Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Christmastime Economics and Advent Blogs to Come

Hello fearless readers! Today I have one special announcement and one brief pre-Advent meditation for you . . .

First, I am excited to announce that I will be blogging each day through Advent, and I would be delighted if you would join me for this journey. We'll consider the historical background of Christmas, look at some of the key scriptures, explore early Christian "Christmas" theology and how our faith in the incarnation affects our future hope, and through it all ask what implications Advent has for our faith today. Our journey will get underway this upcoming Sunday, December 3rd!

And yes, we will also consider the greatest Christmas film of all time: Diehard.

Image result for die hard christmas meme

Finally, as your Christmas shopping is (okay, maybe?) well underway it's a good time to pause and consider the economics of Christmas. It's common knowledge that many Americans go into debt at Christmas as they seek to find the perfect gifts for the people the love. Now, I'm not going to get on any sort of soapbox here, but I just want to share two items to consider when considering how far we should go (or not) for the aforementioned perfect gifts.

First, let's consider the average American household debt (before Christmas shopping!) in a few areas, courtesy of USA Today:

Credit Cards: $16,883
Auto Loans: $29,539
Student Loans: $50,626
Mortgages: $182,481

Second, consider the words of the man whose birthday we are theoretically celebrating about all these perfect possessions that we are given at Christmas . . .

Luke 14:28-33
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

It just a bit ironic to add to our debt for Jesus' birthday celebration.

Note: I love Christmas, and presents (I am an American it seems). But, it's worth considering, no?


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

A reporter once asked Mohandas Gandhi to sum up his life in twenty-five words or less. He replied, "I can do it in three; renounce and enjoy!"

Now... why are we talking about Gandhi on Thanksgiving?

Well, it's simple: he really got it! True thanksgiving, the thanksgiving which is asked of us in scripture, is a thanksgiving that recognizes that nothing belongs to us. True thanksgiving recognizes that all we are and have is a gift, and therefore releases any claims to ownership and entitlement. By releasing these claims, and returning the gifts to their owner (God), we are free to celebrate them without needing to worry about holding on to them or getting more of them. After all, "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Psalm 24:1), and "in him (God) we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

Our prayer at Burning Bush Communities is that this Thanksgiving we might all remember the specific people, events and blessings from this past year that we are thankful to God for. But we don't want to stop there! Our prayer is that our thanksgiving would extend into all the corners of our lives on a daily basis! So while we hope tomorrow is a special day of feasting and gathering to give thanks, our greater hope is that it is simply a reminder for us all keep giving our lives and all that is in them back to God with with joyful gratitude for the goodness that we have received.

That being said . . . Happy Thanksgiving, and let us go on our way with some wise words from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The natural man feels a genuine joy at receiving a gift, in obtaining something he has not earned. The pious man knows that nothing he has has been earned; not even his perceptions, his thoughts and words, or even his life, are his deservedly. He knows that he has no claim to anything with which he is endowed. Knowing, therefore, that he merits little, he never arrogates anything to himself. His thankfulness being stronger than his wants and desires, he can live in joy and with a quiet spirit.
    - Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is not Alone


Monday, November 20, 2017

Good Samaritan Cycling Team: Part Four

Today is our last post (for now!) on the adventures or misadventures of the Good Samaritan Cycling Team. And after spending some time sharing stories and thinking through lessons learned it seems appropriate that we would go back to the source:

Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Much ink has been spilled concerning this parable, and I do not intend to add anything new today. I simply want to ask a few questions of us. They are the same questions that I have found directed at me in my attempts to serve the homeless and struggling over the last few months.

1.  What is it in our lives that makes it difficult for us to show mercy? Are we too busy? Are we afraid of the person in need? Do they make us feel insecure? Is it uncomfortable? Can we see those in need, or are we to preoccupied? If we can be brave enough to name the problem, then we can begin working towards a solution.

2. If the problem is busyness or preoccupation (I know this is one I struggle with), then what is the relationship between our self-centeredness and the ability to show mercy? Do we really believe that our schedule or our priorities or our little world's are more important than another person made in God's image? Can we put on paper what our priorities are, and then ask if we are actually following them?

