Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where Are You in the Pain, Church?

 I've spent most of August as a pilgrim in South Africa. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa in 2004 when I experienced a new call upon my life. I was in what some would say the height of my career as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School at the time when I journeyed around the world to allow my eyes to see more pain, racism and poverty than they had ever seen before. I returned home from that journey with a very specific prayer on my lips - one I would never have had the courage to form on my own. "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people. Make me more prophetic."

After praying this prayer for a few days, I found myself making an appointment with the Dean of the school and letting him know that I knew God was leading me back into the local church. God then answered my prayer with a call to come to Washington in 2005 and enter a new wilderness that was pregnant with possibility.

I've now returned home from South Africa with a different prayer on my lips and a myriad of thoughts to ponder. I realize more than ever that my relationship with the church is a mixed bag. I adore the church for who she can be when she really is living, loving and speaking like Jesus. I can hardly stand the church when she is failing to show up where needed or pushing people outside by condemning some, particularly for who they love. There's little about me that is lukewarm when it comes to the church. I'm either hot or cold.

Once again, a portion of our time in South Africa was spent in the margins with people who have so little that I'm not sure I can even begin to understand or relate to their lives. We passed dozens of informal settlements like the one pictured here. We stopped to journey and spend time with people in two of them, opening conversations that provided two of the most meaningful days in the country. And one question kept emerging. It's a question we asked. It's a question the person we were journeying with asked. It's a question we both asked of a current bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Tell me, where is the church in the midst of informal settlements?

What kinds of ministries are emerging through the church in the midst of so much dire poverty?

Where is the church when it comes to communities that are emerging because they have nowhere else to go?

We never got a satisfactory answer from anyone though it was a courageous pastor who led us into an informal settlement with a church member who lives on the edge one day and a courageous woman whose ministry is part of a Methodist Church who took us on another day to see a school that ministry is leading in another settlement. (Yes, the picture above of the one building with the door open is a preschool where kids are learning from a remarkably gifted teacher who is funded by the UMC).

But I wonder what kind of a response my own church would offer today if people came from far off lands to ask similar questions in Washington or North Carolina, Texas or California?

Tell me, where is the church when it comes to pain, poverty and brokenness?

Why can we not see more of the church at work in these places?

When I arrived downtown to worship last Sunday morning at a nearby church, I arrived early enough that I did not want to go in quite yet so I sat in my car and looked around. I was next to a park where some eight people were still covered in grey blankets distributed by the city. I had already passed dozens of additional people sleeping outside including a child lined up on a sidewalk.

Two days later I heard a news story with interviews of teachers and principals sharing how many of their students are coming to school hungry. The majority of our teachers in this city have at least one student who is hungry when she or he arrives to learn. Many children have lost a significant amount of weight during the summer because they have not had access to school provided meals.

Where is the church in these places?

What are we doing to end homelessness in Washington?

What are we doing to feed hungry kids?

The congregation of which I am privileged to be a part has done some amazing work this summer. I've just received a final report from a task force that was established to think and discern what our response should be when we have so many people sleeping on our porches at night, using the corners of the buildings for bathrooms, and storing loads of stuff on the edge of the property during the day. There are no easy answers. The group has dreamed big about adding lockers and portable potties to the property while also thinking about what it would take for us to start providing some shelter and hiring a staff person to help people get out of homelessness. The report even includes a statement about how our Stewardship of Resources Committee is committed to funding these things.

But I wonder if we as individuals are committed to making these things happen.

If the church is merely a body composed of many members, what role are we as individual members willing to play? Are we willing to give up more of our wealth and allow it to be redistributed through the church? Are we willing to mentor someone in resume writing, interview skills or basic life skills? Are we willing to open a spare bedroom in our home for a week or a month or a year at a time to allow someone to have a good night's rest and a warm shower every day of the week? Are we as individuals willing to let go of some of our abundance in hopes that others will finally be able to live more abundantly?

It's easy to critique the church while ignoring our own commitment or lack of commitment. It's easy to point fingers while failing to show up ourselves. It's easy to say we believe in something while failing to really get behind something with those things we prize most - our money and/or our time. But it takes  all that we have been given to make a difference. And every single one of us can make a difference - a big and needed difference.

