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Spiritual Abuse and Homelessness

Yesterday as we gathered for our weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter, I was nervous.

We usually follow the lectionary and the passage this week was from John 9:

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

I knew from the conversations and prayer requests I had heard each week that there were many people who were gathered who had heard these common refrains from religious leaders and people about their situations. “You need to get up and get going. Find some work, whatever it is and just do it.” “You’ve made some bad decisions and this is where those decisions landed you.” “You have to work. You can’t be lazy. You have to work hard for the blessings God has for you.”

As I read the gospel passage, I just asked one question, “How many of you have been told you are where you are because you have sinned, which is what the disciples are assuming about the blind man that Jesus encounters.” Hands went up around the room and heads nodded.

Before even hearing their stories, people assume they know why these gathered at the homeless shelter had ended up homeless. Many of the people they encountered were Christians, disciples, just like the disciples in this story, who were repeating beliefs about how someone ends up homeless and the connection to sin.

Jesus said to the disciples and to those gathered yesterday for chapel, “Neither this man (or you!) nor his parents have sinned.”

When we assume people have sinned and as a result have ended up homeless, we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of analyzing the vast privilege and racial inequality that exists in our society. A society that benefits certain kinds of people and delivers devastating blows to others. This is spiritual abuse. It is using religion to alleviate the role we play in continuing privilege. This is not the gospel.

When we assume that the only thing people who are homeless need is to be saved, we miss the opportunity to see the rich and real faith that exists in the hearts and souls of people who are homeless. This is spiritual abuse. When we assume people aren’t saved because they are homeless, we are defining and restricting Christianity to a certain race and socioeconomic status. This is not the gospel.

Maybe Jesus asks his disciples to welcome the stranger in, to clothe those who are naked, and to give food to those who are hungry because when we do, we get to know people instead of labels, and we begin to understand that we are the very ones who have caused the stranger to be excluded, people to be naked, and people to be hungry. Maybe Jesus asks us to do unto the least of these as we would do unto him because then we would uncover the spiritual abuse that blinds us to our responsibility to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

And maybe the disciples in the gospel lesson are asking the very questions we should be asking out loud, so that Jesus can teach us how our beliefs need to be challenged and examined.

 

A Vow to Create

The spiritual practice of engaging in a vow of silence is a discipline that comes to us from the monastic tradition. It’s a spiritual practice that is centuries old. The idea being that that silence “is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge, or to live more harmoniously.” Silent retreats have been opened to people seeking a re-centering and a renewed focus.

But at this time and place, a vow of silence is not what I need. I need a vow to create. I need to engage in the holy work of trying to create order out of chaos; beauty out of pain; joy out of grief.

I vow to create sanctuary: safe places to explore what God is calling you to do and who God is calling you to become.

I vow to create time and space for reading, research, and reflection pursuing this journey of becoming.

I vow to create table fellowship sharing the body of Christ and the cup of salvation with those gathered around God’s table.

I vow to create journal entries, blog posts, poetry, and, yes, maybe even a book to share stories, ideas, hopes, and dreams.

I vow to create chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin muffins, banana bread, potato soup, and broccoli and cheese soup to offer nourishment to body and soul.

I vow to create towers of cups and blocks that most certainly will be knocked down by a 14 month old accompanied by cackles and giggles.

I vow to create new recipes, not knowing if they will be good or bad.

I vow to create bathtub explorations that involve pipes transformed into snorkeling gear in underwater adventures.

I vow to create french braids that will probably fall out and have to be re-created.

I vow to co-create alongside the people of God using their God-given gifts to change the world.

I vow to co-create alongside Creator God, working and striving, however slowly, towards….

And it was good.

A Hand Reaching Out

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When Ben and I arrived to jummah prayer service at Masjid Al-Muslimiin, we were immediately welcomed by women of all ages. A teenage girl approached asking what Ben’s name was and then helped me with my headscarf. As I looked around the community gathered in the courtyard, I was speechless that there was a whole community of faith who gathered right off the busy street of Garners Ferry in Columbia on Friday afternoons whom I had never encountered. How many times had I passed the sign and not wondered about this community?

