Monthly Archives: November 2008

A Living Sacrifice

I was recently reading postings on the subject of “Morality and Religion” on a website for writers.  The general consensus on the website was that Christians are taught to do good through the threat of punishment by a disapproving God.  The argument goes on to say that general moral code of conduct is something that we share as humans and has nothing to do with religious teachings.  I strongly disagree.    

I work with the homeless population, the majority of whom are addicts.  I do not do so because if I don’t want God to punish me and I do not do what I do because of some innate human moral code.  Left to my own will and desire, I never would have chosen this path.  In the four years I have worked with the homeless, I have been lied to, stolen from, and had my name publically slandered.  My own sense of right and wrong would never have carried me through the devastating blows and failures I have endured as a result of serving the least of these.  

I do what I do because years ago I committed my life to Christ and vowed to follow Christ where ever that may lead.  This is not a onetime decision, but something I have to do on a daily basis.  I do what I do because I believe that when I die to my self will and accept God’s will for my life that Christ lives in me.  I become a living sacrifice. 

I wish I could say that it is an easy transaction; I simply pray “God I give you my life” and instantly I am transformed into Christ likeness.  Unfortunately, that is not how it works.  Instead, when we offer our life as a sacrifice, we often have to endure the pain that goes along with being sacrificed.  We endure the pain of being lied to, cheated, and slandered just as our Lord endured this same agony.  The gift is in knowing that it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me and it is Christ who bears the weight of all this suffering.

Those outside the faith may see this as my loss or as some form of fear invoked obedience but those who have chosen this way of life know it is all gain. 

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A New Perspective

This past week one of our transitional program participants relapsed.  This individual was hired to play a key role in the building of our transitional employment program and his loss of sobriety made me question the ability of our organization to truly help addicts by providing them with employment. 

Al Jackson is the Program Director of The Healing Place which is the most successful recovery program in the nation.  I saw Al the day I found out about my staff members relapse.  Al saw the pain in my eyes and invited me to his office.  He asked me “How many men from The Healing Place have you hired for your program?”  I answered eight.  He then asked me how many of them relapsed, and I said two.  He then asked me “So why are you focusing on the 25%, instead of celebrating the 75% who are making it?”  What a great question.  In one short conversation, Al helped me refocus and see things quite differently than I had just five minutes earlier.

As I walked out of Al’s office to find Anthony seated by the door.  I have him a big hug and said “Thank you for being among the 75%.”  He returned my hug and looked at me puzzled and said “You’re welcome”.  Around the corner, I bumped into Rudy and thanked him for being one of the 75%, then I hugged and thanked Charles and Kalvin.  In a matter of five minutes I ran into four reasons to celebrate.

I have always wondered how Al Jackson survives all the pain of working with addicts.  Nationally less than 10% of those who suffer from serious addiction make it.  It is very hard working with a group of people knowing that many will relapse and some will return to the streets despite all the effort, love, resources and encouragement you pour into them.  It is easy to look at all this effort as wasted if we focus on those you lose instead of those who are succeeding.   I wish we did not have to suffer through times like these, but I am so thankful for my 75% and the joy they bring to my life.  Thanks Al for taking the time to help me see things from a new perspective.

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Can you bring good news and not carry a bible?

I have a new friend whom we will call Sue.  Sue is an amazing woman of faith from the Southern Baptist Tradition.  I love Sue’s heart for hurting people.  I love her commitment to her faith and her dedication to prayer.  Sue and I share the same mission in life “To bring hope to a hurting world”.  However, Sue and I disagree on one thing; the role that the bible should play in our ministry to the poor.  Sue’s journey to faith was steeped in years of bible study and Sue could never have come to her strong place of faith without a strong biblical grounding.  I on the other hand, grew up outside the church.  I was drawn into the church by people who simply loved me, just the way I was.  I have studied the scriptures and in them found confirmation of the truths that I have experienced but my journey was one of experiential growth.  I am a “show me don’t tell me” kind of person and that is the means God used to speak into my life.  If I want to share hope with people, I will tend to tell them how God has worked in my life, while Sue is more likely to share scripture. 

