Do Your Eyes Glaze Over When We Talk about Poor People?

When I say, “Poor People” what’s your first thought?

  • The abject poverty of starving people in Africa?
  • The plight of refugees with no home?
  • Public School Children on free or reduced lunch in the United States?

I was talking with a neighbor several months ago in suburban Chicago and he told me that he didn’t believe that anyone in the United States was truly “poor.” Compared to people dealing with famine, for example, there are no people in America.

I disagree.

While comparing levels of poverty is tricky and imprecise, the truth is that too many people in the United States (“the greatest country in the world“)  are:

  • Food insecure. They do not have enough to eat and/or they depend on assistance programs to feed themselves and their family members.
  • Unable to afford safe housing because a FT minimum wage job will not cover rent in most parts of the country.  In my state of Illinois, a person would need a minimum wage of $16.32 per hour working full time to afford rent on the smallest apartment.  A person would need a minimum wage of $20.87 to be able to rent a two bedroom house.
  • Anxious about losing Medicaid which they need in order to pay for long-term mental health care, catastrophic accident surgeries, or ongoing care for children with disabilities.

Denise Anderson and I would like our denomination and everyone to consider the fact that we have enough resources to feed everyone, to house everyone, and to offer medical care to everyone . . . if we are willing to care for our neighbors.

Remember when Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you?” He wasn’t stating God’s intention for the world.  He was stating a fact of human character.  The poor will always be with us if we continue to be greedy.  Want to know more?

Read this – Always With Us?  What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharis.  This is my and Denise Anderson’s second One Church/One Book suggestion.  (The first was Waking Up White by Debby Irving.)

If you are prosperous and comfortable, read this book for the sake of your neighbors who are in need of support.  If you are anxious and struggling, read this for the sake of your ability to trust in the God who loves us and wants abundant life for us all.  If you are a follower of Jesus, read this because it clarifies what Jesus is calling us to do next.

The only reason there are poor people among us is because we have failed to share, failed to listen, failed to protect, failed to support, failed to see each other as human beings created in the image of God.

Do your eyes glaze over when people talk about the poor?  Or is it possible, that we can imagine a world without poverty and hunger and homelessness?

Please read this book and then talk about it with someone.  God has granted us the power to speak up and change things in the name of Jesus.

 

This Week in LOVE

Some people are hateful.  Some systems are hateful.  The New York Times occasionally picks a particularly hateful slice of life and includes it in a column called This Week in Hate.  Last week it was about innocent people being “swatted.”  Most of the articles are about people who are targeted because of their race or religion.

I’d like to lift up slices of life observed in the past week that shines a light on something done out of sheer love.  Maybe I’ll do this every Friday.  I haven’t decided yet.

Last week someone tweeted this advice:  “Find someone who looks at you the way everyone looks at Viola Davis.”  

Great advice – if you can make it happen – but being loved is not something we can control.  I can’t make someone love me and neither can you.  Love is unspeakably mysterious and  full of grace.  Long-sustaining love is also hard work.

Being loved when we are unlovable is especially miraculous.

So as I ponder This Week in Love – at least in my own small life – I thank God for HH who was an especially perfect partner this past week.  Next week is his birthday and I couldn’t be happier that he was born.  There are no words.

May each of you find at least one person who looks at you the way everybody looks at Viola Davis.  Everybody deserves this.

Just How Big is That Tent?

Headed south to St. Louis this week.

I’m not a camper.  I like mattresses and air conditioning. The idea of sleeping in a tent and hearing the running of a river sounds nice in theory but it also means bugs and silently pondering how badly I need the outhouse in the middle of the night.

Camping can be messy and uncomfortable. I was at Wild Goose in 2014 (aka The Mud Year) and profusely thanked God all week that HH and I had the sense to be staying in a cabin with a shower.  And a TV. And a little fridge.

I don’t care how big the tent is. It’s still a tent.

“A Big Tent” in politics means that a political party – for example – includes people with different viewpoints on assorted issues while agreeing on The Big Things. One voter’s big issue however might be another voter’s minor issue and especially these days, our Big Tent issue is that we don’t want the other candidate to win.

The Big Tent in my denomination is the national event that happens in between General Assembly years. Next year, the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA will be meeting in St. Louis and so this week The Big Tent also meets in St. Louis for a preview of what’s coming, plus enough workshops, plenaries, and meet-ups to fill a church nerd with unspeakable joy.

Most people in the world do not know or care that the Presbyterians are meeting for The Big Tent this week. That’s okay. What’s important is not that a denominational meeting is happening in St. Louis.

What’s important is whether or not what happens in/under/around that Tent makes an impact that changes lives for good in the name of Jesus Christ.  

Here’s the thing about being The Church in the 21st Century:

  • It’s messy and uncomfortable.  (But that’s okay because so is resurrection.)
  • It includes people we probably do not agree with or look like. (This makes sense because we are an increasingly diverse culture whether we like it or not.)
  • It might actually do ministry in a tent. (Growing congregations are out in the community handing out bottles of water at local Farmer’s Markets or offering neighborhood dinners.)

If we love Jesus, we might even be willing to spend time in a tent with people we wouldn’t otherwise know – and get to know them. This is how the world is changed.

As you read this, I’m headed to St. Louis and I expect this trip to be life-changing. May your lives be changed in similar ways this summer too.

 

[Note:  Check out what we hope will change many, many lives for good – the PCUSA Hands and Feet Initiative.]

Things I’m Not Mad About

On this Fourth of July, everyone’s mad at everyone according to this article.

It’s a spiritual discipline to fight this trend and let’s start today considering the people we are happy with because they make America great today.

I am happy with quite a few people – even some with whom I disagree. Here’s a starter list:

  1. I’m happy that Lin-Manual Miranda is using his Genius/Pulitzer/Future EGOT capital to raise money for immigrant rights.
  2. I’m happy that some Republicans and some Democrats are saying out loud that the future prosperity of our nation requires bipartisanship.  Thank you John Kasich, John Hickenlooper, Susan Collins, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III, Shelley Moore Capito, Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham.  This is government at its best.
  3. I’m happy to call Russell Moore my brother in Christ.  We don’t always agree, but we agree on this: “The church of Jesus Christ will outlast the United States of America. If that doesn’t sound like good news to you- reconsider.” (from a July 2 tweet)
  4. I am over-the-moon happy that Liz Theoharis will be joining me and Denise Anderson at the Big Tent Conference this week to introduce her book Always With Us. A great nation works to end poverty for all.
  5. I’m happy with Toni Morrison because she’s Toni Morrison. She explains our nation here and it might make some of us uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.
  6. I am happy to eat Chobani yogurt because Hamdi Ulukaya is a great American. He hires refugees along with American citizens to make yogurt in upstate New York and Idaho.

Enjoy the holiday and eat your burgers/hotdogs/yogurt! Happy Fourth of July!

Image is Jasper John’s Three Flags (1958)

God Bless America

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me Exodus 20:3 

One of my go-to sermons while traveling around our denomination asks the question:  What Do We Love More Than Jesus? and I confess that – on most days – I am guilty of loving all kinds of things more than Jesus.  Sometimes I love my iPhone more than I love Jesus.

But following Jesus means that we are at least trying to love Jesus as he asked Peter to love him.  So this article is really interesting, especially in these days of chronic national division.

Many congregations sang patriotic hymns on July 2nd.  Some of those songs mentioned God.  Some focused more on country.  For example God Bless the USA is not a good choice for Sunday worship, in my humble opinion.  There are no words about honoring God or pledging allegiance to the One who invented freedom in the first place.  It’s not a religious song, unless our religion is patriotism.

There’s nothing wrong with loving our country or being patriotic.  Don’t misunderstand me.

But believing that Good American = Good Christian is a misunderstanding of the Gospel, at least as I read my Bible.

Yes, we thank God for winning the citizenship lottery if we were blessed to be born in the United States of America.

Yes, we have only God to thank for the wealth of our lakes and rivers and purple mountain majesties, for our natural resources, for the wisdom of our Founders (when they were indeed wise), and for the freedoms we enjoy.

But we live in an imperfect nation where too many people are hungry, where health care is not considered a human right, where we have twisted the right to bear arms into a dysfunctional culture where people are shot in nightclubs, in hospitals, in schools, while driving their cars, while walking home from school, while sitting in their own homes victims of stray bullets.  This is not what a great nation looks like.

But more importantly, this is not what a Jesus-following nation looks like.  I’m grateful to sisters and brothers in Christ with whom I might disagree on many things, but we agree that our nation is only great when we care for the vulnerable and those who’ve been systematically disadvantaged.

This is a great time for the Church if for no other reason that we have an opportunity to join together to serve those who are being left behind in our great nation.  My prayer today is that we might indeed be great in the likeness of Christ.

Image from Lifeway a research organization sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville.

What If We Reached Out to Youth Who Will Never Join Our Church?

Your church wants a youth group? This is my favorite Praying-For-A-Youth-Group story:

A church in a Colorado ski community wanted a youth group.  The problem was that they had no members under the age of 30.  They didn’t even have any members under the age of 60.

Theirs was a resort community with plenty of young vacationing skiers and plenty of retirees.  “Ski bums” moved there to hang out  after or instead of college, and “going to church” was not remotely on their radar.  The retirees were, on the other hand, committed disciples who decided they would pray.  They would pray for young people to join them in their Episcopal church.

The pastor officiated at more funerals than weddings, and after a funeral one afternoon, he was sitting in a coffee shop still wearing his clergy collar.  A couple of heavily tattooed young men came up to him and – seeing his collar – asked if he was “like a priest.”

I am like a priest,” he said.  And then the young men asked if he was part of a church that “let’s people get together when somebody dies.”

Like a funeral?” he asked.  “Yes,” they said, “A funeral.”  And then they explained that a friend of theirs had overdosed and died, and his parents had flown his body back to his hometown before they could say goodbye.  The priest said that – if they wanted – they could have a funeral in the church building where he worked.  They accepted.

The priest phoned his leaders and explained that:

  • There would be a guest funeral this coming Sunday afternoon.
  • It would be great if they could prepare a meal for their young guests. Homecooked comfort food was suggested.
  • Although it might not be easy, they were to refrain from staring at or judging their guests.  “They don’t look like church people,” he said.

The priest relinquished control over the “service.”  There were no bulletins, no prayers, no hymns. The Friends of the Deceased took turns telling stories.  And after, the guests enjoyed a homecooked dinner in the reception hall served by the church ladies and gentlemen.  Eating his first homecooked dinner in a while, one guest said, “This is like eating at my Grandmother’s house.  I wish we could do this every Sunday.”  And without missing a beat, one of the casserole bakers blurted out, “We can.  We’ll be here next Sunday too, so come for dinner and bring some more friends.”

These young men and women will – most likely – never join that church in a formal way.  But prayers were answered and the church found it’s “youth ministry.” As I mentioned in another post this week,  we have got to get past our image of what youth ministry looks like.

Ministry – for any age –  is not about “getting people to join.”  It’s about loving our neighbors and addressing their needs.  I have no doubt that congregations will thrive if we are living out the message of Jesus.  Focusing on “increasing membership” instead of following Jesus is the sure fire way to kill a church.  The by-product, however, of doing healthy ministry is church growth.

So maybe you don’t live in a resort community with skiers.  But chances are you live in a community with kids who need you.  Maybe they struggle with hunger or addiction or bullying or struggles speaking English or substandard housing or unemployment or homelessness or unplanned pregnancy or neglect or overwhelming social pressures or gangs or physical abuse or basic human loneliness. How would you know?  Talk to your local police officers, school guidance counselors, emergency room workers.  Do your research.  And then pray that God will make ministry happen.

Keep in mind that our congregations are asked to model what Jesus looks like. Keep in mind that these kids may never sit in our pews on Sunday mornings.

Or maybe they will.  Maybe our new sisters and brothers in Christ will be homeless LGBTQ youth or teenagers with pierced tongues or gang members.  Are we ready to welcome all kinds of kids into our fold?  If we are serious about youth ministry, I believe we are. Or by God’s grace, we will be.

Image of one of many Church Youth Room ideas from Pinterest.  For the record, we don’t necessarily need Youth Rooms in our church buildings. Also, I can’t remember the origin of this story, but it might have come from Martha Grace Reese.

 

That Time I Was Told The Photo Wouldn’t Look Right With Me In It

Sometime in my 6th to 7th year of professional ministry, I thought that being an ordained clergywoman wasn’t a problem for most people.  At least most educated people with moderate to left leaning theology had no problem with ordained clergywomen.

I was serving as Co-Pastor with HH at the time and we were basically taking turns officiating scheduled weddings.  It was my turn for a certain bride and groom and they were great.  We covered not only their actual wedding ceremony and their hopes for marriage, but we also spent time talking about their extended families, their dating careers, and their youthful missteps.

The week before the wedding, the couple asked to meet with me and they seemed upset.  Uh oh.

The bride was teary and the groom looked ashen.  “What’s going on?” I asked. And the bride said, “We wonder if you could find a male pastor to officiate because we don’t think you’ll look right in the pictures.”  The groom chimed in, “Yes, it will be awkward to have two women in the photos.”

!

I said something like, “You can ask the other (male) co-pastor to officiate, but frankly, I doubt he will do it for the reasons you’ve suggested.”  (Yay HH)  “Or I could probably find a retired male pastor in town who looks like ‘a traditional minister.’  But he probably won’t want to talk with you about the things we’ve been able to talk about.”

Not surprisingly HH was unavailable to officiate at their wedding, but the couple called me back the next day and apologized and said that I could officiate after all.

I remembered this story while watching Hasan Minhaj’s  Homecoming King on Netflix.  [Caution: language is not for young or sensitive ears.]  Seriously, it’s poignant and beautiful and real and brilliant.  Do yourself a favor and watch it.

Except for the language, I wish every high school student in the world (and their parents) could watch it.

Many of us are still worried about What People Will Think.  Oh my gosh, what if my white relatives see a brown boyfriend in my vacation photos?  What will my Jewish Grandma think when I bring home a Muslim girlfriend for Thanksgiving? What if will they think if I (a woman) take another woman to prom?

We are worried about the pictures because we want to avoid bullying/snide remarks.  Mom can cut us with a single comment.  Dad can go angrily mute for days. I could be shunned from my friend group for dating outside the norm.

My friends, life is too short and the God who made us loves us too much to refrain from including the people we love/like/want to get to know better in the photos.  Seriously.  Be true to yourself.  Hold somebody’s hand.  And smile for the camera.

 

 

The Biggest Culture Shift for Youth Ministry?

HH is spending the week with his congregation’s youth group on a mission trip to DC. I have colleagues doing the same thing this week in Cuba, South Dakota, and West Virginia.  Mission trips with youth and adults change lives – usually the lives of those traveling youth and adults most of all.

Just as we live in a time when the average committed church member attends weekly worship less often (read this), youth ministers tell me that their youth do not attend activities every week.  A youth group might have a substantial number of participants if everybody attended every week, but attendance can be spotty for the same reasons that their parents no longer attend worship every Sunday. Among the comments I hear:

  • Youth members do not attend school together and so they are not necessarily with their close friends in church.
  • Kids are busy and “church” has become another activity like orchestra and soccer.
  • Connecting to church is different from connecting to God and some kids have never experienced a connection to God.

Camps, conferences, and mission trips are considered important for connecting people to God.  They offer time away from the usual activities when people are focussed together for a common purpose.  Mission trips to venues far from home offer a glimpse outside their own experiences and – if done well – they learn sound theological and ethical principles.  They learn how not to do toxic ministry. 

So what if we did away with weekly or even monthly “youth group” and offered 4 retreats a year?  I know some congregations who have shifted to this kind of youth ministry and it seems more effective.  [Note:  I am not a youth ministry expert but I’ve observed the following programs which seem to work, depending on the context.]

  1. Partner with other churches if you have less than ten teenagers in your congregation.  Imagine teaming up with 4-6 local congregations and sharing costs and leadership.
  2. All retreats, conferences, and mission trips involve orientation, preparation, and a covenant of participation.  This creates intentionality and commitment on the parts of both the leaders and the youth.  And we are teaching that these events are more than social activities.
  3. Mix it up.  Some congregations might plan four different mission trips a year, but you could also plan one local mission trip, an international mission trip, a denominational youth retreat, and a pilgrimage (e.g. focussing on Civil Rights or Interfaith Understanding.)  Or you could plan two mission trips and two retreats.  It could vary each year.  And participants should be required to raise some/most of the money to attend.
  4. Remember that God uses everything – and talk about that.  What is God telling us about our own calling in these experiences?  Where have you seen God in these neighbors?  And – again – teach healthy partnership, not hierarchical charity.

Experts in youth ministry are good at sorting out the details.  But my point is that congregations might want to let go of the notion that The Youth Group looks like it looked generations ago.

What if your congregation has no kids?  Then ask the local high school guidance counselors or principals what their kids need and consider addressing that need.*

*Repeat after me:  Youth Ministry Is Not About Increasing Church Membership.

Our calling is to offer spiritual nourishment, practical ministry skills, and community to all ages – not to perpetuate an institution.  And our youth are spiritual human beings who want to belong and understand life.

This might be one of the biggest shifts in 21st Century ministry.

Image from the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium.  The call for volunteers for the 2019 Triennium has begun.

An Easy Place to Live

Last weekend I relished in all things beautiful and holy at B&D’s wedding.  We stayed at a lovely place on Cape Cod where the staff said “It was my pleasure” with every breath.  They live to serve the guests from spreading out our beach towels for us on comfy deck chairs to offering us drinks made of coconut vodka. It felt awkward for about 15 minutes and then I got kind of used to it.

Back to reality today.

The bride was raised Jewish and I was honored to stand with the couple under the chuppah which Rob Bell reminds us (thanks EH) symbolizes that God protects us today just as God protected the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.  They escaped into the desert which – as we know – was not an easy place to live.  It was hard to find food in the desert.  It was  hard to get comfortable.  It was hard to protect yourself.  It was hard not to feel cranky/anxious/envious of people living in the oasis.

Some people believe that being poor is inevitable for certain people.  Some believe that there will always be a servant class.  I wonder what it’s like for the housekeepers, bartenders, pool servers and maintenance people as they work day in and day out for people wealthy enough to stay in a resort like the one we enjoyed on Cape Cod last weekend.

What if we lived in a culture in which everybody occasionally serves and everybody occasionally gets served (and I don’t mean with legal papers)?

People are paid, of course, to perk our coffee, paint our walls, play with our children, etc. etc.  But if we could ensure that those who serve us and our needs – either paid or unpaid – also enjoyed being served occasionally, the world would be a happier, healthier place.

Human beings are called to support people living in difficult places.  Who lives in a difficult place in your town or city?  Maybe . . .

  • Places where it’s hard to find food.
  • Places where it’s  hard to get comfortable.
  • Places where it’s hard to protect yourself.
  • Places where it’s hard not to feel cranky/anxious/envious of people living in abundance, comfort, and safety.

We live in a profoundly divided world where rich and poor, rural and urban, conservative and liberal barely connect with each other.  But can we all agree that we have a human responsibility to feed, comfort, and protect each other – regardless of where we live and who we are?

Imagine getting used to that.

Image from the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich, Massachusetts

It Could Happen to You (But It Probably Wouldn’t)

There’s an old movie called It Could Happen to You about a NY cop who wins the lottery and splits the money with a waitress.  The thing is:  it could not happen to me, actually.  I don’t play the lottery.  Even if you play the lottery, it could happen but it probably won’t.

The death of Otto Warmbier feels especially disturbing to parents who send their children abroad to places like Russia or Turkey or even North Korea. We can imagine our kids trying to take a propaganda poster as a souvenir (aka commiting a “hostile act against the state.”) We can imagine this happening to one of our kids – especially if “we” are prosperous people who can afford international travel for our children.

The death of Philando Castile feels disturbing too, but I am not hearing white friends and family members saying “It could happen to our child too” because it probably wouldn’t.  Mr. Castile was pulled over by police officers over 49 times in 13 years according to this article.  Like you and me, he sometimes turned without signaling or drove without knowing that his license plate light had burned out. This study in Mr. Castile’s home state of MN found that

“minority drivers were more likely than white drivers to be both stopped and searched, even though officers found contraband more often when searching white drivers.”

As I consider the death of Charleena Lyles who was shot by the very Seattle police officers she called to report a burglary, I was saying to BSE yesterday something like this:  “Can you imagine this happening to you or your neighbor?  You call the police because you are afraid you’re being robbed and the police shoot you? They said she had some mental health issues, but why would they shoot her?

But then I realized how ridiculous I sounded.  Of course we can’t imagine this because it is highly unlikely that this would ever happen to me or BSE. Because we are white.  Because we live in nice neighborhoods.  Because we have health care.  Ms. Lyles was a black woman with mental illness living in an apartment for people transitioning out of homelessness.

What happened to Charleena Lyles probably wouldn’t happen to me or to my next door neighbor.  If my child gets pulled over with weed in the car, he might not even get arrested.  If I am missing a tail light  – and even if I have a legal gun in the car – I am not likely to get a ticket, much less multiple bullets fired at me.  If my husband goes out to get milk at 11 PM, I am 99.9% certain he will arrive home safely.

Note to white people like me:  The world will not change until we have empathy for people enduring what we cannot imagine because it probably would never happen to us.  Because we are white.  Because our skin color affords us privileges we don’t even notice.  It’s time for more of us become angry for the sake of what’s right and fair.