Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Journey Isn't Complete Either

I was moved as I watched President Obama's inaugural speech.  The recurring phrase "our journey is not complete until...." was one of the things that moved me the most.  But I have some response as well.

While I agree with all of the points that he made in this portion of his speech, I wish that he had said more.  I wish that the president had gone on to say:
  • Our journey is not complete until Gitmo is shut down as I promised 4 years ago
  • Our journey is not complete until sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured is a thing of the past; and secret prisons are truly and demonstratively gone
  • Our journey is not complete until we not only make sure that the dangerously mentally ill are barred from getting fireams, but they are also provided with the mental health care that they need
  • Our journey is not complete until the homeless (like the ones that Broadneck provided shelter to last week) have adequate health care available to them
I could go on.....but I think you get my point.  I'm looking toward another 'inauguration speech'; made by Jesus in Luke 4:14-21.  It is the proclaimation that He has come to "bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  He is reading from Isaiah 61 about the task that Isaiah says that God is calling Israel to.  Jesus is taking that task on Himself.  He is proclaiming the coming of the Year of Jubilee-in which property went back to its original owners, bonded slaves were set free, debts were forgiven.

Obviously Jesus lived out a great deal of this in His lifetime.  And, He directed us to pray, Thy kingdom come and Th will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  If Jesus is the clearest picture of what God is like, then these things....freedom for the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, good news to the oppressed, etc.....are God's desire for our world now.  They are part of that "Thy will be done on earth" stuff.  It isn't a case of "one day all this will be taken care of in heaven, but right now let's just be religous"'s "one earth as it is in heaven."  And if we are truly the Body of Christ, then these are the things we're supposed to be concerned about as well.

Being friends with Jesus, following Him, means letting the things that were important to Him be important to us as well.  That's hard.  The disciples found it hard to wrap their heads around (Mark's gospel makes this abundantly clear); and we (okay...I) find it hard as well. 

But times like last week's Winter Relief at Broadneck Baptist bring home to me home much of a flesh and blood, here and now, call this is.  My work with offenders reminds me how hard this task is.  My personal  difficulties in reaching out to certain people make me acutely aware of how much change we are called to make within ourselves.

Our journey....yours and not complete until these things are accomplished or the Kingdom comes while we're trying.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Homeless "Other"

Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis, MD is involved this week in Winter Relief.  Teaming with the Cape St. Claire Methodist Church just up the road, the congregation is offering its building space and providing shelter housing for 25 homeless persons.  Various members of both congregations have volunteered for a wide variety of jobs; from hosting to cooking to washing clothes.  Tina Wilkins, who is coordinating this joint effort on the Broadneck side of things and Pastor Abby Thornton have done an incredible job of preparation.

I had the priviledge of hosting on Monday night from midnight to 7:00 a.m.  I shared that task with Mia (who is the coordinator from the Methodist Church).  Sunday I'll be hosting from 5-midnight (which means I get to watch the football game with our guests).  This experience is stirring up a boatload of feelings and questions for can expect to see some of them here over the next few weeks.

The first, to be quite honest, is a sense of awe at what has gone into this process.  The pastoral guidance that has gotten the congregation to this point; the discussions and planning that lead to the decision; the coordination by Tina of Broadneck planning and volunteers (Tina, you Rock!)....all of this before the first person showed up on Sunday evening.  Also, watching the ongoing email conversations about the little adjustments that come up....the "it may snow, so we need to do..." stuff-seeing how folks jump in with "don't worry, I've got that covered"....this is amazing stuff.  You have to know that Broadneck is not a huge church with a massive plant.  40+ would be a great Sunday crowd.  Sunday school rooms have been transformed into small dormitories for 4-9 people; and the space used for worship on Sunday is a dining/sitting/game room.  Talk about "stewardship of space"!

I have to admit that I had some reluctance about my own participation.  I haven't been involved in the planning....I thought it was a great idea, but I figured I had enough to do with other things (sound familiar?)  Then Abby and Tina did their, "and what are you going to volunteer to do?" and it was all over.  So I'm writing all of this, including my theological reflection, from the fringe of this enterprise.  So if you feel like I'm pointing fingers, I'm pointing them first at myself.