For Sue, ultimate authority lies in scripture and while I share her reverence for the written Word, I have found that many people have been so abused by the church or what they think of as the church, that the immediate use of scriptural references can cause some people to reject the message of hope we are trying to share.  This does not mean that I am proposing a ministry that is not biblical or that is not based on biblical principles, but that I am proposing that we use our own life, our own experiences of God to write our own epistle.  I know this is tricky and I know this can be dangerous.  This is how we have ended up with so many false teachings, so I would not suggest that anyone other than those like my friend Sue who have a firm grasp of scripture are capable of doing this in a healthy way. 

I believe the true mark of a disciple is not the amount of scripture that he/she can quote, but the volume of scripture that one has lived.  Christianity is an incarnational faith, and my friend Sue lives her faith beautifully.   She is a walking bible.  All she needs is to trust that the Holy Spirit will use her life to guide people in their own discovery of truth and hope the same way the bible guided her. 

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  John 13:35

 

 

 

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Mental Health and Spirituality

Historically Christians have struggled with mental health and how to care for those who suffer from mental illness.  I was recently read a blog post by a pastor whose wife suffered from severe bouts of depression.  He reached out to his fellow ministers and asked for advice.  The first response was that his wife needed to go to a healing service, then others chimed in about the need for her to spend more time in prayer and meditation, then another suggested she was under attack by a demonic spirit and needed to have that spirit cast out.  To each of these responses the pastor responded that he had tried all of these approaches with his wife and none of them had healed her.  No one on that blog ever suggested that his wife may have a medical condition that needed to be treated by a mental health professional. 

My husband suffers from Thyroid disease.  The Thyroid disease manifests it’s self in a way similar to depression.  He has low energy, is irritable, and feels depressed.   Prior to his diagnosis, there were days that I wondered if we would make it; days I did not want to be around him.  Thankfully, he went to the doctor, went through testing, and they figured out what was wrong.  Every day he takes synthroid to replace what his body is not able to produce on its own.    There are day’s he forgets or runs out and he returns to that grumpy, what I perceive as lazy, unpleasant person.  Had he gone to the church with his symptoms he would have heard the advice I listed above, pray more, meditate more, put God at the center of your life.  All those suggestions are great and may bring temporary relief to his suffering spirit, however,  he would still be sick and in need of medical care.

I am not suggesting that people with depression have thyroid disease, but what I am suggesting is that some people with depression have a medical condition that requires medical treatment and that this is in no way the fault of the person with the condition.  I see so many people who suffer from mental illness who refuse to seek help from a mental health professional and instead turn to the church or to spiritual advisors seeking help.  When they are unable to pray themselves out of their condition, they become defeated, more depressed and feel alienated from God. 

I am not trying to minimize the power of prayer; I believe prayer is core to our spiritual health.  However, I think we often confuse spiritual health and mental health.  I think the two often look very similar.   I personally suffer with situational anxiety.  I lead a very dynamic and often chaotic agency that seems to change daily.  I work with individuals who are themselves very fragile, many of whom suffer from mental illness which makes our work environment one of constant challenges.  Conflict and change create anxiety and I have not yet learned to manage either as well as I would like.  However, I do not suffer from an anxiety disorder.  My anxiety is directly linked to my work environment.   If I stay in prayer and remember that God is in control of the chaos, then I am able to manage my anxiety.  When I fail to pray or begin to think that somehow I am in control of the agency, I become overwhelmed by anxiety and I either shut down or try to take control of things both of which lead to more anxiety and conflict.  My issues can be managed through healthy spiritual practices and do not require medical treatment.

