents, which I have done years ago.  It’s that lack of a buffer between you and the end.  That creeping sense of the grains of sand leeching through the hour-glass.  Am I ready to deal with the world without their guidance and sure hand helping me?  Have I told them everything I want them to know?  What about the questions I still haven’t found the answers to (most notably, at what point do you finally figure out this whole “growing-up” thing?)?

This is not to say that I am suddenly in a panic, desperately trying to flee from whatever happens.  I’m not.  My faith helps me feel secure in what comes after, and I am trying to improve the quality of the time AS WELL AS the quantity of time I spend with people, but it’s just been weighing on me more lately, as I reconsider my words, my actions and the priorities of my time.  I want everyone I come in contact with to feel the love of the creator, to understand that they are precious and that this gift we call life is fragile and fleeting…but also that it is vibrant and strong.

I needed this.  My father used to tell a story when he was preaching (yeah, he was a minister too), about a mule that would do anything you asked…but first you had to hit it with a 2×4 to get its attention.  It was a metaphor he used to talk about our relationship to God, the world and each other.  And Lord knows I have spent plenty of days wandering around without purpose or focus or otherwise knowing what I was doing and not appreciating what was around me.  I have had many 2×4 moments in my life.  This was another one.

I hope the time I am given is being well-spent.

I hope you know that whether we have been friends for years, are casual acquaintances or strangers new met, that I look forward to knowing more about you and hope nothing but the best for you.

I hope the Creator blesses you to be a blessing upon creation, in whatever form or fashion that takes.

I hope you know that you are loved.

Reflections on the odd…

I don’t know why I am such an oddball.

It may simply be a factor of my perception, but I look through my friends’ social media accounts, we visit in person, I watch tv and listen to the radio and people chatting in stores and I wonder, truly and often, “What on earth are they thinking?”  I am not saying this to come across as superior or condescending, while acknowledging that can certainly be how it is perceived.  It is more a matter of truly not understanding how people can hold some of the beliefs that they do.  I think that is one of the reasons I so enjoy honest, respectful debates with people who disagree with me.  I WANT to learn more about what makes them tick.  I WANT to try and understand why they think, feel and see the world the way they do.

One of the things that Bernie Sanders, currently running for president of the US, recently said to a respectful, if not exactly thrilled, arena of conservatives was that “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”  And I truly believe in this.  The ideals of community that my denomination feels that we are called to create are not communities of conformity.  They are communities that recognize the worth of all persons.  Communities that welcome everyone in.  Not just the ones who look, act and think like the majority.

It is helpful I suppose to explain that in my upbringing I think there were several factors that gave me a somewhat unique perspective of the world that do not allow me to easily integrate with my peers.  First off, I was raised in a denomination that if people had heard of it at all either thought it was a cult or part of a totally different church altogether.  We were emerging from a period in our history where we thought that as a church, we had the “one TRUTH” that all other churches were lacking.  It was a tumultuous time in our denomination’s history, full of excitement, hurt and change.  It also meant that I didn’t have a lot of friends to talk to about religion, in a place and time where religion WAS family (post-script, it is family again now after years of wandering).  Most of my neighbors were Catholic, Baptist and the occasional Lutheran or Methodist.  I was one of less than 5 Community of Christ kids in almost every town I grew up in.

I was also raised in a multi-faith extended family.  On my mother’s side, my aunt and cousins were Jewish, both by blood and by religion.  My Christmas for years consisted of playing Dreidel and lighting the Menorah candles, while one of my cousins told the story and then going in the other room to read the Christmas story from the scriptures and singing Christmas carols.  As an adult I find more and more that I miss that piece of my childhood.  Sharing in the different faiths that made up my family.  I also have cousins and other family who are Pagan and Agnostic.  But down deep we know that being family is what still connects us.  In many ways this is how I understand being a part of the family of God.

Both of my parents were ministers, as were all four of my grandparents.  I was also raised in a household of educators.  My father was an elementary teacher and principal for 35 years and my mother was a high-school and college instructor.  Knowledge and reason helped to provide the foundation for how we understood the world, how we found strength in our faith and what our part in taking care of the world was.

