On The Wrong Side of the “church of Christ” For Generations

(Disclaimer: The story told here has the potential to reveal my real identity.  However only to a select few who largely are unlikely to read here.  But I am aware that I will divulge more information than usual in this post.)

I spent my years growing up in several different towns in several different states.  This is because my dad was a “church of Christ” preacher.  By far, most of the potential readers I might attract to this blog have little or no direct experience with churches of Christ.  Churches of Christ are not a big denomination among protestantism, but there is (at least was in decades past) a stubborn presence all across the nation, and several colleges and universities associated with them, though small mostly, some you may have heard of (such as Harding University, Abilene Christian University, or Pepperdine University).  And the two things we are best known for are the insistance (historically) on the absence of instrumental music in our worship (we did not use piano or other musical instrumentation) and our almost cultish isolation and non-cooperation with other denominations.  Basically, we were spiritual snobs who condemned all other denominations to hell claiming their doctrines were false, thus we were not very charitable toward other kinds of Christians.

Though there are, and always were exceptions to those things, they were largely enough true.  And I was raised in that world as the son of a preacher making a living for his family serving in that church.

My dad, though, way back in the mid 1970’s found himself taking coursework at the college level in a state college where religious studies featured a large part of his curriculum.  And most of the other students in the program were also church leaders, but from various denominations, and so the coursework stretched him to have a more “open mind” about a lot of the basic things he learned in preaching school.  It started him in a transformation as a church leader which put him far, far ahead of his time.

Since the 1990’s churches of Christ have openly made some very wildly “liberal” changes to our own doctrines.  To be honest, I don’t think we ever were as monolithic on these things as it seemed between the 1950 and 1980s, but it did seem it even to most insiders.  But since the 1990’s the monolithic ideal has so badly eroded that there is almost no uniformity anymore, except perhaps the notion that we have changed.  And the most common paradigm in which that gets voiced, in my experience, is that people say we used to be “legalistic” and now we are not.  Personally, I think that is a very naive understanding of the changes.

I think what really happened is that the culture outside finally infiltrated our ranks past a tipping point.  No longer were we risistent to many damaging cultural forces like divorce, alcoholism, pornography, and at least a dozen lesser phenomona and most of that infiltration and subversion due to marketing forces within the larger culture.  What outsiders and young people may have a hard time seeing is just how staunch people in our church used to be about regular church attendance especially before the 1980s.  You might be on the football team in the state playoffs, but if the game interfered with worship services, you would be expected to sacrifice your ball game.  However after the 1990s it would be far more acceptable to sacrifice the worship service.

But as I said above, we were not a cooperative bunch.  We were highly argumentative.  And “scholars” among our ranks wrote and published numerous books about “how to answer…” (Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons – everybody).  And our rank and file membership was fairly adept at deploying the arguments if given the opportunity.  This was viewed as “off putting” to say the least, by those outside.  And you could expect that any cousins, aunts and uncles, or even coworkers, team mates, anyone who might find themselves of a different denomination but somehow within the social or familiar orb of one (or many) of our members would likely get an earful, and it wasn’t generally a pleasant experience.

But here my dad was in a state school studying matters involving church with people from other backgrounds and finding a lot of the things others brought to the table to be quite interesting, meaningful, insightful, and not so terribly damned of God.  There was a while there in which Dad kept his new insights and feelings “on the DL” as we say.  He was working out some things.  But by the 1980s, Dad landed a job as the preacher of the Bronte church of Christ in Bronte, Texas.

By this time, Dad was becoming quite a lot more open with his “new” thinking.  He had become, to the minds of many during those days, “heretical.”  Actually, a fair bit of the membership at the church in Bronte found his teaching to be quite refreshing.  (As I said above, there was far more at work here than simply jettisoning “legalism” on the one hand, and on the other, we were never quite as monolithic about these things as it seemed anyway.)  But it was nevertheless quite a daring position for a man like him to take, especially with his livelihood on the line.

Now, pretty much all serious Christians from all backgrounds already have a good grasp on the notion of how important evangelism is for the church.  However, there is two features of that notion that hit a brick wall in a town like Bronte, Texas and yet there never seems to be a clear statement of the problem.

On the one hand, if you believe your church is the only TRUE church that pleases God and all others are pretenders wasting their time, then you must also believe that in a town like Bronte where less that 250 people, roughly one fourth of the population of the town, belong to your church, then that leaves 3/4 of the city to evangelize.  That means we should be getting after it, right?  But on the other hand, if you believe that Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals are also fully Christian – even if mistaken about “some things” and that with humility we might see ourselves in need of the same grace, then there is very little to do in the way of evangelism in a town like Bronte since absolutely every soul in the community has been presented with at least one, of not a hundred, versions of the Gospel message in attempts to evangelize or catechize, and MOST of them already belong to one of these churches, then there is no one left to evangelize.

Make sense?