However, I think as people of faith and spiritual leaders, we must recognize that there are mental conditions that can only be managed through medical treatment.  It takes discernment for pastoral care providers to recognize when an issue is bigger than ones spirituality.  None of us would go to our primary care physician for neurosurgery.  However, there are spiritual leaders who are treating serious mental illness as a simple lack of faith; this is like treating cancer like a common cold.  This is not only disturbing, it is dangerous.  I have personally almost lost three people to suicide in the last year alone, all of whom felt that if God wanted them healed then they would be healed.  Not finding that healing, they assumed their life was not worth living.  I recently saw one of these individuals and he shared that after his suicide attempt, he was put on anti-depressants and that he now is able to manage his depression.  As a pastor, it is hard to admit that I did not have what Joe needed, but I am thankful that God led him to a source of healing.  I pray we as people of faith and especially pastoral care providers will learn more about mental illness and will develop better partnerships with mental health professionals.    I pray that the community of faith would begin to talk openly and honestly about mental health and that we would treat the victims of these illnesses like we do any other sick person who is seeking treatment, instead of blaming the patient and telling the patient to heal themselves, we would instead drive them to the doctor and pray for their healing.

 

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Unity

We are planning a service day on Martin Luther King Day and my AmeriCorps team proposed doing a mural on one of the walls of our new building.  This mural is to have the theme of unity.  I loved the idea and began trying to think of symbols of unity.  I want a design that celebrates the incredible diversity of our city and at the same time the unity of spirit that fills our ministry; or at least the spirit that I wish filled our ministry.  This spirit does break through on occasion and it is a beautiful sight to see.  I most often encounter it when we do our monthly youth and family mission’s event.  During these events, suburban and urban, rich and poor, black and white, all join together to help their neighbors in need and miraculously find that they themselves receive the greatest gift.

I have long believed that we will never see the whole of the Christian church agree on doctrine, or worship style, or church polity.  The only thing that the Church is able to unite around is the care of the poor, the fight for justice and the liberation of the oppressed.  No one would argue that the hungry should not be fed or that the homeless should not be sheltered.  So why do we spend so much of our time and energy focused on the things we disagree on and so little time uniting around the things we do agree on?  That is a question for which I have no answer.

I had a professor in Seminary that argued that one reading of the Sabbath was to see the Sabbath as a celebration of liberation and a call to do justice.  He asked the question, “What if one Sunday a month, instead of studying the word, we actually sought to live the word by caring for the poor?”  I was intrigued by his question and decided to do my part in finding out.  It is for this reason that on the second Sunday of the month, we assemble youth groups, Sunday school classes and individuals and family who desire to dedicate one Sabbath to caring for the poor.  It is this monthly event where I see unity most vividly displayed. 

I do not know how to capture this kind of spirit in a mural or a symbol but I do hope and pray that it is more than a token and instead a way of living that is evidenced in the very existence of our ministry.  I pray that this spirit would define the ministry of Embrace Richmond and that Embrace would actively seek to bring unity in our city and most especially to the church universal.

Let us never forget Jesus parting prayer, his last hope for his followers “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23 

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The church of Alcoholics Anonymous

A year ago our ministry began partnering with The Healing Place which is a 197 bed homeless shelter for men in recovery.  The program is based on the 12 step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It is an intensive program with most men spending six to nine months working through the twelve steps and focusing all their attention on their recovery.  They are not allowed to work and spend all their time in classes and working through an intensive program called “Recovery Dynamics”.  It is a free program and for most their last hope.

We have recently hired six Healing Place graduates and I have been amazed by their faith and deep spirituality.  I had never had any experience with AA or NA and knew nothing about the program.  As I have questioned them about the spiritual component of the program, I became even more intrigued when many of them shared that it was through recovery that they came to know “the God of their understanding”.  One even shared that he belongs to the metaphorical “Church of Alcoholics Anonymous”.  Few of them have strong ties to the local church but instead find fellowship, support and spiritual nourishment from their AA “home group”.  I asked my friend who views AA as his home church why he did not attend church and he said “Maybe if Christians worked on living their faith with as much dedication as the alcoholics of my AA groups worked their recovery, I would be more interested in Church.” 

