Monthly Archives: May 2011

Healing the Wounds of the Bible Belt – Revisted

This past week, Jamie Arpin-Ricci a fellow urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer, tweeted these words, “Everyone suffers from poor mental health at times. We’re not so different from those with mental illness.  End the stigma once & for all.”  Working with people who suffer from mental illness has helped me see the same reality that Jamie points to, “we all suffer from poor mental health at times.”

My family is no stranger to mental illness and I tweeted back to Jamie these words, “If we could do what you suggest, substance abuse would decline and our streets would be safer. I might also still have my dad.”  I have only blogged specifically on the issue of mental illness once and have only written of my father’s suicide in my book.  Jamie’s post challenged me to overcome my fear of judgment in the hope that we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Last Memorial Day I posted this post on the subject of the church’s response to mental illness.  While many of you have read this story, I thought it was worth reposting.

I grew up un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt.  I become a Christian in my late twenties after a series of miscarriages launched me on a spiritual journey.  Even though I have been a part of the local church for more than 15 years, I still approach the church with the eyes of an outsider and a heart for those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home within the walls of the church.  I am particularly drawn to those who feel unwelcome and judged by the church.

I think this sensitivity toward the outcast is the result of a traumatic event that occurred in 1977 when I was only ten years old.  Douglas Miiller was my favorite uncle, we called him “funny Doug”.  He always had a way of making me laugh.  I will never forget getting my first bicycle.  I could not figure out how to ride it so my uncle Doug decided to show me.  He looked so funny on that tiny bike with his knees up around his shoulders.  He went riding down our drive way, lost control and crashed my brand new bike into a tree…that was not so funny.  Thankfully Uncle Doug was fine but the impact bent the front tire of my bike.  My uncle, whom I know was not a wealthy man, immediately went out and purchased me an even better bike, this one had a basket on the front and ribbons on the handle bars.  I loved my uncle Doug.

As a young man, Douglas Miiller was drafted into the army and served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  He never talked about his days in the military but I overheard the adults saying that, “it messed him up.”  I never really knew what they meant but in 1977, when he decided to end his life, this part of his past seemed to be the key to understanding why he had lived such a tortured life.  From my keen ability to ease drop on adult conversations, I learned that my uncle had a drinking problem which only contributed to his pain.

He was the first person I can remember losing to death.  Dealing with death is never easy, especially for a ten year old, but adding suicide to that equation makes it even more difficult.  As I mentioned, my family did not attend church so the only images of God available to me were those shared by family and friends who claimed to be Christians.  I will never forget hearing the words, “Your uncle is going to go to hell for what he did,” spoken by a child I thought was my friend.  This was the message the Church gave me during my time of grief.  These words wounded me so deeply that it was more than twenty years before I was willing to step foot in a church.

My call to create safe spaces for spiritual seekers grows out of this very early wounding by the messages of judgment that I heard as a child.  In my book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets”, I have captured the stories of many people, who like my Uncle Doug, never found a home in the church walls but whose lives have enriched my own.  My prayer is that by sharing their stories I will bring honor to the lives of those who feel shut out, judged and cast off.  For those are the very people Jesus chose to identify with and spend time with.  It is in the presence of the “least of these” where I have seen the real “Church” come alive.

My prayer is that through the stories of those who do not feel welcome in the church with walls, pulpits and steeples, we will begin to see that the Church Universal is far bigger than the structures built by human hands.  It exists in the very people who seek to be Christ in the world and in the faces of those Christ identified with in Matthew 25; those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick and those who are imprisoned.

I choose the image of the Vietnam memorial for this post to honor both those who have died in battle this Memorial Day weekend, but also those whom like my uncle had their lives shattered by war.  The lasting effects of the horrors of war continue on for generations.  In some ways, I myself am a victim both through the loss of my uncle and the effects that my uncle’s suicide had on my family, in particular my father who lost his youngest brother.

I pray for peace for all the families across the world who suffer due to war and I lift up a prayer for peace for all the nations.  May your Memorial Day be peaceful and blessed.