And as we gathered in the small room designated for the women sitting on the red-carpeted ground, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community that was palpable in the body heat of the women and children gathered. I resisted the urge to keep Ben close and let him wander through the sea of arms and legs just as the children for whom this was their faith family were doing. He tried to follow another little boy out of the door, but before he escaped, a hand reached out to stop him. It was a hand of an elderly woman in a burka and as he turned to look into her face, her smile spread across her face. She passed him a lamb stuffed animal to play with while whispering to him in Arabic. He sat beside her mesmerized and I stopped and watched as I held back tears.

We insist on so many boundaries and barriers in our American culture. We insist and protect our privacy, our right to free speech, our right to worship or not worship, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are missing so much life-giving, life-affirming love that comes from sitting together and reaching a hand out across those boundaries and barriers. Thanks be to God for this community of faith for their courage in inviting us, outsiders, into their community of faith for truly this is divine, mysterious, transformative, radical hospitality.

We Have Vastly Underestimated The Needs That Surround Us

As we awaken to the reality that our country has elected Donald Trump as it’s next president, I hope what we have also awakened to is the reality of the needs that surrounds us. 47 million people live in poverty according to the 2014 creating a poverty rate of 15%, that’s 2.3% more than at the height of the 2007 recession. In 2015, there were 17.7 per 10,000 people who live in homelessness. In one year, 10 million men and women are victims of domestic violence.

The need for the hope of something great for many, many people is real.

These statics haven’t changed overnight because we elected a new president. These are needs that are ever-present and have become more prevalent since 2007. In this period of recession and recovery, our faith communities have lauded and celebrated legacies of white male privilege in leadership positions patting ourselves on the back for accepting applications for women to serve in leadership positions, but never actually calling them (at least we had a female presidential nominee, that’s progress!). The teachings in our communities of faith, retreats, and trainings have focused on self-care and spiritual formation rather than community-care and spiritual transformation. We have created a reality we wanted to believe: that we our communities of faith are welcoming and affirming of all people and are relevant in the changing dynamics of our society.

But our eyes have been opened this morning.

We must now wrestle with the truth that we are participants in the privileged culture that favors some and not all. We must wrestle, no matter who we voted for, with the times that we felt we should have said something to challenge and question the systemic discrimination we have encountered. We must now wrestle with the truth that as ministers, followers of Christ, and communities of faith we have failed to offer hope in real and tangible ways that connect to the deep needs that surround us.

May this morning bring heartbreak for the part we have played and resolve to play our part in bringing out real, systemic change that meets the needs of our fellow Americans.

“I Have Plenty”

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As I sat in the middle of a tarp filled with donations of men’s short-sleeved T-shirts and collared shirts on Saturday morning with our 11-month old, I was overwhelmed with the way a community can make a difference. There were so many winter items gathered in order to help those who might not have enough to stay warm through the cold. I was already overwhelmed by the generosity of the two communities of faith with whom ministrieslab had partnered in order to collect and sort items for the distribution. This, I thought, is church. Individuals, nonprofits, and communities of faith all coming together to help those in their own community who needed items to help them stay warm. This is the gospel.

And I was feeling good about the work we had done to create partnerships to have a bigger impact by joining together. And I was feeling good about being there in the midst of need and being able to hand someone exactly what they were asking for.

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“Do you have a black XL T-shirt?”

“Sure thing!”

“Would you like a collared XL shirt as well?”

“No, I have plenty. Thank you!”

“Are you sure? These are all XL.”

“No, thank you. I’ve got more than I need already and there are other people who need those.”

I looked in his hands and saw two pairs of socks, one pair of jeans, the black T-shirt, and a coat. More than he needs? He has plenty? My mind reeled as I took in what he was saying and what my privilege had assumed. I wanted to give him more, but he wanted to make sure that the people who would use and wear the collared shirts would be able to have those. He knew he wouldn’t use them, so he left them for someone else.

