Transition Is a Beast

Hi, Reader!  I just wanted to check in since I know I’ve fallen off of my weekly rhythm of late.  My apologies, and my thanks for your patience.  You see, having come to the place of applying to seminary, then getting accepted to seminary, then accepting that acceptance, then resigning from my job, then tying off the loose ends of this life I’ve built over the last six years…

Now I have to move.

Egads!  Everything I own is covered in dust and cobwebs, I’m finding, but also I own SO MUCH STUFF tucked away in odd corners.

And in between the sneezing fits and sweaty shiftings of boxes, I’ve been a little preoccupied realizing that I’ve made quite a space for myself in the hearts of some folks up here.  That may sound silly to you, but when you leave a place you are given a front row seat to the impact you’ve had—sort of It’s a Wonderful Life without the having-never-been-born bit.  And damn, Reader, but I’ve wormed my way into a lot of random places I hadn’t even realized.

And leaving that sucks.  So.  Much.

So I’ve been super busy with preaching and lunches and getting my job ready so someone else can step into it and finding a place to live in a town I don’t really know and finding a job to pay for said place and getting all the paperwork of being a new student done and packing and packing and packing and packing…

Because I know myself well enough, Reader, to know that if I stop and realize that I’m leaving, actually leaving, I will lose my shit.

It’s horrendously unfair that, to follow God where He is leading (dragging) me, I have to leave that which made me capable of following in the first place.  And my friends will still be here and they’ll keep in touch (I hope) and that support network won’t die (I think), but it will never be the same.  Moments like this change everything, and I am not a fan of change.

Which makes it super unfortunate that I work for God, because He tends to ask for change ALL THE DAMN TIME.

But anyway.  I wanted to let you know, Reader, that I will continue blogging—I just have to be a little less busy and a lot less raw to do so.  Stick with me; this will be a crazy awesome adventure.

(If you think to pray for me, that would be super amazingly welcome.  Because it will also be a terrifying, heartbreaking, uncomfortable adventure in which God breaks me of dependence on everything but Him and I am not happy with this at all.)

 

 

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

Step Back, Breathe, Reengage

Oh, Reader, what a day.

It will be a feat of heroic proportions if I can make it to the end of this work day in one piece because I’ve been ready to go home and curl up in a blanket fort since I got here.  (This is unfortunate.)  Part of that is that I simply don’t like my job and so want to go home every day (not necessarily to a blanket fort), a dislike made so much harder to bear with every new sortie into pieces of the Church because I see what gives me life but I can’t have it (yet).  That was thrown into sharp relief this week because of Annual Conference (which I posted on last week and about which I will post further next week) and the moments of being mad as hell at the Church and loving it still.  To come back to a job where I do not fit, where I watch myself becoming someone I don’t like out of frustration and disenfranchisement, is a quiet form of torture.

But it is also that this week follows Orlando, this week holds the ninth-longest Senate filibuster, this week has been my heart breaking over my country once again saying that we are more afraid of our government than our weaponry, more determined to protect our right to have guns than our right to continue breathing with lungs not torn asunder by hot lead blasting through our bodies.  I have been unable (not that I’ve tried very hard) to keep myself from continually getting into this conversation—not out of a desire to antagonize but out of sheer befuddlement that this is still happening.  Again and again I have been asking how this works, why even the smallest steps of gun control are shunned outright, and to their credit my more conservative friends have responded.  We still don’t understand each other, but it has mostly been civilized.

Even when my newfound “liberalism” makes them question my faith.

Reader, I came to Christ in college and fell into a beautifully loving country Christian church with all the insularity you might expect.  God, guns, and the American way are very important in that church; gay folk are sinners to be loved, divorce isn’t spoken of, women don’t become pastors, and abortion is an abomination against God.  Even then I disagreed on some things but I was loved there, and I will spend the rest of my life pushing against the stereotype that people who think these things are horrible human beings without hearts.  They were my family, they were my support network, they quite literally fed me and gave me a home after I finished college and realized I had no idea what I was doing next.  I worked part time there, I built the foundation of my faith there, and they wept with me when I left.