3. If the problem is fear or insecurity, are we afraid based on personal experience, or because of what we've seen on tv, or the internet, or from others? What is the interaction between our trust in God and our fear of the other in need? Are there ways we can show mercy in a secure way, if the insecurity is reasonable?
3. Is our first instinct to judge the person in need ("the dummy should have never taken the road to Jericho by himself!") or to simply the see the need and move closer, without worrying about who or what is at fault?

The biggest lesson I have learned in my few months serving with GSCT is that these decisions and attitudes have to be made daily. I know if I do not actively choose to pursue mercy then I will default to the setting of the world around me . . . which is selfishness, rationalized by judgment, false priorities, and empty promises for "next time". My prayer for myself, for Burning Bush Communities, and for you fearless reader, is that each of us would determine each day before the need arises to show mercy to our neighbors (and perhaps even our families and friends!) so that when the moment is right we can respond as the Samaritan did. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good Samaritan Cycling Team: Lessons, Part Three

How far would you go to help someone you care about? Would you let them, or rather, would you goad them into attacking you in front of a police officer if that were the only way they could get help?

This was not a scenario I would've ever dreamed of until I met a guy I'll call Cliff. Cliff was a guy who I had enjoyed getting to know, who had some drug problems, but who was always kind, honest and real with me. And Cliff was always upbeat; or he was until his girlfriend, let's call her Lila, went back into a cycle of paranoia due to an untreated mental illness. The last time I saw Cliff and Lila she was obviously not in touch with reality, and Cliff was hurting. He pulled me aside and said that he had taken her to the hospital, but they wouldn't do anything. He had even called the police on her, but they couldn't do anything either. So he told me that he would have to do what he had done before to get her treated: call the police, and then get her to attack him in front of them by playing into her delusions. As soon as she went into custody she would begin to get treatment.

One of the things that I did not think about when we started the Good Samaritan Cycling Team was mental illness. I thought about what we'd give, what we'd say, how we might serve people, socio-economic and racial issues in our cities, and all kinds of things. But I didn't think about mental illness. That was a big mistake on my part, of course, because there is no separating homelessness from mental illness. The statistics are overwhelming: a huge percentage of homeless men and women have significant mental illnesses. Some estimates put the number as high as 50% (See NAMI's Report Here). It's not that I didn't know this. It's just that I, like so many others, live a life cordoned off from the brutal reality of the mentally ill living on the streets in our cities. It is because of my separation from these brothers and sisters of mine that it did not immediately occur to me that I would need to prepare myself to face this reality.

Now let's get really personal for a moment: why do we live lives cordoned off from these sorts of realities? I think the answer is simple: they are unpleasant. Working with people who have not showered in days, who are delusional, and who are potentially hostile is not pleasant. Perhaps even scary. It is disturbing to meet someone who is totally disconnected from reality, and the impulse we feel in those situations is to get away as quickly as possible.

This brings us to the key question. What is stronger, our desire for security and comfort or our compassion and mercy? Compassion and mercy shown from a safe distance are just sentiments; true compassion and mercy call for us to leave our security and comfort behind for the sake of the one in distress. This is a lesson, or a test, which I have been faced with often through the Good Samaritan Cycling Team. Some days I succeed in leaving security and comfort behind. Some days my mercy and compassion are shown lacking.

So how can I, or can we, improve here? How can we more often move with the impulse of compassion instead of self-protection? I think the answer, at least as far as I've faced it, is both very simple and very difficult. It's that whole "surrender yourself daily and trust in God" thing. If we regularly entrust ourselves and our well-being to God then He will help us to stop being so self-protective. He will give us the courage needed to act. But He needs us to give Him the job of protecting and caring for us first. Then, and only then, can we walk like Jesus, who had no problem pressing into uncomfortable and insecure realities to show mercy to hurting people.

NOTE: Please don't read into this that all self-care and protection is bad. It's not! I certainly recognize that people find themselves in unhealthy, abusive and destructive relationships and situations and need to get away. I am speaking to situations where we have the opportunity to show mercy and compassion in service to God versus serving our own desires for security; I am not speaking to situations where people are being harmed by others and then told they have to "show mercy" instead of seeking justice.   

Monday, November 13, 2017

Baby Mac Joins the Party!

Last Wednesday, at 8:32am, Burning Bush Communities gained a new community member . . . Malachi (Mac) Allen Halley!

