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.
The one chair, over there, on the left, is broken and alone, almost the same color as the worn out deck, almost invisible under the leaves, almost part of the natural order of decay. It is separated from the stacks of working chairs: chairs that invite us into the cheery, sun-filled, social space. I remember broken chairs I have seen before, sometimes being fixed by an enterprising owner, sometimes hidden in the back of a garage, often with a leg appearing over the top of dumpster.
That chair in the dumpster I remember clearly, because a man without a home, his name is Joel, was pulling it out. He explained to me that grey afternoon how he was going to use it in his tent at the back of the park--how it would be like a table for him, rather than a chair, how he would sit on a rock and put his writing on the chair, how it would fit just fine in the furthest back corner of the tent, and how his writing would stay dry when it rained. How this chair was just perfect for him.
Broken chairs are, in some way, perfect metaphors for my homeless neighbors, I think to myself that evening, sitting in my warm house, writing on a oak desk, noting all of the furniture around me, lots of furniture, all if it unbroken. Broken chairs are set aside so casually at first, just like the people who so casually are set aside when they cross the line from having to home to not having a home. Joel's last straw, after the crack in his leg from the car accident, and after losing his hourly job when the leg couldn't be properly fixed, and after he was turned down for disability, the thing that broke him was casual and small: the landlord raised the rent. And just like a chair with one leg that is loose and unstable, Joel was set aside, out of our thoughts, off there in the corner, out of sight of all of us with homes.
There are people who have tried to fix Joel, just like there are enterprising chair fixers. Some focus on his drinking, others on getting his disability approved, others on simply trying to get him inside. Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces so many broken chairs. Can we change the design, can we change the materials, can we test the product before selling it? Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces people without homes. Can we change our definitions, can we change our supports, can we test new ideas before we impose them on the people who live on the streets?
Perhaps it is not important that chairs, which are things, end up brushed aside, hidden under the leaves, and then end up in the trash. But it is important that people--real people, people named Joel, and named Anna, and named Butch and named Daryl, real people are brushed aside, hidden, trashed. Real people whose brokenness is disability, whose brokenness is addiction, whose brokenness is mental illness, whose brokenness is simply poverty, these real people are treated as trash, and thrown away with as little thought as we throw away a broken chair.
From October 30, 2015.
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.