Since I’ve moved away we have all changed, and though that love is still there we are far more prone to seeing the places where we disagree than the places we are family.  So for some to question my advocacy of gun control and my stance against violence and my blatant feminism in the frame of lovingly correcting me in faith and steering me back to Jesus…God, Reader, it breaks my heart in half.  I see still their compassion and understand that they believe wholly in this gentle remonstrance, but I cannot stand by and accept these tenets anymore.  I will not wash my hands of this gunpowder and blood, especially not when a life of professional, pulpit-based ministry beckons me forward.  But this…this is my family who look at me in concern and sorrow.  These are the people who taught me what love looked like in the first place, and every rift between us hurts that much more precisely because I cannot mend it and (to the extent that it would mean walking back my beliefs) will not try.

Add to this, then, betrayal by my very body.  Perhaps one of the cruelest things the Church has done in terms of doctrine is to tie women’s menstruation to Eve’s sin, ’cause damn, this shit sucks.  (If you’re uncomfortable with talking about this because you think it’s gross, skip to the next paragraph.  Then go apologize to all the women in your life whose bodies and voices you’re denying by refusing to acknowledge this as a biological reality.)  Beyond that fact that it can feel like someone is attempting to pull out your spine through your abdomen while twisting the surrounding muscles in an unpadded vise, going on your period really can and does screw with your mental state.  I realize it’s a social stereotype to show the wigged-out woman eating a pint of ice cream and crying at nothing in particular, but seriously, your chemical balance is getting thrown off and you can’t stop it.  So it’s been a legit intense week and today my brain is magnifying everything a thousandfold because its busy trying to overhaul its entire hormonal state.  Once I figured out that was a factor it made the day slightly easier because I can tell myself to step back, breathe, and reevaluate the way I was reacting to people, but before I got there I thought I was losing my damn mind today.
The spiritual implication of all that?  We are not only spiritual.  I would love to be, trust me, but we are living in mortal, political, social, emotional, and physical plains as well as the spiritual one, and that is a hot mess sometimes.  And somedays—many days—we carry the grief of the world on top of our own and we shudderstep underneath that weight.

Good think God keeps telling us to give it to Him.  In so many ways, Lord, we pray for healing.

 

 

“Teach me and I, for my part, will be silent;
explain to me how I have been mistaken.
 How painful are honest words!
But what does your reproof prove?
 Do you intend to criticize mere words,
and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?”  (Job 6:24-26, NET)

Crazy Little Thing Called Church

Sorry this is rather late today, Reader; I’m in the middle of Annual Conference, which is kind of the United Methodist equivalent of a state senate session.  Delegates from all over my state gather together for a handful of days to worship together, to work through legislation together (we are a human organization, after all; it might be nice to say we should just live in harmony, but those of us who have read Lord of the Flies know that doesn’t quite work out on its own), and to be the Church together—in all the ups and downs that entails.

And it has its ups and downs.  There are many ups.  We had fabulous worship this morning, complete with some slam poetry psalms that made me ache to write such power myself and an address by the bishop that ended in her singing my dead grandfather’s favorite hymn—double trouble, in terms of emotional connection.  We were challenged (wonderfully!) to step outside of our worship comfort zones, to truly be present in praise, and it fed my soul when I didn’t even realize how hungry I was.  In the afternoon, we had fabulous worship of a totally different kind, working into my denomination’s recent commitment to repentance and reconciliation in regards to indigenous peoples and the part the Church has played in their genocide.  Powerful stories were told, the stories that only get sideline paragraphs in U.S. history books because we as the “greatest nation on earth” don’t want to see the ways that we lied and stole and broke ourselves and others in climbing to the top; we don’t want to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect, that we are not nothing if we are not first, best, spotless.  We as a conference committed ourselves to going back for that one sheep, that one tribe, that one person we have left out on the margins because we cannot do anything else if we are truly claiming Christ’s example.