As I prepare to come back a week from today, one thing is for certain. The church does not exist in order to get as many people as possible to worship on Sunday. The church does not exist in order to maintain beautiful buildings where space sits empty most of the week. The church does not exist for the world to constantly have a voice of judgment. The church exists because we are God's best, last chance at healing a broken world - at providing food for those who are hungry, a place to live for those who are homeless, freedom for those who are held captive, justice for those who are oppressed, peace in the midst of war and violence, and love for those who have been led to believe that they are unlovable.

Perhaps I have a dream, too.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Courageous Women

The four women pictured here have left a mark on my spirit and heart. I don't remember hearing their names before. While their story may have been on the curriculum of a seminary class on South Africa, I don't recall it. But now I can't forget them - their witness, their courage, their ability to help a nation lean in with pressure on an oppressive government.

These four women - Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams - organized a movement of some 20,000 women who came to Pretoria from every corner of South Africa on August 9, 1956. These four women with different backgrounds and skin colors knew that the government's efforts to require passes for people to move through certain areas was a policy that put people into prisons of oppression instead of allowing people to move free. These four women brought the signatures of 100,000 women to the doors of South Africa's Prime Minister, begging for change. And then, at the suggestion of Lillian Ngoyi, the entire crowd of 20,000 women went silent for a full half an hour. Women showed their nation that they would not be confined to the home or seen as people without any political power. Rather, they showed their country that "when you strike a woman, you strike a rock."

There is now a national holiday called "Women's Day" in South Africa every August 9. The holiday remembers the courage of these women who made a difference. I had the privilege of preaching for Women's Day twice while recently in South Africa, immersing myself in their story. I'm convinced that these women could even teach Sheryl Sandberg a thing or two about "leaning in."

But there is another group of women that is having a similar impact on me.

We met these women outside the city of Durban. They are grannies who have raised their own children and are now raising anywhere from one to six children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS. They live in what most of us would consider a shack on less than $130 a month (that's less than $20 a month per person for some of these homes). They come together every other week to participate in a Self Help group. Each week they bring 2 Rand which is the equivalent of 20 cents and put it into a group account. The treasurer of the account changes each week in order to build trust in the group. When there is enough money in the account, they invest the money in seeds. The seeds will soon produce vegetables that will be taken to a local market. The proceeds will then be distributed amongst the women and shared with other poor people in their community. While these women are all very poor, part of their responsibility is to always help others while they learn life skills through an employee of a church organization who comes to strengthen their skills on a regular basis. These women provided a tangible embodiment of Acts 2 where we are told that the early disciples come together with glad and generous hearts and make sure there is not a needy person amongst them.

What do we believe in so strongly that we are willing to put everything on the line - including our lives - like Rahima, Lillian, Sophie and Helen did on August 9, 1956?

Are those of us with privilege and freedom willing to march today on behalf of those who are oppressed?

Why is it that we who have so much are often reluctant to share with others, believing instead that we deserve what we have been given or earned through God-given skills and talents?

What would it take for all of us to share an equal portion of what God has entrusted to us with those who have less than we do?

Where is Acts 2 being embodied in our nation?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Do You Love the Place?