And I thought about how much I have, about how many times I’ve not even thought about other people who might need something I have more than me. And I was confronted with my privilege again.

As a woman who has pursued ministry, in particular preaching and pastoring ministry, I have fought against privilege and systemic discrimination. And as I have confronted and challenged that privilege by simply trying to answer my call, I have often thought there was no way I could have privilege, no way I could not understand those who are fighting the same battle I am fighting in different realms.

I was wrong.

The work we have done with the homeless has humbled me, challenged me, and made me confront the reality that I have privilege that makes me want to give more to someone who thinks more about the community surrounding him than he does about how many clothes he has.

 

      

The Privilege in Choice

As the cooler weather has crept in, I realized that this time last year, my choices were pretty limited on what I could and couldn’t wear because I was 8 months pregnant. As I looked in my closet, I wondered what I wore two years ago before I was pregnant to stay warm. Then, I realized, I have clothes from two years ago and three years ago and four years ago….

As I looked in my closet, I was overwhelmed by my privilege. The privilege of having choices of clothes in my closet. The privilege of having a place to keep these clothes year after year. The privilege to change clothes. Privilege that I hardly ever think about, but that exists as part of my daily life. Privilege that separates me from other people. Privilege that helps me sleep at night free of worry about what to wear tomorrow because I know there are clothes in my closet and in my children’s closets.

As we prepare at ministrieslab to partner with the good work Resurrections is doing to provide winter wear for those who come and eat at Lunch on the Lawn this Saturday, I am thankful for partners like Garden of Grace and New Hope Christian Fellowship. Partners who are willing to acknowledge their own privilege in having clothes and winter gear that could help someone in need. Partners who are willing to give freely rather than defend their right to that privilege.

Parenting in the Midst of Crisis

As I watch the news and await the impact of Hurricane Matthew on South Carolina, I think back to the parents who were in the Victorian Lakes Mobile Home Community during the flood last year and the stories they told about the police coming and knocking on their door telling them to pack a bag and be ready to go. I remember them telling me with tears in the eyes of the weeks and months that followed of bedtimes filled with fear and anxiety. I remember their telling me about their children looking into their eyes and asking, “Are we going to be ok? Are we going to have to leave?”

I remember that we were supposed to have the girls on that weekend and that we, as parents, decided together that it was a better idea if they stayed with their mom. I remember the disappointment and questioning that followed that decision on Saturday as there was no rain, and then the relief on Sunday knowing they were safe. I remember wondering how much we were going to tell them about what had happened to families here and whether we would show them the houses and businesses that were destroyed.

The same question I was asking then, rolls around in my heart and mind as I hear about another school shooting, this time resulting in a child dying or potential flooding, “How do I parent in the midst of crisis? How much do I tell my children about what’s going on in a manner that facilitates understanding and empathy, but not fear?”

I don’t have the answers to these questions nor would I beg to offer the answers to these questions to any other parent, but what I do have is a community of other parents who are wrestling with how to parent in the midst of crisis in a way that fosters wholeness and compassion and love.

Thanks be to God for community and conversation as we walk this road together.

How Flood Relief Changed My Call to Ministry

It’s been a year since Columbia was devastated with a historic flood. It isn’t that we weren’t warned that the rain was coming, it’s that no one who lived in famously hot Columbia could imagine what that amount of rainfall could do to homes, businesses, and lives.

Just last week I took Waylon to our vet whose offices were completely flooded. I asked our vet if they were excited to be moving back into their old offices and she told me that after months of renovation, they had to give up their old offices. They were deemed uninhabitable even with the repair work that had been done. I’ve talked to families who have spent the last year recovering and restoring home who have now decided they want to try to sell the house, but don’t know what to expect since they know it will be listed as a flood prone house.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my involvement as a pastor in the midst of disaster relief has changed the way I view ministry and changed my call to ministry. The outpouring of support and help from congregations all over the state and indeed the southeast was soul filling and overwhelming. I won’t forget the number of clergy colleagues who contacted me to ask how they could help and the number of friends and family who offered support. It’s the closest I have seen to the kingdom of God being here on earth.