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A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Style Weekly Interview

Thought you all might enjoy reading this interview in the latest edition of Style Weekly:  Just click the image below to get to the article

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A Search for Soul Food

Smoking Jointphoto © 2007 Wiros | more info (via: Wylio)My favorite way to spend a Friday night is to camp on the couch, set Pandora loose with one of my favorite songs and catch up with friends on Facebook and Twitter.  God always uses that background music to draw my attention to ordinary moments and turns them into divine encounters.

Today it was these words from the secular artist Jewell’s song “Little Sister” that got my attention:

My little sister is a Zombie in a body
with no soul in a role she has learned to play
in a world today where nothing else matters
but it matters, we gotta start feeding our souls
Not our addiction or afflictions of pain
to avoid the same questions we must
ask ourselves to get any answers
We gotta start feeding our souls
have been lost to the millions with lots
who feed on addiction selling pills and what’s hot
I wish I could save her from all their delusions
all the confusion
of a nation that starves for salvation
but clothing is the closest to approximation
to God and He only knows that drugs
are all we know of love

These words resonated deeply with my own reality.  We have been working hard with our friends in Hillside, many of whom have become like family to us.   Our friends voice a desire for employment, but like the “little sister” in Jewell’s song, are like Zombie’s whose bodies have been taken over by addiction.  Week after week I watch as good people make bad choices related to drugs.  Marijuana seems to be the drug of choice for many of our younger friends and no matter how clearly we articulate the dangers and consequences of abusing substances, they continue to act as if it does not matter.

Like the older sister in Jewell’s song, I wish I could save my friends from the delusions and confusion that plague the Hillside community.  I wish I could save people from the demon of drugs that is robbing them of the abundant life God desires for them.   As I was reflecting on my feelings of helplessness in this matter, the words “We gotta start feeding our souls” leaped out at me.

My very wise friend Charles Fitzgerald who has himself overcome a 33 year addiction through the support of The Healing Place program often says, “If you miss the spiritual part of the program, you miss the program.”  We all know the battle before us is spiritual in nature.  We can continue to invest tremendous energy into vocational mentoring and job readiness programs only to have substance abuse undermine those efforts for many of our friends or we can get serious about helping people feed their souls.  I am not sure yet what form that soul feeding will take.  I am just sensing God is calling us to focus our efforts in that direction at this season in our journey.

I would love your input into this conversation, especially those of you who have experienced challenges related to substance abuse personally or with family members and friends.

What kind of soul feeding helped you break free of drug addiction?  For those who have walked alongside those with addictions, what kind of soul care did your friend or family member find helpful?  What advice would you give us as we seek to come alongside those trapped in addiction?

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Dream Releasers

I know why the caged birds sing?photo © 2007 bradleyolin | more info (via: Wylio)Telling people about Embrace Richmond in a way that captures the spirit of what we are all about is one of the hardest things I have to do as an Executive Director.  We are not a social services agency, we are not program driven and we are not cause focused.  We are a community focused, relationally driven, community of faith.  I was reading through some of the early writing that I had done back in 2003 before I entered seminary and started Embrace. I ran across this story taken from Wayne Cordeiro’s book titled Doing Church as a Team.   This story was one of the early inspirations for what became Embrace Richmond and I think it captures the spirit of the work we are doing in a beautiful way.  This is Wayne’s story;

Wayne was a child growing up on an army base in Japan.  One day his family went for a ride outside the base.  When they stopped for lunch an old man at a booth caught his attention.  He was selling tiny birds that resembled a finch, in bamboo cages.

He asked the man how much and was shocked to learn they were only 100 yen each, about 36 cents.  It was too good a deal to pass up so he bought one.  As he walking back to show off the purchase to his family the old men called out to him in Japanese “Don’t forget to bring the cage back when you’re done!”  “Bring back the cage when I’m done?  I’m not planning to eat the thing.  I just want to take it home as a pet.”, Wayne replied. “Oh no,” said the old man  “You don’t understand!  The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it will be able to fly freely!”

This was the last thing this young boy wanted to do.  He felt that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of.  But he did not have much of a choice, the old man was keeping close watch to make sure he got his cage back.  So he walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below, opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges.  Edging it’s way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles. 