I finally saw “The Book of Mormon,” the musical filled with religious satire that has garnered sold-out audiences since its March 2011 opening on Broadway. It’s a show I’ve heard much about. I know some of the music, and I’ve seen video clips. I was prepared to be offended, and there were certainly times when I was not sure if it was appropriate to laugh or remain silent. It is not a work for children, and I would not organize a church group outing to the Kennedy Center to see the musical. However, there is a lesson inside that we need to hear.
How much do you love the place?
Elder Price, one of the main characters, is the substance from which bishops are made. He’s articulate, he’s attractive and he believes he is the one who will change the world. He longs to be assigned to Orlando for his two-year mission but finds himself partnered with Elder Cunningham in Uganda. What Elder Price is, Elder Cunningham is not. Elder Price plays by the rules, knows the Book of Mormon well, and longs to convert people. Elder Cunningham admits that he has not even read the Book of Mormon and comes with countless personal issues. Within days, Elder Price is ready to go home because Uganda is dangerous and no conversions are taking place while Elder Cunningham starts to adapt the Book of Mormon to fit the needs and desires of the Ugandans to whom he is preaching. Elder Price loves the idea of being a successful missionary who is known for the number of people who join the church and are baptized. Elder Cunningham starts to love the place – the place Ugandans have told him everyone simply leaves after two years.
How much do you love the place?
Are you serving where you are because you love the idea of conversions and baptisms and evangelism awards or are you serving where you are because you love the place? Do you love your place as much as you love your people? And what comforts or possessions are you willing to let go of to prove your love of the place?
It is these very questions that I have been wrestling with as one who has taken a few steps away from the local church in order to savor a summer of clergy renewal. I’ve learned that God speaks to me most clearly when I am most removed from my familiar surroundings. I know there are risks involved in going away this summer – that the end result could be a call from God to go somewhere new. And I returned home from the first leg of the journey with tears in my eyes as a wise mentor pushed me to reflect aloud about how I was experiencing God’s call on my life.
“Are you prepared to return to this place?”
“Is God still calling you here?”
I responded by letting my mentor know how much I love the people – how much I adore the congregation that calls me pastor.
“But do you love the place?”
A place is so much bigger than the people. A place extends beyond the familiarity of what is inside to include all that is on the outside. In the place called city there are deep factors to consider when pondering passion for a place – people who are housed and people who are unhoused, the rich and the poor, traffic and busyness, powerful and powerless – all right outside the church door.
Do you love the place?
Elder Price was quick to love the church and the accolades that could come to him if he grew the church. Loving the place where he was sent proved to be a much greater challenge. The Ugandans had great needs they were not afraid to name including people dying from HIV/AIDS and children being raped and abused. A simple telling of stories was not enough for these people who had watched too many young Mormon missionaries come and gowithout making a difference. They wanted real change in their community.
If we are going to make a real difference in our communities, we must first love the place where we are privileged to serve. We cannot possibly love the place if we believe our ministry is centered on what happens inside the walls of the church. Loving the place means developing deep relationships all over the place. It means expanding our love of our people to include all the people around us – and especially the people and problems beyond the church doors.
In his new book, “Center Church,” Timothy Keller writes, “All churches must understand, love and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.”We must love and identify with the city rather than be hostile or indifferent to it. Keller tells countless stories of how many church leaders come to him asking for insights and recipes on how to duplicate what has happened with his church, New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian, in places across the country. Keller’s book is an attempt to answer this question – not with proven church growth strategies but with lessons on how to know, love and contextualize your own context.
Do you love the place?
Throughout the gospels, Jesus enters cities and towns. When he enters, he does not go directly to the house of worship to see how many people are inside. He does not attempt to convert those who appear to be easy targets.Rather, he encounters the people on the outside. He seeks to meet the needs of whoever is in his midst – healing some, forgiving others, providing water from a well that never runs dry. Jesus’ ministry is never limited to one location in the city but rather extends throughout whatever community he is in.
It’s easier to love my people than it is to love my place for it is a place where more than a dozen people sleep on the church porch at night while people whose offices are a few floors above the church office can bill for $500 an hour in their law firms. It is a place where senseless violence occurs. It is a place where visitors crowd the sidewalks on their way to a convention and where cars line up three lanes deep while waiting for a light to turn green. It is a place where flowers grow alongside the smell of urine because there are few public restrooms for people to go who have nowhere else to go at night. It is a place of power and poverty. It is a place where I see victims of sex-traffickingwaiting for pimps to pick them up just before 7:00 in the morning. It is a place where it is easy to be defined by what your business card says about you. It is a complex place with more questions than answers. And yet, there is no where else I’d rather serve than the city – this place that regularly calls me to respond to the questions Jesus asks about meeting basic needs, offering hospitality to strangers, and seeking to be part of God’s efforts to bring about signs of God’s kingdom on earth – in the city – as it is in heaven.
Yes! I really do love this place. And that means we have a whole lot of work to do – work that cannot possibly be finished in just one hour on Sunday mornings.