And there have been downs:  the anger and tension over the General Conference (global, every-four-years gathering; kind of a UN summit meeting for the United Methodist Church, in a way) decisions and lack of decisions simmer under everything.  There are some pastors and laity—“right” and “left” in terms of polity—who continue to push rhetoric and motions that needlessly jab at those who do not agree, who continue to demand words that wound in the name of clarity and accountability.  Truly, Reader, these piss me off.  I don’t care whether you’re left, right, or center; I don’t care how angry you are about whether the Church is or is not doing what you are so sure is right.  To shove people’s faces and spirits in language and rules which don’t bring demonstrable change but do highlight how right and godly you are and how wrong and prejudiced “they” are is just selfish.  We skitter, in some ways, on the edge of schism—not because the vast majority of the UMC wants to split but because those at the extreme ends keep pushing their opponents’ buttons like four-year-old children cruelly searching for the breaking point.

Capture

Conference is exhausting; perhaps it is more so this year, coming off of being in a wedding last weekend and having another wedding in the middle of things this weekend and dealing with work and transition in and through.  Conference is exhausting because it’s one long networking session:  this, barring serious changes, will be the conference to which I return after I finish seminary, so these are my future colleagues and bosses and employees and congregation members.  These are the people with whom I will serve on committees, to whom I will turn when I need a hand in my church.  Conference is exhausting because I wear uneasily the mantle of my future career even while I am at present a lay representative.  Conference is exhausting because it’s non-stop, and my introvert self needs a day off.

Yet, crazily, I do not regret taking time off of my paying job to do this work.  I believe from the bottoms of my feet that it matters, even on the days when I sit in a meeting listening to people question whether or not parliamentary rules allow someone to make that kind of motion now or if it has to be introduced by a separate action.  I don’t know why Crazy Little Thing popped into my head earlier today, but I’m running with it.  No, I don’t advocate attempting to be in a romantic relationship with the Church (for one thing, Valentine’s Day is going to be disappointing every year), but that sense of not really understanding but going for it anyway is totally applicable.  Conference—Church administration in general—is weird and inexplicable and tiring and yet something that (for some) is also energizing and fascinating.

And is sometimes something you need to leave for a while, get on your motorbike and get away from until you’re ready.  I’m glad of having another wedding this weekend to break up Conference for me because I, too, am not totally in love with what the Church is doing to itself at the moment.  I am frustrated with what we’re not saying, with the assumptions we’re making, with the petty skirmishes of power and elevation that distract us from our purpose as God’s people to be light to the world.  Yet after the ride, after shaking off the frustration in the humid summer night air, I still pray that all of us can return to our seats the next day willing to look at what we do and see it to the glory of God.

And may we be brave enough to call ourselves out if it is not.  What a crazy thought.

 

 

Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”  Paul and Barnabas took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.  The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders.  The church sent this delegation on their way.  (Acts 15:1-4a, CEB)

Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

Lent, Week One: Holy Orders

Welcome to Lent, Reader.  I sort of have to say this to welcome myself; I’m having a hard time situating myself in days and times lately.  I think it’s because I have a few too many things going on (well, always, but now in particular) that bleed into each other and cross the days and seasons without care for anything but their own deadlines.

Choosing schools is rough, yo.

But we persevere, and despite the fact that I forgot both that today is Friday and that it’s the first Friday of Lent (hello, innocent turkey sandwich that totally triggered all of my childhood Catholicism but only AFTER I’d eaten it…sigh) it is indeed Friday in Lent.

I think part of the reason (besides the Million and One Things) I’m so disoriented is that both Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday were super weird for me this year.  Normally Mardi Gras is a festive gathering with a few friends eating muffalettas and listening to crazy swing jazz and then Ash Wednesday is a whole drawing in of myself, almost literally preparing for the wilderness.  Both days had those usual elements, but in entirely new ways.