Cordeiro writes “looking back on the experience now, I would have paid 100 times more if I knew how important that moment would be to me years later.  That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.”  He goes on to say

“The Church is laden with treasures, dreams and precious gifts, yet too many precious souls are going to their graves with songs left unsung, gifts yet unwrapped and dreams unreleased.  We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released.”

I think this story is an excellent metaphor for what Embrace Richmond strives to do.  We encounter a lot of beautiful caged birds.  Birds caged by addiction, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, depression and loneliness.  I used to think it was our job to open the doors to the cages and let people out but after years of doing this kind of work, I have come to realize that they already have the keys.  They just need someone to remind them of that fact and encourage them to unlock the door.

That last sentence sounds like an easy task but it has proven to be a very painful process for many who have grown so accustomed to living in a cage that freedom appears threatening or unattainable.  While the little finch in Cordeiro’s story soared through the air, many of my friend’s wings are so underused that they often fall to the ground several times before they learn to fly.  Our role as dream releasers is to be there when they fall and encourage them to keep on trying.

The first time I read this story, I dreamed of being a dream releaser.  Today I am truly blessed to work with the most amazing team of “dream releasers” imaginable.  So thank you Janie, Qasarah, Susan, Sylvia, Vanessa, Chinary, Antionette, John, Charles, Josh, Brian, and Ashlee.  Thanks for helping my early dream of creating a dream releasing community come true.

If you are interested in being a “dream releaser”, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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A Melancholy Moment: Flashback to High School

I have three teenage daughters and as they face the challenges inherent in being teenagers, I seem to be reliving those times in my own life.  My eldest is a rising senior and as she looks with anticipation toward college and a very bright future, I feel her anxiety.  Will she get into the college of her choice? What will she major in?  Will she miss her high school friends. Will she be able to make new friends in college?  The future is full of possibilities and uncertainty, hope and fear, promise and possible disappointments.  I remember it like it was yesterday.

My younger two daughters are still in the midst of being teenage girls with all the challenges of maintaining healthy friendships.  As I think back to high school and all the cattiness that was just a part of growing up, I can relate to the stories of discord that they share.  Of course I am sure every mother sees her daughter as the victim, the one who is just misunderstood.  I am sure my girls are not the sweet, innocent, bystanders I make them out to be.  None of us would ever want to admit our children are the perpetrators behind the unkind behavior.  But, as I feel their pain of being the victim, I also remember the times I was the one causing the pain.

I grew up in a very small town.  I had pretty much the same grouping of friends from the day I was born until the day I graduated High School.  Yes, that is us above at our junior prom.  We all just moved through the years from one clique to the next.  I eventually landed in the “brainy/semi-popular” clique.  I was friends with the cheerleaders and the Homecoming queen but I was never center stage.  I learned early on that drama seemed to be directed toward whoever was in the middle of circle and being on the periphery was preferable.

While I truly had little to do with all the drama, I did do some things I am ashamed of to this day.  Like the time I stood by while one friend beat another friend, or the time I shared gossip about a friend that was ugly and hurtful.  Those times I was untrue to a friend still haunt me nearly 30 years later.  I am sure the friends I hurt have long ago forgiven and forgotten about the incident, yet I have not.  Anytime we are untrue to who we truly are, we injure ourselves more than we injure those our behavior was directed at.

So here it goes – Beth, Heather, Kristi, Jill, Marion, Connie, Brenda, Sandy, and our sweet departed sister Janet: I am sorry.  I am sorry for not being the friend you deserved in high school.  I am sorry for any gossip I repeated.  I am sorry for any opportunity I had to defend you and did not.  I am sorry that I cared more about fitting in than I did about being a faithful friend.  It is with tears streaming down my face that I say “Please, forgive me.”  I was blessed to have you all as friends.  Of course there were many other wonderful girls and a few boys whom I had the privilege of calling friends through the years but the nine of you impacted me more than any others.

As I listened to my girls share their friendship woes this week, I realized that many of their challenges would be solved if they or their friends would simply learn to say “I’m sorry.”  I know through the years, I have been a lousy role model in this department.  I am stubborn, selfish and prideful – diseases that are prevalent in our society.  So, I wonder what would happen if all the adults started modeling humility, grace and forgiveness.  Could we change the teen culture?  I know, that is a stretch but you all know I am dreamer.