So here is the irony: Dad, without holding such views dictating that he needed to evangelize Baptists and Methodists and so forth, instead held out an olive branch toward such groups, validated them, and even encouraged them.  And surprise, surprise, surprise… this turned people on!  Not off.

Now, you gotta keep in mind that his teachings back at the home base church were already viewed with deep suspicion by a fair number of the rank and file, some even in leadership.  He was on thin ice there on a number of fronts actually (some I will not discuss because even all these years later, confidence needs to be kept).  But despite his tepid popularity (at best) within his own church, the Christians at large from the rest of the community were quite taken with him.   And in time, Dad achieved, what at that time was the unthinkable: cross pollination!  We put together our own version of an ambassador group (long before I ever heard of such a thing elsewhere) and visited worship services with the other churches in town.  It might only be ten or twenty of our members who showed up, but in a small town like Bronte, that makes an impression on any church!

Also, there came to be other various social engagements which came to feature my dad as the “town pastor.”  Watermelon social at the home of the pharmacist.  Prayer service in the park or Easter Sunrise Services.  Sometimes just a party, a gathering concocted by community leaders ostensibly to celebrate Dad, was held in the public spaces and attended heavily by every group in town except our church.  (To be fair, there were an important minority from the church of Christ always there and always supporting such things.)

It was truly a remarkable ministry.  And believe me when I say I am painting a very narrow view of it here for this blog.  There is so much I could say, but it turns out that small towns, like families, have secrets – skeletons in the closet.  As the “town pastor” and spiritual guide for the vast majority of the community, Dad found himself privy to many intimate details of people’s lives, and he stepped up in love and grace to be a light in the dark corners of the communal heart.  I don’t know if I know the half of it, but I am sure that most of what even I know is too sensitive to share publicly all these decades later.  But my dad became a deeply trusted and beloved pillar of that community.  Not nearly so much his own congregation (although plenty there too), but the community as a whole!

In all the years since, I have heard our preachers – good ones too – preach the necessity of UNITY till we are blue in the face.  And by my read on the New Testament, that is right; I completely concur with that emphasis on things.  The church of the modern/post modern era has become so very fragmented that THAT is what I think the root of most of our problems either is or is associated with to this day.  I don’t think our “legalism” of yesteryear holds a candle to the impact disunity has had on the church and on the world.

But the dream only lasted five years.

I will definitely NOT go into the details of the matters which finally arose causing Dad to be fired from what arguably was his most impactful and important ministry of his whole life.  Again, there is too much there to keep in confidence, however, nearly anyone from Bronte in those days will have an educated opinion on it, I am sure.  But I will say that despite the fact that some of these issues which arose were in some ways unrelated to the picture I paint above, there was no hiding the fact that they gave a fancy excuse for those hardliners among our congregation who wanted all this unity stopped to make the powerplay and muscle Dad out of a job and my family on down the road.

The truly telling part of all that which really speaks to the importance of that ministry was when a group of Christians in Bronte from the other denominations found out that the church of Christ had fired Dad came to him and offered to start a new church and make him the pastor.  He need not build it from the ground up, it would come together like a miracle – ready made and ready to go.  He need not miss a beat.

I cannot speak to the finely considered reasons Dad ultimately turned down that offer.  I have a lot of ideas about it.  I figure it would be like getting a divorce from your wife only to get remarried and let your ex live in the other end of the same house with your new family.  Bronte is a very small town, and there were relationships there that would become evermore complex about like that if he had opted to do it.  But in the end, I suspect he chose to have the humility of leaving rather than the hubris of outshining those who so openly opposed him.  Or maybe, despite all his openness and charity toward other faith traditions, he found himself too deeply church of Christ to give up on it.  All I know for sure is that we left that tiny town behind after that.

However, nearly two decades after that, I went back to college and got a Bible degree at Abilene Christian, which is only about a one hour drive away from Bronte.  During my time in Abilene, I never visited Bronte except, and until, I graduated and Dad came for the event.  Since he was in town most of that week, and since we found ourselves with a little spare time, we decided one morning to take a drive and found ourselves rolling into Bronte, unexpected and unannounced.  Neither one of us had seen the place in many years.  But being a small West Texas town, there were not too many drastic changes to the place.

We rolled up to the new convenience store and walked in to use the restroom.  We did not see anyone we recognized, and the place had very few patrons at that moment.  So we walked back out onto the street and decided to take a stroll.  You can walk the whole town end-to-end in 20 minutes, if you so desire, but we just made a short circle of about 5 or 6 blocks right in the heart of town.  We paused in front of a couple places for a moment, but by the time we returned to the convenience store less than 15 minutes later, the place was packed with people!

To my memory the joint was filled to capacity.  Maybe as many as 50 people jammed in there.

Why?

Because someone had spotted [Special Agent Dad] there, and word spread quickly.  People all over town called friends and family, dropped what they were doing and rushed down to the store just hoping it was for real.  And sure enough, it was!

Who knew?

It was like my dad was Bon Jovi back stage with a pack of women wanting autographs or something!

Okay, maybe I am exaggerating that just a tad.  But not by much.