That being said....the first thing that has struch me is how 'invisible' most of the folks who are currently our guests are.  The couple who normally  live in their car, but are using Winter Relief because of the cold....they're trying to save enough money to be able to move into an apartment.  The man who has trouble finding work in the building trades....where do you put your tools when you're homeless?  The number of folks who are on work as a therapist has made me acutely aware of the difficulties of getting any kind of meds when you're uninsured, low do these folks manage?  Listening to the coughs as people sleep through the night...what must this horrid flu season be like for these folks?  And where do you spend your day when it's cold and wet and the rain is freezing?  And you have the flu.  And you walk with a cane?

I don't remember the exact time frame, but I heard it said that most Americans are something like 3 morgage payments away from homelessness.  I wonder if trying to keep the fact that this could so easily (and quickly) become us supports an unconscious desire not to see?

Jesus teaches us that there is no "other."  He calls us to embrace the stranger, the marginalized, the outcast.  Abby and Tina and the rest of the Broadneck faith community of which I am a member is reminding me of what that looks like when it grows skin.  It is an uncomfortable reminder because it makes me aware of how often I miss the mark (the Greek word for that is "sin").  But it's also a reminder that I'm grateful for because it pushes me to the edges of my own faith and does not allow me to say, "well, because I deal with this group of "other" I get to ignore the ones that make me uncomfortable."

There's a song I first heard when I was Interim Pastor at Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria (they introduced me to a lot of great Praise Music).  I feel in love with it>  It's Kathy Troccoli's Light Your World:

There is a candle in every soul
Some brightly burning, some dark and cold
There is a Spirit who brings fire
Ignites a candle and makes His home
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world
Frustrated brother, see how he's tried to
Light his own candle some other way
See now your sister, she's been robbed and lied to
Still holds a candle without  a flame
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world
We are a family whose hearts are blazing
So let's raise our candles and light up the sky
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus
Make us a beacon in darkest times
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the helpless, deceived and poor
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

You can find the UTube version at

Broadneck Baptist and Cape Methodist have clearly run toward the darkness with the light.  They're my heros this week.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Taking Care Of Wounded Healers When They're Most Wounded

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shoemaker made a couragous, and probably life saving, decision at the end of December.  In a letter to his congregation he stated that over the years he has struggled with depression and anxiety. "I take prescription medications, and as of late have self-medicated with alcohol.....I am physically, psychologically, and spiritually depleted and must get help."  With that letter he announce a 30 day leave of absence to enter a residential treatment program.

I want to begin by applauding Rev. Shoemaker's courage.  The first steps of recovery-whether from an addiction or an emotional issue like depression or anxiety (often linked together)-are incredibly hard.  I want to also offer him my prayers and ask that those reading this blog pray for him as well.  The work of recovery is incredibly hard....probably the hardest work one will ever do.  The self examination and the development of new responses to life is strenuous in more ways than one would ever expect.

But Rev. Shoemaker is not alone.  He is not the only pastor struggling with these issues.  It is an old joke (one of those 'not really funny' ones) that "the Church is the only army that shoots its wounded."  If we are honest, the same situation for many, if not most, other clergy would result in the end of their career. 

Imagine this happening to a young pastor in his/her second congregation; still burdened with student loans and struggling with finding the balance between family and work.  They would be ushered quietly (or not so quietly depending on the form their problems took) to the ecclesiastical door and and gently (or not so gently) assisted to exit.  Probably no clergy person or active church member reading this blog has not been witness to such a scene.....and these are the 'calm' scenes, many are far from gentle or caring; leaving carnage in their wake that take individuals and congregations a lifetime to recover from.

Without taking away from Rev. Shoemaker's courage; we need to ask ourselves what made it possible for him to exercise that courage. We need to ask the question especially if we are to make it possible for other clergy suffering and struggling to get the help they need.  As progressive Baptists (Alliance and CBF types) we need to be committed to caring for pastors in a way that makes it possible to get help when it is needed and return to work when it is time.

The U.S. military has been struggling with some of these same issues.  Returning veterans see it as failure to admit that they have PTSD or other issues; they are afraid to seek help because it may affect their future careers;  appropriate help is very expensive.  Sound familiar?