Hope you all have a good weekend and that you spend it with good friends and if you have a chance, you might want to reach out and say “I am sorry” even if it is 30 years too late.

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Embracing the Grey

I knew Shelly before she went to jail and stayed in contact with her during the 18 months she was locked up.  She never talked much about her spirituality but the one thing she wanted me to bring her when she got arrested was her recovery Bible.  When she was finally released, I helped her find housing and hired her to help me at Embrace.

When Shelly proudly showed me her new, very large tattoo of a cross on her forearm with the word “embrace” in scroll curving over the cross, I know it was meant as a profession of faith and a token of gratitude for the relationship we had built over the years.  I later learned that as she battled her heroin addiction, she also craved the feeling of the needles piercing her skin.  The tattoo parlor became both her new drug of choice and her temporary path to sobriety.  The tattoo symbolized her faith in Christ and her continued bondage to the demon of addiction at the same time.  She had crossed from the black night of addiction, into the grey morning of early sobriety.

Within six months of this unorthodox profession, she attempted to take her own life. As we rushed her to the emergency room and sat with her as they treated her, I realized just how broken she was.  I had prayed countless prayers, shared with her in every way she was open to receiving it, the love of Christ and yet she remained a tortured soul.  She was slipping from grey to black, from the early light of morning to the darkness of night.

Upon her exit from the hospital, I took her into my home, welcomed her into my family, and loved her like a sister.  I poured myself into her but there was a depth of despair that I could not touch. While she did regain her will to live, the darkness had reclaimed her spirit.  When she ultimately slipped back into the dark world of addiction, I felt like a part of me went with her. I felt like I had failed her, not loved her enough, not prayed for her enough.  I other words, I had not been able to save her.  There is a secular song by The Fray called “How to Save a Life” and every time I hear it, I think of Shelly – the girl who taught me about the grey.

Prior to having Shelly for a friend, I thought the Christian faith was pretty black and white.  You either had Jesus in your life or you didn’t.  If you did, you automatically had triumph over the forces of darkness because “greater is the one in us.”  I had been taught “once saved” always “saved.”  Backsliders, I was taught, never fully embraced Jesus and so their profession really did not count.  But that was before I walked with Shelly in the grey.  Her relationship with Jesus though unorthodox was real, she embraced the light and begged it to overtake the darkness, yet the darkness triumphed.

As Shelly swallowed a bottle of pills seeking to end her life, Charles lay on the floor across town saying to himself, “if I have to live this way, I might as well be dead.”  As he contemplated suicide, the spirit of God directed him to The Healing Place, a residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There Charles met the “god of his understanding” and it was that nameless God that helped him overcome his 33 year drug addiction.  The AA big book became the only bible Charles has ever read, the fellowship of AA the only church he will ever be a member of.   My traditional church training would tell me that Charles does not know Jesus, but my spirit has told me otherwise.  Every morning Charles gets up at 5:30 to read his AA devotional book, greets the God who freed him from the darkness and sustains him in the light.  Every day I watch as he is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by that same God who is daily transforming me.

Shelly and Charles helped me let go of my black and white, in or out, saved or unsaved way of thinking.  I think we all exist in the “now” and “not yet” of God’s redemptive grace.  Some have never been touched by the light, some have been touched but get drawn back into darkness, others follow a mysterious spirit into the light, while others of us follow the traditional path of being introduced to Jesus as the light. We all exist along a continuum of darkness to pure light with the majority of us existing in various stages of grey.  We are both a new person and being transformed at the same time.  We are saved from our sin and being saved.  We are all under construction and none of us have fully arrived.

When I let go of a dualistic, right or wrong, in or out, black and white way of thinking and began to see the things in varying stages of grey, I was freed of the need to be right, and the need to judge others as wrong.   I began to see God at work in unusual places using unorthodox approaches and speaking to me through unexpected people.  When I stopped judging or dictating how, when and through whom God could speak, I entered into a mystery where God was the only judge, the only truth, and the pure light.  I was free to follow God in ways my former black and white thinking would not have allowed.  I was free to love people without judgment in a way my right and wrong thinking would have rejected. I was free to embrace the light of Christ in people, places and situations that my former state of being would not have seen.  I have learned to admit that I simply do not have all the answers and this truth has set me free.