Seriously, nearly two decades had passed, and the town turned out just to catch a glimpse of their old “town pastor” if they could.  So maybe it was a little more like disciples dropping nets to follow Jesus!

It was a powerful testimony to the special ministry that happened there all those years before.

Suddenly, we were re-establishing contact with long lost friends.  People shaking our hands, hugging us, some with tears in their eyes, overjoyed to see us.  Greeting us, inviting us to their homes, hoping we were back to stay… all that.

Even the newest church of Christ preacher, the one currently holding that position at that time, showed up to greet us, and he looked nervous as all get out!  Just Dad’s presence, with that kind of popularity, seemed to give him the perception that it threatened his livelihood!  And it showed that Dad had left some really big shoes that this guy was struggling to fill.

Why am I telling all that story?

Well, several reasons, I suppose.  Not the least that it needs to be told.  It should be honored and celebrated.  The thing that happened there was a gift from God!  It was a small town, a town hurting with secrets even, and so none of this made the papers or the TV.  If you were not there, and not part of that community, then there is no reason you would ever know or understand.  Even my mere retelling of it does it no justice, and I feel certain you cannot really appreciate it.  But perhaps I would be wrong not to offer it and try… try to share at least a sense of how special that time was.  To praise God for the charity he gave to my dad in allowing him to enjoy such an outflowing of God’s grace, and to see various faith communities daring to share unity with one another on some truly deep and personal levels!

But there is another aspect to all of this too.  One that is a regular theme on this blog – the hard-heartedness of the church.

By the time I joined V-church here in Lubbock, a few years after that visit we made to Bronte, after I graduated ACU, I too was looking for churches of Christ who honored ecumenical outreach.  I particularly looked for a church that reached out both to the poor in sacrificial and loving ways AND to other faith traditions as well.  And I found it, so I thought, at V-church.

I have posted a series several years ago now, ON THIS BLOG, all about my love and the adventures I found at V-church.  But in more recent years, my dad has retired and come to Lubbock to live near me as he faces his late years.  And upon coming to Lubbock, he too joined V-church along with me.  However, this was a few years after I was disillusioned by that church, after they had discovered the book When Helping Hurts and during a time when I personally was being unofficially shunned and marginalized for speaking out against all of that.  However, for years leading up to that time, I had sung the praises of V-church for both their ecumenical work and their heart for the poor.

So, when my dad showed up, even though he was an old guy with his best years behind him (supposedly), he came with an impressive resume, important experience, wisdom that would be invaluable to share.  You would think V-church would be thrilled to attract all that, would invite the old man to maybe hold a lecture, a seminar, something right?

Nope.

Not interested in any of it.

Why?  What’s going on?

Is it all really a matter of how we used to be “legalists” but we have changed since then?  Or is there other agendas at work?

V-church, once upon a time, started an ambassador program where they sent representatives to worship one Sunday with every other church in Lubbock!  That takes a while to do.  It is a brilliant idea, and no telling what all the blessings are between churches of Christ and so many other faith traditions could be still incubating from that.  But my dad was doing that decades before it was cool, decades before it was even edgy stuff someone just dreamed up.  And not only that, but my dad’s ministry involved people in intimate sharing of their lives across these traditional boundaries that have done so much damage to the church at large for hundreds of years.  You think I am just looking for respect here?  Nah.  That would be nice, of course, but the real point is that this church with such a rich history and interest in THIS KIND of thing blowing off the insights a person like my dad brings with him is so far out of line as to suggest there is some sort of corruption going on.

Perhaps it’s some spiritual corruption, but I bet it involves politics and probably some money too.  But I can only guess at that level.  But the oversight here is just too enormous to simply be coincidence.  And in more than five years now of being a committed member there, his input is far more resisted than sought.

I can’t help but note that it was the church of Christ that fired him when he achieved so much, and now it is the church of Christ blowing off the asset sitting right there in their midst.

I think that is a shame, and I think it should be addressed.  The opportunity is utterly wasted, and the old man is getting old.  There is far more he can no longer do than what he once did.  But passing up a simple consultation is just stupid and outrageous.  If nothing more than learning from history, this man has far more value than his own brothers and sisters in Christ care to find out, and it’s costing them.

That’s another reason I post it.

Homeless Man Steve

Jesus? Is this Jesus?? Maybe so. Seems he is changing lives. Almost thought his name was Steve. But that’s how it goes among “the least of these.”

INSIPIRATION STORY

60914009 – motivation inspiration inspire encourage motivate concept

This evening as I was leaving Best Buy, I noticed this man going through the garbage can outside of the store. As I walked to my car I watched him as he reached in the garbage can and pulled out fast food trash bags and inspected all that was in the thrown away bags. He did this for several minutes. He would find a few fries in one bag and a bite or two of a hamburger in another bag. You can see the hamburger wrapper by his knee where he was placing the food items he’d found.

