One of the crippling things about poverty is it turns people into consumers.  They receive free meals, free clothing, and housing subsidies.  And if they do this long enough, they can become hardened in a sense of entitlement and self-centeredness.  But a life based on the gospel is never about just receiving.  To be whole, we must both receive and give.

In May, we did a simple service project in our community of Bristol, PA.  We helped paint and do maintenance at the local after school program.  We had a few volunteers from among our regulars.  We had a few volunteers from my home church, a wealthy suburban congregation.  And the majority of our volunteers were our homeless friends.  We had a beautiful day.

Our homeless friends, who spend the majority of their days with nothing to do, had a day full of activity.  Instead of the shame of being homeless, they had the pride of doing good work.  Instead of the dullness that comes from only receiving, they had the joy of giving to others who are in need.  Instead of the subtle condescension that comes to them from various charities, they were brothers to us that day and fellow workers for the gospel.  When I stopped in the camp a few days later, they were all raving about the day asking, “When is the next one?”

How do you serve the poor?  Give them opportunities to give love and let them feel the goodness of God’s creation within themselves.


Right now, the back of my car is full of food.

Our friend Butch cooks us a meal.

In 2011, it’s easy to read the news and assume scarcity is the norm. And the fact that there is a homeless population in Bristol might lead one to the same conclusion.  But God’s economy is a funny thing.

Our homeless friends have food.  As the camp has gotten more publicity, donations have poured in to the point where one of the biggest problems in the camp is an overload of food.  And so they give it to us.  As awkward as it can feel, sometimes we simply receive it.  After all, if we claim we are in fellowship with them then we must also receive and not just give.  Many of our homeless friends are much older than us and it brings them great delight to give us a meal.  We were all made to give love, after all, not just receive it.

Sometimes they’ll give us a haul and say, “You all take care of other families, don’t you?”  And we’ll have to spend the evening scrambling around to give the food to people in need that we know.  We don’t always mention where the food came from, but our low-income folks are currently being fed by our homeless friends.

Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).

If you don’t believe that, come visit us in Bristol.  And if you need a meal, the back of my car is full of food.

It’s been a tough week.  Last weekend, my friend Shanna’s father was killed in a car accident.  Wednesday, our dear friend Leo (see my post on his wedding) passed away from a seizure.  And yesterday, Arthur, a friend from my old church finally succumbed to ALS.

Mourning is part of life.  Traditionally, the ceremony of mourning took about week and involved community gathering, family meals, a viewing, a funeral service, and a burial service.  It was long and involved.  As we have grown more hurried, cynical, and secular as a society, we have gotten rid of mourning rituals.  The general view is, “I’m dead, what do I care?  Have a party and don’t be too upset.”  This is a fair attitude for the person who is dying to have.  But funerals and mourning ceremonies don’t exist for the dead, but for the living.  And for some reason, we are getting rid of centuries-old wisdom that says we need ways to mourn.

The funny thing is, we still find ways to mourn.  My friend Dustin died about 4 months ago at the age of 26 from ALS.  And yet, his Facebook page is still up.  People have steadily been writing him notes since he died.  Last week was his birthday and at least 100 people wished him a happy birthday.  Once upon a time, friends and family would make regular visits to a gravestone to remember and even talk to people who had died.  In a day when we’ve become geographically dispersed and averse to mourning rituals, Facebook is taking the place of the gravestone.  While I could argue that this is shallow and superficial, I actually think it’s pretty cool.  We need to mourn and we have found a way to do so.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Thank you, Lord.  Be with us as we mourn our friends and loved ones who have come home to you.

“Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd.  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”  He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.”        – Luke 8:19-21

In October, we met our friends in the woods.  We had just formally launched Redemption Church of Bristol and we had heard rumors of a homeless community living in the woods of our older suburban community.  So we gathered up a few people to go check it out.  At first it was awkward.  We didn’t know who they were, nor did they know us.  Most of them were older than us, from different backgrounds, and after our encounter, stayed to live in the woods while we returned to our apartments and homes.  There were obvious signs of alcoholism and mental illness, but also a community that deeply cared for each other.