This post is part of a synchroblog about some of the things we’ve let go of along the way in our spiritual journeys and what we’re learning in the process.

What have you let go of in your spiritual journey and what have you learned in the process?

Read how others have answered this question:

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Ode to “Abnormal” Mothers – Revisited

A few years ago I wrote this ode to honor my mother.  At that time, I think I only had 4 people reading my blog, so I decided to repost with a few modifications.

Several years ago my youngest daughter said to me, “Mom why aren’t you a normal mom?”  I asked her to define “normal mom.” She said, “You know, the kind of mom that is always at the bus stop, eats lunch at school with her kids, and who puts notes in my lunch box.”  In other words, she wanted the culturally constructed image of the “perfect” mother.  What child would not want that kind of mom?

I can remember as a child having similar feelings though I was never bold enough to say such things to my mother.  I did, however, think them.  When Caroline said those words to me, I felt like I had been socked in the stomach.  Was I doing this mommy thing all wrong?  Or, was there perhaps another image of a mom that, while not the cultural norm, could be equally as healthy?

I am thankful that I was raised by a woman who refused to become who society wanted her to be.  A woman who has lived every day of her life striving to be the unique, amazing, sometimes odd woman God created her to be.  She is not your typical mother, and all I can do is praise God for that. Without her lively spirit and her zest for life, I would not be who I am.  I pray someday my daughter will come to appreciate my uniqueness as I have come to appreciate my mother’s.  This mother’s day, I want to celebrate my favorite “abnormal mother” – a woman I hope my daughters will seek to emulate.  She is a woman who simply wanted to be true to who God created her to be, in all her uniqueness.

My mom had grown up in the military and had seen the world but found herself living in a community where few had ever ventured beyond the county line.  My mom had strange taste in friends. I think it was because she never really fit in to small town culture.   I asked her once why her friends were all so weird and she replied, “Because, I like interesting people.”

She had a special knack for attracting people in crisis.  She even moved several of them in with us! There were the two teenage boys who had taken to the road to “find themselves”, several alcoholics whose wives had kicked them out, and family members who were just down on their luck.  Those she did not move into the house she spent hours at the kitchen table counseling.

Everyone knew that if you needed help, Sissy Miiller would listen without judgment and when necessary, take in the weary traveler.  I really hated having house guests growing up.  Especially the type of guest my mom invited in.  I was embarrassed to have my friends over because no other family I knew was running a homeless shelter out of their house.

Once my sister and I reached grade school, my mom closed up the shelter and we settled into a more “normal” life with my mother deciding to join the workforce.  She got her GED and in a matter of a few short years, she climbed the ranks in the local bank and was the Vice President of mortgage lending.  From there, she started her own mortgage company which she then sold many years later to start raising emu and ostrich on the ranch of her business partner.  From there she started her own embroidery company and to this day, she is continually dreaming of new adventures.  My mom is anything but boring.

I think my mom’s decision to take in people in crisis and to befriend social outcasts was one of the hardest things for me to deal with growing up.  However, I now realize that though I did not like her choices, somewhere deep inside me, my mom planted a seed of compassion that I know would not exist without her living such a compassionate life.  I think the gift of compassion is worth 1000 school lunches and countless love notes.  I never doubted she loved me because she loved everyone so freely and genuinely.  I always knew I could talk to her about anything because she never judged anyone.

I know I will not win the “Suzy Homemaker” award.  My children will not remember me for my cooking, my spotless house, or my attentiveness to all their needs.  But I do hope they will remember me as one who loved much and who sought to live a compassionate life.   I don’t know if my daughters will every fully understand my choices, but I know I am grateful that my mom choose to be a bit odd and fought against the cultural tide of conformity to claim the life God created for her.  That is what I want for my girls.  I don’t care if they grow up to be successful or wealthy.  All I can hope for is that they become fully who God created them to be and continue the tradition started by my mom.