He never bothered anyone or tried to stop and beg for money as people entered and left the store. After he went through the entire trash can he neatly cleaned up the area and wrapped up the food he found in the dirty hamburger…

View original post 843 more words

Homeless Apocalypse II

Blast From The Past Post. Here is more from the BFTP series. I don’t know for sure if this one ever got so much as a view. Too bad. Better yet, forget this blog and go hunt the homeless spot where Jesus is staying just a mile, or a few yards, or even a few feet from your church house. That would be far more important than reading this.

Fat Beggars School of Prophets

What you see driving by What you see driving by

You MIGHT be excused for not knowing you had homeless people sleeping in the shadow of your steeple if this is what you saw on your way to church.  But if you got out of the car and approached, you might find enough evidence to investigate the matter.

Walking up to the camp Walking up to the camp

Then, if you had the heart for Jesus, and “The Least of These” he identifies himself so intimately with, you might get close to see how he has been living just outside your church walls.  And if you did, you would find THIS:

Camp Jesus: Ground Zero Camp Jesus: Ground Zero

And if you had the keys to a warm church building in your pocket, then what you do next determines whether you are a Matthew 25:40 Church or a Matthew 25:45 “Church.”

When the King comes to see how you did, what answer will you…

View original post 9 more words

Merry Christmas To Us

Okay, I was being facetious with that last post.  I didn’t really go shopping.  I didn’t really buy junk I don’t need.

(Actually, we do plenty of that.  I will confess.)

But rather, for this Thanxgiving Holiday weekend.  I opted to be at home with foster kids.  We have enough toys to play with.  We have enough HOME to go around, and THAT needs to be enjoyed.  So we will.

Merry Christmas To ME!!!

Oh my!  The silly season kicks into full gear tomorrow, but actually one of the kids in our extended family had to leave the holiday festivities a bit early TODAY so he could be at KOHL’s to sell Christmas shoppers crap they don’t need right now on THANXGIVING Day!

But who really cares?  Right???

I’m going to sleep early tonight so I can be up by 3am and down at my favorite department store (not naming it because I really don’t want you to beat me to it) by 4am so I can get something special (really, really special) for that one person who already has it all.  I haven’t been waiting for this all year now, so I am so excited!  That one person on my shopping list that never gets mentioned.  I am getting out there early to elbow my way among the marauding hordes, kicking and shoving, tug-o-waring if I have to, so I can get a good deal on that one special gift for that one special person…

…ME!

Yay!!!

Yeah, and hopefully, while I am there, I might pick up a few odds and ends for some others too.

No. Really.

Think I am kidding?

How many Christmas ads can you count this year that feature buying something for YOURSELF?  You don’t think those marketing executives with their fancy marketing degrees sit up all night devising ways to separate you from your money and hold meetings and conferences on this stuff and miss out on THIS special gift… Do you?

Wow!

I am awesome!  Can’t wait to see what I get myself!  This is gonna be good.  Jesus will be so honored, I know.

Oh Yeah! Let’s All Go Around And Everyone Say Something They Are Thankful For

Truth be told, I have a long list of things to be thankful for every day.  In fact, my  daily prayers are dominated by thanxgiving EVERY DAY.  And honestly, if I really took the time and considered things more closely, I would find more things to be thankful about and new dimensions of the things I already pray about.

But I think my thanxgiving is a buzzkill for others.  I mean, when other people at the table are expressing thanx for “family”, “another semester of college”, “our country”, “our new home”, “our president” and so forth, the first thing I am thankful for every day is “the warm dry bed I had to sleep in last night, and the wonderful woman I share it with.”

Yes.

I have spent many a night outdoors, behind a church building, behind a law office, by a dumpster, in a park, when the wind and cold, the wet and cars driving by all threatened to do me harm or worse.  It made an impression on me.

I am thankful for the bathroom I have just four feet from where I sleep, a bathroom that is warm, clean, and has running water!

Yes.

In spending many a night in street-homeless conditions, I know how complicated it is to wake up needing a bathroom break.  If you throw off the blanket(s), suddenly the cold sets in all over again.  Then if you wish to avoid using a bush for this business, you have a three or four block walk to the Walmart where they have a proper restroom which may or may not be clean and ready for you when you get there.

So…

It’s kinda a buzzkill to point these important things out around the table where everyone else there takes all this stuff for granted and/or looks with contempt on those who suffer the lack of such blessings.

Not always, of course, but generally.

But I am thankful.  And if my gratitude stinx, so be it.

Cat’s In The Cradle…When Ya Comin’ Home?

I was only a very young man, barely 20-something, when I discovered Robert Bly, the poet.  I never read a Robert Bly poem, even yet.  But I read an interview he gave with Bill Moyers in which he made sense of the world for me (especially as a man).

He painted a bleak picture.

I will not quote Bly here, but I will say that his insight into the damage done to Western civilization by the Industrial Revolution has always stayed with me in a powerful way.  Despite all the wonders produced in that reordering of society, Bly notes that fathers left home, and in so doing, left sons to be raised by their mothers.  This was an insight raised again in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, Fight Club, and thus caught my attention again.  (Actually, Palahniuk made no philosophical exploration of the notion, but he did seem to paint the care for women and mothers out of the life of his unnamed protagonist, depicting the nihilist fallout Bly’s observations had pointed me to before.)