At Redemption Church, we have always taught that the church is family.  We are not just friends or even partners in ministry, but mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.  We are called to this level of intimacy with one another in how we share our lives.  But what to do with our homeless friends, especially as they started coming to church?  Often they told incoherent stories.  Sometimes they came a bit drunk.  They are different than most of us who started Redemption Church.  And families tend to look alike.

Kathy and Leo have been with each other for 15 years.  While times have not always been good, they have stuck with each other through the rigors of homelessness.  The first time I met them, their love was apparent.  Leo showed me two toy frogs: a boy and a girl.  One was missing a leg.  The other, an arm.  But they were obviously meant for each other.  Leo told me, “That’s us.”

On February 27, 2010, Leo and Kathy were married.  Lori and Rebekah offered dresses for the bride to wear and Lori and Susan prepared the bride for the big day.  Butch, another of our homeless friends, was the best man.  Matt played music with Susan who also filled in at the last minute as the Maid of Honor.  Forrest read scripture and helped Josh usher.  Kristen made the bouquet.  Brian was the photographer.  The chairs were filled with the various members of Redemption Church, the homeless community, and a group of college students who have also been working in the woods.  Dorie prepared the reception, in which we feasted on cookies made by her mother, donuts delivered by Rebekah, and a cake donated by Cheryl.  And I had the honor of officiating over the whole affair.

When it was all said and done, nearly 2/3 of our congregation participated in the wedding.  Of course, this depends on where I draw the boundaries of our congregation.  Is it really those who worship with us on Sunday nights?  Or is it the homeless folks we meet with and pray with in the woods?  Is it the college students who go to other churches, yet who we encounter in the woods in common mission?  What about the church that let us use their building for free?  Perhaps my congregation, my family, simply consists of those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.

The week after the wedding, we visited our friends in the woods.  No longer were we outsiders awkwardly inquiring about their lives.  No longer were we the givers of charity come to take pity on the poor.  Butch saw us coming and casually said, “How’s it going?”  We were now family.  They are our brothers and sisters who just so happen to live in the woods.

Back from the Dead?

Apparently people still read this blog.  So maybe I’ll post something.

Could St. Francis have been a pastor?  How about Mother Theresa?   Was there something so uncompromising in their calling and conviction that would have gone against the very nature of the pastoral role which inevitably calls you to be compromising.  Sure, there are uncompromising pastors.  But they seem to build niche churches that only attract other zealots who agree with them perfectly.  They do not embrace the diversity of the body of Christ, but only those with identical gifts.   So what then is a pastor?  Does a pastor have to surrender his or her deepest convictions so that the church may be more inclusive?   Does a pastor inevitably end up losing that fire for God in order to be a consensus builder?

Or maybe the exact opposite is true when it comes to inclusivity?   Can someone like Francis or Theresa, who is not formally ‘in charge’ of the church, more fully represent God’s grace?  They can welcome in the drug addict, the heretic, and the sexual deviant.  Meanwhile, the pastor must be the guardian of truth and virtue, and protect the flock from these potentially harmful voices.  The unofficial prophet has no fear in letting the heretic have a voice.  The pastor is responsible to offer good teaching (and knows that he’ll have angry emails to answer on Monday morning if he does not).  So maybe exclusivity and inclusivity actually go the other way.

Maybe these are just confused ramblings.  Or maybe I’m tired of feeling like a politician or a PR person.  I welcome your thoughts…

We are two and a half weeks into Lent and as usual, I have broken all my lenten goals.  So it goes.  This year, I put forth my most sweeping agenda yet, doing a pretty thorough moral inventory of my interactions with prayer, scripture, alcohol, generosity, exercise, and sexuality.  And two weeks in, I’m back to square one.  My temptation is to chuck it.

But why?  This is where the Protestant in me must push back against my veneration of Lent.  If these are the directions you want your life to go, keep pushing on.  And has the Christian life ever really been about getting it right the first time?  Grace, grace, grace.

Augustine, writing to a community in sin, had this to say: “Do not blush with shame and rush headlong into death by mental grief…but rather renew your salvation by being penitent.”  I always loved this quote.  Sin is an opportunity to renew your salvation.  My failing is an opportunity to renew my desire to seek God.  And my failing is an opportunity to remember that I only seek because of the unconditional love of God.

So…all you lenters.  There are still 4 weeks until Easter.  Let’s get back on the horse.  Let us not run headlong into shame but use this opportunity to renew our salvation.