I pray our society discovers a new definition of the “normal” mom.  I have a few suggestions as to how we might think of redefining “normal”:

  • What if the “normal “ mom looked a little more like Mother Theresa and a little less like Martha Stewart?
  • What if instead of hanging out at the mall, she hung out at the soup kitchen?
  • What if instead of spending her money and time on having the perfect hair, nails, and outfit, she invested in disadvantaged children?
  • What if instead of defining family as “biological” she saw herself as part of the larger “human” family?

So Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and all the “abnormal” moms out there.  Thanks for helping redefine “normal” and for being so weird!

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From Believers to Followers

My friend Lee made a good point on my blog about Christian Unity.  He quoted Jesus story of the Good Samaritan as an example of Christ call to live our faith, not just believe or say the right words.  I think if Christians put more emphasis on “following Jesus” and less on “believing in Jesus” there would far greater Christian Unity.

The fourth Thursday of every month, our Hillside team hosts a community fellowship event.  It is generally some sort of pot luck with Embrace providing the main course.  We celebrate birthdays, play games and just have fun with the team of Hillside residents who volunteer with us throughout the month.  However, the highlight of these fellowship events is always welcoming new leaders onto our leadership team.  In February, it was Windell’s turn to be inducted onto the team.  I have never seen anyone smile as big as Windell did when Janie pulled his official Embrace Richmond t-shirt over his head and he got a big embrace from both Janie and I.  He then went to his neighbor Debra, and gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you for telling me about Embrace Richmond.  This has been such a blessing to me!”

I sat and listened as Debra sang Windell’s praises.  She shared how she had been ill recently and how Windell came to her house every day to check on her.  How he went to the pharmacy and got her some medicine and went to the grocery store for her and how he came by regularly to lift her spirits.  She also shared that Windell did this for many people in the community.  In a community where most residents have been taught to stay to themselves, Windell is going against the cultural tide and breaking down walls of isolation that separate neighbors from one another.

While most people have images of gun wielding thugs when they think about Hillside Court, I have images of all the Windell’s who are just trying to make their community the best it can be.  In the nearly two years we have been walking the streets of Hillside, praying for the community, gathering the residents, and helping them tackle some of the challenges they face as a community, I have met a number of people like Windell.  They are people who choose to do the right thing, not for money, not for fame or glory, but just because it is the right thing to do.  They are people who simply want to be a “good neighbor.”

When asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about and learning practices to help us live the first part of Jesus reply, “loving God.”  However, we spend very little time learning how to be good neighbors.  You might recall that Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”  Rather than give a simple answer to this question, Jesus replied

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The part of this story that always speaks to me is that it was not the religious leaders who actually lived the religious teachings, but someone who was not even a part of the Jewish faith.  When I look at Windell, I see the good Samaritan.  I have no idea what Windell’s religious beliefs are, but he obviously lives out the second half of the Great Commandment better than most of us.

This month, Patrice officially joined the team.  Patrice is featured in the picture above standing next to me.  You may remember Patrice’s name from my post a few months back.  She is the one who stepped up during our listening meeting on safety to lead a team dedicated to supporting Hillside families.  Since that day, Patrice has worked hard to fulfill the commitment she made that day.  Like Windell, Patrice simply seeks to be a good neighbor and honestly she puts me to shame.

If asked, “What is the role of the suburban church when it comes to under-resourced urban communities?”  I think Jesus would answer, “to be a good neighbor.”  The Samaritan addressed the emergency need of the man on the road and then insured that he would be well cared for by the innkeeper.  In the same way, we are to help people in crisis but also to support the innkeepers who can provide ongoing care and support to those in need.  In other words, we are to help insure people like Patrice and Windell have what they need to be successful in caring for those who have been deeply wounded in their community.

Windell and Patrice both serve as “Care Leaders.”  Care Leader’s are kind of like “innkeepers.”  They look out for the people in their part of the Hillside community and they basically model for the rest of the community what it looks like to be a good neighbor.  We are honored to have such an amazing care team.

A few weeks ago, two more young people were gunned down in Hillside court.  For the first time, I actually knew the families of both the victims.  Among the first people to visit the families were members of the care team.  In a community with so much pain and heart break, there are these “Samaritans/innkeepers” in the mix and it makes my heart rejoice. I can’t wait to see who God raises up next!

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

I Found It – The Ultimate Heretic Detector System!

I woke up this morning intent on spending a peaceful day at our cabin with my dog.  I was looking forward to having the time to reflect on all that has happened this past month and there is a lot to reflect upon.  Unfortunately, I made the decision to post my comments for Rachel Held Evans “Rally to Restore Christian Unity” late Saturday night.  It was obvious that a couple of the folks who commented on my post were looking for the “Keep Fear Alive!” rally.  They opposed my opposition to calling people heretics who disagree with one’s theology.  One gentleman asked the questions, “ Does this mean there is no such thing as a heretic? Is so, how would we know? Or how would we warn others about them?”

As I was making the hour long drive out to my cabin this morning, I was composing a response to the heretic seekers question. It was titled, “The Second Coming of the Pharisee’s”, and I admit it did nothing to promote Christian Unity.  I was so lost in my debate with my invisible nemesis that I completely missed my turn.  I make this trip at least once a month and can navigate it with my eyes closed but I was so distracted by the temptation to debate this person I have never met, that I got completely off course.  I started to feel like something was wrong about five miles into going the wrong way, but it took almost 20 minutes before I was fully aware of just how far off course I was.

As I was doubling back, the Holy Spirit used my misdirection to remind me of something.  I don’t have to prove my faith in Christ to anyone.  I simply have to follow the one who called me and stay on course.  God has called me to a much higher purpose than debating theology with a total stranger.  While I love writing and enjoy the debates, they can become a distraction and can get us all totally off course.  Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy came to mind, “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”

When I finally arrived at my cabin, I was struck by all the new growth since my last visit.  The trees are in full bloom, the butterflies have emerged, even the mushrooms and fungus have taken on brilliant colors.  For some reason this place always helps to ground me and to remind me of just how small I am.  I don’t know whose theology is right and whose is wrong.  All I know is that God called me to love people and to encourage others to love one another.

As I looked at all this new life, I thought of the new life I am seeing in our community.  I thought of the Facebook post from Joe who wrote to me yesterday, “You always believed in me and now I can believe in myself.”  I thought of Debra who shared on Thursday that for two years she sat on her porch and no one talked to her until we came into the community and now she makes a point of talking to her neighbors.  I thought of the young man who thanked Janie on Tuesday for making him help out at the food pantry.  New life comes in many forms, shapes and sizes.  However, it all comes from the same creator’s hand, birthed out of love and it produces in kind.

To my friend who asked how to detect a heretic, I would suggest you look for signs of new life birthed out of love that are producing loving relationships.  If someone’s ministry is producing people who are experiencing new life and who are learning to love like Jesus, then in my book that is more important than their doctrinal beliefs.  Those with sound doctrinal beliefs who bear no fruit are like the fig tree that Jesus cursed.

There is a ministry in our city that literally goes up to people on the street and asks them if they were to die tonight do they know where they will spend eternity.  I personally find this fear-based approach distasteful.  However, I cannot deny that this particular ministry is producing people who love God and who are seeking to love their neighbors.  I will never agree with their theology but I respect that God has called them to their particular way of doing ministry and I pray for their success.

I don’t think using one’s interpretation of scripture as the basis of determining their heretic status makes any sense.  There is no one way of interpreting the Bible and we are foolish to pretend that there is. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets…By their fruit you will recognize them.”  (Matthew 7:15, 16) The Apostle Paul taught us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. “(Galatians 5:22-23) Thus the ultimate Heretic Detection system is the fruit.

I have read criticisms of Bell that were based on his treatment of historical facts, his lack of support for his conclusions, and his biblical interpretation but I have yet to read any critique of him that focuses on his fruit.  From what I can see he appears to be producing Christ followers who appear to love the Lord and who appear to want to love their neighbors.  From what I can see he is doing this to a greater degree than his critics.

So, there you have it – the Jesus method of detecting heretics.  Can we now proceed with our quest to restore Christian Unity or at least civility?

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Filed under Theology