On the flip side I was also a theatre major and spent years finding a second home in the welcoming embrace of those gypsies, geeks, freaks and oddballs who made up the various theatre groups I was a part of over the years.  They are in many ways still some of my closest and best friends and family.  It was weird being an active and believing Christian surrounded by people whose view of faith tended to be extremely divergent from my own.  But it was also very humbling to be part of such a community of people whose own struggles had made them keen to accept anyone who wanted to truly join the community they had created.  While I may have attended church, they lived it, although I know a number of them who would shudder to think of it in those terms.  🙂

Additionally, I started working in social work at a very young age.  At 14 I began volunteering my summers at a Christian camp for children who had been victims of abuse.  The abuse could range from physical, mental, emotional, sexual to sometimes all of the above.  For a time, we would be paired one-on-one with these children as the camp provided a place of sanctuary for them.  Many of the children had been taken from their homes and placed with other relatives or in the foster program and over the years that I participated in the camps (about five years all told), I heard and saw many horrific examples of people’s inhumanity to the most vulnerable among us including in the lives of my nephews and sister.

But I also saw the incredible strength and resilience of these children as some came back years later to be counselors themselves and the power of love and acceptance in making a difference in these children’s lives.  Sitting on top of a 7-year-old boy and wrestling a stolen kitchen knife away from him, to keep him from stabbing one of the girls at 11pm is one of the most heartbreaking memories I have.  But seeing a child, so badly abused that he will never walk or talk normal again, raise his voice to share in front of the group his hopes and fears for the future, of having a family and wishing to somehow be normal…seeing the love of these kids as they gather around him to show him how much he is loved and accepted as he is, is one of the most cherished memories I have.

I worked in Domestic Violence shelters and Runaway programs for teens for years before finally hitting burnout.  The stress, frustrations and hurts that Social Service workers, Police and other emergency personnel experience is real and hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.  But it cost me my first two marriages, lots of sleepless nights, struggles with alcohol and depression.  There is a reason that people in these professions are so hurt.  It’s not because we don’t care, but because we care so much and we see so much misery around us.  We share a common desire to help our fellow human beings and often get frustrated when we can’t “fix” the problems we see.

I have been held-up at gun point.  I have lost people close to me to violence.  I understand, at least on some level, what it is like to have your life threatened.  I don’t ever want to face those circumstances again, but I also know that should that happen I will do everything I can to save those I care about EXCEPT take another life.  In my understanding and belief I cannot do it, nor can I condone it, not even to “save” those I love the most.

This partly comes from my journey as I ran away from church, tried other religions and none and finally found my way back to my roots.  If I truly believe that God shelters and protects me, than it is not my place to save my life through violence.  Martin Luther King and Ghandi had a lot of influence on this as well and will probably be covered more in future posts.

I love to read, to learn and to experience new things.  I want to be challenged on my beliefs, so that I may reexamine them and ensure that they still fit my understanding of the world.  I want to share in the faiths of my friends, but more importantly I want to share in the LIVES of my friends.  Building relationships is so much more a part of what I feel called to do than building church buildings.

I have a dirty sense of humor sometimes.  I have learned to live with the desires of my previous addictions to alcohol, smoking and porn, without giving in to them.   I yell, I scream at people I love sometimes.  I’m not great with money.  I lie.

But I also work on being a better person each day.  One who can look upon each person I meet as an opportunity to build a better world.  To leave this place a little bit better than I found it.  I don’t do this by telling them that I know what it means to be a “sinner” and then shaming or demeaning them into believing like me.  I do it by telling them my own struggles, by empathizing with their questions and accepting their conclusions, giving them space to grown into the person they are meant to be.  I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I make, I strive to make peace with people I have hurt or angered.  I try to understand.

I don’t know why this is such a hard thing for other people to understand.  I only know it sometimes feels like there are only a handful of us out there trying to live this way, but we do it because for us the world could be such a beautiful place if we can get even another one or two to see it through our eyes.

I may be the oddball… but what if I wasn’t?

Foundations

For me these two documents – 1.) http://www.exponentialimprovement.com/cms/uploads/Einstein%20on%20Why%20Socialism.pdf
and
2.) http://www.cofchrist.org/common/cms/resources/Documents/Sharing-in-Community-of-Christ-3rd-edition.pdf

best lay out the foundations for why I believe what I do… about family, faith, community, politics and the world.

The first lays out an influential essay by Albert Einstein on why he supported (little-s) socialism versus the capitalism that currently drives our society.  It includes some additional thoughtful commentary and links afterwards that I think is well worth the read although the entire thing can be a little thick.

The second is a publication by my denomination, Community of Christ, and lays out the foundations of our faith.  We are a non-creedal church so belief in these ideas is not required for membership, but this is the official church policy and largely mirrors my own understanding and belief.

I share these out of a desire to help explain why I say and do the things I do, not necessarily out of a desire to change or convert you to my way of thinking.  I do this because, as Bernie Sanders said recently to a crown of students at Liberty University, “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

Charleston, N.C.

I don’t know if I have much more to add to the discussion on what happened to the church in Charleston than things that have already been said.  But I think Jon Stewart does a great job of summing up where in some ways where I am…