Bly said, in that Moyers interview, that typically fathers spend only ten minutes a day interacting with their sons, as of the early 1990’s.  And he said most of that was centered on messages like, “Clean up your room.”

This kind of observation drew Bly into “the men’s movement.”  I had never heard of that, but since those days I believe I have seen various expressions of it, just not the backwoods, drum-beating expressions Bly championed.  But I recall that as Bly stated (at least it seemed plausible 30 years ago), the impact of the Industrial Revolution had not been the same on mothers and daughters as on men.  But I was already noting how much day care and school was replacing mother and motherhood.  Surely it was only a matter of time before the HOME itself began circling the drain as Americans left HOME to make ends meet.

Today we have a rise in homelessness across the nation, and really the world.  In my experience, the popular, scholarly, media-driven, and political analyses of the “root causes” of poverty and homelessness keep turning for answers to matters of drug addiction, low wages, down economy, lack of affordable housing, lack of education, and so on.  I have no reason to refute those things; I think they all play important roles in the process of massive homelessness.  But I think there are more spiritual forces at work too.  Some quite close to HOME.

In my view, as worthy as those answers appear, they should be joined by issues like divorce, pornography, changes of address and the subsequent uprooting from schools, churches, and careers.  Even promotions that bring more money and financial stability often are accompanied by these very things.

As a society, we have been backing out on the father-present HOME Bly describes since the Industrial Revolution, alright.  Fathers, for the first time in world history – on a mass scale – left home to go to work in factories all day long for six or seven days a week.

Left HOME… behind.

This wasn’t the case previously, not on a mass scale.  No.  As soon as a son was weaned from his mother’s breast, he could go to the field with his farming father, into the wood shop, the shoe shop, the smith shop… with his father.  In fact, often with his whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins included.  But, when the factory came to town, Dad up and disappeared, making for a slow disintegration and devastation.  Then in the sixties, seventies, and especially the eighties, mothers began disappearing too.

Children have been left to the hired hands for their upbringing.  Day care, school, a baby sitter… places where family values are taught with good discipline and Mammon has no say.  Right?

Sure.

And coinciding with all of this, I recall my sociology text book describing the impact of the automobile on social life.  Suddenly courtship gave way to dating.  The parlor, under the watchful eye of a young lady’s father and brothers, gave way to the back seat of the family Ford on a back lot where no one was watching.  (Her father wasn’t there anyway; he was busy manufacturing the Fords!)

All the social stability that came with family and social discipline, not the least shame, have given way to anonymity, and have been replaced by the enticement of every whim the radio, television, and internet can sell you.  With no sense of personal identity vis-a-vis the important people in your life, it’s surprising all the itching desires that creep out of the shadows and dark places in your heart.  Pretty soon, you won’t recognize yourself.

What do you think is coming of your kids who want to be like you?  But you disappear as they go off to day care or school again.

No doubt drugs and alcohol have always been with us, but those plagues seem to have exploded after much of these more systemic changes took place.  Jesus turned water into wine, but there doesn’t seem to have been any concern about the alcoholics there at teh party falling off the wagon.  A new phenom???

How can you expect a 20 year old girl working for minimum wage at a day care center to give the same kind of love, care, and attention to your child that you would?

You can’t.  Nor do you want her to outshine you.

And when that girl is replaced next week by the new girl, what happens to the bond your child had with the first one who disappeared?  Who is this child you gave birth to, who looks and sounds like you, but lives by some other moral compass you don’t know.

And so far, I have only described the HOME of clean-living, white, middle-class people.  Once we take on board all the intergenerational poverty, the racism, the lack of advantage you find in the hood, suddenly you find toddlers completely unattended by adult supervision on the streets of a town like Lubbock at midnight coming to your prayer service in an empty lot across the street because they find more love there than they do from their absentee daddy or his porn stash.  (Seriously, I have experienced this.)

And the numbers of such people are staggering.

What am I getting at with all this?

(Glad you asked.)

I am acknowledging all the usual issues we call “root causes” of poverty and homelessness, alright.  But I am saying that even primary to all the addiction, lack of affordable housing, and whether the Democrats or Republicans are to blame, we are bailing on our HOMES as a matter of good business as fast as we can every day.  There are other causes too, some of which are deeply systemic and command our allegiance; we love them and don’t want to give them up.

I can’t help but think that Harry Chapin’s song has this other dimension to it.  When ya coming home, Dad?  I wanna be just like him.

Yeah.

If Bly is on to something here, then our addiction to industry and capital – service to MONEY – probably will shed new light on things.  We have slowly sacrificed our lives, our families, our HOMES for it.  And this might be easily confused since it would seem we need more of it in order to have a HOME.  But that is something we need to disentangle, I think.