But there was something else that happened. As I did some of the drop offs and deliveries to the nonprofits who requested help, I heard time and time again, “I wish it were always like this,” “Too bad this won’t last,” “If only we had had this two months ago.”

These response opened my ears and my eyes to the ongoing need those who are helping the homeless, those in the midst of crisis, and those who are ostracized every day. Hearing their stories, changed my story. I wanted to partner with those nonprofits and ministries who were doing the hard work of developing and maintaining relationships. I wanted to offer not one time help, but ongoing help to my neighbors in need. ministrieslab is helping us do just that.

Two of our partners, The Cooperative Ministry and Resurrections have requested the following items for distribution to those who are in need this winter.

  • women, men, and children’s gently used coats
  • women, men, and children’s gently used shoes
  • Blankets
  • Winter coats
  • Winter clothes of all types (shirts/pants) Regarding clothing: 96 % of the need on our site is for men’s sizes L-4XL with emphasis on XL and XXL
  • Tennis shoes men

If you would like to help partner with great people who are helping those who are in need day in and day out with these items, please let me know!

Prayers of the People

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I didn’t grow up in a worship tradition that included Prayers of the People. Perhaps it was because the congregation was so large that ministers and worship leaders didn’t know how to manage and plan for the time it would take for people to utter prayers before God and their community of faith. Instead I grew up with a Pastoral Prayer: one voice leading a prayer on behalf of God’s people. I’ve found this is common in larger congregations, but I’ve fallen in love with the beauty and authenticity of God’s people uttering requests, praises, and concerns before a community of faith and before God. I love that the role of the minister is not the voice of the people in prayer before God, but rather that the minister or worship leader joins with the people in praying.

This is why at ministrieslab, Prayers of the People are a part of the services we lead. And today the prayer uttered by a first-time attender at our worship service at Transitions was so authentic and so compassionate that it reminded me how important the voice of God’s people in worship is:

I pray for the people who look down on us because we are homeless and think we don’t have faith. I pray that we will continue to have our faith strengthened even when people look down on us.

Lord hear our prayers.

And may this prayer remind us to see and hear God’s people whenever and wherever we find them rather than thinking God’s people are only in our own faith communities.

Let it be. Amen.

“I’m Not Good Enough to Take Communion”

This week at ministrieslab, we studied chapter 14 in Luke’s gospel where Jesus teaches his disciples a parable about the place of honor at the table:

14:7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 14:9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I told those gathered the story of my family and how growing up, we always had the same seats at our round, wooden table. I told them that the way it had ended up was with the youngest seated next to my mom and the second youngest (that would be me) sitting next to my dad, probably because we were the two who needed the most help. The older children had migrated away from my parents as they had gotten older and younger siblings had come along.

We knew we had a place at the table and we knew that we were welcome to the table.

For so many whom we have worshipped with at ministrieslab, this isn’t true. They aren’t welcomed to a table because they are without homes or because they have can’t see family, children, or spouses because of past choices.

And so when the man said he didn’t feel like he should take communion, I wasn’t surprised, I had heard this often in our worship and work. I said what I usually say, “Here are ministrieslab, everyone is welcome to the table. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church or what kind of church you attended. All are welcome to fellowship with us and remember Christ’s sacrifice.”

“Thank you, but not today, I’m not good enough.”

I looked him squarely in the eye and said, “I’m not saying that and our passage today is not saying that.”

“I know, I’m just working on some things.”

I smiled and nodded appreciating the reverence with which he engages in the sacred act of communion. Afterwards, he came up and asked if we would have chapel next week. I told him we would. He asked if communion would be served. I assured him it would.

“Good,” he responded.

“I look forward to seeing you next week.”

This radical act of breaking bread and pouring wine or juice and offering it to God’s people wherever we encounter them is transformational just as this parable in Luke. Perhaps if we concentrated on sharing God’s table with those who can’t repay us with tithes or designated gifts or invitations to feast together and instead invite those who can’t repay us to table fellowship, we would understand this parable more clearly and in turn we would understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ.