Another leadership meeting. Our pizza place is closed for the summer, so we've been meeting picnic style on the common. It's not optimum, some people are uncomfortable on the ground, if we meet on the park chairs we are in a row not a circle, so discussion is hard.
So we set up a couple blankets out and walked around and told those hanging out on the benches that our discussion would taking place on the blankets and they are welcome to join us.
One older gentleman came almost 20 minutes early to talk, so we visited with him until 4pm. Another regular from worship arrived right on time and we began with prayer and Bible Study. We are looking at Psalm 133: "how wonderful it is when people live together in unity".
Pizza (from another store) arrived at 4:30 and we talked about how important eating is to creating community. We also discussed how to drink soda without cups! Six or so people from the surrounding seats came over to join us.
Debbie, a young African American woman who had been at worship for the first time this morning, accepted her pizza but would not sit down. "I don't want to be rude" she said "but how is this church helping the homeless any more than anyone else?"
Yes. How are we helping? I offered something about how we know we aren't providing housing or food, or the things people need the most. She offered other examples of things we don't do. I agreed.
I went on to share that we are distinctive--that we are outside, so people can drink or walk around, or take a break. That we remind people that God loves them before they get sober. That we welcome all people, including those that are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. I was at a loss of what else to say.
Diane spoke up "I'm an alcoholic, and today was the first time I felt like I could stay in church, because I was drunk when I came."
Dave said "I've been sober a long time, but I need to move around. I always come late."
James said "And you guys really listen to us."
Debbie pulled up some blanket and sat down. We continued with a discussion about what makes "unity" and what makes "community."
Then we moved on to the business of the meeting. We have $600 in our budget from the offering. How shall we spend that money?
Bus tokens, or bus passes.
What should we do for a donation? Abbey's house, Jeremiah's Inn, Rachel's Kitchen. No, someone hollers, I want us to do bus passes.
"Bus passes are for us. What do we want to do for other people?"
This description of our meeting sounds so organized. Can you tell that all this is happening at once? At the same time a guy rode up on a bike, hollered for one our participants, and was told to get out of here. Two people went off to smoke, one volunteered followed, and for a few minutes we had two discussion circles 12 feet apart. Someone complained that this can't be bible study if we don't have bibles, and another handed him the printout of Psalm 133 and said "this is about community". Someone else complained that Abbey's house and Jeremiah's Inn get government money, so we shouldn't help them.
Debbie called us all to attention. "I have an idea. How about we use the $60 that we give away to buy food for Abbey's House. Then we can meet a church in the area and make dinner for the women there. You know they have to get together and cook dinner for themselves every night."
"It's 10% of $600."
"I want bus passes."
"We can do that, too."
"Shall we do dinner for Abbey's House?"
"All in favor say 'aye'."
We passed the proposal just as lightening ran across the sky. "Someone pray us out." I said, "quickly!"
Brian prayed for the homeless everywhere, and for the women at Abbey's house. We handed out the last of the pizza and raced to our various places for shelter just as the drops poured from the sky.
We live in risky times. The risk is not just to ourselves, there is risk also that we will harm others by our mere presence in their lives. In response we have the call to stay away from one another. In church that is almost completely unconnected to social media, I offered online worship last Sunday. The experience was surprisingly positive; we had real conversation, heartfelt prayer, we struggled with scripture and it’s meaning for today. The next morning the state called for us to stay physically separate until April 7. Now it seems likely to last even longer. For the social well-being of our neighbors, we will follow this guidance.
The risk/benefit balance between whether we should worship together or apart is clear. God can handle our absence from the sanctuary, we can handle finding remote ways to connect to each other and to God. The side affects of feeling disconnect, anxiety, and loneliness are worth the benefits of protecting our neighbors from illness. Not all acts of distancing have so few side affects.
When those of us with ample resources stay away from people who have few resources—when we stay away from people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure, when we decide against volunteering at the shelter or the food pantry or the meal, the risk/benefit analysis is quite different. Yes, we are reducing the risk of sharing illness with people who are possibly at high risk. Yes, we are reducing the risk of bringing illness from the streets and into our homes. We are also leaving people hungry and isolated. Isolation for someone who is already shunned by our society is more dangerous than isolation for those of us with extensive community supports. I can talk to my congregation, my family, a circle of friends. Homelessness is both caused by social isolation and exacerbates it.
How do we balance the risks and benefits for ministries to those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, those who are sick, and those who are in prison? Matthew 25:40 (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”) is certainly relevant, yet when it comes to taking risks, other words of Jesus are also important.