No wonder so many people are homeless.  They don’t have one to go back to, and the one they did have was a parody.

Fall On Your Knees And Hear The Angel’s Voice

You wouldn’t miss Christmas this year, would you?

You know… historically speaking, shepherds are some of the lowliest people on earth.  Oh, they have a job, but thank goodness it’s not here in town where we have to smell THEM!  One rung above bums, “those people” are a bunch of nobodies.  Country hicks.  Hayseeds.  Hillbillies.  THEY eat, sleep, and migrate around the countryside like drifters.

It’s highly unlikely you would be hanging out with THEM ever.  Much less that first Christmas when God chooses to reveal to THEM what the rest of the world only yearns to see.

So isn’t in curious that God chooses his king from among THEM?  …the shepherds, that is… (Think David here).  And so when God sends his only begotten Son, it may seem appropriate at some level for him to make his angelic announcement of this Good News to the shepherds in the field tending the flock.  But, it is still heavily ironic that he opens heaven and all the host up for this announcement to such lowly people.

You and I might “fall to our knees,” but THEY might have to rise to theirs.

If you are too proud to be there among THEM, you will surely miss it.  And anyway, when the shepherds go and see, it’s a homeless boy they find in a manger converted into a crib.  And the animals feed from this Son ever since.

Ironic.  So ironic that I think if you’d had the chance to be there you likely would have missed it.  And even though we celebrate this event with the biggest party of the year all over the world, I think there is a strong chance we still do.

It’s not the first time I referenced this story, but perhaps in telling it now I can say something more.

I spent a number of years working in the psych unit.  Many, though surely not all, of the patients we tended to in the psych hospital were homeless friends of mine from the streets.  But even those who did not suffer homelessness still lived with the stigma of mental health issues.  The psych ward is a humiliating place to be for most people.  I have seen it.  So many hardworking, independent, self-respecting career people surviving a suicide attempt only to land in our unit and then absolutely cringe at the shame of being there.

I love such places.

It is the mission statement of the Fat Beggars School of Prophets to go to the place of shame, pain, and despair in our community and bear the image of God there.  For several years, that was my job!  And I met people THERE, and served THEM, encouraged THEM, and showed THEM respect – THERE.  And amid the vulnerability of it all, I both touched with God’s healing touch AND saw Him THERE in our midst numerous times, numerous ways.

This time of year, I often think of Secret Agent Soprano (SAS), a very timid person, extremely bashful, soft-spoken, and clingy who came to our unit during the Christmas Season for an extended stay.  She was pretty much the least of “the least of these.”  Even the other psych patients resisted this one.  But when I showed her my care and attention, she globbed on to me.  She became my shadow.  Constantly seeking my attention and approval.

Hospitals, and especially psych wards, have a lot of rules.  Chief among them are rules dealing with safety and confidentiality.  (Thus, I keep this person’s identity secret, and intend not to overly describe her.)  But some of the rules seem rather arbitrary, even to me as staff.  I would adhere to them, because to allow discipline to breakdown is to invite chaos, but there were many rules I would totally have dropped if I had been in charge there.  The main one being that staff cannot eat with patients (echoes of Gen. 46:34?).  Not even in the presence of a patient.  People have been fired for it.

However, for the staff working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a huge exception was allowed, and the whole unit threw a party where everyone except the very few people in red alert status (either having, or at great risk of having, psychotic breaks) would attend right along with the staff.  Santa would come in and share some party-favor gifts.  The party room was decorated and for a few hours the place was quite festive.  Yet it was still a high security hospital unit and no family allowed.  It was not HOME.  And so in those brief moments we were all utterly homeless, except we did have a roof over our heads, warmth, and food.

Bittersweet.

During the years I worked there, our hospital was, I think, the last healthcare institution, probably in the state of Texas, that allowed patients to smoke.  Smoking was highly regulated, and the privilege could be revoked at a moment’s notice, which made for incentive to cooperate with hospital staff, at least among smokers.  Smoke breaks were limited to six times a day at regularly scheduled intervals, and highly regulated by a staff member doling out one cigarette per smoker at each break, and allotted 10 minutes on the smoker’s patio out back under the watchful eye of the supervising staff member.

As I recall it, SAS was not actually a smoker.  But it came my turn one Christmas Eve to conduct the last smoke break of the day.  For the smokers who, out in the world, were only limited in their habit by their ability to pay and the whims of their desire, six smoke breaks a day was precious few.  During their stay in the hospital, though, they only got six chances to smoke all day long.  I point this out because as we reached the most anticipated hour of the day on what could be called the most anticipated day of the year, my group of smokers, people dealing with the shame of mental health stigma, missing home desperately on Christmas Eve, as I found myself, not so much by the River Chebar as Lubbock’s modern equivalent of it (the place of shame, pain, and despair), I stepped out onto the smoker’s patio with maybe 20 people into the freezing night.

Now…

Let me digress a moment.

Way back in the 1990s, in fact right during a Christmas season, I was a student at ACU looking for a ministry internship when I began visiting the Taylor County Jail as a religious volunteer.  One of the first things I was struck by, a thing I found equally serendipitous when I began work at the French Robertson Unit (state prison) a few months later, was the jail-house choir.  In those high security environments, they don’t allow you to bring video or audio recording devices, but if they did, I think I would be a production manager in the music business!  Some o’ dem cats got talent!  Best kept secret in Taylor County!!  Down there at the place of shame, pain, and despair, for anyone willing to submit to the background check(s) and offer to volunteer, you can catch a first rate concert!!!

This has me remembering a very special worship service behind the downtown liquor store here in Lubbock about 8 years ago, when Agent T and I, with a handful of homeless folx we found there, struck up a real, bona fide worship service in the tall weeds on a couple of old throwed out sofas.  Not only did we discover one of the bums could preach a meaningful sermon (I think he discovered this too), but we met a nice lady who said she had written a couple of songs for Jesus while she was locked up, but never had a chance to sing them for anyone before.  So we sat back and let this lady sing her offering to Jesus there in the waist-high weeds behind the downtown liquor store, and I was blown away then too.

Meanwhile… Back in the Psych Ward

So come back to that psych hospital smoker’s patio with me again.  Go there with me now.  Step out in the dark and freezing cold of the dead of winter on Christmas Eve passing out cigarettes to 20 some-odd patients shivering against the wind in their bath robes and slippers.  As I turn to my left, I see SAS, my constant shadow/companion braving the cold in her slippers too just so she can stand next to me, since she is too timid to stay inside where it is warm but where that would mean she would be alone.

I greet her with astonishment.  “You came out here with us in the cold to spread some Christmas cheer?” I ask.

She answers me, but her voice is too low to hear her.  So I ask her to repeat it.

She leans in close to my ear and says, “Can I sing a Christmas song?”

I am stunned.  This timid creature wants to sing!  Does she plan to entertain us all?

And all the ill tempered, shivering people suffering holiday blues with a smelly cigarette in a psych hospital are not likely to be a charitable audience.

“You want to sing for us?” I ask.

She smiles.

I speak out, “Everyone.  Can I have your attention please?  [Special Agent Soprano] would like to bless us this fine Christmas Eve with a Christmas song.”

A hush falls over the motley crew.

We could have been lowly shepherds, forgotten by the world in a pasture late at night under the stars… under A STAR when this timid woman opens her throat and heaven opens with it.

She sang O Holy Night as pure and beautiful as any recording of it I ever heard.  The angel’s voice brought us to our knees.  Hardly a dry eye on the smoker’s patio that night.  After the party was done, after Santa was gone, and when a few lowly smokers in a psych ward gathered shivering on the back patio for the last smoke break of the day, God showed up.  And he heard his Angel chorus.

And I think of that blessed moment every time I hear that song now.  And I miss that terrible place where God met us and blessed us and warmed our hearts against the cold wind and a lonely night.

It’s easy to miss such things.  And you don’t find these blessings just any old time you visit the place of shame, pain, and despair.  But once there was a young Jewish prophet there at Golgotha, just outside the city gate.  And what looked for all the world like yet another execution of yet another young Jew, in God’s hands became a coronation as they placed a crown on his head and an sign over him announcing to all that this man is King.

It’s easy to miss such things.  I hope this Christmas you don’t.

But here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets, you are invited to come and see, come and hear.  And maybe, just maybe, this year you will find the blessing too.  Maybe you will fall on your knees and hear the angel’s voice.

 

To Whom it May Concern

Here’s a kick in the jimmy! A short read, but deeply convicting.

Royal Hope

Poem Written 2013 by CDB

To Whom It May Concern,

I’m cold and scared, I’m hungry and sick, I’m lost and I need to be found. People pass me on the street and spit at my feet. They think I’m nothing or lower then nothing. They act as if I am a Drunk or a Druggie but the truth is I lost my job a few months back had no place to turn. The shelters are full 3/4 of the time and the street is a cold and lonely place to be. I was once like you but even then I still felt lost. Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible when people walk by me. One night I saw a cross that glowed for miles. It was your Church. I fell asleep on the steps. The next morning I was awaken by people going up the steps of the church…

View original post 106 more words

TALKING ABOUT Love and Keep Our Distance vs. Celebrating the Other and Their Story Becoming Our Story

I previously discussed TALKING ABOUT love in a recent post.  To my way of thinking, the remarks I made there set the groundwork for much more discussion which could go in many directions.

Now let me relate it all just a bit more closely with the point of this blog – loving the homeless. And let me bring in some fresh thoughts after another previous post called “Your Story Becomes Our Story.

PSYCHO/SOCIAL LENS

Before we get all “theological” about this, let’s just look at our approach through a bit more of a psycho/social lens. I will speak from my own observation/experience on this, but I expect you will find mine similar to yours – enough so that we understand each other.