That was a stunning and challenging statement.  These men attend an average of three AA meetings per week; they read out of the AA “Big book” and quote it more proficiently than we Christians quote the Good Book.  It is a form of religion for those who truly seek healing and freedom from their illness and millions have found the healing they seek through these fellowships and the study of this text.  This is not surprising once one realizes that it was written by a group of Christians who desired to make the healing they had found available to all.  While the use of words like “God of your understanding” can seem foreign and to some un-Christian, there is no denying that these men have been healed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

No, the dedication of those in recovery is not the shocking part; the more shocking part is the lack of dedication exhibited by most professing Christians.  Why is it that Christians do not place the same importance on gathering together, supporting one another, the study of scripture and of doing good works? I was pondering this question with my new friend Jim and he gave me this answer “Perhaps it’s because our very life depends on our participation in the fellowship of AA.” 

What a profound thought.  What if our very life, not the life ever after, but our very life here on this earth depended on being a part of the Christian community.  What if we believed that we could only be the person God created us to be by being connected to a Christian community?  The problem we face as American Christians is that we do not see our own disease.  Our disease is the disease of complacency, of apathy, of contentment with the life we are leading.   There is nothing in our lives that we are powerless over.  There is no need for a God of our understanding our own understanding has become our God.  We have never done battle with the forces of darkness and thus, we do not depend on God’s grace to take us through each day the way my new friends do.

I would not trade places with them for all the world.  I watch as they walk the tight rope of addiction, everyday praying they do not stumble all the time knowing there is no safety net below them.  It is a terrifying way to live, but somehow, those who are doing it well, have a peace that passes understanding.  A peace that escapes me as I continue to lean on my own understanding and my own power, unaware that I am on that same tight rope, simply walking with a blindfold, unaware of my own spiritual battle.

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Worshiping Single

Years ago when I was a small group coordinator, we did a study of the church demographic and found that a large number of the women in the church were married but attended services alone.  I have been married for over twenty years and have never counted myself in this category…at least not until yesterday. 

For over a year, my husband and I have been simply existing when it comes to church life.  My ministry takes me away on Sunday’s a lot and my husband does not feel particularly called to attend church without me.  This past spring I discovered the Saturday night service at Commonwealth Chapel.  I personally think it is one of the best worship experiences I have ever found.  However, it is in the city and a bit more expressive than my husband is comfortable with.  For this and reasons that I am sure neither he nor I can articulate, he refuses to attend with me on a regular basis and when he does attend, I spend the entire worship service worrying about him and what he thinks. 

This past week was particularly difficult for me and the coming week holds many challenges.  My daughter’s recent surgery and period of recovery have limited our church participation even more than normal and I desperately wanted to attend worship on Saturday so that I could go to our cabin and spend Sunday morning in concentrated prayer for the coming week.  I know it sounds really spiritual of me but the truth is I have neglected my prayer life for months with my daughters surgery and I knew I would not get through the coming week without a concentrated time of prayer. 

Anyway, I decided to worship without my husband.  I called every woman I could think of who might be interested in going to church with me, and everyone turned me down.  But I knew I was supposed to go so I found the courage to get in the car, drive 35 minutes into the city, and walk into the church, alone.  I surveyed the room and saw another single woman standing alone mid way up the aisle.  She was lost in the music and did not see me beside her trying to get into the row of seats.  I tapped her on the arm and she turned, smiled and allowed me to pass.  Then she did something quite unexpected, she whispered in my ear “Aren’t you the Embrace lady?”  I said “yes” and then she gave me a spirited embrace.  I cannot tell you how much that greeting warmed my heart.  I learned her name was Katherine and that she works for my board Vice President who is also my eye doctor.

She and I joined in worship together.  Katherine has an amazing voice and her passion for worship was contagious.  I sang louder and more passionately than I think I ever have.  I truly felt like God placed Katherine in that pew next to me as a reminder that no one ever truly worships alone.

Please join me in saying a special prayer for all the men and women who weekly enter our houses of worship alone.  Pray more of us greet them as warmly as Katherine greeted me and say a special prayer of thanksgiving for Katherine; for her angelic voice and her passionate spirit that allowed me to truly worship with my whole heart.   Also pray my husband and I find a way of worshiping together. 

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