Consider Matthew 16:24-26. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’” While in modern times we may think of “the cross” as small challenges we face, in Jesus’ time he was literally talking about the possibility of being killed. I don’t think he meant we must be willing to die for our right to worship (although there are Christians in other countries who are risking their lives to worship). If, as I believe, the true test of our faith is whether we have cared for the least of brothers and sisters, it is hard to see how we are not called to take real risks to do that caring.
Perhaps in your church, there is much angst about deciding these things. Many churches are not coming to a unanimous decision about any of these choices. That brings to mind the battles between children and their parents, fights between members of one’s own household, mentioned in Matthew 10:34-39. Verses 37-38 are especially harsh, I hate when I have to preach these words: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
These hard texts seem distant on ordinary Sundays, but now as we face significant risk, risk to ourselves and risk we carry back to our neighbors, families, to the wider community, we must ask what exactly they mean about what we are canceling in our church buildings. Suspend worship, for sure. Move bible study to online. Certainly get rid of the self-serve buffet!
But we are called to take on the risks that come with continuing to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those that alone. We must figure out what we can do for the prisoner and the elderly, each behind different locked doors. As a church must ask ourselves whether we are the only place that might offer safe space for AA, for the guy who talks to himself on Main Street, for the hungry, the displaced, for those who don’t have homes.
We want to be as safe as possible. Thus we may move our food pantry to the doorway, limit visiting, and pre-package the foods we give away. We may switch our meals to take out, most certainly we will wear gloves as we serve. AA and NA maybe asked to limit their in-person meetings to new comers or to people with less than year of sobriety. Perhaps if your program was two days a week instead of one you can limit the size of each gathering. Send letters every day to people you used to meet once a month in prison or in a nursing home. But take a risk. Do not assume that the only right answer is to cut out all risk, and therefore end all programs.
Christians are willing to risk our lives to make the good news real to others who are suffering.
"Rock balance" by kingzoot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
I am training for the Disney Half Marathon. Not the princess marathon, or the star wars marathon, I am training for the Wine and Dine Marathon. If I’m going to work that hard I want to eat well afterward. And enjoy a nice glass of wine.
People presume all sorts of good reasons for setting such a goal—to lose weight, to treat depression, to see Mickey Mouse—but I have exactly one reason. I want my body to work better. There are people who believe that food is medicine; I don’t believe that. There are people who believe that exercise helps you lose weight; that is not true. There are people who believe that walking long distances is fun; that has not been my experience. But I am confident that more exercise will make my body work better.
I am my body.
I hang out with many spiritual people. Church folk, of course, and pastors, and also people who see the spirit in magic and in the trees and in the wind. I connect with people who are looking for that indescribable part of life, the piece of us that can’t be explained. We call that spirit, or soul, or god, or God. Spiritual people work on their connections to spirit. I have a prayer routine and a meditation practice, I gather with others for worship, for good works, for community. Wherever two or three are gathered, there we feel the spirit’s presence.
And when I’m with people who feel that sense of the spirit someone invariably says “this is what’s real” or “this gets at who I really am.” When I work with people who have homes there is a desire to know “what’s really there” in people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure. When we practice how to be spiritual companions for people someone often says “we have to find the real spirit in the person.” Good, compassionate goals.
But I don’t think that who we are is only the spiritual part of us. I don’t think that all of who we are is hidden by our physical selves. We are not spiritual beings trapped in bodies. We are not only a spirit. The body is not only a costume, it is not only something that hides who we really are.
I am my body. You are your body. Those we meet have bodies that are a part of who they are.
Unfortunately, bodies give us trouble. In the search for the fast-enough Half Marathon I have had to have my heart checked, my knees poked, and I am now sitting with leg up to reduce swelling in my ankle. I take medicines that keep my lungs accepting air, and my stomach digesting food. As I struggle to make my body better, my body responds with listing the parts that need more work.
This is true for every person we meet. Some people’s bodies struggle with addictions, others with brain disease the cause mental health challenges. Some bodies have hands or fingers or lips that are less nimble, or legs or ankles or feet that are less able to carry them forward. All of this bodied-ness interferes with living our lives to the fullest. And all of this bodied-ness is part of who we are.
We cannot help people by focusing only on what is happening with their spiritual lives. It is not enough to assist only with bodily needs. To see people as they are we are called to see people’s spirits and their bodies. Ask me about my prayer life, but ask me also about my upcoming race.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.