As I recall from my earliest days in street ministry, both my brothers and sisters at church and myself looked with pity on the poor and needy around us and felt moved with compassion to reach out in Jesus’ name with help for various needs both expressed and observed. When we saw someone hungry, we provided food (or money to buy food) and when someone told us they could not pay their power bill, we paid it for them.

We bridged a gap between haves and have-nots with real help, and it felt good to do it.  We all got very excited about it. Bragged on all we were doing to each other and hyped it all up. More and more people got involved both among the helpers and the needy. It all became a big circus.

We changed.

We got tired, exhausted, and some even burned out. The poor and needy got excited, told their friends and more and more people were coming to Jesus… well at least coming for the free food and stuff.

After a while, we reached a tipping point.

Either we were gonna get so overwhelmed and inundated with needy people that our own identity as middle-class, conservative Americans would be threatened and our income depleted on our love for the poor (thus we too might become like them/with them) or we needed to cut them off just for self-preservation’s sake!  And it was right about then that we began discussing how “ineffective” our help had been at elevating the needy out of their state of neediness and remake them in our own image.

We wanted our story to become theirs!  (Not the other way round.)

And so, as the Righteous Brothers say it, we “lost that lovin’ feelin’.”

After that, someone discovered the book When Helping Hurts, and we started TALKING ABOUT our love for the homeless and eventually that turned into training courses and seminars.  The celebration of the poor came to an end, but all the TALK ABOUT our love became technical jargon for professionals and social workers deployed on behalf of the church to keep the poor on their side of town all the while appearing to be our care for them.

Just looking at this through a psycho/social lens, I see a lot of fear driving that church.  What started out as love suddenly morphed into fear.  Not fear only, for certainly there was fatigue, but that too drove the fear.  Our love for the poor, our love for Jesus, moved us to a tipping point.  We were going to change one way or another.  The status quo would hold no longer.  This raised important questions:

What was going to change?

How would it change?

What things did we want to change, and what did we want to keep the same?

When white, middle-class Christians choose to actively engage the poor in loving, sacrificial ways, life does not continue business-as-usual for long.  If you do this well, you will suddenly find a burst of new friends clamoring to be near you, but they are not the social connections you find in college, in political rallies, at office picnics, or any of the places where we climb corporate and social ladders.  Instead, we find ourselves inundated with needy people made in the image of God, but deeply broken and hurting who come and drain us of our money, time, and energy.

It’s at just this point in the psycho/social lens that I want to say something powerfully theological:

As Christians, we try to keep our idol worship “on the DL.”  But when you start living for LOVE, actually celebrating the image of God in real people who are broken and needy, you learn there are some deep inconsistencies in your faith.  You either have to face your idolatry and give it up, or you gotta cut back on all the sacrificial love of God stuff, because you really cannot serve both God and Mammon.

A THEOLOGICAL LENS

Now…

Since we are talking about theological things at this point anyway, let’s go back a moment and look at the same things we were doing before, but now in a theological lens.

For a while there, we were daring to love poor and needy people.  This is entirely biblical.  Jesus did it, and this same kind of thing happened to him too.  He showed love to the poor, the broken, the sick, the needy, and suddenly he was inundated with multitudes of people coming from far and wide to see him, hear him, touch just his shirt!  They were crushing him so much he could not enter a house to eat or he had to get into a boat and push off from shore so he could preach to everyone.  He was not climbing the social/royal ladders of Temple or Rome.  He too became exhausted and had to withdraw at times to pray alone.  He too reached a point in this life of ministry where he realized it would kill him.

We, as the Body of which that Jesus is the head, should not be surprised by any of this.  We can read our Gospels and plainly see the similarities there.

We find the church in Jerusalem, as told by St. Luke in Acts 2 and 4, selling all their property and giving the money to the church so that no one went in need.  Again, the impact on one’s social and financial resources among those early Christians CHANGED EVERYTHING.  The rich sold all they owned, gave it to the poor, counted their blessings in heaven, and followed Jesus (all the exact things the rich man seeking eternal life from Jesus chose not to do when Jesus then said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”).

Oh yeah.  This stuff is all in the Bible!

AN APOCALYPTIC LENS

Here’s the APOCALYPSE in all this theological stuff now:

When we celebrate the image of God among the poor and needy, when we sacrificially love the poor and needy, and thus when THEIR STORY BECOMES OUR STORY, not only do we become poor, not only do we lose our lives to gain them, not only do we repent from our idolatry, and not only does THEIR STORY BECOME OUR STORY, but… BUT… but HIS STORY BECOMES OUR STORY!

Look folx.  They ain’t teaching this in the When Helping Hurts book and seminar.  The white, middle-class American “church” can’t afford to teach this.  The stuff those people teach you amount to nothing more than a vain attempt to maintain the status quo.  A sad attempt to remake the poor and needy in our selfish image rather that remake us into the image of Jesus.  And that goal did not work before we found the book When Helping Hurts, and after a decade since that book took hold of our mission and ministry, it still has not achieved the goal of making the poor into rich people like us.  No.  The poor we still have with us.