Mardi Gras was a kids musical and a pancake dinner at my church (I know, we’re getting all Episcopalian up in here).  It was great, but it was a day of so much people and meetings and class and craziness.  It was also somewhat unhelped by the fact that people kept coming up to me after the show to ask what my part had been, utterly flabbergasted that there would be a church event in which I was just another congregant.  I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea that this expectation has been created that I’m essentially staff; I don’t like that church, in many ways, has become somewhere I cannot simply be.  I realize that’s the direction I’m headed with the career, but I hadn’t intended to arrive there quite yet.

It was an evening of all sorts of unexpected ministry moments, really, which is what I bring to you.  I like doing a loose series for Lent, if only to keep myself from wandering too far into the desert (but sure, also to learn to see thematic connections for when I’ll be doing sermon series.  You have to know I’ve been practicing on you, Reader, and that I appreciate you letting me).  So this Lent I’m taking the awareness that I’ve been walking away from the sacred in favor of focusing only on the profane (in the sense of mortal, earthly) aspect of things and I’m using this series to walk through the sacraments.

I’m going to have to cross denominational lines for this (no, say it ain’t so!) because we United Methodists only recognize two sacraments and there are a few more than two Fridays in Lent.  So I’m reaching back to my Catholic days (or, more likely, my medieval theology semesters) to pull forth the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Still with me?  Good, because I want you to understand that I’m not going to give you a lecture on the sacraments for forty days.  I’ll let you know what’s what, for sure, but I want to see where I see these holy things in my own life—outside of the box, as it were.  So what even is a sacrament?  It’s a ritual of the Church considered to be of enough significance to be seen as a foundational aspect of charting holiness—literally “a sign of the sacred,” sacramentum.  You don’t have to do all seven to be faithful, of course, but they’re sort of the compass points of the thin places where we brush against God.  Steer by these.

So, week one?  Holy orders.  Of course, right?  This takes on a different shine as the Catholic sacrament because it means only the official, professional ministry within the Church, so only baptized, unmarried males can make it to this sacrament.

But I am no longer Catholic, so I can broaden this.  Although I lose track of it a lot, I do firmly believe in the concept of the ministry of all believers—yep, you sign on to the Jesus train, you too are a minister.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make you come to seminary with me.)  And this shows up in the most quotidian places; I spent almost half an hour talking with a teenager friend of mine on Mardi Gras because she is freaking out about becoming an adult and she needed someone to say that’s okay, you’re not wrong to do so, God will be with you in adulthood too even though you’re going to make the wrong choices sometimes (a lot).  It was incredibly humbling, that unexpected pastoral moment, but it reminded me quite forcefully that ministry doesn’t wait for official sanction.

I will not be in ministry after I finish school; I will not be in ministry after I can wear an elder’s stole (although I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty excited about building that collection some day); I will not be in ministry after the United Methodist Church has a bishop lay hands on me; I will not be in ministry after I am appointed to my first church.  I am in ministry right now, because God is not bound by our rules.  Holy orders are a sacrament, a sacred thing because they are indeed orders that are holy; they are an invitation to us as the people of God to get involved in this Kingdom-building nonsense, to get our sleeves and stoles dirty in the day-to-day honesty of ministry.  We are all of us called to this, to these holy orders; we are all of us called to this place of the sacred wrapping its arms around the profane.

So holy orders for me are talking with that teen.  They are a young woman opening several sets of doors for me and learning my name.  They are me buying doughnuts for my office mates.  They are Magister empowering a friend to stand on his own in teaching the faith.  They are that friend teaching the faith.  They are the friends who stand with Hopeful in the tempestuousness of having a newborn.  And they are all the many ways, Reader, that you shine the reflected Light in your world.

Sacred indeed.

 

 

And [you] yourselves, as living stones, are being built up [as] a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:5, LEB)

Dropped Calls

I really hate surprises.

This has always been part of my personality, which has led to much frustration when my family surprises me with gifts or announcements or something and my first reaction is that I don’t like them, I’ve never liked them, not even the “good” surprises.  I want to know what’s coming next and be prepared for it; I want to know the details of an upcoming thing so I don’t come up with something different and get disappointed.  It’s a terribly selfish thing, but I don’t like surprises.