If the church is truly going to deal with these issues in a way that also sets an example for others of responding with Christ's love, we're going to have to make some changes.  I want to just suggest two (and they are big ones):

First, we have to go to work on our 'ecclesiastical culture.'  We have to make it okay to ask for help.  This will take years and a lot of heavy lifting.  Denominational leaders will have to find ways to let clergy know that help is available.  They will also need to create connections to therapists, 12 Step groups, and recovering people that they can tap into when needed.  But clergy in geographic and denominational areas are going to need to join the denominational folks in re-shaping the culture.  If we don't reach out to each other with the same care that we would give members of our congregations, we are guilty of some of the worst kind of hipocrisy.  And some of us who are in recovery ourselves are going to need to say to denominational leaders, "I'm here, I'm in recovery, and I'm available to help other pastors."

The second thing is money.  Rev. Shoemaker obviously has a good insurance plan.  He is able to be on medication, to see therapists, and to check in to a thirty day treatment program.  How would we make the same thing possible for our hypothetical pastor above?  Are we examining the insurance policies that our denominations make available to ensure that they provide treatment?  Are we offering financial assistance at denominational levels to those pastors who need it?  And are those of us who are pastoral counselors ensuring that we are available at an affordable level to clergy seeking help?

Stephen Shoemaker's courage can cause us to to make needed changes in how we care for pastors when they encounter difficulties along the arc of their ministeral career.  Or we can send a message to clergy struggling with life's issues that they're out there on their own.  If we are the Church I think we are we will begin looking for new and creative ways to engage in the task of healing and reconciliation with those who have been called to lead healing and reconciliation in the larger faith community.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Rendition And The Judgement of God

I was paying for my gasoline the other day when a story heading caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.  I read, "Renditions Continue Under Obama." 

Rendition, as you may remember, is when you capture an "enemy combatant" and send them off to another country-usually one that allows torture-for interrogation.  It's a way to say, "no, we don't torture, but we have some friends that do;" a shell game for continuing the Bush era practice which goes further back to Reagan and Clinton.

In fairness to Obama's administration, they have stated that they try not to send people to be interrogated in countries where torture is part of the process.  You can't blame me if I'm less than impressed.  There are no means of relief for persons victimized in this fashion.  The U.S. Courts have held that persons cannot sue the United States for their rendition since the practice has not been approved by Congress.  Attempts to wrap one's head around this issue can make you downright dizzy, like you've been caught in an ethical 'hall of mirrors' in which everyone's 'intentions' are good, but 'it's complicated' serves as legitimizing behaviors that would have even the most divided of Congress' joining hands to scream for blood if a government did it to one of our citizens.

I voted for Obama....both times.  One of the reasons I voted for him was his promise to stop the practice of rendition.  This isn't an "oh gee, too bad he wasn't able to get that done" sort of issue.  Whether we as Americans torture.....or have it done for us.....cuts to the core of our identity as a nation and as human beings.  Let's forget for a moment-though a pragmatic president should keep it in mind-that torture rarely works to produce reliable intel.   Let's start at the other end: TORTURE IS BY DEFINITION IMMORAL AND UNETHICAL.  IT'S USE IN ANY FASHION HELPS TO SHAPE A CLIMATE IN WHICH THE BOUNDARIES OF LAW AND DECENCY MAY BE CROSSED AT WILL.

A nation does not treat others this way with impunity.  No, I'm not blaming the next hurricane on Obama continuing this practice.  I do believe though, that judgement comes in the way that the behavior of its leaders, in how they treat the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless (including prisoner enemy combatants) the way that it strengthens or erodes the fabric of that society and the values to which it claims to be committed.  God's judgement will be evident.....God is not mocked.  Can we really expect to have these kinds of values lived out along the spectrum of our attitudes toward others and not have it spill over into our society in ways that devalue persons and increase violence?  The interrelated nature of our society would point to the truth of this. 

Is it time for the Church to stand up?  What would happen if on Sunday, February 17, in pulpits all across America clergy raised the issue of how this issue....along with that of increased gun violence...have become symptoms of our willingness to turn our heads and ignore the sins that are quickly becoming tumors on the soul of our nation?  Start the conversation.  Truth grows where there is light.....engaging the issues brings light.

One last historical word.  Rendition goes back a very long way.  Even to the first century; when a group of political and religious leaders decided that they could not dispose properly of a problem they had.  So they sent him off to their occupying oppressors.  They did the job right; torturing and killing  this problem....they were good at it, they'd made it an art form of pain and humiliation....after all, they were Rome....crucifying Jesus was no big deal.