Little Mac arrived on the scene at 19.5 inches and about 9.25 pounds, after a relatively brief (thank you Jesus) labor process. So far he is eating and pooping like a champ, enjoys warm milk and long naps, and is a sucker for anyone who will hold him in a rocking chair. We love him a lot, and he seems to put up with us as long as we take provide the milk and deal with the bodily fluids.

As you might suspect, the birth of a child makes one think a bit (that is, when you’re not too exhausted to think) about the nature of God and life and love. So, here are a few random thoughts about the implications that babies and childbirth have for our life as disciples of Jesus . . .

1.  There’s no avoiding the mess.
Childbirth is messy. Blood, fluid, goo and other items better left unmentioned all accompany the baby as he or she arrives in the world. There is nothing sanitary or safe about the process. As Mac was born I was struck by the raw reality of nature; life is messy and hard and sometimes both amazing and a little gross at the same time. And our call as disciples is to wade right into this mess. We are to accept the mess in our lives and deal with it, and also to love others in the midst of theirs. One of the striking moments in childbirth is when the nurse places the newborn, still gooey, baby into the mother’s arms. This is a picture of God’s love. It is a love that does not wait for the “proper”, neat and tidy moment to embrace the child, but delights in the being of the child even with all of the child’s goo still very much in place. And it should be pointed out that this is not just a sentimental love, but one that will nourish, defend, and correct the child in the days to come. This is the love that we are to bear in ourselves- a gift from God- and share with others in our life.

2.  God’s strategies are crazy.
If we had never heard of the Christmas story- or maybe if we just thought objectively about it for a minute- and someone told us God’s plan to save the world was to send an infant into the world we would say that was absolutely crazy. Infants are as vulnerable as any creatures you can find; they can’t see well, they can’t walk, they can’t even hold their heads up! This is, I think, a comic element in the Christmas story that we miss year after year. God’s people are in need of savior, and He sends them a baby. A baby! Babies need a savior everyday just to survive! Yet that is the story. If we took this to heart, I wonder how it would make us rethink what “successful” ministry strategies look like, and rethink how we evaluate them. We like to try and use power to change the world, but God uses the powerless and vulnerable to change the world and to showcase His power.

3.  Loving the vulnerable is not a program but a lifestyle.

I wish I could say that it was my joy to change Mac’s diaper and sing him songs while rocking him at 3am. It isn’t. In those moments I am reminded of my own entitlement and my unwillingness to put another’s needs before my own when it is inconvenient. In the midst of one of those moments it occurred to me that if we’re not willing to be there and serve the vulnerable when it’s inconvenient, then it’s really just about us. Our call as disciples is to take on a lifestyle of caring for and fighting for our neighbors who are vulnerable. And the beauty of this is that if we are willing to give this a try we will discover our own issues and vulnerability, and discover that perhaps we are not saviors to anyone but simply blessed to care for others as we are cared for by others.

As you can see, we can learn a lot from babies . . . but I’m too tired for more, and I suspect you might be too!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Good Samaritan Cycling Team: Lessons, Part Two

Two weeks ago I had my first real "paralyzed" moment while out doing ministry on the bike. I was at the intersection of Edison and Fowler, across from the Salvation Army when I saw a woman with a good deal of blood on her shirt, arm and pants. She was sitting on a wall, and her face displayed no emotion whatsoever. I pedaled over to ask if she was okay and to see what she needed, and she responded by telling me that she had skinned her arm somehow, and that she had also found out she was God. At that point, I realized this was going to be an interesting few minutes!

I chose not to reply about the God thing, but asked her if I could help bandage her arm. She said yes, and let me pour some water on the scrape. As I began to wrap the arm with gauze she slumped forward, her head dropped between her knees and she stopped moving.  I promptly began to freak out, yelling, "Ma'am, ma'am! Are you okay? Can you sit up? Please sit up!" I quickly finished wrapping the gauze on her arm and then pulled her up. Her eyes were empty, but she was conscious. I asked her if she could cross the street and get to the Salvation Army building. She didn't respond. I asked again; no response came. And as this dialogue was playing out, I became aware that there was a group of four or five guys drinking and watching us, and moving closer to us, and I didn't recognize any of them. Fowler and Edison is not a safe place by any means, and the clock began to tick in my head for moving on.