It is terribly unfortunate, then, to have gone out to dinner this past week with a friend of mine and gotten two rather major surprises, neither pleasant even by normal people’s standards.  Both, directly and indirectly, had to do with realizing that I don’t have a bleeding clue what I’m getting into by saying yes, I want to go to seminary and be a minister.  Several people have tried to warn me and I kept saying that’s okay, I feel this Call, God will not bring me to something and then leave.

Unless this particular service Provider is One Who drops Calls.

Don’t worry; this isn’t me calling the whole thing off and skipping ministry, not least because I’m not sure I even could turn that battleship around right now if I tried.  But it is the nasty shock of actually hearing all of the people who have been saying that ministry is not what I think it is, that seminary will not adequately train me for it, that there is no God in ministry and only the pettiness of people.  Many have said these sorts of things to me, but I’ve not been hearing them.  But in this moment of doubt, I see their points—why am I going to seminary if nothing I’m going to do in ministry is taught there?  Why am I reading the Call of God as one to an inherently people-driven vocation when I am quite frank about not actually liking people all that much?  Have I, despite myself and my best efforts at being aware and observant, been viewing this career through rose-tinted glasses?

I don’t know.  I don’t know and that freaks me out because it’s a bit late in the game to have these kinds of doubts, but I also know that not doubting is somehow worse.  If there’s one thing this blog can serve to do, Reader, it’s allow you to see that those in the professional ministry—or training to be so—aren’t perfect.  There is no straight line to God, no red phone with perfect coverage and never any static.  We don’t have an inside track…and maybe my future self needs to hear that as much as you might.  To doubt is awful, but to share that doubt in a public forum locked into the eternity of the Internet is horrifying because I want to reassure you and myself that that I am fine, that this is fine, that there is no problem with going forward into this incredibly daunting career that will demand more than I can ever give.  I want to say that ministry is everything I want to do.

And in some senses, I can; don’t worry, I remember how I got this far and I definitely remember the whispers and shouts of God calling my name.  There are weekly moments of ministry that show me the God spark, the living Spirit continually drawing us to Herself.  And I do still believe that God would not bring me this far only to scamper off without me.

But some weeks there is static in this Call.  Some weeks important words get lost; some weeks it feels as though God hung up without telling me.  Some weeks I look at this new career and see only that it will take everything I have and more that I’ve never even known I should offer.  These are hard moments because no one wants to be uncertain about these sorts of things.  We want to know that we are doing what we are meant to do; we want to say we have heard our call clearly and are going in the right direction.

Yet there are tunnels that interrupt service.  There are random flocks of geese and broken towers because humans are weird and hard and a perfect God working with imperfect people is bound to get messy.  I can’t tell you that some wondrous thing happened to restore my faith in myself and in everything about ministry, but I can tell you that one of my high schoolers had a hell of a week and just needed a hug that I could provide yesterday.  I can tell you that that one of the awful pieces of information I got prompted me to reconnect with a friend and understand that his life fell apart but he’s still pressing on in trust in God.  I can tell you that there will totally be all of the frustrating and utterly human pieces of ministry, but they will not be all of it.  Sometimes I will hear the Call loud and clear, and for now that is enough.

I hope.

I’ve never much liked the phone, either.

 

 

Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.  (Deuteronomy 30:14, CEB)

The Unanswered Ugliness

Happy new year, Reader!  I hope your holidays were life-giving (and if they weren’t, that your post-holidays have brought some life back to you).  Also, happy Epiphany; may we all find in this season whatever it is that that elusive star is hovering over for us.

I drove to visit friends and family on Christmas.  I usually drive on Christmas Day, reserving Christmas Eve for participating in the services at my home church before striking out to do the rounds of people on the holiday proper.  So I was driving, an audiobook in my CD player and the gifts (poorly) wrapped for my family knocking about on the passenger seat beside me.  I was nearing the end of the several-hour trip, anxious to get out of the car and eat something, to stretch and zone out for a while.  I came down the off-ramp of the interstate and there at the intersection was a woman holding a cardboard sign reading, “Please help.”

Here in the Land of Pilgrims there are a couple of folks who stake out the off-ramps as places to stand with their signs proclaiming homelessness, “God bless.”  I see them in the summer, standing in the sun like chipped statues of perseverance and despair.  But this past Christmas was outrageously warm for the season, warm enough that there on Christmas Day itself was this woman in a scarf and coat with her sign.

poverty-4I confess, Reader, that my first reaction was anger, not at her being there but at her sign—“Please help.”  Help how?  Help what?  If you’re going to ask me to help you, you should at least give me the courtesy of outlining what you need.  I find that I usually react with this wave of impatience at the Twitter-esque signs of the forsaken, their limited characters never telling me anything about what help looks like.  Do you want money?  A coat?  A roof for the night?  Prayer?  What do I have that you want?  What do I have that you need?

My second reaction was one of chagrin; I was driving in my own car to a house filled with food and people and heat and presents for me, even as I had a chair full of presents for others and my own backpack full of clothes and books for the visit in the backseat.  I hated that I had enough and this woman did not, and I hated it even more because it wasn’t transferable.  My clothes have been themselves gifts and hand-me-downs; the gifts for my family were mostly handmade because I’m terrible at buying gifts and I’m also not overwhelmingly wealthy myself.  I hated that I was—and am now, in retelling this—justifying my having as a shield against my assumption that she was lacking.

Because it was an assumption; again, I had no idea what help she needed.  I did not know, will never know what drove her to stand at this intersection with her cardboard sign on a warm Christmas Day.  I never know what to do about this, Reader, about these living signposts of the forgotten in our culture.  They are most often (at least here, at the edges of the city rather than downtown) at these crossroads, these places where I am on my way to something and couldn’t stop even if I had the nerve to do so, where my fellow impatient travelers are coming down the interstate behind me with their own homes to get to and their own places to be.  There is no time to stop and ask what help looks like, what is actually needed; there is no space to ask what these people’s names are and whether I truly have something they could use.

It makes me think of an episode of NCIS, a procedural drama I’ve watched since it first aired when I was in high school.  Abby Sciuto, the resident forensic scientist with a flair for Goth attire and an innocent heart of gold, reveals that she regularly visits with and helps out the homeless who camp out under an overpass in Washington, D.C.  The rest of her team applaud her reaching out and show that they do not engage this part of town, that they don’t even see it.  I am very much like them…and I wish I knew how to be like her.

Christianity makes this even more difficult, I think, because this Jesus dude was aware of His own intersection signposts.  He went to the poor, to the forgotten, to the broken and He asked their names, healed their wounds, ate at their houses.  He challenged those of us who follow after Him to do the same, and that’s hard because we are also told that the poor will always be with us and it is quite true that usually I have somewhere else to be.  I cannot stop and create a relationship with every woman holding a sign, every man standing next to a tattered old backpack.  There are other relationships that are equally as important that need attention and love and help.

But doing nothing feels so wrong.  And just giving money feels so wrong.  I’m not overly fond of simply giving things to people without spending some time with them, of handing them something and walking away, content in my own generosity.  But how to balance these, Reader?  How to be help without being patronizing, without draining myself and my other commitments?

How do I serve the poor without having to justify the life that I live that they do not?

I realize this is a bit much to be starting 2016 with, Reader, but I have the feeling it’s going to be that kind of year.  I got a phone call earlier this week telling me I’ve been accepted to seminary and that is huge and frightening and amazing and humbling and real.  So I’m going to be asking myself to see the hard questions, if not answer them.  If you have any answers, Reader, I would love to hear.

 

 

And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up; and he entered, according to his custom, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read.  And [the] book of the prophet Esaias was given to him; and having unrolled the book he found the place where it was written, “[The] Spirit of [the] Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach glad tidings to [the] poor; he has sent me to preach to captives deliverance, and to [the] blind sight, to send forth [the] crushed delivered, to preach [the] acceptable year of [the] Lord.”  (Luke 4:16-19, DBY)