I wish I could tell you that I called the police, or got the woman to move, or did something; but I didn't. I gave her a water and a granola bar, she told me she was God again, I said a one line prayer for her, and I left. The truth is, I didn't know what to do and I made a run for it. I was terrified that she was going to collapse on me, that we were becoming a spectacle, and that the crowd gathering might be hostile.  

So what's the lesson in this?

In my last post I said that God wasn't looking for a plan from us, but for faith working through love. One of the requirements of faith working through love is sticking around when things get out of control. It's easy to show faith and love when the situation is controlled. It's easy to "take a risk" when we know what the risk is. It gets much harder when we lose control and don't even know how big the risk might be. But the truth is, if we are dedicated to showing faith and love to our neighbors we will find ourselves in a situation that gets out of control.

I think my failure in this instance was a failure to prepare. I assumed that I had learned a lot, and knew most of the folks in the neighborhoods I serve in and that it was going to be a "normal" trip. I was not prepared to radically adjust my plans and put myself into a situation that was out of control. And that was a huge problem. Those of us who strive to participate in God's mission and God's work must be prepared for crazy moments like these. Our best opportunities to serve God will likely be found in unplanned moments of chaos and risk and uncertainty. 

So let me wrap this up by turning my lesson into a challenge for all of us, or for those of us who want to be on mission. Let's commit to preparing ourselves daily, so that if love calls for us to give up control, we can give it up, and trust in God to be with us through whatever comes.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Good Samaritan Cycling Team: Lessons, Part One

I met Mark (not his real name) on my very first ride (July of this year). I had been out for only about ten minutes when I saw him attempting to get water from a spigot outside the City of Palms Stadium.  My guess is that he was around 20 years old; baby faced and rail thin. Mark was wearing a dirty shirt, tattered pants, and he had no shoes. It was brutally hot, and he obviously needed water, as the water he was getting was very warm and discolored. It didn't look very appealing, to say the least, as it dripped into his bottle.

I slowly pedaled over to Mark and asked him if he would like a cold water. He just looked at me like I was crazy, so I went ahead and pulled one out. He continued to look at me like I was crazy, so I asked him again and assured him I was not a cop. Eventually he said yes, and then asked who I was and what I was doing. I briefly explained (as best I could) about the idea behind Good Samaritan Cycling Team, and was met, not surprisingly, with another puzzled look. I asked him if he had a safe place to stay, and he unconvincingly murmured that he did. It was obvious that Mark was uncomfortable with me, and perhaps with being out in the corner of the field where we were, so after asking if he needed anything else I said good-bye and pedaled away.

My interaction with Mark was very short; we couldn’t have been together for more than three minutes or so. But I left our encounter both haunted and deeply challenged. In the first place, the reality of my segregated life became very clear. I have some background working among the poor and with the homeless, but my image of someone in dire straits (at least in our country) was still much older than Mark. As he and I spoke, I felt that if something didn’t change he would not last much longer, and that’s not a thought I typically associate with a teenager or young adult. Mark immediately showed me the extent to which my “knowledge” of the poverty, the “opiod crisis” and despair in my own city was simply a knowledge of facts and figures and new stories, rather than a knowledge of real people and experiences. It’s easy to use facts and figures when planning, or discussing ministries or growing support, but face to face knowledge reveals the truth about our own preparedness, our motivations and our heart.

The challenge, and the gift, that I received from Mark was the gift of awareness. I knew as soon as he was out of sight that I had very few ideas about how to serve or love someone in his position. And our encounter immediately raised the question of how far my care for a neighbor would go. Would I be willing to help Mark find a shelter? A meal? Would I let him use my phone? Would I advocate for him? Perhaps in God’s mercy I was not put to the test (Mark was pretty suspicious of me), but I was made aware of what the test was. I then realized that I had created a plan for how I was going to love my neighbors. But God doesn’t ask for a plan; he asks for love working through faith. A plan isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just a tool to get the process going. God made me aware, through Mark, that the calling was right. I had confirmation; I should be out on the streets seeking to care for my neighbors in Christ’s name! But God made me aware that the calling was far deeper than water and bikes and volunteers, and that my first “trip” was just my first baby steps on this new journey.    

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...